The 1962 Split Among Free Will Baptists: Lessons Learned

by Jeffrey L. Cockrell

Our world is often characterized by division and strife, and unfortunately strife often comes to the church. In Acts 15, we find that the first official debate in church history concerned Gentile salvation. It was a turning point, and the early church solved the issue with good communication and clear understanding.[1] Thus, the Gospel message was allowed to go forth without hindrance.

We can all learn important lessons from turning points in history. In 1962, Free Will Baptists in North Carolina divided among themselves as friends were separated and churches were split.[2] The precursors to the division were multifaceted,[3] yet we can conclude that the main causes were twofold: (1) a failure to face the local church authority issue; and (2) a failure of understanding with regard to the structure of authority that exists between the local church and larger church bodies.

Don’t Avoid the Issue

Problems often don’t go away on their own. In fact, usually when we avoid them, the problem is only exacerbated. One lesson that can be learned from the North Carolina split is the need to face the issue and move forward with a solution. In 1955, Free Will Baptists in North Carolina responded to previous losses of churches to other groups in an effort to prevent further occurrence. They modified their governmental structure to give final authority to the conference or association of which the church was a member.[4] Also, during the 1955 Convention of the National Association of Free Will Baptists (hereafter NAFWB) an effort was made to tackle the issue by establishing a polity committee to form a clear understanding of church and polity.[5]

In the report, the committee explained the church’s particular function and its relationship to other bodies as it reaffirmed the autonomy of the local church and voluntary relationships with district and national bodies.[6] The committee warned about the danger of local congregations relinquishing power to local organizations and reaffirmed the power of the local church and its right to transact its own business.[7]

Yet there was no direct action taken as a result of the warning. It was this aspect of church government that caused the North Carolina State Convention to withdraw from the NAFWB on March 29, 1962 and form The Conference of Original Free Will Baptist Churches.[8]

Have a Clear Understanding of Authority Structure

As tensions had developed over various issues, conflict increased when there was a lack of understanding in regard to the authoritative structure within the denomination. The North Carolina Convention perceived the local conference as having ultimate authority. They stated, “The annual conference or association being the highest tribunal, shall have final disciplinary authority over the local church.”[9]

Yet, tensions accelerated when the North Carolina State Convention became involved with an internal conflict at the Edgemont Church in Durham.[10] Some members rejected the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints” as stated in the Articles of Faith. Church members appealed to the Western Conference in North Carolina for help with this internal doctrinal issue.[11] The executive committee of the Western Conference felt they had the right to mediate and decide on the matter. The conference based their authority on connectional church government and recognized a small minority in the church as the true church. Nevertheless, the pastor and other church members viewed the pastor and the church as having ultimate authority in dealing with their particular business. Thus, they opposed the conference’s involvement, and the pastor subsequently filed a lawsuit against the executive committee over the polity dispute.[12]

When the suit reached the court, it was determined that the Western Conference had final ecclesiastical authority and jurisdiction to decide between the two factions within the church and that there was a connectional relationship between the Edgemont Church and the Western Conference.[13] Several Convention leaders signed an affidavit declaring that connectional church government was the practice of Free Will Baptist churches in North Carolina.[14] However, the NAFWB saw the local church as having complete authority to conduct its own business.

In light of the conflict in North Carolina, when the National Association met for the annual meeting in Norfolk, Virginia, July 11-13, 1961, delegates formally adopted the policy presented in 1955, reaffirmed the acceptance of congregational church government and asked the North Carolina State Convention to renounce connectional church government. A statement on church government was adopted that reiterated the historical understanding of Baptist churches as democratic in nature and stated that “to withdraw fellowship is the only form of discipline which may be brought against a local church since the final disposition of any matter within a church must be decided by the majority.”[15]

Furthermore, the NAFWB demanded the North Carolina State Convention to “repudiate any and all forms of connectional church government and reaffirm its position in our historical and established form of congregational church government as set for in the treatise of Faith and Practice of the National Association of Free Will Baptists.”[16] Delegates to the NAFWB annual convention also voted to vacate the seats of all NAFWB board members who had signed the affidavit.[17]

The Split in North Carolina

The North Carolina State Convention responded to the actions of the NAFWB with a special called session on March 29, 1962 in which it voted to withdraw fellowship from the National Association and establish a new denominational program.[18] Churches who wanted to remain with the NAFWB formed a new State Association and requested membership in the denomination.[19] In reaction to the decision of the North Carolina State Convention, the executive committee of the NAFWB issued a statement which said, “We call on Free Will Baptists everywhere to join with us in prayer that the ministry of the National Association will not be hindered by these developments. Frankly, we are not afraid of the future. Our trust is in God, and we know that He will honor our sincere efforts to glorify Christ and make Him known to all men everywhere.”[20] The board of foreign missions of the NAFWB also issued a statement in which it concluded, “…that we get on with the job God has given us to do and not be forced to waste precious time bickering over irrevocable matters.”[21] Hence, the ultimate motivation was the proclamation of the gospel.

Conclusion

Sadly, dissension and conflict are too often a part of life. We are human and have different perspectives. The Bible reveals many examples of humanity’s sinful nature. Some examples are even of godly people trying to do good things. For instance, in Acts 15 some wanted to put an unnecessary requirement on Gentiles coming to faith in Christ. Yet, the early church addressed the issue, and the gospel was able to go forth. Also, in Acts 15 Barnabas insisted that John Mark accompany the group on the second missionary journey. Paul refused as he felt that the ministry was too important to risk a second desertion,[22] because John Mark had previously proven himself unreliable.[23] There’s no clear indication about the reason for John Mark’s departure, but the context shows that there was a shift of authority. Barnabas had been the leader,[24] but then in Luke’s narrative there’s a change when Luke says, “Paul and his company” (Acts 13:13). Thus, perhaps Barnabas resented the fact that his cousin was falling into second place. The conflict resulted in a split among the missionaries, but then again the gospel went forth.

We should allow God to transform us into his instruments of peace. Several years after the conflict with Barnabas, Paul wrote, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). As we often have different perspectives and varying viewpoints, it is not always possible to arrive at a mutually agreeable resolution, even among Christians. Nevertheless, we can learn important lessons from turning points in the history of the church.

____________________

[1] James summarized the discussion into three points: (1) God is doing a work not man; (2) Scripture is being fulfilled not contradicted (quoting Amos 9 and Jer. 12); and (3) Suggested that the church not make it difficult for the Gentiles in requiring circumcision and that the church not offend the Jews by abstaining from certain practices.

[2] In the years from 1755 to 1765 the majority of churches and ministers were lost to Calvinistic Baptists. From 1831 to 1844 many churches were lost to the Campbellites. Then in 1911 churches were lost to the Holiness movement as it spread over the southern United States. See Floyd Cherry, An Introduction to Original Free Will Baptists (Ayden: Free Will Baptist Press Foundation, 1989), 81.

[3] In the 1950s tensions had developed about the publishing of denominational Sunday school material between the Free Will Baptist Press in Ayden and the Sunday School Board of the National Association; J. Matthew Pinson, A Free Will Baptist Handbook: Heritage, Beliefs, Ministries (Nashville: Randall House, 1998): 265. Cherry lists three issues as being at the root of the split: 1) church government, 2) theological orientation, and 3) Christian education; 156. Some ministers complained about an apparent negligence with regard to doctrinal and Christian-living standards on the campus of Mount Olive College; Pinson, 266. Ronald Creech, pastor of Edgemont Church in Durham, criticized Mount Olive College for not following the same standards of dress, conduct and social activities as those associated with the Bible College in Nashville; William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in History (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 303. The Free Will Baptist Bible College (now Welch College) was created with a limited focus on a Bible course; Michael Pelt, A History of Original Free Will Baptists (Mount Olive: Mount Olive College Press, 1996), 288. The current mission statement of Welch College is “to educate leaders to serve Christ, His Church, and His world through biblical thought and life;” Mission and Purpose, http://www.welch.edu/about-mission. Bible courses and chapel attendance were required of every student at Mount Olive College; Pelt, 288. It was described as: “church related without being narrowly sectarian;” Pelt, 299.

[4] Cherry, 80

[5] William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in America: 1927-1984 (Nashville: Randall House, 1985), 417.

[6] Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in History, 321.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cherry, 80; Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood, Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th ed.; Nashville: Abingdon, 2005): 207.

[9] Cherry, 80.

[10] Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in America, 418.

[11] Pelt, 308-309.

[12] Pelt, 313; Pinson, 266.

[13] Western Conference of Original Free Will Baptists VS Miles Faction. Accessed July 29, 2015. http://www.leagle.com/decision/1963729129SE2d600_1691.xml/WESTERN%20CONF.%20OF%20ORIGINAL%20FREE%20WILL%20BAPTISTS%20v.%20MILES

[14] Pinson, 266.

[15] Minutes of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1961. (Nashville: The Executive Department, National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1961), 18. Accessed July 29, 2015. http://www.onemag.org/minutes/1961.pdf

[16] Minutes of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1961. (Nashville: Published by the Executive Department, National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1961), 18. Accessed July 29, 2015. http://www.onemag.org/minutes/1961.pdf

[17] Pelt, 297.

[18] The Articles of Faith and Principles of Church Government for OFWB states, “Since neither the local congregation nor the annual Conference exists as an original Free Will Baptist entity, apart from the other, the annual Conference, being the highest tribunal, shall have final disciplinary authority over the local church.” Accessed July 29, 2015. http://www.ofwb.org/#!about-us/c1sv8.

[19] Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in America, 419.

[20] “A Statement by the Executive Committee of the National Association of Free Will Baptists,” Contact, 9, no. 4 (1962): 6. Accessed August 11, 2015. http://www.onemag.org/contact/6205May.pdf

[21] “A Statement by the Board of Foreign Missions of the National Association of Free Will Baptists,” Contact, 9, no. 4 (1962): 15. Accessed August 11, 2015. http://www.onemag.org/contact/6205May.pdf

[22] Acts 15:38.

[23] Acts 13:13.

[24] Up to this point Barnabas was always mentioned first: 11:30; 12:25; 13:2.

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this clear record of a period in our history.

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    • Thanks for your comment, brother.

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  2. Does the Treatise of Faith and Practice of the National Association of Free Will Baptists apply to local Free Will Baptist Churches in Panama, Republic of Panama? As I understand my country is the first in which the Foreign Missions Board has pulled out. Thus what should apply to us?

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