The Baptist Pillar © Brandon Bible Baptist Church 1992-Present www.baptistpillar.com
"...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 1)
There are few things about which as many false notions and heretical opinions are held, as the church. Many are wedded to a church theory that is totally at variance with the plain teachings of the Scriptures. Some hold these false theories honestly, having never carefully studied the church question for themselves. Others, it is to be feared, hold them because they fit into their ecclesiastical scheme, and because to surrender them for the truth would mean a revolution in their life involving a change in the matter of their church affiliation.
Because of the neglect of church truth, loose thinking and erroneous views as to what properly constitutes a New Testament church, many hold the church in light esteem. It is not to them the high and holy thing it ought to be. It is not to them the divine institution that towers high above all of the organizations and institutions of men. It is by no means uncommon for one to encounter persons who esteem a lodge, club, society, or other organization of the kind, on a par with the church. And among the multitudes of sects and denominations calling themselves churches, people commonly make little distinction. The popular idea is that "one church is as good as another," without reference to whether or not it has Jesus Christ for Founder and Head.
Among those who hold loose and unscriptural views of the church, the writer of these pages was once numbered. In common with others, I inherited many of my notions, and gathered others from current thought. I recall that it was a shock to me when first I learned that Baptists claim identity with the church that Jesus established. This claim seemed to me to be the expression of unwarranted arrogance and bigotry. Later, as I began to study the church question, my idea of what constitutes a true church narrowed and became more distinct.
In the light of the teachings of the Scriptures the idea of church perpetuity, at first so repellent, became more and more reasonable. Finally it became clear to me that if the Scriptures are true and the promise of Jesus to be relied upon, the church which Jesus founded must have had a continuity of existence throughout the ages, and must be somewhere in the world today. Careful study of the Scriptures and history, together with a study of the origin and teachings of the different denominations, has served to form within me a conviction almost as strong as life itself. That conviction is, that the first church that was ever organized was what we would today call a Baptist church, and that churches of the same form, characterized by the same doctrines and practices, have existed from the day that the first one was established to the present moment, and will continue to exist until the Lord comes again.
It is my purpose to set forth in the following pages some of the grounds, biblical and historical, upon which I base my convictions, and to show the reasonableness and creditability of the Baptist claim to what is generally termed "church perpetuity."
In thinking along this line, one of the first questions that commonly arises is with reference to the practical importance of this doctrine. For I think we may term church perpetuity a doctrine. Assuredly it appears important when you consider that the veracity of our Lord's word and the validity of His promise is at stake. If the church that Jesus established has not been perpetuated, then His promise has failed. If His promise concerning the church has failed, then is it not possible that His promises concerning our salvation and destiny will in like manner fail?
Again, it is important to know what church can truly claim to exist in fulfillment of Christ's promise of perpetuity, because to find that church means to find the only true one. In a world filled with all kinds of so-called churches, each holding forth their peculiar doctrine and claims, many are hopelessly confused and know not which church to turn to. A knowledge of the truth concerning perpetuity will dispel the confusion and make the duty of the Christian plain.
A proper understanding of Christ's promise concerning the church and the recognition of its fulfillment in those holding Baptist principles, would perhaps have prevented the schismatic condition of Christendom today. Christ promised that His church would not fail or cease to be. All organization of so-called churches rests upon the assumption that His promise was broken and that His church failed.
The doctrine of Baptist church perpetuity has ever been an offensive doctrine to those of other faiths, and quite naturally so. For if it can be shown that Baptist churches are the true churches of Christ, then the churches of other faiths immediately come to occupy the position of rivals to those having divine origin. However, it is not only those of other faiths who find this doctrine offensive.
In these modern days of compromise and lack of conviction, it is not infrequently that one discovers a Baptist of the "Uniontarian" or "Indifferentist" type who takes exception to this biblical doctrine. I recall that one such Baptist of Pedo-baptist proclivities once took me to task for my views concerning church perpetuity, stating that it could not be historically proven that Baptist churches have continued from the days of Jesus until the present. With the historical data that had come to my notice, fresh in mind, I replied that I fully believed sufficient historical proof had already been produced to settle that. Then I went on to say that the question was more than an historical one; that it was more biblical than historical.
"If," said I, "I had only my Master's promise to perpetuate His church, that would be enough to make me believe in its present existence." God made a staggering promise to Abraham once, one whose fulfillment seemed impossible. Of Abraham's faith Paul says (Rom. 4:20-22): "He staggered not at the promise of God… being fully persuaded that what he had promised, he was able also to perform, and therefore it was counted to him for righteousness." Should not we have the faith of Abraham? Christ promised to perpetuate His church. Should not we have the faith to believe that "He who promised is able to perform it"?
In dealing with the question of church perpetuity, I am aware that I will in all probability encounter some who are antagonistic to the term "perpetuity." This antagonism has been induced by the frequent misuse and abuse of the term. In fact, there are three words that have been frequently misused in this connection, namely, "succession," "continuity," and "perpetuity." As one writer puts it, "There are three words used almost indiscriminately in the discussion of church history, viz.: `succession,' continuity; and 'perpetuity.' Not one of these words expresses the whole idea, but each one is nearly right and sufficient for honest inquiry."
In considering which word I should use, I finally decided to use the word perpetuity as perhaps the most suitable of the three for my purpose. However, because of the misleading way in which perpetuity is often used, it is advisable to define, at the outset, something of what is meant and what is not meant, by the term as employed in the pages to follow.
1. When Baptists affirm belief in the perpetuity of their churches, they do not mean that they can trace an unbroken SUCCESSION OF BISHOPS from the days of the apostles to the present. The Roman Catholic Church bases her claim to perpetuity upon alleged succession of bishops, or popes as they term them.
Thus we find Cardinal Gibbons saying (Faith of Our Fathers, p. 93), "The Catholic Church teaches also that our Lord conferred on St. Peter the first place of honor and jurisdiction in the government of His whole church, and that the same spiritual supremacy has always resided in the popes, or bishops of Rome, as being the successors of St. Peter. Consequently to be true followers of Christ all the Christians, both among the clergy and the laity, must be in communion with the See of Rome, where Peter rules in the person of his successor."
It may well be noted in this connection that the Catholic claim to perpetuity fails for many reasons. We pause to make bare mention of four of these. First, is their lack of any good ground upon which to base their claim for the supremacy of Rome. Second, is the absolute lack of proof, either biblical or historical, that Peter was the first pope. Third, are the plain teachings of the New Testament, which precludes the idea that Peter occupied the place of primacy, in the sense of being the vice-regent of Christ and head of the church. Fourth, is the lack of a shred of historical evidence to prove that Peter was ever so much as in Rome, much less the first pope.
2. Baptists do not claim perpetuity upon the basis of a successive and unbroken CHAIN OF BAPTISMS. The opponents of Baptist perpetuity often seek to invalidate Baptist claims by saying that it would be necessary for them to establish beyond doubt that there has been at no time a break in the chain of baptisms, before assuming the right of perpetuity. This arises out of a misconception of the Baptist position, and what properly constitutes perpetuity.
3. Baptists do not claim perpetuity upon the basis of a chain of CHURCHES succeeding each other in the sense that kings and popes succeed each other. Dr. J. B. Moody puts this truth very aptly when he says, "In the sense of popes and kings succeeding each other, the word (perpetuity) is not to be used of church history, because one church does not take the place of another. Sometimes one church dies as an organization, and some of the members may constitute in the same or in another place, and thus one may succeed the other. But this is hardly involved in this discussion, except where churches may have been driven from place to place, or from one country to another. The church at Jerusalem was multiplied into the churches of Judea, Samaria, etc., but they did not succeed the church at Jerusalem, because that church had not died, as when kings and popes succeed each other by death. That particular idea of supplanting, or taking the place of another, must be eliminated."
4. Baptists do not claim perpetuity on the basis of the NAME BAPTIST. They do not make the claim that churches called by the name Baptist have existed through all the ages. True, Baptists have existed all along, but they have often been called by other names. The churches of the New Testament as they have existed down through the ages have usually received their names from their enemies and persecutors. These names were received as terms of odium and reproach.
It will be shown later that New Testament believers grouped together in New Testament churches here and there, bore different names at different times, such as Paulicians, Bogomils, Waldenses, Anabaptists, Catabaptists, etc., each name giving place to another until today they are known the world over as Baptists. History shows that the peoples of these New Testament churches just mentioned, although scattered by persecution, hunted and driven into the dens and caves of the earth, conformed in essential points to the teachings of the New Testament, and were the progenitors of modern Baptists.
What, then, is meant by perpetuity as used by Baptists? It will not be amiss for me to quote two or three well-known Baptists who have given this subject more than ordinary attention. In the writings of S. H. Ford, LL.D., of honored memory, we find these words:
"Succession among Baptists is not a linked chain of churches or ministers, uninterrupted and traceable at this distant day…The true and defensible doctrine is that baptized believers, have existed in every age since John baptized in Jordan, and have met as a baptized congregation in covenant and fellowship where an opportunity permitted."
Again from W. A. Jarrell, D.D., author of a most convincing book on church perpetuity, I quote the following:
"All that Baptists mean by 'church succession' or church perpetuity is: there has never been a day since the organization of the first New Testament church in which there was no genuine church of the New Testament existing on earth."
As is indicated in the foregoing quotations, Baptists claim that the first New Testament church organized by Jesus was in doctrine and practice essentially the same as Baptist churches of today.
Baptists claim that there has never been a day since Jesus started the first one when such churches have not existed to bear true witness to Him. They claim that there is sufficient historical proof to demonstrate that Baptist churches of today have direct historical connection with the churches of apostolic times. They believe that as time goes on and further investigations are made in the field of church history the proof of their continuity will become so irresistible that no reputable church historian can reasonably deny it. They not only hold on the authority of the Word of God and reliable history that the churches of the New Testament were what would be called Baptist churches today; that Baptists are the historical descendants of these same New Testament churches, but they also believe and hold that Baptist churches will continue to exist until the Master comes again to this earth.