By Benjamin G. Campbell
We all, at Everyday Theology, are Baptists through and through, specifically holding to the Free Will Baptist tradition. While there are several distinctive beliefs we hold – like that of conditional election or the possibility of apostasy – the value of local associations might be at the top of this distinctive list.
Throughout this blog post, I will briefly look at the history of associations, define associationalism, and then give some practical applications for all Baptists interested in recovering the value of local associationalism.
Early Baptist Associations
The associations of the early English Baptists came from a place of disagreement with the Church of England, specifically in areas of church government and the ordinance of baptism. The early Baptists believed that “Only those who have knowingly profess faith should be baptized.” The Church of England essentially placed every citizen of Europe under the Church’s rule, which meant there was no leniency with how the church could be governed.
However, alongside the ecclesiastical and doctrinal differences, the early Baptists (once they moved to America) were interested in forming a group of believers who shared the same unity through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, we see here a priority for associations in the early seventeenth century: fellowship among sister churches. And, if you truly consider what is going on, fellowship is understandably the top priority.
During the early years of Baptist life, associationalism began to thrive more and more because of the surpassing worth and value of gathering together as sister churches. The fellowship enjoyed by sister churches was a sign of vitality. It signified the true brotherhood and unity among those churches who had once lived in a constant state of disunity with the Church of England.
In order to truly define a Baptist association, one must approach the topic with inductive reasoning. What I mean by this is that you simply don’t come across one sole definition of a Baptist association throughout history. You glean the definition from those who wrote about them or the minutes recorded within the general assemblies. Unless the definition is simply a group of churches willingly associating together, there is not one definition.
So, then, the question is not merely “What is an association?” but “Why is there a need for associations?” Truly, the latter is a much more profitable question then the former. For to simply define an association would only give a definition, but asking the purpose of an association would provide definition AND direction.
If we were to simply ask and answer the first question, the simplest definition of an association is a general assembly of churches which existed as “the body which deals directly with the local church and would be the first level of appeal from the local church. It is also the body to which the local church delegates its authority to ordain and discipline ministers.” But more importantly, these voluntary associations exist for more than just dealing with local churches. As mentioned earlier, they are also created for fellowship and church planting.
However, the latter question earlier posed is still unanswered: why the need? The need is much greater than just mere fellowship or church planting or levels of appeal. The Free Will Baptist Treatise argues that associations are much more beneficial than one might think. It’s more than fellowship and such, but is also for the edification and encouragement of these local churches voluntarily associating together, and an opportunity for these churches to do more for the kingdom of God cooperatively than individually.
While there is enough of a purpose in the Treatise, I would also add that associations protect and guide local churches to maintain Baptist theology and practice. I would even argue that the accountability aspect of associationalism might be the most vital element for necessity. Without some sort of accountability to a set of doctrinal principles and practices, ecclesiology and methodology become a free-for-all.
So, in short, associationalism exists for the purpose of edification, encouragement, and accountability.
Principles for Application
The possibilities are endless when edification, encouragement, and accountability are present in Baptist associationalism. Here are a few that I would suggest:
- Voluntarily Associate Your Church. It might seem trivial to mention this, but I believe associationalism is a valuable pursuit for a local church. The benefits, most definitely, outweigh the risks.
- Encourage Your Membership to Participate. Associations are not just for pastors; they are for all members of all congregations. Thomas Grantham explains that “general assemblies” as they were called were “concern’d as Members and Ministers of the Church of God, take a natural care of one anothers preservation.” We need the church, but we also need local associations.
- Retrieve a Healthy Associationalism. To be honest, there is no such thing as healthy associationalism without retrieving the associational practices of the historic Baptists. Timothy George is the herald of renewal through retrieval, which simply conveys the idea that the way we renew our current ecclesiological practices is through retrieving these practices from Scripture and Christian history.
- Use Your Association to Better Your Local Churches. The most important element of local associationalism is the healthy effects it might have on local churches. The business it does, the support it sends to denominational agencies, and the fellowship it provides will do nothing but help your church. Yet, included in these benefits is the aspect of accountability to Free Will Baptist (in our case here at Everyday Theology) belief and practice.
- Hold Confessionally to Your Beliefs. Historically, it was customary for associations to use confessions and creeds for added layers of doctrinal foundations building upon Holy Scripture. While confessions and creeds are not authoritative, they do help affirm and explain what one believes.
So, is there still value in local associations? By just scratching the surface, I hope you can see that there is much to be gleaned from local, Baptist associationalism. As I mentioned earlier, the benefits outweigh the risks in every case.
I’m truly convinced that if young Baptists like myself want to see Baptists continue to thrive and move forward, a recovery of local associationalism is the necessity and the answer.
 Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A Finn, and Michael A.G. Haykin. The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 26.
 J. Matthew Pinson. A Free Will Baptist Handbook: Heritage, Beliefs, Ministries (Nashville: Randall House, 2022), 184.
 Ibid., 185.
 Thomas Grantham, “Of General Assemblies” Book 2 Ch. 10 in Christianismus Primitivus (London: Forgotten Books, 2015), 139.
 For a wonderful sermon regarding associationalism by a dear friend, Jake Stone, click here.