March 11, 1997 was a historic day, one of great moment in the recent history of American Reformed Baptists. On that date twenty-four churches, meeting at the Cornerstone Church in Mesa, Ariz. covenanted together to from the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA).
Of course, the constituting of this association, like other events in history, did not take place in a vacuum. Previous decisions and events led a number of churches in this resolve. Undoubtedly, the most foundational event took place more than three hundred years ago on September 3, 1689, when one hundred seven churches were represented at the first English Particular Baptist General Assembly. Our own Confession, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, was formally adopted by these churches. The Confession, which urges formal church association, 26:14, 15, also became the basis for establishing the Philadelphia Baptist Association in the United States, which existed from 1707-1807, was well as ARBCA.
ARBCA's more recent roots can be traced to 1985, when on March 6-7, representatives of fourtenn Reformed Baptist churches met in Anderson, Ind., and established Reformed Baptist Mission Services (RBMS) as a cooperative effort in foreign missions.
RBMS existed to serve churches, large and small, in doing what one church alone would find difficult or impossible to do. It was the conviction of those churches that a biblical ecclesiastical interdependency could be practiced without sacrificing scriptural independency. From the outset, RBMS limited its scope to foreign missions; it did not pretnet to be a formal assocation. For more than 10 years, however, RBMS demonstrated that active associating was workable, efficient, and non-threatening to biblical order. It was also believed by many that churches holding to our doctrinal basis, as our Confession states, "...ought to hold communion [i.e. associate] amond themselves" 26:14. Other needs abond, needs that once again a single church would find difficult or impossible to do on its own.
So, on Nov. 12-13, 1996, representatives from 15 Reformed Baptist churches met at the Heritage Church in Fayetteville, Ga. to discuss and plan for a national association of churches.
Those committed to such an undertaking wrote a constitution and appointed a steering committee. These preliminary decisions were to be discussed and approved by churches "with a cooperative spirit" at a constituting meeting of the Assocation of Reformed Baptist Churches of America in March 1997 at the Cornerstone Church in Mesa.
The constitution adopted by those 24 churches on March 11, 1997 included a purpose statement that remains to this day:
"The purpose of this Association is to advance Christ's kingdom by provdiing a fellowship in which churches of common confession may find mutual encouragement, assitance, edification, and counsel, and may participate in cooperative efforts such as home missions, foreign missions, ministerial training and publications all of which are often beyond the scope of one local church. Other such efforts as the Association may also deem appropriate are included."
The reader will note once again that the assocation was intended to be a working association, not merely an occasional or regular gathering of friends and faithful churches for times of fellowship - as valuable as that is. The purposes are forufod and practical: foreign missions (after the merger of RBMS and ARBCA in 2000), home missions, ministerial training, and publications. To paraphrase the paragraph, ARBCA exists to afford ecclesiastical commendation, communion, counsel, and mutually agreed upon cooperation.
Plans take time to develop and the wheels of adminstration ordinarily turn slowly, so few would have expected that some major decision would be made at a founding General Assembly; however that was not the case. Earl Blackburn, then pastor of member-church Trinity Reformed Baptist of La Mirada, CA, presented an immediate request from Dr. Robert Godfrey of Westminster Seminary California. Would our association be willing to provide a duly credentialed and confessional Reformed Baptist professor and pastor to teach on the campus of the Seminary in Escondido?
It was unanimously affirmed by member churches that this opportunity should be pursued. A committee of inquiry was appointed immediately and within six months member churches formalized the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (IRBS) and appointed Dr. James M. Renihan dean and associate professor of historical theology.
This was heady. One association goal was already coming to pass: an official ministerial training program. The activity continues to this day under the able leadership of Dr. Renihan. Several graduating classes of men already serve our churches and others, and there are more to follow.
The Scriptures raise the question, "How can two walk together unless they are agreed?" To paraphrase, "How can churches cooperate together in common cause, in a practical working relationship unless they concur?"
Clearly, at the most basic theological and practical level these churches must be "on the same page." Full subscription to The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 is the only practical method of cooperation. Therefore, it was clarified by the second convention that the assocation would maintain a full subscription position to the Confession, that is, that the Confession in its entirety must be confessed by member churches and taken at face value.
To implement such a position, churches applying for membership would be interviewed as to confessional commitment. To maintain this position, a Theology Committee was appointed to assist the churches when questions arise. The churches may request from the Committee written position papers, to be adopted by all the churches at an annual General Assembly. Two such papers have been written, one entitled "Revelatory Gifts in the Present Day" and another with the title "The Regulative Principle of Worship." Churches that change positions, and are no longer able to subscribe to the Confession in its entirety, are to notify member churches immediately of that change.
By the 16th annual RBMS Convention and fourth annual ARBCA General Assembly, messengers from both organizations had concluded that a merger was in everyone's best interest. The warmest of fraternal relations had been maintained over the years. and in most cases member churches were the same.
Office space in Carlisle, PA and paid staff, including a coordinator, were shared. The biblical and theological underpinnings were identical, and annual meetings were held at the same time in the same church. A year of careful preparation and open communication prepared messengers from both organizations to vote for merger. On March 7, 2000, at the Grace Baptist Church in Taylors, SC, RBMS became the foreign missions arm of ARBCA, with Robert Selph as coordinator. The decision was unanimous.
Since the earliest days of these cooperative efforts, a fulltime coordinator has served the churches. The first was Leon Blosser, a retired missionary to Baharain. He was followed by David Straub (pictured above), former missionary to Scotland and pastor in Pennsylvania, dearly loved by all who knew him. David wonderfully served ARBCA (part-time) and RBMS until the Lord took him to himself in November 1999. Bob Selph, pastored two ARBCA churches (Prescott, AZ and Taylors, SC) before beginning to serve the assocation in January 1999. He faithfully served the association with enormous energy and vision, until he was called once again to pastor the church in Taylors, SC in 2007. At that time Gordon Taylor, pastor of Sycamore Baptist Church in East Moline, IL for 33 years, became the coordinator and continues faithfully to this day.
This information is adapted from the article "Ten Years After Founding, ARBCA Thriving" by Pastor Don Linblad in the Winter 2007 ARBCA Update.