By Milburn Cockrell
Various ideas continue to surface among our people as to church organization. In some cases we hear that three baptized members in good standing may constitute themselves into a New Testament church without the sanction of the church where they hold membership. Finding this statement a bit defective, it was then said during extreme persecution or other highly-unusual circumstances a Baptist church can be started by members-in-good standing of a Baptist church or churches simply by their covenanting together, without their being formally dismissed by letter from their church or churches for this expressed purpose. Then a third theory has now been put forth. It is that two or more scripturally-baptized-doctrinally sound members-in-good-standing from another church or from other churches may, as they are led by the Holy Spirit, meet, covenant, and organize themselves into a true New Testament church. This new church need not secure authority from another true church or other true churches in organizing, nor is it essential that a minister or missionary from another true church or other true churches be present with any authority from another true church or from other true churches.
Question: If these two or three baptized members are in „good standing,” why not leave with a letter of dismissal from their church? How can people who ignore the church they are a member of be „doctrinally-sound members”? It would seem that „good-standing” and „doctrinally-sound members” are terms being used very loosely.
But I heard someone ask, „Just what is wrong with this idea? Why do you say it is unscriptural?” First, I would say that it plainly denies Baptist church succession back to Christ. To say there is a baptismal link but not a church link, is to break the lengths in the chain of our Baptist church succession. A succession of bishops and baptisms is not church succession. It is more like the apostolic succession of the Roman Catholic Church. A bishop and baptism link is not a church link. When you separate the bishop and baptism from the church you make baptism a preacher ordinance rather than a church ordinance. If churches can be self-constituted without any connection with another church, then there is in truth no church succession. Those who hold to this idea should be honest and confess that they really believe in a succession of bishops and baptisms, but not any chain link church succession.
Second, the worst thing about this whole idea is that they are saying that a member, or members, can dismiss themselves from a church where they hold membership without the consent of their church. Just where do we find in the New Testament that a church member may of his own accord dismiss himself from the church where he is a member without the consent of his church?
Most Baptist theology books and most Baptist church manuals take the position that there are only three ways out of a Baptist church. First, one may be dismissed by a letter of recommendation from one church to another church: „And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace” (Acts 18:27). The person is given leave from the church where he is a member to unite with another church of like faith and order. He does not pass out of church relations, but he transfers from one church to another.
Second, there is exclusion: „Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the traditions which he received of us” (II Thess. 3:6). The church has power to receive (Rom. 14:1) and exclude members. The church is urged in II Thessalonians 3:6 to separate itself from the offender.
Third, membership in a particular local church ceases by physical death. Generally, in the church membership roll we write the word „deceased.”
Out in the country we simplified this years ago by saying that there are only three ways out of a Baptist church: move out, die out, or be kicked out.
Now we are being told there is a fourth way out. A person, or persons, may dismiss themselves without any vote of their church, if it is for the purpose of forming a new church. But if a person could do it for this reason, and it be according to Scripture, then he could dismiss himself for any other reason. In other words, if a person can dismiss himself from the church roll without the consent of the church for one reason, then he could for any reason imaginable. He either has the power to do it, or he does not. Logically, if he could dismiss himself without consent of his church, then he could also admit himself to membership without the vote of the church. Furthermore, if it is scriptural for a member to dismiss himself without leave of his church, then it is surely wrong for the church to think it has this power, or that it has authority over its members.
Brethren, you cannot have it both ways. Either a church has the power to receive and to dismiss its members, or it does not.
Brethren are now telling us that a member, or members, can dismiss themselves to form a new church when they desire to do so. They need no authority from another church; they do not need the church, or churches, which they are from to exercise their authority by dismissing them. The church of which such a person is a member has no authority over him. He is foot-loose and fancy free to terminate his membership at his pleasure, if he wants to form a new church.
But I heard someone cry: „I said it could be done only in ‘times of extreme persecution or other highly-unusual circumstances.’ I did not mean that this is the general rule.” According to the Bible, the entire church age is to be characterized by persecution (Matt. 10:16-28; John 15:18-19; II Tim. 3:12). Hence since in every century of the church there will be persecution, then in every century a member can dismiss himself from one church without their consent, if he wants to form a new church. Surely if he has the power to do it in persecuting times, he also has the power to do it in peaceful times. He either has the power to do this or not.
I know of no Scripture in the New Testament which says that a church member has the power to dismiss himself from membership in the Lord’s church in order to form a new church, or any thing else. In the New Testament I see only churches receiving and dismissing members.
Frankly, I am very fearful and afraid of this new hypothesis. If it is correct, I would think a „scripturally-baptized, doctrinally-sound” person could admit himself to membership in a church without the vote of the church. They are saying the individual has the authority to do this, not the church. The individual occupies the place of supreme authority. The church and pastor must play second fiddle to the individual.
Under this New Light Teaching it would be impossible for a church to have a membership roll like the Jerusalem church had (Acts 1:15). If the power to dismiss lies with the individual rather than the church, no church could be sure of „the number of names together” of its membership, for they would not know who might have dismissed himself to form some new church from one week to the next. Church discipline would be impossible to practice. A person facing exclusion could declare „extreme circumstance” and dismiss himself to another church before his church could subject him to discipline. I wonder what our Baptist churches are going to be like when our members begin to practice what some brethren are now preaching!
Other questions would follow. If the individual (or individuals), may dismiss himself from his church to form another church, could he not also, while visiting another church during the Lord’s Supper, admit himself to temporary membership and take the Lord’s Supper? Could he and two other „scripturally baptized members” admit themselves and vote in the business meeting of another church? If two or three „scripturally baptized members” can dismiss or admit themselves to a church, could they not also baptize themselves like John Smith did? Surely if a person can admit himself to a new church to be organized, he could also do whatever is necessary for him to be a member of this new church.
If a baptism and bishop link is all that is necessary to having a true New Testament church, then Campbellites and Adventists have such a link. Neither of these two groups at first greatly departed from the faith when they were first formed. Hence Campbellites and Adventists are true churches of Christ as much as Baptist churches, according to the new hypothesis. Many community churches have been formed out of people who have Baptist baptism and faith. One such church, made up of such people, exists near me and does not claim to be a Baptist church. I do not recognize it as a true church. I would assume that some of my brethren would do so, for they have a baptism link and a faith link, but not a church link.
When I press some of these brethren for clear Scripture where three baptized members may dismiss themselves to form a new church without being given permission to leave from another church or churches, they tell me that many such Baptist churches were formed in Baptist history. Please bear in mind these are the same brethren who not long ago said they did not want Baptist history on church organization, but clear Scripture. Now they have done an about-face. Now they have given up the Bible for Baptist history. I must have missed something. Why is it right for them to use Baptist history to prove their new hypothesis of church organization, and wrong for me to use it with the Bible to prove my position? Why condemn Baptist history on the one hand, and then exalt it above the Bible on the other?
Brethren, I want to know where the New Testament says that „two or more scripturally-baptized, doctrinally-sound members in good standing” can dismiss themselves from a church, or churches, where they are members without the consent of their church or churches. Since you vehemently insisted that I give clear Scripture for my view of church organization, please do the same for me. Surely you would not require of another what you yourself would be unwilling to do. Or, would you?
I do not believe that three baptized members can dismiss themselves from another church in order to form a new church. If they are „doctrinally-sound,” they will leave by letter with the consent of their church which has authority over its members. A new church is not self-constituted. It is constituted by another true church of like faith and order. All living things which God has created bring forth after their kind. There is a baptismal link because it goes back to the organizing church. There must be a church link and a baptism link, for baptism is a church ordinance. Ever since the apostolic age one church has been organizing another church all the way down to the present time. In this manner the ordinances of the church, as well as the church, have been perpetuated across the centuries.
Today we are hearing some new expressions. We are told that the authority for a new church is not „indirectly, mediately, and horizontally delegated” from an already existing church. They say to take such a position is „hyper-Landmarkism.” Instead they say the authority for a new church is „directly, immediately, and vertically delegated by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.” If I am able to follow their line of reasoning (personally, I am having a time trying to make heads and tails of it), they are saying that each church of Jesus Christ is formed directly by Christ Himself without the aid or assistance of another church of Christ. There is no such thing as organic church succession. There is no such thing as one church giving authority to another church. If this reasoning is correct, the whole idea of church authority is dead in the water and Matthew 28:18-20 is not addressed to the Lord’s church but to individual believers.
But the hypothesis seems to have a weakness in it. On one hand they are saying each church receives direct authority from Christ and there is no need of any connection with any other church. Then they shock us by contradicting their idea by saying there must be a baptism and doctrine link with another true church. You then have a bishop and a baptism coming directly and horizontally from another church, and then the church itself coming directly and vertically from Christ? How can it be both ways? „How long halt ye between two opinions?” (I Kings 18:21).
I have another problem on which I need help. How can you have a baptismal link without a church link? Is not baptism a church ordinance? Or, is it a preacher ordinance? Does a Baptist preacher get his authority to baptize „indirectly, mediately, and horizontally from the church he is a member of? Or, does he get his authority „directly, immediately, and vertically” from Christ Himself? I need answers to these questions. Please tell me the answers to these questions in plain language so we all can know where you really stand.
I suppose the real answer to this question appeared recently in one of their papers. Three men went to a foreign country where some people needed baptism. These men went with authority from their churches. These people were all baptized, but they were never at any time members of any church in America, nor were they lettered out of any church in America. Then when these baptized believers had been „set in order, they formed themselves into churches. Then it is asked what is wrong with this?
I shall be happy to answer. All these baptisms were outside the body of Christ, the New Testament church. The baptisms in the New Testament put people into the body of Christ: „For by (in) one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (I Cor. 12:13). According to Paul, „all” (not a few or some) were baptized into the body of Christ. This verse clears up any doubtful cases in Acts, including Paul’s own baptism. According to these brethren’s own testimony, these people were not baptized into any of the churches they were from. The first two or three could not have been baptized into any body (that is unless it was one universal and invisible), for no body existed at that time. I say this because they say it takes at least three baptized members to constitute themselves into a New Testament church. At best it could only be a body in prospect. How do you reconcile such a practice with „all” being baptized into one kind of local body in I Corinthians 12:13? Was not their baptism administered apart from the body of Christ, if they were never at any time put in a church body in America? Are we saying that a church is to send a preacher with authority to baptize people and then they may, or may not, organize themselves into New Testament churches? How can you with a straight face say baptism is a church ordinance, and then baptize people when it puts them into no church?
I have already predicted that we must have a new interpretation of I Corinthians 12:13. It could be that we will hear that water baptism puts people into some kind of prospective church or glory church. Or, will they go so far as to make it the church universal and invisible? Perhaps there will be some fancy twisting and turning of the preposition „into” for which another religious group is so famous. Let us watch and see how this verse will be given a new meaning. Remember, we are already seeing a new meaning given to Matthew 28:18-20. I predict I Corinthians 12:13 is next.
Some have changed their position. Once they believed that one church should start another church. Now they no longer believe this, according to their own testimony in print. An honest confession is good for the soul. They have changed, but most of us have not. We still believe that one church should start another church. We have obtained no new light on the matter of church organization.
Seeing some brethren now hold that each church is started by Christ directly with two or more baptized believers who dismiss themselves from their church for this purpose, how was their church organized? In the manner they now say is the correct way? Maybe in some cases the answer is in the affirmative, but in most cases it is in the negative. According to the new hypothesis, if they had some other church and pastor to organize them into a New Testament church, do they not need to make an apology to this church and pastor for bringing them maybe some distance on a fool’s errand? There was no need for any journey, or vote of another church, as they now see things. Therefore an apology is in order and I’m sure would be appreciated.
I have yet to hear the most ardent advocate of the new hypothesis say that it is unscriptural for a New Testament church to dismiss some of its members to organize another church. Is there any reason why churches could not be organized that way and end the present controversy? Would not such an agreement bring peace and prosperity to our churches? We all know the answer to these questions. But it will not happen because the issue has now become „who,” not „what.” I will continue to deal with the issues, so it may ever be „what,” not „who.” Some brethren on the other side have ethics as bad as their ecclesiology.
Due to the present controversy, it seems to me that there are few questions which need to be answered by those of the new hypothesis. I will list a few of them.
1. Is baptism a church ordinance or a preacher ordinance?
2. Can a preacher scripturally baptize a person in water without that act putting him in the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:13)? If baptism does not put one in the body of Christ, how can we say that baptism is a church ordinance?
3. If the authority for a new church comes directly from Christ, separate and apart from any other existing church, why does Christ not also grant them the right to baptize each other in order to form a new church? Why can these people originate a church, but not baptism–a mere ordinance of the church? Why can you do the greater but not the lesser?
4. Is church succession an organic succession of one church organizing another church, or is it a succession of bishops and baptisms?
5. Why must baptism be „indirectly, mediately, and horizontally” received, but church organization „directly, immediately, and vertically” received?
6. If we all agreed that it is okay for one church to letter out some of its members to begin a new church, why is there now a great attempt to downgrade, discredit, and denounce those who simply ask that churches be organized this way? Should attention not be focused on those who may be offering some doubtful ways to organize a church? Why beat up on those who contend for what all admit is right and then make heroes out of those who advocate doubtful practices!
7. Where is there clear Scripture in the New Testament where a group of baptized believers dismissed themselves from another true church in order to form a new church? In the New Testament is it not true that a church received and dismissed members? Remember that doubtful texts must be interpreted in the light of plain texts.
8. Why does a New Testament church have the authority to administer baptism, but no authority to organize another church of like faith and order? Surely if the authority to organize a new church comes directly from Heaven, then is not any church who attempts to organize another church of like faith and order guilty of usurping the place of God? Would this not almost constitute blasphemy or even idolatry?
9. If these three baptized members dismiss themselves from their church to form a Bible church or a community church, do they get direct authority from God for their church? Is the name „Baptist” essential to church organization?
10. If a church be self-originated by two or more scripturally baptized believers without a missionary or authority from another church, why send out missionaries to organize churches? Perhaps the Hardshell Baptist brethren need to make some room. They may be going to have some joiners.
11. In these days when some preachers are speaking much of „direct authority from God” and little of „church authority,” would it not be logical for them to get their salary „vertically” from God instead of „horizontally” from their church?
12. Is it right for a church to vote to receive a person as a candidate for baptism and after baptism into the full fellowship of the church? Is this practice scriptural, or is it the invention of „pedigree pushers”?
13. Should a church vote to grant a letter to another Baptist Church when a member desires to move his membership? Is this practice scriptural, or is it the invention of „pedigree pushers”?
14. If it is right for a church to grant a letter to a sister church when a member desires to move his membership to the other church, why is it wrong for a church to grant letters to members who want to form a new and separate church? Why is it right to grant a letter to a sister church when a member desires to move his membership, and wrong to grant it when a person wants to go into a new church? If it is not necessary on one hand, why would it be on the other?
15. Is granting letters to members who desire to move their membership scriptural, or unscriptural? Is the granting of a church letter scriptural, or is it the invention of „hyper-Landmarkers”? Or, could the ecclesiastical antinomians be wrong in denying a church should grant a letter?
16. If the ecclesiastical antinomians are correct in saying that it is not necessary to grant letters to those leaving one church to form a new church, then why is it necessary when a member moves his membership from one church to another?
17. As ecclesiastical neophytes laugh at the idea of churches granting letters to organize a new church and claim there is no clear Scripture for it, where is there clear Scripture for a church calling a pastor? Is it unscriptural for a church to call a pastor? Or, is this a needless practice which should be terminated in our churches?

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