Associational GARBage

garbage.gifI 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?

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18 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by D Szweda on July 6, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    Brian,

    As controversial as this may seem to some, I agree. We have more associations and more conventions than you can shake a stick at. And all I see amongst them is bickering on how things are shifting in this Baptist association or that Baptist association. So much energy is spent on trying to keep the association going one direction and fighting the influences, that I wonder who much “real” work for the Lord is being lost. And that is one reason why I will never join an association. I would rather separate and have fellowship based on someones actual beliefs than on their association with associations.

    Reply

  2. Brian,
    Well written. I hate to disagree with my blog-mates, but I have to agree with you on this one.

    Great insights!

    Soli Deo Gloria

    Reply

  3. Brian,

    Are you calling me a Pharisee?!! Oh well, I’ve been called worse!!

    Good post … and well reasoned arguments. Still I must disagree with you (did you really expect me not to). Please understand that every church in the GARBC maintains its autonomy and independence. I am an independent Baptist who happens to partner with the GARBC (by the way, the GARBC does not use the term “members”). Here’s why I have chosen to do so: when part of an association we, as a church, are able to accomplish much more than we could on our own. Here are a few questions I have raised with Jason that he has yet to answer:

    1) If you are truly independent (and find no value in associations) how do you get missionaries to the field? Part of my exasperation with Baptists who flaunt their independence, is that they do so while sending their missionaries to GARBC churches and mission agencies to raise support. This seems a bit disingenuous to me. Independents want no part of associations until they need them to accomplish the Biblical mandate of missions. The same holds true for most Christian camps and/or Bible Colleges and Seminaries.

    2) Should your entire pastoral staff resign simultaneously, what associations do you have that would protect your church from potential error and collapse in the time without pastoral leadership? It is during these times that my father (as the Illinois/Missouri State Association Representative) offers his services to be an encouragement and help to pastorless churches. How would a strictly independent church proceed?

    3) As a stricly independent church, how do you identify yourself in your community? Whether you agree or not, being GARB identifies our church with a certain set of beliefs and practices. Being an independent Baptist may mean that you are KJV only (this is the most common perception of a church that describes itself as independent, fundamental), speak in tongues, practice pastoral dictatorship, or believe in Baptist landmarkism.

    I realize this one is a rather weak argument, but when someone is traveling and looks for a GARB church in the phone book, they can be assured that a GARB church is going to stand where the GARB stands. This same individual, when passing through Denver will be unsure which “type” of independent Baptist church Red Rocks is.

    4)Although you minister in a larger church … how would a strictly independent small church send their young people on a missions trip?

    While these dilemmas do not require ecclesiastical partnership in an organized association (“organized” is what seems to scare everybody), they do require associations outside of the local church. From my experience, those (especially in small churches) who do not purposefully partner together suffer as a result. The aforementioned problems cannot be solved apart from some kind of associational partnership.

    It is for this kind of partnership that I am arguing. By the way, thanks for referring to me as your friend!!

    P.S. — Maybe you can answer the question why you all are so wary of anything resembling an “organized” partnership. I would be interested in your reasoning.

    Reply

  4. […] There has been some interesting discussions regarding associations and independency on SharperIron, and with fellow bloggers Brian McCrorie (Bowing Down), Ben Wright (PaleoEvangelical), and Ken Fields (The World From Our Window – also here). I felt compelled to offer my own two cents into the mix. […]

    Reply

  5. “Should your entire pastoral staff resign simultaneously, what associations do you have that would protect your church from potential error and collapse in the time without pastoral leadership?”

    I love it when people make the case for multiple-elder-led congregationalism. If you’ve trained and discipled men from within the congregation to serve as elders/pastors, there is very little likelihood that this will happen.

    Reply

  6. Posted by D Szweda on July 7, 2006 at 7:19 am

    Ken,

    Brian is not arguing against association with other churches but arguing against what you have termed “ecclesiastical partnership in an organized association”. Every single one of your points can be solved without membership in organizations as GARB or any other organization.

    Reply

  7. 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.

    One thing about the GARBC- that kind of reasoning has not continued to be the lightning rod it has been in the “unaffiliated” circles- because there was a venue to discuss it rationally and come to some conclusions on how it would be handled in fellowship- as opposed to the continued infighting that continues in “unaffiliated” circles.

    As I have noted elsewhere, those of you who are down on the GARBC have been spurred to do so because of one reason- the Cedarville headline. It is interesting to note that you will not find one mention of it on the official site, nor are you likely to. As far as the leadership is concerned, it is more or less an “in-house” matter. They aren’t telling you or your church, Brian, as an unaffiliated body, how you should relate with Cedarville any more than they are telling you how you should relate with BJU or Northland. They aren’t even telling affiliated churches how they should or should not relate.

    What they are doing is putting a boundary on the issue- a “separtion of prudence,” as Paul Hartog noted in his two part article. This is something that “unaffiliated” churches do all the time. I would daresay that your church does not have the same relationship with BBC Clarks Summit as it does with Northland. Furthermore, I would also venture to guess that you would much prefer using Kids 4 Truth (published by Fundamental Baptists) over Great Commission Publications Kids Quest Catechism Club (published jointly by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America).

    Reply

  8. Every single one of your points can be solved without membership in organizations as GARB or any other organization.

    Sure they can, Dave. But can you deny that such loose organizations have tended to get top-heavy in their leadership, often driven as much by the personality of the leadership as by common principle?

    The GARBC has its flaws, no doubt. All the defending I am doing is somewhat interesting, considering I pastor an “unaffiliated” church, and have no designs currently to join the GARBC, either. However, I do think that those of you who critics do so because you haven’t really taken the time to see and understand the other side- you are buying into the “denominational machine” stereotypes you’ve been fed in the past.

    As someone who grew up in the “independent” world, but entered the GARBC circles in early adulthood- I can say you don’t really have a clear picture of how things operate there. Many GARBC churches operate in rural areas- plurality of elders or not, there is often need for help in those small churches in communities with declining populations. The Association provides help to small congregations who the larger independent churches would tend to overlook, unless, of course, they might be pastored by a graduate of the pastor’s Alma mater. The Association provided a much more friendly environment for small and rural church leaders than much of what you see emphasized in the independent circles, in my limited experience.

    Is the system perfect? Of course not. Is the “completely independent” route, though? I don’t think so, either.

    Reply

  9. Posted by D Szweda on July 7, 2006 at 10:51 am

    Greg,

    I wasn’t really slamming GARBC, but was agreeing with discontentment over associations.

    I was a member of a GARBC church for some time, dated quite seriously a girl who went to our church and attended a GARBC college. I knew many at the time that attended Cedarville as well. I don’t think GARBC is the worse thing, and it was a loose affiliation for our church. But the GARBC churches that I was affiliated with again were weak on separation issues, and general worship issues. I don’t think it was the GARBC fault, but really the churches. CCM was very prevalant and groups such as Petra were played at GARBC youth rallys (this is just one example), which didn’t set too well with me, and actually caused me to separate more from the youth organizations.

    I am just not a big fan of these separate controlled organizations that people feel a need to be a part of and to finance.

    Reply

  10. I understand, Dave- but it can be argued that that was not so much a problem of the system of an Association as much as it was the 1. deficiency of a specific organization to deal with an issue, or 2. the values of an organization conflicting with your own.

    Reply

  11. Thanks everybody for your thoughts. They are all helpful in continuing to clarify this issue for me.

    To Greg and Ken, no, I absolutely do NOT think you are Pharisees for defending the GARBC. I actually have very little against the GARBC. I have known of churches within the GARBC that are as Ben mentioned loose on separation and music issues, compared to other GARBC churches. That, however, you will find in any organization.

    Rather, the point I am trying to make is to argue the suggestion by Ken on his blog that such an association may be, in fact, necessary to accomplish the fellowship a church needs. I am not against being in an association, but I am against the mindset that it is necessary. I would even argue that the associations, while helpful in any number of areas as I mentioned in my article, are not needed at all.

    As I mentioned in my article, I also think that a purely independent mindset is dangerous. However, I am reacting against the opposite extreme–that such associational partnership is necessary. That is where I think the allusion to the Pharisees is relevant. When associations become a point of separation, I think we have crossed the line of common sense and biblical instruction and created extra-biblical barriers which we then consider spiritually beneficial and necessary.

    There are many fine churches and inviduals in the GARBC organization. I’m sure, Ken, that God is immensely proud of your father for his work in assisting churches.

    Reply

  12. I’m sure you will want to delete my comment since I graduated from Cedarville University (but it was known as C. College back then).

    Reply

  13. Matt,

    You’re more than welcome!

    Reply

  14. I fully agree with the article above. Associations are not necessary, though I’m sure for some they are quite helpful. Our church is a GARBC church, but there is very little we actually do with the GARBC. Most of the fellowship we do with others churches is with those in our own town, especially our youth activities. We do several together with the Assembly of God and Community Church and the Methodist churches in town. There has never been a problem, though I would think much of that depends on the pastor in the church. I don’t see much of a point to our church being in the GARBC, except for the fact that our senior pastor has many friends there and is able to refresh himself at the conferences. However, conferences can be held without having an association (I love the Pastor’s Conference at Moody Bible Institute) and missionaries can be sent without an association. Most mission agencies are independant of associations and can be very helpful plus if churches supported less missionaries with more money than they wouldn’t need to go to so many for support (though that’s a different topic). RBP, if it made money which it didn’t sound at the general conference like it did, could support itself as many other publishing companies do. I don’t personally use their material often because it just doesn’t fit with the group I have, though it is sound and good for many others I’m sure. And churches can share resources without an association. We’ve shared things among the churches in our town – which is a little easier anyway than going 2 towns over to a GARBC church to get a resource. I think the article is correct. Associations may be helpful, but not necessary. They may even cause a false sense of being united with other brothers and sisters in Christ when a church isn’t really doing anything with them at all.

    Reply

  15. The GARBC is a FELLOWSHIP not a ASSOCIATION nor a CONVENTION.Your words are silly. And by the way the BIBLE knows nothing of LAYPEOPLE or CLERGY

    Reply

    • Jon,

      For your edification:

      GARBC stands for “General ASSOCIATION of Regular Baptist Churches.” It is an association. By the way, I actually pastor a church in this association. Surprised?

      Regarding laypeople/clergy, I only used the word “laypeople” one time in this article and didn’t use the word “clergy” at all. However, the Bible does make numerous mentions of the distinctions between the “sheep” and their “shepherd,” the “equipped” and the “equippers,” the “learners” and the “teachers,” etc. I do not believe that pastors are better than the people in their care but they certainly are distinguished in a number of ways.

      Try not to make personal attacks by saying “Your words are silly” when in actuality it may be the converse. Further posts like this will be deleted.

      Reply

  16. Your list of 5 “should not associate’s” above appear to me to be a bit of a straw man. Who is telling you this! Do yourself a favor and ignore “them”.

    You Pastor an independent Baptist Church. And every GARBC church is an independent Baptist church.

    Many many young adults from GARBC churches still enroll in Cedarville.

    30 years ago as a GARBC Pastor, I read from, bought his books, and quoted John Mac. ! No one stopped me then. (I wish I could say that I went to a Shepherds’ conference but never had the $$$. But had I I would have gone).

    Reply

  17. Posted by David Charleston on September 13, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    It really is sad that so many are wasting your time discussing this. It is the same thing I saw when I attended FBBC, a bunch of people impressed with what they think they know and how their interpretation of God’s Word is exact, while most can’t count on one finger how many people they have witnessed to in the past two week or why they still haven’t dealt with their hidden sin.

    It is the arrogance of people trying to convince others that they have some perfect in site on the Bible. Association hasn’t done a thing for the GARB except keep them missing out on fellowship with many of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Are you really going to complain when you get to heaven and find out no one really cared about your way and God didn’t care. You are wasting you time on things that will not and do not matter.

    Reply

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