The Baptist Bride position, also known as Landmarkism, has been defined as follows:
“A. It is a corollary of the Landmark Baptist Church Movement (LBCM) doctrine which teaches the following:
“1. Only Baptist churches that can trace their history back to John’s baptism are legitimate (they maintain the ancient ‘landmark’ set by the Apostles [Prov. 22:28]). This is known as ‘church successionism.’
“2. There is no universal invisible church or mystical body of Christ, but only visible Baptist churches.
“3. True Baptist churches make up the Kingdom of God and therefore constitute the Bride of Christ; all other Christians are friends in the Marriage of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9; Mt. 22:12). Some LBCM maintain that only Baptists will be raptured.
“4. Baptism from non-Landmark Baptist churches is alien and rejected.
“B. The movement began in 1851 as SBC preachers such as J. R. Graves disapproved of Protestants preaching (‘pulpit affiliation’) in SBC pulpits, and SBC churches receiving into membership those baptized in Protestant churches (‘alien baptism’)” (Thomas Strouse, “Are We ‘Baptist Bride’?”).
I reject every point of this definition of Baptist Briderism or Landmarkism.
I have published my position on the church in the Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible & Christianity, which is available to anyone who is interested and has been available since its publication in 1993, and there is not a hint of Briderism in it.
There are issues that I did not raise in the encyclopedia, though, and I have decided to publish my reply to a letter from a Bible college student in which he asked me some questions in relation to church matters. This was first published in 1999. Since then I have extended and edited the original reply so that it more thoroughly and clearly explains my position, as I have had more time to consider the issue and have come to what I believe to be a better understanding from Scripture.
During the early part of our missionary work in South Asia, I determined to research the issue of the church for myself. We arrived on the mission field in 1979 and a year or so later I came to the conclusion that I did not have a proper understanding of the church and missionary work. At the time I had not been ordained by a church. Rather, I had been commissioned by a mission board. My home church at the time was totally oriented toward mission boards and there was an emphasis at my alma mater Tennessee Temple on a “universal church” position. Highland Park Baptist Church, the home of Tennessee Temple, was so large that it didn’t really function as a New Testament church. In fact, massive numbers of its members were “invisible” because of the practice of Quick Prayerism and the lack of discipline!
The issue that brought the matter of the church to the fore in my thinking as a young missionary was a Bible School. After we had been on the mission field for about a year (and had not yet started a church) I was asked by some national men to start a Bible School to train preachers from the various churches that already existed in the country. I was excited because the need for training was great and I love to teach. But as I worked on writing out the government and discipline of the school, I was struck by the fact that everything pertaining to discipline in the New Testament is in the context of the church. There is no pattern for the government of an entity other than the church, so I determined to study the issue of the church and missionary work for myself before the Lord.
By that time, I had been challenged with the Scofield Protestant position, the Pentecostal position, as well as the Brider and “local church only” positions.
I had read books and discussed the matter with many preacher friends, but now I shut myself up to the Bible. I prayed for wisdom to determine exactly what the New Testament teaches about the “church,” and I prayed for courage to accept whatever I found, regardless of what “camp” it might put me in or out of.
First, I used Strong’s Concordance and examined every reference to the English word “church” and to the Greek word “ekklesia.” (That was BC, or Before Computers.) I spent a lot of time studying the book of Acts and the church epistles. I read the Pastoral Epistles repeatedly. I wrote down everything I learned about the church, and that study formed the basis for a course that I first taught in Asia in the 1980s. This became an entry in the Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible & Christianity when it was published in 1993, and it was expanded into one of our Advanced Bible Studies Series courses in 2002 entitled “The New Testament Church.”
I concluded that the local church is the headquarters for the Great Commission; it is the house of God, the pillar and ground of the truth; and I needed to follow the biblical pattern of missionary work laid out in Acts 13 and following. So I returned to the States for a brief time, resigned the mission board, was ordained by a sound Baptist church, and returned to the mission field to start churches.
STRONG LOCAL CHURCH BUT NOT “LOCAL CHURCH ONLY”
I concluded that the overwhelming emphasis of the New Testament is on the local assembly, and that is the emphasis of my ministry. I came to a strong local church position but not a “local church only” position, as I will explain.
The “local church only” position itself is not Baptist Briderism or Landmarkism, but it holds to one Brider position, which is that there is no church today except the local church. It is based on the view that since the Greek word “ekklesia,” which is translated church in the New Testament, is a “called out visible assembly,” this can only refer to the local church.
I am strongly local church, but I refuse to force any predetermined definition upon words, including the word “church.” If the Bible says something even once, that is enough.
Words must always be defined first by context and secondly by comparing Scripture with Scripture, and having looked at Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 12:13; and Ephesians 2:13-20 repeatedly through the decades, trying to fit these into a “local church only” position, I have been unable to do so. Before God, I would have to abuse my conscience and “wrest” these passages to force them into such a position.
I understand the principles of biblical interpretation, having made this a special area of study for four decades and being the author of a course on that subject as well as a large book on biblical difficulties. This doesn’t make me infallible, but it does mean that I am no novice in these matters.
As for Matthew 16:18, Jesus stated that He would build His church and He promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Yet the gates of hell have prevailed against multitudes of assemblies. In fact, eventually the gates of hell prevails against all of them. I have been to the locations of the seven churches of Asia addressed by Christ in Revelation 2-3. They are long gone. I have been to where the Waldensian churches stood against Rome in the Italian Alps. Churches are still there, but they are apostate. I have seen the location of the alleged first Baptist church of America. A congregation meets there, but it is apostate. All were prevailed upon from within and without. But the fullness of the church which Christ is building will never be prevailed upon and can never be destroyed. Even now it sits victorious with its Head Jesus Christ in heavenly places, and it will be victorious throughout eternity.
As important as the local church is, there is more to Christ’s church than the present assembly, and not only in the future.
As for 1 Corinthians 12:13, I have examined this passage repeatedly, and the only thing I can see here is a Spirit baptism and a spiritual body. Those are heretical words to those who hold the “local church only” position, but that’s the simplest interpretation the words themselves bear. I have never heard a “local church only” interpretation that doesn’t do violence to the language.
First, Paul uses the plural pronoun “we” to include himself in the statement in 1 Cor. 12:13, but he wasn’t a member of the church at Corinth. Later in this passage, Paul does use the term “body” to refer to the local assembly (1 Cor. 12:27), but here he uses a different pronoun that points to the body at Corinth and here he does not include himself. “Now YE are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”
Second, 1 Corinthians 12:13 is talking about the Spirit. The baptism here is by the Spirit and the result is to be made “to drink into the Spirit.” That is not water baptism.
The “local church only” position claims that there is one baptism and that baptism is water baptism. But if every New Testament passage describing baptism is interpreted as water baptism, that creates a serious problem. Consider the following:
“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
Are we to believe that water baptism results in putting on Christ?
“In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:11-12).
Are we to believe that water baptism results in being buried with Christ and raised with Christ?
As for Ephesians 2:13-20, this describes a body and a building and a temple that is a spiritual entity beyond the local church. It is composed of Jews and Gentiles saved in this age. It is not yet complete but it is growing. The Bible-believing local church is a small reflection of this growing temple, but it is not the fulness thereof and is a deeply imperfect image thereof. The holy temple described in Ephesians 2 is a habitation of God through the Spirit (Eph. 2:22), whereas there are unsaved people in the local churches. I was a member of a Baptist church long before I was saved. In fact, I would estimate that in the Baptist church in which I grew up more than half of the members were unregenerate. Children and young people would routinely make a profession of faith and join the church, but I don’t recall any who had a testimony of salvation in a changed life. God does not inhabit unsaved church members.
What I see in Ephesians 1-3 is the church positionally before God. This church is already seated in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). It is therefore already assembled in God’s eyes. It is the fulness of Christ (Eph. 1:22), which cannot be said of any local church. It is a building that is growing into a holy temple in the Lord (Eph. 2:21).
This is not a Protestant “universal” church, but it is something that currently exists before God.
In my estimation, the simple language of these passages doesn't bear the “local church only” interpretation.
Yet in my experience, many proponents of the “local church only” doctrine try to pressure people similar to the way that many Calvinists do. They want to force you into an either-or position. You are either a Calvinist or an Arminian. You are either “local church only” or “universal church.” And if you aren’t “local church only,” you are nothing. I have had Bible conferences cancelled simply because I believe Ephesians 1-3 describes the church in terms that doesn’t fit a “local church only” definition. Though in practice I am “local church only,” that is not enough.
Be that as it may, I am neither Calvinist nor Arminian, and I am neither “local church only” nor “universal church” by the standard definitions.
I am a Biblicist. That has been my passionate objective since the first day I was saved, and I have held to promises such as the following for encouragement that I can know the truth.
“If any man will do his will, HE SHALL KNOW OF THE DOCTRINE, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).
“Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).
I don't believe in a Protestant “universal church” composed of all denominations or all churches or all professing Christians or the churches in a country or region. I don’t believe in a “Protestant church” or an “evangelical church” or a “fundamentalist church.” I cringe when someone writes, “The church is weak,” or, “The church needs revival.” I ask, “What church?” That is an unscriptural use of the term church.
It has been said that my view of the church allows for ecumenism, but this is ridiculous. There is not an ecumenical bone in my life or ministry. I challenge anyone to show even a hint of ecumenism in the 200 books and thousands of articles I have written over the past 40 years. The reason I am not ecumenical is because the Bible refutes ecumenism, and I am a Biblicist.
If my view on the church automatically allows for ecumenism just because it is not entirely “local church only,” as some claim, then it should also be said that the “local church only” brother’s doctrine of the family of God or the kingdom of God allows for ecumenism. Every “local church only” teacher, yea even every Baptist Brider, believes in the family of God and the kingdom of God composed of all the saved, yet this does not translate into any sort of ecumenism in this present world by these brethren.
Neither does my view that there is a church positionally before God described in Ephesians 1-3 translate into any sort of ecumenism. This is a straw man.
As the author of a Bible Encyclopedia I know something about Bible words, and I know that they must ALWAYS be interpreted by the context. One of the many ways that false teachers misinterpret the Bible is by giving Bible words a pre-conceived definition and then forcing that definition into every passage, regardless of the context. I refuse to do that, whether it is the word “death” or “spirit” or “saved” or “church.”
I know that the Greek word “ekklesia” referred to an assembly in the days when the New Testament was written. But it didn’t always refer to a “called out assembly.” Consider the use of the term in Acts 19. Here “ekklesia” is used three times (verses 32, 39, 41) to refer to an unruly mob that had not been called by anyone.
According to the “local church only” doctrine, the term “church” must always be used in the exact sense of “a visible, called-out assembly,” but the Spirit of God can use words and adapt them as He pleases. In the New Testament, words are sometimes modified from the standard first century use. While it is interesting and educational to study the common first century usage of Greek words, at the end of the day we must let the Bible interpret its own words by context.
In Ephesians 1-3 the church is described as God sees it positionally. In this sense it is already assembled.
For example, Ephesians 2 says that believers are made alive and risen from the dead and seated in heavenly places together with Christ (Eph. 2:5-6). That is present tense. It is a spiritual reality, not a physical one. We aren’t quickened and raised up into heavenly places with Christ by water baptism and church membership. The reality of Ephesians 2:5-6 happens at salvation and has absolutely nothing to do with an assembly in this present world.
Thus, “the church” is already assembled in God’s eyes.
Take the phrase “behold, I come quickly” which appears three times in the last chapter of the Bible. From any human perspective, 2,000 years does not add up to “quickly,” but from God’s perspective it has only been a couple of days since Jesus rose from the dead (2 Peter 3:8-9).
Now I will answer some other questions that have been asked about my position on the church:
QUESTION: “WHEN DID THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH BEGIN?”
BRO. CLOUD’S ANSWER: I believe the church began during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, that it was empowered on the day of Pentecost, and that it was organized and established by the apostles as recorded in the book of Acts and the Epistles. Why do I believe the church began during the earthly ministry of Christ? (1) There is no statement in Scripture that supports the common view that the church started on the day of Pentecost. (2) In Matthew 16:18, Christ said he would build His church. Christ is the Founder and Rock of the church. I can see no biblical reason for not assuming that He began building the church during His earthly ministry. (3) Matthew 18:17 implies that the church already existed during Christ’s earthly ministry. (4) Acts 2:41 says those saved on the day of Pentecost were “added unto” the congregation which already existed. I believe Pentecost was not the birth of the church, but was the anointing of the church.
At the same time, I do not see this as a fundamental issue one way or the other. If the Lord had wanted to make the matter more clear, He could easily have done so, but He didn’t and we have to be satisfied with what the Bible says, as well as what it does not say. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
QUESTION: “WHAT IS THE BODY OF CHRIST?”
BRO. CLOUD’S ANSWER: I believe there are three aspects to the church: (1) The Local Assembly (Acts 2:47; 13:1). This is the object of the vast majority of the Bible references to the church. Sometimes “church” refers to the local assembly in a general, generic, institutional sense (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6). (2) The Heavenly Assembly (Heb. 12:23; 2:12). The heavenly assembly includes every New Testament saint, because before God the church is already seated in heavenly places (Eph. 2:5-6). (3) The Eternal Assembly (Eph. 2:16-22). The eternal assembly is taking shape even today. It is not something that exists only in “prospect,” though its fullness is yet to be seen. Today, it is exists before God and is growing (Eph. 2:21).
I believe the term “body of Christ” is used in at least two of these senses. In 1 Corinthians 12:2; Romans 12:4; Ephesians 4:12, the body of Christ is applied to the local assembly. On the other hand, the church is described in Ephesians 2:13-22 as a temple that contains all of the New Testament saints and is growing into perfection, and Ephesians 2:22 indicates that the church at Ephesus was part of this larger temple. Ephesians 3:6 describes the mystery revelation that Paul was given, which is that “the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” It appears to me that the spiritual body spoken of here is something that encompasses more than the local assembly. In Ephesians 1:23, the body is said to be “the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” I cannot see how that this describes the local assembly.
QUESTION: “WHAT IS THE BRIDE OF CHRIST?”
BRO. CLOUD’S ANSWER: There is endless speculation about the bride of Christ, but the Bible says very little about it. Again, Deuteronomy 29:29 comes into play.
It appears to me that there are five passages that deal with the “bride” in the New Testament, though only three actually use the term.
One of these is in the Gospel accounts in which Christ is called the bridegroom of the bride (John 3:29). In this passage, John the Baptist calls himself the friend of the bridegroom. It appears, therefore, that John the Baptist and other Jewish saints prior to the establishment of the church, were not a part of the bride.
Ephesians 5:32 says the husband and wife picture Christ and the church. This language obviously implies a bride and tells us that the church is the bride. Whatever the church is, both now and in eternity, that is what the bride is.
Revelation 19 describes the “marriage of the Lamb,” which refers to a bride, the Lamb’s wife (v. 7). The passage doesn’t say anything more about who the bride is. She is adorned in fine linen, which “is the righteousness of the saints.”
In Revelation 21:9 the term “bride” is applied to the eternal city. This does not mean that the city itself is Christ’s bride. It means that the city is the dwelling place for His bride and not only for the bride, but also for Israel (the names of the 12 tribes of Israel are written in the 12 gates, Rev. 21:12) and for the saved of all ages. I see it this way: It is the bride’s city, but all of the saints of all ages are at home there.
The final passage is Revelation 22:17, where the bride invites sinners in this present age to God’s free salvation in Jesus Christ. This, of course, is the work of the Great Commission (Mark 16:15).
Taking all of these passages together, I believe all born again New Testament saints will be part of Christ’s bride. Those He redeems in this age by His blood will make up His beloved bride. In this present world, some born again Christians are not very faithful, and some are not even effectual members of a biblical church, and even the best saint is merely an “unprofitable servant” (Luke 17:10), but in Christ’s eyes, viewing everything from His eternal perspective (such as that described in Ephesians 2:18-22 and Hebrews 12:22-24), His bride already exists even though it is growing and taking shape day-by-day in this present time.
QUESTION: “ARE YOU A BAPTIST BRIDER?”
BRO. CLOUD’S ANSWER: Whatever the bride of Christ is, I do not believe it is strictly a “Baptist” bride. I believe all born again Christians are, or at least will be, part of the “bride.” In fact, based on Revelation 21:12-14, it is possible that the “bride” will ultimately be composed of all the saved of all ages. There are unrevealed mysteries here.
The term “Baptist” is a good historical term with a good heritage, and I believe it is a good label today when defined properly. I have been a Baptist by conviction for 40 years. At the same time, I understand that the name “Baptist” is never used in the Bible in direct connection with the church. God gave the name Baptist to John, but He did not call any of the churches a Baptist church. I refuse to go beyond the Bible in these matters and to make more of a name than the Bible itself would support. The Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice. Regardless of how helpful the term “Baptist” might be, and regardless of how renowned its history might be, the fact remains that most Baptist churches today are deeply compromised and multitudes of them are apostate. Sadly, the name has been so corrupted that it has become almost meaningless. Large groups of Baptists, such as those affiliated together with the World Baptist Alliance, are riddled with theological modernism, ecumenism, and worldliness. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest group of Baptists in America, and they are deeply leavened with spiritual compromise. In fact, a great many independent fundamental Baptists, which are allegedly the strictest of the strict, are deeply compromised as we have documented in many reports.
I do not believe a name determines the soundness of a church before God. That is determined by doctrine and practice, by the extent to which a church conforms to the “faith once delivered to the saints.” The name Baptist does not necessarily mean that a church is biblically sound, and the lack of the name Baptist does not necessarily mean it is an unscriptural church. When I was saved in 1973, I began to search diligently for a church that was committed to the apostolic New Testament faith. I read the New Testament through a number of times in the first months after I was saved, trying to find out how to discern a true church. I looked at many churches, and I found what I considered to be the closest conformity to the New Testament faith in some (though not all, by any means) unaffiliated or independent Baptist churches. I have continued to look at other churches through the years and I have deep sympathy with some that do not carry the name Baptist, but I have remained a member of unaffiliated Baptist churches. There are churches that do not bear the name Baptist that are committed to the New Testament faith and practice. This has been true throughout history, and it is true today. I have preached in churches in Slovakia and in India and in the United States that do not bear the name Baptist but that are, in my estimation, sound New Testament churches.
QUESTION: “ARE PRESBYTERIANS AND OTHER DENOMINATIONS THAT REALLY HAVE THE GOSPEL PART OF THE CHURCH?”
BRO. CLOUD’S ANSWER: I do not believe in a Protestant concept of the church. I do not believe in a state church or a regional church or a denominational church or a “universal church” in a Protestant or evangelical sense composed of all professing Christians. It is not scriptural to use the term “church” to describe a denomination. It is unscriptural to speak of “the church in Canada” or “the church of Asia” or “the church of India” or “the European church” or “the church in the West.” When the Bible uses the term “church” to refer to a region, it consistently uses the term in the plural, i.e., the churchES of Asia (1 Cor. 16:19), the churchES of Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1), the churchES of Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1), the churchES of Judaea (Gal. 1:22). We need to follow this biblical pattern and not use the term “church” in the sense of the churches in the world or the churches in a country or region.
It always frustrates me to hear someone say or write, “The church in America needs revival.” My immediate thought is, “Which church?” There are a great many churches in America. Which one or ones are you referring to? It is meaningless to talk about “the church in America” or “the church” in any country or region.
As for any particular congregation, insofar as it is faithful to the New Testament faith in general, I believe it is a sound church. I don’t believe in a lineage test or a name test; I believe in a doctrinal test that deals with the major issues.
When it comes to deciding what church’s baptism to accept, since this is not clear in Scripture, as far as I can see, I believe it is one of those issues in which each congregation must make its own decisions before the Lord in light of its place and time.
I decided long ago that this is a case in which the “essential” doctrines are pretty much enough. We are told in 2 Peter 2:1 that some heresies are “damnable.” This means that some heresies damn the soul; they are heresies or false teachings that cannot be held by a true believer. (At the same time, there are heresies that believers can hold. In 1 Corinthians 11:19, for example, Paul uses the term “heresies” in regard to error pertaining to the Lord’s Supper. These are not “damnable heresies.”)
A sound church could never hold damnable heresies. A non-exhaustive list would entail heresies pertaining to the gospel, the doctrine of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, and the nature of Scripture. We would not receive baptism from a church that is guilty of heresies pertaining to any of these doctrines.
We don’t receive baptism from a pedo-baptist church because the mode and purpose of baptism is plainly taught in the New Testament and it is an important issue because baptism depicts the gospel itself. A corrupt mode of baptism depicts a corrupt gospel even if that church’s gospel is not corrupt “on paper.”
We don’t receive baptism from a church that preaches that a born-again child of God can lose his salvation, because this, too, indicates a corruption of the gospel itself. A right understanding of the gospel results in a right understanding of eternal security. I don’t believe that everyone who holds the heresy of losing salvation is unsaved, but it is a serious heresy that touches on the gospel itself.
We don't receive baptism from Pentecostal or charismatic churches because they don't have a clear gospel (believing, as they usually do, in the insecurity of the believer) and they further have a heretical view of the Holy Spirit and other major doctrines.
In our missionary churches, we have not had much opportunity to accept members from other churches because 99.9% of our members were converted out of Hinduism and Buddhism, but we would possibly accept baptism from a Brethren church and a fundamentalist or conservative Bible church, depending on what the particular church believed. I have preached in such churches in various countries, and some of them are more spiritually sound than a lot of independent Baptist churches in my estimation.
True Baptists do not trace their heritage through Protestant denominations that came out of Rome in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, but through baptistic congregations that practiced the New Testament faith and were separate from Rome through the centuries. But we must remember that a great many of those separatist churches did not bear the name “Baptist” and in fact would differ from modern Baptists in many very significant ways.
ON THE QUESTION OF CHURCH SUCCESSIONISM
Concerning the matter of church successionism, I agree with the Baptist historian Thomas Armitage (1819-1896). Armitage was born in Yorkshire, England, the great-grandson of Methodist minister Thomas Barrat. Armitage’s mother also was a pious Methodist lady. Though she died when he was only five years old, she had prayed earnestly that Thomas might be saved and become a good minister of Jesus Christ, and on her deathbed she gave him her Bible, her chief treasure. Her prayers were answered when Thomas was soundly converted at a young age under the preaching of the Word of God, and he, in turn, preached his first sermon at age 16. Armitage moved to America when he was 19 and was ordained as a Methodist minister, though he expressed doubts about “the church government of the Methodist body, and about sinless perfection, falling from grace, and their views of the ordinances” (Baptist Encyclopedia, 1883). Further examination of these questions led him to seek membership in a Baptist church. In 1848, he was ordained as a Baptist preacher, and he began pastoring the Norfolk Street church in New York that same year. He was 29 years old. Two years later he was one of the founders of the Bible Union and became its president in 1856. After a long and prosperous ministry, he made the journey to his “long home” at age 77. He was called “one of the greatest preachers in the United States; regarded by many as the foremost man in the American pulpit” (Baptist Encyclopedia). Armitage’s diligently researched, two-volume History of the Baptists was completed in 1886. His clear understanding of apostolic ecclesiology is evident in the 1,470 pages of his history. He understood and appreciated the difference between Protestantism and the Baptist faith; he rejected “universal church” concepts; but he also rejected the notion of Baptist successionism and nowhere does he hint that he believed in a “Baptist bride.”
Consider what Armitage said about church succession:
“The attempt to show that any religious body has come down from the Apostles an unchanged people is of itself an assumption of infallibility, and contradicts the facts of history. Truth only is changeless, and only as any people have held to the truth in its purity and primitive simplicity has the world had an unchanging religion. The truth has been held by individual men and scattered companies, but never in unbroken continuity by any sect as such. Sect after sect has appeared and held it for a time, then has destroyed itself by mixing error with the truth; again, the truth has evinced its divinity by rising afresh in the hands of a newly organized people, to perpetuate its diffusion in the earth.
“It is enough to show that what Christ’s churches were in the days of the Apostles, that the Baptist churches of today find themselves. The truths held by them have never died since Christ gave them, and in the exact proportion that any people have maintained these truths they have been the true Baptists of the world. The writer, therefore, refused to be bound in his investigations by an iron obligation to show a succession of people who have held all the principles, great and small, of any sect now existing--no more and no less.
“When Roger Williams left his followers they were in great trepidation lest they had not received baptism in regular succession from the Apostles, as if any body else had. They heard, however, that the Queen of Hungary had a list of regularly baptized descendants from the Apostles, and were half persuaded to send their brother, Thomas Olney, to obtain it at her hands. Still, on the second sober thought, they could not swallow this dose of the essence of popery, and concluded not to make themselves ridiculous. Whereupon Backus solemnly says, that at length they ‘concluded such a course was not expedient, but believing that now they were got into the right way, determined to persevere therein.’ Thus, once more, wisdom was justified in her children, UNDER THE APPLICATION OF THE RADICAL ANTI-ROMISH PRINCIPLE THAT THE NEW TESTAMENT IS THE ONLY TOUCH-STONE OF CHRISTIAN HISTORY” (Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists, Vol. 1, 1890, preface, pp. iii, iv).
To that I say, amen.
To require “successionism” as the sign of the authenticity of a church, one would have to have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, who alone knows the hearts of men and who alone knows when a church ceases to be an authentic church before God.
Let me explain. What if you lived in the third century and you could trace your church’s heritage link by link back to the church at Ephesus, one of the pre-eminent of the Lord’s original “Baptist” churches. Yet there is a problem with this scenario. Ephesus had already left its first love in the first century, and Jesus had issued the following warning,
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and WILL REMOVE THY CANDLESTICK OUT OF HIS PLACE, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).
I would ask the successionist, “When was Ephesus’ candlestick removed so that it was no longer one of the Lord’s churches?” Surely you couldn’t derive a legitimate church authority and baptism from a church that had been rejected by God.
If you can’t answer this simple question about one church, how could you answer the tens of thousands of other questions that would be required to trace a lineage back to the original churches?
I heard a preacher say that he had been able to trace his church’s heritage back to one of the original Baptist churches in America. Where did he get the supernatural wisdom to know that none of those churches had lost its candlestick before God? And tracing one’s church back 200 years in one country in modern times would be child’s play compared to tracing it for 2,000 years!
I believe the biblical pattern for church planting is for churches to start churches. That is what we see in Acts 13-14 in the first missionary journey, which is the example that we should follow throughout the church age. That is the pattern that I have followed in my missionary work from its inception in the 1980s. The first church we started (in a country in Asia) was started by a missionary who was ordained and sent out by a Bible-believing church in America (me). That first church has started many other churches. We started a new church 11 years ago, and that church, too, is starting other churches. That is the New Testament pattern for missionary work.
But this biblical pattern offers no authority for trying to trace one’s heritage for the purpose of authenticating a church’s right to exist. In my estimation, there is zero biblical authority for such a thing, which means that it cannot be a Bible doctrine. If you can't take the Bible and prove your doctrine with a plain “thus saith the Lord,” you don’t have a Bible doctrine.
Though I see a divine pattern for church planting in Acts 13-14, and I follow that pattern because I want to do everything decently and in good order (1 Corinthians 14:40), I also believe there can be exceptions to this rule. I believe that a sound church can be established on its own without another church being involved, particularly in extenuating circumstances.
Consider the Ethiopian eunuch. He was led to Christ and baptized by Philip. (He wasn’t baptized into any particular church, by the way. If it be said that he was baptized into the Jerusalem church where Philip was a member then he would have been an invisible member, because he lived in Ethiopia.) After he was baptized, he continued his journey back to Ethiopia, and tradition says that he founded churches there, which would have been a natural thing for him to have done. Would those churches have been scriptural?
If I found a church that had been established in some remote mountain village in Nepal by some zealous believer working on his own, I wouldn’t require that they produce their church pedigree. I would test that church by God’s Word to see if it were scriptural in its doctrine and practice, according to standards already mentioned in this report, and I would do what I could to help them.
I am simply saying that the Bible doesn’t instruct us to get caught up in any type of church succession. That is a man-made doctrine which has caused a lot of confusion and unnecessary division.
If I can’t support my doctrine of the church from clear, rightly-interpreted Scripture, it has no authority.