The Baptist Pillar ©      Brandon Bible Baptist Church     1992-Present

"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Baptist Succession or Stumble Period?

David E. Gonnella

From The Baptist Challenge, May 2014

In every age since the Apostolic Age, Baptists have made the claim of exclusively being the churches of Christ and of being the spiritual descendants of the church which He founded during His earthly ministry. In this, Baptists are unique, for even the Roman Catholic Church claims to go back only as far as the apostle Peter and the Day of Pentecost.

Now I need to hasten to say that such a belief does not mean that Baptists think that they are the only ones going to heaven, as is often slanderously reported of us. I have never yet met a Baptist who believed that only Baptists would be in heaven. To the contrary, we believe that anyone who trusts in Christ for salvation is a child of God and destined for heaven, no matter what denominational label he wears, or even if he belongs to no church. It is Jesus who saves (Jn. 14:6), not membership in a church.

What Is Meant By “Baptist Succession”

When we speak of Baptist succession, we mean that since the time of Christ’s earthly ministry there have appeared in every generation churches like the one He founded while He was here on earth. Further, these churches had the same basic characteristics in doctrine and practice. We believe that these churches must be related to each other, notwithstanding their different names (due to different locations, different leaders, and the slander of their enemies). We hold that the churches that have maintained New Testament purity are known by the name “Baptist” in our times, and that such churches will continue to exist until the rapture.

The Stumble Theory

Those who have set themselves against the truth of Baptist succession (both without and among Baptists) usually subscribe to one of two theories:

(1) That in each generation there were those who “discovered” New Testament principles on their own, unrelated to any other group of persons. That is, they “stumble” on the truth.

(2) That the New Testament model of a church was lost during the Dark Ages, and was rediscovered in the Protestant Reformation.

Now it is not reasonable to assume that any great number of people stumbled on New Testament truth generation after generation. While this does happen on occasion, it is the exception rather than the rule. When he was with us for a Bible Conference, Bro. M. L. Moser, Jr. told of a Presbyterian congregation in Mexico that concluded from the New Testament that they needed to become Baptists, and so applied to a Baptist church for baptism. But again, such is rare, and in the case of that group they sought out a New Testament church for authority rather than assuming authority to baptize themselves.

It is also not reasonable to assume that God’s truth was lost for centuries until it was re-established by those whose churches are not patterned after the New Testament model.

What is reasonable is to believe that pure New Testament doctrine has been preserved in the true churches of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 3:15) who have passed that doctrine from generation to generation (2 Tim. 2:2). It is reasonable to accept the witness of Scripture and history.

The Scriptural Foundation

Is there any Biblical reason to believe that the churches of Christ would have a continuity from generation to generation throughout this Dispensation? Yes, there certainly is. For the sake of space we will be brief and only give three evidences.

We first see a reason to believe in church succession in the promise of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church. Here He speaks not of a universal/invisible church, an idea foreign to the New Testament, but of the church as an institution, beginning with that local church He founded. What He obviously meant (if the book of Acts teaches anything) is that He had planted the first church, and from it would spring others, and from them others, throughout this age. That no matter how hard Satan fought against them, he would not cause them to cease to exist over the earth.

Also, we see the promise of Jesus given in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) to the church He founded and passed on to all who followed her. How could Jesus be with His churches “alway, even unto the end of the world” if, in any generation they all ceased to exist? No, they must be here for Jesus to be with them.

Second, in the teaching of the apostle Paul, we see the truth of church succession. He wrote to the Corinthian church (a local church) about the Lord’s Supper and instructed them that in eating the bread and drinking the cup, they would show forth the Lord’s death “till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). How could the Lord’s death be shown forth “till he come” if there was no true New Testament church on the face of the earth to observe the Lord’s Supper?

The promise of the rapture was given to a local church (1 Thess. 4:16-17).

This is not to say that only church members will be raptured at the end of the age. I firmly believe that all Christians will go up in the rapture. But the promise was given to a local church, so local churches must continue until the rapture.

Third, we have the seven churches in the second and third chapters of the Revelation. These picture seven stages of church history from the apostolic age to the rapture. Each stage is pictured by a local, visible church. Why is such a picture drawn if the local, visible churches of Christ would ever cease during the Age of Grace?

Historical Evidence

If Baptists do not have a succession from Christ until now, then no “Christian” religion does. History disqualifies all others.

The Protestant religions could not have a succession back to Christ for they all began in the 16th-18th centuries. Any religion coming after them is disqualified also.

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the true and historic church of Christ, basing its claim on a succession of Roman bishops beginning with Peter. We would point out four problems with that claim:

(1) There is no conclusive evidence that Peter was ever in Rome.

(2) There is no biblical warrant for the primacy of the Roman bishop.

(3) The first bishop of Rome declared to be the Pope (universal bishop) was Boniface III in 606 A.D.

(4) The farthest back that we can date the Roman Catholic Church with any credibility is 324 A.D. when Constantine formed his state-church.

This leaves only the Baptists, if anyone. Happily (for us, at least) we can substantiate our succession by history not just one way, but two!

The Welsh Baptists

The most direct route from Palestine to America is through Wales. That is, if you are talking about Baptist history.

It is apparent that the Apostle Paul led Pudens and Claudia to Christ while he was a prisoner at Rome (Acts 28:30; 2 Tim. 4:21). Pudens was a Welshman in the Roman army, Claudia being his wife. They, and other conquered Welsh took the gospel back to their land.

In 597 when the Catholic monk Austin went to Wales to convert the “heathen,” he found a good number of Christian churches that claimed to exist, or to be in succession from churches that existed at the time of the Apostles. There was even a college for training ministers in Bangor. The historian Benedict gives this account:

“From the coming of Austin, the church in this island was divided into two parts, the old and the new. The old, or Baptist, church maintained their original principles. But the new church adopted infant baptism and the rest of the multiplying superstitions of Rome.”

The ancient Hill Cliff Baptist Church was organized around the year 600 A.D.

We move ahead to the year 1649 when the Swansea Baptist Church of County Glamorgan, South Wales, was organized by John Miles (all the time Baptist churches had continued in Wales. A study of their history is inspiring). This same John Miles organized a Baptist church in 1663 at Kelly’s Bridge, Massachusetts. Most American Baptist churches are descended from the Welsh Baptists.

The Anabaptists

Though a bit more complicated, Baptists in America can trace themselves back to Christ through the Anabaptists (rebaptizers). While it is admitted that not all who wear the label “Anabaptists” were indeed Baptists (Rome and the Protestants tended to paint enemies with a broad brush) and that in some of the Anabaptists groups there were irregularities (as there are in many Baptist churches today). Still, in every time there were churches that, in the main, held to New Testament doctrine.

In the first century, the followers of Christ were known simply as “Christians.” But as some churches began to depart from the faith and the true churches separated from them, the apostates seized the name “Christian” and began to call the true churches by the name of their leaders or some other term.

Thus, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries the true churches of Christ were known as “Montanists.” Of them Vedder says:

“They clearly apprehended the truth that a church of Christ should consist of the regenerated only ... Of course the Montanists immersed ¬ no other baptism, so far as we know, was practiced by anybody in the second century. There is no evidence that they baptized infants and their principle of a regenerate church membership would naturally require the baptism of believers only.”

These true believers were called “Novatians” in the 3rd and 4th centuries and “Donatists” in the 4th-6th centuries. The French historian Crispin lists the views of the Donatists:

“First for purity of church members, by asserting that none ought to be admitted to the church but such as are true believers, and true saints. Secondly, for purity of church discipline. Thirdly, for the independency of each church. Fourthly, they baptized again those whose first baptism they had reason to doubt. They were consequently rebaptizers or Anabaptists.”

Who could doubt that these Donatists were Baptists?

Those who maintained pure New Testament doctrine bore the label “Paulician” in the 7th-9th centuries, “Albigenes” in the 10th-13th centuries, and “Petro-Brusians” in the 13th-14th centuries. They were known as “Waldenses” in the 14th-16th centuries and “Anabaptists” in the 16th-18th centuries. Their spiritual descendants are known by the name “Baptist” today.

A proper study of history will reveal two important facts about the above listed groups: (1) They all held, in the main, to Baptist doctrine and practice. (2) Where one group would begin to fade out, the next group would begin to grow. In other words, they produced and grew out of each other, so that actually they are not different groups, but the same religion going under different names at different places.

What This All Means

The truth of Baptist succession does not mean that Baptists are a better class of people than any others. God has mercy upon whom He will have mercy (Rom. 9:15). But it does mean three important things.

First, that the promise of Jesus is true. The gates of hell have not prevailed against His church, no, not for an hour. Neither shall they prevail.

Second, that Baptist churches are the true churches of Christ. Therefore, true Christianity must be in them (notice I did not say “salvation,” but Christianity, i.e. the pure doctrine of Christ). If New Testament doctrine is to be found anywhere, it should be found among those who have been the “pillar and ground of the truth.”

This, of necessity, means that any “church” that differs materially from the Baptist model is a false church, set up by men in opposition to the doctrines of Christ, and working for the destruction of His churches. Let us cite two examples:

(1) If Methodism gained the day and converted the world, would there be such a thing as believer’s baptism?

(2) If Presbyterianism was able to win out against all others, where would we find scriptural church government?

At this point some would say, “Why can’t we just work together” (like ecumenism and fundamentalism). To which I reply: if you believe your religion is right according to the Scriptures you should refuse to cooperate with error. If you don’t believe that your religion is right then you are a fool to remain in it one more moment.

Third, it means that Baptist churches, as the true churches of Christ, have a unique responsibility to Him. That responsibility is found in Matthew 28:18-20:

“And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”