Baptist Associations: Whence and Wither?

Nathan-Finn-WEB-225x300 By Dr. Nathan Finn

Baptist churches have been intentionally cooperating together since at the least the mid-1640s, when seven Particular Baptist churches in London adopted the First London Confession of 1644. By the end of the English Civil War in 1651, early forms of Baptist associations were beginning to be established all over the British Isles by both Particular and General Baptists. In 1707, the founding of the Philadelphia Baptist Association marked the beginnings of Baptist associationalism in America. Associations remain a vital aspect of Baptist polity, especially among Southern Baptists.

Rationales for Associations

In 1967, church historian Walter Shurden wrote an influential dissertation at New Orleans Seminary titled “Associationalism among Baptists in America, 1707–1814.” In that dissertation and subsequent articles on the topic, Shurden suggested three rationales for associations among early American Baptists.

First, there was a biblical rationale. Early Baptists looked to the “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15 as biblical evidence for associationalism. Most did not believe that the Jerusalem Council was literally an early apostolic association, but they felt that associations represented a faithful adaptation of the biblical precedent.

Second, there was a theological rationale. Early Baptists believed that the New Testament taught both local church autonomy and inter-church accountability. They considered associations a strategic way to facilitate this balance in a world without bishops who possessed apostolic authority.

Finally, there was a practical rationale. Early Baptists believed associations promoted fellowship among churches, maintained uniformity in both faith and practice, provided counsel and assistance to local churches, and established a structure to facilitate inter-church cooperation in ministries of shared interest. Shurden argues that this third rationale was the most frequent justification to appear in writings on Baptist associationalism.

Three Trends in Associations

While the early Philadelphia Association covered most of the Eastern Seaboard, within a century associations were bounded by a more localized geography. By 1850, associations tended to overlap with one or more counties, while state conventions functioned like statewide associations (some of the latter even retained “association” in their names). This is still the dominant paradigm. However, three trends have begun to compete with the traditional associational model.

The first trend is the rise of “affinity-based” Baptist associations that transcend geography. These associations are based almost exclusively on common doctrine and/or mission. I would suggest the North American Church Planting Foundation is one such affinity-based association, even though the word “association” doesn’t appear in the body’s name.

The second trend is the practice of some churches to identify with a trans-denominational network rather than a local Baptist association. Examples include the Acts 29 Network, the Willow Creek Association, and local Gospel Coalition chapters. This is a broader form of the affinity-based model because these networks are not limited to Baptists.

A third trend is for churches to be wholly independent of any formal associationalism. A growing number of churches are choosing to be Southern Baptist, but they are not involved in a local association, an affinity-based network, or a state convention. Of course, many churches give money to local associations and/or state conventions, but are functionally in this category because in practice they isolate themselves from meaningful cooperation with other churches.

The Way Forward

I think the future of Baptist associationalism is best served by finding a balance between geography and affinity. On the one hand, this means many traditional associations will need to rethink how they currently do things. They will need to be willing to encourage greater theological unity among constituent churches when it comes to primary and secondary matters while honoring local church autonomy when it comes to tertiary matters. Many local associations will need to revisit the idea of some sort of confessional basis of cooperation as a way to cultivate this sort of unity and maintain a consistent witness to the watching world.

Furthermore, traditional associations will need to narrow their mission to focus on a handful of priorities. I would suggest four priorities: local evangelism, church planting, ministries of mercy and justice, and practical theological education for pastors and other ministry leaders. As much as possible, local associations need to become localized, contextual mission boards and informal seminaries that mobilize churches for mission and educate leaders for ministry faithfulness.

On the other hand, many affinity-based associations will need to find ways to cultivate a more “local” feel. While modern technology makes it possible to be closely connected with churches across the continent, there is something to be said for regular face-to-face interaction and hands-on partnership. As affinity-based associations grow, they need to consider either splitting into multiple like-minded associations or forming regional chapters of the wider association.

For my part, I remain a huge fan of Baptist associationalism. I want to see theological and missional renewal among traditional associations and greater local sensitivity among affinity-based associations. It really is true that we can do more together than we can separately. My prayer is that the Lord will help associations to do the best things, for the right reasons, and in the most strategic and effective ways possible, for the glory of God and the sake of Great Commission faithfulness.