THE TRAIL OF TRUTH
William C. Hawkins
Willard A. Ramsey
Not the least among all the great works accomplished by Jesus Christ on earth was the establishment of a unique institution which He called, generically, His Church. Even a cursory examination of Scripture will show that the only concrete expression of His Church (designated in this article with the capital for distinction) on earth is in individual localized bodies to represent Him on earth in the affairs of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:18).
In view of these facts we could make a few predictions: 1) These Churches in history would represent the purest earthly embodiment of Scripture truth. 2) We would be able to identify them in history by that truth. And 3) Satan would mount a relentless campaign to destroy, pervert, and counterfeit this Church. This article deals with these three issues.
The Bible establishes the fact that the God of heaven, in His desire to communicate redemptive truth in the best possible way to men on earth, has designed the perfect agency in a perfectly designed Church to which He entrusted that truth (1 Tim. 3:14, 15). This reality demands a desire on the part of any who would serve Him rightly to search diligently in order to identify His Church both in history and in the present day, and then to properly join with it for a life of obedient service. The search itself is rewarding and inspirational; but only a life of service in this Church can be a life fully given to the Lord.
THE CENTRAL CHURCH DISTINCTIVES
When we speak of distinctives, we speak of features that differentiate one entity from another. Clearly, in Christendom, not every institution that says "Lord, Lord" or that lays claim to being a Church of Jesus Christ can be taken seriously in the light of Scripture. We are therefore obligated to distinguish the true Church from all the imposters.
Of all the peculiar characteristics of the Churches of New Testament times, one thing stands above all others, namely, their conviction that they must follow the Word of God. For example, the Thessalonians, one of the great Churches of apostolic times, were commended for that characteristic (see 1 Thess. 2:13, 14). This allegiance to the Word is preeminently the distinguishing feature of the true apostolic Churches and all later Churches of that kind. From that one preeminent feature comes the uniqueness of the doctrines and practices of the true Churches.
Many institutions say, as does the Church, that the Bible, is the Word of God and that it is their only guide. The Bible itself, however, distinguishes between those who say "Lord, Lord" and those who do His will: " ... let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18). Here then, unless God made the Bible impossible to interpret, is a solid biblical criterion by which we may distinguish the Churches from the schismatics or the heretics. The Lord's Churches then will be distinguished from other movements by their zealous resolve to obey, and teach others to obey, all the Word of God. We do not mean the Churches obey all Scripture perfectly, but some come close enough, e.g., Philadelphia (Rev. 3:8). All the other distinguishing features of the Church spring from this one overriding principle.
Virtually all the principles held uniquely by the Church come under the heading of ecclesiology (the study of the nature of the Church). To be sure, some other movements hold a reasonably sound doctrine in some things, but not in ecclesiology. By the nature of the case an ecclesia (a Church) must understand and obey the principles of biblical ecclesiology or else it cannot be a biblical ecclesia. Thus it would be predictable that the Church of the living God would have a historically unique ecclesiology among all the counterfeit movements attempting to usurp this position. We have highlighted ten biblical ecclesiological principles (see below) and have found them to be unique to one ancient Christian movement as judged by their known doctrines and behavior. These principles were not derived from a search of history but from a search of Scriptures. Yet, since there have always been Churches that have "kept (His) word" (Rev. 3:8), these biblical principles will help us discern their trail of truth through the ages.
To keep the Word of God in any reasonable measure requires a proper understanding and practice of the major principles of Scripture in at least four areas: theology proper, anthropology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. The Catholics have problems in all four of these, but they have utterly flunked soteriology and ecclesiology. All Protestants have had some problems in the first three, but they too have utterly flunked ecclesiology.
There is, however, one other ancient Christian movement of Churches, not Catholic and not Protestant but known in various times and places by various names. The general framework of their theology has been sound in all four of these major doctrinal areas. These Churches comprise the true apostolic Churches and their descendants. Their unique doctrines of ecclesiology have set them apart in history from all the rest. There have been some irregularities, aberrations, and inconsistencies among them, both in individuals and in churches. But the true Churches will be found among them -- the Philadelphias (Rev. 3:8) and Smyrnas (Rev. 2:8-10) will always be found among them and nowhere else. To help identify the character of these Churches, we should now review "The Salient Principles of New Testament Ecclesiology" (study this listing below). Since these principles are from Scripture, they will show the sound ecclesiological character of the true Church and reveal the contrasting character of the counterfeit movements.
It should be acknowledge that the complete list of ten ecclesiological distinctives were not necessarily held by all the ancient Churches. Neither do we find such an organized and categorical listing of all of these principles in any ancient writing. However, we contend that these principles were written in the souls and dyed in the fabric of the historic biblical Churches and that these are the primary principles that have kindled the anger of both Catholics and Protestants alike against them.
Even in the accounts of Scripture under the guiding hands of the Apostles, some of the Churches were near the threshhold of apostasy (Rev. 2:5; Gal. 4:20). It is not surprising then that some Churches did apostatize -- having no "candlestick," no churchhood -- while others remained true Churches. We do find this in history. Consider the Church at Rome. Paul in his letter to the Romans lavished praise upon them (Rom. 1:7-12; 16:3-15). "For your obedience," Paul wrote, "is come abroad unto all men" (16:19). Contrast now the same "church" under the papacy five centuries later. It had gradually departed from almost every salient principle of New Testament Christianity. It was filled with every immoral, political, and ecclesiatical vice. It had instigated suffering, murder, and banishment of the Churches that had held to the New Testament principles. Here then is history's most livid example of the apostasy of what once was a true Church.
In the process of moving (with many other such churches) from the Church that Paul commended to the apostasy of the papacy, Rome had been opposed at every turn by the many Churches that remained true. It is an incredible fact that Protestant historians as well as modern interdenominational fundamentalists, almost to a man hold the papacy to be "the Church" and those movements that opposed it to be "heretics." We believe it is a self-evident fact that if there were any biblical Churches left upon earth when the Roman apostasy was developing, they would have opposed it. Therefore it is no more than an elementary exercise in logic (all Catholic, Protestant, and modern fundamentalist historians to the contrary notwithstanding) to identify the biblical Churches from the second century to the Reformation: they were the ones who biblically opposed the Catholic apostasy.
NAMES AND GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION OF THE CHURCHES
During this long period of time (c. 250-1500 A.D.) two phenomenal geographic transformations took place in the distribution of the biblical Churches. The first transformation was during the first and second centuries. The Churches literally "exploded" from the center in Jersualem into most of the civilized world: Asia Minor, Italy, Southern Europe, the British Isles, North Africa, Armenia, and elsewhere. While in these areas, the Churches began to oppose the Catholic apostasy and in their opposition became know by the following names: Montanists (widespread, from late second century), Novationists (Italy, from mid third century), the Donatists (North Africa, late third and early fourth centuries), and the Paulicians (Armenia, mid seventh to ninth centuries). These names, as called by the Catholics, are names of so-called leaders among them. All the Churches known by these names did not necessarily adhere exactly to the peculiar beliefs of the so-called leader.
So that we may deal more accurately with essences, we now look for a name in modern times that would most accurately express the essence of these movements. The only suitable name without question would be Baptists -- for Baptists they were in essence. We freely admit that there are variations and aberrations among Baptists today, so there were among the ancient Churches. But anyone reasonably conversant with church history will acknowledge that the historic Baptist majority differs in doctrines and practices, especially ecclesiology, from Catholics and Protestants essentially as these ancient Churches did.
Now, unless we are willing to admit that the Church of Jesus Christ had no existence prior to the Reformation, we must reach this very significant conclusion: the true apostolic Church must be identified with one of only two ancient movements, namely, these historic Baptistic Churches or the historic Catholics with the Protestants being considered merely a reformed extension of Catholics as the reformers claimed. None of the thousands of movements originating later than the Reformation can be the Church of Jesus Christ.
Even as there are differences and inconsistencies among Baptists today, so there were among these Churches. But there was also a general uniformity in their doctrines, especially in ecclesiology. They insisted first upon a pure regenerate, disciplined membership, baptized by a pure Church. All of them baptized all Catholics converted to their ranks, which brought down the ire of the Catholics as nothing else. They guarded the autonomy of the Church, rejected any hierarchical government over the Churches, baptized no infants, never persecuted or coerced the conscience. They refused any union with the state, but sought from the state equal freedom under law as citizens. Their Churches had a succession from the apostolic Churches.
The position they espoused in every controversy was in conformity to every one of the ten salient points of biblical ecclesiology (see below). But the Catholic and Protestant churches grew to reject them every one!
The second geographical transformation of the distribution of the biblical Churches began as a trickle in the third century and continued at least through the ninth. This transformation grew to be an "implosion" under the force of Catholic persecution of the wide-spread Churches. The center of the "implosion" was the sequestered valleys of the Piedmont at the foot of the Alps. The thousands migrating to this center fleeing persecution were the remnants of the Montanists, the Novationists, then the Donatists, and finally the Paulicians. Many were killed, and finally all were banished and driven from their native homelands by the Catholic state-church. They sought safety in the remote valleys of northern Italy and southern France and other parts of Europe.
In this new center of temporary safety, the biblical Churches lost the old names of Donatists, etc., and became known generally as Waldenses (valley dwellers). They merged naturally into a unified people. There was a wide communication and fellowship among them. Their theology was in essence one; their differences were superficial.
From the fifth to the sixteenth century they were known from time to time by other names: Cathari (pure men), Albigenses (for Albi, France), Peterines, Petrobrussians, and Anabaptists. For a millennium they lived and thrived in these valleys and endured cruel intermittent persecution from the Catholics.
We must realize that this was a perpetual movement regardless of the names given. They followed one trail of truth in varied circumstances. As Donatists they were driven into remote areas where they were called Waldensians; eventually they became known as Anabaptists or rebaptizers, and then emerged finally as Baptists. The evidence of this is unequivocal. One who holds presently the historic Baptist position that our faith and practice is determined solely by the Scriptures will identify a "generic" sameness with these ancient people -- regardless of what they were called at any point in history.
THE RISE OF THE COUNTER-CHURCH
As early as the second century in the letters of Ignatius, the seeds of a corrupt ecclesiology were beginning to appear. The simplicity of the New Testament office of pastor (also called bishop, elder), typically a plurality in each Church, now was becoming a hierarchical order with one bishop at the top and elders under him, "...we ought to look upon the bishop," Ignatius wrote, "as we would do upon the Lord himself." And the elders were to be as the "council of the Apostles."
This budding episcopacy grew until many bishops were no longer over individual churches but over territories. The desire for numbers, power, and wealth resulted in the neglect of church discipline and many of the churches became cesspools of corruption.
This corrupt condition in many of the churches was fertile soil for yet another and more serious breach of ecclesiastical principle -- the union of church and state. This unholy union took place under Constantine early in the fourth century and eventually brought the most serious sin of all -- persecution, murder, and banishment of the Churches and saints of God who remained true to biblical soteriology and ecclesiology.
By the nature of the case, true Churches cannot exist under a truly sacral order -- where the state and the church are one -- without being the objects of persecution. In a sacral order the dynamics of the sacral state-church are toward bringing all citizens of the state into the church, but in a biblical Church the dynamics are toward building a pure moral and spiritual body separated unto God apart from the world -- while its members function as citizens of the state in the world. Therefore, it is a very simple matter to distinguish the Church in a sacral society -- look among the persecuted. But we may be sure, the sacral order can never be the Church of Jesus Christ.
As the sacral system of Rome continued to develop, the papacy arose and for approximately a millennium used the powers of the state against the Church. By the end of the dark ages the sacral counter-church, in their unholy alliance with the state, produced an ever widening gap between their practices and the Word of God. The Pope created new doctrines and spoke as one claiming divine inspiration. Catholic priests sold indulgences which permitted one to pay for sins monetarily before committing them. Babies were sprinkled into the church, and this unscriptural "baptism" was considered to be necessary for salvation. The Lord's supper became a grotesque affair where the elements were said to be the very blood and body of Christ. The counter-church deteriorated so badly that even many of the priests were pricked in their consciences.
THE PROTESTANT COUNTER-CHURCH
By the early 16th century the true Churches were enured to persecution and were braced against the relentless frontal assault of the Catholics. But they were somewhat unprepared for the new front -- a movement that arose and attacked them on the flanks. This movement, known as the Reformation, was born out of the Catholic church.
The biblical Churches were at first encouraged because many of the wicked excesses of the Catholics were thrown off, and for a season it appeared as though peace would prevail. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli pioneered the new movements, but these movements were built and staffed by people trained by Rome and much of the Catholic heresy was retained.
Luther and the other reformers despised the historic biblical Churches of the evangelical Anabaptists -- existing, full grown, and ready to receive them. They rather created a mutant strain of Catholicism. This Catholic mutation called Protestantism held on to the union between church and state, infant sprinkling, coercion of conscience by persecution, and a hierarchical clergy. They cried "Sola Scriptura;" but, as is so often the case, that which they verbally praised they blatantly disobeyed. For example, Luther and Calvin made the correct interpretation of scriptural baptism, but both chose to disobey their own interpretation on purely pragmatic grounds [E. Theodore Bachman, Editor, Luthers Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), XXXV, 29. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, (IV, 15, 19)]. They differed markedly from the baptistic people in their attitude toward Scripture and thus in their practices.
There was such a dichotomy between Luther and the existing true Churches that he finally admitted he was more at war with the "dippers" than he was with Rome. The Protestants openly persecuted the Lord's Churches among others and unwittingly formed an alliance with the Catholics in persecution.
In the year 1528 an Anabaptist pastor, Balthazar Hubmeyer, and his wife were imprisoned by the reformers in Switzerland, and after being tried by Zwingli's followers escaped only to be recaptured by the Catholics and put to death. By the year 1659 the reformers had banished all Anabaptists from Switzerland calling them an extremely dangerous and wicked sect (Baptist Succession, D.B. Ray, p. 388).
Soon the Calvinists and Lutherans were joined by the Church of England (founded by Henry, VIII) in their persecution of Baptists. The Protestant King James [who commissioned the Authorized (KJV) translation] and Queen Elizabeth both signed orders of execution against Anabaptists (Crosby's History of the English Baptists, p. 71, 108). King Edward VI pondered a similar order worrying that his action would be too similar to the Catholic tactics, but after some persuasion by a cleric, Archbishop Cranmer (who was later martyred by Catholics), Edward reluctantly signed the order. As a result, the believer, Joan Boucher, was burned at the stake (Crosby, Vol. 1, p. 49).
This Protestant persecution continued into the seventeenth century and was exported to the New World. In Virginia, for example, prior to the establishment of the Constitution, Baptist preachers were imprisoned for preaching without a license as mandated by the Episcopalian hierarchy.
But by His providential mercy, God has mandated the liberty of conscience, advocated by His Churches from the first century, through the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This finally disarmed the cruel and unscriptural state church. For this we all are now grateful. But the remnants of the Catholic and Protestant sacral systems are still vaguely residual in the practice of infant baptism.
SALIENT PRINCIPLES OF NEW TESTAMENT ECCLESIOLOGY
1. The Church is a localized body of believers 1) having been immersed in water upon a voluntary profession of faith (Acts 2:41) and 2) having been constituted an autonomous body (Acts 11:22-26; 13:2-4; 14:22, 23). Both these acts must have been done under the authority of an agency authorized by God to "bind and loose" on earth (Matt. 16:19, 18:18).
2. The Church is comprised only of a membership professing to be regenerate (Acts 2:41, 47).
3. Each local Church, under the headship of Christ only, is autonomous on earth as a "binding and loosing" agency (Matt. 16:19, 18:18).
4. The Church as an institution has been and will continue to be comprised of a perpetual succession of local Churches on earth never to perish or apostatize (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 3:10, 11, 21).
5. Each Church must maintain its own moral and doctrinal purity and separation from the world by the faithful and impartial application of biblical disciplinary measures at the local level (Matt. 18:13-17; 1 Cor. 5:11-13; Rev. 2:15,20).
6. The Church never baptizes infants but believers only (Acts 2:41) by immersion only (Rom. 6:4, 5; Col. 2:12).
7. The Church never acknowledges any other institution, movement, or individual to have authority from God to baptize in His name. Hence they baptize all converts coming to them from other institutions.
8. The Church has never used physical persecution to coerce the conscience of any.
9. The Church has never formed an alliance with the powers of any state.
10. The Church has never had a centralized, hierarchical or episcopal form of government or a graduated (tiered) clergy; it is rather a theocracy executed through democratic processes at the local level (Matt. 18:18; Acts 1:23-26; 6:3-6; 1 Cor. 5:4, 5, 12; II Cor. 2:6, 7).