The material on this page was written in the 1970s to respond to the criticisms of Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the original “Bible Answer Man.” CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research Institute”). The text of this article is published here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.
From: Answers to the Bible Answer Man (Vol. 1)
9. THE TRUTH CONCERNING THE HISTORIC CHRISTIAN CHURCH
In a message on Witness Lee and the local church, given recently at Melodyland, the speaker made several references to “Historic Christianity.” He said concerning the members of the local churches, “Our responsibility as Christians is to reprove them, rebuke them, and exhort them that they may turn…back again to Historic Christianity, because they are not in it now.” I fully agree that the local churches are not in what he calls “Historic Christianity.” In this brief essay I will try explain why.
The speaker did not give us his definition of “Historic Christianity.” Since he relied so heavily for his material upon The Mindbenders by Jack Sparks and recommended it so highly, I assume he agrees with its basic premise. “The Historic Christian Church,” says Sparks, is the “Church [of] the past”; the Church of “those who have gone before”; the Church of “the creeds, confessions, and writings of the saints”; and the Church which uses the creeds and councils as “ancient landmarks” to interpret the Bible and “the faith.” This kind of mentality can say, “Today, all orthodox Christendom holds to the Nicene Creed. Anyone who does not, embraces heterodoxy.” The truth concerning “the Historic Christian Church” is that she is essentially a conglomeration of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and takes as the standard of faith and practice the creeds and councils of the first five centuries. This “church,” if such she can be called, is a church which relies fully on the past. Instead of relying solely upon the Bible as the only “yardstick for truth,” she mingles the Bible with the ancient creeds, and if a choice is necessary between the two, takes her stand with the creeds, not the Word
The same council which composed the Nicene Creed also decreed in Canon III that the clergy should not marry. This was in fulfillment of 1 Timothy 4:1-3: “In latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and teachings of demons…forbidding to marry” (Gk. ). How, then, could such a council be considered reliable in interpreting the Word of God? When Martin Luther was required to appear before the Diet of Worms, he was told he had “no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith…confirmed by the sacred councils, [and] defined by the Church.” To this he replied:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.
If Luther had been limited by “the Historic Christian Church,” there would have been no Reformation; the truth and experience of justification by faith would not have been recovered; the Bible would not have been liberated from its Latin prison; and we would all still be in the Dark Ages.
The creeds and councils do not equal the Bible. For example, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds say practically nothing about the Holy Spirit. It is clear that when the Council of Nicea met in A. D. 325, the truth regarding the seven Spirits in Revelation was still not recognized. But today we are in the age of Revelation, and while in substance and existence the Spirit is one, for God’s move upon the earth in this period of division and degradation, the Spirit is intensified sevenfold (Rev. 1:4). Surely, this is the up-to-date revelation concerning the Spirit. Are we then to be limited to the dim light men had when the Nicene Creed was written?
Today, on many matters, the light is shining brightly. In A. D. 325 the Nicene Creed was like a small pair of shoes tailored to fit the small feet of the church in that day. But the church’s feet have grown. We can no longer get our large feet into those small shoes. Even in the sixteenth century, Luther’s spiritual feet had far outgrown those small shoes of the councils and the creeds. If he could not wear the shoes of “Historic Christianity” four hundred years ago, how much more have we outgrown them today! Only the revelation of the entire Bible can afford a pair of shoes adequate to fit the church in the Lord’s recovery.
Again quoting from the book which the Melodyland speaker so highly recommends, the author says:
The [historic] Church has failed…miserably; it has moved an embarrassingly great distance away from its original foundations; [and its condition is referred to as] this apostasy. In the Protestant Reformation, [he says] justification by faith in Christ and a renewed emphasis on Holy Scripture were gained. [But] we have never fully regained worship. Authority in the Church has not been reclaimed. And whatever happened to our oneness as a body?
Surely, any church which has failed miserably, has moved from its original foundations, is in apostasy, is short of adequate worship and authority, and has lost the oneness of the Body, is in a divided, degraded condition. What is needed is a recovery of the “original foundations,” a recovery from “this apostasy,” a recovery of the reality of worship, a recovery of “authority in the Church,” and a recovery of the oneness of the Body in its expression. When the speaker says we in the local churches are not in “Historic Christianity,” we agree with him. Historic Christianity is in exactly the poor condition Jack Sparks says it is, and we have no desire to either be in it or return to it.
I myself am not without some experience in “Historic Christianity.” I was ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church and am presently listed in her clerical directory as a priest in good standing. I have lived and breathed the atmosphere of the Book of Common Prayer. The tradition of the “church” and the ecumenical creeds are quite familiar to me. But what I finally came to realize was that what is called the church of history, from the first century until now, has always been composed of two widely different classes of people: those who are merely nominal, traditional, and formal and those who are real, vital, and living. There have been in every age those who represented a real, vital, and living reaction to the nominal, traditional, and formal kind of Christianity. In the sixteenth century Luther and others were the living alternative to dead, traditional Christianity. There is also an alternative today.
It was recently alleged by a speaker at Melodyland that the local churches have called Melodyland, “Babylon.” I do not know where this can be found in print or when it was ever said. It may be that some irresponsible person said it, just as irresponsible people from Melodyland have called us a cult. Wherever the elements of Babylon are present, there is Babylon. If the elements of Babylon are present in Melodyland, Babylon is there. If the elements of Babylon are present in the local churches, Babylon is also there.
In the Bible, the word Babylon is equal to the word Babel. Babel is first mentioned in Genesis 11 where the tower of Babel issued in division and confusion. Many Christians today are in division and confusion. That is, they are in Babylon and do not even realize it. If you are in the division and confusion of today’s present situation, you are in Babylon. Speaking of Babylon, Revelation 18:4 says, “Come out of her, My people.”
There are those who wonder why the local churches call the present Christian situation, Babylon. It is because the present Christian situation is filled with division issuing in confusion. In the New Testament the church was one. Today, however, the church has been divided into many different segments. These divisions have caused confusion. Whether they realize it or not, those who are in the divided situation are in Babylon.
First, we must ask, “What is a denomination?” A denomination begins as a division brought about by Christians exercising personal preferences. The preferences include certain leaders, doctrines, practices, association with a certain race, etc. Eventually those with like preference form a group and denominate themselves by taking a name. Thus, you have the Lutheran Church, the Baptist Church, the African Methodist Church, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, ad infinitum. All such denominations are unscriptural divisions of the Body of Christ. We will now prove this from the pure Word of God.
From the book of Acts through Revelation, it is a simple, obvious truth of biblical history that all the Christians in one city formed only one church. In Ephesus, in A. D. 60, it was absolutely unnecessary to consider which kind of church to join. All the saints there were one as the church in Ephesus (Eph. 1:1; Rev. 1:11). A first-century Christian, visiting the churches, would have encountered no division among Christians in a city until he came to Corinth.
Twenty years ago as a Baptist pastor, I questioned within myself, “Specifically what ‘body’ is it that Paul said should not be divided in 1 Corinthians 12:25?” The context of the chapter and the whole book makes it clear. It was the body of all the Christians in Corinth who daily functioned together as the one church in that city. Several facts prove this point. (1) The book was written to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). This clearly includes all the believers in the city. (2) Paul had received a report of quarrels and divisions resulting from the saints’ preferences for various leaders (1 Cor. 1:11-12). (3) Paul rebuked the divisive ones on at least three major points. First, to divide the Body is to divide Christ (1 Cor. 1:13). Second, to be divisive is fleshly (1 Cor. 3:3-4). Third, by not discerning that the Body is one, they were suffering great loss at the Lord’s table (1 Cor. 11:18, 29-31).
In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul also condemns division as a work of the flesh, categorizing it with immorality and idolatry. The last two words of verse 20 should be translated “divisions, sects.” Since denominations, groups, centers, etc. , divide the Body of Christ, they are works of the flesh. This is the inevitable conclusion from the Word of God.
Deep within him, every denominational Christian’s conscience testifies that he is, in fact, divided from other Christians by the organization to which he belongs. All agree there will be no denominations in the New Jerusalem. Even the unsaved recognize that the denominations are divisions. I have often been challenged by the statement, “If you are all Christians, why are there so many different ‘churches’ with some opposing each other?” In John 17:21, Jesus prayed, “That they all may be one…that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” This demands a visible unity of all Christians in a locality. Otherwise, the world sees not oneness, but division.
We in the local churches repudiate all division. After fourteen years’ experience in the local churches, I can testify strongly that we are not a division and we have no division among us. Neither are we dividing the Body of Christ as our opposers falsely accuse. Rather, we are open to all born-again believers.
We call upon all Christians to drop their sectarian preferences which bring about the formation of denominated groups and divide the Body of Christ. Drop your preference of denominational names, certain leaders, doctrines, practices, etc. All the saints in one city would then be one church without any element of division. One group of saints with the one Christ would form one unique church in a city.
for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
Copyright © 1994 Living Stream, Anaheim, CA, USA. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.