The latest offering from Grace Publications is centred on the theme of inter-church relationships, i.e., associations. Written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Association of Grace Baptist Churches South East – AGBC(SE) – Association is an edited volume bringing together a range of authors from around the world, all with a baptistic theology, advocating for a biblical model of inter-church relationships. Each author believes in the independency of the local church, yet as the book clearly spells out, biblical independency does not equal isolationism.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I am aware that having grown up in an AGBC(SE) church my perspective is slightly skewed. Nonetheless, setting aside this personal interest I am really glad to see this book published, and can think of many folk beyond the Grace Baptist context who would benefit from thinking through the ideas and issues the various contributors discuss. Allow me to briefly sketch out the obvious limitation of this volume, before suggesting why it might be such a helpful read for many.
Constrained by Context
As I mentioned above, the book was written in part to commemorate the 150th anniversary of a particular association of local churches. As a result, there runs through almost all of the chapters a current of names, places and events that will really make sense to only a very small number of people. Chapters Three and Four offer the extreme of this characteristic, both well written and interesting, yet full of lists of names and churches that will isolate a lot of readers. Paul Smith’s history of the AGBC(SE) in Chapter Three is a fascinating account of a little told history, but one that this reader recognises was made far more interesting having grown up in a church that was a part of this particular association. Similarly Chapter Four (on UK Mission and Church Planting) by Nigel Hoad and Barry King was if anything even more inaccessible, and many of the lists of names that came up were lost on me despite my experience of AGBC(SE) churches. (Although it did help me to join the dots of a few people and places I had heard of at one time or another.) This narrow focus is a product of the reason for the book’s existence, but also possibly a hinderance (regrettably) for a wider readership, which the book certainly deserves.
A Necessary Conversation
Having acknowledged this obvious limitation, I can move to the meat of this review: the excellent contribution that this volume makes to various conversations both ongoing and yet to begin in British evangelical contexts. I cannot think of any other publications in the last decade or so (and perhaps longer) that directly address this issue, and yet it is a vitally important topic. Even churches that claim independence from any kind of wider organisation (such as Affinity, the Evangelical Alliance or the FIEC) usually operate informally with some kind of ‘approved network.’ It is simply impossible for churches to be completely independent of one another in the modern world. Human beings naturally form cliques and networks, and develop likes and dislikes. Add to this the movement of attendees, as new converts move to your area, or members move away. It is impossible for churches not to interact on some level. The very act of recommending a church in a new city for your leaving member illustrates an understanding of gospel association, however informal (even if just in agreement of practice or belief.) It is simply sociologically and practically impossible to claim that independency means an isolationism from other bodies and churches, even if formally this is what your church offers.
And as Robert Strivens so excellently points out in his opening chapter in this volume, not only is such isolationism practically impossible, it simply runs counter to the teachings of Scripture. The independency of the local church (to which Strivens and the other authors hold) is not weakened by association, but strengthened. It is a simple but vital truth: biblical independency does not equate to functional isolationism. Strivens appeals to both history and Scripture to present a compelling case for association, with his chapter being a real highlight for this reader. This chapter illustrates the usefulness of voices such as this in several prescient conversations in the modern church. Though Strivens does not address the issue of abuse of power head on, it is touched upon by later contributors (e.g. John Benton in Chapter 6), and he does offer a footnote that speaks into this debate (p.38, n.12). This is but one example where this conversation around formal associations drives current debates forward, and it is most welcome.
Greg Tarr and Paul Smith’s chapters offer a more focused historical dimension to the study, before chapters Four and Five move to consider, through the examples of the AGBC(SE) in the UK and associations in Italy and Peru respectively, the missional and practical support offered by strong associations. Each of these, despite the limitations mentioned above, provide further evidence of the functional and gospel-centred fruit of local churches in association with one another.
In the final chapter of the book, John Benton writes that “Churches will not take much interest in an association unless they see, from Scripture, its necessity and its value.” (p.190.) His chapter is focussed on maintaining strong associations, and compliments Strivens’ opening chapter well. He tackles some obvious threats to healthy associations, as well as three essential builders for firm association foundations. His chapter is an effort to persuade the reader that association ought to be a healthy, flourishing and exciting part of local church life. The book as a whole does an excellent job of appealing to Scripture, of showing the biblical necessity and value of such associations. Through the example of one association which by the grace of God has lasted now for 150 years, each contributor adds to the presentation of formal associations as both beneficial and biblical for the flourishing of the local church.
The organisation or associations of local churches is hardly the most glamorous topic, and certainly not a headline grabber. In many ways the book offers simple, biblically-informed advice and practical suggestions. This is not a hot-button topic, nor some radical new idea. But it is a vitally important one. Scripture never teaches that the radical transformational power of the Gospel leads to isolated pockets of introspective believers. We are built into local expressions of a global church, bodies of a larger body, families within a wonderful, God-ordained family. Strong and well-thought through associations do not damage the independency or legitimacy of the local church, rather, they support it through fellowship, encouragement and practical aid. Association offers a compelling case for such relationships, and in a time where churches are increasingly societally marginalised, whilst facing a number of scandals that expose the sin prevalent in our leaders, churches and organisations more broadly, such relationships simply must be addressed.
Grace Publications are relatively newly revitalised, and the overall quality of the book impressed. A few typos did little to detract from the thrust of the book, a journal name not italicised (p.149) is largely inconsequential, naming the puritan theologian ‘John Own’ (p.219) was mildly amusing. One editorial oversight was a little frustrating. An interesting discussion of historical analysis conducted by James Renihan (p.24-5) was helpful, but with no reference offered the reader was given no opportunity to chase up this idea. We are told he “argued persuasively”, but not told where to find these arguments.1 Similarly (though more briefly) p.214 it is noted that JC Ryle ‘famously said’ a certain quotation, yet no reference for this famous saying is given. Overall, however, the book was well presented, and these few minor issues do not take away from a volume that has been well produced, and offers encouraging signs for the continued rebirth of Grace Publications. Personally, I’m excited to see what comes next from these guys, and I’m grateful for the renewal of a confessionally baptist publishing house in the UK, however small.
As hopefully has become apparent in this review, relationships between churches exist to different degrees whatever our context. Those in baptist, congregational churches such as those in the AGBC(SE) would benefit from reflecting on this book, both with regards to the position of their own church in relationship to others, and their own personal view of the association/s of which their church is a member. Those of different theological persuasions would be aided by this book as well, as it offers a helpful and winsome presentation of the need to think seriously though our inter-church relationships in the midst of a busy and often hostile modern world. I’m excited by this book, and pray it contributes to conversations that ultimately strengthen the Lord’s churches in this country and beyond, for both the growing of disciples and the conversion of new believers.
Published earlier this year, Association is available from Grace Baptist Publications.
1. The author has graciously provided the reference: James Renihan, ‘Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705′ (Paternoster, 2008), ch. 6.