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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Church That Jesus Built, 1923 (Chapter 8)
It is certainly true that, judged by the doctrinal test, Baptists validate their claim of church perpetuity!
"Some say that Baptists cannot trace their history through the centuries because of the irregularities of beliefs among the dissenting sects. Well, when we remember that the true church of Christ have been persecuted in every age and driven into the dark caves and fastnesses of the mountains, with what their enemies state concerning them we might expect some differences to appear among them. But are Baptists today free from these little differences? The fact is we have many Unitarian Baptists among us at the present time which we are trying to get out of our communion."
—J. L. Smith, in Baptist Law of Continuity
We have seen in a former chapter that all churches and denominations, with the single exception of Baptist churches, originated in post-apostolic times, and moreover that their origin may be traced to a human head and founder. Applying Jesus' historical test, which requires that the true church must have had Him for the Founder, and must have been perpetuated through all ages, we eliminated all churches save those of the Baptists.
In the preceding chapter we applied the doctrinal test, with the result that we found Baptist churches alone to be apostolical in doctrine, form and practice. Other denominations, we saw, failed to meet this test; each of them showing wide departure from apostolic doctrine and practice. Already it has become apparent that Baptist churches are identical with the churches of the New Testament era, and consequently may rightly claim to be the true churches of Christ. However, we shall not stop here. We proposed in the beginning to devote some time to proving Baptist church perpetuity by statements of reliable historians.
Before we hear the testimony of these historical witnesses, it might be well for the sake of clearness to deal briefly with several matters bearing more or less on the subject. These points, indicated numerically, follow:
1. Let it be borne in mind as indicated at the beginning that Baptists do not attempt to establish their claims by the Baptist name. Some say that Baptist churches are not the true churches because they are not called by the name Baptist in the New Testament. The plain fact is that they were not called by any distinguishing name at that time, but were simply spoken of as "churches." And why? Plainly because all churches were then of one faith and consequently needed no name, except the church at such and such a place, as for example, "the church at Antioch," "the church at Corinth," etc, But it can be readily seen that as time passed, and spurious organizations calling themselves churches sprang up, distinguishing names came to be used as a matter of necessity.
As for Baptists, they have during the course of centuries been all called by different names. These names were usually bestowed upon them by their enemies and persecutors, as I have previously tried to show. Sometimes in one land a certain name was applied to them while at the same time in another land, they were being called by another name. The same kind of churches existed, characterized by the same evangelical doctrine and life, but the names they bore were different.
It is very easy to understand how this could be in a time when churches were widely separated and when there was little intercommunication. As late as colonial days in America, Baptists were often termed "Anabaptists" and "Catabaptists." Indeed, in reading some historical documents relating to the early history of Kentucky, I found that the Baptists were referred to as Anabaptists. Most surely the dropping of the “Ana" in no wise changed the characteristics of the churches. No more were the Waldenses changed when in the course of time they came to be called Anabaptists. So the thing insisted upon is not identity of name, but rather continuity of doctrine and life, held by peoples meeting as bodies of baptized believers in Christ.
2. Let it be remembered that those who deny Baptist perpetuity differ widely as to when Baptists had their origin. Their very uncertainty, and their complete divergence of opinion about the matter, is in itself, a good argument for the thing they oppose. Dr. W. A. Jarrell, in preparing his manuscript for his book on perpetuity some years ago, wrote a number of letters to high officials and scholars of the Catholic and various Protestant churches, asking the question, "When, where, and by whom was the first Baptist church originated?" The answers received showed hopeless confusion and uncertainty. These men, unwilling to concede that the first church that ever existed was a Baptist church, were hard pressed to find an answer, and their answers failed to correspond with each other.
Permit me to further illustrate on this point: I have here on my writing table two books written by men who violently oppose the Baptist perpetuity idea. In dating the origin of Baptists, one says that the Baptists were started in Germany in 1521 by Nicholas Stork. The other says that the first Baptist church was founded in Amsterdam by John Smyth, an English- man, in 1607. The fact is, those who deny that Jesus started the first Baptist church at Jerusalem simply cannot place their finger on the date of the beginning of the first Baptist church, and the man who started it. They cannot correctly name the date because it doesn't exist! They cannot name the man this side of Christ, because he never lived!
3. Note the confusion that prevails among those who claim that Jesus did not found the local assembly, but a "universal, invisible Church." For instance, Dr. C. I. Scofield, in his "Synthesis of Bible Truth," says that ecclesia is used in the New Testament in four different senses, as follows: "To designate the whole body of the redeemed during the present dispensation, to designate a local church, to designate groups of local churches, and to designate the visible church or body of professed believers without reference to locality or numbers."
Confusion is here worse confounded! Who can read the New Testament with unbiased mind and get the impression that Jesus founded several different kinds of churches? This teaching could only have arisen as a theoretical necessity. Further, we find that the Westminster Confession contains still another conception of church, in which those who have never become believers are members. This Confession says that the church consists "of all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, together with their children."
4. There are those who readily admit a perpetuity of Baptist principles but who are not willing to admit perpetuity of Baptist churches. For instance, H. C. Vedder, in his Short History of the Baptists, devotes most of his introduction to an argument against Baptist perpetuity, then, strange to say, begins his history of the Baptists in the New Testament times! He does not admit the continuance of Baptist churches, but devotes upwards of two hundred pages to what he calls a "history of Baptist principles."
There immediately arises this question: If Baptist principles have had continuous existence from apostolic times, then surely there must have existed people who held those principles. For the perpetuity of Baptist principles necessarily involves the fact that there lived individuals who held them. Were not the individuals who held Baptist principles Baptists? And were not the churches made up of such individuals Baptist churches? If not, I am greatly concerned to know what kind of churches they were. The position that there has been a perpetuity of Baptist principles but not of Baptists is illogical, and it ill becomes a person of thoughtful mind to hold such a position.
5. None deny that there have existed from the days of the apostles on, companies, congregations, and sects of Christians dissenting from the established and commonly accepted forms. When the prevailing churches fell into errors, and departed from the gospel teaching, those who continued godly separated themselves from the multitude and worshipped and served God according to their understanding of the Scriptures. These people, true to apostolic teaching, constituting in the strictest sense what remained of the true church of Christ, were bitterly persecuted, termed "heretics," and had applied to them all sorts of odious names. And because they usually wore the names applied to them in hatred by their enemies, the names varied. Consequently, it would be foolish for one, because the name Baptist cannot be traced back successively to apostolic times, to deny that people holding Baptist principles and in a real sense Baptists have existed.
6. Objection is often made to tracing Baptist descent through the so-called dissenting "sects," that existed from the New Testament times on, upon the ground that there were irregularities among them as to doctrine and practice. Some of the churches included under the same name as that of the peoples through whom Baptists trace their perpetuity, practiced things out of harmony with the things that Baptists practice today. Therefore, it is argued that Baptists err in claiming kinship with them. Let us think about this objection for a few moments.
It ought to be evident to anyone who will think it over that churches, absolutely independent, bound together in no close organic way, driven into seclusion, scattered and separated by persecution, would in all probability come to differ somewhat in minor matters of doctrine and polity. Moreover, some might even depart so far from the Scriptures' teaching as to become unworthy of the name borne by them. There is no doubt that this very thing happened in many instances among the peoples through whom the Baptists trace descent. Biased historians have seized upon these more or less isolated instances, and have magnified them in an attempt to show that the whole "sect" was not baptistic in its doctrines and practices.
Upon the same principle it could be argued that certain churches of the apostolic era were not true churches. For instance, the church at Corinth was very imperfect; irregularities existed, yet no one asserts that it was not a true church of Christ. One could magnify the irregularities and variations that exist between Northern and Southern Baptist churches, or between Southern Baptists and the Baptists of Canada or England, and erroneously conclude that they are not to be classed as the same people. And, indeed, there are churches calling themselves by the name "Baptist" that have without doubt so far departed from the Scriptures as to no longer be true Baptist churches. It is quite unfair, however, to judge a people as a whole by the actions of a few churches that go astray from the truth. In properly estimating them we must find out what they in the main stand for. We must ascertain what the principles were that generally characterized them.
It should be remembered that much of what is on record concerning those who held Baptist views in ages past has come from the pens of their bitter foes. Those who wrote about them generally hated these "dissenters" with deadly and malignant hatred and did not scruple at persecuting them to the death. Can the testimony of such witnesses be considered as trustworthy? All too often have historians, even some who bear the name Baptist, been willing to characterize Baptists of ages gone by according to the records of their persecutors, who delighted in nothing more than to exaggerate their faults. Strange to say, some historians seem to give more credence to the statements of their enemies than to those contained in the extant writings of these Christians themselves.
It seems to me that the histories of Newman and Vedder go to this extreme just mentioned. As I have compared their writings concerning the various bodies of Christians who withstood Rome in the earlier days with the writings of other Baptist historians, I have been unable to keep from feeling that they do these peoples a deep injustice. Those noble men and women who kept alive the great doctrines of the New Testament faith through bloody times of persecution, who maintained evangelical religion in the face of Romish apostasy, often at the cost of life—surely they bore enough during their lifetime without having perpetuated against their memory, by biased historians, the calumnies of their enemies.
7. It might well be asked at this point, How far can a church depart from the truth and still be a New Testament church? Those who claim that Montanists, Novatians, Paulicians, Waldenses, etc., were too heretical for Baptists to claim kin with, might well ponder this question. Even Dr. A. H. Newman recognizes that churches may have irregularities and still be true New Testament churches, for in his History of Antipedobaptism, page 28, he says: "That a church also may make grave departures in doctrine and practice from the apostolic standard without ceasing to be a church of Christ, must be admitted." If we can determine just how far a church may depart from the truth and still remain a New Testament church, we shall then be prepared to examine the beliefs of the various parties and "sects" of ancient times to determine whether or not we may justly trace the Baptists through them.
On the matter of what constitutes a true New Testament church I wish to quote with approval the words of Dr. T. T. Martin, as found in his splendid book on the New Testament Church. He says: "Only two doctrines are essential to a New Testament church. Other doctrines are important, precious, but only two are essential to a New Testament church. They are the WAY OF SALVATION and the WAY OF BAPTISM. The Commission makes this clear. Matthew 28:19-20, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them….”
A body of people holding these two doctrines and in this New Testament order may be in error on other doctrines; yet it is a New Testament church. For instance, if there is in the West a church called a ‘Baptist’ church that holds immersion for baptism, but does not hold the New Testament way of salvation, then it is not a New Testament Church. If there is a church in New York or England called a 'Baptist' church that holds the New Testament way of salvation but does not hold immersion as baptism, then it is not a New Testament church. If there is a church called a 'Baptist' church that holds the New Testament way of baptism, but that one ought to be baptized before being saved, then it is not a New Testament church."
There have been Baptist churches within recent times that practiced foot-washing. Others have held erroneous views relating to the Sabbath. In our day, I have known of Baptist churches in the North having a woman for pastor, and I have known churches to adopt various unscriptural plans for the carrying on of their work. But the point is, none of these things kept them from being New Testament churches. Just as a Christian may be disobedient and still remain a Christian, so a church may be disobedient and yet remain a New Testament church—though admittedly an unworthy one. For, let us repeat, according to the terms of the Commission, two doctrines and two only are essential to a New Testament church: THE WAY OF SALVATION AND THE WAY OF BAPTISM.