Sunday, July 30, 2006

Why So Much "Christian" Hoax Spam?

The content of this blog has been pretty heavy and academic lately, so I've decided to do something lighter, but still substantive.

I've long ago lost count of the number of times I've referred a church member to the fine folks over at Snopes for a thorough debunking of a fictitious email claim. From the friend who lost a bundle "helping" African "Christians" to liberate their wealth from an African bank (with the prospect of sharing in their wealth) to the large number of well-meaning Christians who have encouraged me down through the years to boycott Proctor & Gamble or fight Ms. O'Hare's FCC Petition to shut down religious broadcasting, it seems that a disproportionate number of these nasty, insidious email hoaxes are targeted particularly at Christians.

Who do you think is doing this, and why target us?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Review: Thomas White, "What Makes Baptism Valid"

Thomas White has written a paper on the validity of baptism over at baptisttheology.org. I wish to review it here for several reasons:

  1. Dr. White is an exceptionally learned and reasoned commentator, especially on this subject. His dissertation analyzing James Pendleton has brought him into close contact with the subject of baptism.
  2. The subject matter could hardly be more relevant to current events in the SBC.
  3. Aspects of White's paper overlap with my recent blog series on church validity.
  4. White was one of the graders of my dissertation, and therefore any opportunity to critique his work will serve as a welcome vengeance and catharsis. :-) (Actually, I consider Dr. White a friend)
Unfortunately (for that last reason offered), there's not much to critique. White's work is thoughtful and thorough. Some will certainly disagree with his conclusions, but no one can accuse him of ignoring the Bible, of being a closet Landmarker, of being a blind traditionalist, or of not considering other points of view.

White posits six attributes that make valid baptism: subject, mode, meaning, church, administrator, and formula. I do not see how any thinking Baptist can disagree that each of these categories impacts the validity of baptism. Many will perhaps differ as to how right baptism must be in each of these areas in order to be valid, but can any say that any of these areas is irrelevant? To be baptized in the name of Elvis Presley would surely not be valid Christian baptism. To be baptized by a Buddhist monk could not be Christian baptism, could it? To be baptized under the auspices of a Mormon temple is not Christian baptism, is it? To be baptized by waterslide would hardly be recognizable as valid baptism. Each of these categories rightly belongs in this discussion.

Under the category of "church," White gives a significant essay regarding what differentiates a true church from a false church. His definition differs from mine, and is therefore, by definition, wrong. :-)

But I enjoyed White's argument greatly. White stands on solid theological and historical grounds for his conclusions. He employs the time-honored distinction between attributes that impact the "being" of a church and those that impact "well-being." I would join him in his exact definition, but for the fact that none of the items White has in view under the "being" category seem to have been on the line for the Ephesian church of Revelation 2. I like his system a lot better than mine; I just don't think it answers the questions that Jesus' lampstand admonition raises in my mind.

I'm not sure whether it is possible for Southern Baptists to read this article with an open mind. So many of us are so committed to our personal beliefs about baptism. But I want to encourage you to click the link above, visit Thomas's paper, and read it carefully. Even if you differ at a few points, as I have done at one point above, you will be much the better for having read it. If this vital (in both senses of the word) discussion continues in Baptist life, perhaps we will learn a great deal in spite of ourselves.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

True Churches & False Churches: A Systematic Attempt

I propose the following as introduction, not conclusion—as rough draft, not finished product. I say this not to discount my thinking. I have thought hard about what I am now writing. I hope that the tedious, laborious journey we have taken together over the past several posts has demonstrated the lengths to which I have gone. I am not uncomfortable with my amount of thinking and research.

I am, however, aware that I am dusting off a topic that has been on the shelf for a long time for Southern Baptists. This is not one of those topics that I have discussed in the hallways of the seminary a thousand times over. Thus, these ideas are carefully crafted, but they are not yet proven. I invite you to help me prove them. Be my editors. Tell me what you find reasonable and what you find unreasonable. This is the moment for free and thorough discussion. But first, read this really long post.

Defining the Concept

What does it mean for a church to be invalid? I take my cues from Christ's lampstand analogy. I think that the removal of the lampstand implies the removal of the blessing associated with the intensive presence and leadership of Christ in the church.

Many have noted the tendency for entire denominations of Christian churches to form, experience some period of extremely high productivity, and then plateau and decline. Often, the proposed explanation for this common historical phenomenon is a sociological one. For example, one might conclude that churches start out poor and disadvantaged, which causes them to grow through connection to poor and disadvantaged people, but then they attract wealthy and privileged people and lose touch with the source of their growth. Also, one might suspect that churches are born in a time-bound culture that makes them particularly relevant at the time of their birth, but then the culture changes and the very things that once made them relevant come to make them irrelevant.

But is there no spiritual dynamic at work behind the rise and fall of churches? Some groups have never been a true church (I believe), and therefore I accept the sociological theories as explanatory of some groups, but I wonder whether this phenomenon is not the evidence on this earth of Christ's removal of heavenly lampstands in at least some cases? Statistics are not the one true measure of the presence, headship, and blessing of Christ, yet I believe that some churches are small because they are spiritually dead. I acknowledge that it is possible to be one of the worst churches in the nation and yet be very large. Other factors are more important indicators of the presence of Christ. But I believe that tangible, mundane measures sometimes offer evidence of spiritual reality.

Now is a good time to make an important point: Because I believe in the autonomy of local congregations, I refuse to speak categorically of true churches and false churches with reference to entire denominations. Certainly, if we can establish that every congregation in an entire denomination is guilty of something that falsifies a church, then it is possible for an entire denomination to consist entirely of false churches. Yet being a part of a bad denomination is not enough to make a local congregation invalid—that local congregation must participate in the sins of the larger group in order to be guilty. To put it another way, I believe that it is possible for a single local congregation to repent, change their ways, and validate their congregation without necessairly gaining the consent of the entire denomination.

How to Invalidate a Church

So, what makes a once-true church a false church?

Abandoning our Original Purpose

I interpret the act of losing "your first love" as mentioned in Revelation 2 (see earlier post) to be the act of losing sight of the church's purpose. Please don't read too much Rick Warren into that. Purpose involves the heart (first love) as well as activity (the deeds you did at first).

I think that a church can lose sight of its purpose and become a club (by the way, I don't like to use the phrase "country club" in that statement...as though if your church is blue-collar and poor you are in no danger of committing this sin). A church exists to change me, a club does not. A club allows me to associate comfortably with my peers; a church confronts me and my peers uncomfortably with the nature and expectations of God.

I think that a church can lose sight of its purpose and become a charity. Making the world a better place is a doomed enterprise. Making the world a better place is not our purpose. If we fulfill all the purposes that God has given us, the world will become a somewhat better place incidentally, because we will become better inhabitants of it. But Jesus has given us good reason to believe that, no matter how much good we try to do, we will always be outnumbered. Forgive me for a disparaging use of the word charity and understand that I have contrived a meaning of the word to fit my present purposes. A charity is focused on earthly solutions for earthly problems; a church is focused on eternal solutions for eternal problems.

I think that a church can lose sight of its purpose and become a concert. It all exists to entertain me. The style of the music, the topic of the preaching, the timing of the activities, and the demographics of the other people around me—all of these must meet my demanding preferences. At a concert, the customer is always right; at a church, the sinful and fallen creature is very prone to being wrong.

I think that a church can lose sight of its purpose and become an academy. "We are here to exercise the mind. Let us debate. Let us refine our positions." Yet the heart and the will, the hands and the feet, can sometimes remain unaffected by the exercises of the mind. I don't know why we are that way. It makes sense to me that our thinking, if sincere, ought necessarily to show up in our actions. But experience proves this not to be the case as often as it should be. Perhaps it is just laziness.

I find it instructive that the Ephesian church's abandonment of its first love was in the past when Christ sent the letter, but the threatened punishment of church invalidity was yet in the future. I take that to mean that we get a lot of grace. Churches may be guilty of any of the above violations for some period of time. Christ doesn't pull the lampstand out at the first infraction. We get warnings. We get chances to repent. But the church that ignores the warnings and pushes forward in its abandonment of God's purposes for the church can reach the point, I believe, where it ceases to be a true church at all.

Let me not be guilty of beating around the bush here. I think that most of the Mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are guilty of losing sight of the purpose of the church in some way mentioned above. I believe that most of them have done so long enough to be false churches [please direct all hate mail to...]. I also believe that a very large proportion of Southern Baptists churches are in grave danger of letting their grace periods expire, if they haven't done so already [more hate mail]. I further believe that some of the changes proposed by some portions of the EC movement and other modern trends will make the problems worse, not better [now the hate mail really begins].

Heresy

I interpret 1 John 2:19 (see earlier post) to refer to doctrinal heresy. Churches that abandon the Christian faith for a different god, a different canon of scripture, or a different gospel are (to quote Paul) anathema. Unitarians are out, for example. Mormons are out. Jehovah's Witnesses are out. So long as anyone is in agreement with these false churches, that person is heading toward an eternity in Hell.

There are lesser levels of doctrinal error. These, I believe, can invalidate a church without casting such eternal aspersions upon all of the church's adherents. Some churches acknowledge the same canon as we do, but they hold a much lower view of the Bible's worth and authority than I do. They treat it as a starting place for discussion rather than a final word. "Yes, the Bible says what it does about homosexuality, but the Holy Spirit has led us to a more up-to-date position, so we'll ordain this homosexual bishop." I believe that such doctrinal deviations mark a false church, but in a less severe manner than I would use that terminology to refer to Mormons.

In the most severe category (doctrinal error so severe as to make a church a cult), I've listed the three topics (God, scripture, gospel) for which I think error boots you out of Christianity. But what about the other category (those "lesser levels of doctrinal error" in the preceding paragraph)? What doctrinal differences count to make a true church a false church?

I don't have an exhaustive answer to that question. I do, however, believe that some passages of scripture indicate to us their centrality to the being of church. For example, look at Ephesians 4:4-6, the famous listing of the "ones" that form the basis of Christian unity. There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.

Baptism, by the way, is in that group. For all of the other items in the list, we do not tend to interpret them by saying, "No matter what you do with it, it is all essentially the same thing--there's only one." We don't say, "Allah, Buddha, Krishna...it's all the same thing...there's just one God." Rather, we take the "ones" as limiting, not expansive: "There is one and only one God, and if you've acknowledged another, then you are outside the faith." So, I take baptism the same way. The immersion of a believer is the one and only baptism. To practice otherwise is the be in jeopardy of being a false church, but a false church in the second, less severe sense. I believe that pedobaptist churches are false churches.

These two categories are reflected in the two passages of scripture I referenced in my previous post. Revelation 2 almost certainly refers to a congregation that remained within the broad sphere of Christian orthodoxy but was in danger of somehow becoming less than a true church. 1 John 2 almost certainly refers to a thoroughly heterodox and no-longer-Christian group. Both of these levels of church invalidity are accessible through doctrinal defectiveness.

Impurity

I believe that a church excessively populated by or led by lost people is a false church. If the Pope is lost and the Pope is in charge, then Christ has been dethroned in the church and it is no longer a true church. If the majority of members are lost and the membership is in charge (congregationalism), then Christ has been dethroned in the church and it is no longer a true church. If the pastor is lost and the pastor is in charge, then Christ has been dethroned in the church and it is no longer a true church. One of the great benefits of congregationalism, in my opinion, is that it takes a lot more lost people to take over the church under congregational polity than it requires under other forms of church governance. Other models make it far too easy for one lost man to hold hostage a congregation full of saints.

How to Re-Validate a Church

Repent. That's the formula Christ gave in Revelation 2. When I describe a group as a false church, I am in no way forever writing them off. Repentance is always available and to be encouraged.

What About the Members of False Churches?

I believe that there is salvation available outside of true local churches. In other words, I do not believe that the invisible church and the local churches are coterminous. Many Christians are members of false churches. Think about it this way: If the Ephesian church failed to repent and if Christ removed their lampstand, did that mean that all of the Christian members of that church suddenly lost their salvation? I don't think so.

I do believe that Christian members of a false church will find God's blessing in either provoking their local congregation to repentance or, if that is ultimately unsuccessful, in moving to unite with a true church. I do also believe that membership in a thoroughly heretical group (the first category mentioned above) almost always bespeaks affirmation of concepts that demonstrate a person not to be in the faith.

Can True Churches and False Churches Mix?

I'm not sure that it is always completely evident to other churches when a sister church crosses the line and becomes a false church. Is it always completely evident to Christians when another church member is not a Christian? I think the same sort of situation applies to churches.

With church members, we (should) affiliate based upon what they profess to be and give evidence of being. As I have already suggested, I suspect that our membership in the SBC puts us in affiliation with some number of false churches, but it is unwitting. We try to reserve our truest and fullest level of inter-church fellowship for those whom we regard to be true churches.

Unlike the Landmark Baptists, I do not believe that I am endorsing a church or a minister when I listen to that person preach or join with such a one in a joint worship service or partnership activity. At FBC Farmersville, our policy of interaction and partnership with other churches attempts to make our level of agreement with them correspond to what we are trying to do together. For example, we'll tend to the poor in partnership with every church in our local ministerial alliance, but we wouldn't plant churches in partnership with the Methodists. So, we do affiliate with churches that I regard as false churches, and I don't see any problem with that as long as we are circumspect about what we do with them (and we are).

Church Validity and Church Health

In his excellent book, John Hammett refers to the difference between "being" and "well-being" when describing a church. Is there a difference between assessing whether a church is valid or invalid and assessing whether a church is healthy or unhealthy?

I do believe that a church can be true, but not healthy. I do not believe that a church can be false, but healthy. I believe that being unhealthy long enough can cause you to become a false church. I cannot completely sever the two concepts, as perhaps Hammett may be doing. Neither can I completely conflate them.

False Churches and Their Officers

The Landmark claim that a false church cannot produce a true gospel minister is one that I think history disproves. I point you back to the discussion of the First Great Awakening. Whitefield, Tennent, Edwards, and Frelinghuysen gave every evidence of the Spirit of God at work through their ministries. Yet one also notes the historical anomaly that the denominations which produced the Awakening leaders did not, by and large, benefit from their ministries. The great benefactors of the awakenings (in the long term) were the Baptists and Methodists. These men were exceptional in their denominational traditions. Many of them were opposed from within their own churches. I think that there have been valid ministers in invalid churches throughout the centuries. Let us not forget that John Smythe and Roger Williams were ordained while yet Anglicans.

Summary

So, I'm the kind of guy willing to fling around the terminology, "false church." Does that make me uncharitable? Some will believe so. Some will (no doubt) go so far as to say so.

But I hope all will recognize that I employ this terminology in fear and trembling. I have not used it denominationally in such a way that I remain untouched by it. In some ways, I fear for our church. We have much to correct and rekindle here, and leading to do that sort of thing without exploding the church is hard. I dare not refuse to speak of such things, because I know that I need the warning that this topic provides, and suspect that many others need it, too.

I have deliberately not use the four classical marks of the true church, nor have I employed the Reformation marks. I have tried to work exegetically rather than historically, although history has helped to shape my exegesis. I don't have any huge problem with these frameworks. In fact, I could take much of what I have said here and choose to organize it under such rubrics. Just put my comments about Ephesians under "one", my comments about "club" churches and "impurity" under "holy", etc. But when the marks employ words like catholic and apostolic, I find that it is easier when speaking to Baptist audiences to explain what I mean without using these words rather than with them—they carry too much baggage.

You have been very patient, all of you. I now yield the floor to you. This process has taken much longer than I anticipated, and I find that I am going on vacation as I complete this task. I'll be at Greers Ferry Lake in Central Arkansas. God resides there, but the Internet does not. Please comment like crazy, and I promise to read every word of it and respond to the best of my ability starting next Thursday (8/3).

In Christ,
Bart

Monday, July 24, 2006

Recognizing a Real Church: Landmarkism; The Twentieth Century

This is the one everyone knows so well, so I won't belabor the point too much.

Landmarkism emerged in Southern Baptist life in the 1850s asserting that Baptist churches are the only true churches. Landmarkism was more diverse than some historians have been willing to acknowledge, but the core notion of Landmarkism fits precisely with what I have been blogging about in this series. Quoting from the excellent dissertation by Bart Barber [snicker, snicker]:

Landmarkism is an ecclesiology that denies the validity of the existence or acts of any church that does not: (1) consist solely of members who have received symbolic immersion pursuant to a public self-declaration that they have been converted; (2) organize into a gathered, autonomous, local congregation; (3) acknowledge only two scriptural church offices—the pastor and the deacon; (4) perform only baptism and the Lord's Supper as symbolic ordinances; and (5) demonstrate without defect its continuity to the original New Testament church.
One point of clarification is probably necessary to avoid confusion. Under my point number five, I am carefully not specifying Graves's theory of church succession. Not all Landmark Baptists agreed with Graves, although his view came to be the majority position (as it always did). Nevertheless, however they imagined the connection, all Landmark Baptists seemed to affirm the idea that the true church was connected in some way back through history to the New Testament church, and indeed, imagined this to be part of the evidence that the Baptist church was the true church.

Landmarkism rapidly became the dominant, militant ecclesiological position within the Southern Baptist Convention.

Graves believed that there was salvation outside the church...that some of these folks in these non-Baptist "societies" were real Christians and would be in Heaven. But although false churches could have real Christians as members, they could not, in the Landmark view, have true gospel ministers or perform valid ordinances. Ordination, unless performed under the auspices of a Baptist church, was not valid. To allow someone like that to preach in your pulpit was, in Graves's view, tantamount to signing their ordination certificate. Baptism, unless performed under the auspices of a Baptist church, was not valid.

Landmarkism and "Historic Baptist Ecclesiology"

So, was Landmarkism an innovation out of thin air, or was it merely the restatement of truths that had been around since the time of Jesus? Well, is it OK if I say "neither" and propose another way?

I see a lot of similarity between the Landmark system and the beliefs of early Baptists, with a few caveats. The earliest Baptists (Smythe, etc.) were not immersionists, the earliest Baptists were not successionists (or at least, those who became successionists tended to stop being Baptist, a la Smythe & Williams), some of the earlier Baptists were not as clear on the offices of the church as the Landmarkers were, and finally, the course of history rarely put the earliest Baptists in a position to rule on the validity of anything other than pedobaptist churches.

Some Landmark Baptists augmented the rudimentary tenets of their system with other concepts: local church communion, strict church succession, etc. Much of the "extras" of Landmarkism do indeed appear to be nonexistent (or at least very rare) in the foregoing story of Baptist history.

This has been a lengthy historical survey, but I think it has provoked questions that are necessary for addressing this issue. I, for one, would not have thought to ask them all without looking at what others have done in the past:
  • What makes a once-true church a false church?
  • Can a once-false church redeem itself into a once-again-true church? If so, how?
  • What are the eternal implications of being a member of a false church?
  • How is it permissible for a true church to interact with a false church or with members of a false church?
  • How is it permissible for a member of a true church to interact with a false church or with members of a false church?
  • How should we relate the validity of a church with the health of a church? Is there such a thing as a true-yet-unhealthy church?
  • What is the relationship between the validity of an elder/pastor/overseer and the validity of the church he serves? Does an invalid minister invalidate the church he leads? Does an invalid church invalidate the minister who leads it?

The Twentieth Century

In my opinion, Baptists have done a poorer job in the past century of addressing these questions than in any of the other centuries of our existence. As I have been fond of saying elsewhere, I fear that Southern Baptists have managed to replace Landmark ecclesiology with no ecclesiology at all. I don't want to be guilty of that; therefore, in my next post I'm going to articulate my theory of church invalidity.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Recognizing a Real Church: Historical Attempts (Part 4)

To summarize what I've seen so far: Virtually all Baptists from John Smythe through the end of the seventeenth century held a strict view of church validity. They spoke liberally about false churches, readily identified which churches were indeed false, and generally included most churches other than their own within that number. Indeed, this was part of the way that they justified their existence. Some early Baptist writings state plainly enough that if there were another valid church, Baptists would be duty-bound to unite with it rather than to pursue their separate existence. As a side note, it is interesting to me to see this similarity of thought between early Baptists and the modern ecumenical movement—early Baptists apparently believed that some sort of organizational union among all true churches was necessary; they just didn't think that there were any other true churches with which they could unite.

In the earliest stages of Baptist development, we emphasized a number of deficiencies that would invalidate a church, listing the many points of difference between ourselves and other churches. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Baptist teaching seemed to have found two foci for attacks against the false churches: infant baptism and religious persecution. For example, in John Gill's exposition of Deuteronomy 32:32 he highlights persecution as that which invalidates false churches.

The tone of Baptist apologetics changed somewhat in the last half of the eighteenth century. References to the "false church" vis-a-vis the "true church" abated in Baptist literature. I think the primary cause is a spiritual awakening that touched two continents.

The Great Awakenings

The First Great Awakening prompted some Baptists to rethink their ideas about church invalidity for several reasons. First, the Baptists by then had a century and a half of their own history to explain, and it posed its own blemishes. General Baptists had almost entirely fallen into Unitarianism. Particular Baptists had wandered through hyperCalvinism into antinomianism far too much. So, of the two main branches of Baptist life, one had forsaken God for a man-made theory of God, and the other had abandoned the pursuit of personal holiness and congregational discipline. Was this the one-and-only true church?

Second, Baptist recovery from these errors had to come by the hand of non-Baptist influences. Andrew Fuller rescued Baptist Calvinism from hyperCalvinism and antinomianism, but few of Fuller's ideas were original. Fuller avidly read Jonathan Edwards, and I think it perfectly fair to credit Edwards as much as anyone for the Particular Baptist recovery. General Baptists found deliverance in the person of Dan Taylor. The Methodists—members of the false Anglican church!—had won and trained Taylor. Across the Atlantic, American Baptists were being invigorated by nouveau Baptistes like Isaac Backus. Pro-revival Baptists admired and read revival leaders like Whitefield, Tennant, Frelinghuysen, and Edwards...none of whom were Baptists. Every one of these men served at pedobaptist churches. Was it logical to conclude that the false churches had been the salvation of the true churches?

Don't get me wrong: Baptists didn't recant the idea of the Great Apostasy; they just talked about it a lot less. Also, their theological conclusions about ecclesiology reflected some confusion during the eighteenth century. For example, the Philadelphia Baptist Association at various points throughout the century declared null-and-void any baptism performed by an improper administrator, proscribed Baptist member congregations from allowing preachers from other denominations to preach in their churches, and yet affirmed the validity of immersion performed by an Anglican priest.

During the Second Great Awakening, one major additional development took place. That development was Alexander Campbell. Campbell borrowed significantly from Baptist theology to create his restoration movement, but the Campbellites added their own twist to things. While retaining immersion, they abandoned the Baptist teaching about the meaning of baptism, returning to the Roman Catholic notion of baptismal regeneration. Most importantly, they claimed that Baptists were a false church. The Campbellites did not baptize infants and fully supported religious liberty. Thus, in one fell swoop, they re-ratcheted the level of rhetoric back to accusations of church invalidity and evaded the two most recent foci of Baptist teaching about false churches.

Thus ended a kinder, gentler era of Baptist rhetoric in America.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Interlude: Suggestion for Frank Page

As someone who has read every word of Frank Page's dissertation, I am very glad that he is, apparently, disavowing some of what he wrote twenty-six years ago. The folks over at Ethics Daily have called him out on this. Marty Duren has released a press statement reiterating in undisputable terms the recantation of his dissertation.

I suggest that Dr. Page write an academic article detailing a strong case for the ordination of only men as pastors. As someone who has written a dissertation in the field on the other side, Page would seem to be better qualified than most to refute feminist views. He offered to the world a lengthy and forceful case for the ordination of women as pastors. If Page believes that to have been the dissemination of error, wouldn't it be appropriate for him to dedicate some serious attention to providing a correcting publication of similar quality?

Also, although his current press release along the lines of "I've changed my mind since then" sounds suspiciously like "I actually voted for women in ministry before I voted against it," (Did Dr. Page earn any purple hearts fighting for the conservative resurgence?) if Dr. Page were to write a strong, cogent, academically sound paper supporting the view articulated in the BF&M 2000, that would go a long way towards settling the fears that I harbor about him and the future he envisions for the SBC. It would also perhaps clear up his present view of the inspiration of the Bible—one that I hope also has changed for the better since he wrote his dissertation.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Recognizing a Real Church: Historical Attempts (Part 3)

Thomas Helwys

Thomas Helwys's view was similar to that of Smythe, with one exception. Helwys stridently differed with Smythe's cozyness toward the Anabaptists. In addition to every church that Smythe rejected as invalid, Helwys also rejected the Anabaptists. So, if John Smythe and Thomas Helwys held such a stringent view, rejecting every other church of his day as a false church, where might one go to find a more lenient approach? John Bunyan seems to be the favorite citation for those advocating a looser variant of Baptist ecclesiology these days; therefore, one might think that Bunyan would be the man to consult for the alternative view.

John Bunyan

Bunyan, like virtually every quasi-Baptist and Baptist in his day, believed strongly in the existence and prevalence of false churches. In fact, one of Bunyan's last writings, entitled Of Antichrist, and His Ruin, denounced false churches and offered analysis of the things that made them false.
THIRD CAUSE.

Thirdly, Antichrist must be destroyed, because he hath blasphemed against the Holy Ghost, and so set himself above the Father, the Son, the Spirit; against ALL that is called God. The Holy Ghost is that Spirit of truth that Christ has promised to give unto his church, to help her in the understanding of his holy word, and to enable her to believe, and walk humbly and holily before God and man. The spirit of Antichrist is that spirit of error that hath puffed up the false church into a conceit of herself, and unscriptural worship; and that hath made this false church, which is his body, to ascribe all the horrible things and acts thereof, to the wisdom, guidance, directions or operations of the Holy Ghost: As,

1. In all her unscriptural councils, assemblies and convocations, they blasphemously father what they do upon the Holy Ghost, and make him the inventor and approver thereof.

2. She also blasphemeth the Holy Ghost, in accusing and condemning the holy scriptures of insufficiency, for that she saith, though it is a rule, yet but an imperfect one; one deficient, one that is not able to make the man of God perfect in all things, without the traditions, inventions, and blasphemous helps of antichristian wisdom.

3. She hath also blasphemed the Holy Ghost, in that she hath set up her own church-government, offices, officers and discipline: None of all which is the church of Christ directed to by the wisdom of the Spirit of God in his testament.

4. She hath also sinned against the Holy Ghost, in that she hath, as it were, turned the Holy Ghost out of doors, in concluding that he, without the works of the flesh, is not sufficient to govern the hearts of worshippers, in the service and worship of God.

5. She hath also thus sinned, in that she hath wrought many lying miracles in the face of the world, and imposed them upon her disciples for the confirming of her errors and blasphemous opinions, to the confronting of the true miracles wrought by the Holy Ghost; and also to the concluding, that there was an insufficiency in those that were true, to confirm the truth, without the addition of hers; which she has wrought by the power of Satan, and the spirit of delusion, only to confirm her lies.

6. She hath sinned against the Holy Ghost, in that she hath, with Jeroboam the son of Nebat, striven against the judgments wherewith God hath punished her; to call her back from her wicked way; and persisted therein, to the effectual proving of herself to be the lewd woman. (2 Kings 13:4-7,23,24)

7. She hath sinned, by labouring to hide all her wickedness, by lies, dissimulations, and filthy equivocations of her priests, friars, Jesuits, &c. I say, her labouring to hide the wickedness that she hath committed against kings, countries, nations, kingdoms and people. She hath hid these things by the means or persons made mention of before; as by the tail; for they indeed are the tail of the beast, that cover his most filthy parts: The prophet that speaketh lies, he is the tail. (Isa 9:15)
So, what causes does Bunyan list for church invalidity (to recast his langauge into words more fitting for modern ears)?
  • According to Bunyan, the elevation of human tradition against sacred scripture invalidates a church. See items 1 & 2 in his list above. He condemns the councils that codify church tradition and the attitudes that adjudge the Bible insufficient without such human help.
  • According to Bunyan, departure from the biblical system of church polity is sufficient grounds to invalidate a church. See item 3.
  • Like Smythe, Bunyan believed that corruptions in worship could invalidate a church. See item 4.
  • Bunyan's last three points seem to stipulate what I think is a very important point. Bunyan laid the cause of church invalidity at the feet of the church's refusal to repent more than any other factor. According to Bunyan, the false church was willing to manufacture false miracles, persecute prophetic voices, and otherwise strive "against the judgments wherewith God hath punished her" in order to deny her guilt and avoid repentance.
But who are these false churches aligned with the Antichrist? It seems pretty clear that Bunyan is at least speaking of the Roman Catholics and the Church of England. It also appears that Bunyan rejected the Quakers as invalid. In one interesting passage, Bunyan may be relegating the Baptists to the status of a false church (which would put in a difficult spot those who want to claim the Bunyan was a Baptist):
You ask me next, 'How long is it since I was a Baptist?' and then add, 'It is an ill bird that bewrays his own nest."

Ans. I must tell you, avoiding your slovenly language, I know none to whom that title is so proper as to the disciples of John. And since you would know by what name I would be distinguished from others; I tell you, I would be, and hope I am, A CHRISTIAN; and choose, if God should count me worthy, to be called a Christian, a Believer, or other such name which is approved by the Holy Ghost (Acts 11:26). And as for those factious titles of Anabaptists, Independents, Presbyterians, or the like, I conclude, that they came neither from Jerusalem, nor Antioch, but rather from hell and Babylon; for they naturally tend to divisions, 'you may know them by their fruits.'
One might naturally read, especially given the last sentence, that Bunyan is merely denying the use of labels, not denying that he is in theological agreement with Baptists. Yet three things in this quote make me wonder: 1. Bunyan correlates the name "Baptist" with the "disciples of John," who were something less than Christian in the New Testament...not bad, but not quite Christian. 2. Bunyan associates denominationalism with "hell and Babylon." 3. Bunyan wraps up his critique of denominational labels by quoting "you may know them by their fruits." That statement in the Bible deals with people, not words, and goes to the question of whether the people in view are or are not Christians.

It is entirely possible that Bunyan was merely getting caught up in his own rhetoric here. I'll reserve judgment as to whether Bunyan was really a Baptist and as to whether he considered the Baptist churches of his day to be false churches. This much is certain: If Bunyan was a Baptist, it was unintentional.

Bunyan's practice of church membership was open. He pastored an Independent church. He received into that church people from a bewildering array of church backgrounds without requiring baptism. He did so, however, not because he recognized all churches to be valid. Bunyan was a thoroughgoing Calvinist, and his exclusive concern in receiving someone into church membership was whether that person claimed and appeared to be of the elect. Bunyan's preferred label for this class of people was "visible saints." According to Bunyan, all visible saints were elegible for church membership. But also according to Bunyan, many of those visible saints were fleeing false churches in search of a true church.

To practice a little anachronism, Bunyan and J. M. Pendleton, had they been contemporaries, might largely agree as to which churches are true and which are false (although Bunyan would have been more charitable toward some pedobaptists). Their major difference would have centered around the implications of church invalidity. For Pendleton, the invalidity of the church would necessarily imply the invalidity of everything the church tried to do in the name of Christ. For Bunyan, the validity of Christian acts had more to do with whether the recipient was elect than with the status of the performing church.

Roger Williams

In a manner totally uncharacteristic of myself, allow me to be brief. Roger Williams was just as strict in his idea of church invalidity as was Smythe or Helwys.

Next time....the Baptists of the Great Awakenings.
Next time after that....the Landmark Baptists.
Next time after that....Southern Baptists in the Twentieth Century.
Next time after that....Bart Barber

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Recognizing a Real Church: Historical Attempts (Part 2)

Major Developments before 1609

By 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 Est

Cyprian 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 Apostasy

Furthermore, 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 Smythe

John 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:
  1. 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.
  2. For that the profane, ungodly, without exception of any one person, are with them received into, and retained in the Bosom of the church.
  3. For that they have a false and Antichristian ministry imposed upon them reained with them and maintained by them.
  4. 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
. . . . 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)
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.

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.
Smythe's standards fit within at least some interpretation of the four Constantinian marks and the Reformation marks. Infant baptism, in Smythe's view, compromised the holiness of the church, as did the domination of the church by corrupt or lost leaders. For a church to be holy, it must be comprised of saints (Greek, "holy ones"). Furthermore, an improper practice of baptism would violate Luther's requirement that a valid church be a place where the ordinances (for Luther, sacraments) are rightly observed. Although Smythe was standing upon the very best grounds of New Testament exegesis when he decried the use of so-called lay elders, one wonders how Smythe came to regard this as such a severe fault as to merit association with the Antichrist and to invalidate the church.

Obviously, I need to break here and start a new post with the next section. Man! This is getting long.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Recognizing a Real Church: Historical Attempts (Part 1)

Patristic Attempt

In the earliest post-apostolic days, the church fathers spoke of the "canon of truth" or the "rule of faith." The legitimacy of both Christian and church depended upon unswerving allegiance to the core doctrines of Christianity.

Constantinian Attempt

During the age of the ecumenical councils, Christians began to build consensus around four "marks" of authentic churches as articulated in the early ecumenical creeds. The Council of Constantinople (AD 381) first published these four marks, speaking of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church. Thus, any congregation not in unity with other congregations, not holy, not worldwide in scope, or not connected to the apostles was not a valid church. The interpretation of these four marks varied (as it still does), and this variance at times provoked intense controversy among Christians. Yet most Christians agreed that these four words, in at least some vein of interpretation, distinguished valid churches from invalid churches.

Since mainstream Roman Catholic interpretation of the four marks came to dissociate holiness from any visible attribute of the actual earthly people or institutions associated with the church, and since Roman Catholic interpretation tied apostolicity with a delegated authority to contemporary officials and an ever-evolving body of church tradition, in the medieval period in the West the four marks as applied basically came to signify the approval of Rome. If the Pope affirms you to be such, you are a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Reformation Attempt

The Augsburg Confession stated:
It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.
The Reformation tied the validity of the church to the gospel it proclaims and the way it administers baptism and the Lord's Supper. One almost sees here the basis for the later theology of J. R. Graves, although Luther interpreted these "sacraments" differently than Baptists do. Nevertheless, the Reformers certainly argued that the absence of rightful proclamation of the Word or the absence of true gospel "sacraments" necessarily marks the absence of a valid church.

Next time, a consideration of several Baptist statements about invalid churches. Yes, for those of you whose mouths are watering, this will include Landmarkism.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

The Biblical Basis for Church Invalidity

Not "When is a Christian not a Christian?" That is, in and of itself, a valid question. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is indeed a Christian. I'm not exclusively talking about false professions. Mormons, for example, claim to be Christians but are not. But that is for another post someday.

Instead, I'm asking the similar question, "When is a church not a church?"

The old Landmark Baptists asked this question and answered that only Baptist churches are really churches. Their reply has drawn upon them great criticism. I, too, criticize this answer as a poor one.

But I notice this: Those who criticize the Landmark answer refuse to propose an alternative. If compromise of the Baptist Distinctives does not invalidate the existence of a church, then what does? Does anything?

I hope to inaugurate some discussion of this topic. I'm going to dedicate the next few posts to an exploration of the biblical basis for church validity/invalidity, the history of Baptist thought on this topic, and contemporary issues surrounding this item of ecclesiology.

In the end, I hope to propose an alternative to the Landmark system.