I have been doing some thinking recently about the topic of association. It seems to me that the most contentious issues being discussed in my lifetime in the fundamentalist movement are sourced in associations. Here are a number of examples:
1. I should not associate with Mark Dever because he is in the Southern Baptist Convention.
2. I should not associate with John Piper because he wants to accept members into his church regardless of mode of baptism.
3. I should not associate with Cedarville University because of their fellowship with Southern Baptists.
4. I should not associate with John MacArthur because of his fellowship with Al Mohler and the “Billy Graham connection.”
5. I should not use any music associated with Contemporary Christian Music.
However, I am told by my friend Ken Fields that joining a church association is beneficial and maybe even necessary. He quotes from an article by the late Robert Ketcham in opposition to a purely independent mindset. By the way, I agree with him and Ketcham that a purely independent mindset is dangerous. We all need fellowship.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road for me. I am constantly called into question both practically and theoretically about associations. Frankly, associations scare me. If the ones cited above are so dangerous, why should I even go near one of the “better” ones?
Here’s what I believe: I believe that every Christian in every church should strive for unity with other Christian brothers and sisters. Now, obviously, we separate for unity over sin. No argument there. We also need fellowship. We need to find it in our local church. It is good to find it outside the local church as well. However, must we erect formal associations in order to accomplish this important trait? I say no. Consider this list of benefits of a member church in the General Association of Regular Baptists:
- providing creative ministry ideas for pastors and wives in our Synergy newsletter
- enlisting prayer support within our Association family through our e-mail PrayerLink network
- expanding RBP’s Impact Teaching Conferences to assist Christian workers in improving their ministry skills
- recharging the Baptist Builders Club to provide more grants than ever before for growing churches
- updating The Baptist Bulletin magazine to provide Biblical truths for today’s issues
- enlarging Gospel Literature Services’ gospel literature distribution to serve 109 countries worldwide
- accessing new doors of ministry to the military through our Chaplaincy Ministries
- founding the Caleb Club to lend church ministry assistance through the voluntary help of retired pastors
- creating an alliance with ChurchPlaza to pass along cost savings on products and services for churches and individuals
- providing churches with evangelism resources through our Impact Evangelism materials
- creating the International Partnership of Fundamental Baptist Ministries for global networking of like-minded Baptist ministries
- sending E-Info, a quarterly e-mail newsletter containing ministry ideas, information, resources, and assistance
- conducting an annual conference for fellowship, networking, and encouragement
- and offering many additional resources for pastors and churches!
By the way, I’m only picking on the GARBC because of the recent Cedarville controversy and vote. Okay, now after you’ve looked over the list above, can you answer these questions:
1. Whose responsibility is it to equip the saints?
2. Whose responsibility is it to evangelize the world?
Now, I’m not against conferences. I enjoy them (most of them). I have even taken laypeople from our church to conferences. But I see no need for my church to join an association. Do you see any compelling reason? Is it, indeed, necessary to join an association to accomplish fellowship? I don’t see it. Sorry. Looks like a nice club. I’m sure it’s enjoyable, even beneficial for ideas and programming. But necessary? Hardly.
That brings me to my second and probably more controversial line of thinking. Most associational arguments are bogus. Am I really partaking of someone else’s sins because we both belong to the same organization? My understanding is that much of the liberalism in the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention has been rooted out. But even when it was present, were all Southern Baptist churches in sin? Did all of them need to pull out from that denomination? As long as the intent of the leadership and the doctrinal creed of the association remained biblically correct, I say no.
Think about it for a minute. I am a proud member of the Republican Party. So is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is pro-choice. I am pro-life. Am I a partaker of his position on abortion because we are in the same party? Not at all. The party platform dictates the position of the party. The party platform is pro-life.
Now, do I have a problem with Al Mohler hosting the Billy Graham School of Evangelism on the campus of Southern Baptist Seminary? Sure I do. Billy Graham does not practice separation from false teachers. Al Mohler, at least once actively through his presence on stage at a crusade, and passively through the hosting of Graham’s school, does not separate from disobedient brothers.
But separation is a practical teaching of Scripture. It does me little good to separate from Billy Graham or Al Mohler when I have no fellowship with them to begin with. If Al Mohler wanted to speak in our church, then the issue would come up. If Al Mohler was influencing my church members through his radio program or Internet blog in a wrong way, I would warn them about him. But I see no biblical mandate to separate purely based on association. Separation is a practice of the local church in order to restore repentant brothers and maintain the doctrinal purity of the assembly. This guilt-by-association method that has spread throughout our fundamentalist movement is wrong and has no basis in Scripture. Do we realize that we fundamentalists are known throughout the world for what we’re against and not what we’re for? Didn’t Jesus say that everyone would know we are His disciples because we love one another? We do not have a spirit of camaraderie–we live in a spirit of constant suspicion. I remember travelling in my college days to many churches where the very first question out of a pastor’s mouth would be “What version of the Bible do you use, brother?” Brothers and sisters, the tone of fundamentalism MUST change.
This is the not the attitude of the New Testament. Jesus, for sure, attacked certain associations like the Pharisees and the scribes where religion was superficial and legalism rampant. On the other hand, He didn’t deny Matthew or Zacchaeus fellowship because they were tax collectors. Paul practiced biblical association better than most of us. Would we become weak for the sake of the weak? Would we become “without the law” for the sake of those “without the law”? Paul didn’t compromise truth; he made himself of no reputation. Why? Because he wanted to know the fellowship of another Man who also denied Himself.
The only association we NEED is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. False teaching and disobedience must always be confronted when it appears. Separation must be practiced in the local church. But we must not alienate brothers and sisters in Christ because they are not lined up “associationally” in the “right” way. Our fellowship is in the Gospel, not in an association.
But, come on, Brian! Garbage?? Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Paul provides us with a sterling example of this concept. Remember these verses?
Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:2-8, ESV)
Paul says, “Look at my associations! Israelite. Tribe of Benjamin. Pharisee. I used to have confidence in them. They were necessary for me. But now…they are just like trash compared to the one association that matters–my association with Jesus Christ.”
I hear the objections. “Brian, no one is relying on the GARBC (or comparable association) for salvation!” True. I understand that. But it seems as if the primary function of these associations, other than the creation of resources for pastors/churches, is to exclude others from their company. Am I wrong? I hear recent resolutions ringing in my head. How different is that from the Pharisees, really? Isn’t it all really rubbish?