A Tale of Two Baptist Associations
Baptist churches have always understood that though every local church is complete in itself, each church may pursue voluntary associations in order to promote their health and the work of the gospel. But with cooperation comes challenges. How big can an association get before it becomes unwieldy? How broad or narrow should its doctrinal standards be? How do you balance denominational influence with congregational authority?
In the beginning of the 19th century, coming on the heels of the evangelical revival of the previous century, Baptist churches began to see significant growth in Britain. This growth accompanied significant opportunities for cooperation.
Let me tell you the tale of two Baptist associations.
THE BAPTIST UNION
In 1812, under the leadership of John Rippon, 45 Particular Baptist ministers in London set down their names as members of a new organization: the Baptist Union. With an explicit doctrinal statement and a commitment to Baptist principles, the Union sought to create a national Baptist identity throughout Britain.
However, for the first two decades, the association lacked a clear vision, and so it ended up being mostly a social gathering of like-minded ministers. Twenty years after its founding, in 1832, the group reorganized. They decided to be less explicit in their doctrinal boundaries; their constitution stipulated that the Union was for “Baptist ministers and churches who agree in the sentiments usually denominated evangelical.” This opened the way for New Connexion Baptists led by Dan Taylor to join.
As a larger body under a new constitution, the Union now sought to promote the Baptist denomination. It spoke publicly on social issues, promoted their publications, and directed foreign missionary interests both in Europe and abroad. As Nonconformity—that is, church traditions outside of established Anglicanism—grew in England, Baptist churches grew and worked together on social causes, church planting, pastoral training, and more.
Not all Baptists were pleased by this growth. In 1863, many left the union over the issue of strict communion. This loss would soon be made up by 1873, as the Union removed “evangelical sentiments” from its constitution, allowing for broader associations, including Baptist societies and colleges; the Union also permitted General Baptists to join. Charles Spurgeon protested this change, warning other leaders of the growth of modern theology, but the leaders were confident in the evangelical convictions and some believed that the requirement of believers’ baptism was sufficient to guard against any wrong theology.
All this eventually led to the Down-Grade Controversy in the fall of 1887, where Spurgeon withdrew from the Union. He hoped other ministers would follow, but few had a massive church like his which wasn’t dependent on associational structures. The Union council censured Spurgeon for his comments against the Union. Then, in the spring of 1888, they passed a new declaration of faith that listed out the historic beliefs of the association, while still preserving the authority of each local congregation to interpret Scripture for themselves. By the end of the 19th century, the Baptist Union had become such a part of the Baptist identity for British Baptist churches that the necessity of union had to be balanced against any desire for doctrinal depth.
THE LONDON ASSOCIATION OF STRICT BAPTIST MINISTERS AND CHURCHES
The beginning of this association came after the formation of the London Baptist Association (LBA). While some strict-communion Baptists participated in the LBA, there were others who didn’t want to lose their Baptist distinctives by cooperating too closely with open-communion Baptists (those who allowed paedobaptist believers to take the Lord’s Supper).
So, in 1846, four churches and eleven ministers in London agreed to form their own strict-communion association: the London Association of Strict Baptist Ministers and Churches (LASBMC). In their founding documents, they outlined a twelve-point statement of faith which included historic Christian and evangelical articles, including the doctrine of particular redemption and “the necessity of immersion on a profession of faith, in order to church fellowship, and admission to the Lord’s table.”
For the next decade, strict-communion Baptist churches would struggle to reach the growing population within London. They saw some growth but couldn’t match the entrepreneurial drive and evangelistic fervor of open-communion Baptists. The LASBMC meeting minutes record the leaders encouraging churches to use Sunday Schools and other evangelistic methods to reach people with the gospel. Though they would have relatively limited success in those efforts, the meeting minutes also record the meaningful support that associational pastors and churches provided. For example, they offered guidance to pastors in transition, provided pulpit supply for pastor-less churches, dealt with churches who veered from strict-communion practices, addressed theological controversies, and published pamphlets defending their beliefs.
Despite this activity, the association only existed for nine years; it came to an end in 1855 due to declining participation. The meeting minutes give a sense that the LASBMC couldn’t help looking over its shoulder at the growth of other associations; it seems they were discouraged by its relative smallness. And yet, though it never gained a huge membership or budget, the LASBMC provided fellowship for its ministers and assistance to struggling churches. There’s record of at least one church that wouldn’t have survived without the association’s help. To be sure, it didn’t have a wide impact and it’s now largely forgotten, but it made a difference in the lives of the member pastors and churches in its day.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare the Baptist Union to the LASBMC. One was a local association, the other was a national organization made up of associations, missions societies, churches, and pastors. But in these two associations we see two contrasting examples of the challenges church associations face even today.
As a national organization, the Baptist Union grew far larger than the LASBMC ever could. And yet, that growth forced them to face two challenges: the progressive watering down of doctrine in order to accommodate growth, and the increasing dependence of local churches on the Baptist Union. The first problem was theological. The second was ecclesiological. Could these Baptist churches set aside their historic doctrines and church polity for the sake of a larger union and still be considered faithful? Though the Baptist Union gained tremendous influence, it came at a heavy price.
In contrast, the LASBMC was short-lived, small, and had little impact beyond its own membership. And yet, for nine years, it remained firm in its convictions and cared well for its pastors and churches. If success is measured first and foremost by faithfulness, then the LASBMC succeeded. At the same time, it’s a shame that this success had such a limited reach.
Though Baptists believe in local church autonomy, associations have always been an important aspect of their ecclesiology. No one church can fulfill the Great Commission, and so Baptist churches have sought to cooperate with both one another and other evangelical churches in the work of missions. However, that cooperation always accompanies certain tensions: Will churches hold to rigorous theological orthodoxy, or will they pursue broader relationships? Will pastors prioritize local church ministry, or will they prioritize extra-ecclesial structures? Will associations seek increasing influence and outreach, or will they focus on internal faithfulness and purity?
I don’t mean to set up a host of false dilemmas. The answers to these questions aren’t found by picking one or the other, but in pastors and churches pursuing both priorities through national and local levels. Given their size, national associations—like the SBC, PCA, Acts 29, TGC, and even 9Marks—tend to get all the attention. There’s no doubt they have resources and influence that can be strategic for the gospel.
But given the many challenges facing the local church, we need to recover the local association. We need to give time and attention and resources to cultivating a union of like-minded churches who partner together for fellowship, church planting, church revitalization, local outreach, and more. By its very nature, the local association should not aspire to become a gigantic organization. Rather, it should recognize that its effectiveness will only be possible as it pursues limited, yet meaningful local relationships. In doing so, its success will be evident not in the scope of its influence, but in the health of its churches.
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Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared here.