Associations Among Baptist Churches

From their beginnings, Baptists have been an associational people. They not only held firmly to the independency of local churches, but they also believed that churches should associate with one another for the benefit of all the churches, to cooperate in any of the commands of Christ that would be impossible for any single church to fulfill by itself, and to reflect the reality that the kingdom of God is broader than any one local church. The early Baptists believed so strongly in associating that they codified their doctrine of association in The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith.

The Second London Baptist Confession, Chapter 26 says:

Paragraph 14. As each church, and all the members of it, are bound to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ,[27] in all places, and upon all occasions to further every one within the bounds of their places and callings, in the exercise of their gifts and graces, so the churches, when planted by the providence of God, so as they may enjoy opportunity and advantage for it, ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification.[28]

[27] Eph 6:18; Ps 122:6

[28] Rom 16:1, 2; 3 Jn 8-10

Paragraph 15. In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned;[29] howbeit these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers.[30]

[29] Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 25

[30] 2 Cor 1:24; 1 Jn 4:1

Paragraph 14 provides a summary statement of the Baptist doctrine of association, while paragraph 15 goes into greater detail about how associations should function.

Informal Association Among All True Churches

Paragraph 14 of the confession says, “As each church, and all the members of it, are bound to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ” (emphasis is mine). In saying that each church should pray for “all the churches of Christ,” not just for other Baptist churches, the early Baptists showed that they were not sectarian, but catholic. They understood that they were in an informal association with non-Baptist Churches. Their convictions were rooted in a strong doctrine of the universal church (2LC 26.1).

The early Baptists linked the Bible’s teaching about the “body” of Christ to the universal church, which in turn fed their doctrine of both informal and formal associations. For example, in writing about the doctrine of informal association among all true churches, the Abingdon Association (established in 1652) declared, “For the churches of Christ do all make up but one body or church in general under Christ their head as Eph 1:22f, Col 1:24, Eph 5:23ff, 1 Cor 12:13….”[1] Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 teach that all the parts of Christ’s body need each other. This certainly applies within a particular local church. But it also applies among all true churches. Individual churches may lack important parts of Christ’s body, which is why they need each other to be strengthened according to the particular gifts God has given them. Romans 12:45 says, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”[2]

God’s providence limits the ability of churches to do good to every other church, since there are so many churches in the world, but churches should do so, when they have the providential opportunity for it. It’s often easier to seek the good and prosperity of churches in a particular geographic area. Consider the churches of Galatia (Gal 1:2); Judea (1:22); seven churches of Asia (Rev 1:4).

The confession says that churches should serve one another according to their “places and callings.” In today’s English, we normally think of the word “place” as referring to geographic location. But the Oxford Dictionary defines “place” as “A position or standing in an order of estimation or merit. Specifically, a person’s social rank or status, the duty or rights appropriate to a social rank.”[3] In other words, as they have opportunity, church members should serve other churches in ways that are suited to their office or position in the church. Pastors should do good to other churches according to their capacities for teaching, preaching, and leadership. Deacons ought to serve other churches in ways suited to their office. The confession also speaks of “gifts and graces,” which calls to mind passages in the Bible about the body of Christ, the universal church, in which believers are told to care for one another according to the gifts bestowed upon them by the Holy Spirit. This applies first within local churches, but secondarily, it applies to the universal church. Christ desires love and oneness for His people, not just in one church (Jn 13:24-35; 17:11, 21-23).

There are various ways churches can apply this doctrine of informal association among all true churches. They might pray in their worship services and prayer meetings for other churches in their city or town, even those that are not within their own denomination or formal association. This would show love and unity and might help counter any spirit of competition or superiority. Pastors might reach out to other pastors in their area, form friendships, and consider ways they can serve and help each other. Deacons from several churches might join together to give aid to the community in a time of crisis, or to meet other needs, as long as their responsibilities to their own churches are met. For the sake of unity in the body of Christ, churches should be thinking of ways to work together and serve each other that don’t violate their confessional and ecclesiastical commitments.

Formal Association Among Baptist Churches

The second half of paragraph 14 then moves to consider formal association among Baptist churches. It says, “so the churches, when planted by the providence of God, so as they may enjoy opportunity and advantage for it, ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification” (2LCF 26.14).

James Renihan, scholar of Baptist history, has shown through extensive research that the phrase “hold communion” was a technical term among the early Baptists, referring to formal associations.[4] It did not merely intend informal fraternal relationships. One example of the technical use of the language of holding communion can be seen at the founding of the Abingdon Association. The messengers approved the following language as part of the basis of the establishment of their association:

“Whereas the Lord hath made it appear unto us by the holy Scriptures that true churches of Christ ought to acknowledge one another to be such and to hold a firm communion with each other in point of advice in things remaining doubtful to any particular church or churches as also in giving and receiving in case of the want and poverty of any particular church or churches and in consulting and consenting (as need shall require and as shall be most for the glory of God) to the joint carrying on of the work of the Lord that is common to the churches” (emphasis is mine).[5]

Such examples could be multiplied. It is evident from the quotation above that the Baptists used the words “hold communion” to refer to a formal association in which churches could (1) give advice to each other, (2) provide financial support to needy churches, (3) consult each other, and (4) jointly carry on the work Christ has commanded.

Renihan notes that an objection has sometimes been raised against his historical argument that “holding communion” refers to formal associations.[6] It has been suggested that since the language of The Second London Baptist Confession in paragraphs 14-15 is borrowed from The Savoy Platform of Polity, the Baptists must have believed what the Savoyans did at this point, and the Savoyans often did not establish formal associations. Instead, they met in synods and councils to resolve matters, and then they dissolved those synods and councils when their business was completed. There were often no standing formal associations. Thus, the argument goes, that paragraphs 14-15 of The Second London Baptist Confession must not require Baptist churches to be in formal associations, since the confession adopts the language in The Savoy Platform of Polity, and the Savoyans didn’t always have formal associations.

Renihan answers this argument in several ways. First, he notes that while the language of the confession is borrowed from The Savoy Platform, it must be understood in context of the more narrow Baptist usage at the time. Second, he shows from their writings that the Independents were not all opposed to formal associations, and many of them favored them. Third, and I believe most importantly, he points out that the Baptists changed the language of The Savoy Platform at a key point.

The Savoy Platform reads: “That many churches holding communion together, do by their messengers meet in a Synod or Council, to consider and give their advice…” (emphasis is mine).[7] The Second London Confession, on the other hand, dropped the words “in a Synod or Council,” showing that they did not approve of mere temporary councils. It says, “That many churches holding communion together, do by their messengers meet to consider and give their advice…” (2LCF 26.15). The Baptists, therefore, intended to confess the practice of formal associationalism, which was already well established among Baptists by the time they complied, edited, and adopted The Second London Baptist Confession. Renihan writes:

“Since in some cases the Independent method of holding communion included the occasional convening of synods or councils, and this was not part of the Baptist practice, the deletion of this phrase argues for a peculiarly Baptist understanding of the words ‘holding communion.’ In their recension of the Savoy material, they recast the statement to reflect the well-established polity already in place. By adopting this language, they confess their commitment to the pattern existing among their churches. The final portion of chapter 26, paragraph 15 must be read carefully. The Baptist polity, expressed in formal organizations, is the basis for the resolution of differences and giving advice. The participle ‘holding communion’ implies a present and established state of communion, and this established state provides the forum at which these issues may find resolution. They did not need to hold occasional ‘synods or councils’ because they already had in place the means by which to settle matters: association meetings.”[8]

Therefore, the language in the second part of paragraph 14 and all of paragraph 15 should be understood to be referring to formal association. Notice that it says the churches “ought to hold communion among themselves” (2LCF 26.14, emphasis is mine). There is an “oughtness,” or obligation, to formal association in the confession. This does not mean that every Baptist church will be in a position to be in faithful association, only that every Baptist church should be seeking such an association, or perhaps, working to build one “as they may enjoy opportunity and advantage for it” (2LCF 26.14).

The purpose of formal associations is “for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification” (2LCF 26.14). The Baptists believed that associations help to preserve peace through their potential to resolve differences and settle questions together, to increase love through the natural and fraternal relations that are fostered within them, and to mutually edify the churches by working together to obey the commands of Christ. Associations of churches can work together to perform a number of important tasks, including obeying the great commission by planting churches with a shared confession of faith, supporting theological seminaries that are accountable to the churches of the association to assist them in training pastors and missionaries, publishing useful books and other materials for the churches, providing a means for financial assistance to churches in need, helping to resolve conflict between churches and within them, and giving advice about how to answer both theological and practical questions that arise within the churches.

The Baptists grounded their doctrine of associationalism in the Scriptures. For example, The London General Assembly of 1689 provided the following Scriptural support for their formal association.

Acts 15

They said that this chapter shows that churches should gather to give “advice after serious consultation and deliberation in matters and controversies remaining doubtful to any particular church.” At least two churches participated in the Jerusalem council: the church of Jerusalem and Antioch.

Romans 15:26

“For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Rom 15:26). The London General Assembly said this shows that churches should give and receive “in case of poverty and want of any particular churches.” The churches of Macedonia and Achaia pooled their financial resources to give to the church in Jerusalem. See also 2 Corinthians 9:12-15

Acts 11:22

“The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch” (Acts 11:22). Churches should send “their gifted brethren to use their gifts for the edification of the churches that need the same,” according to the London General Assembly.  Here in Acts 11:22, the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to the church in Antioch.

2 Corinthians 8:19

“And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will” (2 Cor 8:19, emphasis is mine). Note that a singular individual was appointed by a plurality of churches. This strongly implies an association of churches. 2 Corinthians 8:16-24 as a whole is an important passage to demonstrate associations in the early church. “As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit. And as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ. So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you to these men” (2 Cor 8:23-24, emphasis is mine).

1 Corinthians 12:12

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). The churches are all members of the same body of Christ. And they’re all responsible to each other “for good in respect of purity of doctrine, exercise of love and good conversation.”

So, in all these ways, the London General Assembly of 1689 argued that formal associations are biblical.[9] But more could be added. Some Baptists argued that Colossians 2:6, 19 and 4:16 teach an association of churches. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him . . . holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together throughout its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Col 2:6, 19). Compare that to Colossians 4:16, which says, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” These verses seem to imply a formal relationship between two local churches. They are to walk together in Christ and grow together in Christ.[10]

To all these biblical grounds could be added the biblical warrant for supporting of gospel workers from other churches (Rom 16:1-3; 3 Jn 8-10; 2 Jn 5-11) and frequent correspondence among the churches (Col 2:1; cf. 1:3-7; 4:7, 12). Consider also how the Bible speaks of groups of churches according to their geographic regions. This seems to imply some form of association among those churches. Scripture addresses the churches of Galatia (Gal 1:2), the churches of Judea (Gal 1:22), the churches of Hierapolis, Colossae, and Laodicea (Col 4:13-16), and the seven Churches of Asia (Rev. 1:4). According to some, the angels of the churches in Revelation may even be associational messengers.[11]

Difficulties and Differences Among Churches in Formal Associations

After laying down a summary of the biblical doctrine of associationalism in paragraph 14, the confession turns to address the proper function of associations in paragraph 15. It begins to discuss how associations should function by laying down various kinds of difficulties and differences that might arise among the churches who hold communion together.

The confession speaks of “cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration” (2LCF 26.15). “Difficulties” refer to hard and possibly confusing questions that need to be worked through and resolved biblically among the churches. “Differences” are points at which the churches or members of churches have settled different beliefs or practices. Difficulties and differences can occur in two different areas, according to the confession. They might occur in matters of “doctrine” or they might occur in matters of “administration.”  Renihan helpfully writes, “We have four things that are set before us. There are four possibilities that associationalism addresses: 1) difficulties in doctrine; 2) difficulties in administration; 3) differences in doctrine; 4) differences in administration.”[12]

Consider some historical examples of these differences and difficulties. With respect to doctrine, early Baptists had to work through the difficult question of how to answer the doctrine of eternal justification. Those who subscribed to The Second London Baptist Confession were united in opposition to it, but they did not all know how to refute it biblically and theologically. This is a difficulty of doctrine. The hymn singing controversy is an example of a difference of doctrine, which was not codified in the confession of faith. The churches of the London Baptist Association had different perspectives on this question. Some believed congregations should sing hymns, while others did not, and that difference caused a great conflict, which the association tried to help resolve (though it ultimately failed).

The same can be seen in matters of administration. The churches did not all agree about how to pay their ministers. The association endorsed an anonymous work by Benjamin Keach, The Gospel Minister’s Maintenance Vindicated in order to help churches resolve this difference of administration. As it pertains to a difficulty in administration, churches might have problems in trying to do something, such as sending a missionary, or training or supporting pastors. As an example of a difficulty of administration, James Renihan provides a personal example related to church offerings. He writes that in his association, “I proposed a question to the assembly about whether or not pastors ought to be aware of the amount of money their people give in their offerings. That was a genuine question on our part because we wanted to hear the wisdom of others. I was really helped by that conversation.”[13]

The confession also outlines three places where these difficulties and differences might occur. It says they might occur in (1) “the churches in general” or (2) in “any one church,” or  (3) with respect to “any member or members of any church.” The confession is saying that in some way, it would be fitting for an association to weigh in and give advice on matters not only between member churches, but within the independent churches themselves. There may arise a situation where one member in a church believes one thing and another member believes another, such that there is an impasse threatening to cause division and the elders are unable to resolve it. There are also cases in which the elders of a church have a doctrinal dispute, which is difficult to resolve within that local church. The confession is saying that in cases like these, it is fitting for a local church to seek advice from its association.

The association can also provide recourse to individual church members who believe they have been wronged through improper application of church discipline or censure. It says that when “members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order” (2LCF 26.15), they may seek help from the association.

How Difficulties and Differences are to be Resolved in Formal Associations

The middle section of paragraph 15 outlines a process by which formal associations of Baptist churches should resolve difficulties and differences. 2LCF 26.15 says, “it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned.” There are three parts of the formal mechanism by which associations are to address difficulties and differences.

First, the messengers of the association are to “meet to consider” a matter. That is, the matter being considered should be clearly known and understood by all the messengers of the association. While nothing in these words prevents the association as a whole from voting to appoint a smaller committee to study and consider the matter in question, the results of the study must be made known to all the messengers of the association, and not merely known by a smaller committee. That is the only way that the messengers of the churches can “consider” a matter as the confession requires.

Second, the messengers of the association are to “give their advice.” It’s important to understand that the association is given no power whatsoever to give any sort of binding directives or orders to churches or individuals. Rather, its sole power in matters of difficulty and difference is to give advice. The advice given by the association should never come from an official in the association, or a small group of messengers, such as a committee without the knowledge and consent of all the messengers of the association. While a committee approved by the messengers might recommend certain advice in a particular situation, the confession clearly says that the messengers of the association are the only ones who are permitted to give that advice to the parties concerned. The advice must be deliberated in the general assembly and voted upon and approved by all the messengers of the association before it can be given to the parties concerned.

Third, the advice given by the messengers must be “reported to all the churches.” This means not merely that the messengers receive a full report of the advice given, but the members of all the churches of the association must receive a report of the advice given in a particular situation. The association should publish a report of its advice to all the members of all the churches in the association, since every individual member of an associational church is a member of the association as a whole.

The biblical ground cited by the confession for this associational practice is Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 25. The messengers of the Jerusalem council met to consider whether all Christians ought to be circumcised. They discussed the matter openly in the general assembly. They discussed and formulated their advice together. And a letter was sent to all the members of all the churches, giving their advice.

Limitation of Power in Formal Associations

The final part of chapter 15 says, “these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers.” These words impose four limitations on formal associations.

First, associations have no “church power, properly so called.” That means, the decisions, pronouncements and advice of associations have no authority to bind local churches, requiring them to do anything. Local churches are independent of any hierarchy of organization. Nevertheless, associations may put a strong informal pressure upon churches by their decisions, pronouncements, and advice.

Second, associations have “no jurisdiction over the churches themselves.” That means associations have no right to rule over or impose judicial decisions upon the churches or within the churches. The congregation of a local church alone has sole jurisdiction over that church, under the authority of Christ.

Third, associations may not “exercise any censures either over any churches or persons.” Benjamin Keach explained the meaning of “censure.” He wrote, “Now as to church-censures I understand but two besides suspension: (1.) withdrawing from a member that walks disorderly and (2.) casting out, or (excommunicating).”[14] Thus, the prohibition on censure forbids the association from exercising church discipline over anyone. For example, the association may not withhold the Lord’s Supper or remove members from church membership.

Fourth, the messengers of the association may not “impose their determination on the churches or the officers.” This means that while the association may certainly make determinations, which is absolutely necessary for giving advice in matters of differences and difficulties, it has no authority to “impose” its determination upon any church or officer of a church. If local churches want to impose the association’s advice, they may do so. Local churches may also reject the association’s advice.

Finally, it must be stated that these limitations on associational authority in no way prohibit the association from coming to conclusions about differences and difficulties (since that would contradict the previous part of the confession) or from identifying heretics and unrepentant sinners in the churches, and publishing its findings about such matters to all the churches. The association must possess this authority in order to have any grounds for removing member churches for their failure to deal faithfully in such matters.

To give one example of an association identifying “sins” in a local church and even calling for “repentance,” but never usurping local church authority, James Renihan writes:

“In 1696, a dispute arose in the Bromsgrove, Worcestershire church between the pastor, John Eckells, and the people of the church consisting of charges of disorderliness against Eckells and his family. The contention dragged on for 4 years. In 1697, the church sought the help of the association, and sent a long letter explaining the circumstances. The association responded with an equally long and detailed letter specifically addressing the problems and sorting out the sins of the various individuals concerned. They called for repentance and asked all of the churches in the association to observe a day of prayer and fasting. . . . [later] They addressed the specific issues involved, urged a course of action to take, and protested when others became involved.”[15]

This Baptist association never usurped the authority of the local church because it never forced the church to do anything. All it did was consider the matter, give its opinion on the matter, and finally urge a course of action. Certainly, this is an informal kind of influence over the churches, but it is not churchly authority properly so-called.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith says that Baptist churches should be in formal association when they have means and opportunity to do so faithfully. It further outlines the proper workings of an association and limits associational power so that it may never usurp the authority of local churches which are independent of all outside human authorities.


[1]          B.R. White, ed., Association Records of the Particular Baptists of England, Wales and Ireland to 1660, 3 vols (London: The Baptist Historical Society, 1971-74), 128.

[2]          See Conrad Mbewe, Foundations for the Flock: Truths About the Church for All the Saints (Hannibal, MO: Granted Ministries, 2011), 215-220.

[3]          See also James Renihan, Associational Churchmanship (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2016), 46.

[4]          James M. Renihan, Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 154-183.

[5]          White, Association Records, 129.

[6]          James M. Renihan, “A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Associations of Churches,” in Denominations or Associations? (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2001), 62-78.

[7]          James M. Renihan, ed., True Confessions: Baptist Documents in the Reformed Family (Owensboro, KY: RBAP, 2004), 175.

[8]          Renihan, Edification and Beauty, 173.

[9]          White, Association Records, 20-21.

[10]         Renihan, “A Reformed Baptist Perspective,” 45-46.

[11]         For a helpful discussion of associations and their biblical warrant and purposes, see Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th edition: revised and corrected (Grand Rapids, MI: EP Books, 2016), 385-387.

[12]         Renihan, Associational Churchmanship, 58.

[13]         Ibid., 59-60.

[14]         Benjamin Keach, The Glory of a True Church (1697; reprint, Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2015), 37.

[15]         Renihan, Edification and Beauty, 180-181.