THE UNEXPLORED MOUNTAIN
The Ecclesiology of Jesus in Historical Reality
by Willard A. Ramsey
One of the last of the Baptist pastors early this century to plead for a biblical ecclesiology was Dr. J. L. Vipperman of Spartanburg, South Carolina. With more profundity perhaps than the average Christian would realize, he said: "Should the church question be scripturally settled, practically the whole world would be at peace and worship God under his own vine and fig tree in all safety throughout the whole world as the people did in Solomon's reign from Dan to Beersheba." This is a beautiful thought and very true.
But sadly, most Christians have accepted as normal or inevitable the variegated, grotesque, and disfigured face of discord on that which passes as "the church" or "the body of Christ" today. And perhaps more sadly, few Christians have the vision to see the glorious possibilities or the blessings that would accrue to the whole world if the ugly face of discord could be replaced by the beauty that adorns God's ideal churches, such as the churches at Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-10) and Philadelphia (3:7-10).
Because of these possibilities, I want to reason now with every soul today who is a true believer in Jesus Christ — saved by the grace of God — whatever his church or denominational affiliation, or lack thereof. We all begin on equal ground at the foot of the cross; we all stand by the sheer grace of God upon the same foundation: "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 3:11). The Gospel — not the church or the denomination, not the baptism of a believer or the sprinkling of an infant, not a Baptist church, a Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran or Catholic — the Gospel "is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth" (Rom. 1:16). All who are believers are born of God, and as such they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Though some of them maybe still in a Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, interdenominational, or non-denominational church, or in no church at all, I love them and look forward to dwelling with them in heaven forever. All who reach heaven will do so by exactly the same means — by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That is the only way.
Now this should lay to rest, with every charitable soul, the paper tiger that some would create saying "the Baptists think they are the only ones who will be in heaven" thus placing the possibility of charitable and sincere dialogue under a considerable strain.
BELIEVERS PREFER TRUTH, OVER ERROR
In this article, however, I want to appeal to the true believer, to the fair-minded Christian seeking "all the counsel of God" including a unity in truth. Because a work of regeneration has been performed in us all and the same Holy Spirit indwells us, there is in every believer an inherent impulse toward God's truth. If we, therefore could help one another to break free of all false or negative influences which close the mind, confuse, or deceive (such as the negative influences sometimes exerted by the traditional ties of family, friends, church, pastor, worldly habits, false doctrines, or emotional persuasions), a true believer would always prefer truth and righteousness above error and sin. The Holy Spirit always influences the believer toward choices of truth and righteousness (Phil. 2:13), and the believer will always make the right choices when he is willing In his heart to break free of these negative influences that cause him to fear or dread the changes God's truth would require. When we Christians can come to the point where each can both help others and receive the help of others to lay bare all our vested interests to the light of truth with a readiness to obey it, we will find it (see John 7:17). And when two or more Christians accomplish this, they will find one accord. The possibilities inherent in these truths are very exciting.
I am making this plea for all believers to make a sincere study of the body of truth concerning the church because most of the discord among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians surrounds the issue of ecclesiology. But private study, done without any challenge, will rarely produce wholly accurate conclusions. We are too prone in such cases to follow our internal biases. It is essential that issues of truth be finally established In dialogue with other believers: "He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbor cometh and searcheth him" (Prov. 18:17). We can rarely see our own blind spots until we allow a neighbor to search us. Neither can our neighbor see his until we are concerned enough to search him. It was by this process that the early church settled differences (see Acts 15).
A MOUNTAIN ON THE PLAIN
Since we must all start from where we are, I therefore want to ask my Christian brothers and sisters everywhere to just consider something that is different from the conventional wisdom of the protestant-interdenominational or fundamentalist-evangelical understanding of church doctrine and church history. There is one great and voluminous body of truth that few Christians know exists; and it looms as a mountain on the plains of theological and historical reality. It has been camouflaged, minimized, and distorted by many venerable theologians and historians. This mountain has twin peaks. They are: 1) the great body of biblical church doctrine (ecclesiology), and 2) the great body of church history that has been the natural, inevitable, spontaneous outgrowth of the ecclesiology of Scripture.
I will state the issue succinctly, but will make no attempt here to demonstrate or prove the issue. It is: 1) The biblical doctrine of the church — biblical ecclesiology — has established the fact that the church is a localized body of baptized believers continuing steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine. 2) This truth has resulted in a visible orderly succession of non-catholic, non-protestant churches beginning in the New Testament era and continuing throughout history until the present time. These churches have been given various names by their enemies (names not chosen by, and usually denied by, the churches themselves) including, but not limited to: Montanists, Novationists, Donatists, Paulicians, Waldenses, Albigenses, Anabaptists, and finally Baptists. These have all been baptistic in their understanding of the faith and are part of a continuous succession from the first century, always standing in contradistinction to the Catholics and the Protestants who consistently persecuted them from the fourth until the nineteenth centuries.
A CANDID PROPOSAL
Although I present this candid statement of my present convictions, I am willing to be searched. I will not retreat to an obscure and ambiguous corner so that others cannot tell where I stand. Honest dialogue must begin from where we find each other. My concern is that non-Baptist Christians living today (including those Baptists who have embraced Protestant or interdenominational ecclesiology) have not faced the mountain of biblical and historical data with a willingness to be searched in open, tough, but charitable dialogue.
The facts of Scripture and of history have tremendous implications which will make a difference in the church affiliation of any true believer who will strip himself of all traditional negative influences long enough to stand before these truths objectively. I propose that if we stand nineteen hundred years away from the New Testament and look for the fruit — the actual church movement — that issued from its church doctrine, there is none at all unless it is found within the Donatist-Waldensian-Anabaptist-Baptist succession. It does not take a very astute theologian to see that the Catholic-Protestant-Interdenominational succession cannot be the God-ordained fruit that issued from New Testament ecclesiology. If the Donatist-Waldensian-Anabaptist-Baptist succession is not the fruit of the eccleslology of God, then His ecclesiology has been barren throughout history, and the "gates of hell" have robbed the post-Constantinian world of the privilege of ever seeing a true church of Jesus Christ.
After a careful and sincere study of the church-related doctrines of the New Testament and the subsequent movements in history, the most credulous of all people could scarcely conclude that the relatively few regenerate persons divided and scattered throughout the bloody and oppressive Catholic-Protestant state-church movements, from the fourth to the 19th centuries, could have been the normal fruits of New Testament ecclesiology. Neither could the most credulous conclude that this was what Jesus envisioned and purposed when He said "I will build my church." If this is not so, then we are left with only two alternatives: 1) The fruits of those doctrines of God are to be found within the Donatist-Waldensian-Anabaptist-Baptist succession, or 2) the ecclesiological doctrines of Christ bore no fruit at all — and this conclusion is an unthinkable insult to God.
But people who are truly saved and only slightly informed in the Scriptures and in the historical character of the Catholic-Protestant succession, know two things: 1) that the "gates of hell" have never prevailed against the church of Jesus Christ and 2) that neither the Catholic-Protestant succession nor all the saved therein comprises the church of Jesus Christ.
THE GROWING DISGUST OF THE WORLD
Furthermore, the clock is running — the pressure is increasing: the world is demanding that we show them something more than the presumed saved, whom they cannot see, divided and scattered abroad in factions across the checkered face of Christendom. The world is saying, "If there are true representatives of the name of Jesus Christ on earth, who are you? You must show us something more than a bevy of charismatic leaders enthroned at the pinnacle of their respective empires, evangelistic associations, world congresses, denominations, or self-created local 'churches.'"
The church of Jesus Christ is not the ward of any man. It is a localized body of scripturally baptized believers continuing steadfastly in the apostles doctrine with Christ as its only head. And every assembly that fully meets that definition is automatically and intrinsically in one accord with every other such assembly. God Intended that these units, like stones, perfectly fitted together without mortar, form a monolithic monument to the name of Christ — not divided, not invisible, but with a high, unified profile in the eyes of the world.
Such churches can be comprised only of regenerate, obedient, and disciplined people, but if the regenerate ignorantly or wantonly cleave to the checkered, man-made institutions of Christendom, this monument can never have the visibility or the monolithic character to impact the world with a sobering and effectual representation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The clock is running. The pressure is building. The world is saying to Christians, "Put up or shut up. Give us no more revamped state churches. Give us no more giant, cold, formal, hierarchical denominations. Give us no more individual empire builders, warring conventions, charismatic playboys, or local churches taunting us with fun and games and filled with immorality." The world will be impressed only with what Jesus envisioned — unified, indigenous, disciplined churches at the grass roots of each community.
The secret is out. Among the last prayers Jesus uttered was the plea "that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe ..." (John 17:21). The church-building work of Jesus was compatible with His prayer. He built, not a divided schismatic "invisible church"; He did not design a dismembered, scattered body; He established visible, localized bodies that could exhibit a visible unity to be seen by the world. Jesus purposed for every regenerate soul to serve Him in visible assemblies indigenous to each respective community with each so perfectly related to the same Head that they inherently are perfectly related to each other. That is God's solution to the unbelief of the world.
God's design of the church (generically speaking) was "... to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be [made] known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:10, 11). God's plan is to impact the world, the "principalities and powers," the rulers of the darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in high placed (Eph. 6:12), by means of the visible, unified church; but the Christians today are not listening.
A TWO-FOLD PROBLEM
What then is the problem? Is it lack of data? Is the New Testament so obscurely written that we cannot discern the nature of the church of which it speaks so voluminously? Then what about church history? Is the data so sparse that we cannot discern the existence of a visible institutional succession that has exhibited the characteristics of the New Testament throughout the Dark Ages until the present time?
The problem is two-fold. First, on the front cover of this publication we have pictured only a few but enough books to demonstrate unequivocally that such a succession exists. And it is my claim that this body of truth has been ignored in deference to the Catholic-Protestant-Interdenominational succession and that the divisions among Christians and the ensuing conditions of sin and immorality in the world is largely a result of this fact. The scholars who have noticed this body of truth have seized upon a small percentage of inexactitudes, inaccurate, or even obnoxious statements in these writings and have thus rejected the massive body of unequivocal evidence they present. If some claims are in error, as we readily admit some are, a thousand other facts stand up to take their places. No, the problem is not a lack of accurate data; it is an ignorance of or an indifference to them.
Second, the majority of the Baptists of today, among whom the Donatist-Waldensian-Anabaptist-Baptist succession now continues, have either not understood clearly or have not cared enough for their brethren of the Catholic-Protestant-Interdenominational succession to make a direct, sincere, and reasonable appeal for charitable dialogue concerning biblical church doctrine and church history. We have been divided ourselves. The world sees no monolith among ourselves. We have done poorly in the presentation of this great body of truth.
On the one hand, some have been ashamed of it; and on the other hand, some have been arrogant about it. Although I am persuaded that the historic Baptist faith is the contemporary and on-going representation of the fruits of biblical ecclesiology, there Is no room for pride on my part. I did not invent or create this succession; it is the work of the providence of God maintained through the ages against great odds. I found it, and I joined it as a privilege — not necessarily a right. There is no more room for arrogance for being a part of the church of Jesus Christ, which He authorized to represent His name, than there is to be arrogant that we have an inheritance in heaven. We must neither be a-shamed nor arrogant, but it is the duty and privilege of every believer to identify the church movement in history that is the product of Scripture truth and to join it and promote it with all our strength.
Because of the abundance of information and data available, the identification of this church is not difficult. It is this fact that makes Christian indifference, whether Baptist, Protestant, or Catholic, to the facts — even distortion of the facts — so reprehensible.
A RIGOROUS IDENTITY
There is a factor broadly established and exemplified in Scripture that makes it relatively simple to identify the church in history. It is the principle of persecution. Jesus said to those placed first in the church, "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you..." (John 15:20). 'Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (II Tim. 3:12). "And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus..." (Rev. 17:6).
These verses establish a generalized prophetic truth: the world, not the church, persecuted Jesus; the world, not the church, will persecute His followers. How can a case be made that an institution is a church of Jesus Christ whose members have remained aloof from His church, whose members have never submitted to a scriptural baptism by His church, whose members have never entrusted themselves to the discipline of His church, but who have consistently persecuted it? Religious persecutors can never qualify as a church of Jesus Christ.
By this principle then it becomes a simple matter to look into history and see who were the persecutors and who were the persecutees. For fifteen centuries a long and persistent campaign by the Catholics, in alliance with the state, was made to stamp out by force the Donatists and the Waldensians to be joined after the Reformation by the Protestants persecuting the Anabaptists and Baptists. But now if the Catholic-Protestant-Interdenominational succession is the historic manifestation of the true church; and if, as they claim, the Donatist-Waldensian-Anabaptist-Baptist succession is heretic, then the true church, contrary to prophecy and truth, became the persecutors and the world became the persecutes. This is an unthinkable inversion of the teachings of Jesus and of the whole of New Testament truth.
I plead with every believer — especially my Protestant and interdenominational fundamentalist brethren who defend the false succession and denounce the true succession: "come out of her, my people..." (Rev. 18:4). There is no want of evidence. Do not crash blindly against the mountain of biblical and historical evidence that is silhouetted so vividly against the light of God's eternal truth.