This series is a collaborative effort between Pastor Tom Chantry, of Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Hales Corners, WI, and Pastor Dave Dykstra, of Grace Covenant Baptist Church in Willis, TX.
In 1989 Grace Baptist Church in Carlisle withdrew from the Reformed Baptist Association, citing the failure of “another church” to meet with them for two years. Having desired accountability in an association, they saw no purpose in remaining in an organization which could not assist its member churches in the resolution of their differences. Kermit Minnick of the Catawissa church wrote to RBA chairman Bob Carr in Chambersburg:
I think it is true to say that Carlisle has a long standing fundamental difference with the RBA Constitution which limits the activities of the RBA. Presumably, activities which Grace Baptist desires to see will never take place in the RBA because the constitution prohibits it. Whatever position they may have taken years ago, that’s the position they have arrived at now. I do not see any resolution of that problem.
At this point, I can only suggest that the future of the RBA is dependent on how much the member churches feel they need each other’s fellowship in the organization’s meetings. That will be reflected in how they attend the upcoming meetings.
Minnick’s letter reflects the uncertainty surrounding the RBA once the breach between its two largest churches became public. How necessary would the churches find an association constitutionally prohibited from certain “activities”?
The fragmentation of the Reformed Baptist movement into distinct ‘camps’ or ‘circles’ involved a series of disputes, or – as the Confession calls them – “difficulties or differences.” These took on a number of different forms. There were disputes between co-elders in a church, as in North Pompano Beach Baptist and later at Grace Covenant Baptist in West Chester. There were complaints from members against their elders, as in Fred Huebner’s departure from Trinity Baptist. There were disagreements between deacons and their pastor, as in Emmanuel Baptist in SeaTac. And of course there was the long-running standoff between Grace Baptist and Trinity Baptist in which each church’s elders were convinced that the others were guilty of offenses against the peace of the churches.
The Confession of Faith which all these churches held in common requires 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.” (Second London Confession, 26:15) However, in none of these cases was that prescription followed. Three decades after the adoption of the Confession in the Carlisle church, the modern Reformed Baptists still had not learned how to call a council.
Of the two associations which existed, both had been influenced by radical independency. The Reformed Baptist Association was constitutionally prohibited from mediating any quarrel, while the Reformed Baptist Missions Services was constitutionally limited to the administration of foreign missions. In an attempt to keep the peace through placating the non-associationalists, Reformed Baptists had allowed a circumstance to develop in which the peace was regularly disturbed without any recourse for arbitration or even advice.
It would be some years into the 1990s before any council would be formed along confessional lines. However, events in upstate New York would soon spur much thought and even conversation on the necessity of a stronger form of associationalism.
Webster, New York is a suburb of frigid Rochester, one of the cities along the southern shore of Lake Ontario in the state’s western region. Just to the north of the town, running along the lakeshore, is Webster Park, a 550 acre expanse with a fishing pier and a campground. In the mid-1960s this campground became the temporary home to a number of men from Pennsylvania who had come in the hopes of starting a Reformed Baptist Church.
John Reisinger was at that time leading a Friday night Bible study with a number of families in the Rochester area. He discussed the possibility of a new church with Bill Franklin, a fellow Pennsylvanian. Franklin brought a number of dedicated friends north to the Webster campground so that they could begin to meet with the Rochester Bible study. As the men found jobs in the area, their families followed, and soon they founded Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Webster, with Franklin as pastor.
Reisinger and Franklin were destined to part ways over the New Covenant doctrine. However, during the 1980s the church would thrive, building a Christian school and adding another pastor, Jeff Lee. Events took an odd turn when Webster became involved in oversight of Grace Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Under the oversight model of Montville and Grand Rapids, this relationship meant that Franklin and Lee traveled regularly to Atlanta as pastors of that congregation. By the late 1980s the Webster church was shrinking while that in Atlanta was growing. Both pastors eventually moved to Atlanta, and other members of the congregation moved with them.
By 1989 reports of alleged authoritarian abuse began to filter out from Webster to other churches in the RBA. Soon it was common knowledge that the situation between Webster and Atlanta was reaching a breaking point. However, the RBA and its member congregations had no means to address what was quickly becoming an ecclesiastical catastrophe. In September of 1990 Lee and Franklin wrote to the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, asking them to take oversight of the Webster congregation. The Grand Rapids men discovered a chaotic situation in New York.
In a March 13, 1991 letter Pastor Sam Waldron of Grand Rapids invited the churches in the region to send representatives to a meeting in Webster “on the Lord’s Day evening of March 24.” The stated purpose of this meeting was to present evidence and to recommend that “Mr. Bill Franklin be publicly censured for pastoral sins” against the church. Waldron was clear that the meeting would not constitute a council: “We do not believe it would be according to biblical church order for [the representatives] to participate in the action to be taken by the church in Webster.” Instead, they were asked merely to observe and report.
A letter had already gone to Franklin and Lee asking them to attend the March 24 meeting so that they might defend the charges against Franklin. The letter included an ‘indictment’ of 22 counts leading to the “central offense” of “lording it over the flock of Christ.” However, the letter insisted,
…even though we regard it as our solemn duty to provide you an opportunity to defend yourself, we will not regard your refusal to do so as grounds upon which we are restrained from pursuing these charges.
Franklin, citing his membership at Grace Baptist in Atlanta and questioning the authority of Grand Rapids to charge him with anything, declined to attend. At the meeting, a resolution of the church was adopted which concluded that “Mr. Franklin is hereby marked as one who causes divisions and offenses contrary to sound doctrine and should be avoided.” Seven representatives from sister churches, including Greg Nichols from Trinity in Montville, signed a letter written by Dean Allen of the Albany Baptist Church expressing that “the judgment of the church at Webster should be honored by all true churches of Christ.”
Much of the evidence was never published due to its sensitive and personal nature. The abstract of charges published by Grand Rapids on April 16 is nevertheless hair-raising reading. This letter alleges that Franklin said, from the pulpit:
If you think that the Christian school is responsible for the problems of this church then you are deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid and you will go to hell.
And on another occasion:
It would be well for some of you if the Lord would take one of your children.
Beyond this sampling of pulpit abuse, the letter charged Franklin with denial of basic Christian liberty, with coercive tactics designed to increase volunteerism in the church and its school, and with financial improprieties. The matter of investigating members through the interrogation of their families arose again, echoing the earlier concerns of the Carlisle elders. One piece of recorded testimony reads:
Pastor Franklin preached a sermon from the Sermon on the Mount dealing with the biblical doctrine of meekness. On the way home, my wife commented to me that she thought he had preached a pretty good sermon, free of comments against any perceived enemies… [During the evening service] we bowed our heads for prayer. There was a delay. We heard footsteps off the podium and then back up. As P. Franklin began to pray we received a tap on the shoulder. (An elder) escorted us out of the sanctuary into the lobby. “Pastor Franklin doesn’t want your wife in the worship service,” he said. “She’s welcome to sit out here, but not in the sanctuary.
Sam Waldron wrote of this incident, “The woman in question…was under no disciplinary sanctions. Her sole offense was to be unhappy under Pastor Franklin’s ministry.” The testimony raises the question of just how Franklin knew of her unhappiness. It was alleged elsewhere that Franklin and Lee had regularly questioned children and young people about their parent’s comments regarding the church. Given the testimony which Grand Rapids felt it could release, it is fairly clear why they charged Franklin with abuse, why the church adopted its resolution, and why the representative observers all endorsed the church’s action.
The Atlanta church through its leadership fired back with an answer to the charges in detail, and also with an astonishing, nine-page personal letter from Bill Franklin. In the letter he attacked the authority of Grand Rapids, and repudiated the whole proceeding as “ridiculously biased and in many points ‘out right’ lies.” However, the bulk of his letter is a detailed description of a culture of authoritarianism which he alleged existed in Reformed Baptist circles and which he claimed had influenced him unduly. He managed to convey that he was truly innocent and that his guilt was someone else’s fault.
This was an early manifestation of a trend which would trouble the critics of authoritarianism for years: many would admit that authoritarian abuse had taken place, but no one would own that abuse. Often this took the form of finger-pointing. Men who emphasized the parity of the elders were shockingly quick to disown all responsibility for those abuses that took place on their own watch.
Franklin was not alone in demonstrating this tendency. On the face of it, Grand Rapids reacted properly to a tragic situation. One might wish that the practice of church oversight had not obscured the situation and prevented the calling of a proper council, but within the available polity they acted reasonably well. However, they did not at any point acknowledge that Franklin’s abuses were in many cases directly traceable to his commitment to Jim Hufstetler’s Biblical Pastoral Oversight. Tom Lyon of Washington would write:
Regarding the exposé you recently made public rehearsing the crumbling of the church in N.Y. – The inquisition which you conducted failed to address one or two salient items. Where did the philosophy of oversight that led ultimately to that church’s present collapse originate? Yes, there evidently were abuses, but the abuses stemmed from the implementation of a predictable atmosphere of oversight. This is not an isolated incident, nor will it (I fear) be the last. Frankly, the whole matter, and your intervention, is an embarrassment to me as a Reformed Baptist. You have taken oversight of the situation, but are you not also in some manner its cause?
If the disaster in Webster did not result in any assumption of blame, it would have another effect. The public nature of this case was such that throughout the RBA pastors were asking, “What went wrong, and why were we unable to stop it?” This became the context of a renewed push for accountability in the association, even after Carlisle and other strong advocates for an accountable association had departed. On March 17, 1992 the following letter was sent to the RBA from chairman Bob Carr at the Chambersburg church, now renamed “Grace Baptist Church of Chambersburg.”
I am writing to remind you that the spring meeting of the Reformed Baptist Association is scheduled for Saturday, April 4, 1992, at the Paradise Baptist Church, beginning at 10:00 A.M.
The main subject for consideration at the meeting is the future of the RBA itself. Judging by the dwindling interest, the RBA as currently constituted appears to have outlived its usefulness. Is a more active association in order?
To provide a sharper focus for our discussion, I have asked Pastor Dave Dykstra to speak on the subject of fellowship between churches as addressed in the 1689 Confession of Faith, and as implemented in the Philadelphia Association by the early Reformed Baptists in this country.
The substance of the paper which Dykstra presented to the RBA in 1992 has been published as Chapter 6 of the book Denominations or Associations? edited by James E. Renihan. (amazon) It is a biblical, historical, and practical examination of the implications of the closing paragraphs of Chapter 26 in the 1689 Confession. In the midst of concern over schism, and particularly over the impotence of the RBA in the face of the Webster tragedy, Dykstra had begun to study the minutes of the first century of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. He concluded that earlier confessional Baptists had practiced a strong form of associationalism, and further that the Confession’s use of the word “communion” in Chapter 26 is meant to establish formal association. He wrote,
Our Baptist forefathers were realistic men. They understood that problems would arise both in and between the churches. They firmly believed in the independence of the local church, but they also believed just as strongly in the interdependence of the churches expressed by formal association. (Denominations or Associations, p 137)
By 1992 every pastor in the RBA could appreciate the realism inherent in the statement, “problems would arise in and between the churches.” After the presentation of his paper, Dykstra was elected chairman and assigned the task of revising the RBA’s constitution. The issue of accountable association simply would not go away. Just three years after Carlisle’s resignation the RBA was moving toward a strengthening of its constitutional responsibilities.
Various working sessions of the RBA met over the course of the next few years, and perhaps the most significant changes to the constitution that were proposed came under Article V: Authority, especially paragraphs 3 through 8. This was an attempt to solidify the polity required by paragraphs 14 and 15 of Chapter 26 in the 1689 Confession. There is an echo of the conflicts of the preceding 5 years in the wording of these proposed revisions:
…if through public report, or through the report of individuals, or through a member church of the Association, or especially by a concurrence of the above, a complaint is brought to the Association concerning either doctrinal or administrative difficulties in or between any of its member churches, inquiry shall be made to determine if there is sufficient evidence for the complaint to be deemed plausible or valid. (from the proposed paragraph 3)
Concerning administrative difficulties in matters of church discipline, it would be unreasonable to expect other churches to honor a disciplinary action if information about that action is withheld from the member churches… (from the proposed paragraph 5)
The delegates of the Association are not armed with coercive power to compel the churches to submit to their decisions, nor have they control over the actions of the churches. The Association can take nothing from a church but what it gave to it, namely its recognition as an orderly, confessional, Reformed Baptist Church. (the proposed paragraph 7)
The proposed amendments solidified associational authority to both investigate and report on the kinds of issues raised in Webster and elsewhere. It was, in fact, a complete rejection of the local-churchism which had defined the RBA to this point. While it acknowledged the supremacy and independence of the local church, it provided the sister churches with a mechanism to advise one another in cases of “differences and difficulties,” and also a way to separate from any church found to be disorderly.
Interestingly, Dykstra was working closely with Pastor Greg Nichols of Trinity Baptist in Montville on this project. However, during the process of drafting the amendments, Nichols left Montville and relocated to the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids. Although Grand Rapids, in distant Michigan, was never part of the RBA, Nichols continued to assist Dykstra in the revision project.
Nichol’s departure brought the entire project into question. Montville’s support was critical to the adoption of the proposed amendments. That support would never come. As they had resisted earlier attempts to make the RBA an active association, so they would do again. At the July 7, 1993 meeting of the RBA, Frank Barker of Montville rose to assert that the work on constitutional revision was an attempt by the chairman to push his own agenda. Pastor Tedd Tripp of Grace Fellowship Church in Hazelton, Pennsylvania would respond to Barker via letter when he repeated the charge the following year:
I wanted to comment on one of the statements in our business meeting. It seemed to me that you were expressing reservations about whether David should continue as secretary [sic] in light of the fact that he had been overseeing the process of revising the constitution of the RBA. I think we should make it a matter of record that the work that David was overseeing really began in the special meeting that we had in Paradise in July, 1992. The Association gathered in that meeting gave David, as chairman, a mandate to oversee this process of revision. I think it is fair to say that he was doing that on our behalf as an Association, rather than as a means of pushing his own private agenda.
However, whether Barker’s understanding of the history would be permitted to stand or not, the amendments were doomed without Montville’s support. The Association had by this time lost most of the churches in close fellowship with Carlisle. Only eight churches remained, and several clearly took their lead from Trinity Baptist. There was thus little hope of having an association with the authority to police its own ranks in the manner proposed in the amendment.
At the final meeting of the RBA on October 2, 1993, two churches resigned in advance of the constitutional vote. The remaining six churches then took the vote, with the amendment falling one vote short of the required two-thirds majority. With the constitution unchanged in spite of a small majority in favor of revision, it was decided to disband the RBA.
The work done in 1992 and 1993 on constitutional revision in the RBA was not done in vain. Three years later the proposed draft of an amended RBA constitution would become one of the source documents for the constitution of the new Association of Reformed Baptist Churches in America.
In fact the last four years of the RBA’s existence are perhaps the strongest evidence available that fellowship without association simply does not work. In 1989 the strongest advocates of associationalism left the RBA in frustration. By 1993 an entirely new group of advocates for a strong association had risen, struggled to redefine the RBA, come within a vote of success, and then disbanded rather than continue without a stronger accountability.
What accounts for this remarkable and unpredictable development is simple: events forced men to become realists about associational life. In the abstract, a fellowship of absolutely autonomous, radically independent local churches was plausible. In the real world, problems arose which demanded some answer. When a church finds itself linked by fellowship with another church in which abuses occur, it must have some means of addressing the abuse; otherwise it is held accountable for sin over which it can exercise no influence.
One way to understand the decision to disband the RBA is as a determination of some pastors never to be saddled with another Webster. They were unwilling to remain in an association in which such abuses might occur but in which the abused had no recourse. Three decades before, Reformed Baptists might have pretended that such abuses would never occur, but such naiveté was no longer possible to realistic men. History had demonstrated that both error – such as the New Covenant doctrine – and sin – such as the authoritarian episodes – can and do occur in churches with a sound confession. How would they be dealt with?
Already by the 1990s a new associational movement was gaining traction among Reformed Baptists. Two of the very men who turned out the lights on the RBA would become central to that movement. Whether or not the remaining local-churchists gathered around the Montville congregation would be able to develop their own form of fellowship, and whether that form would be capable of addressing the sort of problems which occur in the real world, remained to be seen.
(Table of Contents for this series)