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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Davis W. Huckabee
From Sermons to Baptist Churches
This is a question that is sometimes asked of us. Often it is asked in all honesty, while at other times it is asked by way of reproach, as intimating that they are not thriving, and that this very fact is an evidence that God’s blessing is not upon them. There is a natural tendency on the part of less spiritual people to judge by outward appearances, which are often deceiving. Again, it is easy to make a judgment on the basis of only a partial knowledge, and some persons, judging all independent Baptists by one or two churches, come to a mistaken idea of their prosperity. If one had done this in New Testament days, and judged all churches by the small, weak and unprosperous church at Athens [if indeed there even existed a church there], (Acts 17:32-34), what a mistaken view he would have had.
Or if one had judged the morals and spirituality of all the churches in the first century by the carnal Corinthian church, how far wrong would his impression have been. Or if one had judged the zeal of all the first century churches by that of the lukewarm Ephesian church in the last days of the apostolic era, (Rev. 2:1-7), he would have been greatly deceived. Or, by contrast, if one had judged by the materially prosperous, but practically dead, Laodicean church, (Rev. 3:14-18), how erroneous would his judgment have been.
It is tragic to see any Baptist church succumb to the gates of Hades, or to be overcome by the Wicked One so that it ceases to exist. Yet, in all honesty it must be confessed that there are instances where the best thing for the Lord’s cause would be if some nominal Baptist churches that are doing nothing but bringing reproach on the name of the Lord by their lifestyles, would die, and make room for others that would faithfully serve the Lord. Any church which has lost its vision, or forgotten its purpose, or ignored its commission, or become wholly self-serving, has become a liability so far as the Lord’s cause is concerned, and would probably be better off dead if it will not "repent and do the first works," (Rev. 2:5).
Throughout this writer’s ministry of over forty years, he has pastored only small, independent Baptist churches. His first pastorate of ten years was in a church that, in its almost sixty years of existence had never had over one hundred persons on the membership roll at any given time, and some might judge from this that there was clear evidence that God was not blessing it. Yet this church was the largest Baptist church in a rather large county, and was the largest Baptist church within fifty or seventy-five miles.
If one judged the Baptist churches in that part of eastern Colorado by their numbers, he must conclude that none of them were pleasing the Lord. But that part of the United States has never been such a Baptist stronghold as the part of the South where this writer grew up. There, within a twenty mile radius, there might be as many Baptist churches, and most of them larger in numbers and wealthier in circumstances than this one. And similar facts are true of this writer’s two subsequent pastorates, yet all three of these fulfilled their God-given purposes, though they were small. Perhaps the Lord’s statement to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7 could be adapted to churches as well.
Therefore, in seeking an answer to the question at the head of this article, we must look elsewhere than in mere numbers, wealth and worldly respectability for the answer, for these are not the determining factors in the matter. In seeking an answer to this question, we begin by—
I. DEFINING THE MEANING OF THE TERMS.
There are many Baptist organizations in existence today, and whether they be the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Association, the Conservative Baptist Association, the Bible Baptist Fellowship, the General Association of Regular Baptists, the World Baptist Fellowship, or any one of the several other organizations, they all claim that their churches are "independent." This makes it evident that most Baptists realize that New Testament churches were independent, and that all Baptist churches today ought to be independent. But what most do not realize is, that independency does not consist in terms, but in practice.
There is even one Baptist organization that calls itself "The New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches," which is a contradiction in terms, and concerning which M. L. Moser, Jr., has well said that:
"I cannot understand how they can be ‘independent’ and yet members of an association. If one is an independent Baptist he is not a member of any organization, and when one becomes a member of an association, convention, or organized fellowship, he thereby ceases to be independent.—Editorial comment in The Baptist Challenge, June, 1969, p. 5.
Inasmuch as all Baptists, with few exceptions, confess that scriptural Baptist churches must be independent, they concede the claims of true independent Baptists, who believe that "independent" means, not only "not dependent upon," but also "unaffiliated," "not connected or related organizationally," "self-sufficient," etc., as the dictionary defines the term. Therefore, when we speak of "independent" Baptist churches, we are referring to such Baptist churches as are unaffiliated with any religious organizations such as Conventions, Associations, Fellowships, etc. It is these churches that are sometimes thought to be slowly dying on the vine because nothing is heard from them by way of advertisement of their doings. But this is no proof that they are not healthy and thriving spiritually.
In defining what we mean by "Independent" Baptists, the writer would take the liberty of quoting his own personal reasons for being independent, as first set forth in the church bulletin of the First Baptist Church of Kirk, Colorado:
1. We are independent (unaffiliated) Baptists, not because we bear any ill feeling toward our brethren who are in Baptist Organizations, but because we do not find any such super-church organizations uniting the churches of the New Testament together.
2. Neither do we believe that any such organization is necessary to the fulfillment of the churches’ obligations. To hold such a view is to indict the wisdom of God as inadequate for the contingencies of the twentieth century.
3. We are independent because the churches of the New Testament were, and they not only were able to discharge their responsibilities to the Lord, but enjoyed such success as has never been seen since the first century.
4. We are independent because we believe that any church that is indwelt by the Divine Comforter can realize its responsibilities without any suggestions, and fulfill them without any help, from any outside organization.
5. We are independent because all super-church organizations siphon off too much mission money for their own maintenance. Independent Baptist Churches, having no such organization to support, are able to put 100% of their mission funds on the mission field.
6. We are independent because membership in such organizations tends to cause individual churches to shirk their duty on the supposition that the organization will take care of it even if they do not. As members of such an organization, it is too easy to excuse the church from its duty by saying, "We are only one church, and not a large nor rich one at that." Independent Baptists believe that each church is solely responsible for its duties, and that it alone can fulfill its responsibilities.
7. We are independent because such super-church organizations encourage, by their size, numbers and human strength, a dependence upon the arm of the flesh instead of upon the Spirit of God.
Again, we must define what we mean by the word "thriving." To different people this word might have different shades of meaning, but generally it will carry the meaning of increasing in size and vigor, or increasing in numbers. Taking the word in this sense then, we believe that this question which is sometimes asked is not appropriate, for independent Baptists are flourishing as well as any comparative number of organized Baptists, and perhaps more than many of them. It is certain that independent Baptists of the present are thriving more than they have since many years prior to the advent of the first Baptist super-church organization.
What most Baptist laymen do not realize, is that all Baptist Conventions, Associations, Fellowships, etc., are of quite recent vintage, and that for the first seventeen hundred years of the Christian era there were very few, if any, other kinds of Baptists but independent Baptists. Dr. Mosheim says of the churches of the second century:
"During a great part of this century, the Christian churches were independent with respect to each other. Nor were they joined by association, confederacy, or any other bonds than those of charity. Each Christian assembly was a little state, governed by its own laws, which were either enacted, or at least, approved by the society. But, in process of time, all the Christian churches of a province were formed into one large ecclesiastical body, which, like confederate states, assembled at certain times in order to deliberate about the common interests of the whole." (Ecclesiastical History, Century 2, Part II, chap. II, para. 2)
This amalgamation of the churches which eventually came about, was the beginning of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy, yet how remarkably similar is it to many of the modern Baptist organizations. The true churches continued to be independent of one another until early in the eighteenth century in all but a few instances. The Novatian churches, which flourished from the third to the seventh centuries, were independent of one another, and for this reason, they were stigmatized as schizmatics by Catholics. Indeed the independency of these churches is the third of the four principle tenets that differentiated the Novatianist churches from the Catholics, according to the French historian Crispin.
The first Baptist Organization that achieved any great degree of prominence was the Philadelphia Baptist Association, which was organized in 1707 by seven churches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (Thomas Armitage, History of Baptists, p. 715). Initially this was done primarily to promote fellowship between churches. The earliest of the presently existing Baptist Organizations, the Southern Baptist Convention, was organized in 1845, being formed out of the old Baptist Triennial Convention, which had been formed in 1814 (W. W. Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, p. 12ff).
It is clear from history that independent Baptist churches are not something new, but are actually as old as the Christian religion itself. But because so many of the churches had become negligent about mission work by the early seventeen hundreds, many concerned individuals sought to stir up the churches to their duty. Their mistake lay in a false ecclesiology. They assumed that because so many churches were not discharging the Great Commission so far as missions were concerned that they could not do so apart from some extra-church mission board. And so, the first Baptist organizations came into existence for the purpose of promoting mission work.
However, it has been abundantly proven, both in New Testament times, and in recent years, that independent Baptists can do any kind of mission work that any Convention or Association can, and they will do it with greater efficiency. Greater, in some cases, by their own admission, by as much as ninety percent, for some years ago the Southern Baptist Convention admitted that "less than ten percent of mission funds ever reach the mission field" in their organization. It is shameful to waste ninety percent of missionary support just to get one on the field, when he can be scripturally sent out and given one hundred percent of the money designated for missions if done Scripturally. What businessman would tolerate for a moment any enterprise that was only ten percent efficient? But our question is "Why Aren’t Independent Baptists Thriving?" and so we must get back to this original question and examine it by—
II. DETERMINING THE MATTER AT HAND.
The charge intimated in this question is that independent Baptists are not thriving, but is this true? Not at all! It is simply a matter of the independent Baptists not having a loud "horn tooter" to let the world know what they are doing. Almost every Baptist super-church organization has an "official organ" that spends much time and money boasting of how much money it has collected for the missionaries, how many churches it has organized, how much money it has spent on publications, seminaries, etc. But independent Baptist churches, being not bound together by any sort of organization, may not even know of the existence of another independent church in the same city. Thus they have no way of gathering information about their various accomplishments, their mission outlay, their mission support, their home missions, etc.
However, if this information were all correlated, it would doubtless surprise everyone. This writer is constantly amazed when he visits a new area of the country to find that there is there a nucleus of independent Baptist churches functioning efficiently for the Lord. Yet these are often unaware of like centers of independent Baptist work in other areas. And this is probably good, for it prevents independent Baptist churches getting so occupied with tooting their own horns that they get sidetracked from their primary work. It is in the nature of the flesh to glory in its own accomplishments, often to the detriment of the Lord’s work, so ignorance of much of the Lord’s workings through independent Baptists may be a good thing. At the judgment seat of Christ, when the all-seeing Eye of God that has taken account of everyone’s doings reveals all that has been obediently done, we will learn soon enough of the full extent of what has been accomplished by adhering to the Scriptural plan for missions. Then all obedience to Scripture will be justified.
But apart from foreign and home mission enterprises, independent Baptist churches may appear to not be thriving because they are generally smaller in number than churches that belong to Baptist organizations. The fact that they are often smaller must not be attributed to a lack of zeal upon their part, for often the opposite is the case. Believing as most do that purity is more important than numbers, most independent Baptist churches are more discriminating in the reception of members than organizational Baptists.
In some parts of this nation of ours the name Baptist has all but lost its meaning because of the willingness, yes, rather the fervent desire to drag anyone into the membership of the church on almost any terms. Thus, many so-called Baptist churches have ceased even to inquire what kind of a baptism a person has before receiving him into the membership of the church. And while this is not generally the case with most organizational Baptists in the South, yet it is true that many of the Baptist churches of the south, in their zeal for numbers have ceased altogether to exercise any church discipline upon erring members. Once, an independent Baptist church in Texas had to exclude some erring members. A member of the First Baptist Church of the same city, which belonged to a Baptist organization, hearing of this, admitted that his church could not exclude any of its members, "for if we ever started, there would be no stopping place." This is a shameful admission for a church to make.
If an independent Baptist church is being faithful to the Lord, there will be times when it must exclude from its membership persons who are guilty of the sins listed in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, and in other places. This may appear to cut back the growth of the church for a time, but it is certain that such "prunings" cause the church’s growth to be healthier and more enduring. Such faithfulness to the principles of the Word of God discourages any pretentious, superficial or careless Christians from uniting themselves to such a church. But these sorts never help a church anyhow, but rather they do a great deal of harm to the reputation of the church.
Thus, such a faithful church cannot expect to be popular with the masses of nominal Christians, nor can it ever expect to become the "prestige" church in its town. The "prestige" church is always the one "big" church, which, by its very size and prominence, is joined by everyone that is interested only in what the church can do for him socially, politically and financially. Almost every town and city in America has such a "prestige" church, and tragically, it is sometimes a Baptist church, but if it is, it is so for the simple reason that the church has compromised for the sake of numbers or for other unworthy reasons.
Again, it may be so that a church is thriving spiritually even when it is not gaining any significant numbers, for there are times of sowing and watering the seed, as well as times of reaping the sheaves. Though humorous, it is true what a preacher said when asked about a revival going on in his church. When he accounted it to be a great revival, he was asked how many new members had been gained. He answered, "None! But we got rid of several worthless members." There may be a revival when numbers are reduced. Remember Gideon’s Three Hundred? (Judges 7:2ff). And that church is in a thriving condition which is being faithful to the Lord, whatever appearances may be to the contrary.
Too many people have the idea that the Lord looks upon matters the same way that they do, and that He will be beguiled with large numbers added to the church membership, without much concern for their character. But the Word declares that faithfulness, not accomplishment, is the criterion in God’s judgment of the matter. "Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful" (1 Cor. 4:2). Let us strive for faithfulness to the Lord, and leave the accomplishment of results to Him, for that is not really our business anyhow. There are several eminent Bible characters that are renowned for faithfulness but who had few if any converts to their faithful preaching. Two of the most prominent are Noah and Jeremiah.
If it is true that this dispensation is rapidly drawing to a close, then we may question whether any church which is faithfully preaching the Word is going to see any great accession of souls to its membership. The very spirit of the present age is against such an expectation. The membership of heretical churches is greatly increasing, but few true churches are. Did not Jesus suggest the scarcity of true believers on earth at His return when He asked: "Howbeit when the Son of man cometh, shall he find the faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8), as is the literal rendering of the Greek text. Paul was also inspired to declare the same thing when he said "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears" (2 Tim. 4:3). The present milksop Christianity looks remarkably like the fulfillment of this prophecy. One is not to expect the stars to grow brighter as the sun dawns, but rather the converse, and Christ’s return is likened to the sunrise in Malachi 4:2.
Once more, in considering this question, we would not be wholly apologetic of independent Baptists, for there is also the—
III. DEPRECATING OF SOME MISTAKEN PRACTICES.
We must never, on the plea that the age-end conditions makes impossible any church growth, be content to let down on our responsibilities to preach and to teach the truth. Several of the accounts of the Great Commission enjoin responsibility without promising any accomplishments therefrom. Thus it is in Luke 24:46-49, where the promise is only that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit so as to be witnesses of Jesus. See also Acts 1:4-8. Our responsibility in the matter is to be faithful. Accomplishment is the Lord’s business. Thus while we are not to let down upon our responsibility to faithfully teach and preach the Word, yet we must not be mistaken.
It is not our business to make the application of the Word to the individual, to persuade, harass and nag him until he makes a profession of faith and comes into the church. Untold harm has been done by over-zealous persons who usurped the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction, calling and conversion. It is all too easy to labor in the wisdom and strength of the flesh so as to intellectually persuade a lost person to make a profession of faith (often for questionable motives) and to join the church when that one has never been genuinely born again. We must recognize that God is sovereign in salvation, for men are born again "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). Neither the will of the evangelist or of the lost person can convert him if the Spirit of God is not working.
Every independent Baptist ought to fervently desire to be used of the Lord in witnessing to the lost of the saving grace of God. Yet he must recognize that there will be times when he sees no outward results, but if he is personally faithful to his task, then he shall prosper spiritually and be blessed of the Lord.
Though we rejoice in the faithfulness of many independent Baptists to the Great Commission in their local evangelistic efforts, and in their support of missionaries on the home and foreign fields, yet there is still too often the failure to support the work as we should. Let us be honest. Not one of us is sacrificing for the furtherance of the cause of God and truth, and not until we are will there be room for praise. Most independent Baptists do not give as much per week for the furtherance of the Gospel as they spend for cigarettes, candy, soda pop, trashy magazines, hair-dos, fashionable clothes, and other such rubbish which must all be left behind when we quit this earth. We heartily deprecate the great waste of money that the Lord has given to us to use as His stewards, for nothing that is given to us is solely for our own pleasures. All is to be used for the glory of God.
There are also some ways in which independent Baptist have failed to secure greater spiritual prosperity and doctrinal soundness. One of these is in the failure to have an independent Baptist publishing house, so that, for the most part, independent Baptists are dependent upon organizational Baptists, and even on non-Baptists, for most of their literature. Paul put a great deal of emphasis upon the need of doctrinal soundness when he wrote to Timothy and Titus. Indeed, he put more emphasis on doctrine than he did upon evangelism. Why is this? Because a doctrinally sound people will generally be evangelistically fervent also, and more important, their lives will also teach. But where a church is doctrinally weak or unsound, evangelism cannot long be right and fervent.
There are many independent Baptists pastors that have done extensive study in some field, and yet they cannot find a publisher for their material, and they cannot afford to publish it themselves. Many Baptist publishers will turn down such material because it is independent in its appeal, and consequently of no commercial value to them. It is the writer’s opinion that independent Baptists have signally failed in not recognizing that an independent Baptist publishing house would be a great instrument for the furtherance of the truth, and a worthy mission project.
There can never be the doctrinal soundness among them until provision is made for the publishing of good sound books and teaching material on theology, church history, the ordinances, Biblical missions, etc. One hundred years from now, should the Lord tarry His coming, it is questionable whether anyone would even know of the vast numbers of independent Baptists that live today, for the simple reason that they have so far left very little written evidences of their beliefs and practices. Books are generally the only lasting evidences of the existence of a separate people.
The average independent Baptist layman of the present day has only a very hazy notion of why his church is independent. This finds explanation in the fact that he spends more time watching the "one-eyed household god named TeeVee" than he does in the study of the Word. And even the studying that he does of the Bible is generally accompanied by study helps that were written by men who either had no knowledge of independent Baptist views, nor else knew of them, but had no sympathy for them.
Since preparing the original draft of this chapter a number of years ago, the writer has been encouraged to find similar thoughts about this need for a printing ministry stirring the minds of other pastors. Some churches have endeavored to put such a plan into action, but they too often found that most other independent Baptists would not stand with them in the endeavor, so that often the endeavor has come to naught for lack of support. Sadly there has been little real effort put forth. And worse still, many independent Baptists will not purchase the material that is put in print by independent Baptists, preferring rather to use the less sound material published by others.
Some years ago in a discussion of this sad fact, an independent Baptist missionary that had done considerable writing declared that most independent Baptist pastors, because of envy, would not purchase the materials of a fellow independent Baptist, nor would they encourage their churches to purchase it. This writer was offended at this statement at the time, thinking better of his brethren, but subsequently he has found by experience that it is too often true. It is time for independent Baptists to put aside petty jealousies and competitions with one another, and to be concerned for the glory of the Lord at whose ever hand it may come.