WHY THE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH TODAY
Donald T. Kirkwood
Annual Conference, Oct. l8, 1962
This is a most interesting subject, one on which I am sure every pastor would like to speak. The program committee is to be commended for suggesting so interesting and timely a theme. The
sub-headings are no less intriguing: Why do we exist? What peculiar place should we fill in the body of Christ, His Church? What should be our role in the world today?
In order to prepare the mind for, what follows, I think it would be worth the time involved to consider the question “What WERE the reasons for our existence”? Then we will be ready to face
the question “Why the Bible Fellowship Church Today?” This will bring into sharp focus the last and easily overlooked word in the theme, namely, the word “today.”
WHAT WERE THE REASONS FOR OUR EXISTENCE?
A. Originally we were brought into existence to meet the need for:
1. An evangelical church in the true sense of the word
2. A separated and gathered church
3. A church with an eschatological message
B. Specifically these needs were met in the following ways:
1. By prayer meetings and the Sunday School on the local level
2. By camp meetings on the fellowship-wide level
3. In particular by the development of the Gospel Herald Society
4. By stressing the then needed negatives
5. By adopting immersion as the only mode of baptism
6. By preaching the doctrine of Christ’s return in terms of a triumph on the part of Christ rather than the church, in other words, historic pre-millennialism rather than postmillennialism.
C. In the course of time these specifics ceased to be peculiar to the Bible Fellowship Church.
Most of them became common to the evangelical movement of the time, and are part of the history of many churches and movements of the day. Thus, what may have marked us off from those from whom we originally separated did not in time differentiate us from our contemporaries.
D. Furthermore, the specifics which met the original needs are no longer capable of fulfilling their function apart from adaptation, or are no longer in existence.
1. The Gospel Herald Society is gone – Store front churches, Instrument playing, Herald selling, etc.
2. The then stressed negatives are no longer apropos, or are no longer prohibited.
The length of the sleeve, the cut of the hair, the use of the ring and jewelry, the role of men in sports and politics, eating in church, etc.
3. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church changed
4. The opposition has changed.
The invisible church concept is very much with us today, in fact, it has pushed aside the visible church concept in fundamental circles. Postmillennialism is all but dead. Eschatology has been overemphasized. Thus in many respects the need today is precisely the opposite of what it was at the time of our origin.
Thus, while we were moving, so was American fundamentalism. As a result we became more and more like a cross section of fundamentalism.
E. What, then, is the need today?
Are we content to be this?
Some are not, and believe that what is needed today is new implementation of the original reasons for our existence, bearing in mind, however, that the world has changed greatly during the century of our existence, admitting also the fact that we, too, have changed: theologically, ecclesiologically and practically. We need to have a reason for our existence and then consistently and consciously carry out that reason. Having considered the question “What were the reasons for our existence” we are now prepared to consider the theme before us “Why the Bible Fellowship Church Today.”
WHY THE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH TODAY
Because – and I would like to give and then develop three reasons – there is a need for a church which in its:
1. Vertical Relationship is REFORMED IN THEOLOGY
2. Horizontal Relationship is DENOMINATIONAL IN ECCLESIOLOGY
3. “This-World” Relationship is GATHERED-CHURCH IN PRACTICE
Let us now consider, in outline form, these three reasons, beginning with the Vertical Relationship
Reformed in Theology
There is a need for a church which is reformed in theology. Originally we were not reformed. Historically we were Arminian; gradually but progressively we became Dispensational; presently we are in transition. There are remnants of Arminianism, and Dispensationalism, also an active Calvinism. When one takes in hand the new Faith and Order, he finds that the Faith section is oriented toward the reformed faith – perseverance of the saints, election, free agency, the church, these and others are unmistakenly reformed. Here lies part of our problem, namely, erecting a reformed theology upon a foundation inherited from the Anabaptist movement.
What, you ask, do I mean by “reformed theology”? I do not mean by “reformed faith” the faith of
the Reformed Church any more than I would mean the Russian Orthodox Church if I said “I am
orthodox,” or the Evangelical Church if I said “I am evangelical” or the Independent Fundamental Churches of America if I said, “I am fundamental,” or the Conservative Baptist Church if I said, “I am conservative.” Each of these words has a meaning other than that of a denomination. The same is true of “reformed.” The reformed faith can be explained, in two ways: Its “doctrine of salvation” and “its world and life view.”
In the reformed doctrine of salvation the following take place:
1. God is exalted
2. Man is humbled
3. Christ’s death is personalized
4. The Holy Spirit’s power is recognized
5. The perseverance of the saints is assured
6. The motive for evangelism is born
Now many churches today have incorporated most or all of these tenets in their system of doctrine and yet have an incomplete theology due to a system of thinking which limits the reformed faith to the area of salvation alone, thereby cutting off from their theology their world and life view – if they have a world and life view. If the Bible Fellowship Church is to be relevant, if it is to meet the needs of the coming generations with the present emphasis upon education, and if it is going to endeavor to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, it will have to be less traditional. It must enlarge its thinking to include a world and life view. A world and life view has been a vital part of the reformed faith. A world and life view has never been a part of American fundamentalism. (The indictment of fundamentalism herein referred to is not due to what it says, but what it fails to say. This is important to remember.) We need a world and life view.
We need a world and life view because – and I would like to mention four reasons:
1. Because salvation includes the whole man
In so far as one believes this he is neither Arminian nor Dispensational. Reformed theology believes and stresses that in salvation the whole of men is regenerated.
2. Because the divine mandate to image-bearers extends to the whole of creation
a. The religious phases of life cannot be isolated as does Romanism.
b. The religious phases of life cannot be compartmentalized as does Dispensationalism.
c. The non-religious phases of life cannot be ignored as does fundamentalism.
d. The non-biblical approach to life cannot be wedded to the biblical as does neo-evangelicalism. All of creation must be included in one’s world and life view.
3. Because the gospel must be made relevant to the everyday life of every man in every strata of society
4. Because every phase of church life must be subjected to the searchlight of God’s Word
Thus the reformed faith is more than a theology of salvation in the narrow sense of the word. It is a faith which believes in the relevance of the word of God to all of life. It has a world and life view. There is a place for a church with the emphases of the reformed faith. It is not found in Methodism or Lutheranism. Independents and Baptists, as a rule, make little of it.
We have not given much thought to the matter of world and life view as a church. In this we were not alone. We merely reflected American fundamentalism. In the past we were able to get along without giving it much thought. But now there are changes all about us and within us which make it imperative that we give long and hard study to this problem. Fundamentalism has no world and life view. Modernism has an unbiblical world and life view. Mennonitism has a world and life view. (It is more than significant that it is a thorough going anti-dispensational church.) However, it has an Arminian and man-centered world and life view rather than a reformed and God-centered world and life view.
Advocates of the reformed faith turn to God’s word and derive therefrom principles which have a bearing upon all of life. Their periodicals contain articles on:
Government of the church
In today’s world, in order to minister to this generation, a world and life view is a must.
II. WHY THE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH TODAY?
Because there is room for a church which in its Horizontal Relationship is denominational in Ecclesiology. In order to save time, I will go right to the heart of the matter. In so doing the emphasis will be somewhat negative.
I believe there is a place for a church which is denominational, and putting it negatively and pointedly, non -dispensational in make-up. American churches of the fundamentalist persuasion have been greatly influenced by John Darby.
A. Darby’s influence on American church life
From John Darby, the founder of Plymouth Brethren theology, through the believer’s meetings and prophetic conferences, to C. I. Scofield and his Plymouth Brethren backed Bible of 1909, there is an unbroken chain. Darby’s influence was not all bad. There are many good things to be said for Darby. For example, his emphasis upon:
The Invisible church instead of the Visible
The Spiritual instead of the Formal
Eschatology when others had none
According to one student of the movement “Dispensationalism grew out of the Brethren movement or Darbyism.” The same author asks “Why has it been resisted so steadily by denominations which are rooted in the theology of the Reformation”? (Clarence Bass in Backgrounds to Dispensationalism p. 47.) Again, he asks, “Is it more than a coincidence that dispensationalism has been associated prominently with the theology of interdenominational and independent churches”? (Ibid. p. 47.) Thus Dispensationalism and anti-denominationalism go hand in hand. I doubt that there is a Dispensational denomination in America. According to another student of the movement, the American followers of Darby “tried to adopt Darby’s dispensationalism which had anti-denominationalism as a point of departure to a non-denominational or interdenominational philosophy”. (Dispensationalism in America Kraus p. 56.)
B. The influence of Darby’s dispensational doctrine of the church has resulted in the following:
1. A denial of:
The unity of the church and Bible Biblical ecumenicism (denominations). Darby repeatedly said, “The church is in ruins,” and by this meant the organized churches of his day.
The social implications of the gospel. This is seen by comparing Bibliotheca and the Gordon Review.
2. The fostering of:
Personally – no subordination to others or the church
Ecclesiologically – no subordination to other churches
Eschatologically – Individual deliverance centered
3. The production of:
Schism in the body of Christ
Over against this is a non-dispensational concept of the church which does not necessarily deny autonomy to the particular church, but does modify it by the New Testament teaching of mutual subordination, of both the individual to the particular church and the particular church to the denomination.
We are a fellowship of churches. Formerly we were episcopal in our ecclesiology, progressively there was introduced elements of congregationalism, presently we are in a transition, with elements of episcopal, congregational and presbyterial government.
In order to highlight the difference between the denominational concept of the church and that held by most independents and Baptists let me quote a paragraph which anyone who believes in denominations would, I believe, accept. “If local churches are to be free from domination by a secular power or from the authority of an ecclesiastical oligarchy, they must associate with one another, each recognizing the authority of the other, none claiming absolute autonomy or authority, and all recognizing the temporal but preeminent authority of the association of churches.” (Harrison, Authority and Power in Free Church Tradition p. 220) In contrast to this quotation let me quote a well known Baptist’s comment on it. “Well, if Baptist churches ever agree to Harrison’s formulation, they will forfeit all right to call themselves Baptist.”(Grounds, Conservative Baptists Today “Conservative Baptists at the Crossroads,” p. 6)
Thus there is in my belief a place for a church which is reformed in theology and denominational in ecclesiology. This ecclesiology separates the Bible Fellowship Church from the Baptists, Independents and Dispensationalists. Whereas the former point, the theological, separated us from the Methodists and Lutherans, and the latter point, the ecclesiological, separated us from the Baptists and Independents, are we to assume that we are always with the Presbyterian and Reformed churches?
III WHY THE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH TODAY?
Because there is needed a church which is not only reformed in theology and denominational in ecclesiology but also Gathered-Church in its This-World Relationship. When I say “Gathered-Church,” I am not using the word in the new and World Council of Churches inspired connotation, but rather in the informal and traditional sense, a sense precisely the opposite of the new World Council of Churches meaning. There is a place for a church which in Its relationship to this world is “gathered-church.” This is a concept of the church which has always been part of our Anabaptist heritage. It is a concept which separates the Bible Fellowship Church from Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist and many other churches.
A. What is meant by “gathered-church”
The term, “gathered-church,” means a church which is:
1. Separated from the state
2. Separated from the world
3. Requires evidence of personal salvation before admittance
4. Practices believer’s baptism
5. Exercises discipline and demands separation
Inasmuch as the Bible Fellowship Church has always been a believer in the gathered-church principle, little will be said along this line. There is a place for a church which adheres to the gathered-church principle, without the particular negatives of previous generations. The principle remains, the practices change. To take an absolute stand on a relative issue is suicide.
NOW IT IS OF COURSE TRUE THAT NONE OF THE THREE POINTS IS PECULIAR TO THE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH. THERE ARE OTHER CHURCHES WHICH ARE REFORMED IN THEOLOGY, STILL OTHERS WHICH ARE DENOMINATIONAL IN ECCLESIOLOGY, AND STILL OTHERS WHICH ARE GATHERED-CHURCH IN PRACTICE. HOWEVER, WHEN THE COMBINATION OF THESE THREE IS USED AS THE STANDARD, I BELIEVE WE HAVE TO SAY THAT THERE IS ROOM FOR A CHURCH WITH SUCH A STANDARD.
A. What Peculiar Place Do We Fulfill in the Body of Christ?
We fill a need. The need for a church like ours is not to be ascertained by conducting marketing surveys to find what the public wants, nor by looking at churches which have “succeeded”, rather it is found by searching the word of God.
Since many of the Presbyterian churches have been infiltrated by modernism and neo-orthodoxy, there is room for a church which adheres to the reformed faith. Lutheranism, Methodism, Arminianism and Dispensationalism have never been consistently and self-consciously reformed.
Since the Independents, Baptists and Dispensationalists have never had a truly denominational concept of the church, and have a built-in rejection of denominationalism in their undue and unmodified concept of autonomy, there is a need for a church which is both reformed and denominational.
Since the Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist and Lutheran churches never accepted the gathered-church principle, there is a need for a church which consistently and self-consciously is reformed in theology, denominational in ecclesiology and gathered-church in practice. By this I do not mean that the Bible Fellowship Church would be the only true church, far from it. (I DO BELIEVE, HOWEVER, THAT THESE THREE PARTICULARS CONSISTENTLY AND SELF- CONSCIOUSLY CARRIED OUT WOULD JUSTIFY OUR EXISTENCE AND FILL A VOID IN AMERICAN CHURCH LIFE.)
At the outset we referred to what we were originally, let us now summarize what we said in the areas of theology, ecclesiology and practice, especially as it applies to the Bible Fellowship Church.
B. First of all theologically
The Bible Fellowship Church is no longer Anabaptist, except in the gathered-church principle. We vote, bear arms, have a different standard of separation, different form of church government, different theology, name, and on and on. We have changed.
The Bible Fellowship Church is not Arminian in its statement of Faith. The Bible Fellowship Church was never consistently Dispensational in its ecclesiology.
Is it not time we recognize these changes and stop acting as though we still believed them, when all the time we don’t?
We have a reformed statement of Faith and a non-dispensational ecclesiology in our denominational set-up. We have always been gathered-church in evangelical emphasis.
Let us not then oppose reformed theology in areas wherein we agree. Let us not align ourselves with Dispensational churches in areas wherein we are basically different.
On the other hand, let us not give up our gathered church heritage in order to enjoy a short-lived advantage. Are we not doing this when we take into fellowship and baptize children ten and under? Is this the gathered-church principle? Note the warning of Harold S. Bender who says “The age of baptism has really become so low, numerous cases of ten years and below, that in spite of the outward form of voluntarism and even profession of conversion, the actual practice tends toward child baptism.” (Mennonite Encyclopedia Vol. I, p. 596)
C. Next ecclesiologically
We are a fellowship of churches, a denomination. Formerly we were episcopal in government, then we included elements of Congregationalism, now on the lower level we have a combination of episcopal, congregational and presbyterial. We have autonomy on the lower level, with a built-in subordination to the upper level.
Here I believe we need to do some study, rethinking, revamping. Vestiges of former systems need to be discarded. The inclusion of new elements needs to be spelled out. All of these stemming from a biblical approach with a view toward bringing the totality of the church under the shield of the word of God. There is a place for this in the ecclesiastical world because it is biblical and because the lack of it has produced in America a large but ineffectual force of conservatives with a genius for promotion, fund raising, duplicity of effort and multiplication of agencies in evangelism (everytime a Jew is converted a new mission to the Jews is born), but a poverty of power, a paucity of social, educational and civic Influence, and an indifference to the advance of the crown rights of the crucified.
We have always been gathered-church. We have changed on our opposition to particulars. We are still “gathered-church” nevertheless. Thus we have changed theologically, ecclesiologically and practically.
E. Becoming What We Are
NOW, LET US BECOME WHAT WE ARE. AFTER WE DETERMINE WHY WE EXIST, THEN WE MUST CONSTANTLY SEEK TO IMPART TO OUR PEOPLE THE REASON FOR OUR EXISTENCE. IF WE ARE GOING TO BE JUST LIKE OTHERS, THEN WE HAVE FORFEITED OUR REASON FOR EXISTENCE. I’M AFRAID THAT THIS HAS BEEN AN IDEA ALL TOO PREVALENT IN THE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH OF LATE. ONCE WE WERE ENCOURAGED TO BELIEVE THAT THE MENNONITE BRETHREN IN CHRIST WAS THE ONLY CHURCH. NOW WE HAVE GONE TO THE OTHER EXTREME, WE ARE JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER FUNDAMENTAL CHURCH. HAVE WE NOT BEEN TELLING OURSELVES THAT WE ARE JUST LIKE OTHERS. FOR EXAMPLE, WE SAY WE ARE NOT REFORMED, NOT ARMINIAN, NOT DISPENSATIONAL, AND, OF COURSE, NOT LUTHERAN. THEN, WHEN WE SUPPORT AND ACT LIKE A NON-DENOMINATIONAL CHURCH, ARE WE NOT AGAIN FALLING INTO THE CAMP OF THE INDEPENDENT DISPENSATIONAL CHURCHES? ARE WE A GROUP OF INDEPENDENT FUNDAMENTAL CHURCHES IN WHICH EACH CHURCH GOES ITS SEPARATE WAY TOGETHER? WHERE ARE OUR DISTINCTIVES? WHY EXPECT ANYONE TO MOVE WITH US WHEN WE MOVE, RETURN TO US WHEN THEY MOVE, IF WE ARE JUST ANOTHER FUNDAMENTAL CHURCH?
We in the Bible Fellowship Church, after determining our reason for existence, must be:
Conscious of our heritage
Committed to our principles
Critical in our self-analysis
Corrective in our actions
Concerned with making the Bible Fellowship relevant to our generation.
There is a place for the Bible Fellowship Church today. Let us assume this God given role.