This article seeks to provide a practical outlook to the question of inter-church association. It reviews some of the challenges that Reformed Baptist churches in Zambia are likely to face in trying to deepen their association for the prosperity of the gospel in the country and beyond. It looks at some of the ways in which inter-church association among Reformed Baptists has been growing and makes suggestions on a number of areas around which greater collaboration could prove decisive in taking the Reformed faith forward.

The Challenge of Inter-Church Association

Association is widely considered key to success in the world today. Countries collaborate to achieve greater good. The creation of the United Nations (UN) after World War II signifies this idea. But countries are now moving at even greater speed to collaborate more directly whether by loose alliance, as is the case with the North America Free Trade Area, or by more integrated structures, as is the case with the European Union (EU). Closer to home, the African Union (AU), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are efforts at this. Lesser organisations, whether business companies or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), are being encouraged to seek strategic alliances to achieve more than they are able to on their own.

Conceptually the need for association is easy to accept because it comes naturally to us. Man is created a social being and has been placed in functional units – in households, communities and nations. These express our mutual dependence, signal the idea that we can always achieve more when we work together rather than on our own. As Isaac Makashinyi’s article shows, there is a long history in inter-church association. In tandem with what is happening in the world, there is a growing chorus for collaboration between churches and denominations, and even between religions, as can be seen in the so called “inter-faith” collaboration. Some of this is helpful but there is much that is not and goes against the grain of Scripture.

Although inter church fellowship among Reformed churches is common, and this may explain why there is a strong feeling of fellowship whenever we meet, we have nonetheless tended to be cautious over collaborating over specific causes. The difficulty lies in how we can remain true to our belief that each local church is autonomous, i.e. intelligent enough to manage its own affairs, accountable only to one head, the Lord Christ Jesus. We, therefore, understand that each project we undertake must be accountable to the local church, firmly under the oversight of a body of elders. In the mind of some, it seems safer to pursue causes for which one local church exercises “absolute” control while others only assist.

But the challenges before us, the urgency of taking the gospel forward, and the abundant gospel opportunities today in Zambia and beyond, must compel us to explore whether we indeed may not find avenues that allow us to collaborate while still remaining true to our autonomy as local churches. It is a question that must be explored quickly because current opportunities may be momentary and the day may soon come when the door is shut by God who shuts and no one opens. 

The State of Inter-Church Association

Fortunately in this matter, we are not treading on strange grounds as two articles in this issue of Reformation Zambia already show. Firstly, there is strong biblical support for collaboration (see Kennedy Sunkutu’s article). And there is also a rich history of healthy collaboration among Baptists that has promoted the cause of the gospel (see Isaac Makashinyi’s article). And although I have charged us with being too cautious, we are seeing growing collaboration over pertinent issues among ourselves. For sometime now Reformed Baptist churches mostly in Lusaka have collaborated in training men for ministry through the Reformed Baptist Preachers College. The brethren on the Copperbelt have also recently embarked on the Copperbelt Ministerial College for the same purpose. We are also seeing greater effort in joint church planting initiatives as Kabwata and Lusaka Baptist churches are doing in Botswana. In the last two years, the Reformed Family Conference has been hosted by the Lusaka-based churches after being hosted for 17 years by Kabwata Baptist Church alone.

To show that we are moving even closer to working together are the bi-monthly inter-church elders meetings among Lusaka-based Reformed Baptist churches. These have brainstormed the state of our churches, the opportunities before us and ways in which we can join efforts to advance the gospel. From this has come to birth the Reformed Baptist Churches Association of Zambia (REBCAZ) that was adopted at the recent Reformed Family Conference. REBCAZ presents a new vehicle of deepened inter-church collaboration which has come at the right time. 

The Unfinished Business

These past achievements should spur us on to deepened collaboration. The need to prepare men for ministry has never been greater. This is perhaps the biggest constraint that the Reformed movement faces today. After growing at great speed in the last two decades, the Reformed movement is facing a shortage of quality men to supply our pulpits and currently we have some churches without pastors. It is taking long to find pastors for churches not only because we have to be careful whom we call but also because quality men are in short supply. The efforts that have gone into training preachers so far should continue. But clearly we need an institution or institutions that would provide residential training with a good compliment of lecturers. The cost of putting up the needed infrastructure, paying lecturers, and meeting other expenses is intimidating but we cannot shrink back for the sake of the gospel.

We have also done well in helping churches to put up church buildings. This has been accomplished by the efforts of individual churches and also with the help of yet another joint venture—the Reformed Baptist Building Trust Fund. Putting up a church building is no small task and so the churches should be commended for what is being achieved. However, many of our churches continue to meet in non-conducive environments, e.g. in classrooms where they are competing with very noisy Charismatic churches next door. Given the big need, we need to look at how we can make this Fund bigger and more effective in helping churches put up buildings.

Our tentative steps to take the gospel beyond our borders—to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Malawi and the rest of Africa—should be accelerated. It is not for nothing that we are surrounded by eight other countries and are singularly blessed regarding the Reformed faith. Cooperation between individual churches should be encouraged. We should explore how we can work together as churches in REBCAZ or in Sola 5 to achieve this.

Besides this, there are new challenges that we should look into together.  One is Christian education. Some of our churches are running pre- and primary schools. The extent to which it gives us chance to bring these children to salvation and shape their world view is enormous. That we can so freely engage in this when this is not possible in other countries, especially in Europe and the Moslem world is something for which we must thank God and which we should seize with both hands. Will it be too far-fetched for our churches to facilitate the establishment of Christian high schools, colleges and universities? Imagine what we can do to this nation were we to produce a cadre of men and women who are not only saved but are fully equipped to think biblically in all spheres of life and to live out their faith as they occupy eminent positions in the land. Imagine if in the coming generations we helped to provide leaders who have a biblical worldview in politics, business and the general society. Such big projects are too big to be achieved by individual churches, even if they were to be assisted by sister churches, but they are graspable opportunity if we work together as we have done in some of the projects already referred to. This certainly argues strongly for greater association.

Then there are works of charity. Widespread extreme poverty and the dilapidating effects of HIV&AIDS have left a big part of our population marginalised and unable to participate in the life of their community without feeling ashamed. The Evangelical movement generally has not done well and Baptists are not an exception. You hear more noise in this regard from Non-Governmental Organisations and non-Evangelicals. And yet, we dare not neglect one of the clearest instructions in Scripture regarding what true religion is. It is important that our small efforts continue as local assemblies. We should also continue to encourage our members to respond to the challenge at individual levels wherever the Lord places them. However, the problem is so big that we cannot afford to close our eyes to it without bringing shame on ourselves. In the end our effort to preach Christ may attract scorn. We should also respond jointly to take care of the fatherless, the widows, the HIV&AIDS-affected households, the neglected old people, the physically challenged, the destitute, the street children, etc. And because this so close to the heart of God, we can be sure that it will honour his name and also move him to open the windows of heaven to bless and make us prosper in many other areas.

How about the unfinished business of the “Urban Outreach Ministries”, from which most of the Reformed churches have been born? The original vision was not only to spread the gospel to the urban centres of Zambia but also, in typical Pauline fashion, to enable the gospel to penetrate into the rural areas as well by some “trickle down” effect. Apart from what is happening through Kabwata Baptist Church, most Reformed Baptist churches in urban centres have not taken up the challenge. The main constraint seems to be that it would be difficult to establish these churches in places where incomes are so low that the men you send could never ever be weaned off external support. Recently there has been talk among some brethren that perhaps what we need is to raise true “tentmakers” who are able to look after themselves to live in these communities while they take care of their local assemblies. Where shall we get such men unless we step forward to give them the life skills they need to survive in such places and also give them places where they could come to replenish spiritually? There is need to have small centres around the country to train these men in theology and practical skills, like Covenant College is presently doing in Petauke.

Our Caution is not entirely misplaced

What we show above is the necessity of collaboration. However, we should not imply in any way that our current caution is without merit. Collaboration may be unhealthy and could undermine the vibrancy and authority of the local church. It, therefore, must be done under clear principles. Mostly, the autonomy of the local church should not be compromised – we should accept that the local church remains the primary vehicle appointed by God for reaching out to the world and meeting the spiritual needs of its members. It is easy to distance these efforts from our members through undefined vehicles with little accountability to the local church. However we define our collaboration and whatever the joint projects, there must be clearly laid out oversight and accountability arrangements to the local church through the body of its elders. This is not easy and requires very clear thinking each time we agree to collaborate.

We should also not allow ourselves to be swallowed up by our projects. It is easy for projects to take a life of their own and set the pace for the way the church functions rather than the other way around. This could arise from the enormous challenges of the projects which may lead us to become too pragmatic and abandon biblical thinking. We could even embrace the world too much in the end as a result.

Related to this is the need to entrust each project to reliable men. We should be careful that we are not overwhelmed by job seekers with little spiritual appetite. Getting a man simply because he is qualified in terms of human skills may be tempting but should be resisted. Such men are the same ones who would infect the church to the great detriment of our movement.

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The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches in America

(An example of an inter-church association, from the website of ARBCA)

The ASSOCIATION OF REFORMED BAPTIST CHURCHES OF AMERICA was founded on March 11, 1997. On that day the first General Assembly met to establish a charter membership of 24 churches from 14 states. Since then we have grown to 60 churches and continue to expand by the providence of God…

Jesus prayed in John 17 for His disciples to be brought to complete unity so that the world would know that the Father sent Him. The ASSOCIATION OF REFORMED BAPTIST CHURCHES OF AMERICA (ARBCA) is designed to advance Christ’s kingdom by providing a fellowship in which churches of common confession may find mutual encouragement, assistance, edification, and counsel, and participate in cooperative efforts such as home and foreign missions, ministerial training, and publications, along with other such endeavors deemed appropriate by the Association.

Reformed Baptists in America long to have our own seminary where we can send men for ministerial training. With the establishment of ARBCA, we are now working together to establish and mutually support such an institution.

There are many large cities and towns without a Reformed Baptist church. A number of churches are desirous of planting churches in these desperately needy areas. What one church cannot do, many working together can. ARBCA can assist local churches with their church planting efforts. ARBCA can also help churches seeking pastors and pastors seeking churches.

Reformed Baptists have a distinct theology and practice. Because of this, the Association plans to develop its publishing house to meet the printing needs for Christ-centered, church-centered, and covenantally Baptistic literature.

ARBCA can provide an organized forum of godly men, each holding to the same confession of faith, to help churches work through various difficulties together. As needed, it can also serve the interest of individual church members whenever “any member of any church is injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order. . .” (London Baptist Confession, 26:15).