PERSPECTIVES ON INTER-CHURCH FELLOWSHIP
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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."
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
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
"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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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
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