CHAPTER VI: OF THE ASSOCIATION OF CHURCHES (A Summary of Church Discipline (1774) by the Charleston Association in Polity, ed. by Mark Dever, 131-33)
AS the communion of saints, so the communion of churches is a desirable blessing. To obtain and promote which ought to be the study and endeavor of all the people of God.
Although churches formed on the gospel plan are independent of each other with regard to power, yet not so, strictly speaking, with regard to communion. For as saints in general have an indisputable right to share in each other’s gifts and graces, so have churches in this joint capacity. It is a gen- eral rule, to do good, and to communicate forget not, Heb. 13:16, which is applicable in a particular manner to churches as such.
In order the more amply to obtain this blessing of communion, there [p. 132] ought to be a coalescing or uniting of several churches into one body, so far as their local situation and other circumstances will admit. But as it is impracticable for all the individual members thus to associate and coalesce together, the churches should each respectively choose and delegate some of the most able, pious, and judicious from among themselves, and particularly their ministers, to convene at such times and places as may be thought most conducive to the great end proposed, and to act as their representatives in the general assembly. Their expenses ought to be defrayed by the churches who send them.
It appears advisable that these delegates, at their first meeting, should in a formal manner enter into covenant with each other, as the representatives of the churches, for the promoting of Christ’s cause in general and for the interest of the churches they represent in particular. They should then form their plan of operation and fix on the most proper time and place for meeting in the future. Once a year at least they ought to meet at the place the most central and convenient for all the churches in confederation to attend.
Although such a conjunction of churches is not expressly commanded in Scripture, yet it receives sufficient countenance and authority from the light of nature and the general laws of society, but more especially from a precedent established by Apostolical authority, Acts 15.
The association thus formed is a respectable body as it represents not a city, country, or nation, but the churches of Jesus Christ. Yet it is by no means to be deemed a superior judicature vested with coercive power or authority over the churches; it presumes not to impose its sentiments on its constituents, under pain of excommunication; nor does it anathematize those who do not implicitly submit to its determinations, which would be nothing less than spiritual tyranny and better comport with the arbitrary spirit of popish councils than with that meekness which distinguishes the true disciples and humble followers of the lowly yet adorable Jesus. The apostles, elders, and brethren who composed the first Christian council presumed not to impose their conclusions on the churches in such a lordly manner, but prefaced their determinations with this modest prologue, It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater bur- den than these necessary things, Acts 15:28. The Baptist Association there- fore arrogates no higher title than that of an Advisory Council, consistent with which epithet, it ought ever to act, when it acts at all, without intruding on the rights of independent congregational churches or usurping authority over them, Matt. 23:10–12.
Nevertheless, the association has a natural and unalienable right to judge for itself what churches shall be admitted into confederacy with it, and to withdraw from all acts of communion and fellowship with any church, so admitted, provided such church should obstinately persist in holding corrupt principles, or indulging vicious practices, notwithstanding all proper endeavors have been used to reclaim it, Eph. 5:7, Rev. 18:4.
[p. 133] It is generally agreed that an association when transacting business, should proceed in the following manner: (1) always begin and end each session by prayer; (2) admit none as messengers but such as come recommended by letters, well authenticated, from the churches to which they belong or from whence they come; (3) when a church petitions by letter for admission, if approved of, the moderator is to inform the messengers that their request is granted and desire them to take their seats; (4) all who have anything to offer are to rise and address the moderator; (5) while one is speaking, the rest are to be silent, yet all have an equal right to speak in turn; (6) no partiality or respect of persons is to be shown; (7) every matter should be canvassed with gravity, modesty, and a sincere aim to truth; (8) when all are not agreed, the matter may be put to the vote, and a majority determines; (9) all queries regularly sent by the churches should be answered, if possible; (10) any matter proposed, relative to the general good of the churches, should be seriously attended to ; (11) every transaction should be conformable to the revealed will of God; (12) and a circular letter should be written and sent to all the churches in confederation containing such instruction, information, and advice as may be thought most suitable; and with which should be sent the transactions of the association.
The benefits arising from an association and communion of churches are many; in general, it will tend to maintain the truth, order, and discipline of the gospel. By it (1) the churches may have such doubts as arise among them cleared, which will prevent disputes, Acts 15:28, 29; (2) they will be furnished with salutary counsel, Prov. 11:14; (3) those churches which have no ministers may obtain occasional supplies, Song of Sol. 8:8; (4) the churches will be more closely united in promoting the cause and interest of Christ; (5) a member who is aggrieved through partiality or any other wrongs received from the church may have an opportunity of applying for direction; (6) a godly and sound ministry will be encouraged, while a ministry that is unsound and ungodly will be discountenanced; (7) there will be a reciprocal communication of their gifts, Phil. 4:15; (8) ministers may alternately be sent out to preach the gospel to those who are destitute, Gal. 2:9; (9) a large party may draw off from the church by means of an intruding minister, or other ways, and the aggrieved may have no way of obtaining redress but from the association; (11) contentions may arise between sister churches, which the association is most likely to remove; (12) and the churches may have candidates for the ministry properly tried by the association.
These and other advantages arising from an association must induce every godly church to desire a union with such a body. But should any stand off, it would argue much self-sufficiency, Rev. 3:17, and little or no desire after the unity of the Spirit, Eph. 4:3, or mutual edification, 1 Cor. 12:11–14.