Moral, Extra-Confessional Issues In A Confessional Baptist Association

An association of churches operates on the basis of mutual commendation. Each member church enters into an agreement that it will give full acceptance and approval of all other member churches. This commendation is only given as long as a member church meets the qualifications for being an associational member in good standing; and can be removed when such is not the case. As long as good standing exists, however, each church (and its officers) is required to give full approbation to all other member churches of the association.

For an association of Baptist churches that adopts and fully subscribes to a confession of faith as its doctrinal statement, a key part of that commendation rests on each church also adopting, fully subscribing to, and teaching in full accordance with, that confessional statement. That confession acts as both a minimal and a maximal standard for its churches. Minimal, in that any church that wishes to join the association must fully subscribe to the confession. At a minimum, a church must hold to all that the confession teaches, and no less.

The confession also serves as the maximal standard. That is, any conviction or belief, which is not also in the confession itself, cannot be used to determine communion between the churches. One church may hold to a belief or practice not addressed in the association’s confession. Under congregational and Baptist polity, such a church is free to hold its view. However, having agreed to a confession of faith, that church is not free to make its view a test of communion for other associational churches. Only the confession fills that role.

These parameters create potential problems for Baptist associations striving to balance local church polity and associational responsibility. How does a church conscientiously and fully commend another church, when there are serious differences of conviction and practice between them? How can an association avoid dictating convictions to a member church, without inadvertently laying the groundwork for future divisions in the process?

Definition of Terms

Finding a solution must begin by carefully defining terms, so that such problems are properly understood, and discussion about them properly framed.

Extra-Confessional

Differences which focus on issues not expressly addressed nor necessarily implied in a confession are rightly said to be extra-confessional. It is important to note that an issue, though not explicitly mentioned in a confession, may yet be necessarily required from the confession’s overall doctrinal teaching. Thus, it is not only a confession’s specific wording, but also its organic doctrinal structure, that is to be considered.
Nonetheless, no confession is as exhaustive as Scripture itself. Nor should it attempt to be. The purpose of a confession is to lay out those distinctive doctrines which are necessary to communion – to adequately define an association. This leaves as much room for Christian liberty of conscience as possible, yet providing a cohesive and sufficiently extensive foundation for fellowship.
It is important to recognize that, for this reason, every church that has some confession of faith also holds to extra-confessional views. Quite simply, since the Bible is vastly more extensive than the confessional standard, whatever a church or officer believes the Bible teaches will involve issues not addressed by the confession. For example, the Texas Area Association of Reformed Baptist Churches (TAARBC) uses the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 as its confessional standard. If one church prefers a particular translation of the Bible, that is an extra-confessional view. If another church has no translational preference or believes there should be no preference expressed, these are equally extra-confessional views. The Baptist Confession of 1689 doesn’t address such views one way or another. If one church teaches that parents must not send their children to public schools, they have an extra-confessional view. But churches which disagree equally have an extra-confessional view, because any view on this subject is not addressed by the Baptist Confession of 1689; and therefore is, of necessity, extra-confessional. In this sense, every church and its pastors hold to extra-confessional views which cannot be made the basis of communion between churches.
In this way, whenever a difference arises between churches, it is necessary to recognize that it is not just the church or pastor that espouses the view that is being extra-confessional. If the issue is extra-confessional, all views, pro or con, are of necessity extra-confessional.

Moral Extra-Confessional Issues

Within the vast bounds of extra-confessional issues, there are two types: those to which the adherent ascribes moral standing, and those left only in the area of personal preferences (however strong those preferences may be). Thus, it is important in such cases to not only ask whether an issue is extra-confessional, but also to ascertain whether it is also seen as a moral issue.
Extra-confessional issues which are mere preferences, or to which no moral ground is attached, are usually easily resolved. They fall clearly into the area of Christian liberty, and most pastors and churches are quite ready to allow each other’s views.
But there are some extra-confessional issues which are held as moral. In these cases, one church or pastor will promote a view on the basis that it is a sin not to believe or practice in a certain way. In the 1690’s, the Particular Baptists of England were subjected to great rancor over the issue of congregational singing. Benjamin Keach believed it was a moral issue that congregations must sing as part of worship. His chief opponent, Isaac Marlowe (a former member of Keach’s church), believed it was a moral issue that congregations must not sing as part of worship. This was an issue that was argued, not with the polite speech of mere preferences, but with moral invectives.
Moral, extra-confessional issues pose the most serious problem for the communion of churches. Each side is convinced that sinful practices or beliefs are at stake, and each position is addressed – or attacked – with the zeal of those who rightly care for the cause of righteousness.

Specific Problems Involved

It now becomes necessary to detail the problems involved with moral, extra-confessional issues.
Since the position is seen as a moral one, any pastor who addresses the issue is likely to do so from a moral perspective, instructing his church members of their moral duty in the matter. Also, even if there is no active instruction in the matter, there will often be implicit instruction, either from the pastor or from others in the church who share his position. Once it is known that a pastor has a certain view, there will be church discussion – formal or not. Should the people adopt the pastor’s position on this issue, they will also be convinced of its moral basis.
What happens when church members hear of other churches in the association who do not practice as they do? Will they conclude that other churches are neglectful and sinful? What will their attitude be toward visiting associational ministers? If they hold to their conviction, and are in God’s providence forced to move locations, will they be able to attend other associational churches without causing dissension on the matter? How will they handle their moral conviction on the matter?
Conversely, how will other churches handle this situation? If a church member from another associated church moves into the area of the church with the stricter conviction, will they feel at ease with the church’s direction, teaching, and worship? Will other pastors feel comfortable in recommending that any members who move attend their sister church, despite the differences?
If these problems are not addressed properly, it will create a de facto associational split, where one or more churches with a moral conviction become un-like their sister churches, and inevitably avoided. Each will, on the surface, speak of support and acceptance of each other; but in the end, the unresolved differences may create an unspoken rift, an invisible wall. The association will have different camps, even if not formally acknowledged.

Wrong Approaches

One wrong approach is to assume that, since the issue is extra-confessional, that it should not be addressed beyond that; as if merely classifying the issue as such removes any danger. Left alone, the two different teachings will create the unspoken barrier mentioned above. In time, what is un-addressed will clamor to be addressed. Avoiding the issue only delays the inevitable.
Another wrong approach is that of demanding perfect consistency in all things. Thus, if one church or pastor has adopted a moral stance on an extra-confessional issue, the perfectly consistent thing is to conclude that they cannot possibly give commendation to anyone who disagrees with them. After all, doesn’t the issue of sin come into play? How can one church or pastor commend another when their moral convictions brand the other as practicing sin? Likewise, other pastors and churches who have not adopted a moral approach to the issue, if perfectly consistent, would see the stricter church as having added to the moral law; or perhaps changing the understanding of Scripture regulations on worship or ethics; or perhaps even changing the very essence of how morality is defined. Perfect consistency would demand that these pastors or church members separate from the stricter church on this basis.

However, we must know that, since the Scripture has a myriad of issues not addressed by any confession, that the approach of “perfect consistency” only means that associationalism becomes impossible. Sooner or later, as each issue is addressed, the bounds of acceptable commendation become smaller and smaller. The call for “perfect consistency” ultimately means everyone must agree with me on anything I deem important, or I cannot have fellowship with them.
Finally, moral extra-confessional issues cannot be handled by a theological slugfest. While honest and loving debate may prove beneficial to the association, it cannot have the goal of mandating conformity to every democratic decision. This approach, in effect, destroys confessionalism by making each debate and decision an addition to the confession. Every issue that is raised must be solved; and every solution becomes a test for commendation. The confession becomes only the beginning; each successive argument adds to it implicitly. Another way to view the effect of this approach is to see that it deems the confession inadequate, and thus it completely undermines confessionalism. The “confession” becomes the accrual of decisions of the association; with such decisions often being won by the best debater or the most influential pastor.

Some Suggestions

How, then, can a full-subscriptionist, Baptist association of churches proceed when dealing with moral, extra-confessional issues?
First, it must be ascertained if the position of the pastor or church holding the view is that the issue is, indeed, a moral one. If not, then regardless of how deeply some either advocate the view; and regardless how deeply some might argue against it; it must be handled under liberty of conscience and must not affect commendation between sister churches. A failure to implement this basic idea shows that a church or pastor does not understand either confessionalism or associationalism.
When it has been determined that a pastor or church has adopted a view that is not addressed in the confession, and that they view it as a moral issue, the question must be asked if liberty on this issue is shown within its own membership. Can a person be a member of the church and yet have the freedom to not practice or believe according to its teaching on this matter? If so, then it can rightly be assumed that liberty would be granted to all in the future, and commendation can be given. If not, then it should equally be assumed that, at the very least, there will exist a division within the association, which will likely lead to argument in the future.

If there is liberty granted, the task is not yet finished. There must equally be overt and intentional statements of grace made on the issue on all sides. In such cases, the pastors of a church which holds to a moral, extra-confessional issue must yet actively, openly, and repeatedly teach their own members to grant liberty on the issue – within their own congregation, and with their sister churches and their members. Whenever the issue is raised, they must aggressively seize the opportunity to re-inforce that their view is not binding on the consciences of others; nor should any be judge by it; nor is it the view of their association; nor has their association condemned their view; and therefore grace will be shown to all.
Equally important is the response of churches and pastors on the other side of the issue – those who do not see the moral position of the issue. When it has been determined that liberty is being granted by the espousing church, then the rest of the association must show the same liberty and commendation. Whenever the issue is raised, they should carefully teach their own view to their own church; but quickly and graciously add that there are some within the association who differ, and that they do not condemn them on this issue.

In such cases, commendation is not silent. It is vocal, repetitive, public, intentional – even aggressive.
It may be objected that such an approach is inconsistent. To some extent, that is true. But it is the inconsistency that we regularly require of our own church members. No church is perfectly uniform in the convictions of its members. All of our churches have members who hold to some personal conviction of doctrine or practice, which they believe to be a moral issue; and which we address with a pastoral command to them to show liberty and grace to all by actively avoiding any discord on the matter. We expect our members to acknowledge their views meekly, all the while reminding other members that the pastors and others in the church have different views. Associationalism requires the same meekness and deference.
In the matter of moral, extra-confessional issues, we have choices. We can write the issue off as extra-confessional, never address it beyond that – and it will eventually create unspoken yet very real division. We can demand perfect consistency, in which case our attempts at communion will fail under the weight of it. We can debate each and every such issue, in effect continually adding to our confessional beliefs. Or we can confess that such issues can be rightly held by pastors or churches, provided that liberty is shown to all, and the issue addressed by actively teaching deference and respect to our sister churches.
Peace does not come naturally. It runs from us sinners. We must learn to exert ourselves in the effort of chasing it, pursuing it, until it is won. Each issue is another pursuit, another chase. May we learn to seek it as a good and precious thing.

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