Dependent Independence: Toward a Theology of Southern Baptist Associationalism
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Philadelphia Baptist Association
This study provides a historical survey of connectionalism within American Baptist thought, using the Philadelphia Baptist Association as a case study. It will argue that twenty-first century Baptists ought to recapture their heritage and confess congregational independence while they embrace a meaningful dependence upon the body of Christ outside one’s local membership. In recent years, Baptists have emphasized the need for vibrant inter-church connection; this study augments these pursuits and offers more historical and theological support toward these efforts. In the eighteenth century, the Philadelphia Association, as a descendent of English Particular Baptists, fostered vibrant relationships among member churches that offered mutual care, doctrinal accountability, as well as unity between and among partnering churches⎯but also labored to preserve local church autonomy. During the late eighteenth century, and into the nineteenth century, outward endeavors became central for the Philadelphia Association, specifically, mission and educational endeavors; this era offered less direct interaction between the association and local churches. This dissertation also considers associationalism’s trajectory within the Southern Baptist tradition. Like the Philadelphia Baptist Association, denominational growth broadened associations beyond their initial conception. Specifically, Southern Baptist denominational establishment and centralization—culminating in the early twentieth century—affected the identity of local Baptist associations. Associations became vital instruments for denominational promotion and overall Southern Baptist cooperation. This study assesses the trajectory of Baptist associational life in light of biblical and theological fidelity. Three Baptist ecclesiological positions intersect with the study and provide categories for this assessment: (1) inter-church connection fosters communion defined by theological accountability; (2) inter-church connection maintains local church independence; (3) inter-church connection fosters cooperation in order to reach unbelievers. Theological and biblical truths undergird these assertions; believers who are united to Christ through the Holy Spirit form local churches and possess corporate unity as the body of Christ. This reality yields inter-church fellowship among like-minded churches. Baptists should consider inter-church communion as a visible manifestation of the universal church that reflects the already inaugurated kingdom, which will culminate in the future heavenly assembly. Deeper than cooperation, interchurch communion offers Southern Baptists meaningful connection that honors the Scriptures and affirms Christian tradition.