The "Linked Chain" Bugaboo
There are some who insist that in order to adequately substantiate the continuity of Baptist churches through the centuries we would have to be able to establish a linked chain of such churches, without a break, from the very first one started by Jesus. I cannot agree with those who hold such a view, and indeed I consider it foolish. Let us remember what those dissenting groups were up against through the days of their awful persecution. Often they had to go into hiding, and if they wrote and published anything after printing came into vogue, it was usually seized and destroyed. Under the circumstances, it is remarkable that we have as much information about these groups as we have.
Do I believe that there has been a linked chain of true churches through the centuries? I certainly do, but my belief in the continuity of Baptist churches does not depend upon being able to trace this unbroken chain. Rather IT DEPENDS UPON THE SACRED WORD OF PROMISE SPOKEN BY CHRIST OUR LORD. Since I have trusted my very soul to Christ, I can surely trust Him to keep His word to preserve His church. It is a pretty sorry Christian who says, "I can't take the mere promise of Jesus - I must have some actual links hooked up in an unbroken chain from Christ until now, if I'm to believe in Baptist church continuity."
I have seen the pedigree of a Tennessee Baptist church that traces it's history back through the centuries to the days of Christ, giving historical references to substantiate the claim. That's very interesting, and it presents one case of a chain link history back to New Testament times. Cardinal Hosius previously quoted, an enemy of those early dissenting assemblies, dates Baptists back to 354 A.D. That's quite an admission, and it certainly favors the idea of a chain link line of succession. John Clark Ridpath, Methodist author of "Ridpath's History of the World," in a letter to Baptist historian W. A. Jarrell, said that there were Baptists existing in the year A.D. 100. Other writers of different denominations, have readily admitted the existence of Baptists back in the very early centuries. There is every indication that Baptist churches existed in unbroken historical continuity from apostolic days, but the point I am insisting on is this: WE SHOULD NOT HAVE TO HAVE EXAMPLES OF CHAIN LINK PEDIGREES HISTORICALLY VERIFIED AND WITHOUT THE ABSENCE OF A SINGLE LINK, TO ENABLE US TO FULLY BELIEVE IN THE PERPETUITY OF BAPTIST CHURCHES. We know, as previously set forth, that no other religious group dates back to the days of Jesus. We know that since Baptists alone cannot be traced to a human founder and cannot be dated as starting this side of Christ, they must be the people to whom Jesus promised continued existence. His word is good enough for me, and it should be for anybody else. The linked chain bugaboo is but another device of Satan to discredit the promise of Christ.
Suppose we find a people believing and practicing the same doctrines as Baptists, back in an early century. Persecution is rife, and we lose sight of them for a period. Then we catch sight of them again. Is it not natural to assume that they have continued during the time that they were in obscurity? Let me give some illustrations to show the reasonableness of this.
Some years ago in visiting in California, I sat one day on a mountainside. Far down below me there was a highway. The highway passed through a tunnel, and I could see on both sides of the tunnel. I could see cars enter the tunnel where they passed completely out of sight. At the other end of the tunnel I could see cars emerge. They looked in size and color and other characteristics, just like the cars that I had seen go into the tunnel. I had lost sight of them for a few minutes and could not track them through the dark tunnel, but that didn't keep me from believing that the cars which I saw emerging were not the ones that I had previously seen enter the tunnel. Apply this please to the case of churches with New Testament characteristics entering the gloom of the Dark Ages of persecution, and coming out later bearing the same characteristics.
One writer puts it this way: "Churches come from churches somewhat as horses come from horses. History cannot trace every detail of the pedigree showing how a certain drove of mild mustangs in western Texas are descendants of the Spanish barbs, brought here by the discoverers 400 years ago. The fact that the mustangs are here proves the succession, since only like begets like." This illustration has its exact application to Baptist church succession.
To use another and somewhat similar illustration: On the coast of North Carolina, in the region of Cape Hatteras, are what they call "the outer banks" These are island formations stretching down the coast for the better part of a hundred miles. Back during the early years of Spanish exploration of that region, horses got loose on those "outer banks." Just how this happened I do not know, but it happened. The horses reproduced such that quite numerous herds roamed the "banks." I have read of these horses many times. No one doubted that these horses were the descendants of those that were left by the Spanish long ago. No one could say that they could furnish a linked chain evidence that they were horses of the same variety left by the Spanish. No one had watched them over that period of several hundred years, but it was accepted without question that the horses of recent times were the descendants of those that were loosed in that area long ago.
Why should not people be as ready to believe concerning the church as concerning the horses? New Testament churches bearing distinct characteristics existed in apostolic times and following. Every once in a while we get sight of these, and they still bear the same characteristics. Today we have a great host of churches bearing these same characteristics. There is every reason to believe that there has been a continuity of these people all through the centuries - just as Jesus promised when He said, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
To go back to the previous illustration, when we see Christ's churches pass into the tunnel of the Dark Ages, then later see churches looking, acting and believing just like the ones we saw go into the tunnel, can't we take Christ's word that they are the same without quibbling about seeing a linked chain? Surely we can take the Savior's words to that extent! If we can't - then what kind of faith in Him do we have? Remember again that He said His church would continue to exist despite all hell. "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it."