The Problem of Baptist Progress
Rev. J. B. Gambrell, D.D.
in The Review and Expositor
Up to 125 years ago, Baptists had a slim chance to propagate their simple faith. The whole civilized world was cumbered by vast ecclestiastical systems upheld by all the monarchies of the world. And more, among these monarchies employed the secular power to levy
tribute on all the people, including Baptists, for the support of these anti-scriptural orders. And not to stop at that, the sword was used, the dungeon and the fagot, to repress the people who stood for the New Testament order against the world.
The opening of America was doubtless God's plan for bringing on a better day for humanity. Here, in the wilderness, the people who hold the doctrines preached first in the wilderness of Judea, were to demonstrate afresh the power of truth to liberate an enslaved race. It was no accident that every Baptist stood for the independence of the colonies. Their faith committed them to liberty. The war over and religious liberty embedded in the constitution of the United States, by the efforts of the Baptists, America set out on a far-reaching demonstration. The world had been tutored into the belief that neither state nor church could live unless they were bound together, so that the blood of each could flow through the veins of the other. All the hierarchical churches had inculcated this heresy, and all the monarchies had done the same. Against the whole of it, whether in Protestant or popish communities, the Baptists opposed the unbound individualism of the New Testament, and the demonstration proceeded.
A little more than a century has passed, and
democracy has made America the first nation of the world. And nowhere in the world are the vital forces of religion more felt than in this wide battlefield of America, where every idea, doctrine and church rises or falls by the volition of the individual, unmolested by the state.
The Frenchman who gave to America the statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World," had a clear vision of the far-reaching and irresistible influence of the democratic demonstration going on in America.
Within a century the spirit of individualism has largely subverted the old orders in Europe. France is democratic, has cast off popery as an annex to the state and has granted religious freedom. Italy has a constitution and enjoys free worship. Fifty years ago, Baptists were imprisoned in Germany. Recently the empress made a personal offering to a Baptist church in Berlin. Russia has granted a parliament and freedom of worship. Turkey is to have a constitution. England is almost as democratic as America. Spain, Portugal and all the rest are coming on. We are in the early hours of the great day of individualism, for which our Baptist fathers, in dens and caves, in wilderness and prisons, on gibbets and in flames, have prayed and waited.
In our own country, great and beneflcient
changes have come. The movements are everywhere toward the fundamental doctrines of Baptists, which is only saying that more and more the great Protestant communions are coming to recognize individualism in religion. Catholicism in America is undergoing modification, and in the same degree, is there an abandonment of infant baptism and other unscriptural and popish doctrines. Ecclesiasticism is far less a power than it was even ten years ago. The Baptists have won their battle for democracy of New Testament churches to an almost unthinkable extent. Immersion is freely admitted to be the New Testament form of baptism by the great scholars of all communions, and it is believed in by vast numbers in all the denominations from the simple reading of the New Testament. There are tens of thousands in other denominations who are essentially Baptist, and do not know it.
It is a good sign of the times, that the violent and extreme sectarian spirit which has magnified fictitious differences, is rapidly yielding to a broader, more Christian, and a far more practical spirit. An Episcopal bishop in Texas sometime ago said that in the smaller towns there ought to be only three churches - Catholics, Baptists, because Baptists stand for distinctive principles, and another for all the other denominations. This is a sign of a wide,
irresistible, and I think altogether healthy movement. Union is the largest feature of today. I hold that Baptists should encourage it, because it is right; but guide it to the right basis, and do this in no captious or partisan spirit, but in the wise, tender spirit of the Prince of Peace. It was related that when the infallibility dogma was passed by the council in Rome, there was wild and tumultuous excitement in St. Peter's. Many predicted the disruption of "the church" and dark forebodings were in many hearts. At the crisis, Archbishop, later Cardinal, Manning, of England, pale with excitement, standing on an elevation, and holding aloft a copy of the dogma, said: "Let all the world go to bits, and we will reconstruct it on this paper." The old world of thought, of dogma, of ecclesiastical orders is going to bits, and the hour is filled to the limit with opportunity and peril.
Over against the Catholic hierarch's pronouncement, loyal Baptists will lift the Bible, and say by the grace of the good Spirit of the Master we will reconstruct the world on the New Testament as the law of Christianity.
Let no Baptist refuse to recognize the signs of the times, and let no one misinterpret these signs. If the advocates of a Christianity, springing out of the New Testament, and limited by it, are wise today and true to their
own principles, they may soon see such enlargement as will make them glad.
The real problem of Baptist progress lies in a preaching of the present truth, the truth the times and circumstances call for, in the spirit of the truth. We should reverently, fairly and lovingly deal with a great situation for the good of our fellow Christians and the world. It is not a time for captious criticism, but for wise deliberation and judicious action. And, above all, now is the time for Baptists to stand confidently on their own platform with both feet. We will be utterly unwise if we do not, within the limits of truth, encourage the rising spirit of unity. We need not fear what the Saviour prayed for - the unity of his people. Of all people in the world, Baptists, if they are loyal and true, are best prepared for what is coming. We have no complex and unwieldly ecclesiasticism to embarrass us, as have some others. We have no cast-iron standards to maintain. We do, indeed, have written articles of faith, but we are not bound to them in that written form. The truth is just as good written another way. We are bound to nothing but the Word of God. Although we do have a history, largely written in blood by our opponents, yet we are by no means bound to maintain an historic succession. We can stand on the New Testament, pure and simple, and this
doing, we are ready for all comers who are willing to accept it as the law of Christianity, and walk with us in the simple order of God's house.
The Baptist position lends itself in other ways to the situation we are in. It is the deepest doctrine of the New Testament, that every believer in the divinity of Jesus, and every one who trusts the Saviour for salvation, is a Christian, a brother or sister, and of the household of faith. We may consistently treat them as such, and cooperate with them in all things in which the purely spiritual and not the ecclesiastical, is the basis of cooperation. Moreover, the independence of our churches is a powerful factor of usefulness in meeting the many questions growing out of the complex situation. This gives us a freedom of action others cannot enjoy.
We should proceed now, as always, under the compelling conviction that we hold the truth in trust for the world. The world's best good is wrapped up in the teachings of Christ and his inspired apostles. And in every Baptist heart should live the spirit of loyalty to the King eternal and his truth. Loyalty will not permit us to adjust our teachings to the views of majorities or minorities. It is not allowed us to adjust to current thought, if that thought be wrong. Our supreme obligation is
to adjust current thought to the law of Christ. If we abandon "obedience to Jesus" as the formula of our contention, we have no mission in the world, and, as a people, we become as other people, lose our power, and pass out to give place to others, less pretentious, if not more faithful.
The whole problem of Baptist progress lies in the preaching of the New Testament, affirmatively, but not pugilistically; for itself, not as against something else. The light shining out from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles will be sufficient to guide the seeking sons of men to the true center of unity.
In this new era of opportunity, the Baptists need to look well to themselves. Sir Walter Scott paid his respects to the genius of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he disliked, in words like these: "There never was a man who knew so well how to mobilize an army. There never was a man who knew so well how to train and inspire an army. There never was a man who knew so well how to plan a battle. There never was a man who knew so well how to fight a battle. There never was a man who knew so well how to win a victory. There never was a man who knew so well how to use a victory." There was little else to be said in praise of the genius of the world's greatest military leader. Baptists need to follow that
line of action clear through. History teaches us that some great leaders were strong at some points and weak at others. And history is full of instances of great victories won to be lightly or rashly thrown away. If Baptists are to reap the fruits of victory they must conserve their own strength. In the renowned debate in the British Parliament between William Pitt, premier, and Charles James Fox, leader of the opposition, on the question of treating with Napoleon, Pitt reached the climax of sane eloquence when he declared that British success depended on themselves and not on concessions from Napoleon. Baptist success depends on Baptists, not on half concessions made to the Baptists, not on half concessions made to the Baptist position by others. If Baptists live up to their faith; if they transmute doctrine into practice; if they demonstrate the truth as well as preach it, they will rapidly win the Christian world to the New Testament as the center of unity. Much more can be done now by teaching and demonstrating the truth than by denouncing the people who do not hold it, or by a mere exposure of error.
[From The Baptist Message, SSB/SBC, 1911, pp. 126-134. This book was provided by Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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