The Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches has entered its ninth decade. Messengers from its 90 churches gathered in Nevada, Iowa on April 13-14. I had the opportunity to attend the meeting as a representative from Central Baptist Seminary. It was a bittersweet experience.
The sweetness came from a long history with the IARBC. At the end of 1968, my father moved our family to Ankeny, Iowa so that he could attend Faith Baptist Bible College. At thirteen years of age, I was in eighth grade. We became members of Ankeny Baptist Church, a congregation in fellowship with the IARBC.
While still in college, Dad accepted the pastorate of a church in Cambridge, Iowa. The sticky point was that this congregation was connected with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (now part of the PCA). How Dad ended up in that pastorate is a story too long to tell here, but the church knew that they were getting a Baptist pastor who would lead them in a baptistic direction. As the church grew over the next couple of years, most of its unbaptized members submitted to the biblical ordinance of believer immersion. For the first of those baptisms we used the tank at Nevada Baptist Church. Only a tiny handful of the original members left, but many more came in. The church passed through a transition in which it voted out of RPCES to become an independent Bible church, then reorganized as Faith Baptist Church. Eventually it held a recognition council and sought fellowship with the Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches.
I graduated from Ballard Community High School the same spring that my father graduated from college. That fall I enrolled at Faith Baptist Bible College, and in January my parents moved to another pastorate in Webster City, Iowa. It was at FBBC that I met Debbie, Wright, the woman who would become my wife. It was also where God dealt with me about vocational Christian service. Before graduation from Faith, I served as interim pastor at First Baptist Church in Brayton, Iowa (Brayton is in the Danish part of Iowa).
In 1979, Debbie and I moved to Denver for seminary. While in Colorado I served on the pastoral staff of two churches, then taught for a couple of years at Denver Baptist Bible College (now part of Faith Baptist Bible College). In 1985, I returned to Iowa to pastor Immanuel Baptist Church in Newton, a church that fellowships with the IARBC. At the end of 1990, I moved my family to Dallas to work on a Ph.D., ending my formal membership in IARBC and GARBC churches. Even then, however, my connection with the IARBC was not finished. For several years I wrote an occasional review called Ruminations that was sent out by the IARBC offices.
During my years of connection with the IARBC, I knew two of the association representatives. The first was Donald Brong, who to this day defines my impression of a Christian statesman. I can still remember his reaction at an ordination council when someone referred to him as the “head of the association.” He quickly replied, “Brethren, I am not the head of the association. I am the feet of the association.” For me, that was an important lesson in Baptist ecclesiology.
The other representative—and the one with whom I worked more closely—was Robert Humrickhouse. Bob was a model of encouragement and patience, and a genuine blessing to me at a time when I needed his influence. The General Association of Regular Baptist Churches was passing through a time of controversy during the late 1980s, and the 1990 conference at Niagara Falls was a real disaster. I was angry with what I saw as the politics of the Regular Baptist movement. But as long as Bob and people like him simply displayed a genuine spirit of service, I was never able completely to dismiss the IARBC or the Regular Baptist movement as a whole. It was because of such people that Regular Baptists eventually began to deal with some of the issues they had avoided at Niagara Falls.
Years have rolled by since then. During the intervening decades I’ve planted and pastored a church in Texas, then spent seventeen years in teaching and administration at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s been a long time since I was a member of a church that was formally in fellowship with the IARBC. Still, walking into the association meeting at Nevada Baptist Church was like coming home. I knew that these were my people and this was my place.
While I was not present for the entire meeting, what I saw was noteworthy. The present association representative, Tim Capon, seems to be a genuinely humble man who is encouraging the churches and pastors. The association used its own pastors as speakers this year—and that was good. These men know how to expound the text of Scripture. Most of the emphasis that I heard was on biblical evangelism, with emphasis upon both words. That, too, was good.
The IARBC appears to be threading the needle of associational fellowship. The group includes churches that are somewhat progressive in methodology, while others are quite conservative. Both kinds of churches seem to realize that their association can survive only by focusing upon what they hold in common. While they maintain their uniqueness within their congregations, they did not import their idiosyncrasies into the fellowship meetings.
All of which is the sweet part of the bittersweet experience. What was the bitter part? It consisted in recognizing that the Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches has begun to decline. At one time the fellowship numbered around 115 churches. It is now well under 100. Congregations that were once powerhouses of the fellowship — Grandview Park Baptist Church and Walnut Ridge Baptist Church — are now mere shadows of their former selves. In terms of numerical involvement, the IARBC has been significantly weakened.
Causes are numerous. Partly the decline is due to the slow strangulation of small-town Iowa, where many of the IARBC congregations have been located. Partly it is due to the secularization of American society and the overall antipathy toward Christianity. Partly it is the result of some of the differences over methodology, as some churches have pushed beyond the boundaries that most fundamentalists find acceptable. In some instances, it is the result of poor pastoral leadership. Whatever the reasons, the decline of the IARBC probably reflects the condition of contemporary fundamentalism as a whole.
Still, if fundamentalism has a future, organizations like the IARBC will play a role in it. This association is a fellowship of ordinary churches with ordinary pastors, and it is a fellowship in which both churches and pastors genuinely care about each other. The meeting was not about politicking or posturing—it was just a group of pastors and messengers who have plenty in common and who want to help each other serve the Lord better.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
At Even, Ere the Sun Was Set
Henry Twells (1823–1900)
At even, ere the sun was set,
the sick, O Lord, around thee lay;
O in what divers pains they met!
O with what joy they went away!
Once more ‘tis eventide, and we,
oppressed with various ills, draw near:
what if thy form we cannot see?
we know and feel that thou art here.
O Saviour Christ, our woes dispel:
for some are sick, and some are sad,
and some have never loved thee well,
and some have lost the love they had.
And some have found the world is vain,
yet from the world they break not free;
and some have friends who give them pain,
yet have not sought a friend in thee;
And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
for none are wholly free from sin;
and they who fain would serve thee best
are conscious most of wrong within.
O Saviour Christ, thou too art man;
thou hast been troubled, tempted, tried;
thy kind but searching glance can scan
the very wounds that shame would hide.
Thy touch has still its ancient power;
no word from thee can fruitless fall:
Hear in this solemn evening hour,
and in thy mercy heal us all.