Theological Unity in the Local Association
When I spoke on the purpose of local Baptist associations a while back, I listed three main roles for local associations in the 21st century: (1) encouragement in sound doctrine and theological accountability, (2) becoming a channel of financial resources rather than a reservoir, and (3) establishing, equipping, and empowering churches. Associations will be greater assets for the kingdom of God if they prioritize the promotion of sound doctrine in the churches they serve.
There's no question theological unity was one of the primary reasons local Baptist Associations were first formed. Consider this quote from Tom Nettles' The Baptists, vol. 2, pg. 75:
You can see the rest of the quote here. It is careful to acknowledge that local associations never had any authority over member churches. Through advice and promotion, they sought to encourage churches to hold fast to the biblical gospel and avoid dangerous and false unbiblical teaching.
The Philadelphia Association had no sympathy whatsoever with that which it considered to be false doctrine. Many cases of doctrinal discipline appear on the pages of the minutes of the Philadelphia as well as a well-ordered plan for inculcating orthodox doctrine…. The interaction of [these] Associations and churches gives substance to the Baptist ideal of orthodoxy and church autonomy as a catalyst to united witness.
Likely the most difficult question in terms of associations and theological accountability is what standard should be used. Early associations used the Second London/Philadelphia Confession, but I think most would agree that these are too restrictive in a Southern Baptist context (even though I personally agree with most of that confession!). If an association exists where all the churches agree on a statement that specific, I think it would be great—just hard to find in the real world.
So we certainly could be too narrow. But we could also be broad enough in our doctrinal affirmations that it would be almost like we had no theological boundaries. Some kind of minimalist statement might satisfy the letter but not the spirit of what I'm arguing for here. The appropriate balance of clarity and latitude is what we're seeking. While some will disagree with their conclusion, it seems to me that Southern Baptists have widely agreed that a good example of this kind of balance is found in the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), the adopted statement of faith of the SBC and most affiliated organizations.
Moving forward with the BF&M as our doctrinal standard in association ministry could be problematic, however. For example, in our association I'm well aware that a number of the churches are not in agreement with the BF&M for various reasons. Several of these have left the SBC altogether. Ought we broaden our confession at the association level to include the doctrinal stances of these more moderate/liberal churches? Maybe stay with an archaic version of the BF&M so as not to upset the apple cart? Maybe another alternative would be to seek out a different confession or write our own.
Which confession we should choose may be beyond the scope of this article. But I do believe we ought to choose one and regularly celebrate God's truth together as an association.
What Might This Look Like?
If our associations would choose a clear, orthodox, evangelical, Baptist statement of faith and choose to make encouragement in sound doctrine a basic component of their mission, I think they might fulfill a role that neither the national convention, nor state conventions, because of distance and size, are capable of fulfilling. Here are three ways I see this kind of commitment working out in the life of a local association.
1. Promoting Sound Doctrine—I think this would be the most obvious and regular aspect of an association's theological work. In meetings and communications (email, newsletters, etc… ) we begin to place a priority on theological exposition. For example, a few years ago I was asked to speak at a pastors' meeting of another association. When I was invited, they let me know they'd like to speak on the doctrine of the Trinity. What an excellent example for us—that our pastors would be encouraged in biblical doctrine formally in their meeting times.
A similar approach could be taken at annual meetings, with some time set aside to explore a topic systematic theology or a particular biblical theology theme. One of the association pastors could be asked in advance to prepare a message on the subject and some songs chosen that relate to the theme as well.
The possibilities on this front are too numerous to list. I believe this would do a great job of transforming some of our mundane meetings and communications to be truly encouraging and worthwhile—all the while promoting spiritual life and discussion among our churches and leaders.
2. Advising Churches With Doctrinal Questions—Less common may be the times when churches have a question about a doctrinal disagreement that may have arisen within, or maybe a church who is simply looking for additional resources on a topic. Now that #1 has been taking place, the churches may begin to see the association as a relevant theological resource and be more likely to seek help in this way. Maybe a DoM or a team/committee is able to provide some direction for the question at hand. Maybe a particular pastor spoke on the doctrine of the Second Coming at last year's meeting and he's invited to speak at another association church on the same topic.
3. Removing Churches Who Have Succumbed to False Teaching—There may even be (hopefully rare) times when a member church moves outside the boundaries of sound doctrine. We learned of one such case in the news last week. False teaching was a continual problem in the first century and has continued to be throughout church history. I think the local association may be in a unique place to be a first line of defense against churches who move outside orthodox boundaries. Maybe a church engages in actions that demonstrate racism. Maybe another decides to ordain an unrepentant homosexual to the ministry. Still another flirts with universalism. If an association learns about any of these, the association ought to take action. First in an advisory role: letting them know they are outside orthodox Christianity and warn them to change. Second, if they refuse and persist in error, they ought to be removed from the association as a clear denunciation of the error and step to preserve the gospel faithfulness of the organization.
Encouragement in sound doctrine and theological accountability is one of the ways a local Baptist association can play a distinctive role in Southern Baptist life. Associations may be in a position to play this role more effectively than any other organization. With it comes a new and weightier relevance for the local association in the spiritual lives of member churches. It might not be easy, and implementing it might come at a price, but the resultant theological unity and fellowship would be an asset to our Great Commission task.