I found an interesting email in my inbox this week.  A pastor from a baptist church in another part of the country had a question for me.  He wrote:

“We are thinking through the matter of whether or not to join a formal association of churches.  We left the Baptist Union about fifteen years ago and have been formally independent, although we have enjoyed a warm informal relationship with other churches.  We are now considering if it would be good to affiliate with the FIEC (Fellowship of Evangelical Churches) or the regional association of Grace Baptist Churches, or both.  However, some friends have said to me that in their view linking formally with such organisations can be detrimental to church life. I am wondering if you are aware of any resources, or if you have written any yourself, on this subject…”

He and the church he leads are asking a simple question. Is it a good thing for a church to be part of some wider organisation – whether it’s called a “denomination”, or a “fellowship of churches”, or an “association”? Or is it better for each church to remain independent?

Most of you will know how we’ve answered that question. Ever since this church was constituted in 1984, we have remained independent. The wording on our notice board says that we are a Baptist church, but that doesn’t mean that we have joined the Baptist Union or any other denomination. It simply means that we are a church which baptises believers not babies. We are not attached to any group of churches in any official way.

Strength in numbers?

But why? Isn’t there strength in numbers? We all know that a little family-owned corner-shop can never challenge the might of a great supermarket chain. It takes a company on the scale of Tesco or Morrisons to have real clout in the market-place, with the town planners, or with the Department of Trade & Industry! Surely a big group of churches can achieve things that individual churches could never achieve on their own?

And what’s wrong with signing up to join a larger group? (Providing of course, that it’s a group of churches which stands for the same truths that we stand for). If the Calvinistic Baptist churches in the North-West decided to form themselves into an association, what harm would there be in our joining them?

Is it just that we imagine that we’re the only faithful church around? Is it that we prefer to keep ourselves to ourselves? Is it that we don’t want to co-operate with anyone else?

Grace Baptist AssemblyNo, I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone could fairly label us isolationist or exclusive. On an international level, we support missionaries in many places. And more than that, we have very happy relationships with churches all around the world. We share news with them, pray for them, visit them, use our resources to support and encourage them. I wrote in a recent church bulletin about some of the overseas situations we are actively involved with. On a national level, we send messengers each year to the Grace Baptist Assembly. By doing that, we’re not joining an ongoing organisation, but we are expressing our love for sister churches around the UK – and we make friends who stay in touch all the year round. We run two study weeks each year – mini-conferences where we have built and cemented friendships with dozens of pastors and young preachers from many churches.

God's Glory, our JoyOn a regional level we appreciate our fellowship with many evangelical churches and co-operate with them in all sorts of projects.  I meet with pastors from five of those churches every month so that we can talk about the needs of our churches and pray together. We co-operate with three churches in planning the God’s Glory Our Joy conference. The majority of our members get to that conference each year and enjoy fellowship with folk from a wide circle of churches.  We attend the meetings other churches organise, we invite them to attend ours. And much more beside.

No, we’re not isolated or isolationist. We have very real and close links with other churches. And we’ve benefited from them. When we’ve faced crises that we weren’t equipped to handle ourselves, we’ve been able to call on pastors from other churches to advise us. When we’ve lacked resources or expertise, other churches have been more than ready to help. And I think they’d say the same about us. We have sister churches whom we trust, and who trust us.

So why can’t we be linked with them in some formal way? Why not establish an Association of Reformed Baptist Churches Northwest and put down on paper the commitments we make to each other?

Why not join an Association?

AssociationsWell the basic answer is simple. Denominations or associations are not there in the Bible. The New Testament talks about churches – individual local churches. But it never suggests that they should be linked together in any formal way. The local church is the only institution that Christ and his apostles instituted and authorised. And we are not free to improve on their design. If Christ had wanted the churches to be linked together by some formal structure, he would have said so. And the apostles would have done it. They didn’t. That should be the end of the matter.

New Testament churches were independent. And they were autonomous – in other words, self-governing. Each church had the responsibility to run its own affairs, make its own decisions, handle its own dilemmas. Each church was answerable to the Lord alone for its actions.

It’s not difficult to show this from the New Testament. Think of all the issues and crises Paul had to address in his letters to the churches. Did he ever tell a church that they must look outside to the association to resolve an issue on their behalf? When the church in Corinth was without elders to lead it, did Paul ever say, “Ask the association to take charge of the situation?” When that church was failing to discipline an immoral member, did he say, “If you don’t sort it out, the leaders of the denomination must intervene?” Whatever the problem that Paul highlighted in any church, he assumed that it was the responsibility of that church, and that church alone, to sort it out.

That doesn’t mean that NT churches couldn’t consult and ask for advice from others. When false teachers, based in Jerusalem, arrived in Antioch and disrupted the life of the church there, the leaders of the church in Antioch travelled to Jerusalem to ask the Jerusalem leaders what was going on (Acts 15:2). And the leaders in Jerusalem responded by circulating a letter disowning the views of the false teachers, and making recommendations to all the churches about how to respond to their false teaching.

But it was still the Antioch church that had to sort out the problems. Individual churches were expected to choose and recognise their own leaders (1 Cor 16:15-18); to sort out their own quarrels (Phil 4:2-3); to discipline their own members (2 Thess 3:14-15); to recognise, commission and send their own missionaries (Acts 13:1-3); to decide for themselves how they should use their money (2 Cor 8:7-8).

Associated but Free?

But surely it must be possible for a church to be in an association with other churches and still remain autonomous? What if a number of churches agreed to form an association, but make it their rule that each church would still be free to make its own decisions? Where’s the problem with that?

The problem is that it can’t work in practice. Not if the association is going to do anything. Whatever the association plans to do, each church must be willing to sacrifice its own autonomy to make it happen.

Let’s imagine that twenty churches form themselves into a local association. What is the association going to do? A meeting is held to decide the priorities. Various possibilities are discussed. But in the end, the one that wins most favour is a training scheme for young people. Of course that’s not what all the churches would have chosen. Five would have preferred something completely different. But the will of the majority must prevail. So, like it or not, five churches are involved in a scheme that they would never have chosen. The scheme is to be organised and run by the association. If a church may not send its own young people to be trained, but if it belongs to the association, it is still by definition associated with the scheme.

And the same would be true of every activity planned or action taken by the association. It might be a joint prayer meeting every six months. It might be an annual conference. It might be a decision to invite a particular evangelist to come and speak. Before the association was formed, individual churches did these things, and the other churches could decide individually whether they wanted to support them. But now the association as a body can organise events. And every church in the association is, by default, implicated in the decisions taken.

Suppose one of the churches is unhappy about the evangelist the association invites. Of course, they may simply recommend their members not to attend the meetings. But that church will still be there in the list of the churches which through the association have given him the invitation.

Do we need an FRBCUK?

FRBCLet’s imagine now that we join some national fellowship of Churches. We’ll call it the Fellowship of Reformed Baptist Churches UK. One of the arguments most often used to promote such a fellowship is that it can speak with a single voice on matters of national importance and be heard. But what does that mean in practice?

At its annual meetings, the Fellowship discusses, let’s say, the question of “Gay Marriage”. It decides it should make a public statement condemning the recent change in the law. So a statement is drawn up and sent to No 10 and to the national papers. But what if there is one church in the Fellowship that holds a different view – which believes (rightly or wrongly) that governments should not regulate marriage at all? How does that church disassociate itself from the statement? The newspapers simply publish the statement from the FRBCUK. And when enraged readers go to the web to look for a list of the churches in the FRBCUK, that church is listed among them. The church cannot decide whether or not to make a statement on Gay Marriage. The decision is taken out of the church’s hands by the action of the association.

The FIEC was intended to be a “Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches”. But I can remember the dismay felt by some of its member churches when, through its council, it decided to revise its basis of faith. Individual churches had no way of deciding for themselves whether they wished to adopt the revised basis of faith. The new basis of faith simply became the official standard for the entire Fellowship, and each church which belonged to it.

Handing over the keys

It is simply impossible for an individual church to decide all its own affairs if it is part of a formal grouping where the churches have fixed obligations to each other. At the most basic level, the church has given away the right to decide which other churches it will recognise and have fellowship with. Anytown Baptist Church decides to join a regional association of Reformed Baptist Churches. It does so after careful consideration of the other churches in the association. It feels it can trust them, recognise them, and have fellowship with them. But over the next few years, other churches join the association, churches which ABC does not know, and has no reason to trust. But ABC has no choice about whether it recognises those churches. By virtue of its place in the association, ABC is automatically “in fellowship” with them. Maybe, it’s not that new churches join the association. Maybe churches that are already in the association change their outlook and adopt practices which ABC is unhappy about. What can ABC do? It cannot say, “we will not associate with that church”. It’s tied to that church by the fact that they’re both in the association. The only way to disassociate from that church is to leave the whole association.

But surely, if the association has definite doctrinal standards, that situation need never arise? Surely we’d be safe joining, for example, an association that’s committed to the 1689 Confession? Couldn’t we associate happily with any church that subscribes the same Confession that we do?

1689If only that were true! Sadly, the fact is that many churches will sign up to a basis of faith, but in practice, will show little love for, or understanding of, the doctrines it teaches. And churches which hold to the same doctrines on paper may have a completely different ethos in worship and practice. I know personally scores of pastors leading “1689 churches”. Some of those pastors are cessationist. Others believe that tongues and prophecy are for today. Some believe in particular redemption. Others preach a universal atonement. Some think that church membership should be restricted to baptised believers. Others open it to all who profess faith. Some teach that the Ten Commandments are binding on believers today. Others teach that the Sabbath is now obsolete. Some have persuaded their churches to ban all translations but the AV. Others have introduced rock groups into their services. Some encourage women to lead Sunday worship services. Others forbid women to pray in midweek prayer meetings.

Our imaginary FRBUK might be committed by its constitution to the 1689 confession on paper. We join the Fellowship assuming that the other churches all see things the same way we do. Yet when we go for the first time to the annual family conference we discover that the singing is accompanied by a rock group, the worship is led by a woman, and the preacher is encouraging attenders to pray for dreams and visions. How’s that come about? Simple. The conference is hosted by different churches each year. The hosting church is responsible for organising the programme. This year, the home church happens to be a church that embraces a very different ethos from our own. But it’s still a “1689 church”, and we are tied to it by our membership of the association.

The freedom to choose

I’m not suggesting that we would never want to co-operate with churches which have rock bands or encourage people to seek visions. There will be contexts in which we will want to express our sisterly love for those churches. The point is that while we remain independent, we can choose for ourselves what level of fellowship we have with them and with any evangelical church. We may choose to link up with a local Pentecostal church to organise a meeting on Creation. But we’ll decline their invitation to join with them for their healing crusade. We may encourage folk to attend a preaching rally at a neighbouring “Fundamental Baptist” church, but say no thank-you when they invite us to a meeting about “the Iniquities of Modern Versions”. We can have happy relationships with all Bible-believing, Gospel-Preaching churches but not endorse all they say or do. That freedom vanishes when we join an association. We find that we’re expected to recognise all the churches in the association; to be involved in all the activities planned by the association; to help fund all the projects undertaken by the association; to support all the missionaries and workers appointed by the association. And meanwhile, other churches with which we may, in practice, have more in common, are viewed as less worthy of our support, because they’ve never signed up to the association.

The story so far

What actually happens when independent churches link themselves together in some sort of formal association? In every instance I know, the story has been the same. As the association grows, it takes on a life of its own, and develops a central control structure. It needs full-time staff, a standing committee, a central office – and it is there that decisions are taken for the whole association. Generally speaking the staff who run the association / denomination / fellowship are people who have few pastoral or theological gifts. They are appointed for their administrative skills, or simply because they sought the post. Some people are “political animals” by instinct, finding their fulfilment in pulling the levers of power. Too often, it is those people who finish up controlling the association.

The Baptist Union began as an association of independent churches. Today it is a vast hierarchical structure, ruled from the centre. Churches pay their levy to central funds. The denominational officials decide how it’s to be spent. Many BU churches have found to their dismay that they cannot appoint a pastor of their choice unless he is approved by the BU. Some have found that they cannot even leave the BU without costly disputes, and in extreme cases have needed to pursue legal action to reclaim their church building or manse.

Of course, it’s undeniable that some churches have benefited from involvement in an association or denomination. Sometimes the officers of the larger body have been able to sort out problems or give helpful advice. Local churches have been able to draw off the funds of the denomination to make possible all sorts of worthwhile projects. Denominations have set up seminaries, missionary societies, homes for the elderly, publishing houses and local churches have gained benefit from all these things. Most important of all, there have been cases where a denomination has stepped in and prevented an individual church from drifting into doctrinal confusion and heresy.

But far more often, the flow has been in the opposite direction. Very often, when a denomination has been invaded by false teaching, it has started at the centre. It begins, so often, with the people at the centre who control the machinery of the denomination. They appoint the staff at the denominational Bible-college or seminary; they decide who will be ordained as pastors; they choose who will speak at the conferences. And through these means a small group of leaders who have drifted from the evangelical faith can introduce their false teaching to all the churches in the denomination. It’s happened again and again.

An act of faith

GBCMaintaining real independence is an act of faith. It’s a declaration that, however small our resources, we trust the Lord. The apostle Paul wrote to the little church in Philippi, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19). And we believe that promise! We may be tempted to believe that we need to join some larger grouping. But God has never authorised us to look for help in that direction. So we trust the Lord himself, in answer to our prayers, to supply the needs of this church, in his own way and his own time. We believe he can give us the wisdom to make God-honouring decisions. He can give us the funds to complete the work he’s given us to do. He can give us the protection we need in the face of the world’s hostility. He can give us the gifts we need to serve him in our generation. The Lord has given no promises to denominations or associations. But he’s given great promises to us and to every local church which remains faithful to his word. We trust him to keep them.

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