In reply to brother Ausmus' inquiry, What is an association? we answer, The word signifies a connection formed of persons or things. When applied to Christians, in a religious sense, we understand it to signify a social band of the disciples of Christ in union, harmony, intimately organized on gospel principles, according to the laws of Christ, for mutual edification, in sweet communion and fellowship one with another. An association of churches is almost anything that the associated parties may make of them. If composed of none but regular and orderly churches, of the same faith and order, and conducted on gospel principles, they are, as brother Ausmus has found some of them, both pleasant and profitable. With Old School Baptists, the design of associations is an extension of acquaintance by Christian correspondence and personal interviews, the promotion of fellowship and the general edification of all who belong to the household of God, and as they are generally held, by mutual agreement of the associated churches, once a year, opportunity is afforded for brotherly intercourse, whereby each may learn of the state and condition of the others, so as to be able to sympathize together, to rejoice with those who do rejoice, and weep with such as weep. At those annual meetings letters from the associated churches are brought by their messengers, setting forth the general prosperity or adverse condition of each church, with such expressions of love, sympathy and fellowship as the churches are pleased to communicate. This is deemed important, not only that each may know of the other's affairs, but also to regulate the intercommunion of the churches. Churches in receiving members from other churches by letter, should know whether such churches are of the same faith and order, as also in dismissing from one to another. As it takes all the members of Christ to make up his one body, so all the branches of the church are required to make up the general assembly of the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. The same immortal life antimates all the members of the one body; the same food nourishes, the same hope cheers, the same faith triumphs, in and through them all. For however distant in locality the branches may be spread out from each other, they are the same one Vine; their vigor is from the same root, and their fruit is the same. None of them bear the grapes of Sodom nor the clusters of Gomorrah, but this Vine of which the Father is the husbandman bears the fruits which are unto holiness, and the end is everlasting life. For "there is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." One church, or branch of the church of Christ, can have no separate interest or independent existence from all the other branches, and all are equally interested in all the affairs of all the fellow-branches.
Much has been said about the independence of churches, of their right to transact their business in their own way, without remonstrance or interference from others. But how is this? Has any portion of the church a right to do wrong, to violate any law or precept of the law of Christ, which is equally binding alike on all the branches of the church of God? If they have, then may they be independent of each other, but such independence at once destroys all fellowship with each other. Our fellowship is based upon identity of faith and practice. In the primitive days they who gladly received the word of the apostles were admitted to baptism and church membership, and they continued in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship; none were continued in the apostles' fellowship who did not abide in their doctrine. It is no less essential now that Christians and churches should conform to that standard of apostolic rectitude in faith and practice, to secure the common fellowship of the people of God, than at that time, for all orderly Christians are commanded to mark and avoid those who walk disorderly. This includes those who embrace any other doctrine than that which Paul and the other apostles preached, or are governed by any other laws or ordinances than given in the New Testament. We fully agree with our brother that the church of Christ is the highest ecclesiastical court on earth; and further, we will say she is the only divinely authorized ecclesiastical court on earth. No other court, principality or power on earth has any right to interfere with the discipline of God's house. We would rather have a millstone hanged about our neck, and be cast in the midst of the Atlantic, than fall under the reprobation of the church of God; when she, in her legitimate position, governed by the word and Spirit, utters her decisions, they are binding on earth and ratified in heaven. But here is the point: does the church, in all her several branches, always act in accordance with the word and Spirit of Christ? We are far from adopting the popish doctrine of infallibility. Let it be always remembered that the church is only competent to administer the laws of Christ in the house of God when she occupies apostolic ground, and her enactments and decisions can only meet the divine approbation when they are executed in the Spirit of Christ and according to his laws. It is not, therefore, lording it over God's heritage for any disciple of Christ to repudiate any action of a church, or association of churches, when they have manifestly departed, in their decisions, from the word and from the spirit of the gospel of Christ. In the distinct organization of a branch of the church of God it is fully conceded that such a church, or branch of the church, has full authority to execute the laws and discipline in her own bounds, but with the explicit understanding that she can only act authoritatively when acting according to the divine rule, and this rule is the same in all the departments of Zion, wherever located, and throughout all time.
Associations, in the common acceptation of the term among us, not being an organized branch of the church, do not assemble for the purpose of exercising those prerogatives which belong to the churches as such; but still, to prevent disorder and confusion, they must have the right to withhold their sanction from all that is disorderly and in violation of the law of Christ. Hence when a church which has been recognized in her fellowship manifestly departs from our faith or order, she has, as has every individual Chistian, the authority of Christ to drop such church from her recognition as an orderly church in fellowship, and from all, either churches or individual brethren, that walk in disorder, to turn away.
Cases like that mentioned by brother Ausmus sometimes have occurred where churches have become divided, and each party claimed to be the church, and have sent each party their letter to the association, and the duty, however unpleasant or delicate, is forced on the association to decide which, if either party, is walking in the spirit and order of the gospel. In nearly all such cases it is presumable that both parties are, at least to some extent, wrong, and the association should be exceeding cautious how they decide. But when the case is perfectly clear that one party has palpably departed from the order of the gospel, and that the other is contending only for the faith and order of the gospel of Christ, the association has the same power that every individual has to express her fellowship for the orderly brethren and to withhold it from the disorderly. Upon no other principle that we can conceive of can fellowship be maintained among the people of God. If a number of persons, many or few, who have organized as a church, put themselves on their dignity as a church, claim a right to do as they please as an independent church, and refuse to give satisfaction to sister churches in regard to their order, can it be expected that sister churches can continue their walk and fellowship when the erring church is regardless of their approbation? The association of churches, as we have shown, are voluntary assemblages of messengers and brethren from such churches as have professed to be of the same faith and order, and as such, have mutually agreed to associate as long as they can so agree. The undoubted right is reserved to each to retire from the association when they shall see cause for doing so, and the association has the right to drop from her list any church that in her judgment has departed from the faith and order of the gospel. We by no means regard associational compacts as essential to the order of the gospel. Many churches which stand unconnected with other churches in any formal arrangement of association are nevertheless held in bonds of fellowship by the Old School Baptists generally; but these unassociated churches carry out the same order in dropping from their correspondence and fellowship such churches as in their judgment depart from the faith and practice authorized by the divine rule.
Finally, Christians collectively in churches, or associations, or individually, are required to adhere strictly to the laws and ordinances of the Lord's house, and so long as they walk orderly they have a right to the fellowship of all the children of God, but in no capacity have they the right to violate any of the precepts, nor to depart from any of the examples of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is but too true, as our brother has intimated, and most of us have painfully felt, the church is annoyed by ambitious and graceless men, who desire to lord it over the conscience of the children of God, but we cannot see that the nuisance would be at all abated by disbanding all the associations. Many such characters infested the primitive churches and annoyed them, as did the Canaanites the people of Israel in former times; but if our associations are properly regarded they will have a tendency rather to detect and expose such vain and troublesome characters. The Old School Baptists have constantly disclaimed all right or disposition to legislate for or to sit in judgment over the churches. We meet for the worship of God, for Christian correspondence, for social intercourse and sweet communion with those who truly love our Lord Jesus Christ, and are ready and willing to bear his yoke and to learn of him who is meek and lowly.
We have not written our views to prevent other brethren from responding to the inquiries of brother Ausmus, but we do think if ever there was a time when the saints should associate, and correspond, and speak often and lovingly one to another, that time is now upon us. How long we may be permitted to enjoy the privilege, is with the Lord. Many who have formerly enjoyed it are now deprived. May God enable us to use and not abuse the liberty while we may.
November 1, 1863.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 5
Pages 415 - 419