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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
William Cecil Duncan
From the book, History of the Early Baptists, 1857
Christians of the Baptist Church of the first three centuries exemplified in their lives the distinctive traits of the Gospel. Their minds were wholly devoted to Christ and to his service. They carried their religion with them into all the relations of life.
Christianity with them was not a mere profession: it was an active existence, a living, breathing, reality. Separate from the world, they yet lived in the world, to bring men by their example to Christ; "the salt of the earth," shining forth as lights among a wicked and benighted people. Living lives of simplicity and truthfulness; strong in the faith of the Gospel, and in Christian, purity and holiness; filled with love to God, to the brotherhood, and to all mankind,—these Baptists of the early Church were models of piety and zeal in the work of the Lord.
The Baptist of this age of the Church felt bound to live up to the vow of obedience to Jesus (his sacramentum, or oath) which he took on receiving the ordinance of baptism; when he solemnly engaged to renounce Satan and all his works; and declared, by a symbolic action of beautiful significance that he had "put off the old man with his deeds", and that, being buried with Christ, he would rise with Him to walk in righteousness and holiness forever.
Created anew unto good works in Christ Jesus, he viewed his calling "as a holy warfare for God and Christ against all the powers of darkness", and against all that should oppose itself to the reign of Jesus in the hearts of men. Hence, though he was obedient to the laws of the government under which he lived, he could take no part in any thing which seemed to recognize the truth of heathenism. He kept himself aloof from all its idolatrous worship and ceremonies.
Its festivals, its triumphal marches, its gladiatorial shows, and its: theatrical exhibitions, he carefully avoided. Even its musical concerts, and its exhibitions of art, he was loathe to attend; for they were each interpenetrated with the leaven of idolatry.
Rather than violate the honest scruples of his conscience, he would suffer death. And many Christians were led to execution, in this period of the history of the Church, by the enraged and misguided heathen. They died in triumph. Few wavered: few yielded, when called upon to deny Christ.
They endured to the end; feeling as did Polycarp, who, when about to be led to the stake, in his old age, said, in words of touching tenderness, "Eighty and six years have I served him [Christ], and he has done me nothing but good: how then can I speak reproachfully of him, my Lord and my Saviour?"
They despised the pleasures of earth; and wanted only the joy which comes from God, the "joy unspeakable and full of glory." Their pleasures were high and holy; "the contempt of everything earthly, true liberty, a clear conscience, and a contented life, free from the fear of death".
Christianity was compelled, however, to come frequently into contact with heathenism. It could do so lawfully, so long as it did not recognize idolatry as a true religion. Nay, the believer was even bound, in some respects, to seek the heathen; for it was his duty to convert them to the truth. It was necessary, therefore, to obtain their friendship and good will. He might mingle with them freely in private life; being careful to "keep himself unspotted from the world.
A believer married to an unbeliever, broke not he marriage tie, when converted to Christ; but sought, by and through it, to bring the other to the same life-imparting reception of the Gospel. The Christian wife was thus made an instrument for the conversion of her husband; and, through her means, often, their children, instructed in the Gospel, were brought to a saving knowledge of the Redeemer.
The Christian woman not only brought up her children in the nurture and admonition of the lord", and set to her family an example of faith and patience; but she also performed offices of charity and love to the brethren at large. "She seeks not", says Tertullian (De Cult. Fem. c. 10), "the heathen theatres; but she goes forth to search for brethren who are ill, to partake of the communion, and to hear the word of God. Her chief occupation is to seek out those who are imprisoned for conscience sake, to visit the sick brethren even in the poorest huts, and to receive into her house and entertain traveling brethren from abroad." Such was the Baptist lady of the olden time.
Every believer, of whatever station, had his appropriate work in the early Church. Slaves, as well as freemen,—many of whom were called into "the glorious liberty of the Gospel",—labored to spread the good news of salvation. They stood high in the Church, in which there was neither bond nor free, but all were one in Christ Jesus. Through their influence, not a few from among the heathen were brought from darkness into light.
In pagan families, where they often had the oversight of the children, they sowed in the minds of the young the seeds of Christian instruction; and, not infrequently, they did not point to Christ in vain. The truth lodged in the hearts of the children, often ripened, at a later day, into perfect knowledge that made wise unto salvation.
Perhaps, the most distinguishing trait of the early Christian Baptists was their love for the brethren. Their mutual affection was such as to astonish the heathen; who used to exclaim in wonder, "See how these Christians love one another!" To the malicious scoffer, this brotherly union appeared ridiculous; and he would ironically say, with the mocker Lucian, "Your law-giver has persuaded you that ye are all brethren."
In the jealous world, this affection excited suspicion; "for the Christians", they said, "know one another by secret signs; and love one another almost before they are acquainted". What a testimony in favor of that religion which professes to be the perfection of love to God and love to man!
Especially, did this fraternal affection manifest itself in times of persecution? A church would appropriate its funds to supply the wants of its imprisoned members; and individual believers in it would vie with one another in ministering to the necessities of the captives. Their spiritual, as well as their temporal, wants were fully supplied; and "ministers were sent into the prisons, to read and explain the Word of God to the confessors who had been weakened by tortures."
This brotherly love was not confined to members of the same church: it extended itself to all Christians. Any believer, on coming to a strange city, would meet with a warm reception from the brethren, if he could show a testimonial from the pastor of the church with which he was connected. If he desired to remain and engage in business, the brethren would look him out some suitable occupation.
One church, too, would aid another; the richer contributing to the necessities of the poorer in this world's goods. On one occasion, in Cyprian's time, the church in Carthage, North Africa, sent a large sum (more than four thousand dollars) to certain churches of Numidia, to aid in ransoming some of their members from captivity.
When brother differed in opinion from brother, he strove to do it in love. In combating what they thought to be error, the saints, as was meet, proceeded in the spirit of gentleness and patience. If repelled, they answered not "with hate and persecution, but with the manifestation of peace and true love."
"We gain much," says Chrysostom, "showing love and the true spirit of a disciple of Christ. We must condemn false doctrines; but in every way spare the men who espouse them, and pray for their salvation."
Such was the love Baptists entertained for each other in the times of early Christianity. It was holy, pure, sincere, and abiding. Love they each other so today? An affection of this kind is god-like; and forms a bond of union between brethren that is stronger than a chain of adamant.
The Baptists at this time not only loved one another: they loved all men, and sought to do good unto all. They aided the heathen, as well as the brethren, in their earthly troubles, by means of earthly consolations.
An example of this world-embracing benevolence was given by Cyprian's church, during the great plague in Carthage. Numbers of the dead and dying being east forth by their pagan friends to lie unburied in fine highways, the brethren, rich and poor, stimulated by their loved bishop," furnished money and help to bury the bodies of their persecutors, and to rescue the city from the danger of a more terrible devastation."
The surest proof, however, which these Christians gave of their love to the heathen, was their earnest striving, by precept and example, to bring them to Christ. Not the clergy only, but all believers, took a part, each in his own sphere, in advancing the interests of the religion of Christ. Each one had his own work to do; and each did it. Each preached the Gospel, if not by word, yet in his life.
In the age of the Apostles, and that immediately succeeding, every believer was a preacher of the truth as it is in Jesus ; though each was not a teacher in the Church.—Every man and every woman took some active part in spreading a knowledge of Christianity. Every believer tried to bring others to Christ. He that was a trite Christian, so far from finding it impossible to win others,—found it impossible not to do it: his love to the Redeemer would speak forth, and would be heard.
So labor, in our day, the Baptists in Germany,—fit descendants of the Baptists of Apostolic times. This is "aggressive Christianity" in the only sense in which Christianity may be aggressive; and thus attacking, it must conquer the world.