(By: Matt Foreman)
I grew up in an old school Southern Baptist church – by which I mean: everything in church life revolved around the SBC. All the literature and Sunday School curriculum were written by the Home Mission Board. Wednesday night programs revolved around Royal Ambassadors and Girls in Action. The Lottie Moon Christmas offering was the biggest Missions and fundraising event of the year. Attend any SBC Church around the country and you would find the same programs and same culture of church life. There was very little public acknowledgement or even consciousness of Christianity, it seemed, beyond those boundaries.
Eventually, I was converted while attending a Reformed campus ministry and Reformed Baptist Church in college. The church culture was very different. Theology, Christian literature and church history were all very important. There was a much broader awareness and fellowship across denominational lines by virtue of a shared theology. In fact, there seemed actually a closer affinity with believers from other Reformed denominations than even with other Baptists. I ultimately attended a Reformed Presbyterian seminary. Most of the students were themselves Presbyterian, but there were also Episcopalians, Congregationalists, non-denominational types, and other Baptists. While I remained a Baptist and actually grew in my ecclesiological convictions, I still appreciated and valued this broader fellowship and cooperation. To this day, I appreciate groups like the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals or conferences like Together for the Gospel that affirm the importance of ecclesiology, don’t downplay ecclesiological differences, but still recognize and share fellowship on the basis of a unity around the Gospel.
Several years ago, Al Mohler wrote an influential essay entitled, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity”, in which he delineated three levels of theological priority. First order issues are Gospel issues, doctrinal beliefs that are essential to the Christian faith, that make someone a Christian or not. Second order issues are issues that divide denominations – like baptism and church government. Mohler writes, “Believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers.” Meanwhile, third order issues, Mohler says, “are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.”
Three Tiers of Ecclesiological Cooperation
Taking these distinctions in reverse, I would like to propose that Reformed Baptists should have three tiers of closer ecclesiastical cooperation and interest. Tier 1 is the work of your own church. Tier 2 is working with other churches who share your own ecclesiastical commitments and with whom you can work most closely for the work of planting other churches, cooperation in missions, etc. Tier 3 is working with those from other Reformed denominations who agree with you theologically on the basics of the Gospel, the authority of Scripture, etc. (Some might add a fourth tier for looser fellowship with broad evangelicals.)
It is my conviction that a healthy interchange needs all three tiers. Some very independent churches may only have Tier 1. Some denominationally-focused churches may only have Tiers 1 and 2. Some looser affiliated churches may only have Tiers 1 and 3. But I think we need and benefit from all 3.
Put another way, my thesis is this: As a Baptist, while I believe in the independence of the local church, I also believe (with historical precedent) that Baptists should be involved in formal Associations. But in addition, those churches and Associations should also have an outward impulse, an open hand to broader fellowship across denominational lines, seeking to humbly contribute to the larger Reformed communion.
First, we should recognize that our ecclesiological convictions are important and have implications for the long-term health and discipleship of individuals and churches. On this basis, when it comes to cooperation with other churches – if we are clear on our convictions (on the sacraments, on church government, on church membership), and believe that these are important for the long-term health of the church – it makes sense that we will be able to work most freely and closely with those who share those same convictions. Associations also provide a certain level of healthy accountability. Put bluntly: it can keep you from being overly weird and idiosyncratic. It provides a larger communion for counsel, for fellowship, for help and resources. And there is an agreed upon theological and ecclesial basis for trust and freedom to work together.
But in addition, in our present culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity, it is important to stand with true Christians from other camps – strategically and purposefully. (The early Particular Baptists, in a time of persecution from the State church, very publicly announced their theological unity and stood with their Congregationalist and Presbyterian cousins when they published the London Confession of Faith, based on the Westminster and Savoy Confessions.) It is important to affirm God’s work among these other churches, to teach our people to appreciate and value God’s sovereign work of grace in other churches. Without giving up our convictions, it is important to express that we are not in competition, that the Gospel is central, that the kingdom is bigger than our small corner, that we are working together for the spread of Christ’s kingdom, and that we can even learn from (and pray for) others who may not share all our convictions, but still affirm the same Gospel and love the same Savior.
In other words, Reformed Baptists should seek to be actively engaged in the larger Reformed communion. We should have an open hand to the Reformed Resurgence and even the New Calvinists. We should be seeking to be involved and to add our voice in groups like the Alliance, like Together for the Gospel, like the Gospel Coalition. God has been working among these groups. We do well to listen. And Reformed Baptists have an important voice to add.
Jesus prays for his people to be one. The unity of the Body of Christ is a significant concern in the New Testament. Local churches are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor.1:2). For the sake of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit and the good of the church, churches need to explore and express this unity broadly within the theological boundaries of the Gospel.
**The Title of this article is deliberately borrowed from C. John Miller’s book, “Outgrowing the Ingrown Church.”