Major Developments before 1609By the time that modern Baptists showed up in the world, a couple of major shifts had taken place regarding the idea of invalid churches. These two developments have colored Baptist thought (as well as other groups) about invalid churches since that time.
Salus Extra Ecclesiam EstCyprian was one of the earliest proponents of the idea that salvation was impossible outside of relationship with a true church. He said, "He can no longer have God as his Father who has not the Church for his mother," as well as the more concise phrase, "Outside the church there is no salvation."
The famous papal bull Unam Sanctam of 1302 gave the strident official position of the Roman Catholic Church, linking together the four Constantinian marks of the church with this concept of no salvation outside the church:
Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins. . . . Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.Thus, before the Reformation, to say that a church was false was the equivalent of saying that every adherent of that church was going to Hell.
During the Reformation, that view began to change. This development of thought was natural and necessary to the Reformation. People were busy concluding that they themselves, who were Christians and therefore people possessing salvation, were a part of false churches from which they had obligation to separate. Reformers began to view salvation more as a result of individual allegiance to Christ rather than as a result of affiliation with an earthly institution.
Even today, some nearly-five-centuries past the dawning of the Reformation, people get confused about the difference between denying the validity of someone's church and denying the validity of someone's salvation. For example, because J. R. Graves denied the validity of a whole swath of churches, people alleged that Graves was teaching that only Baptists were going to Heaven. More careful scholarship has brought us to the point today where virtually every serious student of Graves recognizes the difference and acknowledges that Graves never suggested that every Methodist, Presbyterian, and Campbellite was bound for perdition.
For our purposes, the most important item of note in all of this is the fact that people began to mean something different when they decried a church as invalid. Rather than suggesting that no person could be saved within its membership, they were merely alleging that the church in question had departed from the New Testament prescription for churches in a manner so severe as to deprive it of churchly status.
The Great ApostasyFurthermore, Reformation Christians began to adopt a view of Christian history radically different from that taught within the Roman Catholic universities. They alleged that the Roman Catholic Church had fallen away from the true New Testament pattern and had become a false church. The Reformation was not, in this vein of interpretation, simply a nice housecleaning or even an act of obedience to Christ; rather, it was nothing short of the restoration (or emergence, depending upon point of view) of true churches in place of a false substitute.
Rather than being a charge directed only at the fringes of Christian life, the accusation of churchly invalidity became a criticism of more than a millennium of the history of the largest and most well known variant of Christianity.
Baptist Grandees Weigh in on Church Invalidity
John SmytheJohn Smythe apparently believed that only the Baptists and the Anabaptists were gathered into true churches—all other Christians had organized false churches. Indeed, Smythe's language is at times pretty severe to the modern, delicate ear:
We hold that all the Elders of the Church are Pastors: and that lay Elders (so called) are Antichristian (Differences of the Churches of the Separation)
Let the indifferent reader judge of the whole and give sentence without partiality: and I doubt not but he shall be constrained to give glory to God in acknowledging the error of baptizing infants, to have been a chief point of Antichristianism, and the very essense and constitution of the false Church, as is clearly discovered in this treatise. (The Character of the Beast)
Herein therefore we do acknowledge our error, that we retaining the baptism of the Church of England which gave us our constitution, did call our mother the Church of England a harlot, and upon a false ground made our Separation from her: for although it be necessary that we Separate from the Church of England, yet no man can Separate from England as from a false Church except he also do Separate from the baptism of the Church of England, which gives the Church of England her constitution: and whoever does retain the baptism of the Church of England does with it retain the consitution of the Church of England, and cannot without sin call the Church of England a harlot as we have done. (The Character of the Beast)
Now that our forsaking and utter abandoning of these disordered assemblies as they generally stand in England, may not seem strange or offensive to any that will Judge or be judged by the word of god, we allege and affirm that group to be heinously guilty in these four principal transgressions:It appears that Smythe originally doubted the churchly status of the Anabaptists, but eventually changed his mind, acknowledged them as valid churches, and sought union with them.
. . . . your church of England therefore being of Antichrist's constitution is a false church. And can there be any thing true in a false church but only the Scriptures and the truths therein contained? But your church has a false constitution, or false ministry, a false worship, a false government, and a false Baptism, the door and entry into the church, and so all is false in your church. Wherefore beloved Cousin we wish you in the Lord diligently and seriously to consider and weigh your universal state and standing, that it is most sorrowfull and lamentable, and now at the last to hearken to the Lord's voice that sounded from Heaven, saying "Go out of Babylon my people, that you be not partakers with her in her Sins and that you receive not of her plagues." (A letter from Hughe and Anne Bromheade, members of Smythe's congregation, to a cousin)
- They worship the true god after a false manner, the worship being made the invention of man, even of that Man of Sin, erroneous and imposed upon them.
- For that the profane, ungodly, without exception of any one person, are with them received into, and retained in the Bosom of the church.
- For that they have a false and Antichristian ministry imposed upon them reained with them and maintained by them.
- For that these churches are ruled by and remain in subjection under an Antichristian and ungodly government, contrary to the institution of our Savior Christ
From these quotes, I find the following concepts about church invalidity in Smythe:
- Smythe and his congregation believed that improper worship could invalidate a church. Smythe held passionate views about the use of printed materials in worship, and, of course, even the Puritans believed that the liturgy of the Church of England still contained far too many "Romish superstitions." (See Diarmaid MacCullough, Thomas Cranmer, for a lot more information about Puritan complaints regarding Roman liturgy). Apparently at least one of Smythe's congregants believed that these errors were significant enough to remove their lampstand.
- Smythe and his congregation believed that improper church governance could invalidate a church. Which elements of church governance did Smythe hold necessary to church validity? In the quotes above, Smythe critiqued the divided presbytery of both the Church of England and the Independent congregations (later to become American Congregationalists), labeling it with the term "AntiChristian." We know that Smythe favored congregational church polity, and this difference is probably in view when the Bromheades characterized the polity of the Church of England as that which ruled over and subjected the Anglican congregations. Finally, one should note the frequent complaints from this period about the immorality and corruption among the Anglican clergy (for example, read John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners). At least some level of complaint about the system of governance in the Church of England was its tendency to empower unconverted men.
- Smythe and his congregation believed that lax standards of church membership could invalidate a church. This was the point in view when the Bromheades complained that the Church of England would let anyone in regardless of testimony.
- Smythe and his congregation believed that improper practice of baptism could invalid a church. Indeed, this is the central point of The Character of the Beast. Just the title of that work gives you some indication of how evil Smythe considered infant baptism to be! This observation is related to the previous one—infant baptism necessarily fills the church with lost members.
Obviously, I need to break here and start a new post with the next section. Man! This is getting long.