With Whom Can My Church Cooperate?

In the past few days, I have had several fruitful conversations with seminarians, pastors, and prospective church planters about the nature of interchurch cooperation. One topic that has frequently arisen is that of cooperation with other churches in a given city or county. Specifically, mission-minded Southern Baptists want to know with whom their church can in good conscience cooperate, particularly in church planting. It’s a good and timely question.

Before proceeding much further, I need to make one caveat. In this post, I am speaking of cooperation at the grassroots level, not our denominational cooperation as Southern Baptists, which is a different (though related) matter. Our denominational cooperation happens primarily through our various layers of polity (associations, state conventions, the SBC) and the financial arrangements that define the relationship between those layers.

I prefer to think of local cooperation as concentric circles of affinity. Think of all the churches in your geographic area as concentric circles, with your church in the center. The closer a circle is to the center, the greater the affinity with the center, thus providing greater freedom to cooperate. The further the circles move from the center, the less affinity those circles have with the center, thus decreasing (though not necessarily eliminating) the freedom to cooperate. What follows is an explanation of how I would I would apply the concentric circles paradigm to local cooperation with other churches if I were a church planter or one of the pastors of an existing church.

There are some churches in which I can in theory cooperate on virtually all matters without hesitation. These are the closest circles to the center. For me personally, these churches are sister Southern Baptist churches with similar theological emphases, methodological convictions, and missional priorities. I would be delighted to work with such churches in countless ministry endeavors, including providing the funds, training, and personnel to plant new churches together.

Some churches are basically baptistic in their polity and very similar to my own church in doctrine, approach, and priorities, but are not Southern Baptist churches. This is the second circle from the center. This group would include churches that are Independent Baptist, non-denominational, Acts 29 (but not cooperating with the SBC), Bible Churches, or immersion-only Evangelical Free churches. I could not in good conscience plant a church with any of these churches in the fullest sense of the term, but I would not be uncomfortable providing funding for a church plant sponsored by one of these churches.

The third circle includes evangelical churches that are not baptistic but are very similar in other matters of theology, methodology, and priorities. This group would include some Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, and other churches that embrace a hierarchical or connectional polity. I cannot plant churches in any sense with these churches, but I would be comfortable establishing formal partnerships with such churches in matters like evangelistic outreach, mercy ministries, and certain types of discipleship initiatives.

The fourth circle includes evangelical churches that may be more or less baptistic, but are less similar in other matters. This group would include churches that embrace the miraculous gifts movement(s), affirm a decidedly Arminian view of salvation, affirm egalitarianism, and/or are seeker-driven (among other things). I cannot plant churches with them and would only be comfortable cooperating with them minimally and on a case-by-case basis in evangelistic outreach and discipleship initiatives, though I would have less hesitation about cooperating with them in mercy ministries.

The fifth circle includes conservative Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. I can cooperate with them in cultural engagement, mercy ministries, and certain types of apologetics. But I cannot cooperate with them in church planting, evangelism, or discipleship because I believe some of the teachings of these churches confuse the gospel, which I understand in a decidedly Protestant manner. Though I have great respect for their defense of Nicene Orthodoxy and traditional views of the sanctity of human life and marriage, the degree to which I could cooperate with Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox in matters of local church ministry is necessarily limited.

The sixth circle includes theologically liberal churches of any stripe; liberal churches reject too much of basic Christian orthodoxy. Assuming they are consistently liberal and thus also embrace spurious views of issues like abortion and marriage, I could not cooperate with them except in mercy ministries. In my opinion, mercy ministry is the one area where I can cooperate with all men of good will, though never in a way that would dull gospel proclamation.

This is admittedly a simplistic paradigm. I fully understand that some churches may be on the line between two circles or may even have a foot in two or more circles. But I still think there is value in attempting to think this way (or a similar way) as we try to ascertain the various ways we can cooperate with other churches in a given location. Even if you would draw the circles a bit different than me, I hope all of us will be prayerfully considering the many different ways we can cooperate with other churches in our communities for the sake of the gospel and the welfare of our cities.

(Note: The eighth paragraph has been edited and the ninth paragraph has been added since this post was first published. Thanks to my friend who emailed me with his helpful criticism.)

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  18Comments

  1. Matt Emerson   •  

    Dr. Finn,
    A quick clarification: in the second circle, if you have much in common with each of the churches/denominations listed in terms of theology and polity, why is that you then state that you “could not in good conscience plant a church with any of these churches in the fullest sense of the term”?

    Is it only because they “are not Southern Baptist churches” or for some other reason?

    Thanks!

    Matt Emerson

  2. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Matt,

    Yes, it is because they are not Southern Baptist churches. I would be comfortable with my church supporting their church plants financially, and would hope and pray that their church plants become thriving churches that go on to plant more churches. But my church would only plant churches in the fullest sense–contributing funds, training, and leadership personnel–with like-minded Southern Baptist churches.

    Real life scenario. If I were pastor of a SBC church in Raleigh and a non-SBC, but basically like-minded Bible Church approached us about helping them to plant a church somewhere in the Triangle, I would be more than happy to give them some funding. What I would not do is encourage a seminary student in my church to be part of the church-planting leadership team at this new non-SBC church plant, nor would I presume to train and assess the leadership team of the church plant. They are not planting a SBC church, though it might be similar in other important ways.

    But if my church was approached by another like-minded SBC church (say Open Door or North Wake), I would not hesitate to not only give money but to send two of our families to work with three of their families to plant a like-minded SBC church in the area. And we’d be helping to assess and train at least our families that are going, meaning we’d be shaping the culture of that new church we are supporting.

    NAF

  3. Matt Emerson   •  

    Dr. Finn,
    Thanks for the quick response. I’ve got a follow-up: is this delineation of SBC/non-SBC based on the stewardship of CP money (i.e. for training church planters, etc.), or some other reason? It does not appear to be based on particular distinctives in theology/polity, so I am wondering the exact reason you are delineating between the two.

    Thanks!

    Matt

  4. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Matt,

    Good question. I would say that cooperation in church planting must for sure be about theological affinity, but should also be about more than theological affinity. While the CP factors into this as the most common means, I think about it more in terms of the ends: I want to work closest with churches that are not only theologically like-minded, but also behind the same mission boards, seminaries, etc. that my church is behind. It doesn’t mean I won’t work with other churches–I’ve made it clear I would. But I want to plant churches that will support the ministry initiatives of the SBC, which at bear minimum means financially supporting SBC ministries.

    NAF

  5. Rick   •  

    Nathan,
    If in good conscience you could not plant a church with a second circle church, since their convictions or methods do not line up with yours, how do you justify supporting them financially? Would it not be better stewardship to give those resources to first circle churches? By giving to the second circle, are you not sponsoring something that deep down you don’t really believe in? As for me, if I could not partner with them in planting the church, I would be uncomfortable supporting them financially.

  6. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Rick,

    But the second circle church’s convictions and methods do line up with mine. They are just simply not a part of my network of churches. I would rather support churches that are in the first circle, and such churches would certainly get the bulk of my financial support. But that doesn’t preclude also financially supporting, to a lesser degree, second circle churches.

    NAF

  7. Adam Shields   •  

    I have some real world examples that I will not fully disclose details, but are why I am not fully participating in SBC. In our area (which I no longer live), we were working with the Catholic church to explore areas of partnership. We agree that we can participate in social ministries with Catholics. But the Catholic church also asked us to teach evangelism seminars because they saw evangelism as an area that they were lacking and we had expertise. Our area was very Catholic and they intervened behind the scenes in some difficulties we had with local government.

    Now the conflict came because we wanted to publicly thank those in the Catholic church that helped by asking the head Catholic guy to welcome us to the city and offer an invocation. When that was discovered we were told to un-invite him or loose all outside funding. The resulting conflict meant that we were never able to offer any evangelism training and as far as I know the relationship has never been regained. As far as I am concerned that is a loss of the church.

  8. April   •  

    I recently just started reading this blog. This is an interesting topic. I used to belong to an SBC church but now belong to an ARP church. In the past, I was a little disillusioned with the SBC church because many members, pastors and leaders I came into contact with were arrogant in their views (e.g. “The SBC church is RIGHT and everyone else is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! and therefore, inferior”) Of coruse, and unfortunately, this mentality seeps into every denomination.

    I think this explanation of partnership makes sense and is actually refreshing. It’s good to know denominations are willing to partner with other denominations in certain ministry activities. I am all for unity! This encouraged me.

  9. Johnny   •  

    Adam

    Being a former catholic i have these thoughts…What if it was a Mormon church that helped you or JHW that helped you would you invite them to welcome you and pray at your welcome party to the city? I believe in order for you to protect the gospel you must never seem to portray fellowship with the Catholic Church! They maybe some Christians in there, but the church itself is not Christian! However, I want to commend you and your church for having a reputation of being soul winners! May God grant you many in your place of worship!

  10. Charlie Chastain   •  

    Nathan, a more global question: how would you respond to a common assertion made by quite a few missiologists that propagation of denomination while planting churches in other cultures tends to dilute the Gospel and confuse the new converts/leadership as to expectations, tasks, etc.? (I.E. that denomination displays mostly western traits, and when placed into non-western locales it prevents contextualization of the Gospel)

    I’m not down on denomination- I was raised Methodist and consider our work quite Wesleyan. I’d love to hear your answer and how it fits into your circle concept here.

    Personally, my wife and I are always looking for ways to collaborate with the Russian Orthodox Church here in St. Petersburg. We’re not here as Methodists, and we’re open to working with most any group that pursues the Kingdom of God.

  11. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Charlie,

    That’s a great question. I agree that denominations in the sense of voluntary associations of churches is largely a western phenomenon. Denominations as we understand them have roots in the Reformation and were expanded (exacerbated?) during the awakenings of the 18th century.

    However, at the root of denominationalism is differing theological convictions, which has been present since at least the second century. You certainly don’t have to think of them as “denominations,” but I think it is a reality that some groups can plant churches together and some cannot b/c of differences over matters primary (what must I do to be saved?) and often secondary (what does it mean to be baptized?). This doesn’t preclude other types of cooperation.

    My paradigm is developed exclusively with North America in mind. I would adapt it on the mission field. For example, I would likely plant churches in the truest sense with many churches in the second circle were I in a context where terms like “Southern Baptist” and “Evangelical Free” were ecclesiastically irrelevent.

    I would disagree that denomination, by definition, precludes appropriate contextualization. But again, I freely admit I would adapt my decidedly North American practices in this regard were I planting a church in many other parts of the world.

    As for partnering with different groups, again, I am all for it. I hope that was clear from my paradigm. My general rule is this: focus on all the areas in which we can cooperate with others rather than focus on the areas where we cannot. We can do more together than we can separate, even if we can only do the most important thing (plant churches) with very like-minded groups. Were I engaged primarily in mercy ministry, as I think you guys are, I would want to cooperate as widely as possible with as many groups as possible. But I might not evangelize with all of those groups.

    I hope that clarifies where I am coming from on this. Thanks again for the insightful comment.

    NAF

  12. Doug   •  

    Nathan,

    I am an SBC churc planter and I just got back from an exploratory trip to 3 islands off the coast of El Salvador where my church plant hopes to do some missions work with a medical missionary team from our area. We thought that the islands were unchurched but came to find out that on the largest of the three there exists a Church of God. Only a small number of people on this island attend services and their medical needs are great. Our hope is to plant a church on this island- but there are no guarantees of that happening. So, if that does not fly, the prospect is that any who are converted through this trip will have one existing option before them – attend the Church of God. We felt it was proper protocol to contact this pastor of this church and tell him what we were planning on coming to do. He was very supportive, prayed for our success and said he would help send people our way. We feel that God has led our way in this venture- but I admit that it has stretched me theologically. I’m just curious how you would proceed from here…or if you would at all?

  13. Adam Dodds   •  

    Thank you for starting a discussion on this very important subject.
    My first immediate observation was being surprised that the first three concentric circles are basically evangelical and the fourth then explicitly includes those with Arminian theological convictions. Does this reveal a hidden assumption?
    I think Arminian evangelicals would probably put themselves somewhere in the first three circles.

    Nevertheless, thanks for the post. My prayer, with Jesus, is that His Church will be one, but nevertheless, there are difficult issues to work through, so thanks for wrestling with this honestly.

    Adam

  14. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Doug,

    I think it is appropriate that you informed the COG pastor of your intentions. I would continue with your plans to, Lord willing, plant an additional church in that region. Even if the islands are not “unchurched,” it sounds as though they are still “minimally churched.” And the COG, while normally evangelical, is different enough from what most Baptist churches believe constitutes a biblically healthy church that I would say the area would still benefit from a gospel-centered baptistic congregation.

    NAF

  15. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Adam,

    My assumption is not hidden! Remember, these are my personal convictions about whom a church I led could cooperate, primarily in church planting. Because I am not an Arminian–and believe Arminians to be in serious (though not terminal) theological error–I could not plant a church with an Arminian church. I have no doubt Arminian evangelicals would put themselves in a different circle than I would, but remember, we are talking about my circles in this post, not someone elses!

    NAF

  16. Mark   •  

    Nathan,

    Curious. In what type of apologetics could you cooperate with Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches?

    Thanks,

    Mark

  17. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Mark,

    Many types of apologetics. Frankly, Catholics and Orthodox have done some of the most relevant apologetic work that has ever been done and is currently being done. But in my understanding, apologetics is not evangelism, but pre-evangelism. Convincing someone that it is rational to believe in the existence of God or the historicity of the resurrection has never saved anyone. But it has helped remove barriers in the lives of many people who did become Christians.

    So for example, I would not hesitate to work with a group of churches, including perhaps Catholic and/or Orthodox churches, who wanted to invite an apologist to speak about the existence of God at some event that was targeting (for example) collegians, educated business people, etc.

    NAF

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