This paper on the local church in association was originally presented at a meeting of the Reformation Society of Western New York, October 10, 2019. It has been slightly modified for this blog.
In the fall of 2014, our church underwent a much-needed revitalization effort. We came to adopt a totally new statement of faith, drastically changed our membership policies, and began to reform our ministry practices—emphasizing expositional preaching, congregational singing, and the ordinary means of grace—in order to become more Word-centered and gospel-driven. In short, we transitioned from being a Pentecostal church steeped in the revivalism of Charles Finney to an evangelical, reformed, baptistic church.
Our church is thriving, by God’s grace, but we find ourselves in a new predicament: Should we be affiliated with a new denomination? What purpose does a denomination serve for independent churches? Is formal affiliation a necessity biblically, or just practically? What are the blessings or advantages of association? What are its dangers?
This paper will be an attempt to answer these questions of association from the perspective of my church and our current situation. To be sure, any answer depends on one’s ecclesiology. As a Baptist, it is my belief that the keys of the kingdom belong to the gathered congregation, and therefore I am firmly committed to regenerate church membership, congregational polity, and the independence of each local church. Denominational affiliation is not necessary for any local church to exist as a true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Admittedly, these kinds of questions are really only ever asked by those who hold to such ecclesial convictions, but it is my hope that this paper will prove illuminating and beneficial for all who are committed to fulfilling the Great Commission and maintaining a faithful gospel witness in this present age.
Biblical Evidence of Association
Denominations as we know them today—formal religious organizations whose congregations are united in their adherence to certain beliefs and practices—did not exist in the early church. In a sense, there was only one way the early church was denominated: they were ‘Christians.’ If asked what a church in the first-century believed, perhaps they would have made the great gospel confession, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Or maybe they would have replied: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as [we] were called to the one hope that belongs to [our] call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). The earliest churches were united by the apostolic testimony which they had received.
Yet, while the New Testament does not speak directly to the matter of formal denominational affiliation, it certainly has much to say about association and cooperation. In fact, the description of the relationships that existed between the various churches during the time of the apostles is striking. Jonathan Leeman presents the following summary of evidence:
Different churches shared love and greetings:
- “All the churches greet you” (Rom. 16:16).
- “The churches of Asia send you greetings” (1 Cor. 16:9).
- “All the saints greet you” (2 Cor. 13:13; also, Eph. 4:22).
- “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints” (Eph. 1:15; also Col. 1:4).
They shared preachers and missionaries:
- “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18).
- “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church” (3 John 5-6a).
They supported one another financially with joy and thanksgiving:
- “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:25-26).
- “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:12; also, 2 Cor 8:1-2).
They imitated one another in Christian living:
- “You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:7).
- “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14).
These testimonies of shared love and support between the earliest churches are matched by apostolic exhortations. Churches were told to greet one another:
- “Greet the church in their house” (Rom. 16:5).
They were instructed to care for one another financially:
- “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Cor. 16:1-3).
- “So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you to these men” (2 Cor. 8:24).
They were cautioned about whom to receive as teachers:
- “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
- “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves” (2 John 7-8a).
They were exhorted to pray for other churches and Christians:
- “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18).
They were exhorted to imitate other churches in steadfastness and faith:
- “Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thess. 1:4).
The churches of the first century clearly were integrated with and invested in one another. They understood that they all had “access in one Spirit to the Father” and therefore were “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:18-20). They served the same Christ, held the same confession, and shared the same commission. They also understood that they needed one another for mutual encouragement and support—both spiritually and materially—as they sought to make disciples of all the nations (see Rom. 1:11-12; 15:26-27).
Association Through Denominations
Denominations have been the result of various conflicts, councils, and schisms that occurred throughout the history of the church over differences of belief and practice. Beginning with the heresies faced in the first few centuries after the time of the apostles, to the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and eventually to the Protestant Reformation and the many denominations that were birthed as a result, the simple unity of the New Testament churches was not so easily maintained. “Differences in doctrine and decision making, combined with obstacles of language and culture, often proved too formidable.”
Churches thus began to pursue association through denominational affiliation to balance the importance of conviction with the necessity of cooperation. This would ensure that second and third order doctrines (like polity) might continue to be believed and practiced in peace, while also connecting local churches for the sake of greater gospel ministry. David Dockery explains that denominations have “historically provided accountability, connections, coherence, structure, and organization to carry out work to support churches, benevolent work, missions, and educational institutions.” Such organizational structures enable congregations to more effectively fulfill the Great Commission. This is perhaps the greatest blessing of denominational affiliation.
Many are quick to criticize the existence of denominations in the Christian church, quoting verses on church unity to support their views. It is often asked: “Why do we need denominations? Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t we just call ourselves Christians? Why can’t we all just follow Jesus and do what the Bible says?” We are also seeing more and more churches label themselves as ‘non-denominational’ in an attempt to foster Christian unity. While this can be a step in the right direction, John Hammett makes an important observation:
In the end, some type of denominational identity is unavoidable. In practice, every church has to answer certain questions. Should we baptize infants or believers only? Are we to be governed by a bishop, by a board, or by the congregation? What type of practices do we believe are appropriate for worship? Is each church connected to others, or does each church have a measure of autonomy? The answers provided to these questions and others like them align an individual and a church, to some degree, with a denomination, or at the least, place them within a denominational tradition.
Church historian Anthony Chute makes a similar point:
Why not just call ourselves Christians? Ultimately we shall, but for now such labels help to explain what kind of Christians we are, since the word itself means different things to different people. Roman Catholics, Protestants and Mormons have little in common with each other when it comes to biblical authority, and the way of salvation, matters that are central to what it means to be a Christian. Even nondenominational churches have core beliefs that set them apart from other Christian traditions, as every congregation must adopt a form of church government, a standard for church membership, and a position on the ordinances (sacraments), the very issues that give rise to denominations in the first place. Denominational labels may be unwanted, but they are not necessarily unwarranted.
The various denominations that exist within Christianity need not be, or be seen as, hindrances to unity; they are simply the results of varying interpretations of Scripture. Over the centuries, especially since the Protestant Reformation, Christians “have not been able to reach agreement on the interpretation of Scripture on certain issues regarding what the church is and how it is to function.” However, these issues are not essential to the being of the church but of its well-being—such as the mode and participants of the ordinances, church officers and government, membership practices, and so on. The primary differences between most (biblically faithful) Protestant denominations concern issues of ecclesiology, though we joyfully share the same Christ, confession, and commission as the early church. Chute concludes: “Belonging to a different denomination does not mean that one belongs to another faith. It provides an environment for Christians to worship with like-minded believers.” Such affiliation actually serves to foster unity among churches, in that they agree to belong to a confessional tradition larger than their local church and life experience.
So, a church can choose for themselves whether or not to become formally affiliated with a denomination; there is no such command given in Scripture. Yet, joining a particular denomination comes with several additional blessings. It can ensure that small churches aren’t left to struggle on their own, and that larger churches help bear the burdens of others by sharing their resources. It can provide added accountability and a kind of oversight for church leaders—including pastoral counsel in difficult situations. It can provide a variety of resources for pastoral training, education, church planting, and long-term missions work at home and abroad. Certainly, churches can do more for the kingdom of God together than alone.
The Dangers of Denominational Affiliation
Along with the many blessings of association that denominations can provide for local churches come a few dangers that, if left unnoticed or unaddressed, may serve to unravel the unity and gospel witness of a church. Kevin Vanhoozer reveals two temptations of “radical denominationalism.” The first temptation is pride: “a sinful desire to hoard the marks of the one true church for one’s own congregations only.” Churches should be confident in their biblical convictions on second and third order doctrines, eager to humbly defend and charitably promote them. But such knowledge can easily puff up and subtly lead us to a sectarian belief that our denomination alone is the one holy catholic and apostolic church. “Like-mindedness need not be seen as a narrow-mindedness when it is understood that no single denomination is the sole expression of the family of God.”
The second temptation is to lose sight of the Christ, the confession, and the commission that our churches share. It is “to substitute zeal for denominational processes and machinery for zeal for the gospel. Preoccupation with denominational affairs risks distracting the local church from its primary mission, which is to serve as an embassy of Christ’s kingdom, not the denomination.” A church affiliated with a denomination may not fall prey to the temptation of pride and sectarianism, but it is still possible for that church to boast in their doctrinal distinctives rather than the glorious gospel of the risen Lord Jesus. We are first and foremost ambassadors for Christ, not our denomination; we implore sinners to be reconciled to God, not to become Baptist or Presbyterian (2 Cor. 5:17-20).
There are a few other dangers that, while much less threatening, deserve mentioning. One is the greater potential for discontentment, especially for those in leadership. Granted, this is a danger for any pastor in any church, with or without any formal affiliations (though especially in our day and age, where the internet reveals an astounding amount of greener grass). However, close association and cooperation with other like-minded churches that are thriving—experiencing growth and apparent ministry “success”—may tempt pastors to grow weary in well-doing and wish for a different church. Seeing other congregations that are just like their own but “better” could lead pastors to forget that God alone gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Another potential danger of affiliation is “guilt by association,” where a denomination’s reputation or past failures may hinder a church’s gospel witness. (As we’ve already heard at our church: “So you’re a Baptist church now?”)
None of these temptations need deter a church from pursuing association; the blessings far outweigh the dangers. Indeed, non-denominational churches all face the same dangers—the temptations of sectarianism, of championing their church’s unique identity more than their catholicity, of discontentment, and even gaining a poor reputation in the community through any formal or informal associations they have with other ministries.
Association Through Networks
But is denominational affiliation the only solution to the need for association? Must a church formally belong to an established denomination in order to experience the blessings of cooperation? The answer to this question depends on the kind of cooperation in question. If we’re talking about working with other churches to plant churches or send missionaries, then a church would most likely need to work within a denominational structure (or a denominational identity) due to matters of ecclesiology. But if we’re talking about working other churches to engage in evangelism, to put on a conference, or to simply benefit from mutual edification (Rom. 1:11-12), then a church would be able to work with other congregations with whom they share a broader theological unity. “Different levels of cooperation are possible based on different levels of doctrinal and ecclesial unity.”
In recent years, there has been a considerable increase in the amount of evangelical church “networks” that provide avenues for association not on an ecclesial level, but on broader doctrinal levels. Despite differences in polity and the ordinances, these networks unite churches around the essentials of the faith, such as The Triune God, the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, the centrality of the gospel, the five solas, and so on. Technology has made it possible for pastors and churches to establish meaningful relationships with other like-minded congregations and has opened up access to an enormous wealth of diverse resources. In addition to regional and national networks of churches, association is also possible through ministerial fraternals or pastoral fellowships. Here, pastors and church leaders may find encouragement, accountability, and wisdom from fellow pastors across denominational lines who share similar theological convictions.
In fact, it may prove most beneficial to pursue affiliation with a denomination, cooperation with other churches in a network, and fellowship with local pastors; these options are not mutually exclusive! Explaining the need for association based on both a theological and ecclesial vision, Bobby Jamieson encourages churches to think in terms of “multiple layers of partnerships” and “overlapping networks”:
Local and larger partnerships can complement each other rather than competing with each other. . . . Relationships between churches are not an all-or-nothing affair. They can be more or less formal. They can be local or global. They can focus on planting and building churches, or more broadly on promoting gospel work throughout your city. And you can invest differently in these partnerships depending on your church’s resources, other options for cooperating with likeminded churches, and the needs of your community.
So yes, affiliation with a denomination enables a church to experience association and cooperation with other like-minded churches while affirming the importance of doctrinal conviction. But our theological distinctives need not prevent our churches from working with other churches, with whom we share an overwhelming amount of common beliefs and cherished doctrines. We too confess that “There is one body and one Spirit—just as [we] were called to the one hope that belongs to [our] call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
In sum, I am convinced that “Evangelical congregations are to work together in humble and voluntary cooperation and that the spiritual fellowship of Gospel congregations bears witness to the unity of the Church and the glory of God.” Association is vitally important, especially in view of the monumental task given to us by the risen Lord Jesus. As Leeman rightly concludes, “A church will best fulfill the Great Commission when it is connected in relationship, prayer, and work with other churches.” Wherever one stands on the issue of the church’s independence, the church’s interdependence cannot be denied.
As our church continues down the path of revitalization and reformation, we intend to pursue opportunities for association in the near future, not only for the benefit of our church but for the sake of gospel ministry here in upstate New York. In addition to the many internal changes we have made regarding our theology of ministry and polity, we now need to look outward towards the goals of evangelism and community outreach, church planting, and global missions for the purpose of making disciples of all nations. And the Great Commission is far too weighty a task to accomplish on our own—not only as individual Christians, but also as isolated churches.
- For an excellent biblical-theological defense of congregationalism, see Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville, TN; B&H Academic, 2016). For a comprehensive treatment of Baptist ecclesiology, see Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, edited by Mark Dever & Jonathan Leeman (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015); John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005).
- See 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; Galatians 1:9; 2:7-9; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 2:8; Hebrews 2:1-4; 2 Peter 1:16-21; 1 John 1:1-4, et. al.
- Jonathan Leeman, “A Congregational Approach to Catholicity: Independence and Interdependence” in Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 374-75.
- Anthony L. Chute, “One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions: Denominations and Their Stories,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds. Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2013), 43.
- David S. Dockery, “Denominationalism: Historical Developments, Contemporary Challenges, and Global Opportunities,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds. Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2013), 211.
- Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 20.
- Chute, “One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions,” 37-38.
- Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches,20. For an excellent defense of why this is not necessarily a bad thing, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press), 2016.
- For more on the marks of a true church, and the distinction between a church’s “being” and “well-being”, see Jason G. Duesing, “A Denomination Always for the Church: Ecclesiological Distinctives as a Basis for Confessional Cooperation” in The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, & Recommitment, edited by Jason K. Allen (Nashville, TN; B&H Academic, 2016), 118-21.
- Chute, “One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions,” 43.
- Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel, 189.
- Chute, “One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions”, 63.
- Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel, 189.
- Jonathan Leeman, “A Congregational Approach to Catholicity: Independence and Interdependence” in Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 377.
- The foundation documents of The Gospel Coalition and the affirmation and denials of Together for the Gospel are both helpful confessions that can be used to establish doctrinal unity among evangelical and reformed churches. One of the greatest resources to this end, of which I’m aware, is “A Reforming Catholic Confession,” composed by a collaboration of leaders across the Protestant spectrum, which “sets forth the catholic substance of the faith (the consensual tradition worked out over the first few centuries of church history about the triune God) according to the Protestant principles of the faith (sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide)” (https://reformingcatholicconfession.com/).
- Bobby Jamieson, “Testing the Glue that Binds Churches Together,” 9Marks Journal, May 10, 2013; https://www.9marks.org/article/journaltesting-glue-binds-churches-together/ (accessed October 1, 2019).
- Chute, “One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions,” 64.
- “Affirmation and Denials: Article XV,” Together for the Gospel; https://t4g.org/about/affirmations-and-denials/ (accessed October 1, 2019).
- Ibid., 375.
Matt Bedzyk is the lead pastor at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Matt and his wife Brianna have two children: Lorien Grace and Owen James. In his spare time, you can find him reading, playing music, enjoying coffee, and supporting Manchester United.