By Suzii Paynter
From our beginning we have believed that Baptist Christians can and should work together in mutual trust and respect to serve God’s mission in the world. This passion for cooperation is in the DNA of the Fellowship — it is who we are and how we want to obey the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
Historically, Baptists have believed that individual Christians and local churches should voluntarily work together for the sake of the Gospel. This is sometimes called the “associational principle” and it has resulted in many remarkable collaborative ministries. Cooperation and voluntary connection are as much a part of Baptist history and identity as individual autonomy and freedom.
Baptists have formed themselves into associations, conventions, unions and alliances for the purposes of fellowship, theological education and missions. Believing the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church, Baptists have simultaneously believed in the voluntary association of churches because they know they need each other. They have organized themselves into structures out of a firm conviction that cooperation is woven into the fabric of effective ministry.1
Purposeful Ambiguity and the Elasticity of Associational Relationships
Associational relationships are voluntary and are inherently elastic. There are other religious orders and organizations that require for participation/membership a pledged compliance with a rule of life. There are religious structures that require for participation/membership that the central governance maintain the power of ordination or property ownership. However, Baptist organizations are characterized by associational relationships that exhibit the power of shared (but not identical) witness, and the power of Christian unity expressed in cooperation and missional service. So where are the inherent boundaries in associational relationships? They are found in several places, although not in centralized doctrinal or governing power.
Clearly, by virtue of our Baptist distinctive of church autonomy, each participating congregation has its defining and governing characteristics. Likewise, any associational body (like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) also has defining and governing characteristics. Do these exactly align with the congregations that are participating? No; almost never.
Do they provide an elasticity between the associational relationships? Yes. By not imposing the boundaries of the associational body on Congregation A or on the function or acceptance of Congregation B, the elasticity of associational relationships abides. The opposite is also true — by not requiring the associational body to reflect the particular characteristics of any one, or all, of the participating congregations, the elasticity of the associational bond abides.
So, in beginning the Illumination Project, we are bringing into focus a topic of inherent boundaries in associational relationships. First, the associational body itself, CBF, while a Baptist Christian organization, is not a church. It’s structures, governance and boundaries, even legal considerations, are significantly different than any single congregation. One important example is that CBF has more than 50 employees and global engagement at many international sites. These international employees and relationships are the result of the very cooperative ministry made possible by the associational manifestation of shared witness and compassionate mission. They fulfill some of the most desirable and important priorities of our cooperation, but they also define and limit the associational organization in ways that are different than the local churches that comprise the Fellowship.
When churches look into the associational entity and do not see themselves reflected to some degree, they begin to question the strength of their associational connection. Likewise, when they require the separate entity to be too closely reflective of any given congregation, they diminish the platform of cooperation that has enabled the shared ministry which is the purpose of cooperative/associational relationships. CBF does not exist to duplicate the church, but to extend ministry. There is a purposeful ambiguity in this arrangement.
One aspect of the Illumination Project is to explore, articulate and affirm the nature of our associational relationships and provide voice to the power of our shared witness, selfless service and Christian unity. This part of the conversation within the Illumination Project to articulate COOPERATION belies something sacred and central to Baptist Christian identity and something that is sometimes illusive, or at least sensitive to define, exploring the elasticity of associational relationships.
1 Daniel Vestal, “Passion for Cooperation,” May 2, 2011.
Suzii Paynter serves as the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. more about the Illumination Project at http://www.cbf.net/illuminationproject.