We Dare Not Forget The Order
Last month I introduced a series of essays on Baptist distinctives by discussing the autonomy of the local church. That is a good beginning point to talk about the nature of Baptist life. However, even though all true Baptist churches are independent, most Baptist churches have found it valuable to cooperate together.
The earliest Baptist churches appeared in England in the early seventeenth century. There came to be two groups of Baptists (General Baptists who rejected limited atonement and Particular Baptists who embraced limited atonement). Both groups quickly formed associations for support and encouragement. Early Baptists would travel great distances to attend these associational meetings. These associations had no authority over any of the churches, but they provided a forum for promoting doctrinal integrity and evangelism.
This pattern was eventually exported to North America. In 1707 the Philadelphia Baptist Association was formed (it still exists). Other associations followed as Baptist churches took hold in the thirteen colonies. The first Baptist church in the south was the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, which was established in 1696 after having moved from Maine where it was originally founded in 1682. In 1751 this church led in the formation of the Charleston Baptist Association, which was the first association in the south.
After the Revolution the United States covered so large an area, a new form was soon proposed to help churches cooperate together, the state convention. The first state convention was the South Carolina Baptist Convention. The convention was totally independent of the associations and the associations were independent of the convention, but they had similar purposes. They provided forums through which churches could work together. This pattern came to typify the Southern Baptist Convention which itself is a natural expansion of cooperation that was deemed useful to Baptists with the birth of the modern missions movement.
J. B. Gambrell, a prominent Texas Baptist leader of yesteryear, wrote the following about the nature of Baptist conventions (it applies to associations as well), “Scriptures warrant both counsel and cooperation between New Testament churches . . . Connection with them [conventions and associations] is purely voluntary . . . It is of the utmost importance to keep it clear that these general bodies, however great or worthy can add nothing to the churches. The least church in the land is complete by itself. If it cooperates, it is simply a church. If it does not cooperate, it is not any the less a church. A convention adds nothing to a church. Whatever privileges any church may enjoy in cooperation, spring from the constitution of the convention, and not out of the constitution of the church.”
Today, there are many who argue that the days of the association and/or the state convention are over. Some feel that all we need are our national agencies. I believe that much of this thinking comes from larger churches. Larger churches don’t gain the same benefit from cooperative effort because of their internal resources. As one who pastored a medium-sized church, however, I found the local association and the state convention to be very helpful channels of cooperation to work with other churches and to combine resources to accomplish the work of the Kingdom. I believe that, as long as we are primarily a convention of smaller and medium-size churches, associations and state conventions will continue to be useful to those churches as they desire to cooperate for carrying out the Act 1:8 mandate—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost ends of the earth. We dare not forget the order. We dare not ignore any part of the list.
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