Why Don’t They Associate? (part 1)

When Tom Chantry announced that he was going to begin a new series of blog articles about the history of the Reformed Baptist movement in America over the past several decades I was quite excited about it.  I greatly enjoyed the lectures on Modern Church history from Reformed Baptist Seminary, and I always enjoy hearing other perspectives on historical events.  I have genuinely enjoyed reading these blogs as they have been posted and I recommend anyone who wasn’t aware of them to go over to Chantrynotes.wordpress.com and spend some time there.  (later addition:  after reading some of the later posts I plead with anyone who reads them to do so with a heavy dose of Proverbs 18:17)

I must also say, however, that after reading his fourth and sixth installments, I became concerned about something.  I am not making the claim that Tom is purposefully misrepresenting a section of the Reformed Baptist movement, but I fear that those readers who are unacquainted with the Reformed Baptist Churches that conscientiously refrain from formal associations may easily get the wrong idea about them.  Since what Tom is presenting is a historical narrative of the interactions between these churches, it would be silly to ask him to take the time to articulate all the historical, theological and exegetical reasons for the different positions taken by these churches.  Imagine how long that would take!  But I am uncomfortable with the idea that anyone should be left with the impression that the churches like Trinity in Montville, NJ and the pastors like AN Martin held their position on the matter of associations merely out of historical ignorance, fundamentalist Baptist influences and fear of the repetition of previous injurious denominational situations.


It is for this reason that I begin this short blog series.  My purpose is to accurately represent the historical, theological and Biblical reasoning behind some Reformed Baptist churches conscientiously abstaining from formal associations.  I am not by any means attempting to attack ARBCA or like associations.  I am a member of a Reformed Baptist church that belongs to ARBCA, and I have never made any attempt to convince our elders that we should leave the association.  I also spent 11 years in another Reformed Baptist church that conscientiously abstained from joining ARBCA, which I believe gives me some insight into the real reasons such churches have for their choice not to formally associate.  It hurts me to think that a bias against these churches might be formed by anyone whose opinion is shaped solely by the representation of those who disagree with them on this subject. Therefore I will attempt to paint a faithful picture, and set forth at least some of the reasoning behind a non-associating stance as well as demonstrating how such churches answer the most common objections brought against them.

Historical Precedence

The first area I want to address is the most common thread I have noticed among those who advocate the formal association of churches.  It is repeatedly pointed out that early in the Reformed Baptist movement there was almost complete ignorance of the associational practices of the Particular Baptist churches who penned our beloved Confession of Faith and held to its doctrine.  I do not wish  to contradict the fact that very little was known at that time and I certainly do not wish to take anything away from the wonderful work Dr. Renihan has done.  We are indeed in great debt to him for his research and labor. I love to repeatedly listen to the lectures he has on the history of the Particular Baptists.  The point I wish to make on the subject is this:  The mere fact that the Particular Baptist churches of the 1600’s joined in formal associations and used those associations as the means of fulfilling the statements of chapter 26 of our confession, does not necessitate the idea that the only legitimate means of fulfilling those statements is through formal associations.  That sentence seems about as clear as mud, so please allow me to elaborate.

It is true that the Particular Baptists believed in joining formal associations of churches.  It is also true that they used these associations as a means of fulfilling the requirements of paragraphs 14 & 15 of chapter 26 of our Confession of Faith.  But it is not true that those Particular Baptist churches taught that to abstain from a formal association of churches would violate the requirements of those paragraphs.

Please take the time to read the paper I have included here:

Another Perspective 

–in which Pastor Dave Chanski examines the historical context of the wording of our Confession of Faith on the matter of communion of churches.

As Pastor Chanski has made abundantly clear, the original authors of the wording of our confession, (men like John Owen, Thomas Goodwin and Jeremiah Burroughs), did not enter into formal associations of churches.  In fact, as you can see in footnote 14 & 15, these Puritans plainly opposed certain aspects of formal associations.  The men who originally penned “The Two Most Contentious Paragraphs in Reformed Baptist History” did not believe that formal associations of churches were required in order to abide by them!

I just want to make a few applications of these facts before closing this first installment.

  1.  Any claim that a church cannot abide by Chap. 26 par 14-15 of our Confession of Faith unless they join in formal associations must be abandoned.  We may argue that the requirements are more easily met through formal associations or that formal associations are a genuine aid in our efforts to carry out the provisions of these paragraphs.  But we must drop the idea that formal association is absolutely necessary.
  2. We cannot assume that any church rejecting formal association does so on fundamentalist Baptist principles.  Surely the Puritan Congregationalists who penned the words of our confession were free from such influences.
  3. The idea that to reject formal association is to redefine “communion” in chapter 26 of our confession is completely untenable.  Those who originally wrote the words did not define it that way.  Neither did the Particular Baptists redefine the term by adhering to formal associations.  The fact of the matter is, the terms of these two paragraphs can be met either with or without formal associations of churches without any need of redefining terms.

His Throne is Forever and Ever!


12 comments on “Why Don’t They Associate? (part 1)

  1. Jan Chanski says:

    I have been reading the other blog and have found it very interesting. I am glad you are taking up this subject, Rex. Sometime, I would like to hear the differences and similarities of your two recent experiences being a member in RB churches. Maybe that needs to be a more “private” post though as I surely do not want to open a contentious discussion!!

    • Thanks for the comment Jan. I am going to do all in my power to keep this forum gracious. I think I am in a good position to do that since I am a member of an ARBCA church but I have good friends and esteemed fathers in the faith who take the position of non-association. My intention here is simply to make the historical, theological and exegetical reasons why these brethren cannot join in formal association clear, so that they may not be misunderstood or wrongfully judged.

  2. See Pastor Alan Dunn’s comments on ‘associations’ at our website, http://www.grcclarkston.com/.
    I am a long term Reformed Baptist pastor… one who was pastoring when many unfortunate
    attitudes developed, talebearing and gossip became common, and uncharitableness and
    jealousy were fostered and even defended. So… I would be very careful about any public comments you make about people, places, events, or theologies especially if you were not there to see them unfold. This is not just about a difference of interpreting history, or differences in theological perspective, or even exegetical approach. It is also about unrighteousness. I have done a fair amount of historical writing, and my question is this – who are they who propose to write a “history” of anything without first consulting the primary source documents, e.g., personal interviews with those involved, memoirs, letters, et al. Without those primary source documents,
    not personal bias or animus, then Henry Ford’s dictum is correct: “History is bunk.” And
    if that is true, then Hegel’s axiom, “History teaches that history teaches nothing”, is also true and nothing is advanced. I only offer the above as a caution, not as something to discourage you.

    • Pastor Christianson, thank you for the admonition. I don’t intend to get into the history, since indeed I was not there. But as I read Chantry and Dykstra I recognized that anyone unacquainted with the debate over associations (and I fear that is a good portion of today’s Reformed Baptists) would come away from their articles with the idea that those who opposed formal association did so on the basis of previous injuries, fundamentalist baptist influences and following a big personality. My purpose here is simply to do the best I can to represent the actual grounds for the convictions these men hold. I just want to prevent unwitting people from developing a sour attitude toward genuinely Godly men because of lack of information.

      I would love to read Pastor Dunn’s comments, but I cannot seem to locate it on your website, could you give me the full addy?

      Thanks again.

      • Thanks Rex… go for it! ( < : *** Thanks for your kind remarks re: my 'caution'… appreciate very much your response. Yes, indeed… it is very wise to prevent "unwitting people from developing a sour attitude toward genuinely Godly men…." Pastor Al Martin is a friend of mine, and has only and ever exercised the very best in pastoral ministry to me and my congregation here in Clarkston. We love him. Paul

  3. Jultomte says:

    I highly recommend reading chapter 6 of Dr. Renihan’s book, Edification and Beauty. The pamphlet referenced in the PDF above is a condensation of this chapter. There you will see extensive research from Particular Baptist authors, associational records, and church manuscript records which substantiate the claims made in the pamphlet. While the authors of the Savoy Declaration are a helpful starting point in fleshing out the meaning of “communion” in the confession, they are not the final voice. The breadth of evidence presented in chapter 6 of Dr. Renihan’s book is more weighty and direct than what is presented above.

    • Sam,
      It’s been a few years since I read Edification and Beauty, I will gladly reread chapter 6 again before I post again on the subject. BTW, I love 1689federalism, I came to the same conclusions regarding covenant theology about a decade ago, it’s been a great blessing to see these truths spread to a wider portion of God’s people.

  4. Dan Walker says:

    Hi Rex… here is a link to the Alan Dunn article, “Perspectives on Inter-Church Fellowship”.

  5. Send me your email address and I will see if I can get an open link to you with Pastor Dunn’s good comments. I also just read Pastor Jeremy Walker’s comments on ‘associations’ at his church website. It was excellent. Thanks, Paul

  6. […] Why Don’t They Associate? (part 1) […]

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