THE ECCLESIOLOGY OF JESUS
IN HISTORICAL REVIEW
by Michael Ramey
Two main factors have conspired in history to rob the Lord’s church of the historical preeminence that is due so honorable an institution. First is the relative obscurity in which the churches were often forced to dwell by their persecutors. Second is the misinformation propagated by her contemporary enemies and perpetuated even to this day by scholarly laziness or intentional deception. But by the gracious providence of God, there is sufficient historical data for a positive identification. In the New Testament we can observe the church as the Lord designed it; and once we grasp the salient principles of His design, we may then identify clearly the historical movements that have exemplified these characteristics — and just as clearly those who have abandoned them.
THE ECCLESIOLOGY OF JESUS: SALIENT FEATURES
Although there are many features of the Lord’s church that might be considered salient, I will choose five of the most significant ones for analysis in this limited space:
A Regenerate Membership
Among the most important of these — the feature that gives the church its most distinctive New Covenant characteristic — is that it was designed to be composed of only regenerate members. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts …” (Heb. 8:10; 10:16). The natural man does not mind
the things of the Spirit (I Cor. 2:14). Only a predominantly regenerate assembly can obey, teach, and implement the righteous laws of God, accurately represent His name, or “bind and loose”on earth as the custodian of the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” according to the Lord’s will (Matt. 16:19; 18:18).
The old covenant by contrast was not designed to be composed of regenerate people exclusively. It was what is known as a “sacral” system, i.e., it was composed of all born and circumcised into the national entity of Israel whether regenerate or not. That was its fault, it was weak through the flesh. “For finding fault with them, he saith … I will make a new covenant” (Heb. 8:8).
The regenerate character of the New Covenant church is to stand, by design, in contradistinction to general society. Below we will compare this regenerate body with the unregenerate sacral system of the Catholics and Protestants.
Implementing, as nearly as possible, the design requirement of a regenerate membership requires that each baptismal candidate bear fruits of repentance (Matt. 3:8) and make a profession of his or her faith (Acts 8:37). This was the actual practice of the New Testament church: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized. . .” (Acts 2:41). The pedobaptism of the Catholics and Protestants stands in stark contrast to this vital New Testament principle and openly subverts the Lord’s plan for a regenerate assembly.
Baptism is a major tenet of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19, 20). Christ instructed His apostles to baptize their disciples — again, believers’ baptism. On the day of Pentecost, Peter followed his Master’s instructions when he commanded his fellow Jews to first repent, then be baptized.
Ecclesia is the name Christ chose for His new institution. By this term He revealed another salient feature about its nature. It denotes a localized gathering to transact some type of official business — not a mystical, intangible abstraction. The ecclesia is a distinctively visual assembly operating autonomously under Christ at the local level. Inherent in the concept of local autonomy are two great principles:
First, the fact that each local body is answerable to Christ its divine Head, in contradistinction to a human hierarchy, provides the ideal divine interface. Thus we “may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:15, 16). This is the process for unity with Christ — for being sanctified by the truth John 17:17). Now it is obvious that if church “A” is sanctified by the truth in unity with Christ, and if church “B” is also, then it is inevitable that church “A” will be unified with church “B” so the world can see.
Second, this ecclesiological feature is critical to the maintenance of unity in truth. Consider, for example, in a case where one church drifts from the truth, it need not affect any other church. This again stands in contradistinction to the problem that arises when a centralized influence is established. Inevitably, when the centralized influence is corrupted, the churches are also corrupted.(1) Clearly, it is a much simpler matter for Satan to introduce error within an influential hierarchy (the few) than to individually corrupt thousands of churches (the many). History bears witness to this reality from the origin of the papacy to the contemporary denominational and/or seminary systems. This explains much of the drift toward error in evidence throughout the centuries. Jesus therefore, in His wisdom, envisioned unified, indigenous churches, responding directly to Him, at the grass roots of each community.
Imperative for the maintenance of truth, and unity in truth, is the feature of church discipline.2 Christ, to preserve both moral and doctrinal purity, instituted a disciplinary process (Matt. 18:15-18). The objective in discipline is first to restore an erring brother and, failing in that, to purge the church of sin (see also 1 Cor. 5).
Unfortunately, this scriptural process is rarely followed these days, and this neglect has a threefold effect. First, a church designed to faithfully represent the name of the Lord, if undisciplined, actually ends up misrepresenting Him. Secondly, a church must have a high degree of credibility in the eyes of the world before its proclamation of the Gospel will be effectual, but an undisciplined church has no credibility. Finally, left unchecked, an undisciplined church will become wholly dysfunctional and may become a cesspool of covert, and eventually overt, corruption in which the Lord’s name is reproached before the world.
A fifth feature of the design of the church exemplified in the New Testament is that of perpetuity. Again, this feature is very critical to the perpetual maintenance of the features of the Lord’s original design. A deliberate and consistent practice of apostolic churches was to closely superintend and thus authenticate the formation of new congregations. This principle relays the authentic body of truth unchanged from one church to the next, and is exemplified in Scripture as follows:
The first church at Jerusalem, having been taught of Christ and having received the authentication of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, was the only authorized church at the time. She then passed along her pure body of truth to her daughter churches: 1) Samaria (“they sent” Peter and John, Acts 8:14), then 2) Caesarea (God sent Peter of Jerusalem, 10:20,44-48, with six other brethren, 11:12), then 3) Antioch (“they sent” Barnabas, 11:22). Then 4) Antioch, a daughter church, extended her pure body of truth received from Jerusalem to all the Pauline churches (13:1ft “they sent” Barnabas and Saul, v. 3; see also 15:40), etc., ad infinitum.
This crucial principle is all but scorned in today’s ecclesiological environment. But before we jettison this vital apostolic practice, we should pause to consider what the Lord purposed to accomplish by it. By this means His pure body of truth would be transmitted unchanged from mother church to daughter church.
Consider the contrary practice where disgruntled heretical renegades, e.g., Acts 15:24, or even a well-meaning but ill-informed brother (18:25-19:6) departs without the approval of a sound church and “creates” his “own” church or corrupts another! The truth has been perverted. Careful attention to this principle would perpetuate pure truth through the ages. This is a principle established by Scripture and should be consistently obeyed, even though it cannot be fully verified by history.
These five characteristics described above comprise the primary definitive features of the church. In these principles, and more, the New Covenant church is visibly set apart from the world, sanctified by the truth John 17:17); and a clear distinction is thus established between the church and the society at large.
CONFRONTING A MUTANT STRAIN
These original features continued as the Christian norm until a serious drift began to occur as early as the second century, culminating finally in a merger of slightly over half the churches with the Roman state in the early fourth century. This mutated “Christianity” became the state religion of the Roman Empire. As the church wed the state in this unholy matrimony, the “Christian” sacral system was born. Sacralism is a religious system in which the citizenry of a particular ethnic, geographical, or political unit comprises the established religious order. As children are born into a sacral society, they are promptly initiated by some sacred rite and involuntarily made worshippers at the state shrine. The Roman pagan religion, and all others before it, had operated on these same sacral principles.
The new sacralism made Roman society and the mutant church one and the same, in stark contrast to the biblical pattern observed above. Baptism, once a mark of separation, now became a mark of inclusion as each Roman citizen became, by decree, part of the new state “church.”
The Catholics attempted to impose this innovation, enforced by civil law, upon all other Christians throughout the Middle Ages. The theological rationale for these innovations was provided by the well-known Catholic apologist, Augustine, the first to attempt to formulate a “consistent theological basis for many of the distinctive doctrines of the Catholic Church.”(3)
Benedict cites Augustine as follows:
The universal church, says he, holds that when little infants are baptized, who certainly, not yet, can believe with the heart unto righteousness, and with the mouth make confession unto salvation, but otherwise by weeping and squalling even when the baptismal mystery is solemnly performed for them, they drown the mystic word themselves; nevertheless, no Christian would vainly say they were not truly baptized.(4)
Never mind that the child is not old enough to believe unto righteousness; according to Augustine, it is vain to question their baptism. His acknowledgment that an infant could not “believe with the heart unto righteousness” is proof enough that pedobaptism was an innovation. Augustine’s rationale was simple: “baptism succeeds circumcision,”(5) and his influence was so powerful that pedobaptism was never again seriously questioned.
On the contrary, it became more deeply entrenched. In 418 some two hundred bishops met in Carthage and “anathematized anyone who said that new-born children did not need baptism.”(6) A council under Charlemagne, 785, proclaimed that “everyone must have his child baptized within a year under penalty.”(7)
The establishment of penalties for dissenters was the fruit of yet another doctrine fashioned by the prolific Augustine — persecution. He advocated the use of physical coercion or sanctions against non-Catholics in order to “. . . compel them to come in … .” (Luke 14). This was his rationale for forcing everyone to be Catholic.(8)
Enforcement of church laws by the civil powers was a logical necessity following the birth of the sacral order. To challenge one aspect of the order, e.g., infant baptism, was to threaten the order of the whole society. Accordingly, throughout the Middle Ages the papacy delivered many harsh decretals against those who stood by the original apostolic principles. The Roman Church called them “heretics,” and Protestant scholars parrot this incredible inversion of truth until this day.
One of the most severe anti-heresy decrees was issued by Pope Lucius III in 1181. Secular powers and even cities were constrained to help fight the “heresies” on pain of punishment. Those who were caught favoring “heretics” would lose public office as well as the ability to testify.(9)
And so we have doubtless come to the most lucid distinction between the mutant church and the church of Jesus Christ: Jesus said, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). “Yea and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). The world, not the church, persecutes. Any institution that “wins” converts by coercion is of the world, not of Christ Uohn 15:18-21). But pure sacralism, by its very nature, is synonymous with the world and therefore persecutes!
“The horrible idea that the Church of Christ may move the wrist of the hand that holds the sword was, of course, carefully stated in the jurisprudence of the Middle Ages.”(10) Philips Wieland, a jurist of the early 16th century, stated: “Heresy is punished by fire; the spiritual judge tries the case and the secular judge performs the execution.”(11) Philippe de Beaumanoir, writing centuries earlier, had set forth the same concept. According to him, one condemned as a heretic by the
“Holy Church” must be left to lay justice. He reasoned that the secular judge “must then burn him, seeing that spiritual justice ought not to put anyone to death” (12) [emphasis added]. Thus they are condemned by their own mouth! One is reminded of the Jews who, after they had condemned Jesus, would not enter Pilate’s house for fear of becoming unclean!
Did this sacral mutation perish with the Reformation? Hardly. Luther, Calvin, and others, while improved in some ways, continued true to the strain in others. Luther said he would not “allow that false teachers should be destroyed … it is sufficient that they should be banished.”(13) Calvin, on the other hand, wrote an entire treatise “maintaining the lawfulness of putting heretics to death.”(14) Shades of Augustine! The Protestant daughters bore great resemblance to their Catholic mother. Protestant sacralism, replete with persecution, was later implemented in colonial America, notably in Massachusetts and Virginia. Protestantism is still sacral in principle, but its teeth have been extracted, not willingly, but by the Bill of Rights which, at the instigation of the Baptists, guaranteed freedom of conscience to all.
THE ECCLESIOLOGY OF JESUS:
Although there were earlier disputes with the Catholic party, it was the fourth-century Donatists of North Africa who bore the fury of the matured sacral order. The Donatists, continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine as discussed above, resisted all the Catholic attempts to coerce them into the Constantinian merger. Donatist pastors explained to their flocks that whereas the devil had formerly orchestrated persecution through the pagan Romans, now he persecuted under the guise of the church. The Donatist bishop Petilian stated that there was no difference between persecution by pagans and by a “Christian” regime that called out troops to crush the dissenters.(15)
In accordance with their stance for a separated church, the Donatists insisted on a biblically disciplined church, one whose members “walked worthy of repentance.” They detested “conductual averagism,” which was the natural product of the sacral order in which there was little distinction between Christian behavior and ordinary human behavior. Particularly heinous to them was the conduct of the sacral clergy. The spiritual leaders conducted themselves, if anything, more lasciviously than the average man. The state church was “filling the countryside with clerics who gave no evidence of being regenerate and all sorts of evidence that they were not.”(16) In contrast, the Donatists continued in New Testament ecclesiology.
The new sacral order bitterly persecuted all dissenters. Some of the Donatist pastors were killed while many more were banished. These acts were deplorable, especially for an institution calling itself the church of Christ. Somewhat less deplorable is the assertion that this persecuting institution was the true church. But that is the claim of Protestantism — some no doubt out of ignorance of Christ’s blueprint for the church and of the history behind the sacral systems.
These sacralist persecutions triggered a large migration, similar to the Jerusalem persecutions in the first century. The bulk of the emigrants made their way across the Mediterranean to southern Europe, and found sanctuary in the valleys of the Alps.
There were others dwelling in these valleys who had fled Catholic persecution, and over the centuries there grew a thriving community called Waldensians, i.e., valley dwellers. They retained believers’ baptism and the basic features of the apostolic church. These simple folk performed no mass, worshipped no saints, and rejected the idea of purgatory. They were noted for “their simple manners, their uprightness and integrity, their readiness to oblige, and their fidelity in discharging all the duties of civil and social life.”(17) For several centuries Catholics persecuted them periodically, and many fled across the Alps, making their way into Germany, England, France, and other countries.
This same kind of Christian showed up during the twelfth century in France as recorded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Called Cathari, they “continued in the grace of Christ and were brought up in the apostles doctrine.”(18) They held only to baptism following a personal profession of faith in Christ. They viewed as superstition anything observed by the Catholic church and not established by Christ and the apostles.
Egbert of Schonau noticed a similar group in Germany during the same period. They were armed, Egbert said, “with … the Holy Scriptures … [which seem] to favor their sentiments, and with those they know how to defend their errors, and to oppose the catholic truth; though in reality they are wholly ignorant of the true meaning couched in those words, and which cannot be discovered without great judgment. . . “(19)
When Luther and the other Reformers began to advocate change in the medieval order, these apostolic Christians came forward to support them; but soon they realized that Luther and his colleagues while correcting some errors retained many others including the sacral idea of the church and with it the doctrine of persecution. They could not walk together.
Countless people have been misinformed about the Lord’s churches. Many historians and chroniclers down through the ages have contributed much to this confusion, mainly by committing three types of errors: First they give complete credence to period writers, usually Catholics, who were hostile to their subjects. Obviously, these writers portrayed their enemies, “the heretics,” in the worst possible light.
The second error involves terminology. Many historians seem to think that all people who were called by a certain name were monolithic in their beliefs and behavior. For example, those called Anabaptists in fact held many different beliefs, some true to Scripture and some far from it, but all are often included under one heading. Often ancient writers would intentionally label people falsely as a smear tactic. The most frequently used epithet of this nature is Manichean. Both of these factors have caused general confusion in the historical record, and stem from intellectual laziness, naivete, or outright deception.
Finally, historians err when they attribute the formation of such groups to lone, charismatic individuals. This we will call the “famous man” theory, e.g., Novatian, Donatus, Waldo. By pressing historical data into neat little categories, they do a grave injustice to reality. Although deception has been common in the past, scholarly laziness, desiring simple answers when complex ones are required, may be just as common.
Now that we have briefly reviewed the salient features of Christ’s church, some of its manifestations in post-New Testament history, the sacral church, and some historiographical errors that have “muddied the waters” through the ages, it is my hope that my Protestant brothers and sisters will reconsider the issues of ecclesiology and will be open to sincere dialogue on this vital subject.
1 For an extensive discussion on this principle, see Willard A. Ramsey, “Corruptive Feedback,” The Pillar, Summer 1989, p. 10.
2 I Cor. 5:12, 13; Rom. 16:17; I Thess. 5:14; II Thess. 3:6-15; I Tim. 5:20, 21; I Tim. 6:1-5; Titus 3:10; Matt. 18:17, 18.
3 W. J. McGlothlin, Infant Baptism (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1916), p. 75.
4 David Benedict, History of the Donatists (1875; rpt. Gallatin, TN: Church History Research & Archives, 1985), p. 132.
5 McGlothlin, p. 81.
6 Hefele, History of the Councils, II, 459. Quoted by McGlothlin, p. 82.
7 McGlothlin, p. 83.
8 Leonard Verduin, Anatomy of a Hybrid (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), p. 108.
9 William Jones, The History of the Christian Church (Wetumpka, AL Charles Yancey, 1845), pp. 261-263.
10 Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (1964; rpt. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), p.-44.
11 Ibid., p. 44.
12 Ibid., pp. 44,45.
13 Samuel Chandler, The History of Persecution from the Patriarchal Age to the Reign of George II (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1813), pp. 286-287.
14 Ibid., p. 289.
15 Verduin, p. 32.
16 Ibid., p. 96.
17 Jones, p. 226-227.
18 Ibid., p. 229-230.
19 Ibid., p. 231-232.