I believe in Baptist associations. Currently, I am an elected officer of the Madrid Baptist Association, holding the position of Director of Evangelism. This position also makes me, in a sense, the equivalent of a trustee for the Spanish Baptist “Home Mission Board.” Last night, I attended the association-wide Maunday Thursday service, in which we all, representing the various churches of the association, worshipped the Lord, listened to the preaching of the Word of God, and shared together in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
My bottom-line loyalty, as far as my fellowship with other believers is concerned, however, is not toward the Baptist association. It is toward the Body of Christ at large. If, by virtue of participating actively in the local Baptist association, I feel compelled at the same time to neglect my fellowship with the broader Body of Christ in my locality, then, I believe, the Baptist association becomes a detriment and not a blessing.
Bart Barber, in a recent post on his blog Praisegod Barebones, makes what I consider to be a very insightful and correct observation:
The SBC is not (or ought not to be) a "structure" in any ecclesiological sense. It is a voluntary partnership. Christian Unity and inter-congregational cooperation are not entirely unrelated subjects, but I do not believe that they are identical subjects.
As I see it, both Baptist associations, and Baptist unions or conventions, are “voluntary partnerships” for the purpose of “inter-congregational cooperation.” The “city church,” though, and not Baptist associations, is the most ideal forum for putting into practice “Christian unity.”
By no means am I saying we should not practice unity with other Baptist churches. They are part of the “city church” just as much as anyone else. Neither am I saying that the Extremaduran Evangelical Council (see previous posts here and here) is the official representation of the “city church” in Extremadura. I believe it is a helpful organization for channelling and furthering the initiatives of the “city church.” But it is not, in and of itself, the actual “city church.” The “city church,” as I understand it, is made up of all the born-again believers in a particular locality, as well as all the individual congregations that preach a gospel that “really is the gospel,” whether they choose to officially affiliate with a particular organization or not.
Nathan Finn, who has recently posted a series of interesting articles on Baptist Associations on his blog (here, here, here, and here), cites the following three rationales for associations among early American Baptists, as identified by Walter Shurden:
1. The Biblical Rationale - esp. the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15; most early Baptists did not believe that Acts 15 was equivalent to an association, but felt that an association was a faithful adaptation of the biblical precedent;2. The Theological Rationale - a way to balance local church independence with the interdependence of the churches; most early Baptists believed that the NT taught both local church autonomy and inter-church accountability, and associations were considered a way to facilitate this balance;3. The Practical Rationale - to promote fellowship among churches, maintain uniformity in both faith and practice, provide counsel and assistance to local churches, establish a structure to facilitate inter-church cooperation in ministries of shared interest.
As I understand it, the “city church,” and not the Baptist association, is the most appropriate forum for carrying out the concerns voiced in Rationale #1 and #2. Also, although I am in no way opposed to “promoting fellowship” among Baptist churches, provided this does not become an excuse for neglecting our fellowship with other believers, I think the primary purpose and most legitimate rationale for Baptist associations are the last two items under Rationale #3: to “provide counsel and assistance to local churches” and “establish a structure to facilitate inter-church cooperation in ministries of shared interest.”
Understood in this way, I see an appropriate application for “tier two” of the much-discussed three tiers of “theological triage,” as proposed by Al Mohler. I do not see that “tier two” issues should put up a barrier for our fellowship with other believers. But I do see how certain discrimination on “tier two” issues can facilitate useful “inter-church cooperation in ministries of shared interest.”
In other words, there are certain ministry projects that can be more effectively carried out in cooperation with those believers and churches who share certain values and convictions that may not necessarily be accepted across the board within the “city church.” I believe that these particular projects should be the legitimate “domain” of Baptist associations, unions, and conventions.