One distinctive of Baptist churches is their appreciation of local church autonomy. Sadly, autonomy sometimes devolves into isolation, and Baptist churches sometimes grow suspicious of denominations, unions, conventions, and associations. This has not always been the case. In his 1996 book exploring the history of the early English Baptists, Michael Haykin writes,
A characteristic feature of the early Calvinistic Baptists was their regional Associations which linked together local congregations in specific geographical areas of Great Britain….
These associations were to be a key factor in the great growth that the Calvinistic Baptist cause witnessed during the late 1640s and the 1650s. These were tumultuous years in English history, as the land was convulsed in civil war and experienced massive social, political, and economic upheaval. The Calvinistic Baptists flourished, however, and their commitment to Associations played a vital part in their growth. Associations provided mutual strength and fellowship, an instrument for preserving congregational integrity and orthodoxy, a means of providing for the financial needs of poorer congregations, and a way of supporting church planting and evangelistic endeavours. The important place that these first-generation Baptists accorded to their Associations is well expressed by 20th-century British historian Barrie White when he states, “they no more believed that an individual congregation should be free to go its own way than that an individual believer could be a serious Christian without commitment to a local, visible congregation.”
Churches who affirm the need for Christians to formalise church membership should understand that associations offer the same opportunity for local churches: the privilege of formalising partnerships. But a question that sometimes arises is, why? What benefits are there to churches in association?
Benefit 1: Formal Communion
The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
(3 John 1–4)
John wrote 3 John to a friend named Gaius, who was a truth-loving, truth-committed member of a church with which John had fellowship. In writing to Gaius, John shows that formal fellowship between churches existed in New Testament times: Members of one church (where John held membership) travelled to visit another church (where Gaius held membership) and enjoyed fellowship and communion with the sister church.
These churches were bound together by “the truth.” Associations, like Sola 5, allow a formalising of inter-church communion in at least two ways.
First, we formalise our communion around a common Confession of Faith. Sola 5’s Confession is at once faithful to biblical truth, while at the same time allowing for a degree of freedom of conviction within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.
Second, associations allow church members to share likeminded fellowship with confidence among “strangers” (v. 5). Sola 5’s annual conference, in particular, is a wonderful opportunity for this to take place. The annual conference is a time in which members from Sola 5 churches can forge bonds of fellowship that last for a long time to come.
Benefit 2: Co-operative Efforts
Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.
(3 John 5–10)
John commended Gaius for his hospitality to members from sister churches, who were “strangers” to him and rebuked Diotrophes for his reluctance to imitate that hospitality.
But John had a specific kind of “stranger” in mind: brothers who ought to be sent “on their journey in a manner worthy of God.” This speaks of material supply for missionaries, who had “gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles.” By offering financial support, associating churches would become “fellow workers for the truth.” As Gaius’s church supported missionaries from John’s church, the two churches will be co-labourers in the Great Commission.
One benefit of associations is that they afford churches to be involved in missionary activity alongside other churches, and thereby to be “fellow workers for the truth.” In Sola 5, this can happen in one of at least two ways.
First, while there is no membership fee when joining Sola 5, there is opportunity to contribute directly to the association, which then seeks to distribute funds to worthwhile gospel causes, which in turn allows contributing churches to become “fellow workers for the truth.”
Second, relationships forged between churches enable churches to directly partner with each other in Great Commission initiatives, thereby allowing churches to become “fellow workers for the truth.” A refusal to co-operate looks more like Diotrophes than it does like Gaius!
Benefit 3: Conscientious Commendation
Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.
(3 John 11–12)
We know nothing of Demetrius except what is said of him here. Contextually, it seems like that he was a missionary. Gaius had shown great hospitality to and support of missionaries in the past (vv. 5–10), and John urged him to do the same here.
Demetrius received a triad of commendations.
First, he “received a good testimony from everyone.” “Everyone” here is a reference to Demetrius’s sending church. Gaius’s church could trust the man because he had the commendation of his sending church.
Second, he received commendation “from the truth itself.” His life bore witness to gospel truth. He lived life consistent with his profession and with the truths he preached.
Third, “we also add our testimony.” “We” is likely a reference to the apostles. Demetrius had the commendation both of his sending church and of the apostles—and apostolic commendation could be trusted: “You know that our testimony is true.”
Since Gaius trusted John, and since he trusted Demetrius’s church, and since he trusted the gospel, he could trust a man who had this triad of commendations. The commendation of brothers and sisters he trusted added weight to Demetrius’s ministry.
Sola 5 seeks to practice this principle. Membership applications are not accepted unless they come with a formal commendation of an existing church. If we trust the existing Sola 5 churches, it is safe to assume that we can trust a church that receives the commendation of an existing church.
Further, Sola 5 churches can be confident that they can trust ministers commended by Sola 5 churches—and be warned of those against whom Sola 5 churches warn! Pulpit supply can be offered and received with confidence. Missionaries and ministries commended by Sola 5 churches can be trusted by other Sola 5 churches.
Benefit 4: Mutual Counsel
I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.
Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, each by name.
(3 John 13–15)
This principle may only be implied her, but it is taught throughout the New Testament. John could write much to Gaius, but face-to-face interaction would afford him opportunity to offer counsel to Gaius and to glean counsel from Gaius in return. Face-to-face fellowship would provide the platform for mutual encouragement and counsel.
The same truth applies to churches in association.
In an association like Sola 5, churches are able to seek the counsel of other churches in difficult situations—as the church in Antioch did when it sent representatives to the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:1–2ff). In a growing association like Sola 5, there is a wealth of wisdom and experience to draw on.
As churches get to know each other, and as church members get to know members of other churches, this kind of mutual encouragement potentially broadens. Paul was confident that members of the Roman church were “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14), and members of likeminded churches can do the same for each other.
John’s concern to send greetings to members of Gaius’s church “by name” implies a relationship between the churches that goes beyond casual acquaintance. Associations ought to provide a platform for this to be realised.
Within Sola 5, there is opportunity to get to know other churches and their ministries and to therefore pray for them. We try to be as deliberate as we can in circulating newsletters and information to those who subscribe to the mailing list. This enables you to pray intelligently for sister churches, their ministries, and for the association as a whole. It’s a small way to be able to “greet” one another.
So there you have it—four benefits of church associations: (1) formal communion; (2) cooperative efforts; (3) conscientious commendation; and (4) mutual counsel. These benefits, of course, can be experienced by associating with churches outside of Sola 5, and Sola 5 is hardly the perfect or the only association of churches that is interested in Christ-centred association—but it is one, and one from which likeminded churches will no doubt benefit.