THE ECCLESIOLOGICAL PROBLEM:
by Willard A. Ramsey
As the sovereign God presides over the course of history, the character of the indeterminate time period from the present until the return of Christ is the subject of much dispute among His people. Will the balance of history before the Lord's return be characterized by continuing and increasing dominion and influence of the forces of darkness over the churches? Or will it be characterized by the rising influence and tenure of truth and righteousness by the power of God through the churches? The character of the church-age is an unresolved ecclesiological issue that is critical to the resolution of all others.
The majority of believers today hold that the forces of darkness will win out in church-age history. Evil, they believe, will continue to have the greater influence as history develops and will in fact get worse with no major reversals until Jesus comes. That is a pretty bleak picture.
It is therefore with some trepidation, given the climate of commitment to this theology among many who otherwise seem to be churches of the Lord, that I make this effort to present these important issues. I fear that a discussion of the long-range, laborious undertaking to resolve among God's people the unresolved ecclesiological issues will be considered irrelevant, idealistic, and Utopian.
The unfortunate metaphor that the late J. Vernon McGee was wont to use, "you don't polish brass on a sinking ship," represented the church today as a sinking ship and assumed it could never overcome, even by the power of God, the forces of darkness in this age. That self-defeating doctrine is still intrinsic to the belief system of most Christians.
The church is believed to be a mere parenthetical intercalation in God's plan that has just about "done its do." Consequently, unresolved issues are often regarded, sometimes even applauded, as signs of the inevitable triumph of wickedness and the "soon-coming" rapture. Because of this, there seems to be virtually no spirit left to "polish the brass" on God's stately ship of the church — and it is getting pretty tarnished. There seems to be little hope remaining in this particular generation, to stimulate the will, the zeal, the fervent prayer, obedience, study, and difficult dialogue necessary to correct the ecclesiological breaches!
Shall we then hold our peace?
We shall not hold our peace. We know that God, in His providential purposes has today, as always, a number of choice servants who are dissatisfied in their souls with the unscriptural pessimism that has paralyzed His people for nearly a century. There is a growing minority who are resolved to swim against the torrential tide of tradition back to the Scripture-based optimism of the Great Awakening period when the power of God rolled down like a river, seriously eroding the fortresses of darkness.
How shall we then hold our peace? As Isaiah cried out in a time even darker than our own, so shall we cry out:
For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the LORD shall name (Isa. 62:1, 2).
COMMANDMENTS AND PROMISES
The commandments and promises that saturate the New Testament Scriptures (for a small sample, see inset on p. 8) make two things very obvious:
First, it is the will and purpose of God that His churches make disciples of all nations (person by person), that they promote, salt and preserve the moral and social order in the earth, light up the world, and become highly visible and influential as a city on a hill. The churches are now, in this age, to make known the manifold wisdom of God (the Gospel and all related truth) to the powers and principalities (world powers under satanic influence) and to teach these discipled nations to observe all the righteousness of God.
When all nations have been discipled and taught to observe the righteousness of God, then the prophecy of Isaiah will ipso facto be fulfilled: "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea" (11:9). Then "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (2:4).
Second, we learn from Scripture that Christ at the right hand of God has the power to do these things. He has been given all power, and He is with His churches. He is over all things in behalf of the churches to achieve this very purpose.
Now it doesn't take a very astute theologue to realize that if a sovereign God wants to do a thing and has the power to do a thing, the thing will be done. Either He wants the forces of evil to be victorious over the churches, or He wants to actualize the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19,20) through the churches in accordance with His "eternal purpose" (Eph. 3:10, 11). Therefore He says through Paul:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:4,5).
In the face of language like that, who is ready to charge God with failure to empower His faithful churches to accomplish His full commission? That does not sound as if
God plans for the wicked to win finally in the church age. Today there are, conservatively, 5 billion lost souls upon the earth; if we continue business as usual the next fifty years, most of them will enter hell. If Christ returns, they will all enter hell (2 Thess. 1:7-10). Revival is their only hope. We stand before our commission today exactly where Israel once stood before their commission:
And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we (Num. 13:30, 31).
That generation needed a new paradigm, a change in their theology which they were unwilling to make; so they dropped in the wilderness.
INEVITABLE NECESSITY AND FUTURE REALITY
There is at least one great prayer that our Lord prayed concerning the church which has not yet been fully answered John 17:17-23). He prayed that His people be sanctified, set apart or distinguished, by the truth and thus to be visibly unified that the world may believe that Jesus is the Christ sent by God. It is inevitable that that prayer will be answered John 11:42). It is indispensable, for an earth-shaking power in the churches through the Gospel, that that prayer be answered. Sanctification by the truth (17:17), which includes love of and unity in truth, is essential in order to gain the victory and disciple the lost individuals and nations of this world (vs. 21, 23) for our reigning King. It is unconscionable that this fervent prayer from the heart of Jesus Christ — this great and powerful future reality — should be viewed askance by His people and treated with such deafening silence. Of all our weaknesses in the Gospel, first in magnitude is doubtless the division among Christians and the reluctance to address it. To love the Lord is to love truth, to seek it, and be one with Him and His.
THE ANATOMY OF THE PROBLEM
This reluctance has left Christians today with a serious accumulation of unresolved problems that stand in the way of victory over the gates of hell. To get a clear grasp of the problem, it will be helpful to strip away all the confusing detail and survey it in its most elementary form: Early in the history of Christianity, a great division developed among the churches. Initially, this division was ecclesiological at the core; it was about the nature of the church.
One side of the division embraced a church of professing regenerate membership, practicing believer's baptism, maintaining moral and doctrinal discipline, existing as definitive, localized bodies within but separate from society, acting cooperatively as autonomous (but not isolated) congregations under the headship of Christ in behalf of the kingdom of heaven. This side of the division, holding steadfastly to these New Testament (NT) concepts, comprises a long historical succession reaching through the centuries to the present day. That succession I will call the Donatist-Waldensian-Baptist succession (though other names are in it). For simplicity, and because the Baptists are the main contemporary embodiment of these principles, I will call it hereafter the Baptistic succession.
The other side of the division reverted to the ancient, natural, human concept of religion; they restructured the church into a sacral order by integrating all citizens into the church, creating a "unanimous society ... in the signature of the Christian faith."(1) To vindicate this "hybrid"(2) of believer with unbeliever, of state with church, it was necessary to perform major surgery on NT theology by imposing the Old Testament (OT) covenant onto the church. The new theology categorically reversed every major NT feature of the church: 1) Integrating the world into the church destroyed regenerate membership; 2) keeping the church and society coincident required infant baptism and destroyed believer's baptism; 3) to accommodate unregenerate society, church discipline was toppled; 4) the visible definitive true church was declared unidentifiable or "invisible" rendering biblical church discipline impossible; 5) the headship of Christ was eclipsed and local autonomy usurped by a centralized human hierarchy. The adherents to this side of the division also comprise a long historic succession. It is the Catholic-Protestant-Interdenominational succession, which we will call simply the Protestant succession? (3)
Admittedly this is a generalization but a valid one. There are numerous brethren, saved by God's grace, in both successions. And the fact that there are nominal variations within both the Baptistic and Protestant successions does not invalidate the historic and contemporary reality of this generalization. Protestants still regard the pre-reformation Catholic church as the historic "good church gone bad"(4) which, along with their ecclesiology, positions them solidly on the Catholic side of the original issue. There are also some called "Baptists" that are essentially Protestant in their ecclesiology and some calling themselves by an interdenominational title that are actually Baptistic at heart.
This generalization, however, has great usefulness. It provides a comparative framework for the analysis of the ecclesiology of Jesus in Scripture and in history. It helps to define the great divisions of Christianity more clearly, stripping away the details that we might see the essences. It helps identify our allies in truth that we might cooperate in a uniform and charitable manner toward the brethren of the opposite view.
It helps to neutralize the voice of those who say the differences are superficial and not important: "can't we all just get along?" It helps to simplify the issues and focus on the real problems in pursuit of the purpose of Christ to "Sanctify them ["those whom thou hast given me" on both sides] through thy truth . . . that they all may be one ... " (John 17:11, 17, 21).
TOWARD A UNITED FRONT
Now, those of us who presently embrace the ecclesiological principles of the Baptistic succession could surely resolve our own divisions by "forbearing one another in love" long enough to settle our differences by sincere dialogue in the Word: 'Till we all come in the unity of the faith ... no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine . . ." (Eph. 4:2, 13, 14). Then, "speaking the truth in love ..." (v. 15) in a massive unified front with tightly reasoned compendiums of Scripture truth, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and bathed in prayers of faith, we could no doubt draw over from the Protestant succession virtually every regenerate soul.
Then waxing "mighty through God" with one enormous voice sanctified by the truth, we could turn our united Gospel artillery on the 5 billion lost souls and march on in His power to the ends of the earth, through all opposition, affliction, and tribulation, "until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth" (Isa.62:l).
1 Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), p. 91.
3 The Catholic wing of the division continued a downward spiral resulting finally in an ecclesiological, soteriological, and moral apostasy that is apparently irreversible; there is no grounds for serious dialogue. The Reformation, however, restored a soteriological soundness among Protestants that renders dialogue possible, even though their ecclesiology, and other doctrines, remain seriously flawed.
4 Thomas M. Strouse, I Will Build My Church (Virginia Beach, VA; Tabernacle Baptist Theological Press, 1995), pp. viii, 88.