Partnering For The Sake Of The Gospel
At the very beginning of the Baptist story, in the early 1640s and 1650s, our Baptist forebears recognized the vital necessity of “partnering” with fellow believers and congregations who shared similar perspectives on the Christian life. One of the clearest places to see this is what is called the First London Confession of Faith, which was published by seven Baptist churches in London, England, in two editions: the first appeared in 1644 and it was then reprinted with a few changes in 1646. While recognizing the autonomy of the local church, the First London Confession of Faith also forcefully declared that since these churches “all walk by one and the same rule” they are “by all means convenient to have the counsel and help of one another in all needful affairs of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head.” The autonomy of each local congregation is recognized here as a biblical given, but so is the fact that each congregation ultimately belongs to only one body and each shares the same head, the Lord Christ. Therefore, local congregations should endeavour to partner with one another and join together in associations.
The sort of partnership that the men who framed this statement had in mind is readily seen in the various Bible passages that they cited alongside this statement. Among the verses they refer to are 1 Corinthians 16:1, which has to do with the collection of money that Paul gathered from congregations in Greece and Asia Minor for the poor in the church at Jerusalem, and Colossians 4:16, in which the church at Colossae is urged to share Paul’s letter to them with the church at Laodicea and vice versa. Other texts that they cite include Acts 15:2–3, which deals with the Jerusalem Council, and 2 Corinthians 8:1–4, which also has to do with the collection of money for the church at Jerusalem. In other words, the authors of this Confession envisioned the churches helping one another in areas of financial need as well as in giving advice with regard to doctrinal and ethical matters. Ultimately what bound the churches together was a common determination to walk according to the “one and the same rule,” that is, the Scriptures. Only where there is such genuine agreement as to the source of final authority for life and doctrine can local churches walk and work together in partnerships.
By 1660, these seven congregations had grown to about 130 throughout the British Isles gathered in about seven or so associations. The 1640s and the 1650s were tumultuous years in English history, as the land was convulsed in civil war and experienced massive social, political, and economic upheaval. The Baptists flourished, however, and their commitment to partnering in associations played an absolutely vital part in their growth. These partnerships in associations provided mutual strength and fellowship, an instrument for preserving congregational integrity and orthodoxy, a means of providing for the financial needs of poorer congregations, and a way of supporting church-planting and evangelistic endeavours. The vital place that these first-generation Baptists accorded to their partnerships/associations is well expressed by 20th-century British historian Barrie White when he states that these early Baptists “no more believed that an individual congregation should be free to go its own way than that an individual believer could be a serious Christian without commitment to a local, visible congregation.”
—Dr. Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History & Biblical Spirituality, and Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.