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By Lee M. Carter, MD., Clerk of

Southwestern District Missionary Baptist Association

In 1846, a group of people, from various churches, came together and formed a church association which they called the Southwestern District Baptist Association. These churches had previously belonged to the Western District Baptist Association which was noted to be one of the oldest Associations in the state of Tennessee. It is noted to not have been the first or only association in the new country of America. Being the first is a distinction held by the Philadelphia Association in Pennsylvania. These details are all we have of the establishment of our own Association due to the loss of all our records dating from 1846 until after the Civil War. We can only theorize why the decision was made to establish a church association.

From the Holy Scriptures, we see the individuality and autonomy of churches, while still maintaining contact with each other and obtaining opinions of other churches and elders to answer questions which might arise concerning the faith. One can read through the Book of Acts and see evidence of the interaction between churches as they worked to fulfill the Great Commission. So the question is raised as to why a church would desire to belong to an association?

I propose three reasons that a church should consider active membership in a church association made up of sound Baptist Churches.

First and foremost, it is another opportunity to praise God for all the blessings he gives to us. Some of the most powerful messages I have had the privilege to hear have been preached from the pulpit during an associational meeting. The sessions are structured so that God is continually being worshipped and receiving all the honor and glory that only He deserves. Prayers are offered up over an entire year concerning the messages that are to be delivered during those sermons. I expect that every minister of the Gospel who has had the privilege to preach at an associational meeting will describe a sense of liberty and presence of God that can be matched in very few places.

Second, when churches send messengers to be present and represent them at the meeting, members of churches come to participate, and visitors from other areas come to enjoy the sessions, the opportunity to cultivate and renew friendships is availed. Philippians 2:3-4 states: "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others." An associational meeting allows for humble interaction between members of different churches to strengthen each other in their efforts to serve God. Topics which are discussed at these meetings are issues that affect every church that is actively serving God. The opinions of God's people, who allow the Spirit to lead them in the preparation of the topical reports, are valued sources of strength and provide insight into mechanisms to accomplish God's will.

Finally, the Association can serve as a historical entity which assists the churches in preserving the Baptist history and doctrines. One of the main reasons that I try to detail the sermons in the Association's minutes is so that 100 years from now, anyone reading about the 1994 session will see that Elder Clarence Carter chose as a topic for the Doctrinal Sermon "The Gospel." They will know that his scriptural lesson came from Romans 1:1-4. But the will also be able to read about some of the thoughts that God placed on his heart concerning this sermon. And, it also shows the response of those present by the offering of the right hand of fellowship in agreeing with his statements. I hope that in the future, use of audio and video will allow us to maintain even more of the details so that future generations can document that our God never changes and that the plan of salvation has never and can never be altered.

There is no authority of dominion over churches or authority to direct the efforts of the member churches. There is only one authority over a true church, and that is Jesus Christ. Any organization that claims any authority over a church is unscriptural and any church that allows an organization to claim authority over her and her actions is likewise acting unscripturally. The Southwestern District Missionary Baptist Association as with any church association is and should be an instrument of the member churches. How we use this tool is a discretional issue which is the responsibility of the messengers and the member churches to decide. It can be a potent tool that is kept sharp and always ready for use, or it can be left on the shelf to collect dust. The answer lies within the realm of vision which is another story.