My former church history professor, Dr. Gerald Priest, wrote a rather interesting article on the issue of authority amongst Baptist associationalism particularly on the Philadelphia Baptist Association which celebrated its 300th anniversary last year as the oldest Baptist association in America. The article is called “The Philadelphia Baptist Association and the Question of Authority” and it can be found in a wonderful but under appreciated journal called Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (Volume 12 – Fall 2007) which of course is published by my alma mater!
Priest surveys the origin of the PBA and looks at the theology and polity of this association. In the end he notes some strengths and weaknesses when it comes to associationalism particularly for Baptists who hold to autonomy. I will quote it in length but I call you to read the article on your own!
“One may learn from the history of the PBA that confessions of faith are only as reliable as those who are supposed to uphold them–the local churches. And perhaps in this lesson we may observe at once a strength and a weakness of associationalism. As we have repeatedly noted, in such an arrangement, local churches must inevitably surrender a measure of autonomy to an advisory council who sets the denominational agenda. Advice often has the effect of law. Paternity succeeds fraternity. With the PBA and the other associations it spawned in colonial America, such a consensual arrangement worked to the mutual benefit of the churches doctrinally and practically. That is, it worked because faithful godly leaders relied on a good confession of faith. But when decisions are made by a council on behalf of a local church, it compromises o some degree the capability and responsibility of the local assembly to exercise a prerogative assigned to it by the New Testament. It is true that the local church may be compensated by such a loss with the gain of the many benefits an association provides. But is the price too costly? It can be if the leadership proves untrustworthy. And one may argue that this can be a problem in the local church just as it could be in the association. But history has proven beyond doubt that effective leaders of great institutions can sway public opinion, in this case, an entire denomination. What the early leaders of the PBA decided was remarkably beneficial to the Regular Baptists of early America. Such was the case because the leaders could be trusted as righteous advisers. When personal ambition or political maneuvering or, even worse, doctrinal compromise begins to govern their decisions and taint their advice member churches will become spiritually weak and lose the candlestick of a once vibrant testimony. In short, Baptist associations can be wonderfully productive if submissive to the Word of God and servants of the churches; they can be terribly destructive of churches if allowed by them to denigrate into ‘Synagogues of Satan'” (p. 80).
For more on Associationalism see the posts by my good friend Dr. Nathan Finn (Instructor in Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) over here at his blog.