We can do more together than we can do apart. But we have to be together. We have to agree on more than the mode of adult baptism. We have to agree deeply, broadly, substantially and methodologically. And we have to know each other. It will take time together, it will take work, commitment, grace and mercy over decades to build that kind of robust fellowship and association. But it will be worth it. Or it would be, if I were building a denomination from scratch.
As many of you will know, our church is in the process of leaving our denomination. It has been a long and exhausting process. If you want to read about it you can find a string of articles here, here, here, here and here. There are more, but trust me, that ought to be enough.
Our process has been delayed by COVID19, but over the next 6 months we will be engaged in the fairly elaborate process of disengaging from our historic association. As the timeline above indicates, this was not a decision we arrived at lightly. We’ve enjoyed over 140 years of friendship and partnership with these people. We’ve invested in kingdom work together, we’ve prayed together and we’ve worshipped together. But now it is time to go our separate ways.
But that doesn’t mean we intend to walk alone.
To be clear I don’t think that churches have to associate with other churches, but I think it is dangerous and generally unwise not to. Churches that don’t associate are more vulnerable to doctrinal novelty, pastoral bullying and general isolation. Association is complicated and painful, but over the long haul it is worth it.
To be clear, I’m not planning on building a denomination from scratch. I don’t think I have the time, the headspace or the necessary expertise. What I do have is almost a decade of thinking, praying and repenting under pressure. The following observations have arisen largely out of that context.
Based on what I’ve read in the Bible and what I’ve experienced over the last 10 years, if I were building a denomination from scratch in 2021 I would:
Insist on near total theological agreement
Our denomination got into trouble when it began to view theology as a threat to general unity. I have some sympathy for that instinct given the history of our particular tribe. Baptists in Ontario were driven apart in the early decades of the 20th century, largely under the pressure of sustained theological disagreement. Some of that disagreement was necessary and some of it was undeniably personality driven. See here. That trauma produced an allergy to theological discussion in our group that led to serious downgrade and defection over time. It became part of our culture to say that we were a missiological association, not a theological association.
But what does that mean?
And how would that work?
How could we DO mission together as Christians if we didn’t agree as to what it means to be a Christian?
How do you share the Gospel together if you don’t agree on what the Gospel is?
It was the failure to ask those questions and the failure to answer them that led to the decline and ongoing death of my denomination.
So if I were going to start a denomination from scratch I would start by having long conversations about those very things. I would insist – I would want everyone else to insist – that before we built programs or sent missionaries or hosted conferences – we would agree, broadly, generally and specifically on some fundamental issues. Who is God? What is man? What is sin? Who is Jesus? How does the cross save us? What role is played by the Holy Spirit? What is the church? What is the mission? Who does what? How will it end? What is the point?
Of course to answer any of those questions you will have to first agree on your doctrine of Scripture. It was there, in truth, that the problems in my denomination began.
You can’t do anything together if you don’t first agree to bow before the inspired, inerrant, sufficient and authoritative Word of God. If the last 10 years has taught me anything, it has taught me that.
Secondly, if I were building a denomination from scratch in 2021 I would:
Think small, local and relational
In my denomination, small local associations gradually gave way to massive, national bodies with complicated and often overlapping structures and responsibilities.
This was not an improvement.
If the purpose of free will association is fellowship, consultation and ministry partnership, as John Owen in the Savoy Declaration originally suggested that it was, it is difficult to see how this can be done by churches in different provinces, speaking different languages and facing very different situations on the ground. There is such a thing as economy of scale but the drive towards bigger and wider that characterized the 20th century needs to be revisited in favour of associations that are local and personal in nature.
If pastors cannot meet with each other personally on a monthly or at least quarterly basis, in what sense are they experiencing meaningful fellowship? How precisely are they able to consult on issues of pastoral or theological difficulty? How can they partner in reaching their various communities? If the answer to all of those questions is “the internet” then heaven help us. If the internet has proven anything it is that the internet has not been good for personal and pastoral relationships.
The larger, wider and less personal an association is, the more cracks there are in which dangerous and evil things inevitably grow. The on-going trauma being played out in the Southern Baptist Association should be all the proof we need of that. In what sense can 47,000 churches be said to be in meaningful fellowship with one another? What does that even mean and why is it necessary? It only took 5 Particular Baptist Churches to launch the modern missionary movement in the 18th century, so why do we need 47,000 churches pretending to be in meaningful association in the 21st century? At some point you can become too big and too broad to succeed and it appears to be past time for us to reconsider the effectiveness of these massive and inefficient organizations.
If I were starting a denomination from scratch, I’d like to see 20-30 churches within a 4 hour driving radius engaged in regular and meaningful contact with one another. Could these chapters be part of a larger, national body?
As long as the real action, and the real authority remain in the smaller units. As soon as the money and the authority shifts to people “from away” the effectiveness of free will association begins to diminish.
Thirdly, if I were building a denomination from scratch in 2021 I would:
Focus on leadership development, consultation and support
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade talking to my Associate and Assistant Pastors about what they want out of a denomination. They usually only talk about one thing: leadership development.
They want to go to workshops where they can listen without constantly “editing out” subversive content. Whenever we went to workshops in our current denomination we always felt a fair bit of the content was geared towards undermining our perspective as a reforming group. The eye contact with us lasted a little longer, it seemed, than with everyone else. It felt more like deprogramming and less like edification and equipping.
That was hard, but it also led to a strong appetite for leadership training, mentoring and pastoral equipping. We’re hungry for it. Groups like TGC and T4G have filled a gap for us that allowed us to stay a little longer and move a little slower in our efforts at reform and in our process of departure. It was always such a blessing just to open our mouths and to be filled. When you are receiving instruction from the Bible by a teacher who accepts its authority as the Word of God – it is life giving. And it is what denominations ought primarily to be doing for their pastors.
We are feeders by role and calling, which means, conversely, that our greatest need is to be fed. We need veteran, bible loving, sheep tending, Christ following pastors to fill us up so that we can serve those entrusted to our care.
And we need mentoring.
We need to consult on difficult pastoral issues. We need an ear we can bend and a shoulder we can lean on. I’ve been blessed to find all of those things through extra ecclesial associations such as TGC Canada. Those men are my brothers, my friends, my teachers and my counsellors. But, I had to go a long way to find them and if I were starting a denomination from scratch today, I would make providing those supports to others my first order of business.
Fourthly, if I were building a denomination from scratch in 2021 I would:
Leave church planting to other churches
Healthy churches are good at planting other churches. Denominations generally are not. Denominations can support and host training and even direct some surplus capital, but by and large, it takes a healthy local church to plant another healthy local church.
When denominations get involved their efforts generally betray a lack of local knowledge that results in inefficiency and competition on the ground. Local churches tend to spot unreached neighbourhoods. Denominations operate at a higher magnification. They can’t see those things, and therefore they tend to deal in different metrics.
They are also, by definition, far away.