The doctrine of the independency and autonomy of a local church is a belief that is widely understood and accepted by the average member of any of our Reformed Baptist churches. The doctrine of inter-church fellowship, however, is less understood and appreciated. At best, it is looked at as “an optional cooperation, if it is so desired”.[1] Does this attitude toward inter-church fellowship reflect biblical sentiment? I don’t think so. Rather, the Bible sets before us not only the theology but also the practice of inter-church co-operation. This article demonstrates this fact under three points. First of all, we must note that:

The idea of inter-church fellowship is grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity

This doctrine postulates that even though there is one God, in the numerical and qualitative sense of that word, there are nonetheless three persons in this one God; namely, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Now, although each person of the God-head is different from the other and has properties peculiar to himself, yet he cannot be conceived of as existing without the other persons. The three persons are one in essence and purpose (John 17:11) and enjoy the most blessed of fellowship. They plan and execute their plans together.

What the triune God is, is reflected in a measure, in man who was created in his image (Gen 1:26, 27) to be a social being (Gen 2:18). This sociable-ness is variously reflected in man’s sense of need for company, as well as his erection, under God, of institutions such as the family, church and state.

So, when churches clamour for fellowship and cooperation with each other, they are only reflecting something of the image of God their Creator who is a social being. In John 17: 21, our Lord prayed for the church—not just local, but universal—that since the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in essence, believers should likewise be one in mind, effort and purpose. Although the two types of unity are not the same, nevertheless, there is a resemblance. William Hendrickson captured it well when he said, “The Trinity is not merely the model, it is the foundation of the unity between churches. It is that which makes inter-church associations possible”.[2] 

The idea of inter-church association is also grounded in the doctrine of the universal and local nature of the church of Christ

The word “Church” in the New Testament literally means “the called out ones” (1Pet. 2:9). It is a reference to those who have been called out of the world through the power of the gospel and the Spirit, and have been united to the One Head, Jesus Christ, and formed into one organic living body  (1 Cor. 12:13,27; Eph. 4:16). This living body manifests itself in two ways:

  1. In Matt. 16: 18 the word “church” is used in the universal sense. Used in this sense, it is a reference to born again believers who are scattered right across the world.
  2. In Matt. 18:17, the word “church” is used in a local sense. Used in this sense, it is a reference to born again believers who have been visibly organised into a body for the purpose of worship and bearing a witness to the world. In the Bible we read about the local church at Antioch (Acts 13:1), at Jerusalem (Acts 15:4), and at many other places (see Acts 14:23).

That the Bible gives us these two concepts of the church would seem to suggest that the church must not only express itself locally but also show something of its solidarity with believers in other churches. An inter-church association, informally or formally, expressed would seem to be a biblical way of demonstrating that any given local church is but a microcosm of a macrocosm—a small part of a large and united family which is animated and held together by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:3; 1Cor. 12:13). Therefore, when local churches visibly cooperate, they are displaying the Lord’s desire for unity in his universal body (John 17:11, 20-23).

The idea of inter-church fellowship is seen in the practice of the early church

The early church’s practice of inter-church fellowship is clearly demonstrated in the following passages:

  1. In Acts 15:2,23 two local churches (i.e. through their representatives), namely, Antioch and Jerusalem, came together to resolve a doctrinal and practical issue regarding the relationship between salvation and the Law of Moses. These were no doubt independent and autonomous churches, but they cooperated in a very formal sense. Their resolutions, which also bore the stamp of apostolic authority, did not only bind the consciences of the members of the church at Antioch, but also that of other churches in the provinces of Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15: 23; 16: 4).
  2. In Romans 15:25-27, Paul writes about how Christian churches in Macedonia and Achaia expressed their Christian fellowship with the poor believers in the churches in Jerusalem, by giving them material (financial) help. The idea being conveyed by the word “contribute” used in v.26 is sharing. It is sometimes translated “fellowship” or “communion”. The Gentile churches sent a financial gift to help support the poor in Jerusalem (Gal. 2: 9,10). How did they coordinate the collection of this gift? Did they organise themselves formally or informally? We are not told. But one thing we can be sure about is that they did organize themselves. The fact that they were independent and autonomous churches did not keep them from having fellowship.
  3. 8:1-4; 16-24 and 9:12-15 are the classic proof-texts for the idea and practice of inter-church fellowship in the Bible. Here we see benevolence work being undertaken by several churches for the needy saints in Jerusalem. The church in Corinth was the first to begin and desire to do this work of benevolence (2Cor. 8:10). The other churches also voluntarily joined in this endeavour (2Cor. 8:1-12, 2Cor. 9:7). A group from the church in Corinth was formed to accompany Paul (1 Cor. 16:3,4). Then men were appointed by several participating churches in their endeavour to ensure that no one would discredit the work (2 Cor. 8:16-24). How did the churches appoint these men? Did they formally meet to do it? It would seem so? Does this suggest that they were in a kind of formal fellowship? It strongly appears to be so.
  4. In 3 John 8-10, there was an expectation, that the church in which Diotrephes was a leader—albeit it a poor one—would extend fellowship in the form of hospitality to the various missionaries (including the Apostle John) passing through their church from other churches. The tone of John’s letter suggests that this kind of fraternity was something expected among the churches.

Conclusion

It is clear from these passages that the early churches held communion together. Their autonomy did not blind them to the need to have fellowship with a wider body of God’s people. And neither were they intoxicated with their independency that they lost sight of their mystical connection with the “catholic” church.

Furthermore, a careful look at the above scriptural passages reveals that the churches associated, formally or informally, for various reasons. Sometimes it was to seek advice on doctrinal and practical issues (Acts 15). At other times, it was to unite efforts at meeting needs that a single local church was not in a position to meet on their own (2Cor. 8:1-4).

It remains for us therefore, to consider whether we should not be associating more than we have done hitherto. Over the last many years, here in Zambia, we have associated rather informally as churches and this has both served us well and not so well. On the one hand, a lot has been achieved through our corporate activities as churches, and on the other the informal nature of the fellowship served to keep some churches that should have been actively participating on the fence. Would a more formal fellowship have nudged them to participate more? Would it have moved them to feel a greater sense of accountability? There is every reason to think so.

Here in Zambia, we now have a more formal association of churches. Let us take advantage of it not only to express our unity in Christ, but also to join hands in our bid to conquer Zambia, Africa and the world for Christ. Let us also join hands with churches across the southern African region (through associations like the Sola 5) in our attempt to do great things for God. And if we attempt great things for the one who bids us to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, we can expect that he will do great things through us and for us, can’t we? 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clarke, P. (1993) Our Baptist Heritage. Leeds: Reformation Today Trust.

Hendriksen, W (1998) New Testament Commentary: John. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth.

Hendriksen, W (1998) New Testament Commentary: Romans. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth.

Waldron, E. J. (1999) A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Darlington: Evangelical Press.

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THE 1689 BAPTIST CONFESSION OF FAITH

On Inter-Church Associations (Chapter 26)

  1. As each church, and all the members of it, are bound to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ, in all places, and upon all occasions to further every one within the bounds of their places and callings, in the exercise of their gifts and graces, so the churches, when planted by the providence of God, so as they may enjoy opportunity and advantage for it, ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification. (Ephesians 6:18; Psalms 122:6; Romans 16:1, 2; 3 John 8-10)
  2. In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers. (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 25; 2 Corinthians 1:24; 1 John 4:1)

[1] Kingdon, D. Our Baptist Heritage, page 37.

[2]  Paraphrased from Hendrickson, W. Commentary on John, page 564.