I am not a theologian. I don’t claim to be. I am not an excellent Greek or Hebrew scholar. I don’t claim to be. I am simply the pastor of a Southern Baptist church. I care deeply about the local church. I care about the people who make up the New Testament church today. Therefore I care about the things that affect the church that I pastor. The basis for this series of posts is to simply share my thoughts about the local Baptist association as I see it based on my personal experiences. I have been part of four associations (three in Florida and one now in South Carolina) and have served in leadership positions there. I will begin with the purpose of the association, move on to the challenges facing the association, and finish with the future of the association.
The reality of the local Baptist association is not foreign to Southern Baptists. In fact, the great majority of all Southern Baptist churches are members of a local Baptist association. This is their choice to make. When considering the purpose for the association, you may find many different viewpoints. For example, the members of the local church have their own thoughts as to why the association exists. These vary from congregation to congregation. The pastors of local churches have their own thoughts as to why the association exists. These thoughts vary from pastor to pastor. The leadership of the association has their own thoughts as to why the association exists. These views vary from association to association. The state conventions have their own thoughts as to why the association exists. Again, these thoughts differ from state to state. In order to find some kind of cohesive purpose for the local Baptist association, we must take a look at what this purpose has been historically.
Next to the local church, the Baptist association is the oldest unit of Baptist life. The Baptist association had its’ beginning in the United States in 1707 with the formation of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. From its’ beginning the association has served at least three fundamental purposes. Although there may be other purposes that have emerged over the years, there seems to be three at the center. Those three are fellowship, missions/evangelism, and doctrinal integrity.
1. Fellowship: In those early colonial days in the Philadelphia Baptist Association, the local Baptist churches struggled with their own individuality. These churches were weak financially and in weak in terms of resource. They were isolated from each other by distance. This led to a solitary existence. Churches were also very fragile due to all the circumstances occurring in colonial America just prior to the birth of a new nation. Churches were few, small, and in need of mutual support. The Baptist association gave these churches the opportunity to come together, work together, and be encouraged by one another. The association would also give credibility in their area by identifying them with other churches who were like-minded. This same thought of fellowship has continued and evolved through the years. Today, the association still offers this much-needed fellowship between like-minded churches. The Baptist association offers churches the opportunity to come together under the same banner and fellowship together and be strengthened by each other. Under the umbrella of fellowship is that of churches helping each other. Dr. Jimmy Draper, past president of Lifeway Christian Resources made the following statement about this fellowship and cooperation, “It is the essence of our faith that the stronger help the weaker, that the greater help the lesser, that the larger help the smaller. In that sense we need to heed the Lord Who served with a towel in His hand.” Dr. Richard Harris, Director of Missions for the Santee Baptist Association in Sumter, South Carolina wrote, “There is a need for fellowship. None of the things listed above [accountability, encouragement, counsel, support] can happen if we remain isolated and separated from one another. We can be a mighty force and army for God, or we can go our separate ways, be disjointed and ineffective, weak, and powerless.”
2. Missions/Evangelism: Across Southern Baptist life there is a statement that we all know very well, “we can do more together than we can do by ourselves”. It is this thought that leads us to cooperate together and work together for our common faith. Historically, the association has been involved in mobilizing the local churches to be involved in mission work, church planting, and reaching beyond themselves. Again Dr. Draper writes, “In the latter half of the first century of the Philadelphia association, that entity turned from inward matters to outward matters of religious liberty and ministerial education. As the churches standardized their own internal life, the inevitable role of the association was to help them look out beyond themselves to the emerging world in Colonial America.” Dr. Harris again wrote, “There is a need to be involved in a purpose greater than oneself. To avoid growing introverted, selfish, and ineffective, churches need exposure to ideas, methods, and opportunities for kingdom growth beyond their own church family.”
3. Doctrinal Integrity and Accountability: I believe in doctrinal integrity and accountability. I believe that all churches who choose to cooperate together in an association of churches should have certain agreed upon doctrinal positions and commit to hold to them. This is the reason for the Baptist Faith and Message. The BFM is our statement of faith as Southern Baptists that provides a comprehensive outline as to where we stand biblically on important doctrinal positions. Local churches “join” a Baptist association based on the promise to cooperate together and uphold those agreed upon biblical positions (BFM for example). Through the membership at the associational level, the church affiliates with the state and national convention. So, there is a sense that the Baptist association exists for this purpose doctrinal accountability. Dr. John Sullivan, Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention wrote, “The association is the theological watchdog of Southern Baptists”. Dr. Harris wrote, “There is a need for accountability. Pressures from the culture, changes in current thinking, challenges from within church membership can cause compromised beliefs to become accepted. Knowing that there are standards for common beliefs and practices help keep the stresses of the moment from misguiding the church.” The Baptist association historically has been on the “front line” of doctrinal accountability, as seen in Dr. Draper’s statement, “But those earliest churches needed one another in other ways. In the absence of any seminaries, national or local denomination, in the pristine days of the emergence of our nation, they needed help with everything. The minutes of the Philadelphia Association reveal constant questions about baptismal doctrine, ordination, church disputes and other theological issues. The first Baptist association in America was a clearing-house of information on church polity and doctrine. The fellowship of an association is grounded in the unity of faith and practice. Each association may differ from others in particular doctrinal matters that are important to their fellowship and the amount of diversity tolerated on those issues. However, the association is, by its nature, a doctrinally based fellowship.”
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