The Local Assocation Is Not a Church, and a DoM Is Not a Pastor

Ever been somewhere at a time when it's quiet and fairly inappropriate to laugh, but something struck you as funny? As much as you tried, you just couldn't help laughing; and they very fact that you were supposed to be quiet made it all that much funnier and harder to stop? It happens to me way too often. One example...

I'm a member of the local Ruritan club (community service organization) and we meet one night each month. We have about 20 people at a normal meeting. They're pretty relaxed, we eat dinner together, talk, then have the formal meeting for a little while before we leave. I don't remember all the details but it went something like this. One guy was up at the front talking a little longer than everyone wanted but obviously had a few more things to say. He told us that the Ruritan national president might be visiting our club. Knowing that some (i.e. all) of us were pretty much clueless as to Ruritan hierarchy, he graciously decided to fill us in. I'm pretty sure this is the exact quote: "…the Ruritan national president, that's pretty much like the president of the United States." A friend was sitting across the table and we looked at each other when he said that. Both of us lost it. Trying to stop laughing and be quiet, when one of us finally got it under control, we'd see the other's shoulders shaking from laughter and we'd start all over again. Honestly trying to stop the whole time, it took four or five minutes before we could stop laughing.

What was so funny? What got it all started? An analogy that just didn't quite fit. I guess there may be some similarities between Ruritan national president and POTUS: The title… Ok I give up trying to find any more. My point is that in order to say something is "like" something else, there needs to be some deep, essential aspects shared by the two items—otherwise the analogy is more harmful than helpful. Here's a few examples:
  • I love my wife. God loves my wife. Therefore: I am like God. (true in some sense, but mostly misleading and potentially dangerous)
  • Bicycles are vehicles. Automobiles are vehicles. Therefore: Cars are like bikes. (please don't tell this to my four year old learning to ride a bike—he might grab my keys and give it a try)
  • Christians participate in churches. Christians participate in local Baptist associations. Churches do ministry. Associations do ministry. Churches have leaders. Associations have leaders. Therefore: Associations are like churches.
I've heard well-meaning people (some pastors) express the idea that the local association is like a church, and the DoM is like the pastor of this church-like organization. In this post, I want to pick apart these comparisons and show that they are biblically mis-informed, theologically dangerous, and practically unhelpful.

What Is a Church?
When first asked, it may seem difficult to answer the question, "What is a church?" But the answer isn't really that difficult. The Protestant Reformation helped clarify and bring to light the two things that characterize a church: (1) correct/sound/biblical doctrine and (2) the proper administration of the sacraments/ordinances. If you have both of these, you have a church. If you're missing either one (or both), you don't have a church. It seems like it should be much harder or more nuanced. Plenty of things in theology are—let's not complain when we find a concept that finally is easy to articulate.

A few case studies:
  • A home Bible study. Correct doctrine? Hopefully yes. Do they Baptize? No. Answer: Not a church
  • A college ministry. Correct doctrine? Hopefully yes. Baptize? No. Answer: Not a church
  • The Southern Baptist Convention. Correct doctrine? I believe broadly speaking, yes. Baptize? No. Lord's Supper? No. Answer: Not a church.
  • Heretical "Church". Correct Doctrine? No. Ordinances? Probably in some form. Answer: Not a church.
  • Beauty Salon. Doctrine? Doubtful. Ordinances? Well, hair washing does get you more wet than sprinkling… Answer: Not a church.
  • Local Church: Yes and Yes. Answer: Yes! We have a church!
My point is that according to the essence of a church, there is nothing else like a church. It is in a class and category by itself. Other things may have apparent similarities in certain ways, but the differences are intrinsic and far too fundamental for almost any kind of comparison to be helpful.

What Is a Local Association?
A local association is a group of churches who decide, for practical reasons, to pool resources and ideas as they work together in missions and ministry. Groups of churches can work together in national conventions/denominations, region-wide, state-wide, non-geographic affinity bodies, and many other ways. When churches (or individual Christians) work together, there is a name and category for this kind of organization: a parachurch ministry.

We in the SBC are probably not used to thinking of our national convention, national entities like seminaries and Lifeway, state conventions, and local association as parachurch ministries, but that's exactly what they are. This thought may seem strange, but I think it's wholly biblical: Your local Baptist association has more in common with your local food pantry than your local church. If we're looking at these organizations through a biblical lens, I believe that's exactly what we will find. (And I don't say that to denigrate either associations or food pantries, just to point out they they are both voluntary, parachurch organizations.)

So while there may be an occasional similarity here and there, an association is not "like" a church, not in any helpful or biblically informed sense.

Isn't the DoM like the Pastor of the Association?
Only churches have pastors. The local Baptist association is not a church. Therefore, the local association does not have a pastor. Make sense? The role of pastor (elder/overseer/bishop being interchangeable NT terms) is a biblically defined office in a local church. There is no such thing as the pastor of a social organization, or of a place of business, or of any other kind of group. Only churches have pastors. The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't have a pastor. It has a president (way different! and not quite the same as POTUS, either) but it doesn't and can't have a pastor. A state convention can't have a pastor. The only body of people in the world that can have a pastor is a local church. There are some similarities between the leaders of each of the aforementioned groups and what pastors might do—but with any of them, there are significant theological reasons not to call any of these leaders pastor.

One of the most vivid differences between a DoM has to do with authority. A pastor is given a certain amount of (not unlimited!) spiritual authority within a church. Hebrews 13:17 is a great example in this connection. Church members are told to "obey your leaders and submit to their authority." A DoM has no authority over churches or pastors. The day any DoM claims churches or pastors ought to obey or submit to him is the day he lost his mind.

A pastor guards sound doctrine. A pastor plans (or oversee the planning of) the weekly worship of the church. A pastor is spiritually responsible for church members. A pastor is charged with cultivating spiritual growth for a specific group of people that he knows and shares life with. A pastor leads a body of people (a church) who have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, of binding and loosing. A pastor preaches and teaches the word of God to the same church family week in and week out. A DoM does virtually none of these things.

I'm not saying DoMs are bad people! I'm not saying they don't, in some cases, do good and effective ministry. But the roles of DoM and pastor are two distinct roles with a few apparent similarities and a host of differences.

The local association is not a church. It is not like a church. It is a parachurch organization with which churches may voluntarily choose to participate in and be affiliated. Because an association is not a church, a Director of Missions is not a pastor. We will be better off thinking of a local Baptist association as another example of a parachurch ministry and the DoM as the organizational leader of that ministry.

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