While the churches are the only Christian societies provided for by the New Testament economy, and, therefore, the only ones really essential to the accomplishment of the purposes contemplated by the Gospel, yet combinations of individual and local efforts have been found convenient for the carrying on of Christian work on wider areas and more distant fields than could well be cared for by individual service. These combinations have grown into vast systems of organized endeavor, making societies almost innumerable for Christian and benevolent service of many kinds. It may well be questioned if there be not quite too many such. Some of the more common, which have grown into established usage with our churches, are the following:
There is at times no little confusion of thought occasioned by want of a clear understanding as to the true nature and real purpose of Associations; and that, too, by ministers themselves, who ought to be able expounders of Baptist polity and usage. Especially as to the relation which these bodies sustain to the churches; whether they can act for the associated churches, and in some sense bind them by their action.
It is customary for churches occupying a given extent of territory—usually less than a State, perhaps limited portions of contiguous States, not so widely extended as to make it difficult, because of distance, to meet in one place, nor yet embracing so many churches as to make the meetings inconveniently large—by common agreement to organize on some simple basis of association for mutual helpfulness and counsel.
These churches agree to cooperate in the Association, and meet yearly with some one of them, by their pastors, and a certain number of members, appointed as messengers. [The term representative is sometimes used, and delegate more frequently. Both terms are liable to be misunderstood, as implying that an Association is a representative body, and that the messengers bear delegated authority to represent their churches and act for them. The term messenger was commonly used by the earlier Associations, is least objectionable, and most accurately characterizes the purpose for which they are appointed.] These meetings usually hold two days, sometimes more, and the time is occupied in hearing reports from the various churches—each one sending with the messengers a letter, setting forth their condition as to anything of special interest to themselves or to the body. Sermons are preached, prayer-meetings held, and various matters pertaining to the prosperity of the cause come under consideration. Missionary work on their field is fostered, new churches are planted, and weak ones aided. If any of the churches have peculiar difficulties to encounter, and choose to ask advice and help, such matters are considered, and help rendered, if practicable.
When the body meets to observe its anniversary, the moderator of the previous year calls the meeting to order at the appointed time, and presides until a new moderator is elected, with clerk and treasurer; then the body is fully organized for business. Thence its services proceed according to its by-laws, or a prearranged programme. It is customary to hear, during the sessions, appeals with important information from the representatives of various missionary and benevolent bodies, for the sake of instructing and stimulating the members in reference to such causes.
These annual gatherings constitute not only favorable opportunities for projecting plans for missionary work within the bounds of the Association, but they also give occasion for pleasant fraternal intercourse on the part of members of the various churches, who, at these Christian festivals, form and foster personal friendships of a most pleasant and profitable character. This is particularly true in rural districts, where they have few opportunities for personal intercourse.
Observe the Following Facts.
I. The term Association is used in two distinct and quite dissimilar senses; by not observing which fact much confusion, and at times no small difficulty, arises in the minds of people.
First, the organized body which meets annually for the transaction of business, is called the Association. This body corporate consists of pastors and messengers, as its constituent elements and active members. It has its constitution, by-laws, its order of business, meets and adjourns, publishes its proceedings, enrolling the names of its pastors and messengers, who alone have the rights of membership in its sessions.
Second, in a somewhat vague and ideal sense all the associated churches, and the geographical limits over which they are scattered, are called the Association. Thus we speak of the dearth or the prosperity which prevails in this or that Association, or we say that revivals have, or have not been extensive in such or such an Association. No reference is here had to the organic body which meets annually for business, but to the territorial field, and the local churches, from which the pastors and messengers come.
2. An Association—the organized body that meets for business—is not composed of churches, but of individuals, the pastors and messengers. It is a common way of speaking, but a very loose and misleading way, to say it is composed of churches. This arises from a misapprehension, and perpetuates a misunderstanding. A Baptist Church cannot be a member of any other body whatever. It would violate its sacred charter, and lose its identity as the body of Christ, to attempt such a union. And if many churches should enter into organic relations, and constitute an ecclesiastical confederation, the local churches would be absorbed, losing largely their individuality and their independence. Also, in that case, the confederate body would possess legislative and judicial control over the separate congregations. This is the actual status of most Christian denominations. But our polity and our traditions repudiate both the inference, and the hypothesis on which it rests.
3. But it may be asked, How is it, if churches are not members of the body, that the Associations uniformly receive new churches to their number, or dismiss, or drop churches from it? The reply is this: Churches are not received to membership, though such expressions are often, and indeed ordinarily used; but they are received to fellowship and cooperation; which fact is evinced, by their pastors and messengers being admitted to membership, thus composing its constituent elements.
4. An Association is not a representative body, in the ordinary acceptation of that term. A Baptist Church cannot appoint persons with delegated authority to act for it, so as to bind it by their action. It cannot transfer its authority and responsibility to any person, or persons whatever. It can appoint persons as committees to perform service for it, and report their doings. If it be still insisted, for the sake of terms, that the churches do meet in the Association, by their representatives, the pastors and messengers, the reply must be—such is not the case, and cannot be, either actually or constructively for a Baptist Church cannot be represented by delegates authorized to act for it in any other organization whatever.
5. An Association is a voluntary society formed and maintained for mutual help among the churches associated, and for the religious welfare of the field it occupies. It is of human, not of divine authority; it grows out of the sympathies of Christian fellowship, and the need of mutual help. No Church is under obligation to affiliate with it; and any connected Church can withdraw cooperation, at any time, for any reasons which seem to itself sufficient, without prejudice to either its evangelical or its denominational reputation and standing. But while it continues associated, it must abide by the rules and regulations, mutually agreed upon, by which the body is governed.
6. Because an Association is not a representative body, and because a Church cannot be represented in any other organization, and because a Church cannot, even if it would, alienate, or transfer its powers and responsibilities to any man, or body of men, therefore an Association cannot legislate for the churches, exercise any authority over them, or bind them in any way by its own action. Whatever is done while in session, is of authority only to those who do it; that is, the members—pastors and delegates. They may make suggestions to the churches, or present appeals, and lay requests before them; to all of which the churches will give such attention as may seem to them right and proper.
7. The fact that the messengers are appointed by their respective churches argues nothing as to their being invested with delegated power. This appointment is made at the request of the Association, and according to its constitutional provisions, as the most convenient and equitable method of constituting the body, not because the appointment carries any ecclesiastical authority with it. These messengers bear the letters and salutations of their churches, and consult with the other members as to the objects for the interest of which they meet.
8. An Association is an independent body, not subject to the authority or control of the churches any more than the churches are subject to its authority and control. It frames its own constitution, makes its own by-laws, elects its own officers, and manages its own business, without dictation from any one. Within its own sphere of action it is just as independent as a Church is within its sphere of action. It fixes the terms of membership and the conditions on which the churches may associate; designates the number of messengers to be sent from each Church, orders its own exercises, meets and adjourns at its own pleasure. If any Church does not approve the proceedings it can refuse to affiliate, and withdraw at any time from the Association, if it thinks best.
9. In the exercise of its independence, also, the Association can refuse to receive its messengers, and drop from its fellowship any Church that has violated the constitution and the original compact, or that has, in any matter deemed vital, departed from the faith and practice of the associated churches and the denomination. Provisions for such emergencies are made in the constitutions of all Associations; also, the process of fraternal labor to be pursued with the recusant Church before final excision shall be decreed is likewise prescribed.
Note 1.—Should one of the associated churches be commonly reported to have become unsound in the faith, or irregular in practice, to have violated the constitutional provisions, or broken the compact accepted at the union, and these reports seem credible, it would be the right and the duty of the Association to inquire into the case, by committee or otherwise, and ascertain the facts. The Association would have no right to call the Church to account, to exercise any authority on it, reprimand or censure it; but only to ascertain the facts in the case, and then to take such action as their mutual relations warranted. Such action might result in the Church being disfellowshipped, dropped from the minutes, and all intercourse with it discontinued. That would be the extent of an exercise of disciplinary power on a Church by an Association.
Note 2.—If an Association should disfellowship a Church and drop it from its minutes, that act would not interrupt the intercourse and fellowship of said Church in its relation to other churches. An Association cannot act for the churches, but only for itself; nor can it exercise disciplinary power beyond its own corporate limits. Such an act of disfellowship would indeed be presumptive evidence that something was wrong in the Church dropped. But if the fellowship of other churches is to be interrupted, or withdrawn, it must be by their own act; the Association cannot do it; it acts for itself alone, not for the churches.
Note 3.—Should the pastor of one of the associated churches be known, or believed, to be a disreputable and unworthy man, the Association would not be obliged to accept him as a member of the body, or allow his name to appear on their minutes—to do which would give him a quasi endorsement and recommendation. They could refuse to do this, and thereby free themselves from all responsibility as to his standing. Such an act, however, could not affect his relation to the Church of which he was the pastor, nor yet to other churches. If those relations are to be interrupted, it must be by the action of the Church, or the churches themselves. No one else can act for them.
Note 4.—If an associated Church persists in retaining and supporting for its pastor a man of bad reputation, generally believed to be unfit for the ministry, and unworthy of confidence, the Association can refuse to receive the man, and they can disfellowship and drop the Church, should the case become serious. They possess this right; but such disfellowship does not carry with it the disfellowship of the other churches. Their intercourse with the dropped Church or man is not interrupted until they interrupt it by their own action. The Association acts for itself, not for the churches. Such action may at times become necessary, in order to free the body from apparent complicity with evil, and to relieve other pastors and messengers from all responsibility in sustaining and giving currency to an unworthy man or an unworthy Church.
Note 5.—Many of the larger Associations—especially those that centre in cities and towns—became incorporated, with a board of legally elected trustees, for the purpose of holding and managing real estate, not for speculative uses, but to aid mission stations and feeble churches to houses of worship. These trustees act for, and under the direction of the body, while the churches furnishing funds for the purpose. Thus the Association becomes an efficient missionary organization within its own bounds.
Note 6.—In former times, when churches were less numerous, and obtaining counsel in perplexing matters was more difficult, it was no uncommon thing for them, vexed with divisive questions of doctrine, order or discipline, to send up queries to the Associations at their annual meetings, and thereby seek advice from the assembled wisdom, which might dispel their doubts. These queries were considered warily, and answered with caution; usually protesting that they could not meddle with the internal affairs of the churches, and that the Association was not a legislative body to enact laws, nor an ecclesiastical court to settle questions judicially for them. They could express an opinion, or give advice—nothing more. They were very jealous for the independency of the churches. So it is now, and should ever continue to be.
II. State Conventions.
As a single Association covers a limited extent of territory, and the various Associations, whose boundaries touch, hold no organic relation to each other, but each working for the same end, in a similar way, it has been thought wise to have a more general organization, extending over and embracing the fields of all the Associations in the State. This is called a Baptist State Convention, or, as in many States it is termed, a General Association. This latter designation is by some supposed more accurately to express its relation to the local or district Associations.
The Convention is a missionary organization, to operate in extending evangelical religion within the bounds of the State, in connection with the Associations and churches. It works by sustaining feeble interests and supporting missionaries in destitute neighborhoods. This is done either in cooperation with the Associations within their bounds, or else in fields which they cannot cultivate. Sometimes the Associations work under the general direction of the Convention, and report to it and through it. But all this is according to mutual agreement, since each is equally independent in its own sphere. In addition to the strictly spiritual culture of their fields. State Conventions not unfrequently plant and foster educational institutions, especially denominational academies and schools for higher learning.
The composition of State Conventions is varied and indefinite. Associations are uniformly constituted by the pastors and delegates or messengers from the churches. The membership of Conventions, according to their mutually arranged and voluntary constitutional provisions, is composed of persons appointed by contributing churches, delegates sent by cooperating Associations, individuals who make themselves annual or life members by the payment of a specified sum, and perhaps still other classes, as may be provided; while no person can be a member, unless he be a member in good standing of some regular Baptist Church, yet, to a large extent, a money qualification is insisted on, the better to stimulate liberality and secure funds to the treasury.
The meetings are held annually for two or three days—one day being usually given to a State pastors’ conference. Reports are made by the Associations, addresses by missionaries and others, plans projected for enlarged endeavors—special time and attention being given to the Sunday-school cause. The anniversaries alternate between different sections of the State, and are held chiefly in the larger communities, the smaller churches finding it difficult to accommodate the numbers which attend, for whose entertainment gratuitous provision is usually, though not always made.
III. Ministers’ Meetings.
In nearly all compact communities, and, indeed, in many rural and scattered neighborhoods, the Baptist pastors form associations for mutual intercourse and improvement, called Ministers’ Meetings, Pastors’ Conferences, or other similar names. They organize with a simple constitution and by-laws, and constitute a voluntary and independent society for the purpose set forth. They have no organic connection with the churches, and possess no ecclesiastical character or significancy. Essays are read for criticism on assigned topics, plans of sermons presented, sermons preached also for criticism, and discussions held on subjects germane to ministerial culture and service.
These meetings are held monthly, or, in larger communities, weekly. They are composed mostly of pastors, but in some, ministers without a charge, and even deacons, are admitted. These meetings have no right of interference with the churches, and no action they can take with reference to any pastor who is a member, can affect that pastor’s relation to his Church. They have the right to admit, dismiss, or expel their own members, but cannot interfere with the relations the various pastors sustain outside the conference itself.
IV. Other Societies.
There are other denominational societies, well known to all, sustained for Christian service in connection with our denominational activities. The Missionary Union, for conducting Baptist missions in foreign lands; the Home Mission Society, performing a similar service in our own country; the Publication Society, for disseminating a denominational literature; an Education Society—indeed, many of them, one general, and many local—for the establishment and support of schools of learning; a Historical Society, for the collection and preservation of denominational records. The Southern Baptist Convention represents the mission work of Baptists in the Southern States, both home and foreign.
These various missionary organizations are so many voluntary and independent societies, sustaining no organic connection with the churches; are not controlled by them, and cannot control them. They derive their financial support from the churches, to which churches they make appeals, and to which appeals they respond as they may feel inclined. Membership in these various organizations is largely secured by the payment of a stipulated sum of money. Usually they are incorporated societies, holding property devoted exclusively to the purposes of their work. Many other societies not here named, exist, operating on local fields for various beneficent purposes connected with our denominational work and welfare.
Edward Hiscox (1814-1901) was an American Baptist pastor and theologian. He was converted to Christ in 1834 and began to preach the gospel four years later. He served as the pastor for several congregations, including the Stanton Street Baptist Church, New York (1852). He is best known for authoring the “Standard Manual for Baptist Churches” (1890) and the “New Directory for Baptist Churches” (1894).