By Jeff Swart
The churches of the Baptist Missionary Association of America are often described as “independent” Baptist churches. By this nomenclature, we mean that every individual Baptist church is solely sufficient in and of itself. By the vote of the congregation, each local Baptist church may receive or reject members, call pastors, ordain deacons and do a whole host of other things without interference from a higher authority. Baptists believe the local church is the highest spiritual authority on earth (Matt. 18:17; I Tim. 3:15) and subject to no authority but Jesus Christ.
Independent but Associational
The churches of the Baptist Missionary Association of America are also described as “associational” Baptists — a group of like-minded Baptist churches who share the same fundamental doctrinal beliefs and have voluntarily chosen to associate (work) together for the common objective of carrying out the commands of our Savior. When churches of “like faith and order” combine their prayers, finances, personnel and efforts, the cause of Christ will prosper, and we will all be more effective in reaching the lost for Christ. As has been often said, “We are autonomous churches, but we are not alone.”
The Concepts of Both Independence and Associational in the New Testament
In the New Testament, churches of the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated their independence by choosing their own leaders (Acts 1:15-26), deciding cases concerning church discipline (Matt. 18:15-17) and sending out missionaries to propagate the gospel where it had never been preached before (Acts 13:1-3). In these cases, not a single church sought permission from the apostles, other church leaders or other churches. Further, they felt no need to justify their actions to others. The churches of the New Testament era exhibited a spirit of independence.
The New Testament does not use the word “association,” but it does demonstrate the concept of churches working together. In the book of Acts, we read that the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch had a close working relationship to maintain doctrinal purity and for the purpose of the propagation of the gospel (Acts 11:19-23; 15:1-4, 22-35). In the New Testament, churches of the Lord Jesus Christ welcomed members of one church who traveled to another church (Rom. 16:1) and pooled their financial resources to assist their brothers and sisters in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:29-30; 24:17; Rom. 15:25-27; I Cor. 16:1-4).
Furthermore, local churches shared letters and information among other churches for the good of all. For example, Paul instructed the Colossian church to read his letter to them, then to share it with the church in Laodicea. He further instructed the church in Laodicea to read his letter to them, then share it with the church in Colosse (Col. 4:16-17). In the book of Revelation, Jesus instructed the apostle John (Rev. 1:4,11) to write seven letters to seven local churches in Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea — Rev. 2:1-3:21). Each local church was to read what had been specifically written to them and to also read what Jesus said to the other churches especially heeding the warnings (Rev. 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22).
In the canon of the New Testament, there are eight “general” or “universal” epistles that were written to Christians at large (Hebrews, James, I Peter, II Peter, I, II, III John and Jude) rather than the saints in one specific church (i.e., Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and Colosse). This suggests that there is some common link between the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ even if there was no formal organization.
Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians (Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe) — churches he planted on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-14:28). What Paul wrote was for all the churches in the region of Galatia who shared a common origin, common doctrinal beliefs and a common desire to honor the Lord.
Why No Association of Churches in the New Testament?
So, if it can be demonstrated that some churches in the New Testament were working together — why is there no association of churches mentioned in the New Testament era? I would suggest several reasons:
• Writing from an American perspective, it was because the churches of Christ underwent periods of great persecution from the time of Jesus Christ until the American Revolution. During these turbulent times, if there were associations of churches, nothing would be written down for fear of the information falling into the hands of the persecutors.
• In the beginning, many believers were slaves and did not have the liberty to attend such meetings if they were being held.
• Roads from one city to another were difficult to traverse and modes of transportation were dangerous, expensive and unreliable.
The Origin of Baptist Associations
Although before the 17th century, there is no specific record of official associations being formed, it is fair to say that churches of “like faith and order” had friendly informal relationships even if it cannot be proven.
The earliest Baptist associations came into existence in England. Concerning the formation of Baptist Associations in England, Dr. Larry Silvey wrote, “Apparently the English name ‘association’ originated from military practices… During the English Civil War (1642-1649), the Parliamentary Army organized various counties into ‘associations’ for the defense. Later, each regiment in those groups sent two representatives to confer with Parliament. Since Baptists participated extensively in the New Model Army, they may have applied the familiar name of the army organization to the relationships with other churches.”
The earliest Baptist association was organized in 1643 when seven Particular Baptist churches in London, England formed the General Assembly of Particular Baptist Churches and, acting together, issued the First London Confession of Faith in 1644. Within a few years, other associations emerged throughout England, Wales and Ireland.
Baptist Associations in America
Associations of Baptist churches in America have existed since colonial times based upon the model set forth by English Baptist associations. Pennepack Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist Church in Pennsylvania, was founded in 1688 by Elias Keach, the son of Benjamin Keach. Five churches grew out of the Pennepack Church and became the nucleus of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, the first Baptist association in America founded in 1707.
A BMA Perspective on Associations
It has often been said, “My church belongs to the BMA of America.” What that means is that a church chooses to affiliate with the BMA of America. No church “belongs” to an association because of local church autonomy and, technically, the BMA of America only exists once a year when called to “order” in its annual session.
According to former BMAA Missionary Homer Gunn (1907-1984), “Associations are formed for fellowship, to encourage doctrinal soundness, to carry on missionary work jointly, to foster benevolent enterprises and to further Christian education.” Churches who cannot by themselves send out missionaries, start a Bible college or seminary or plant new churches at the local, state, national and international level can cooperate with other churches and do all these things and more. Through an association of churches, individual churches can do more for the cause of Christ than they can do alone.
Our spiritual forefathers believed that some form of organization beyond the local church was needed to effectively carry out the Great Commission. Churches of “like faith and order” began to cooperate in the same community or county, local churches in neighboring counties began to work together which led to the formation of local associations, then state associations and eventually a national association.
There was a fundamental understanding when these associations were formed that an association can never usurp the authority of a local church. Associations have no right to ordain pastors and deacons, discipline church members or administer the church ordinances of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, etc.
Furthermore, the actions of an association are never binding upon any church and the actions of a church are never binding upon an association. Both churches and associations are autonomous bodies working together, neither having authority over the other, and the relationship is purely voluntary. In effect, a church gives up nothing to participate in the actions of an association but gains much by cooperating with other churches through local, state and national associations.
An association, through the majority vote of the messengers, may withdraw fellowship with an existing member church or vote to refuse a request for membership in an association of churches because of doctrinal error or irregularity of practice. However, an association has no authority to force any local church to change its beliefs or practices.
Churches who affiliate with the various associations of the BMA (local, state and national levels), elect messengers from their membership to represent them at the associational meetings. At various times, a local church might “instruct” their messengers how to vote on certain issues. Thus, the messengers do not vote their own personal convictions but the convictions of the church that elected them. At other times, churches allow their messengers the freedom to vote on issues according to the leadership of the Holy Spirit at the time of the vote. Messengers from individual churches carry no authority over the association and carry no authority from the association back to the churches. Decisions are made by the majority vote of the messengers of the churches but are not binding on any local church.
The associational meetings are much more than a mere business meeting. The meetings are designed to inspire, inform and strengthen the Lord’s churches. In addition, many associational meetings are designed to be pragmatic — giving practical ministry ideas that can be immediately implemented in the local church for the advancement of their ministries. The fellowship between messengers of the Lord’s churches is vital as friendships are formed, prayers are offered on behalf of one another and many who came to an associational meeting a discouraged saint go home with a new zeal for the work of the Lord.
Cooperating for the sake of the gospel is voluntary, but just as strands of a rope woven together increase the strength of the rope (Eccl. 4:12), so do churches increase the scope and effectiveness of their ministry by cooperating with other like-minded churches.
Personally, I am proud to be an “associational” Baptist!
Return to Why An Association of Churches? page.