The first Particular Baptist General Assembly (GA) met in 1689.
A group of university-trained theologians, rural pastors, and gifted brothers (qualified ministry interns) came together to vote on a revised set of doctrinal standards adapted from both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Savoy Declaration. The Second London Confession was submitted to eligible members at the GA, and the majority voted in favor of the doctrinal standards we now refer to simply as the 1689. That London Association, consisting of congregations led by men like Benjamin Keach, Hanserd Knollys, William Kiffin, William Collins and Nehemiah Coxe, was now standardized in a way it had never been before. Yet, something that did remain the same was the associational accountability and adherence to the mutually elected doctrinal standards.
There was no hierarchical governing body responsible for these churches apart from Christ and His Word––the churches themselves were responsible for one another. If one church began teaching something contrary to the confession or working outside the confines of the association’s constitution, the association had the prerogative to disassociate from that particular church upon a majority vote by other participating local churches. The system was not iron-clad. As with any polity in a fallen world, there were loop holes, imperfections, and shortfalls. Yet, the associational model had proved more biblical and effective than the Bishopric of the Church of England or the Papacy of the Church of Rome.
Baptist associations, much like the early seventeenth-century London Association, still exist. My association, the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA), continues to carry forth the congregational flag which was displayed (and fought for) by our Particular Baptist (non-conformist) fathers hundreds of years ago. The ARBCA website has a brief history of Baptist associationalism here. Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear what an association is. Caught between independent Baptist fundamentalism on the one side, and Presbyterianism on the other, associations are either downplayed to be of little importance, or they are promoted in their function to look more like a governing body with a top-down structure (think Presbyterianism or Episcopalianism).
The purpose of the present article, and those to follow it, is to clarify what an association is while also showing some of the benefits of being a part of an association.
What Is An Association?
Since this is the first article, we need to hammer out a definition. I am going to cheat and steal the definition from my own association’s website since ARBCA is one of the more contemporary mainstream Particular Baptist associations. More often than not, someone older and smarter than I has already done the “hammering.” It is as follows:
B. The Nature of the Association
1. This Association consists of Reformed Baptist churches that have committed themselves to promote the interests of the member churches and to advance the common causes found among them.
2. While seeking to promote the interdependence of churches, this Association recognizes and respects the independence of each member church.
3. The precedent of churches associating in this way is found in apostolic practice
(Acts 15; 2 Corinthians 8:18-24; Galatians 1:2, 22; Colossians 4:13-18) and numerous historical examples (the 1689-92 General Assemblies in England and the 1707
Philadelphia Association in the United States). It is also warranted by the confessional position of our Baptist forefathers (1689 Confession, chapter 26, para 14, 15), Christ’s prayer for visible unity (John 17:20-23), and Christian prudence and wisdom.
Point One: Formal Definition
The association is not a governing body of presbyters, nor is it a Bishopric, nor anything other than a grouping together of churches which have voluntarily entered into a relationship with one another in a common doctrinal cause. At least in ARBCA, there is no such thing as a governing body above the local churches upon which falls the responsibility of ecclesiastical rule and accountability. To address the association with this assumption in mind is to address something other than the association! We need to be careful to think of ARBCA as being the churches which have united under that single associational banner. ARBCA is not the GA; ARBCA is not a presbytery; ARBCA just is the local churches which make it up at any given time.
Point Two: Church Polity
We also must remember that each church within the association is in the association because it (meaning its leadership and members) have chosen to be there. Each individual church is responsible for its own choices. ARBCA has no authority over an individual local church because, (1) ARBCA is nothing but fellow member churches, not a governing body; and (2) those fellow local churches have all “bought in” to the association because they are independent churches who each bear the keys to the kingdom. This is to say that there is a mutual understanding among the ARBCA churches that each local congregation has the power given by Christ within itself. That ecclesial power does not reside in a hierarchical governing body, but within each local church. And each local church, in this case, has determined to come into a relationship with other local churches.
Point Three: Biblical and Historical Precedent
In 2 Corinthians 8:18-19, Paul writes, “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace…” The churches, or assemblies, decided to send the famed preacher with Paul. Following the Scriptural citations, historical precedence is given (e.g. the GA which birthed our very own confession). Finally, Christ’s prayer for “visible unity” and “Christian prudence” is cited.
We have defined what an association is, and we have also shown something of what an association is not. ARBCA, to use just one example, is not a governing body which rules local churches subservient to it. It (itself) is a voluntary association of individual congregations.
In the following articles, I want to pursue three items: the nature of councils and committees within the association, the general assembly, and churchmanship, or what it means to be a member of a local church in association with other churches.