The Confession on Associations

There may be some who read the words of our last post, and have no difficulty accepting what has been written, but who argue that this type of oneness is demonstrated through conferences, pastors fellowships and personal friendships.  Nothing else is necessary, and anything more is an intrusion upon the rights of the local church and without historical support.  They have been led to believe that the early Baptist associations were more like meetings for fellowship than structured, formal and active organizations.  But such notions are untrue. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to consider the theological terminology used to support the concept of associationalism in the 1689 Confession.

In chapter 26 of the 1689 Confession, the theological rationale for the practice of associations was expressed in these terms:

14. As each Church, and all the Members of it are bound to pray (d) continually, for the good and prosperity of all the Churches of Christ, in all places; and upon all occasions to further it (every one within the bounds of their places, and callings, in the Exercise of their Gifts and Graces) so the Churches (when planted by the providence of God so as they may injoy opportunity and advantage for it) ought to hold (e) communion amongst themselves for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification.

(d) Eph. 6.18. Ps. 122.6.

(e) Rom. 16.1,2. 3 Joh. 8,9,10.

15. In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of Doctrine, or Administration; wherein either the Churches in general are concerned, or any one Church in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any Church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth, and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many Churches holding communion together, do by their messengers meet to consider, (f) and give their advice, in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the Churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled are not entrusted with any Church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the Churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any Churches, or Persons: or (g)to impose their determination on the Churches, or Officers.

(f) Act. 15.2,4,6. & 22,23.25.

(g) 2 Cor. 1.24. 1 Joh. 4.1.[1]

These two paragraphs speak of the necessity and functioning of associations.

Now someone will immediately object:  “That can’t be true.  Where do they even use the word ‘associations?’  I don’t see anything formal, anything beyond fellowship in these two chapters.”  At first glance, this seems like a substantial argument.  The word ‘association’ is not used in these chapters.  Why then do I make such an assertion as this?

It is important to remember that we need to use the same kind of caution in exegeting the Confession as we do with the Scriptures.[2] Let me explain what I mean.  Words are very flexible, and often have different senses at different points in the history of their usage.  For example, the word “prevent” in late 20th century American dialect bears the sense “to hinder” or “to stop from occurring.”  But nearly 400 years ago, when the King James Version was translated, it signified “to go before,” and is used in this way in the 1611 translation of 1 Thess. 4:15, “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.”   If we read this phrase and tried to understand it according to our contemporary sense of “prevent” we would wonder what Paul is trying to say.  Why would we want to hinder from rising those who have died in the Lord?  Obviously we don’t, and so we must remember that the word carried another more suitable sense when it was used by the translators.  The same is true in our Confession with the word “communion.”  For most modern Christians, “communion” has two senses.  It may refer specifically to the Lord’s Table, which most regard as a fellowship meal, or it may refer to fellowship between believers at any time.  But neither of these are the sense intended in chapter 26 of the Confession.

In many 17th century documents which use the word “communion” in reference to church relationships, it bears the sense “formal, organic relationship.”  Several examples will demonstrate this.

1. At the second meeting of the Midlands Association on June 26,  1656, an agreement which served as something of a constitution for the Association was adopted.  It states:

The Lord our God having, according to his free and infinite mercy, given us to be in his sonn Jesus Christ and in himself through him and to be baptized into his name and to walke in distinct churches and assemblies of Zion; according to the rule of his word, according to the measure and knowledg of grace which he hath bestowed upon us and given unto us to agree in the same principles . . . we do therefore, according to the will of God, clearely apearing in his word, with true thankfullnes unto him for his grace, mutually acknowledg each other to be true churches of Christ, and that it is our duty to hold a close communion each to other as the Lord shall give opportunity and abillity, endeavouring that we may all increase more and more in faith and knowledg and in all purity and holiness to the honour of our God, and it is our resolution, in the strength of Christ, to endeavour thus to doe.[3]

These words approximate and anticipate those of the Second London Confession.  They were subscribed by representatives of seven churches, including Warwick, Morton (Moreton-in-Marsh), Alchester (Alcester), Teuxbury (Tewksbury), and Hook Norton, all of which sent representatives to the London General Assembly in 1689.  Following the names of the subscribers, an explanation of the implications of this agreement is provided, further defining their understanding of what “close communion” implies:

Forasmuch as the churches  . . . doe mutually acknowledg each other to be true churches of Christ and that it is their duty to hold a clos communion each with other according to the rule of his worde and soe be helpefull each to other as God shall give opertunitie and abillitie and these churches are now desired to consider that they acknowledg each other and are faithfully to hold such communion each with other and to endever to be helpful each to other:

1. In giving of advice after searious consultation and deliberation in matters and controversies remaining doubtfull to any perticular church as plainly apeareth in the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch. Acts 15.

2. In giving and receiving allsoe in case of poverty and wante of any perticular churches as appeareth in the approved and due acting of the churches of the Gentiles towards the churches of Jerusalem. Ro. 15.26f.

3. In sending their gifted brethren to use their giftes for the edification of the churches that need the same: as they shall see it seasonable, as the church at Jerusalem sente Barnabas to Antioch. Acts 11.22.

4. In a joynt caring on of any worke of the Lord that is common to the churches as they shall have oppertunity to joyne therein to the glory of God as apeareth in 2 Cor. 8.19.

5. In watching over each other and considering each other for good in respect of puritie of doctrine, exercise of love and good conversation: they being all members of the same body of Christ, I. Cor. 12.12 who therefore ought to have care one of another, I Cor. 12.29 especially considering how the glory of God is concerned in their standing and holi conversation.[4]

This was a formal agreement, approved by messengers “authorised and appoynted” by their churches for the purpose of establishing a formal association.  Communion was not merely fellowship in the gospel, it was mutual recognition, support and commitment.  Over the course of the next few years, other churches sought membership in the association, including Lemster (Leominster) Sept, 1657; Gloster (Gloucester) and Bewdley, both April, 1658.[5] Each of these applications required formal action on the part of the messengers to the association meetings.

2. The Abingdon Association was begun by messengers sent from three churches in October, 1652.  These messengers proposed a series of conclusions justifying their actions, beginning with: “That perticular churches of Christ ought to hold a firme communion each with other . . . .”[6] On March 17, 1653, messengers from five churches, Abingdon, Henley, Reading, Kensworth and Eversholt[7] confirmed and subscribed the following:

The Agreement of certaine churches, viz., of Abington, Reading, Henley, Kensworth and Eversholt.

Whereas the Lord hath made it appeare unto us by the holy Scriptures that true churches of Christ ought to acknowledge one another to be such and to hold a firme communion each with other in point of advice in things remaining doubtfull to any particular church or churches as also in giving and receiving in case of the want and povertie of any particular church or churches and in consulting and consenting (as need shall require and as shall be most for the glorie of God) to the joynt carying on of the worke of the Lord that is common to the churches.  And the same Lord hath made us to discerne and minde our agreement in our principles and constitutions and to be preswaded (as we hope upon good grounds) of each other’s endeavouring to walke accordingly.  We doe therefore hereby declare that we doe mutually acknowledge each other to be true churches of Christ and doe agree (according to our dutye) to maintaine a strict communion each with other in the particulars aforementioned and, whatsoever else we shall discerne the Word of God to require true churches to hold communion in; and, accordingly, doe engage ourselves in the strength of Christ and through his grace, faithfully to performe each towards other such dutyes of churches so joyning together to the glorie of God.[8]

Once again, “firme communion” involves formal union and mutual acknowledgment.  It is not merely fellowship among churches of like mind.  It is formal association, “joyning together to the glorie of God.”  This is confirmed by the following note from the eleventh General Meeting, held at Tetsworth on June 19-20, 1655:

At this meeting the churches of Wantage, Watlington, Kingston and Hadnam were received into association by the expresse consent of the churches before associated and did by their messengers subscribe the agreement of the associated churches.[9]

Similar notations are made when Pirton (Oct. 1655), Oxford and Hempsteed (Hemel Hempstead) (Mar. 1656) joined the association.[10] At the September, 1656 meeting, a letter from the church at North Warmborow was presented and discussed.  It spoke of that church’s appreciation for “your love and tendernes towards us and your readiness to receive us into communion and association with you and so under your care.”[11] These churches were committed to one another by detailed and formal agreements. Communion was not just fellowship at regular meetings.  Three decades later, the same ideas are found, only on a national scale in the General Assemblies which met in London.

3. The General Assemblies which met in London from 1689-93 published Narratives for each year of their meeting.  While the word “communion” is used in all of them, one in particular helps our investigation In the 1691 Narrative, churches are specifically called “members” in several places.  Most noteworthy is the following:

For the preserving of Peace and Concord amongst the Churches of our Association; in a due Tenderness to all the Members in communion with us, the following Questions were proposed, and Answers concluded thereupon as followeth . . . .[12]

Communion implies membership in the association.   A careful reading of this statement will reveal the stylistic parallelism used by the author(s).  The elements of the first clause “the Churches of our Association” are repeated in the next clause, only in different terms “the Members in communion with us.”  The two phrases are functionally equivalent in the context, and define the nature of the relationship.  In this case, association equals communion.

These three examples, which could easily be multiplied, provide some historical context to the meaning of “communion” in paragraphs 14 & 15 of chapter 26 of the 1689 Confession.  When they say “so the churches, when planted by the providence of God, so as they may enjoy opportunity and advantage for it, ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification,” they are expressing their conviction that churches providentially placed together should associate themselves.  There is an “oughtness,” a duty, to this doctrine.  The fullness of the Bible’s teaching on visible unity could not be satisfied by pastoral friendships or conferences or minister’s fraternals. They believed that churches located in close proximity should enter into agreements for mutual benefit, and to participate together in the work of the Gospel.  We may now turn to this aspect of their doctrine.

[1]A Confession of Faith.  Put Forth by the Elders and Brethren of Many Congregations of Christians (baptized upon Profession of their Faith) in London and the Country. (London: Printed in the Year, 1677), 92-94.  The Confession was again issued in 1688 and 1699. Many modern reprints of the Confession are available, though most of them have minor differences from the seventeenth century editions.  In the present case, differences may be noted in the placement of punctuation and references for the scripture proofs within the text. Italics are in the original.

[2]I am not by this saying or implying that the Confession should have an equal place with the Scriptures.  I am simply saying that as an historical document, written and adopted in another era, we must not make facile assumptions about the meanings of words or phrases.

[3]White, Association Records, 20.

[4]Ibid., 20-21.

[5]Ibid., 33,37.

[6]Ibid., 126; see also page 127.

[7]Of these founding churches, only Henley was not represented at the 1689 Assembly.

[8]Ibid., 129.

[9]Ibid., 139.

[10]Of these churches, Wantage, Hadnam (Haddenham), Oxford, and Hempsteed (Hemel Hempstead) sent messengers to the 1689 General Assembly.

[11]Ibid., 140, 145, 162.

[12]A Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Elders and Messengers of the Baptized Churches . . . (London, Printed in the year 1691), 11.