Baptist churches have always understood that though every local church is complete in itself, each church may pursue voluntary associations in order to promote their health and the work of the gospel. But with cooperation comes new challenges. How big can an association get? How broad or narrow should doctrinal standards be? How do you balance denominational influence with congregational authority?
In the beginning of the 19th century, coming on the heels of the evangelical revival of the previous century, Baptist churches began to see significant growth in Britain and thus increasing opportunities for cooperation. Here’s a tale of two associations…
The Baptist Union
In 1812, under the leadership of John Rippon, 45 Particular Baptist ministers in London set down their names as members of a new organization and the Baptist Union was formed. With an explicit doctrinal statement and commitment to Baptist principles, the Union was instrumental in creating a national Baptist identity throughout Britain. However, for the first two decades, there wasn’t a clear vision for the association, and it ended up being mostly a social gathering of ministers. But in 1832, the group reorganized, becoming less explicit in their doctrinal boundaries (“Baptist ministers and churches who agree in the sentiments usually denominated evangelical”), which opened the way for New Connexion Baptists led by Dan Taylor to join the Union. Now, as a larger body under this new constitution, the Union now sought to promote the Baptist denomination, speaking publicly on social issues, promoting their publications, and directing foreign missionary interests in the continent and abroad. As Nonconformity grew in prominence in England, Baptists saw growth in their churches and worked together on social causes, church planting, pastoral training, and more.
Not all Baptists would be pleased by this growth. In 1863, many strict communion Baptists would leave the union over the issue of communion. But this loss would soon be made up by 1873, as the Union removed “evangelical sentiments” from its constitution, allowing for broader associations, including Baptist societies and colleges, and the General Baptists to join the union. C.H. Spurgeon protested this change, warning other leaders of the growth of modern theology, but the leaders were confident in the evangelical convictions and some believed that the requirement of believers’ baptism was sufficient to guard against any wrong theology. This eventually led to the Down-Grade Controversy in the fall of 1887, where Spurgeon withdrew from the Union. He hoped other ministers would follow, but not everyone had a massive church like his which was not dependent on the structures of the association. The Union council would censure Spurgeon for his comments against the Union and would pass a new declaration of faith in the spring of 1888, listing out some of the historic beliefs of the association, while still preserving the authority of each local congregation to interpret Scripture for themselves. By the end of the 19th century, the Baptist Union had become such a part of the Baptist identity for British Baptist churches that the necessity of union had to be balanced against any desire of doctrinal depth.
The London Association of Strict Baptist Ministers and Churches
The beginning of this association came after the formation of the London Baptist Association (LBA). While some strict-communion Baptists did participate in the LBA, there were others that did not want to lose their Baptist distinctives by cooperating too closely with open-communion Baptists. So in 1846, four churches and eleven ministers in London agreed to form their own strict-communion association, the London Association of Strict Baptist Ministers and Churches (LASBMC). In their founding documents, they outlined a twelve-point statement of faith which included historic Christian and evangelical articles, including the doctrine of particular redemption and “the necessity of immersion on a profession of faith, in order to church fellowship, and admission to the Lord’s table.” For the next decade, strict-communion Baptist churches would struggle to reach to growing population within London. They would see some growth but could not match the entrepreneurial drive and evangelistic fervor of open-communion Baptists. The LASBMC meeting minutes record the leaders encouraging churches to use Sunday Schools and other evangelistic methods to reach people with the gospel. Though they would have relatively limited success in those efforts, the meeting minutes also record the meaningful support that associational pastors and churches provided: giving guidance to pastors in transition, providing pulpit supply for pastor-less churches, dealing with churches who were veering from strict-communion practices, addressing theological controversies, and publishing pamphlets defending their beliefs.
Despite this activity, the association only existed for 9 years, and eventually came to an end in 1855 due to declining participation. The meeting minutes give a sense that the LASBMC couldn’t help looking over its shoulder at the growth of other associations and being discouraged by its relative smallness. And yet, though it never gained a huge membership or budget, the LASBMC provided fellowship for its ministers and assistance to struggling churches during its existence. There is record of at least one church which would not have survived without the help of the association. While it did not have a wide impact and is largely forgotten today, it made a difference in the lives of the member pastors and churches in its day.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare the Baptist Union with the LASBMC. One was a local association, the other was a national organization made up of associations, missions societies, churches, and pastors. But in these two associations we see two contrasting examples of the challenges that face church associations, even today. As a national organization, the Baptist Union would grow far larger than the LASBMC ever could. And yet, in that growth, they would also face two challenges: the progressive watering down of doctrine in order to accommodate more and more growth, and the increasing dependence of local churches on the Baptist Union. The first problem was theological. The second was ecclesiological. Could these Baptist churches set aside their historic doctrines and church polity for the sake of a larger union and still be considered faithful? Though the Baptist Union would have a tremendous influence, it would come at a heavy price.
In contrast, the LASBMC was short-lived, small, and had little impact beyond its own membership. And yet, for those 9 years, it remained firm in its convictions and cared well for its pastors and churches. If faithfulness is success, then by those accounts, the LASBMC served its purpose well. At the same time, it’s a shame that this success had such a limited reach.
Though Baptists believe in the independence of each local church, associations have always been an important aspect of Baptist ecclesiology. No one church can fulfill the Great Commission alone, and so Baptist churches have sought to cooperate with one another, and even with other evangelical churches in the work of the gospel. However, in that cooperation, there will always be tensions – Will churches hold to rigorous theological orthodoxy or pursue broader relationships? Will pastors prioritize local church ministry or extra-ecclesial structures? Will associations seek increasing influence and outreach or internal faithfulness and purity?
The answer to these questions is not found in picking one or the other, but in pastors and churches pursuing both priorities through national AND local levels of association. Given their size and the pragmatism of our day, national associations, like the SBC, PCA, TGC, 9Marks, Acts 29, etc., tend to get all the attention. There’s no doubt they have resources and influence that can be strategic for the gospel. But given the many challenges facing the local church, we need a recovery of the local association: A union of like-minded churches partnering together for ministerial fellowship, church health, accountability, and local outreach. By its very nature, the local association should not aspire to become a gigantic organization but recognize that its effectiveness will only be possible as it pursues limited meaningful relationships locally. In doing so, its success will be evident not in size, but in the health of its churches.