The Baptist Faith and Message statement on cooperation makes several helpful points that are worth highlighting.
1. Each local church is autonomous and no other ecclesiastical organization may exercise authority over it.
2. Each association and convention is autonomous and holds no authority over local churches.
3. Cooperation is right and good for members of local churches. I find it interesting that the BF&M says that “Members of New Testament churches should cooperate…” (emphasis added) rather than simply “churches should cooperate.” I doubt that the framers of that statement meant anything signficant by that wording, but it does at least give the impression that individual members of churches are primarily, if not exclusively in view with the encouragement to engage in cooperative efforts.
4. The nature of the cooperation being encouraged is not defined other than to note that any organizations that emerge from such cooperation are “voluntary and advisory bodies.” Participation in any specific cooperative effort or organization is voluntary.
5. The organization of “associations” and “conventions” is encouraged, “as the occasion arises.” What such occasions might be is left undefined.
A group of Baptist churches in Kansas recently determined that such an occasion had arisen and, in keeping with the spirit and letter of the Baptist Faith and Message, formed a new Baptist association. The Spurgeon Baptist Association of Churches is committed to the doctrines of grace and seeks to manifest the glory of God in cooperative efforts of like-minded churches. They are recognized by the Kansas-Nebraska State Convention of churches. And they are open to churches from other associations.
I believe that what is taking place in Kansas is a harbinger of the future of Southern Baptist church life. More churches will increasingly see the need to “organize such associations as may best secure the cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God” (BF&M). In the past such associations were formed around doctrinal commitments and geographical proximity. Over time, geography came to trump theology and associations (at least in modern Southern Baptist life) became almost exclusively defined in terms of location, not belief.
The reason that geography was so important was for the purpose of communication. In days before telephones, getting together to consult with fellow “messengers from associating churches” was costly both in time and money. Today, with phones, fax machines, email, commercial air travel and video-conferencing, the limitations of geography have been largely (albeit, not completely) overcome.
In the future I expect that we will see many more Baptist churches forming associations like the Spurgeon Association. With a shared doctrinal foundation and philosophy of church ministry, such associations may well take on the vibrancy and usefulness of Baptist associations of a by-gone era. The Baptist Faith and Message encourages this effort.