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Are They of Heaven or of Men?

DEAR BROTHER BEEBE: – Brother F. M. Turner, of Tuscaloosa, wishes me to ask you to give through the SIGNS the best views you have upon associations. The main point upon which he wants information is, Is there any spiritual authority for the present system of organized associations, as practiced by the Old School or Primitive Baptists? Did they originate with the ancient apostolic churches, or with and among Catholics? We want to know exactly what kind of an association is scriptural, or of divine authority. By writing on the above subject at your earliest convenience, you will greatly oblige at least two anxious inquirers.

Yours in fellowship,

REPLY. – In answer to the inquirers of brethren Redd and Turner, we will refer them to what we have published as our views on the subject on various occasions, which may be found in the first volume of our republished Editorials, pages 125 and 545, and also in the SIGNS, volume xxxi., No. 21, volume xxxi., No. 23, and volume xlv., No. 18. We still entertain substantially the same views on the subject of associations that we expressed in those articles. In those articles we have given it as our conviction that,

First. There is no scripture authority for any ecclesiastical body except the church of God.

Second. That the church of Christ is a unit. “There is ONE body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” – Eph. iv. 4-6. Therefore all the members are exhorted to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Of this one church, which is the body of Christ, he is the Head, the King, and the only Law-maker for his people, as he has never invested any of his children, not even his enthroned apostles, with the least particle of legislative authority. Therefore,

Thirdly. For associations or other religious organizations having a distinct constitution, creed, laws of by-laws from those which are given by Christ to his church, we have never been able to find any divine authority. If there is any in the scriptures, we have failed to find it.

Fourth. Although we find no authority for associations, as distinct from or auxiliary to the church of God, the church is nevertheless an associate body; and although as branches of the one living vine, or organized body, her branches may be widely scattered in their localities, like those addressed by Peter, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, yet they are the same “Elect, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” undivided and indivisible, having no powers, interests or elements in distinction from each other.

Fifth. No branch of the church has any power to delegate to any of her members to form auxiliary societies, courts or bodies independent of or distinct from the whole body, the church. As God has set the members in the one body, the church, as it hath pleased him, they are as the branches of the same one vine, all deriving their vitality and vigor from the same one root; they are not only members of the body, but they are also members one of another. None of them are or can be independent of all the rest of the members or branches. They are, as organized by God himself, closely and inseparable associated, so that no one of them can say to another member or branch, I have no need of thee. “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and these members, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.” For christians, as individual members of Christ, or as churches of the same faith and order, to associate for the worship of God and for mutual edification, is not only tolerated by the law of Christ, but is positively enjoined. They are forbidden to “forsake the assembling of themselves together, as the manner of some is.” – Heb. x.25.

Sixth. To meet together for spiritual communion, to inquire after the general prosperity of Zion, to pray for her peace, to cherish and strengthen the bonds of unity, love and fellowship, to provoke unto love and good works, to “lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees,” is to associate in the way and manner which we find fully sanctioned by the laws of Christ, and by the example and usage of the apostles and primitive disciples of our Lord. Against such association there is no law. At such assemblies or associations, all who in the providence of God are permitted to attend from any church of the dame faith and order are cordially welcomed to participate in all the deliberations and proceedings of the assembled saints.

Seventh. Brethren Redd and Turner ask whether there is scriptural authority for the present system of organized associations, as now practiced by Old School or Primitive Baptists. Our brethren may not be aware that our northern associations differ from those in the south in the manner of organization. The Warwick Association, and several others in our correspondence, had this subject under consideration more than forty years ago, soon after the separation took place between the Missionary (so-called) and Apostolic Baptists; and after due deliberation the same questions substantially, which are now agitating our brethren at the south, were referred to the churches of which the associations were composed, and by the decision of our churches the constitutional form of association was abolished. In the judgment of our churches, a constitution, with articles of confederation and faith distinct from those of the church or churches, involved the idea of a distinct body, for which we can find no scriptural authority. Since that time our annual meetings have been regularly held for correspondence and christian intercourse. They are not composed of delegates, as we do not hold that the church has any power that she can scripturally delegate; but each branch of the church uniting in these annual meetings sends messengers to bear their epistles of love and fellowship, and to inquire after the welfare of their sister churches. When thus assembled, that all things may be done decently and in order, either the pastor of the church with which we have met, or some other member, is appointed to preside over the deliberations for the time being, and the clerk of the church, or some other brother in his stead, is requested to record the proceedings of the meeting, that they may be accurately reported to the several branches of the church, whose messengers we are, and by whose authority we assemble. These minutes, together with a Circular Letter to the churches, and a Corresponding Letter to other clusters of churches of the same faith and order, are prepared and sent for the promotion of a general correspondence throughout the accessible bounds of the household of faith. Messengers also are generally appointed to bear our correspondence to such other associations as are in correspondence with us; but these are clothed with no delegated power: they are only messengers to bear letters of fraternal greeting, and to facilitate scriptural intercourse and fellowship. Such are our associational meetings here at the north, and we have been greatly blessed with the sensible presence of our Lord, if we are not altogether mistaken, while sitting together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Eighth. Our brethren inquire, “Did they [the associations] originate with the ancient apostolic churches, or with and among Catholics?” We have no account of any meetings of the churches known among the apostles and primitive churches by the name of associations; but that the church of primitive days did sometimes meet and correspond by messengers, we have, as we think, examples, at Jerusalem, at Antioch, and some other cases, but in no case under any other constitution than that of the church of Christ. Nor do we know of any meetings of the kind or bearing the name among the Catholics. We have some historical account of churches of the Baptist order being associated and holing associations in Wales and other parts of Europe before our fathers emigrated to this country; but of the precise manner in which they were organized or conducted we are not prepared to speak. We commend the earnest disposition of our dear brethren Redd and Turner and others to investigate the subject. It is of minor importance to us to know when, where or by whom associations were first introduced, or in what ages or countries they have been observed; the more important thing to be know is, are they warranted by the laws of Christ, as laid down for our rule in the New Testament?

That the primitive saints did meet and associate as often as they had the opportunity to do so, is very evident; but by reason of bitter persecution they were scattered abroad, and their seasons of association together were often interrupted by the violence of their enemies, by reason of which they were scattered into distant localities. But when opportunity served them, they joyfully embraced it; not by regular, stated, periodical gatherings, but as frequently as they had opportunity, sometimes daily. Then, whenever they came together, all who were of the same faith and order were equally recognized, whether they had been baptized and received as members at Jerusalem, Antioch, Galatia or Rome.

In responding to the inquiries and attempting to comply with the requests of our brethren, we have endeavored to direct their inquiring minds to the scriptures, as the only safe and infallible guide, and to the Holy Spirit to open the scriptures to their understanding. If anything further should be desired of us on this subject, we refer the brethren to what we have published in the SIGNS, as referred to in the former part of this article. And our desire and prayer is that we all may be led by the spirit of truth, and that we may walk worthy of the high vocation of our heavenly calling.

Elder Gilbert Beebe
Middletown, N. Y.

Signs of the Times
Volume 49, No. 3.
February 1, 1881