Confessional Subscription: A Test Case (Part 1)

Confessional Subscription: A Test Case by Prof. Renihan

It is beneficial to demonstrate the nature of confessional subscription by examining our Confession’s doctrine of associations. This is one of the important means by which to gauge the extent of an individual’s, or church’s, level of subscription. This material has been published before in both pamphlet and book form.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Associations of Churches[1]

James M. Renihan

Many Reformed Baptists rejoice at the prospect of the formation of a national association of Churches committed to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.  But there are others who are not so sure about this matter, and who reserve judgment on its propriety and remain aloof from involvement in its activities.  They are concerned with some important issues, one of which is the existence of historical precedents among Reformed Baptists[2] for such a practice.  This paper is an attempt to present some of the historical material in order to help our discussions to be well informed.

From their beginning in the 1640s, the Calvinistic Baptist churches in England believed in and practiced inter-church communion. They held that the independence of local churches did not mean isolation, and put this belief into practice by means of associations.  The First London Confession of 1644 was issued through the cooperative efforts of seven London churches, and the political climate of the 1650s provided opportunities for several regional associations to organize and function.[3] The ebb and flow of persecution and toleration during the uncertain days of the reigns of Charles II and James II tended to drive the churches into a survival mode and thus hindered extensive involvement with others (though there are many records which show that it did continue as opportunity allowed).  It was not until after the accession of William and Mary in 1689 that the Baptists (and other Dissenters as well) were truly free to hold public meetings.  The leaders of the London churches responded quickly to the new opportunity, and sent out a letter of invitation in which they called for a General Assembly to meet in Sept., 1689.  At that meeting, they publicly endorsed a document which had been published in 1677, and became known as the Assembly Confession, or the Second London Confession, or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.   This document is recognized as the subordinate standard, after the Bible, in our Reformed Baptist churches.  It became the basis of the Philadelphia Confession of 1742, and was adopted by the Warren Association in Rhode Island and the Charleston Association in South Carolina, both in 1767.[4] Its influence on Baptist life in America and England is extensive.

On what basis did these Reformed Baptists organize and function in their associations?  From the records left behind by these churches we may notice two things relevant to this question: 1. The Scriptural Basis for Associationalism as Understood by our Forefathers, and 2. The Practice of Associationalism as Implemented by our Forefathers.

1. The Scriptural Basis for Associationalism as Understood by our Forefathers

Some might argue that there is no Scriptural warrant for the practice of associations.  Yet their presence is undisputed from the very beginnings of Calvinistic Baptist church life.  Were these associations merely pragmatic, or perhaps a cultural reflection of the time? It is important to know the theological basis upon which our early brothers acted.  The first public statement of faith published by the seventeenth century Baptists, the 1644 London Confession, provides a hint at their understanding.  They believed that the Bible’s teaching about church relationships required the practice of associationalism.  Notice what they say:

And Although the particular Congregations be distinct and severall Bodies, every one a compact and knit Citie in it selfe; yet are they all to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all meanes convenient to have the counsell and help one of another in all needfull affaires of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their onely head.[5]

This statement implies that the independent churches are members of one body, and thus have an obligation to walk together in doctrine and practice.  Among the Scripture references used to support this paragraph are Col. 2:6,9 and 4:16.  They say, “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him . . . . all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase which is from God . . . . When this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle form Laodicea.”  These early Baptists seem to have understood these verses to imply a formal relationship of independent churches.  Their fellowship together was a reflection of the teaching of the Bible, and thus was a necessity among the churches.

A similar argument is encountered in the records of the Abingdon Association, founded in 1652.  When the churches formed their association, they were not willing to do so on a merely pragmatic basis, but sought to justify their practice from Scripture.  They state:

Because in respect of union in Christ there is a like relation betwixt the particular churches each towards other, as there is betwixt particular members of one church.  For the churches of Christ doe all make up but one bodye or church in generall under Christ their head, as Eph. 1.22f., Col. 1.24, Eph. 5.23ff., I Cor. 12.13ff., as particular members make up one particular church under the same head, Christ and all the particular assemblyes are but one Mount Syon, Is. 4.5, Christ’s undefiled is but one, Song 6.9.  And in his bodie there is to be no schisme which is then found in the bodye when all the members have not the same care one over another.  Wherefore we conclude that everie church ought to manifest its care over other churches as fellow members of the same body of Christ in generall to rejoyce and mourne with them according to the law of their relation in Christ.[6]

For these churches, there was an analogy between the doctrine of membership in the local church and membership in associations.    The oneness of the universal body of Christ is to be reflected in visible oneness among the independent churches of Christ.  They are to show to the world that Mount Zion, Christ’s bride, is one.

This theme is echoed throughout the literature of the 17th and 18th century Baptist associations.  They believed that it was possible for churches to unite together in demonstration of their oneness in Christ, without in any way infringing on the independence and autonomy of the Local church.

[1]Much of this material was originally published in pamphlet form by Reformed Baptist Publications, La Mirada, California.

[2]I realize that “Reformed Baptist” is a relatively new description for Confessional Baptists.  A more common name historically is “Particular Baptist,” but this term is now unfamiliar to many.  Although the name may be recent, it is an accurate denominator for all those who have held the 1689 Confession to be a true expression of the teaching of the Bible, and I use it in this paper to refer to all such men and churches, regardless of the historical period in which they lived.

[3]The text of the 1644 Confession may be found in William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969 rev. ed.), 153-171; the minutes of several regional associations have been transcribed in B. R. White, ed., Association Records of the Particular Baptists of England, Wales and Ireland to 1660, 3 vols. (London: The Baptist Historical Society, 1971-74).

[4]Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 352.

[5]Ibid., 168-69.  Spelling in quotations is left as in the original throughout this paper.

[6]White, Association Records, 128.