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The Church
By J. B. Cranfill, M.D., LLD.
Dallas, TX

Organized by Christ in His personal ministry.

      When I taught the Crawford, Texas, school in 1877, the only audience room in the village was our school-house. During that summer I dismissed school for a week to give a Disciples preacher opportunity to hold a meeting. I attended all the services and helped in the singing. One of my trustees was a member of that body, as were several of my patrons. Some of these dear friends counted me a prospect for membership. I learned in that meeting all that was to know about the teachings of Alexander Campbell, of which up to that time I only had fragmentary concepts. As always, this kind-hearted preacher headed everything up in the day of Pentecost, at which time, according to the Alexander Campbell theory, the Christian church was organized. This theory may have been more eloquently or more convincingly presented by other Disciples, but I never heard it done better. So far, however, as being a prospect for membership in this body, I was about as far removed from their views as any young man well could be. I have believed and now believe that Christ organized His church during His personal ministry on earth, and I hold that this view is preeminently validated by the New Testament. "The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the Kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it" (Luke 16:16). John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Messiah; and, as will be found lucidly stated in this discussion by B. H. Carroll, the material for the organization of the church was in preparation during John's ministry.

Jerusalem church like present Baptist churches.

      Another view I have always held is that this first church organization was, in all essential respects, similar to the Baptist churches with which we are familiar now. Moreover, I believe with all my heart that ever since Christ established His church there have been similar New Testament churches in the world, though it is difficult to prove this assertion by history. One reason for the difficulty lies in the fact that from the beginning members of New Testament churches were subjects of truceless and persistent persecution, and hence many of their services were held secretly, and much of the history thus developed never reached that quality of public fruition that attracted the attention of contemporary historians. Another fact was that the men who were writing the history of those early times, and even of later centuries were hostile to the Baptist view, so such fragmentary glimpses of the development of New Testament churches as are found in profane history are ofttimes so warped by prejudice and so tortured in their presentation that scant justice is done our Baptist people. I do not hold here that Baptists by the name Baptist have existed since Apostolic times. Various names have been employed to designate the churches that were set up and maintained according to the New Testament pattern. It was not until recent centuries that the name Baptist became world-wide in its application to our people, and found a place in current literature both ephemeral and permanent.

Obscurity of time when Baptists were first so called.

      A noteworthy fact emerges here. I have wondered why more has not been made of it by the Baptists. A study of ecclesiastical history, as we have it now and have had it through the oncoming centuries, will disclose that none of these writers has ever given the place and date of the establishment of Baptist churches as we know them now. There is not a church history on earth that has even attempted this, the fact being that Baptist churches, as we know them now, were organized first by Christ and His apostles, and then as time swept on by their brethren of succeeding centuries. Therefore there is no point this side the New Testament at which the historian has been able to place his finger and say, "Here is where the first Baptist church known to history was organized." That has never been done and cannot be done. We know the Episcopal church originated during the reign of Henry VIII, of England; that the Methodist denomination emerged from the activities of John Wesley; that the doctrines of Alexander Campbell, which are held and proclaimed by the Disciples denomination, originated with Campbell; that the Lutherans were the outgrowth of the teachings of Martin Luther when he seceded from the Roman Catholic church; that the Salvation Army came into being through the labors of William Booth and so on through the entire catalogue of church history. But there is no fixation date this side of Christ and the Apostles for the establishment of Baptist churches as we have them now. It thus falls out that our chief reliance for proof that Baptist churches have always existed is on the words of Christ spoken to the apostle Peter: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

Baptist conception of church contrasted with others.

      A church is properly denned as "a congregation of Christ's baptized disciples, acknowledging Him as their Head, relying on His atoning sacrifice for justification before God, depending on the Holy Spirit for sanctification, united in the belief of the Gospel, agreeing to maintain its ordinances and obey its precepts, meeting together for worship, and cooperating for the extension of Christ's kingdom in the world." The laws for the government of a church are given by Christ Himself in Matthew 18, and the word "church," which occurs more than one hundred times in the New Testament, means in practicaly all instances a local assembly of baptized believers, as outlined in the definition just set down. I shall not attempt in this discussion to enter upon the question of what many are pleased to call the "church universal," which, according to ecclesiastical writers, includes all the saved of all faiths who have ever accepted Christ since the beginning of time. The limits of the present discussion do not admit of extending it into this somewhat speculative realm, but the discussion here is confined commonly known as the visible church. In some communions the word "church" is used to include all the members of a given sect, as, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church South, and so on. So strongly is this form of speech entrenched in our current literature that news and editorial writers ofttimes refer to the Baptist denomination as the "Baptist Church," entirely without knowing that such a designation as applied to Baptists discloses a gross misconception of Baptist principles and practices. There are Baptist churches scattered throughout the world with a total of some ten millions of communicants, but each one of these churches is an independent unit, governed by its membership as a pure democracy and maintaining the New Testament pattern in all their forms of worship. Some years ago in Texas there was a vigorous discussion covering a long period concerning thequestion as to whether or not a Baptist church can send delegates to participate in Baptist general bodies. The question was finally settled in 1898 when R. C. Buckner, of sainted memory, was president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The question came squarely before that body, demanding a ruling from the President, who, in effect, said that Baptist general bodies were composed of messengers, but not delegates from Baptist churches. That has, in fact, been the Baptist view from time immemorial, and it was traditional among the churches of the New Testament. For instance, there was a church at Ephesus, a church at Corinth, there were the churches of Asia, and so on, but each one of these churches was independent in itself, answerable to no superior body because there was not and has not been such body, conducting its own affairs independently of all other ecclesiasticisms on earth. That is the Baptist view and polity today.

B. H. Carroll on the church's foundation.

      If we assume to answer the question, "Upon what or upon whom was the first New Testament and all subsequent churches founded?" we will elicit countless and conflicting answers. Even among Baptists some scholars and leaders hold that the first Christian church when established was founded on Peter's confession. I have always held the view announced at length by B. H. Carroll in Vol. II, of his great books, "The Four Gospels," beginning at page sixteen, and I am therefore venturing to quote here what this great Baptist scholar, author and leader thus set down, as well as the cogent reasons he gives for the views thus held: "We come now to consider perhaps the most remarkable passage in the New Testament: 'Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.' Here almost every word calls for explanation and occasions controversy. Who or what is the 'rock' upon which the church is founded? In what sense is the term 'church' used? What is the import of Hades and what signifies 'The gates of hell shall not prevail against it?' What signify the 'keys of the kingdom,' and the binding and loosing power? Christ alone founded it. "The first thought that I would impress upon the mind is that Christ alone founded His church. I mean that the church was established in the days of His sojourn in the flesh; that the work of its construction commenced with the reception of the material prepared by John the Baptist. That organization commenced with the appointment of the twelve Apostles, and that by the close of His earthly ministry there existed at least one church as a model, the church at Jerusalem. We find in the history immediately succeeding the Gospel account that this church at Jerusalem began to transact business by the election of a successor to Judas; that they were all assembled together in one place for the reception of the Holy Spirit, and that to them were added daily the saved. Hence, we are prepared to ask: On what did Christ found His church? What is the rock?

The "rock" is primarily Christ Himself.

      "After mature deliberation and careful examination of all the opposing views, and after a thorough study of the Word of God, it is clear to my mind that the rock primarily and mainly is Christ Himself. If it seems to violate the figure that He, the builder, should build upon Himself, the violation is no more marked here than in the famous passage in John where He gives the bread to the disciples and that bread of life is Himself. I would have the reader note the scriptural foundation upon which I rest my conclusion that the rock is Christ. The first argument is from prophecy: 'Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold I lay in Zion for a foundation, a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation; he that believeth shall not make haste' (Isaiah 28:16). This prophetic Scripture clearly declared God's purpose to lay in Zion a foundation, a stone foundation, one that was to be tried, that was assured, a foundation on which faith should rest, without haste or shame. We next cite the 118th Psalm, 22nd verse: 'The stone which the builders refused is become the head-stone of the corner. This is the Lord's doing. It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord hath made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.'

Christ the foundation of the "spiritual house."

      "In fulfillment of these prophecies we cite first the testimony of Peter, unto whom the language of our passage was spoken: 'To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God and precious. Ye also as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the Scripture, Behold I lay in Zion a chief corner stone, elect, precious; and he that believeth on Him shall not be confounded' (1 Peter 2:4-6). "The spiritual house of which Peter here speaks is unquestionably the church. The foundation upon which that church as a building must rest, is unquestionably our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He claims this as a fulfillment of the prophecies which have been cited. Our Lord's own words in another connection (Matthew 21:42) claim the same fulfillment: 'The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner.' With any other construction it would be impossible to understand Paul's statement (1 Corinthians 3:11, 16, 17): 'For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.' Here again the church is compared to a building. The foundation of that building is distinctly said to be Christ. It is also worthy of note that any other foundation for the church than Christ Himself would be wholly out of harmony with the Old Testament concept, as given by Moses, Samuel, David and Isaiah, and Paul's New Testament comment in the following passages, which the reader will please examine: Deuteronomy 32:4, 15, 31; 1 Samuel 2:2; 2 Samuel 22:2, 32; Psalms 18:2, 31; 61:2; 89:26; 92:15; 95:1; and Isaiah 17:10; 1 Corinthians 10:4. Do not understand me to affirm that all these passages refer to God as a foundation. The thought is that the Bible concept regards God as the rock of His people under every variety of image, and so uniformly that to make a mortal and fallible man that rock on the doubtful strength of one doubtful disputed passage, does violence to the rule of the faith as well as to the usage of the term.

Secondary use of the word "foundation."

      "In a secondary sense, indeed, other things may be called the foundation and are so called, but all these senses support the view that Christ is the rock, primarily and mainly. By examining and comparing Isaiah 8:14, Luke 2:34, Romans 9:33, 1 Peter 2:8 and Luke 20:18, we may easily see how the faith which takes hold of Christ may be compared to a foundation. This accounts for the fact that many of the early fathers of the church understood the rock in this passage to be Peter's faith in Christ, and also explains how others of the fathers understood the foundation of the church to be Peter's confession of that faith. The great majority of Protestant scholars regard the confession of faith as the rock, and it is a notable fact that Baptists particularly make this confession or its equivalent a term of admission into the church. Indeed, in a certain sense, both the faith and the confession may be regarded as the foundation of the church. From Ephesians 2:20-22 and Revelation 21:14, we see that the apostles are called the foundation. But it is only because they teach Christ. They are but instruments in leading souls to Christ, and are not the true foundation. By so much as Peter was more prominent than the others, in this sense the church may be said to be founded on Peter. The scriptural proof of Peter's prominence is clear. Though not the first Apostle chosen, his name heads all the recorded lists of the twelve (Matthew 10:2; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13.) He also leads the movement in filling the place of Judas (Acts 1:15). He opens the door to the Jews on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). And he is selected to open the door to the Gentiles (Acts 10 and 15:7). By noting Hebrews 6:1, 2, we see that the primary doctrines concerning Christ may well be called a foundation, and at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, obedience to Christ is compared to building a house on a rock (Matthew 7:24), but all these secondary senses derive their significance from their connection with Christ, the primary and real foundation."

Church officers.

      A scriptural church has elders or bishops and deacons, officially set apart by ordination and the laying on of hands, the elder or bishop providing the spiritual leadership of the church over which he presides and the deacons looking after the business or secular affairs of the congregation. The first church that was organized had its habitat in Jerusalem, and achieved a colossal membership. When the persecution of Saul of Tarsus began, there may have been 100,000 members in this first Jerusalem church. As the church grew in strength and power, and discussion arose concerning the proper dispensing of the church benevolences, seven deacons were ordained to serve the tables or dispense the church funds and look after its secular affairs. The qualifications of elders and deacons are set out very plainly, and to these New Testament passages the interested reader is referred. The first church at Jerusalem had no pope, no cardinal, no archbishops, no bishop in the sense now popularly understood, but only a pastor or elder or bishop, as then understood and as now understood among Baptist churches. The papal concept crept in later.

No Pope or celibate priesthood.

      The theory that Peter was the first pope, and that the church was built on Peter was not a New Testament concept and was not known among either the apostles or the early disciples. The celibate priesthood was unknown in New Testament times, the fact being that there was no priesthood among the New Testament churches, and certainly it was never intended for ecclesiasticism to reverse the word of Jehovah, who when Adam lingered solitarily in Eden, said, "It is not good for man to be alone." It was just as good, however, then as it is now. It never has been good for man to be alone, and the doctrine of the celibate priesthood has no warrant in Scripture, nor has the teaching that Peter was the first pope or any pope at all any Scripture foundation whasoever. Peter was a married man, for upon a time his wife's mother lay sick of a fever. There was no teaching of celibacy in the New Testament, and this view emerged centuries in the future. It was certainly not until the third or fourth century that the papacy was established. The Apostle John lived through all of the first century of Christian history, and his last book, Revelation, was written when he was old. In that mystic but solemn book of the Bible, he talks not about the church as an inclusive aggregation of all Christians, but of the seven churches of Asia - the churches at Philadelphia, Smyrna, and the like. The papacy had not begun to take form in his day, and it was not until later history that the thought of Peter as the pope and as the foundation for Christianity began to be advocated. Anyhow, if the church was to be built on a man, certainly Peter would not have been chosen, for in Gethsemane he tried to do a murder and later the same night, he cursed and swore and denied his Lord. I don't think he would have made a good pope even if he had been a single man.

The ordinance of baptism.

      There are two ordinances in a New Testament church - baptism and the Lord's Supper. Baptism is the immersion in water of a believer, such immersion being performed by an ordained minister of Christ, who has himself been immersed and who believes in immersion. It is not remarkable that so many members of other denominations than Baptists are believers in immersion. Even in our English version the teaching on baptism is so plain that it is difficult to see how any mistake concerning it could be made. The first converts were immersed in the Jordan, as was Jesus Himself, and immersion only is baptism. It is not a mode of baptism, but baptism itself. The Greek word "baptidzo," means only immersion and scriptural baptism can only be performed by one who has himself been set apart to the Gospel ministry and has himself been scripturally baptized. There is no saving efficacy in baptism. Nothing that is done outside of a man has in any sense any saving power. Many who have never been baptized will, I doubt not, spend eternity with the saints in glory and, on the other hand, many who have sought baptism and believed in it as a means of the remission of sins, will later confront a ghastly failure of achieving the eternal life. Baptism is something more than a church ordinance. It is a moving picture of the resurrection of the body. The believer is buried with Christ in baptism, and he rises from the watery grave to walk in newness of life, just like his body after death will arise from the earthly grave to walk forever in eternal unison with Christ and the saints in glory.

The Lord's Supper.

      The Lord's Supper, which is in no sense a communion as popularly discussed and understood, was instituted by Jesus Himself on the night that He was betrayed. Those present when the Lord's Supper was instituted were all the Apostles except Judas, who had gone out to perfect arrangements for the betrayal of his Lord. The Lord's Supper was set in the church and not outside of the church. Many times it has been declared by Christians of loose views on the Lord's Supper that if the Baptists would abandon what is known as "close communion," they would take the world, but the Free-will Baptists practice open communion, and they have not taken much of the world. They have taken so little of it indeed that nobody ever hears of them except in a very fragmentary way; and there are not enough Free-will Baptists in the world to make a sizable Baptist Association. The Lord's Supper is a memorial of Christ's death. As oft as we partake of the Supper, we show forth the Lord's death till He come. There is in the Lord's Supper no element of fellowship of one Christian for another. It is a communion with Christ, and not with any human being. Ofttimes we hear the word, "I can't commune with So-and-So." It is thus that there is widespread misconception of both the meaning and purpose of this sacred ordinance. Time would fail me to enter upon an intimate discussion of this vital theme, so I only name this as one of the two ordinances of a New Testament church, and give my own views, which, as I believe, are warranted by the New Testament, concerning both baptism and the Lord's Supper


[From Victor I. Masters, editor, Re-Thinking Baptist Doctrines, 1937, pp. 115-129; reprinted by Bryan Station Baptist Church, Lexington, KY. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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