Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!–Psalm 133:1
Last month, Salem sent me and my wife Amy to the 2023 General Assembly (GA) of the Reformed Baptist Network (RBNet) to explore the potential for Salem to become a member church of RBNet. A GA is an annual gathering of church messengers for the purpose of prayer, worship, mutual edification, and to conduct the Network’s business. As a network of churches, the GA more closely resembles an annual meeting of a regional Baptist association, in contrast to an annual convention of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
This post is a summary of my observations and experience from this year’s GA as well as an overview of my impressions of RBNet and the value case for a Reformed Baptist church to consider joining RBNet. Upon returning from this year’s GA, I presented an overview of RBNet to Salem. Our church has decided to begin praying about applying for associate member status in 2024 with a view to applying for full membership in 2025 (more on membership levels below). Our church wants to be transparent about the work and direction we believe the Lord may be leading us, both for the interest of our neighbors and for the mutual edification of other like-minded churches as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission in Livingston Parish.
Salem Baptist Church and Associationalism
As described on our website’s Our History page, Salem was originally constituted in 1854 with a strong affinity for church associationalism. Our first and second generation of members were committed to praying for and sharing resources with other churches within the Mississippi River Baptist Association. We even shared common leadership with other nearby churches, as men like J. L. Simpson and George H. W. Washington were circuit preachers and church planters within that Association. Annual meetings were occasionally held at Salem’s facilities. However, as time passed this strong commitment to associationism waned. Recently, Salem has begun to renew its interest in seeking fellowship, doctrinal accountability, and cooperation in missions and evangelism with other like-minded churches.
This expression of love for the kingdom of God outside of Salem’s walls includes a renewed commitment to our Baptist neighbors in Livingston Parish, the Eastern Louisiana Baptist Association (ELBA). The 1689 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith states that churches “when planted by the providence of God … ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification.” We believe this wisdom is best applied through an association of churches planted in close proximity to one another. There is too much competition among churches who ought to be laboring alongside each other to fulfill the Great Commission. We hope to continue strengthening the bonds of church fellowship within ELBA and Livingston Parish.
However, Salem Baptist Church has also recently rediscovered the Doctrines of Grace and has begun expressing an interest in Reformed Baptist confessionalism. Without remarking on the current state of affairs within the SBC, we are seeing a trend of Reformed Baptist churches departing from the Convention. At this year’s RBNet GA, I spoke to pastors of a few churches who have recently voted to leave the SBC and subsequently join RBNet. The Salem officers believe that being an independent Baptist church is a less healthy ecclesiology and we desire to network and cooperate in missions with churches who share our common confession.1 Therefore, we are exploring the possibility of becoming an ‘early adopter’ of the RBNet vision and mission within our region. We believe that RBNet, which is currently growing at a rate of 5-10 churches a year, is becoming a strengthening association of unified churches that possesses a better framework for autonomous church cooperation than the SBC. It has also become increasingly more difficult to find Reformed Baptist churches in the SBC to network with and to cooperate in missions with.
The purpose statement of the Reformed Baptist Network is “to glorify God through fellowship and cooperation in fulfilling the Great Commission to the ends of the earth.” The Network has adopted three core values: Our Theological Center, A Gracious Manner, and An Earnest Mission. A more detailed explanation of these values and their subcategories can be found on the RBNet website. The second core value, A Gracious Manner, provides the framework for healthy autonomous church cooperation. It requires churches to “believe all things” (1 Cor. 13) about one another and to give each other the benefit of the doubt in times of troubled waters. We believe this intentionality in sharing truth in love, and at times exercising the same forbearance God has demonstrated, which leads men and women to repentance (Rom. 2:4), is the key reason why RBNet is poised for significant growth in the near future.
RBNet has endorsed missionaries, chaplains, and has even recently endorsed a support missionary, a modern day “Phoebe” to use her gifts to play an administrative assistant role in foreign missions. Financial support is raised by local churches and individual members. RBNet does not determine how the funds are used; the decision making is made by the member churches. RBNet is merely a conduit to carry this support to the sponsor churches who provide oversight of these endorsed gospel workers. RBNet currently has a full-time Coordinator (not a President), an Administrative Assistant, and a part-time Communications and Content Editor. Mark Chanski, former pastor and author of Manly Dominion, Womanly Dominion, and Encouragement: Adrenaline for the Soul appears to be born for the coordinator role. At the 2023 GA, I witnessed that RBNet is starting to experience some growing pains, but the servant-leadership within the Network appear equipped to meet this challenge as long as they remain fully committed to its three core values.
2023 RBNet General Assembly
The theme of this year’s GA was “Doctrines of Grace for the Pastor’s Heart.” The schedule covered Monday evening, all day Tuesday and Wednesday, and Thursday morning. Amy and I were able to easily make it there and back without missing a Sunday service at Salem. There were four preaching sessions and three morning devotionals. The keynote speaker this year was Dr. Voddie Bauchum, who is pictured below preaching from Ephesians 1 on “The Doctrines of Grace and Holiness.” Each of these godly men delivered edifying and challenging Christ-centered messages.
During the full days, Amy was shuttled to a nearby church for a ladies’ tea and time of fellowship. This year’s theme was Missionary and Pastor’s Wives: Sharing the Common Joys and Struggles of Ministry Life. Dinner was provided Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Lunch was provided Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Each meal time provided an opportunity to get to know several of the pastors, missionaries, and their wives. We also met several godly deacons and their wives (praise the Lord for godly deacons!). While at the GA, we either met or saw missionaries from the following countries: Netherlands, Canada, Africa, India, France, Mexico, Kenya and Zambia. We even met a full-time missionary couple to Atlanta, Georgia! Because we stayed at a hotel using the RBNet group rate, we met several pastors and missionaries at breakfast each morning. All in all, we met many like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ and even came home with an opportunity for my family to participate in a foreign mission trip next year with Building Tomorrow’s Missions.
The business meetings were scheduled sporadically throughout the GA. Member churches were encouraged to send as many messengers as possible. Full member churches were allowed four messengers, either pastors or deacons, to participate in discussion, but only one officer was allowed to vote. As a result, every church regardless of their size had an equal vote. Associate member churches were allowed four messengers to participate in discussion but were not allowed to vote. The associate membership option allows reforming and Calvinistic churches to enjoy benefits of formal association, while not meeting the requirements of full membership. Full member churches are required to at least substantially subscribe to the 1689 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, while associate member church and individual members are required to adhere to a Calvinistic statement of faith modeled after the Baptist Abstract of Principles.
The GA also included a well stocked bookstore along with several exhibit tables for Reformed Baptist seminaries, publishing companies, missionaries, and a few other exhibitors. We received several free books and other takeaways. Amy and I had a wonderful excursion to Grace Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. We are very grateful to Salem for sending us this year!
A Value Case for RBNET
As edifying as the GA was for me and Amy, RBNet is an association of churches, not an association of pastors and their wives. One reason why I attended this year’s GA was to attempt to answer the question, “What is the value of joining this association for our members of Salem Baptist Church, not just for myself?” Certainly, having a rested and edified pastor who enjoyed the GA is a value for our church, but that alone is not sufficient reason for Salem to join an international association. Fortunately, at the GA I received a brochure listing benefits for a church to join RBNet. These benefits include:
- Endorses missionaries and chaplains.
- Helps local churches raise support for their endorsed missionaries.
- Publishes news and prayer requests of the endorsed missionaries and RBNet churches.
- Meets yearly in General Assembly to pray, attend the preaching of the Word, conduct business, and plot kingdom strategy.
- Meets occasionally for regional assemblies in different parts of the country.
- Meets regularly for Pastor’s Fellowship virtual meetings.
- Works actively to generate and publish truth-promoting material.
- Promotes nationwide our roster of churches attracting 1689 like-minded local visitors.
Should the Lord be pleased to call a missionary or chaplain out of Salem, RBNet would provide a conduit for us to raise support. Salem would have the opportunity to reciprocate support to missionaries and chaplains who are sponsored by other member churches. Also, at this time there are no other RBNet member churches in Louisiana. However, should other churches eventually join, we would be able to meet in regional assemblies as part of an established Reformed Baptist Association. These are tangible benefits for the members of Salem. Additionally, praying for the blessings and sufferings of like-minded churches would help us grow in our love for God’s kingdom outside of our walls. When like-minded churches need a church to recommend, Salem would be clearly visible on the growing roster of RBNet churches. For all of these reasons, but especially for the benefit of participating in the Great Commission with other like-minded churches, Salem is intrigued at the possibility of joining RBNet.
Please pray for us as we seek to determine if this is God’s will for Salem Baptist Church.
- The 1689 2LBC is not the constituted confession of Salem Baptist Church, but the church body has agreed to study it on Sunday evenings with the view of amending our constitution and by-laws in early 2025. Our by-laws require us to form a committee to explore revising them every five years. This is the primary reason why we are first considering applying for associate membership before full membership. ↩︎