PERSPECTIVES ON INTER-CHURCH FELLOWSHIOP
by Pastor Alan Dunn
A Pastoral Perspective
Let me begin by thanking the elders of Grand Rapids for the privilege of contributing to this discussion on inter-church fellowship. I have been asked to make this contribution by virtue of having taught Ecclesiology at TMA. But you need to know that my perspectives have not been formed with the Academy in view, but in the crucible of pastoral labor. I speak to you as a fellow pastor. My perspectives are voiced as one who will give an account to our Lord for the welfare of His sheep. Indeed, the subject of inter-church fellowship concerns us as pastors, for I believe that inter-church fellowship is a stewardship laid particularly upon us as pastors.
Since the early days of Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, NJ, I have been concerned to foster inter-church fellowship. As many of you, we too became “Reformed Baptists” through a process of ecclesiastical reformation. Progress in reformation has been made to the extent that we have asked Paul’s question posed in Rom 4:3 For what does the Scripture say? I am now being invited to connect the congregation in Flemington to an association of churches. The pressure to consider this prospect has not emerged from my study of Scripture, but from several voices summoning me as a self-conscious Reformed Baptist. My concerns are those of a pastor. The appeal to join an association comes as another call for ecclesiastical reformation. My question to those who have requested that I connect my flock to their organization is this: “Will we be able to get from where we are to where you invite us to be, by walking on a path illuminated by the light of the Word of God?” Is joining an association the way Christ would have us continue in our ecclesiastical reformation? If so, I would hope to be able to do again what I have done before in relation to other areas of our church life: to stand in the presence of God among the people of God and open the Word of God and compel the judgments of the spiritually discerning that Scripture obligates us once again, to proceed in more ecclesiastical reformation, to pursue more corporate sanctification; to once again, step out in obedience of faith upon the path illuminated by Scripture. Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path… I considered my ways and turned my feet to Thy testimonies. (Ps 119:105, 59) I am looking for the Biblically illuminated path.
A Personal Perspective
In attempting to formulate a response to the prospects of directing my congregation into formal membership in an association, I have had to interact with proponents of associationalism. Some of that interaction will be reflected in this presentation. I want to assure you that I have genuine regard for each of the brethren with whom I differ. Prior to this conference, there has been personal interaction between each of us in an attempt to respect the integrity of each other’s person while retaining the right to disagree with each other’s perspectives. I view those with whom I disagree as my brothers in Christ. I desire our interaction to be characterized by a gracious spirit with a tenacious pursuit of truth, both of which are to characterize a minister of the gospel. May the Spirit enable us to edify one another in our respective service to Christ.
My Perspective Summarized
As a result of my considerations of Scripture, I offer the following as the summary of what I presently understand inter-church fellowship to be: Church fellowship is given by the Spirit; is grounded in the principles of gospel love; is put into practice by engaging in mutual communication, cooperation, and counsel; is essentially personal in the cultivation of trust; and is enjoyed in the providence of God.
Time constraints obligate me merely to outline material which would otherwise take several hours to expound. I am compelled by the interests of our gathering to focus on the practical outworkings of inter-church fellowship. But I cannot over emphasize the importance of the foundational truths for they determine and delineate the nature and course of our fellowship. It must be understood that the practice of fellowship is conditioned by the foundational definitions of fellowship. The brief time I will give to laying foundational truths is by no means a reflection of their value. Indeed, I think much of our divergence of opinion in these matters would evaporate were we simply to own and apply only those foundational truths mined from Scripture.
The Pneumatic Character of Inter-Church Unity
Inter-Church Unity Is Essentially Spiritual.
Let me differentiate ‘unity’ from ‘fellowship’. Our ‘unity’ is in those objective blessings which we share in union with Christ, whereas our ‘fellowship’ is in the more subjective, personal engagements experienced between specific churches. In principle, all Christians are united with a unity that embraces even the spirits of righteous men made perfect (Hb 12:22-24). In practice, however, we experience fellowship with specific brethren according to spiritual dynamics and providence.
Our unity is, in its essence, spiritual. We are united in a common life and faith. By one Spirit we are one Body (I Cor 12:12,13). Ours is the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:1-6). The Holy Spirit is Himself the supreme blessing of the NCov. We must be mindful of where we stand in redemptive history. We are on this side of Pentecost. In order to build His church, the risen Lord has given us His Spirit. The epitome blessing which the risen Lord bestows upon His people is His Spirit. It is by the Spirit that Christ rules His Church. It is by the Spirit that the churches respond to that rule. We see the glorified Christ in Rev 2 & 3 addressing His churches with the repeated refrain he that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The universal church is united collectively under the government of Christ which is administered by the Holy Spirit through the apostles whose ministry we have deposited in Scripture.
We cannot miss the importance of this fact. The crux of inter-church unity is the ministry of the Spirit. Whatever we are as the people of God locally and universally, we are by virtue of the ministry of the Spirit. Whatever shape our inter-church fellowship takes, it must have the salient features of Biblical spirituality about it, otherwise it stands to lose the distinctive trait of NCov salvation which in its essence is life in the Holy Spirit.
Inter-Church Unity Is A Unity In The Truth.
The Spirit is the Spirit of truth. The Spirit is the truth. (I Jn 5:7b) Eph 4:13 speaks of the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God. Our unity is doctrinal. The faith is what we believe, what constitutes our knowledge of the Son of God.
Local churches are communities with a communal commitment to a form of doctrine. Inter-church fellowship, therefore, will be conditioned by the doctrinal unity between the two bodies. Here is where the London Baptist Confession is of benefit. It defines us doctrinally so as to allow for fellowship with other evangelical churches. Yet, it delineates a specific doctrinal pedigree so that we might also enjoy a deeper and more intimate fellowship with those whose commitments are most consistent with our own.
The Principles of Inter-Church Fellowship
Local Church Fellowship Is A Fellowship Of Love.
What is the essential element without which a gathering of disciples is not a church? Love: a common commitment to love one another in obedience to Christ. Love is the essence of ecclesiastical life. ‘If we do not have love, we are nothing’. (1 Cor 13:2)
Jn 13:34,35 Christlike love is our distinguishing trait. Unity in love is a compelling witness to the world of God’s love for sinners, cf. Jn 17:20-23. Love is righteous and law-obeying (Rom 13:8-10), gracious and gospel-motivated (I Cor 13:4-8a). cf. Eph 4:32-5:2. We do not love because we deserve love as an inalienable right, but because we are loved by Christ and He commands us, out of love for Him, to love one another.
Inter-Church Fellowship Is A Fellowship Of Love.
Love is to characterize our inter-church fellowship. J.L.Dagg, Church Order, p. 125-127. “The love of the brethren was never confined to a local church. After Paul had said to the church of the Thessalonians, ‘Concerning brotherly love, ye have no need that I write unto you,’ he adds, ‘and indeed ye do it towards all the brethren which are in Macedonia.’ (1 Thes 4:10) Their love extended beyond the boundaries of their church, into all the region round about. Wherever a child of God, a disciple of Jesus, was found, the love embraces him as one of the spiritual brotherhood. ‘Every- one that loveth him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of him.’ (1 Jn 5:1)”
Church fellowship must be built upon the foundation of love. Our spiritual unity in truth is visibly evidenced in a fellowship of genuine love. We have to ask how the Holy Spirit is manifest in this present age. When we consider the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), and remember that the kingdom is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17), we are compelled to look for His manifestation in sanctified human character and conduct more than in institutions and policies. Does the Spirit fill our creeds and church constitutions or does He fill people? Before we ask whether the construction of supra-church structures is Biblical, we should agree that inter-church fellowship must be distinguished by the traits of sanctified human personality, for the Holy Spirit is given essentially to people, not essentially to policies.
The Practice of Inter-Church Fellowship
Personal Communication Should Be Fostered
General letters ought to be written to foster an informed fellowship among churches.
Apostolic example – Acts 15:31,31; 16:4 The decree from Jerusalem. Col 4:16 Exchange of letters with Laodicia. The Apostolic epistles written to churches and to individual men who were public, official men in the church – cf. Timothy, Titus.
Christ’s example – Rev 2,3 Letters to seven separate churches
Letters of Commendation were sent to endorse the credibility of particular individuals. This aspect of inter-church fellowship is crucial and operates upon the same assumption as Paul’s evangelistic method: to do all so as to own men’s consciences.
Acts 18:27 Apollos commended; Rom 16:1,2 Phoebe commended; Col 4:10,11 John Mark commended; I Cor 16:3 Paul promises to commend those sent by church; II Cor 3:1 Paul asks if he needs a letter of commendation.
Personal Visits characterize inter-church fellowship. Even with regular correspondence, nothing can replace the presence of people with whom we fellowship.
Acts 15:32 Jerusalem and Antioch enjoyed a pulpit exchange. Eph 6:21,22 Tychicus sent to Ephesus. Col 4:7-9 Tychicus, Onesimus, Mark (10), Jesus (11) visit Colossae. Paul’s example of visiting the churches throughout the book of Acts cf. 14:21; 15:3, 36; 16:4,5; 18:22,23; 21:17-19.
I would have you be impressed with the personal character of Paul’s inter-church practice. Consider that Rom 16:3-16 is every bit as much the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God as any doctrinal passage. Here Paul runs down the names and personal observations of particular people there in Rome. Rom 16:3-16 profiles a spiritual, loving personal dynamic of fellowship enjoyed between the churches. This personal bond was fostered through communication.
Cooperative Efforts To Advance The Gospel Should Be Pursued
Inter-church teams were formed to accomplish temporary tasks. We see that these teams were formed ad hoc and did not assume any permanence. A providential need occasioned the formation of such inter-church team effort. Once the need was met, we read of no establishment of parachurch positions needing to be filled and perpetuated. With the task completed, the team is dissolved and the personnel reassimilated back into their respective churches.
I Cor 16:3,4 a group from Corinth is to be formed to accompany Paul; II Cor 8:16-24 men appointed by several churches; Acts 20:4-6 Paul’s entourage consisted of some 9 men from several of the churches which Paul planted.
The formation of these teams is something the church is encouraged to do voluntarily. What occasioned the formation of inter-church efforts was the providential opportunity to engage together in Kingdom labors.
Financial involvement of different churches characterized their cooperation.
Phil 4:15,16 Philippian church supported Paul while planting a church in Thessalonica; II Cor 11:9 he received money from Macedonian churches while in Corinth; Tit 3:13 “help”: prope,mpw to supply, provide for; financially underwrite (Cf. Rom 15:24 Rome to help Paul on to Spain; I Cor 16:6 Paul hoped for Corinthian help); III Jn 5-8 generous support is encouraged by John.
We can also note that financial commitments can change during the course of a given ministry. Paul received his support from several and varied sources, yet he always placed the local church as the centerpiece of the support of evangelism.
Communication and Cooperation Are To Be Supported By Prayer
The precedents in Acts – 1:14 to install Matthias; 2:42 a practice of church; 4:31 prior to proclamation (vss. 29-31); chpt 10 Both Peter and Cornelius seen in prayer; 12:5 prayer for imprisoned Peter; 13:3 context in which preachers are sent out.
Apostolic directives to pray – Rom 15:30-32 for Paul’s ministry; II Cor 1:11 God’s deliverance; Eph 6:18-20 for all saints and the Word; Phil 1:19 deliverance.
Mt 9:36-38 The advancement of the gospel will be accomplished by the Lord of the Harvest who sends laborers into the field – therefore, pray!
Let me submit to you that the church’s prayer meetings are the heart of inter-church fellowship. As the brethren assume the burdens of other ministries, the Spirit engenders love of one community of disciples for another. As we pray one for another the Spirit ties cords of concern and engenders heart eagerness to act and meet each other’s needs. Every inter-church engagement which we presently have has been born out of a prior assumption of the burden of that ministry in congregational prayer. Spiritual fellowship is fostered as the church prays for sister churches and the specific gospel ventures in which they and their sister churches are engaged.
Inter-Church Counsel And Advice
As with individual Christians, so too with churches, it is evident that some churches are more mature, experienced, and gifted and can therefore be sources of counsel.
1 Thes 1:7 The Thessalonians became an example to be imitated in how to receive the Word and evangelize. They, in turn, were to imitate the Judean churches in how to endure persecution (2:14).
Imitation is warranted when the model is worthy of being a paradigm, which is to say that churches can serve as models and resources of counsel for other churches.
The example of Antioch and Jerusalem – Acts 15:1-6
We must factor in the presence of apostles. The authority operative in Acts 15 is apostolic authority. We should be sensitive to this fact especially when appeal is made to Acts 15 to justify denominational structures or missions agencies. If Acts 15 does not, in fact, authorize such supra-church structures, then we should be aware that such unauthorized structures pose a threat to apostolic authority.
The concerns were doctrinal (vs 1) and one of church order in that some of the Jerusalem members caused the problems in Antioch (vs 24).
The apostolic response clarified doctrine and directed church practice during the transition as the church emerged out of the cocoon of OCov ceremony.
vs 30,31 Antioch received the decree as did the other churches, 16:4,5. They viewed the ‘decree’ as having apostolic authority, an authority evident in the fact that the Spirit incorporates the content of the decree into Scripture.
The only entity which has warrant to authoritatively address the universal church is the universal church office of apostle. If Acts 15 is misused to justify a supra- church institution, it is the supra-church office of apostle that is compromised.
Provided that the conscience is informed by and bound solely to the Word of God, churches are wise to seek out and heed the advise of fellow churches.
Acts 11:22 Who initiated contact with Jerusalem church is unclear, but it is clear that the Christians in Antioch welcomed the input of Barnabas from the maturer church in Jerusalem as well as the ministry of Saul (vss 25,26)
Proverbs is replete with directives to those entrusted with the responsibility of giving leadership to the people of God on seeking counsel.
The key is to distinguish between the Word of God penned with apostolic authority and practical godly counsel. Paul distinguished between apostolic counsel and apostolic command, cf. I Cor 7:25ff; II Cor 8:10-11. Advice differs from declaration and command. Commands concerning moral duty is distinguished from advice as to how to fulfill that duty. Churches are warranted in seeking advise from experienced, mature “sibling” churches as to a wise way to perform their ecclesiastical duties.
The Personal Character of Inter-Church Fellowship
Fellowship is Personal in Character
What emerges from Scripture is a description of the way specific people relate to other specific people who each have specific duties in their respective local churches. We find no parachurch or suprachurch structure within which inter-church fellowship was contained. The ministry of the Spirit, the principles of love, the practice of communication, cooperation, and counsel: all these things engage people with people.
Every aspect of inter-church fellowship requires the dynamics of interpersonal friendship. Inter-church communion depends upon the men who hold office. The responsibility to foster communication rests upon us as pastors. Our office requires us to engender inter-church fellowship as we ‘shepherd the flock of God’. As pastors we must write letters, make phone calls, personal visits, exchange pulpits and regularly report to the churches with whom the Lord providentially connects us. We are responsible to engender an informed involvement with other churches to direct the prayers of the congregation; to solicit the prayers of other churches for us; to explore opportunities for the mutual employment of our respective church resources. It is as the officers communicate that the church ‘officially’ fellowships with other churches.
The Biblical pattern bears this out when we consider how communion was fostered by letter writing, for example. Paul’s letters to the churches included words to the officers (cf. Phil 1:1), and his letters to the officers included words to the churches (cf. the Pastoral Epistles and Philemon). “These Epistles are not merely private letters. Though addressed to individuals among Paul’s friends, they are addressed to them not as individuals, but rather as leaders in the Church. From the first they were intended to be read not by Timothy and Titus alone, but also by the churches over which these men were placed. With some justice they may be called the ‘Pastoral Epistles’; in them Timothy and Titus are addressed in their capacity as pastors. The Pastoral Epistles are – if the word be properly understood – ‘official’ communications.” (Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History‘,” p. 180. Banner of Truth, 1976.) Uncertainty exists as to the precise identity of the ‘angels’ who receive the letters of Rev 2 & 3, but do we not see one who assumes responsibility for the dynamics of communication in the church?
What about pulpits exchanges? the formation of teams? the commitment of finances? the seeking and conferring of counsel? Are these things not done by the men in office who act officially in behalf of their respective communities?
Is there a place for congregational engagement in inter-church fellowship? Yes. But it is not the ‘official’ place. It is spiritual, personal and the fruit of NCov life, but is it not of a different ecclesiastical order than the engagements of the pastors?
As a pastor I am challenged, not to join a supra-church organization, but to become more loving, more self-denying, more industrious, more aggressive and engage other ministers and churches in the dynamics of inter-church love. The mandate for inter- church fellowship does not compel us to erect another parachurch organization, but to engage in self-denying diligence as pastors. Cultivating inter-church fellowship is hard work which requires time and is sometimes fraught with frustration. Inter-church fellowship is the fruit of persevering mutual obedience to Christ by the official servants of the church who work hard to become trustworthy and loving men; who work hard at cultivating relationships with others in the ministry; who work hard at bringing the concerns of the kingdom to their congregation. Brethren, we do not need to construct an institutional supra-church edifice, the blueprints for which we cannot find in Scripture. What we need to do is to work harder at communication and prayer and then trust the Holy Spirit to use our love and fellowship to advance the kingdom.
Cooperation in Gospel Ventures Requires Personal Confidence
At the very center of it all is trust. We must give ourselves to the dynamics of inter- church fellowship, trusting in the Holy Spirit who indwells His people. We are to have confidence in the Holy Spirit whom Christ has given to His church. As a pastor responsible to guide the prayers and direct the use of our corporate resources, I am to be on the look out for the evidence of the grace of God in the ministries of those with whom I seek fellowship. This is simply to say that I make kingdom investments with those whom I have come to trust. Before I commit our churches resources, I must have some measure of confidence in those with whom I am investing. 2 Cor 8:16-24
v16,17 – The Corinthians already personally knew Titus. He had returned to Paul having visited Corinth and reported of their repentance (7:6ff). The personal and spiritual dimensions of their mutual fellowship are emphasized – 2 Cor 7:13-16
Titus was spiritually refreshed because of the integrity he discovered in the Corinthians which accorded with Paul’s confidence in them. The experience of their proven trustworthiness effected an increase of affection for them (v15). With confidence and affection born of personal trust he now earnestly and voluntarily returns to make further preparations for the collection.
The whole endeavor is predicated upon an existing mutual confidence in one another: between Paul and his coworkers and the Corinthians. In fact, it is to safeguard their reputation as being trustworthy that Paul sends the three men to prepare for the gathering of the promised collection -2 Cor 9:1-5
8:16-24 constitutes a letter of commendation. The adhesive which keeps the operation together is their confidence and trust in one another. The actions taken by Paul are explained by his determination to do all things honorably (v21). Since it is personal trust and confidence which is necessary for the accomplishment of this inter-church mission, Paul emphasizes the trustworthiness of the men, unknown by the Corinthians, who will be with Titus.
v18,19 – the brother is famous among the churches. The Corinthians do not know him, but they learn that not only does Paul commend him, he also has the trust of the churches and has been ‘appointed by the churches’.
ceirotonhqei.j – appointed, elected by vote, selected. Lenski envisions this man as one of Paul’s traveling companions who, as Paul had gone through Macedonia, gained the approval of the several contributing churches. “His name was proposed in church after church, and because of his splendid reputation all voted for him to be their representative.” (p.1151) Lenski envisions a vote accumulated as Paul visited the churches. However the process was conducted, this was a man known and trusted by the churches.
The appointment was not to a parachurch office, not to a position within a supra-church agency, but to a specific task – to travel with us in the gracious work. This man was given a specific job to do, not a position to hold or an institution to establish and then perpetuate.
v22 – the second unnamed brother is commended because of the confidence Paul has in him and the confidence he expresses for the Corinthians. The distinguishing trait of this brother is his diligence spoudai/oj: eager, zealous; quick to perform a task. This is not the idealistic eagerness of a novice, but a readiness which has been tested dokima,zw- validated and proven in many things by experience. What is Paul telling the Corinthians? ‘You can trust this brother – and be assured that he comes among you confident in what he knows of your trustworthiness as well.’
v24 – the Corinthian’s relationship to the other churches is here identified: it is one of love; a love that is to be openly demonstrated (literally ‘in the face of’, using the language of personal engagement and communication). They were to show themselves to be what Paul commended them to be: trustworthy.
We see then how churches cooperate to engage in the accomplishment of a common kingdom venture. They are to work together in a dynamic of mutual personal trust that is fostered by personal knowledge of each other.
Brethren, what kind of men and ministries do you commend to your church? To whom do you direct their affections, prayers, and financially investments? Are not such commitments to inter-church fellowship deepest with those whom you, as a pastor, have come to know and trust? Paul is saying more than “This brother holds to our doctrinal convictions.” He is talking about trusting a specific person to accomplish a specific task. He knows these men personally. He knows the Corinthians personally. They know Paul and Titus personally. The whole thing hinges upon mutual personal trust. Now, how can we manufacture that in a policy statement? Ecclesiastical trust is given by the Spirit, cultivated over time, and fostered by open communication. Ecclesiastical trust must be tested ‘in many ways’, and comes only as the fruit of the hard work of pastors who labor to cultivate ministerial, ecclesiastical friendships. This is the stuff of the Spirit, of love, of personal communication by diligent, zealous men of God. As a pastor, I’m to look for men in whom I can trust and ministries in which I can be confident. As a pastor, I am to officially direct the confidence of our church in our involvement with other churches. The entire venture assumes that all involved will know and trust each other.
Some Particular Questions on the Prospects of Inter-Church Fellowship
Does not inter-church fellowship require the erection of an external organization?
Our Presbyterian brethren believe the erection of an external organization is the natural thing to do. Berkhof, assuming the dichotomy of an ‘invisible’ and ‘visible’ church, argues that the invisible spiritual fellowship of churches should naturally come to expression in a visible organization. Systematic Theology, p.590-591 : “Scripture does not contain an explicit command to the effect that the local churches of a district must form an organic union. Neither does it furnish us with an example of such a union. In fact, it represents the local churches as individual entities without any external bond of union. At the same time the essential nature of the Church, as described in Scripture, ‘would seem’ to call for such a union. The Church is described as a spiritual organism, in which all the constituent parts are vitally related to one another. And it is but natural that’ this inner unity should express itself in some visible manner, and should even, as much as possible in this imperfect and sinful world, seek expression in some corresponding external organization.” (italics mine)
Those who advocate ‘external organizations’ ask: ‘How can we make the unity of the church universal visible if not by erecting a structure which imposes some arrangement and order upon local churches?’ Dagg (p.133) responds, “We fully admit the visibility of the church, but we distinguish between visibility and organization.” For Dagg, church visibility is evident holiness in a life of love, (p122-123). He argues that we visibly demonstrate our spiritual unity by lives of love and good deeds, which does not require us to erect an external organization.
Dagg does mentions the organization of the church universal: “The church universal has no external organization.” (p.128) On p.130 we read: “The Holy Scriptures contain no proof that the followers of Christ, after the dispersion of the church at Jerusalem, ever acted together as one externally organized society.”
On p. 279 he answers the concern that “independent churches would then have no bond of union and strength; and no means of preventing division.” His answer: “Love is the bond of perfectness, which unites true members of Christ. When this golden bond is wanting, a band of iron forged by ecclesiastical authority, may fasten men to each other; but it will not be in the fellowship of the gospel. A want of fellowship in a church is a disease preying on the spiritual strength of the body; and it is better that it should be seen and felt, until the proper remedy is applied, than that it should be concealed by an outward covering of ecclesiastical forms. When mere organization supplies the union and strength on which we rely, we shall cease to cultivate the unity of the Spirit, and to trust the power of the truth. The objection, therefore, is unfounded. What it accounts a fault, is in reality a high excellence of the church order taught in the Scripture, and demonstrates that it originated in the wisdom of God.”
Many of our Reformed Baptist brethren see a paradigm in the obligation of church membership. One of the arguments employed to advocate the erection of associational structures runs something like this: as two Christians are obligated to be accountable to a local church, so too, two local churches are to be accountable to an association.
David Kingdon (Our Baptist Heritage. p.36. Reformation Today Trust. 1993) cites documentation drafted by the Abingdon Association in 1652. It validated its Association, “Because there is the same relation betwixt the particular churches each towards other as there is betwixt particular members of one church.” Kingdon indicates that this assertion is the operative premise for promoting associational structures. “Now what is significant, compared with the way in which we tend to view inter-church fellowship today, is the linking of the reason for an individual Christian believer being in fellowship with a particular assembly with the reason why particular assemblies should be in association with each other. The reason is one and the same in each case: the relation of a believer to a particular assembly and the relation of particular assemblies of like faith and order to each other: because there is the same relation betwixt the particular churches each towards other as there is betwixt particular members of one church…'”
Dr. Jim Renihan quotes the same document and employs the same statement for the same purpose in A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Associations Of Churches. p.4. Reformed Baptist Publications. n.d.
Pastor Earl Blackburn in his paper “The Biblical Basis for Church Associations” states: (p.2) “The practice of churches associating is found in Scripture in a manner parallel to the practice of church membership… Just as it was expected and assumed that converts would join themselves to a church of Jesus Christ, the same is true concerning associations of churches. The New Testament writers assumed and took for granted that churches would associate with one another, work with each other, watch over one another in an unauthoritative way, and be accountable to one another. The apostolic practice of churches associating themselves with one another already existed before most New Testament books were written. ”
Walter B. Shurden, (Associationalism Among Baptists in America: 1707 – 1814, Arno Press. 1980, p. 127) observes, “The act of churches’ uniting in an association was considered analogous to the voluntary confederation of members into a church… Churches sustained a relationship to associations similar to that of members to churches.”
I am not convinced that this paradigm is Biblical. The parallel does not exist because there is no corresponding institution or structure aligning with the local church in the equation. That individual Christians are to order their lives under the rule of Christ expressed in the institution of the local church is patent in Scripture. But the same cannot be said about the obligation of local churches in relation to an envisioned association of churches. Even Berkhof cannot find such a structure in Scripture and is compelled to argue with words like “would seem to”, and “it is but natural that”. Pastor Blackburn asserts (p.2) “The practice of churches associating is found in Scripture in a manner parallel to the practice of church membership.” Where is this parallel found in Scripture? Were I to lead my congregation into an association, from what passage would I preach to show them that we are obligated as a church to become members of an association in the same way as the individual is obligated to become a member of the local church? I simply ask, “Where can I find this paradigm in Scripture?”
Does not our Confession and history encourage us to institutionalize
and establish an external structure to our inter-church fellowship?
We are being encouraged to interpret “holding communion” in LBC 26:14 and 15 as meaning explicit, formal associational fellowship. The discussion of history is not irrelevant, but neither is it normative. I do not think that the terminology of LBC, requires in and of itself, the formation of a formal associational structure. On the surface, the wording of LBC 26:14, 15 describes a fellowship comprising mutual prayer, cooperation in common gospel ventures in a climate of personal and spiritual communication and trust. When matters of difficulty arise, that established trust is to be relied upon to obtain counsel, again in the context of open communication, but not in violation of the local church’s autonomy and integrity. I am not convinced that a conscientious adherence to this historical document mandates formal associations.
Walter Shurden’s book is somewhat enlightening at this point. His chapter on “The Bases of Associationalism In America” is of special interest to me because my problem with the envisioned formal association is the absence of its Biblical warrant. Shurden informs us that the raison d’être for associations was pragmatics. “Nineteenth and twentieth century interpretation, on the whole, has explained associations in purely pragmatic categories. According to this interpretation, associations were altogether justified on the basis of practical expediency.” (p. 69) “Without a doubt, the most significant factors in the rise of associations were practical. After they had developed, however, associations were justified on three grounds: Biblical, theological, and practical.” (p. 70-71) Shurden organizes the chapter around these three heads and considers 1) the Biblical basis, 2) the theological basis, and 3) the practical basis. He then states at the end of the chapter (p. 110), “After studying the three bases of associationalism, this writer is convinced that practical concerns, not Biblical teaching or theological concepts, provided the best clue to the origin of associational life.”
The material presented under “The Biblical Basis” in promotion of associationalism is unconvincing. Those who established associational structures did so relying upon Acts 15 to derive, not a mandate, but a workable pattern to imitate. From association minutes and sermons, Shurden cites other Scriptures utilized to justify associations – Jn 17; Eph 4:4-6; Mt 23:8; Rom 12:5; and I Cor 1:10; all of which articulate principles of church unity, none of which require an association for their fulfillment. Shurden tells of men who strained so hard to justify associations that they “performed interpretative gymnastics in relating chosen Scriptures to associations.” (p. 79) Frequently
associations were begun without reference to any Biblical warrant. “This is a good illustration of the fact that the assumed Biblical basis of associations more often was accepted and affirmed than thoroughly explained.” (p. 81) There were, however, many who protested the formation of associations because they contended that the structure “lacked Scriptural warrant.” (p. 81) In his summary paragraph of this section Shurden observes, “Baptists occasionally came dangerously near equating the spiritual unity of churches in the New Testament with the organizational unity of a Baptist association.” (p.84,85)
I did not attend last March in Mesa, to see what is being done to form ARBCA. However I listened to tapes of the messages by Pastors Chantry, Blackburn and Dr. Renihan. I was hoping to hear the Scriptural warrant for associations articulated, but they preached on Jonathan and his armor bearer confronting the Philistines and David confronting Goliath, respectively. Does OT heroism and strained metaphor constitute a sufficient port from which to launch my congregation into new and unchartered ecclesiastical seas?
Dr. Jim Renihan profiled two English Baptist associations which emerged after the ratification of LBC 1689. The London Association floundered because it was void of those spiritual dynamics and doctrinal agreements which are the essence of inter-church fellowship. The Bristol Association flourished, for a time, because those spiritual dynamics were present. Evidently the associational structure is not essential to inter-church fellowship. The only way we could conclude that the structure is essential is if we equate the spiritual unity of churches with the organizational unity of an association.
Shurden’s section on “The Theological Basis” for associations focuses on the concept of the local church in relation to the universal church. Interestingly, these Baptists were so concerned to emphasize the validity of the universal church that the local church was wrongly infringed upon. Benjamin Griffith is quoted as saying, “All the churches were looked upon as one church.” There is truth in that statement, but the practical outworking of that notion found associations celebrating the Lord’s Table, sometimes baptizing, and less frequently even ordaining men to the ministry!? These representatives conducted themselves as though they were a local church! Was this not incipient Presbyterianism?
The section on “The Practical Basis” begins with “a recognition of the preeminently pragmatic origin of associations” (p. 100). “Basically, pragmatism was the guiding philosophy of Baptist associations.” (p. 102) “The Philadelphia Association argued for associationalism on a purely pragmatic basis… Delegates of the Philadelphia Association recommended their organization,
not on Biblical or theological grounds, but because of its effectiveness.” (p. 110) The “solving of mutual problems” (p.102) and tending to the practical concerns of 1) fellowship; 2) maintaining uniformity of faith and practice; 3) counsel and assistance; and 4) to provide an organizational structure to cooperate in broader ministries (p.103), were the purposes embraced. These purposes led the associations to establish parachurch institutions for the purpose of missions and education (p.108) Shurden observes, “Whereas initially associations were annual gatherings for fellowship, they more and more became impersonal organizations promoting denominational interests.” (p.108) Another such interest was the political purpose of opposing the deprivation of religious liberties in society. It was this political concern which convinced Isaac Backus, who initially was opposed to associationalism, to join the Warren Association. Evidently, “associations assisted Baptists in becoming more ‘important in the eyes of the civil powers.'” (p.109)
Shurden summarizes: “In forming associations, Baptists did not begin with church order in the NT, nor did they begin with a neatly delineated ecclesiastical theory. They began with an existential need… Moreover <I>after</I> associations became a part of denominational life, they were justified on the bases of Biblical teachings and Baptist theory, in addition to pragmatic value.’ (p.233) (italics mine)
Shurden informs us that, historically, associations were erected on the basis of pragmatics and then weak, unconvincing Biblical arguments were manufactured to support a venture which had already been launched. Brethren, I simply want clear Biblical light before I would lead my congregation into any such proposed venture.
Should we not establish some structure to compel like-minded churches
to be accountable to one another?
Accountability has become a central concern of the advocates of an association. In his paper advocating the establishment of ARBCA, Pastor Blackburn writes (p.7), “I have found over my years as a Christian in the pastoral ministry that when an individual refuses to become a member of and accountable to a NT church there is a serious problem. The same also applies to a church that refuses to become truly accountable to other churches. On the part of a church, a refusal to be accountable through an association of churches, usually though not always, reveals either deep insecurity on the part of its leadership, pride or an elitist mentality, authoritarianism or hidden sin that is fearful of being discovered. To be honest, some have justified their refusal on theological grounds. But, based on the Scriptures, their refusal is without foundation. Too many individuals and churches refuse to be accountable to anyone or anybody and underneath the facade of their pseudo-independency is a nest of problems.”
Pastor Blackburn is addressing legitimate concerns. But note that his approach is predicated upon the assumed parallel between the individual church members and churches in membership in an association. His understanding of accountability is “through an association of churches”.
I do not like the type of men characterized by Pastor Blackburn any more than he does, but I do not think that the erection of an associational structure can protect the church from such flawed leaders. And I believe my ‘refusal’ of associations is ‘based on the Scriptures’, and is therefore, not ‘without foundation.’
When someone calls me to be accountable as a pastor, I start looking for the ministry of an apostle embodied in the Word of God, not for an organization to which I have become pragmatically connected. The authority to which the local church is accountable is the apostolic authority which is articulated in the Word of God.
Acts 20:28-32 Here is a situation very germane to this discussion.
Who is present? The Ephesian elders (v17). This church was a recipient of a letter from Christ recorded in Rev 2 and was in proximity to the six other churches who received similar epistles. (Pastor Blackburn states of these seven churches (p.5), “they were all addressed by the glorified Lord Jesus Christ through the same circular letter, thus demonstrating a fellowship and association with one another.”) In Paul’s entourage we find eight others (v4) including Luke. Churches from Berea, Thessalonica, Derbe and Asia are represented. This was a meeting of church leaders from virtually every region of Paul’s ministry. If ever the elements of an association coalesce in Scripture, it is here!
What concern is specifically addressed? A concern being vociferously voiced today: the concern that the pastoral office is vulnerable to abuse (v29,30).
What is Paul’s exhortation to this group of church leaders?
Give yourselves to proactive pastoring. Be on guard for yourself and for the church in which you shepherd (v28). Be alert (v31).
Remember and imitate the apostle’s example of a shepherd’s heart (v31). In other words, Paul tightens the cords of attachment to himself as their apostle.
Be accountable to Christ and His Word (v32). The flock is God’s, purchased by His blood (v28). As shepherds, we are accountable directly to God. Which means we are accountable to His Word. Here is the crux of the issue.
Those who advocate a structured fellowship with representatives concerned to protect the sheep from potential pastoral abuse, have to answer why Paul did not institute such a structure on this occasion. What passage better speaks to the concerns which we are told justify an association? But alas, we look in vain for the proposed supra-church institution. Instead we see local church leaders told to fulfill their ministries, to encourage one another in that labor, and to keep stringent accountability to the Word. If associations are Biblically warranted, could not Paul have instructed them to meet as representatives in regional groupings, perhaps annually; to be accountable to some committee of church leaders who would be particularly charged with the duty of ‘policing’ the local elderships; to be on the lookout for renegade elders, savage wolves, and mandated to implement some ecclesiastical mechanism to expose such sheep abusers and exercise some form of universal church discipline? Perhaps we would expect Paul to compel these churches, through their representatives, to be accountable to the more mature and older Jerusalem Church, or since they are mostly Gentiles, to the church in Antioch. He does not do that. He addresses them in the integrity of their office as local church shepherds and calls them to be accountable to Christ, their Head Shepherd, in submission to apostolic authority posited in the Word.
What are we to do in view of the real threat of abusive pastors?
Although one could rightly grieve over congregations which abuse and misuse pastors, such is not a prominent concern in our present discussion. If we can commiserate over the plight of a congregation subjected to an abusive pastor, we ought to likewise weep for those true shepherds who are attempting to minister in these last days among a generation described in such passages as 2 Tim 3:1-5; 4:3,4. Scripture contains far more examples of the servants of God being mistreated by the people than the people being mistreated by the servants of God. We would think that the Scripture reflects reality in that pastors are more often pained by the people than the people pained by the pastor. But much of the agenda in this discussion has been set by an egalitarian suspicion of authority and we find ourselves focusing on but one side of this issue.
Who is accountable to correct an abusive pastor? Are associations not needed to thwart the threat of abusive pastors? Pastor Blackburn writes (p.6): “The Constitution of the SCARBC (Southern California Association of Reformed Baptist Churches), along with its principles, are directly supported by the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith chapter 26, paragraph 15. Section V. B. of the SCARBC Constitution, deals basically with accountability of churches to one another. For example, what if one of the Association churches denied the deity of Christ? Should the elders of the other Association churches not go and exhort it to reject this teaching and turn back to the truth of Scripture and the Confession (chapter 8)? Or, what if a sister church has an authoritarian, abusive pastor? Should not elders from the Association churches go and confront him and the church about this unscriptural abuse? Is there anything wrong or unscriptural with doing these things? No there is not!” Pastor Blackburn asserts that the association has no authority to remove the erring pastor, but simply to curtail fellowship and then publish their assessment of the situation to other churches “lest their pernicious ways find a subtle entrance into their congregations.” (p.6)
I honestly appreciate Pastor Blackburn’s concern, but reject his definition of accountability which presumes a parallel between churches as that which adheres between members of a local church. A measure of authority is posited in the association by virtue of its envisioned role as protector of the churches. He states: “The only authority the Association has is that of excluding churches from its connection and fellowship and that of publishing to other churches the heterodoxy of an erring, transgressing body. This is nothing more than what any local church can and oftentimes does. If a group of churches in fellowship and association with one another should do the same, it would not be in violation of Scripture.”
He envisions the association as having the warrant to address both the pastor and the church. In this the lines of associational authority penetrate and intrude upon the local church. In effect, his reasoning is, ‘This is what the local church does with its members, so why can’t the association do the same with its members?’
Shurden has a chapter entitled “The Authority of Associations in America”. He points out that authority was posited in the association due to this presupposition that churches are to relate to an association as members would relate to one another in a church. “Churches sustained a relationship to associations similar to that of members to churches. Just as local churches had certain powers over their constituency, so associations, as autonomous bodies, exercised limited authority over the churches composing their organizations.” (p.127) Here are some of Shurden’s observations:
“Requests from varied sources caused associations to look into the standings of the churches. An individual within a troubled church, the church itself, a sister church, or an individual belonging to any church in the association could report to the association and ask that investigative actions be initiated. Associations certainly did not feel obligated to wait for an invitation from the church in question. Without invitation, but feeling wholly within their legitimate authority, they thoroughly investigated any church appearing irregular in doctrine or practice.” (p.128-129)
Paradoxically, in view of Baptist ecclesiology of local church autonomy, (italics mine), a Baptist association exerted more power over local churches by means of its advisory functions, than through any other means. Subtleties existed in associational “advice” which were never recognized. “Advice” was more than objective suggestions or innocent guide lines. At times advice from an association was little less than a form of ecclesiastical law… As associations assumed the role of advisors, considerable involvement in the internal affairs of local churches ensued.” (p135-136) Note how the Association assumes apostolic prerogative.
Shurden concludes in part: “Thirdly, Baptist associations, like local churches, were autonomous bodies. Thus, in theory, when a local church became a member of an association, one autonomous organization had become a member of another autonomous organization. But in actual fact every local church, upon joining an association, forfeited a degree of self-rule, because it had to agree to follow the principles and practices of the associated body. In this way local churches became subject to a subtle and often unrecognized associational authority. Fourthly, the factor that gave considerable stature to associational authority was the right to withdraw fellowship from any recalcitrant church. Although never completely undermining the independence of local churches, associations, by exerting this disciplinary power, made Baptist churches much less independent than what has been generally conceded.” (p.158-159)
So what are we to do then with the emergence of unqualified and even abusive leadership? If we are not to look to an associational body, to what can we appeal? We are locked up to the provision of Christ which is His Spirit and Word. We appeal to the apostles whose ministry we have in Scripture. Pastor Greg Nichols observes in regard to Acts 15 in his Ecclesiology lecture entitled “The Biblical Teaching on Local Church Association” (p.7,8): “How does this apply to churches today, in the absence of living apostles? We must carefully distinguish the post-apostolic era in which we live from the apostolic church depicted in Acts 15. Otherwise we will run the ship aground on the shoals of denominationalism. Otherwise an assembly of men representing various churches will usurp apostolic prerogative and intrude into the affairs of local churches. Nevertheless, this passage plays a key role in disclosing the generic principles on inter-church conflict resolution. Since we all have remaining sin, it must needs be that churches face conflict, disorder, and controversy. When churches find themselves in controversy with each other, they should mutually appeal to the apostles for binding arbitrations. The inspired writings of the apostles and Jerusalem elders recorded in Scripture are sufficient for the church in every generation. Thus, in prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit for illumination and wisdom(Eph 1:16,17; Jms 1:5), the churches concerned should “go up to Jerusalem” to seek their infallible mind and advise in all aspects and phases of their conflict (Prov 16:32; 17:9; 18:13,17,18; Matt 5:23-26, 18:15-20). In all they should strive diligently to keep the unity of the Spirit and the commendation of each other’s consciences (2 Cor 4:2; Eph 4:3)” Pastor Nichols echoes Paul in Acts 20:32. We are commended to God and to the word of His grace.
So, here we are on our knees with our Bibles open and contending with the presence of an unqualified or even abusive pastor. Who is supposed to deal with this situation and get it straightened out? The church, not a man-made organization, the church.
Col 4:17 Here we see who is responsible to maintain qualified and competent leadership – the you who are charged to say to Archippus,Take heed to the ministry’. Who is that you? The same you throughout the epistle: the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae. (1:1). The church is charged to remind Archippus of his accountability to Christ. Interestingly, Paul could have taken the pen from the hand of his amanuensis at v17 rather than v18 and wrote something like, “I, Paul, say to Archippus…” as he does in v18 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. But he does not do that!! He does not directly address Archippus but charges the church to encourage Archippus’ accountability to the apostolic Word. The church has obligations to Archippus and Archippus has obligations to the church for which they are both accountable to Scripture. The apostle directs the church to communicate to Archippus. The church is responsible for the maintenance of qualified and competent leadership. As an apostle, he writes the Spirit inspired qualifications which the church is then responsible to verify in those which the church ordains to office. Paul does not believe that a deficiency in Archippus’ ministry warrants him to do anything other than call the church to obey the Word of God in relation to its ministers.
When we consider the problems Paul had with the intrusion of false teachers in the Corinthian church, how does he go about seeking to rectify that concern? They were being abused! For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. (2 Cor 11:20) How does Paul attempt to right this terrible wrong? He endeavors to reconnect the Corinthians to himself as their bona fide apostle and then, in obedience to apostolic directives, they are to refuse to subject themselves to men whose doctrine does not square with the apostle’s and whose qualifications do not fit apostolic specifications. If apostolic qualifications are not met then the ‘minister’ fails to claim the right to hold the conscience of the church, regardless of his eloquence or force of character. Paul’s method of rectifying the infection of abusive pastors is to reattach the church to apostolic authority. He directs them to obey the Word and to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd who speaks in His apostles. He is among them as a servant for Christ’s sake. He would see them mature so as to discern and reject false teachers. Paul confronts the false teachers by instructing the Corinthians as to the character of true apostolic ministry and the character of false apostolic ministry. He wants them to embrace the true
and reject the false – but it is they who must take responsibility for what they embrace: the true or the false. The Corinthians got into trouble when they allowed something other than genuine apostolic ministry to impose itself upon them as a church.
3 John 9,10 Our brief history has already shown that adherence to the LBC is no guarantee that a church will not be victimized by a Diotrephes. The question has been asked whether this text implies that an association could be the modern equivalent to what John is envisioning as he sees this church victimized by this abusive, arrogant man. The picture then would be something like this: here we see these sheep getting abused and outside reinforcements in the person of John are required to come in and straighten things out. So too, we can think of sheep being abused by unqualified leadership who need the outside help of an association. But is this actually what
is going on here?
The problem is the same as what Paul faced in Corinth: the church had allowed a separation between them and the apostolic Word. V9 – John had written to the church, but Diotrephes ran interference and wedged himself between the apostle and the people. He evidently had an impressive force of character and was quite self-promoting – who loves to be first among them. The church evidently allowed itself to be intimidated and acquiesced to this bully instead of bravely relying upon the Spirit and standing for the apostolic Word.
What is John’s proposed solution? If I come, I will call attention to his deeds. That’s it!? Call to whose attention? The church! The same church to whom he wrote in v9! Let me suggest that John would do at least the following:
Rather than personally oust the man, he would lay the matter of his pastoral qualifications before the church. The church is to obey the apostolic word and recognize only those who are spiritually and Scripturally qualified to be leaders. He would direct them to obey the Word of God and courageously do what is right – reject the man and his ministry and thus free themselves from the intimidation of the bully! Even the apostle himself would not do what the church alone must do for itself.
John directs their attention to a more qualified leader who would minister the apostolic witness to them without running any carnal interference. Consider Demetrius (v12). He has a good reputation in the church and his life comports with the truth itself (a reference to the apostolic witness?) Maybe he is not as flamboyant as Diotrephes, but he better aligns with the qualifications of those who should minister among God’s people. He won’t interfere with the church’s reception of apostolic directives.
Like Paul in 2 Corinthians, Diotrephes’ unjust accusations could also require John to vindicate his ministry and reconnect them to apostolic rule.
Since Diotrephes unjustly orchestrated the virtual excommunication of some and prevented others who should be members, we could envision John rectifying that matter as well. He would seek to direct the church to receive those disenfranchised disciples into their membership.
When something intrudes between the apostles and the church then the church inevitably gets abused. It is the church’s responsibility to make sure that nothing severs its attachment to the apostles. It’s the pastor’s responsibility to be transparent to the ministry of the apostles.
The people most likely to get into this kind of trouble are not those who do not have the benefit of the protection of an association, but those who fail to be Berean-spirited and noble-minded; those who indulge a lazy disregard for the Word and who do not feed upon it for themselves, but rather rely upon a charismatic leader who wields undue influence upon them in a way that displaces the directives of the apostles in Scripture. Lazy, disobedient, cowardly sheep are easy prey for Diotrephes and his ilk. Such disciples share the culpability for the abuse of Christ’s rule among them. Diotrephes is not a commendable manifestation of the government of King Jesus. He is lording over the people and incurs the stricter judgment. But the church bears responsibility for allowing the loving rule of Christ to be so disfigured and made reprehensible in the eyes of men. Diotrephes is doubly culpable. It would have been better for him had he not been born(Lk 17:1,2). But the church is responsible for letting Diotrephes think he has the right to stand among them as a Biblically qualified spiritual leader.
When Christ speaks to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, He holds the respective local churches accountable for the presence of the Nicolaitans and Jezebel. The enthroned Christ does not speak to a body of delegates and representatives, but to the churches individually and severally. He deals with them directly because they are accountable directly to Him. Just as Paul told the gathering at Miletus: I commend you to God and to the word of His grace.
According to Shurden, it is in the maintenance of the ministry that associations tend to assume prerogatives which impinge upon the responsibilities of the congregation.
“The area in which associations acted most authoritatively was in exercising a close control over the ministry. Here, more than elsewhere, associations acted arbitrarily, and often independently, of local churches. Churches willingly granted associations more power at this point than at any other. Associations took a very active role in determining the validity of a minister’s
“According to this procedure, the minister was subject to the authority of three groups: the local church, a council of ministers, and the association.” (p.156)
Does not the abdication of the congregation’s stewardship to maintain the competency of its leadership produce an atrophied, undeveloped and perpetually immature church? Does not Paul see the bestowal of leadership gifts as effecting the growth of the body as the body functions according to its divinely designed purpose (Eph 4:11-16)? If the body is precluded from performing its prescribed duty of assessing and ordaining its own leadership, would it not then be stunted in its own development?
Consider the words of J. L. Dagg p.279 answering the objection that “Designing men have it in their power to mislead the people; and the evil which results cannot be prevented, if there is no high tribunal to which demagogues are amenable.” His answer: “The prevention and cure of this evil are not to be sought in the establishment of a high ecclesiastical court; but in illumination and sanctification of the people. Wisdom and benevolence unite in recommending, that men’s minds be fortified against seducers, by being well instructed in the truth; and the expedient of restraining the seducer by high ecclesiastical authority, does not secure the highest good. Besides, we have no assurance that the tribunal will be uncorrupt. The same power that claims to restrain a seducer, may restrain a reformer whom God has raised to bring men back to the right way. It is far better to oppose error with the truth and the demonstration of the Spirit, than with ecclesiastical authority.”
What is a church to do? It should live in the realism of Scripture. Savage wolves are coming and men speaking perverse things will arise from our own midst. If this is so, and it is the church which is responsible to maintain the quality of its leadership, then wisdom dictates that the church should have a mechanism in place to regulate the quality of the ministry to which it submits itself in the name of King Jesus. Here is where a Biblical and practical Church Constitution is of benefit. Many of us have constitutionally provided a mechanism for the congregation to address the discovery of an officer whose ministry fails to sustain its corporate conscience. Our Constitution stipulates that each officer’s qualifications will be congregationally assessed every four years. It also outlines the course of action taken to discipline an officer. Thus the congregation exercises its responsibility to maintain the competency of the officers. The integrity of the church as church is sustained and the growth of the church is promoted as the congregation learns to obey Christ’s apostles in relation to those it recognizes as His gifts of leadership.
What are we to do if, as officers we begin to lose confidence in those with whom we have previously known fellowship?
To the extent that I have personal friendship with officers in a sister church who are, in my estimation, veering astray, I should employ the dynamics of that friendship to appeal to them and remind them of their accountability to Scripture.
Inter-church fellowship is experienced in degrees of intimacy and mutual involvement. My response would be to diminish the degree of fellowship in proportion to the loss of confidence. Unity could be maintained while the level of engagement in the dynamics of fellowship would decrease. I would pray about the matter with confidence in the risen Christ who walks among the lamp stands.
Christ may use the evident alteration of inter-church dynamics to inform the church of its leader’s loss of credibility among his ecclesiastical peers and serve to expose concerns which they, as the ordaining church, are responsible to address.
Could Associationalism actually encourage a de facto Bishopric?
Dr. Renihan’s booklet informs us of Thomas Collier who was ordained by The Western Association to plant churches in 1654. Dr. Renihan quotes Joseph Ivimey; “The office to which Mr. Collier… had been ordained, was that of a messenger of the churches, exercising a kind of general superindendency over all the associated churches.” Dr. Renihan agrees: “Collier was the recognized leader of the Western Association, and was ordained by the association.” (p.16) What does “the recognized leader” mean? To what office was he “ordained”? Dr. Renihan then quotes a letter which Collier wrote to the associated churches and observes, “and at the end of the same letter, he sounds apostolic”! This observation concerns me. No doubt Collier was exemplary in his character and service, and on that basis he certainly deserved recognition by his fellow ministers. But if an associational ordination made him start to sound like an apostle…?! Dr. Renihan simply observes: “Whatever he was, it was not simply a pastor of a specific local church! He was in some sense part of an ‘extra-church structure’ approved and even ordained by the Association.” (p.17)
Bishop-like offices seem to grow in the soil of associations. Associations provide a pseudo-ecclesiastical office which functions in some universal church capacity. Such an office and function tends to a de facto episcopacy. Shurden, p.235, observes how associational authority actually, not theoretically, intruded upon local church jurisdiction: “Much more important than geographical locale was the leadership exerted by strong personalities. The power of personal persuasion has often constituted an essential and unacknowledged ingredient in Baptist ecclesiology.” Now, I say we need strong personalities, strong in grace, strong in that sweet persuasion of the wisdom which is from above (Jms 3:13-18). What is dangerous is when men of strong personality hold offices in unbiblical institutions and acquire positions of bishop-like influence over groups of churches.
Dagg observes (p.276): “The ambition of the clergy needs a combination of the churches to sustain it. The doctrine that every church is an independent body, and that no combination of the churches is authorized by Christ, opposes their schemes for ecclesiastical preferment. It makes the pastors or bishops equal, and allows no other preference than that which is due to superior piety and usefulness.”
That preference is to be given “due to superior piety and usefulness” is patent in Scripture and obvious in the natural dynamics of leadership. Church history is marked by those men to whom God gives a more prominent profile of usefulness by virtue of recognized gift. In any grouping of men, they inevitably stratify according to ability and gift. Scripture documents this phenomenon in the twelve; in Peter’s relation to John; in Paul’s relationship to Barnabas; in James’ profile in Jerusalem; in Judas and Silas – chief a;ndraj h`goume,nouj men among the brethren. </I>(Acts 15:22) It is seen in Andrew, ‘Simon Peter’s brother’; and in John Mark, who ministered under the leadership of Paul, Barnabas, and Peter.
The recognition of “superior piety and usefulness” does not endorse incipient episcopacy, but is a realistic deference to the diversity of grace and gift sovereignly deposited in men by the Holy Spirit. Were I to suggest that we institutionalize an unbiblical structure with unbiblical offices to be filled by men appointed apart from the church, and were I to envision those offices as having authority over a group of churches, then I would be liable to the charge of advocating incipient episcopacy.
I suspect that Dagg might suspect that there is something about associationalism itself that lends itself to abuse by ambitious men. To hold an associational office is to have a position of profile among a much larger number of men than being “simply (italics mine) a pastor of a local church.” (Dr. Renihan, p.17) In a spiritual and personal schema of church fellowship, all pastors are ecclesiastically equal in that we are each “simply pastors of a local church”. But we are not leveled by the hammer of egalitarianism into the flat banality of rigid peerdom. No, we delight in receiving the benefits of the sovereign distribution of the Spirit’s gifts among us, liberated from a competitive jockeying for prominence, rejoicing in one another’s usefulness as displays of the undeserved grace of God effecting the glory of the name of our Lord. We acknowledge evident spiritual “superiority ” due to “piety and usefulness”. This is nothing other than the spirit of Rom 12:3 applied to the collective body of Christ.
Could a uncritical commitment to democracy cause us to compromise apostolic authority?
I submit to you that an entity which has jurisdiction over a local church compromises apostolic authority. The number one contender to rival apostolic authority in our circles is not the Pope, but the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age – specifically democratic egalitarianism: the idea that church fellowship is formed by a one-church-one-vote schema coupled with a refusal to recognize differences of spiritual endowment and gift in churches because of a presuppositional commitment to an unbiblical view of equality.
Pastor Blackburn’s presuppositional commitment to democratic egalitarianism is seen when he envisions representatives from surrounding churches as having been present to vote on the formulation of the “decrees” issued from Jerusalem in Acts 15.
“Even though the church in Antioch is specifically mentioned and sends two of the most prominent men in all of Christendom, Paul and Barnabas, I am of the belief that many churches sent their elders and were involved.”
“Even though this “Council” was in many ways – though not all – uniquein redemptive history, hermeneutical principles and the rest of the NT will not allow us to conceive that one church (i.e. Jerusalem) or two churches (i.e. Jerusalem and Antioch) could make such a binding, authoritative decision on other churches, especially one that would have such far-reaching implications. There was not then, nor is there today, a “mother” church, such as found in Roman Catholicism and her various hues, dictating authoritative policy to other churches. Only an initial association among the churches could have caused a consensus of agreement with one another in which there was a mutual willingness to submit.” (italics mine)
The presence and authority of the apostles are minimized. Instead we are introduced to democratic egalitarianism: “a consensus of agreement”. Church submission is to an authority derived from the consensus of the eisegeted representatives from the unmentioned churches assumed to have been present.
I do not endorse a “mother church” or a combination of churches as having the Biblical warrant to “dictate authoritative policy” to other churches. This is the very thing I hope we are able to avoid by not erecting supra-church structures! But if Pastor Blackburn is inadvertently diminishing the role of the apostles and elevating the place of “a consensus of agreement”, could this be due to an assumed uncritical esteem for democratic egalitarianism?
Pastor Blackburn asks (p.4): “I would pause here and ask one simple question: How can churches interact with one another, settle theological and practical problems that are mutually binding upon all, if they are not formally in association with one another? They cannot.” If Pastor Blackburn validates an authoritative, “binding” nature in that interaction by virtue of a “mutual consensus”, could we be elevating the concept of democracy to an unjustified place?
When Paul addresses the Corinthians about head-coverings, he does not remind them of a mutually agreed upon consensus, but says, But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. (1 Cor 11:16) He does not obligate them to a prior consensus with the churches, but upbraids them for being out of sync with the apostolic norm evident in the churches, not a democratically derived agreement by consensus.
The Jerusalem decree was not binding because the churches representatives voted a consensus of agreement, but because the King’s apostles were giving them directives! Dagg observes of Acts 15, “When the decision was made, it was announced, not as the decision of the universal church assembled in general council by its delegates, but as the decision of the church at Jerusalem with the apostles and elders… The decree of the assembled body was sent forth with an authority above that of any single church or council of churches: ‘It seemed good to the HOLY GHOST, and to us.’ (Acts 15:28). The inspired apostles were present in this consultation, and their decision went forth with divine authority: ‘Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.’ (Mt 18:18) No ecclesiastical council can justly claim this synod at Jerusalem as a precedent for its action, unless it can also claim to act by inspiration, and send forth its decrees with the authority of the Holy Ghost.” (p.131)
The Constitution of ARBCA, Section 3 “The Authority of the Association”, paragraph A reads: “The Association exists by virtue of the corporate authority of its local churches.” One would hope that an ecclesiastical structure would exist by virtue of the Biblical authority of its Head. What is “the corporate authority of its local churches”? Is this not a democratic and egalitarian rationale for the Association’s very existence? Were we to join the Association, would we be responding to the voice of an apostle articulated in Scripture, or the voice of the zeitgeist heard in “a consensus of agreement”, the democratic egalitarian “corporate authority of its local churches”? Who is authorizing the Association, the spirit of the apostles or the spirit of the age?
What about those situations when the local church really needs outside counsel?
Can we not envision a situation which is of such magnitude and complexity, of such far reaching implications, that the matter is simply beyond the ken of the local church’s eldership? Is there not a place for outside help in matters of local church government?
I commend the recent Constitutional revisions of several of our sister churches. One such revision reads: “In addition to respecting the principles articulated in our Confession of Faith (26:15), the church shall seek the assistance of an Advisory Council in cases of critical concern which threaten the integrity, unity, or biblical order of this congregation (Acts 15:2). The Advisory Council shall consist of five elders chosen by our elders from at least three sister churches with whom we have close fellowship. The choice of these five men shall be reviewed each year prior to the annual business meeting. The consent of those to be proposed shall be obtained and the names of the five men shall be announced at the annual meeting and approved by the suffrage of the church. Should there be an untimely and unresolved disruption of fellowship with any of the churches from which the men have been selected, or should any of these men be removed from office or become unable to serve on the Advisory Council, the elders shall have the liberty of proposing replacements. Those proposed shall be approved by the vote of the church at a properly called congregational meeting. The Advisory Council shall be convened or consulted at the discretion of a majority of the elders or, should the church be without elders, at the discretion of a majority of the deacons.”
This mechanism retains the integrity of the church: the elders and the congregation. The outside counsel is had at the behest of the church. If it is objected that this procedure is defective since it does not allow the members of the congregation to contact the Advisory Council directly, apart from the local church elders, I would respond that such an action goes beyond the stated purpose of an Advisory Council. The availability of the Council should not incite a mutinous minority to circumvent the government Christ has given the church. The Council exists to advise the leadership of the requesting church. They are not the congregation’s de facto elders, but advisors to the elders who were ordained by the congregation. The Council does not assume a right to intrude their pastoral ministry on that congregation, but are being asked to aid the congregation’s pastors in the exercise of their pastoral ministry. There is no ecclesiastical structure established here. The Council is voluntarily obligated out of the bond of love in a desire for the good of the church and the glory of Christ in His church. All the practical arguments which I have heard for the need of associational protection and counsel are satisfactorily answered by this constitutionally prudent procedure. What I see in LBC 26:14,15 is also satisfied by this mechanism.
How then should we delineate the lines of inter-church fellowship?
The association advocates recommend that we institutionalize our fellowship; that we write up policies, draft constitutions, make a membership list and – voila! There it is! A delineated demarcation of fellowship. If a church is a member of the association, whether I personally know and trust them or not, I, if I am a member, automatically have a delineated fellowship.
On the other hand, Pastor Nichols advocates “explicit church fellowship” in his lecture on “Church Association”. The closest he gets to defining this phrase is on p.2 when he says, “true churches should explicitly, by name, recognize each other and relate to each other accordingly.” It is certainly expected that any single local church would explicitly know by name those with whom it fellowships. But I have serious reservations if such “explicit church fellowship” is explicated in an entity external to the local church.
What if we agreed to draft an inter-church policy document and then compose an ‘official’ list of churches who are in agreement to those policies? That way there would be a defining point of reference outside of us to which we could refer as we enter into inter-church engagements. All on the list would endorse and encourage the other enlisted churches to comply with the agreed upon policies among all the others on the list. This is not a formal institutionalizing of our fellowship, but an informal organizing of fellowship that explicitly and publicly identifies those in fellowship by name as those adhering to the agreed upon policies. I have some unanswered questions about this approach.
What authority is being assumed by those who would write such inter-church fellowship policies? Would not the policy makers have to assume a bishop-like position of leadership over churches which exceeds the Biblically sanctioned stewardship given to us as simply pastors of a local church?
Would not a policy placed outside of the churches inevitably effect the exclusion of some and become the delineating prerequisite for any enlargement of fellowship?
‘But,’ it might be asked, ‘why could we not envision churches which already hold fellowship cooperating to document their policies of inter-church fellowship? This document would thus be the fruit of the existing fellowship which the Spirit has engendered among the churches.’ Up to this point, I have no objection other than some uncertainty as to why such documentation is necessary given the spiritual, interpersonal character of inter-church fellowship. I am concerned about where this envisioned policy document will be positioned in the life of the churches. If the document is taken back to the local churches and internalized by the local church as an expression of the local church’s commitments to inter-church fellowship, then I suppose such a document could be a viability.
However, if the drafting of such a document results in the formation of an ‘official’ list of endorsing churches, a list which would then exist external to the churches, then I do not see how such a document could continue to operate as the fruit of fellowship. It would inevitably be removed from the place of ‘result’ of fellowship, to the place of ‘prerequisite’ for fellowship. That which today is the fruit of fellowship would become the soil of fellowship tomorrow, and would indeed soil fellowship. Any enlargement of fellowship would be based upon and be a result of an agreement to this document. Thus the dynamics of spiritual fellowship would be inverted. Policy, rather than people, would be determinative. Such an ‘official list’ delineation would itself be an imposed structuring of church fellowship which does not give due place to the mysterious and personal ministry of the Spirit in establishing church fellowship.
Such an external listing would inevitably exclude some churches. Although the composing of a list is a far different thing than the erection of an associational institution, yet would it not be liable to many of the same weaknesses? The list would become the defining point of reference and could threaten to displace the personal dynamics of fellowship engendered by the Spirit.
How and where could any one group of churches draw that line of delineation? Envision overlapping circles which represent the respective spheres of fellowship each local church providentially enjoys. You will have all these bubbles, some large and some small, interconnecting one another in varying degrees, some overlapping some but not others. Now, arbitrarily draw a box on those circles such that certain circles are excluded, outside the box. This is a visual depiction of what would result by making a list to ‘explicitly’ identify the contours of church fellowship. It seems to me that such a box would effect many of the same practical detriments that an official association would.
Could there be something of the zeitgeist in this proposal as well?
Is there something conditioned more by our culture than by the Kingdom if we envision a centralized warehouse of fellowshipping churches; a defining data bank; the hub from which the spokes of fellowship emanate?
Is a desire to explicitly list fellowshipping churches born by our generation’s idealistic and unrealistic inclination to somehow legally protect itself from the difficulties of interpersonal relationships? Could we be trying to legally protect ourselves from the bruises of fellowshipping with fellow redeemed sinners with a form of an ecclesiastical ‘prenuptial contract’? Have we forgotten that even among the Twelve one was a ‘devil’ and that NCov ministry always has and ever will be conducted under the threat of an emergent ‘Judas’?
Does this proposal assume an inherent skepticism characteristic of our age which doubts the sufficiency of gospel love to sustain inter-church fellowship? If our hearts are not imbued with the wisdom from above, what can a policy accomplish? Jms 3:13-18 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
As I’ve thought about how church fellowship is delineated, I’ve settled upon my own phrase: “Delineation by Actualization”. Fellowship is delineated by what actually is.
Fellowship is precisely that, a ‘ship of fellows’, an interpersonal engagement in the accomplishment of the purposes of the Kingdom. It is recognized by its presence, not realized by policy. Church fellowship is given by the Spirit; is grounded in the principles of gospel love; is put into practice by engaging in mutual communication, cooperation, and counsel; is essentially personal in the cultivation of trust; and is enjoyed in the providence of God.
In the dynamics of interpersonal relations, there will be ebb and flow. Cooperation among churches will be temporary and conditioned by any number of variables. It is a living fellowship which the Spirit establishes between churches as He connects us with the bonds of love. The attempt to overly define and delineate church fellowship is futile because we are dealing with the ministry of the Spirit.
But this temporary, ad hoc, contingent-on-people, type of fellowship is Biblical. The NT itself is a presentation of precisely this kind of thing. We are given, by and large, an account of the labors of Paul and the Spirit’s dealings with the churches he planted. We are not told about several of the other apostles whose labors for Christ we must assume were every bit as owned of the Spirit as were Paul’s, whose churches were every bit as indwelt by the Lord as were Paul’s, and yet whose sphere of fellowship did not providentially and personally overlap with Paul’s.
The Spirit sovereignly fosters or limits such fellowship. He prevented Paul from going to Bithynia (Acts 16:7). Instead, Paul’s ministry went further west and his fellowship of churches took the geographical and specific shape it did because of the mysterious guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The force of this realization came to me a couple years ago as I stood in the ruins of the ancient city Taxila in Pakistan. History tells us Thomas preached there in 40 A.D. Am I to think that he was somehow culpable because he evidently did not sustain personal fellowship and communication with Paul and his churches? They were simply not providentially placed together. They did not have personal overlap. That was due to the direction of the Holy Spirit.
In recognizing the specific shape of our inter-church fellowship, we too have to factor in the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit. He presents us with determinative factors specific to inter-church fellowship which I do not believe we will be able to constitutionalize or codify.
Providence determines the formation and delineation of the specific contours of ecclesiastical fellowship. The Spirit providentially forges bonds of love in the hearts of men as they interact with one another in an official capacity. The Spirit providentially directs the circumstances of our lives so that we are given opportunities unique to our respective place and situation. The delineation of fellowship is determined by the Spiritual factors of heart dynamics among trusted companions in the ministry and the providence orchestrated by the sovereign Spirit.
If you desire inter-church fellowship with our church, then let’s get to know each other. Let’s learn of each other’s ministries and begin to pray for one another. Let’s communicate and foster a common interest in the things of the Kingdom. Let’s take opportunities to deploy our resources to support one another in our respective efforts to advance the glory of Christ. Let’s trust that the Spirit will direct our obedience and love to the accomplishment of His sovereign purposes.
Thus our fellowship will be delineated by its own existence: a delineation by actualization.
Church fellowship, like love, is self-authenticating. Here’s where I get charismatic! It is the Spirit who will providentially grant us fellowship as we pray and promote the truth of God’s gospel; as we demonstrate new life in Christ in the love of the brethren; as we fulfill our pastoral stewardships with a zeal for the house of God and for the honor of the name of Jesus. As we do such things the Spirit will fashion opportunities for us to advance the gospel. Certainly we can expect that the Spirit will continue to direct the churches in this, the age of the Spirit. AMEN