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Ecclesiology

Historical Basis for Baptist Cooperation – The 1689ers

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By the 1670s the political climate in England was such that Baptists thought it prudent to show their solidarity with other English nonconformists like the Presbyterians and Congregationalists. This led to what is known today as the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith that was actually first written and published in 1677.[1] Chapter 26, Paragraphs 14-15 state,

As each church, and all the members of it, are bound to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ, in all places, and upon all occasions to further 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 enjoy opportunity and advantage for it, ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification.

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, 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 intrusted [sic] 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 to impose their determination on the churches or officers.

This Confession is similar to its 1644 predecessor but also goes into more detail on the nature of associational work. It actually uses the word “ought” to demonstrate that association among Baptists was not seen as merely something optional but even a duty. For local churches that have the opportunity to cooperate with like-minded churches in reasonable geographical proximity to not take advantage of this good providence is to be neglectful of God’s intent for His churches. Like the 1644 Confession, it highlights the necessity of churches meeting together to discuss problems that may arise, doctrinal issues, or even dealing with members of local churches that have an issue with church discipline. It is important to highlight again that the 1689 London Baptist Confession expresses that Baptist associations hold no authority over local churches. But, as James Renihan notes, “Independency did not imply isolation.”[2]

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the Baptists of the late 17th century in England did not merely talk about associating, they actually did associate. Robert Torbet notes that, “the Particular Baptists…were reluctant to organize, fearing the loss of their local autonomy and freedom of conscience. However, they ‘were never independent in their attitude to other churches of similar outlook;’ they felt the need of closer association, particularly in the metropolitan areas.”[3]

Thus,

In 1689 a General Assembly of Particular Baptists was organized. This meeting, and those which followed periodically, possessed several distinctive characteristics. (1) Close membership was practiced; thus only churches of baptized believers were admitted. (2) Open communion was permitted, leaving each church to decide for itself whether visitors of non-Baptist fellowships should be allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper. (3) At its first session, the Assembly upheld the Lord’s day for worship in preference to the Seventh Day. (4) The Assembly aimed to have an educated as well as an ordained ministry…(5) Its growth was rapid, there being one hundred and seven churches in attendance at the General Assembly of 1692.[4]

The General Assembly of Particular Baptists was organized on robust doctrinal positions that extended beyond primary issues. For example, 1689 Baptists agreed with Presbyterians on the gospel, but the Presbyterians would not have been invited to be part of this General Assembly since it was for Baptist churches. Furthermore, this assembly expressly stated,

We disclaim all manner of Superiority, Superintendency over the Churches; and that we have no authority or Power, to prescribe or impose any thing upon the Faith or Practice of any of the Churches of Christ. Our whole Intendment, is to be helpers together of one another, by way of Counsel and Advice, in the right understanding of the Perfect Rule which our Lord Jesus, the only Bishop of our Souls, hath prescribed, and given to his Churches in his Word, and therefore do severally and jointly agree.[5]

 

The assembly made several practical moves toward tangible cooperation between likeminded churches in England. They, for example, took up a collective fund that they could use for three main reasons. The first was to help churches in need to pay their pastors. Secondly, it could be used to send ministers to places to preach the gospel where it needed to be preached. Thirdly, it could be used to help gifted members or ministers in studying languages like Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.[6] In essence, the money was used for local church ministry, missions, and education.

This fund shows the willingness of the churches not merely to talk about the importance and necessity of associating together but demonstrates a tangible way of cooperation. In 1690, the General Assembly noted regarding this fund that, “Some at the cost of the Fund were sent out to preach the Gospel, with which the People were so affected, that they were forced to ride from place to place, and preach every day till they were even spent; and divers were baptized and two Churches are like to be gathered; and the People have sent again for their help; their Meetings were very great, and a great Door is open in those Eastern Parts, the Lord make it effectual.”[7] Thus, the Assembly’s fund shows Baptist churches pooling their earthly resources together and distributing money in a collective effort towards gospel preaching, ministry, church planting, missions, and theological education.

Regarding this fund, the 1690 Assembly gave suggestions for churches to give. It was made plain churches must first care for their “Ministers.” In any situation that a church’s Minister was sufficiently supplied, churches were encouraged to give to the collective fund. Further, rules were given for when a local church should make use of the fund. “[W]hen a Church hath done all they can do to their utmost and will not be sufficient, then those Messengers do acquaint their respective Association, and they together do consider what may be needful to be had out of the Fund”.[8]

Another thing this assembly did was to answer doctrinal questions. For example, one question proposed to the assembly was whether or not believers were justified at the moment that Christ died on the Cross. The assembly answered by saying that, “[N]one can be said to be actually reconciled, justified, or adopted, until they are really implanted into Jesus Christ by Faith and so by virtue of this their Union with him, have these Fundamental Benefits actually conveyed unto them.”[9]

Another thing the General Assembly did was give practical suggestions for cooperation among churches. Consider, for example, this question asked to the Assembly, “Whether it be not expedient for Churches that live near together, and consist of small numbers, and are not able to maintain their own Ministry [i.e., pay a pastor], to join together for the better and more comfortable support of their Ministry, and better Edification one of another?” The answer was, “Concluded in the Affirmative.”[10] That is, the General Assembly saw it a matter of prudence for small churches in close proximity who could not afford a minister, to combine and form a new local church that could afford a minister. In fact, an anonymous author expanded on this idea in a book printed and distributed to churches in 1689 entitled, The Gospel Minister’s Maintenance Vindicated, which was, “Recommended to the Baptize Congregations by Several Elders in and about the City of London.”[11] In this book it says,

It may deserve our most mature Consideration, whether a People may safely continue themselves in a Church State, when not able to provide for a Ministry, especially as the Case may be circumstanced; for, possibly they might very well joyn [sic] themselves to another Congregation near unto them, and be a real help to such a Church, being Imbodied with them, And this we do say, For a People to put themselves into a Church State, is one of the most weightiest Things in the World, and ought with as great Care and Consideration to be done; we concluding in some places where there are many Churches near to each other, it would be far better for some of those small and insufficient Societies to unite themselves to some other Congregation; and by that means the weight of those Indispensable Duties and Obligations that are incumbent on them, would with much more ease be borne and answeres [sic], to the Honour of Christ, reputation of the Gospel, and their own Edification.[12]

The point this book, and the General Assembly, makes is not that local churches are obligated to join together if they cannot afford a full-time ministry. Rather, these great Baptists were attempting to think through how churches ought to associate together. And in their mind, it made sense for two small churches close in doctrine and proximity, to unite together into one local church so that they could pay for a Pastor’s needs in such a way that he would not have to be so preoccupied with secular work and could appropriately attend the flock and be occupied with the Word of God and prayer (cf. Acts 6:4). Again, this was not mandated, in fact, nothing the Assembly suggested was mandated. Instead, the General Assembly of these 17th Century Baptists was for the purpose of advice and counsel on doctrinal matters, but also how the churches could cooperate together in a concrete way for the glory of Christ.

In conclusion, it behooves us to stop and appreciate the time, study, writing, dialogue, and prayer these 17th century Baptists put into thinking through the issues of cooperation.[13] This does not in itself prove they were right in their conclusions. But it ought to give us in the 21st century serious pause before dismissing their conclusions. Some of the hardest time and effort has already been done for us on this subject by these men.


 

[1] Denominations or Associations?, 235-237.

[2] Faith and Life for Baptists, 15.

[3] Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 3rd Printing 2000), 67.

[4] Ibid., 68.

[5] Faith and Life for Baptists, 34.

[6] Ibid., 36.

[7] Ibid., 62.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Ibid., 38.

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Ibid., 141. The work is “attributed to Benjamin Keach”, 139.

[12] Ibid., 185.

[13] The technical term today is Associationalism.

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