CHURCH PERPETUITY ADMITS OF VARIATIONS AND
IRREGULARITIES IN BAPTIST FAITH AND PRACTICE.
Thomas Armitage, D. D., in a letter to the author, wrote December 31, 1886: “No person living would be more thankful to you than myself if you will show by unquestionable facts that since the Holy Spirit established the church at Jerusalem, there has never been a time when that church did not repeat itself in living and organic bodies of Christians who followed all its principles and practices without addition or diminution. From early in the third century to about the twelfth, there was scarcely a denomination of Christians in any land, so far as we can now trace them by actual faith and practice, in all points great and small, who would be held in full fellowship with the regular Baptist churches of today, if they were living today.”
Prof. B. 0. True, D. D., who occupies the chair of Church History in a leading Theological Seminary, recently wrote the author: “Do we mean, then, by Baptist churches merely those which hold scriptural views on the subjects and acts of baptism or those who conform in all essential matters of conduct, doctrine and polity to the will of Jesus Christ? I certainly do not say that these were not Baptists (speaking of those claimed for Baptists in past ages) and possibly Baptist churches.”
These statements, made by Dr. Armitage, contain the explanation for some Baptists arraying themselves among the opponents of Church Perpetuity.
If Prof. True's testing the churches, claimed in the succession line, by their agreement “in all essential
matters of conduct, doctrine and polity,” be the true test, Baptists may agree that there is the Church Perpetuity.
Hence Prof. True's statement of those claimed in the Perpetuity line: “I certainly do not say that these were not Baptists and possibly Baptist churches.” (My italics.) But, by Dr. Armitage's test, that those bodies claimed as Baptists, were “In all points, great and small,” “without addition or diminution,” exactly what Baptist churches now are and what they now hold “in full fellowship,” many Baptist churches of the present as well as the past could not be fellowshipped as Baptists by our best churches. For many of them, to some extent, are Arminian; or feet washers; or have scarcely any church discipline; or disregard the Lord's day and command by meeting for worship “only once a month;” or contribute nothing or near nothing to their pastors, and nothing or near nothing to missions and education; and, ill many cases, rarely look into their Bibles. The truth is, the good brethren who doubt historical and Bible Church Perpetuity because those churches of the past may not have been or were not “in all points, great and small, without addition or diminution,” what the best Baptist churches now are, would most vehemently oppose applying the same test to English and to a large part of American Baptists of today. By their test, from the standpoint of Baptists in the Southern States, Baptists in the Northern are not genuine Baptist churches, because Baptists North, excepting that of the Campbellites, recognize alien immersion as valid, vice versa. Since man, “in all points, great and small, without addition or diminution,” is not “in doctrine or practice what he ought to be,” the test, by which these good brethren hesitate to acknowledge their Baptist brethren of the past ages as Baptist churches, would deny that we are men and women.
In case that history related that in case the Montanist; the Donatist, the Novation, the Paulician, and other churches in the perpetuity line not only retained in their membership one who had his “father's wife,” but that they “were puffed up and had not rather mourned” at such a state of things; that they had teachers among them who taught that “except ye be circumcised, ye cannot be saved,” that we “are justified by the law,” that held “the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes,” “the doctrine of Balaam,” and were taught and led by “that woman Jezebel,” without rebuke of the church, with what a great noise would they be disowned as Baptists. Yet, such were several apostolic churches. — Acts 15:1; 1 Cor. 5:1, 2; Gal. 5:4; Rev. 2:14-15-22.
In reply to Dr. Armitage I proposed to find an error in apostolic and Baptist churches of our own day equal to any one he could find in those claimed to be in the Baptist line of Church Perpetuity. Of course, the good brother did not accept the challenge. That challenge I make to any one. Yet weak hearted Baptist brethren, as to Church Perpetuity, are hesitating to own our own Baptist ancestors because they may not have been or were not “in all points, great and small, without addition or diminution,” “in doctrine and practice,” just what the best Baptist churches now are! A very large part of the saints of the Old Testament, tested by the lives of the best saints of today, were not God's people; and were they now living and living as they then lived, they could retain membership in no orderly Baptist church.
Admitting that many of those in the line of Church Perpetuity could not be held in “full fellowship” with our best churches now does not in the least militate against their being regarded as real Baptist churches, since, as I have just shown, the test of Dr. Armitage would cut off, as saints, the claim of the saints of the Old Testament, of English and of many American Baptist churches of today, as Baptist, and that its principle would cut off man's claim to be man. They were Baptist churches; but, like Old Testament saints, the churches of the first centuries, and those of the present, they were colored by their times.
By the test of Dr. Armitage and of all other weak-kneed brethren on Church Perpetuity, Baptist churches have no continuity from Christ to the present time, and, but few now known as Baptist churches are really Baptist churches. But dropping their test and applying the test by which we recognize, though not what they ought to have been or what they ought to be, all churches of the first century and the English and the American Baptist churches as genuine Baptist churches, Baptist churches have a continuous existence from the first century to the present.
That all true Baptists, when the true test is applied, with scarcely a dissenting voice among them, agree that Baptist churches have never ceased to exist since the first century, I believe true. Thus, Dr. Armitage, in the sentence I quoted from his letter to me, as much as says he believes in Church Perpetuity: “From early in the third century to about the twelfth, there was scarcely a denomination of Christians in any land, in all points, great and small, who would be held in full fellowship with the
regular Baptist churches of today.” “Scarcely,” as in the sentence: “If the righteous scarcely be saved” — 1 Pet. 4:18 — implies that those churches, not withstanding their incidental errors, were essentially Baptist churches.
At the expiration of from one to five centuries from now — saying nothing of from ten to fifteen — to prove from a historical contrast of the life and the practices of the churches of this century with those of that time that, in “doctrine, practice and polity” they were not, “in all points, great and small,” such as could be fellowshipped by each other, were they contemporaneous, would be an easy thing to do. In other words, by Dr. Armitage's test, by which he denies Baptist Church Perpetuity, the superior life of the Baptist churches of a future age proves the same churches of the past age were not Baptist churches.
I thank God that the history of the church shows such growth in the divine knowledge and such improvement towards the high standard of perfect New Testament life that future churches hesitate to own their own denomination of the past. For the same cause, in the future world, to own we are the same children of God that we were here will be yet more difficult. — See Eph. 5:27.
Only by a man's habits or regular course of life are we to know he is not a child of God. Likewise, isolated, occasional and brief aberrations, even in essential matters, can not alter the nature of a church or prove it not a Baptist church. In the preceding remarks and Scripture references, in this chapter, this is demonstrated. The Professor of History in the Campbellite College, at Irvington, Indiana, in a letter to me, Oct. 9, 1893, says: “Nor is it true that a church may not depart, in some measure, from the perfect ideal church of the New Testament and still be styled a church. The Seven Churches of Asia, held pernicious doctrines and yet were called by an Apostle, churches.” In the fellowship of Baptist churches of our own day this is recognized. An isolated and occasional error or temporary variation as to what is Christian baptism, as to church polity, as to whether certain books of the Bible are canonical, as to the exact relation of grace and works to salvation, or as to being slightly dyed with an essentially modified form of Manichaeism, is not a more radical departure from the New Testament than is incest, following the error of Balaam, of Jezebel, substituting works for grace, or for the doctrine of Christ substituting the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. In other words, as these errors of the churches of the first century invalidated them only when they became their permanent character, so errors, even when fundamental, in succeeding churches, cannot be allowed to invalidate their claim to a place in the perpetuity line, save when they become permanently characteristic.1 Much less can we, for a moment, consider incidental errors in the history of our churches as entitled to any bearing on the succession question.
To the question, then: “Why recognize, as Baptist churches, sects in past ages which were guilty of errors equal to affusion, infant baptism, other Pedobaptist errors and errors of certain non-Pedobaptist bodies while you deny that Pedobaptist churches are New Testament churches?” the answer is: For the same reason that we recognize the churches of the first century, with all their errors — referred to in the foregoing — as Baptist churches, while we deny the recognition to all present contemporaneous non-Baptist churches. Pedobaptist and other non-Baptist churches by faith, constitution and practice, are essentially and permanently anti-New Testament. But, were we to admit much that is falsely laid to the charge of those sects which are usually…
1 See Rev. 2:5; 3:3, 16, 19.
…counted in the succession line, it would be true of them only as greater errors were true of the churches of the first century, referred to in the preceding part of this chapter. Like it was with the church at Laodicea, Christ does not deny a church because of even a great temporary error, but He spews it out only because it becomes characteristically and permanently wrong.1
I, therefore, conclude this chapter with this rule: Only by becoming characteristically, fundamentally and permanently unscriptural, as to either or both faith and practice, has a church ever thrown itself out of the Church Perpetuity line, or can it ever do so.
1 Compare Rev., 3:16; 2:5.