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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. M. Pendleton
From Distinctive Principles of the Baptists, 1882
BAPTISTS BELIEVE THAT A SCRIPTURAL CHURCH IS A LOCAL CONGREGATION OF BAPTIZED BELIEVERS INDEPENDENT, UNDER CHRIST, OF THE STATE AND OF EVERY OTHER CHURCH, HAVING IN ITSELF AUTHORITY TO DO WHATEVER A CHURCH CAN OF RIGHT DO.
It requires but little reflection to see that the principle here announced is peculiar to Baptists. No other religious denomination holds it—certainly not in its entirety. The important question, however, is whether the New Testament sustains this principle; for if it does not, the principle possesses no value. It will be observed that my reference is to the New Testament, for it would be absurd to go to the Old Testament to ascertain the nature of a Christian Church. In the matter of church-building, as well as in other things, Jesus said to the apostles, "Teaching them [the disciples] to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you."
SECTION I. A scriptural church a local congregation of baptized believers.
The Greek term ekklesia—translated "church" more than a hundred times in the New Testament (rendered "assembly" three times)—is compounded of two words literally meaning "to call out of." I shall not attempt to show how this meaning received a practical illustration when assemblies were called out among the Greeks.
My present purpose is answered by the statement that in apostolic times a church was composed of persons who had been called out from the world, even as Christ chose his apostles "out of the world." They had been called from the bondage of sin into the liberty of the gospel; from spiritual darkness into the light of salvation; from the dominion of unbelief into the realm of faith; from an heirship of wrath to an heirship of glory. This was true of the members of the first churches. Brought by the Holy Spirit into a new relation to God through Christ, they were prepared for church relations and church membership.
This preparation was moral, consisting of "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." But repentance and faith are exercises of the mind, and are consequently invisible. They are private transactions between God and the soul. The world knows not of them.
Churches, however, are visible organizations. This being the case, there must be some visible ceremonial qualification for membership. This qualification is baptism. There can, according to the Scriptures, be no visible church without baptism. An observance of this ordinance is the believer's first public act of obedience to Christ. Regeneration, repentance, and faith are private matters that take place in the unseen depths of the heart. They involve internal piety, but of this piety there must be an external manifestation. This manifestation is made in baptism.
This is "the good profession" made by a most significant symbolic act. The penitent, regenerate believer is baptized "into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." There is a visible, symbolic expression of a new relation to the three Persons of the Godhead—a relation really entered into in repentance, faith, and regeneration.
That baptized believers are the only persons eligible to church-membership is clear from the whole tenor of the Acts of the Apostles and of the Apostolic Epistles. Everywhere it is seen that baptism preceded church relations; nor is there an intimation that it was possible for an unbaptized person to be a church-member.
On this point, however, there is no controversy between Baptists and Pedobaptists, for both believe in the priority of baptism to church membership. The difference between them is on the question, “What is baptism?” The Baptist answer to this question is that baptism is the immersion in water of a believer in Jesus Christ. If, then, a church is a congregation of baptized believers, it is a congregation of immersed believers.
An unimmersed congregation, therefore, even if a congregation of believers, is not a New-Testament church. Baptists do not deny that there are pious men and women in Pedobaptist churches, so called, but they do deny that these churches are formed according to the New-Testament model. They are without baptism, and, to use the words of a very distinguished Pedobaptist, Dr. E. D. Griffin, "where there is no baptism, there are no visible churches."
Even if Pedobaptists practised immersion, and immersion only, the introduction of the infant element into their churches would vitiate their claim to recognition as New-Testament churches. The infant element must predominate over the adult element, in obedience to the law of increase in population; which law renders children more numerous than parents. Surely, as Pedobaptists practise an uncommanded ceremony instead of baptism—on unscriptural subjects instead of on believers—their churches can lay no claim to conformity to the New-Testament standard of church organization. They are not congregations of baptized believers.
There can be no ecclesiastic fellowship between them and Baptists, for the latter hold most tenaciously that a scriptural church is a local congregation of baptized believers. That a church is a local congregation needs no elaborate proof. The fact is sufficiently indicated by the use of the word in both its singular and its plural form.
We read of "the church at Jerusalem," "the church of God which is at Corinth," "the church of the Thessalonians," "the church of Ephesus," "the church in Smyrna," etc. Nor is it to be supposed that it required a large number of persons to constitute a church. Paul refers to Aquila and Priscilla and "the church that is in their house," to Nymphas and "the church which is in his house;" while in his letter to Philemon he says, "to the church in thy house." A congregation of saints organized according to the New Testament, whether that congregation is large or small, is a church.
The inspired writers, too, use the term "churches" in the plural ; and, as if forever to preclude the idea of a church commensurate with a province, a kingdom, or an empire, they say " the churches of Galatia," "the churches of Macedonia," "the churches of Asia," "the churches of Judea." In reference to an organization in a city or town or house, the singular "church" is used; but when regions of country are mentioned, we have "churches," in the plural. Wherever Christianity prevailed in apostolic times, there was a plurality of churches.