Local Associations

Theological Unity in the Local Association

If we didn't know any better, we might look around us and get the impression that local Baptist associations exist mainly for 'practical' ministry purposes: they exist to help us "do stuff." It's kind of a non-theological approach—let the churches worry about their own doctrine and when we come together we can ignore all that divisive doctrine and work together to accomplish something worthwhile. This approach means well. But I think we should do better.

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.
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Local Association in the News

I saw this Baptist Group Keeps Gay-Friendly Church (longer story here) linked on twitter today (HT: Bart Barber) about a local association in Virginia. Because I'm working on this current series on local Baptist associations, I thought it would be a good idea to point this information out to readers.

This particular local association voted yesterday to retain in its membership a church that had ordained a man who is openly homosexual. (I don't intend to debate the merits of that issue here, though will say that my own position is that the whole Bible is clear: homosexuality is sinful and contrary to God's moral will.) This really prompts the question of what role a local association has in cultivating, and even sometimes requiring a basic amount of theological agreement among churches. Can there be a church that has so far departed from historic Christian teaching that they ought to be disfellowshipped from an association?

For many years, that question was answered in the affirmative without much dissent. Today, as you can see, the landscape is different. What role should theological unity play in our local Baptist associations and how do we go about achieving that? I plan to attempt an answer to that question in an upcoming post.


Voluntary Cooperation in the Local Baptist Association

In previous posts, we've seen that the local association is not like a church, and that the Director of Missions (DoM) is not like a pastor, nor should his primary role be thought of as being "a pastor to pastors." Since we've looked at the organization and its leadership so far, I thought it would be helpful to think about membership in the local association: What responsibilities and obligations do churches have who participate in local associations?

Local Church Autonomy
One of the distinctive beliefs of Baptists is a conviction about local church autonomy. That means that a local church is self-governing under the Lordship of Christ and influence of the Holy Spirit. No person or organization has the authority to tell a local church what decisions it must make or how to act. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention can direct member churches to act. The most they, or a state convention, or a local association can do is withdraw from the participating relationship. The most the SBC or a local association can say to a church is, "We disagree so strongly with your position, we no longer consider you a member and will no longer accept your financial support." No outside organization can force the autonomous local church to act contrary to its own wishes.

Nothing in this scenario, however, prevents other organizations from trying to influence churches to make certain decisions or take action on an issue. For example, the last several years, the International Mission Board has been asking churches to consider adopting an unreached people group. Such an effort is commendable and worthwhile. It doesn't violate local church autonomy because the IMB is seeking to influence churches to make that decision on their own.

So a local association may not assert any authority over a local church, but it may attempt to influence a local church in various ways. The question we'll ask below is how and which ways are appropriate and helpful in our cooperative efforts together.Continue Reading Article...

The Local Assocation Is Not a Church, and a DoM Is Not a Pastor

Ever been somewhere at a time when it's quiet and fairly inappropriate to laugh, but something struck you as funny? As much as you tried, you just couldn't help laughing; and they very fact that you were supposed to be quiet made it all that much funnier and harder to stop? It happens to me way too often. One example...

I'm a member of the local Ruritan club (community service organization) and we meet one night each month. We have about 20 people at a normal meeting. They're pretty relaxed, we eat dinner together, talk, then have the formal meeting for a little while before we leave. I don't remember all the details but it went something like this. One guy was up at the front talking a little longer than everyone wanted but obviously had a few more things to say. He told us that the Ruritan national president might be visiting our club. Knowing that some (i.e. all) of us were pretty much clueless as to Ruritan hierarchy, he graciously decided to fill us in. I'm pretty sure this is the exact quote: "…the Ruritan national president, that's pretty much like the president of the United States." A friend was sitting across the table and we looked at each other when he said that. Both of us lost it. Trying to stop laughing and be quiet, when one of us finally got it under control, we'd see the other's shoulders shaking from laughter and we'd start all over again. Honestly trying to stop the whole time, it took four or five minutes before we could stop laughing.

What was so funny? What got it all started? An analogy that just didn't quite fit. I guess there may be some similarities between Ruritan national president and POTUS: The title… Ok I give up trying to find any more. My point is that in order to say something is "like" something else, there needs to be some deep, essential aspects shared by the two items—otherwise the analogy is more harmful than helpful. Here's a few examples:
  • I love my wife. God loves my wife. Therefore: I am like God. (true in some sense, but mostly misleading and potentially dangerous)
  • Bicycles are vehicles. Automobiles are vehicles. Therefore: Cars are like bikes. (please don't tell this to my four year old learning to ride a bike—he might grab my keys and give it a try)
  • Christians participate in churches. Christians participate in local Baptist associations. Churches do ministry. Associations do ministry. Churches have leaders. Associations have leaders. Therefore: Associations are like churches.
I've heard well-meaning people (some pastors) express the idea that the local association is like a church, and the DoM is like the pastor of this church-like organization. In this post, I want to pick apart these comparisons and show that they are biblically mis-informed, theologically dangerous, and practically unhelpful.
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A DoM Is Not "a Pastor to Pastors"

The first aspect of association ministry I would like to think about is the role of the Director of Missions (DoM). The typical structure of a local Baptist association includes an "association missionary" who leads the organization. In many cases this DoM position is a full-time, paid position.

Our local association is currently without a DoM, with a search committee currently looking for the next DoM to serve our association. (Just for clarity sake, I am not on the search committee of our association, but know more than half of the group—a godly, encouraging group of people!) This time without a DoM in our association has given me some time to think through what the role for a DoM ought to be.

Typical Perception of the DoM Role
There is a phrase I hear over and over again from people as we discuss what characteristics we ought to look for in a DoM, or what that role ought to look like: A pastor to pastors. In fact, I hear it so much, I've begun to think this is the essence of what most people expect a DoM to be. A pastor to pastors. Remember the phrase. I want to examine this concept closely and ask if this is really a good summary of how an effective DoM ministry would be described.
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Thoughts on the Local Baptist Association

Our local Baptist association is going through a time of transition right now. This transition period has given me the chance to think and talk with friends and fellow pastors about several aspects of local association ministry. I want to use this post and few that will follow to think out loud about what local Baptist association ministry can and should look like in today's world.

To get started, I'd like to point out a couple of resources that I'm aware of. If you know of any other helpful articles or resources, please feel free to add to this list in the comments section.

A couple of issues I'd like to deal with in future posts:
  • The Role of a DoM: A Pastor to Pastors?
  • Is the Association Like a Church?
  • Autonomous Local Churches and Voluntary Participation
  • Keeping the Local Church Central in Association Ministry

I'd enjoy your feedback and input if you have some perspective on these issues and look forward to thinking through them together.


Local Baptist Assocations in the 21st Century

I have been asked to deliver the message at the 2011 Fall meeting of the West Chowan Baptist Association. I'm posting the notes here for anyone who would like a copy. I also intend to post the audio after I deliver the message.

The notes are in .pdf format and are the same pages I'll be bringing with me into the pulpit tonight. That is to say there are other notes from research and outlining that are not included here. Below is the title and outline of the message.

"Is There a Role for Local Associations in the 21st Century?"
Acts 16:4-5

Outline: What would an effective and relevant local association ministry look like?

1. Encouragement in Sound Doctrine and Theological Accountability
2. Becoming a Channel of Financial Resources Rather than a Reservoir
3. Establishing, Equipping, and Empowering Churches

Available for Download:
Message Audio and Sermon Notes