The Baptist Church: Its Doctrine of Succession

Jady W. Copeland
Lakeland, Florida

On the subject of a direct line of churches from apostolic times, Baptists are divided. Thomas Armitage, Baptist historian, denies it. Generally speaking the Landmark Baptists admit it and many of them say it is essential to sound doctrine. Bob L. Ross in Old Landmarkism And The Baptists tells of four positions on succession. Briefly they are: (1) Those who believe it and believe it can be proven. (2) Those who believe the "chained-link" succession theory but think demonstration is lacking. (3) Those who believe it is taught in the Bible but deny the necessity or possibility of it historically. (4) Those who deny the theory as a proper concept of succession but assert the continuity of true churches and use history to confirm this position.

While there is disagreement on church succession, even among the Landmarks (American Baptist Association, North American Baptist Association, etc.) they generally defend the idea. And this chained-linked succession is tied directly to apostolic authority, meaning they believe a "true" church must have an established line back to the apostles. Ford quotes E.C. Gillentine in listing the doctrinal statement of the American Baptist Association thusly: "`11. We believe the great commission teaches that there has been a continuous succession of Missionary Baptist Churches from the days of Jesus Christ down to this day"' (The Origin Of The Baptist, S.F. Ford, p. vii and viii.) Another Baptist says, "Graves basic presupposition, or axiom, was that the commission was given to the church as a corporate, visible organization or institution" (Old Landmarkism And The Baptist, Bob L. Ross, p. 21. [Hereafter, Ross]). Thus, according to Ross, "Landmarkism involves the authenticity of a church as an organization, the administration and administrator of baptism, and the ordination of ministers" (Ross, p. 9). He states these Baptists believe the great commission was given to the Baptist Church and that Christ delegated His authority to the Baptist Church for the purpose of baptizing, establishing churches, etc. Hence the necessity of having a continuous line of Baptist Churches to the apostles. If one is not baptized by a Baptist Church, or ordained by a Baptist Church, he really is not a Baptist. Listen to Ross again, "Consequently, the Landmark view is that Baptist Churches alone have the authority of Christ to evangelize, baptize and carry out all aspects of the commission" (Emp. mine, JWC). On concluding his remarks on "church perpetuity," Ross writes, "Therefore, the true and scriptural organization of a church, the valid administration of baptism, and the proper ordination of a gospel minister must all be enacted upon the authority of a sound and true, scriptural church - namely, a church that was born through the authority of a `mother' church - continuing in like manner back to the original apostolic church of Matthew 28 where church authority first began" (Ross, p. 10).

The basic error of Baptists here is the same as Catholicism - namely that Christ's authority was placed in the hands of the church. Christ has all authority (Matt. 28:18) and He never delegated any authority to any church. The apostles were "sent" and authorized to preach the gospel by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13; Matt. 28:18-19; Acts 1:4-5; Acts 2:1-4). The apostles preached and wrote by inspiration as authorized by Christ (Gal. 1:8-9; 1 Cor. 2:9-13; Eph. 3:1-5). The authority of Christ resides in Him and His will is revealed in the New Testament. Until we learn that lesson we will always ask, "What does the church teach?" The authority belongs to Christ; the church is subject to Him (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:24).

The very idea of the necessity of a line of continuous churches from apostolic times is unnecessary. If d had a grain of corn properly preserved from 1960 would it not produce the same crop from which it came? Would I need seed from the crop of 1961, 1962, 1963, etc.?- Since the word of God is the seed of the kingdom (Lk. 8:11), all I need for a true church in 1983 is the true seed authorized by Christ. If one "plants" the "seed of the kingdom" (the word of God), he gets the true product in 1983 the same as they did in the first century. Churches (the saved) are the results of the preaching of the word, not of some official pronouncement or endorsement from a "mother" church.

Problems In The Process

S.F. Ford in his book, The Origin Of The Baptists, begins with the present and goes backward to the Apostles. But he has a problem past the seventeenth century. Prior to that he claims as ancestors many radical groups which pulled away (often called "separatists") from the Catholic Church and because they held some of the same views as Baptists now hold, he identifies them as "Baptists." They were not called Baptists, and held many views now contrary to Baptist doctrine. By this method of reasoning we could "prove" a Ford car is a Stanley Steamer or vice versa. They had some of the same features and basic parts. We could also make a case for the Baptist Church being the Catholic Church; they have some of the same doctrines.

From these early groups who left the Catholics many held the view of "re-baptism" (Anabaptists). "They were the radicals of the Reformation" (History Of The Christian Church, George P. Fisher, p. 424). They "re-baptized" because they did not believe in infant baptism. Among the groups in the Baptist "chain" which were in opposition to infant baptism are the Montanists of the third century, the Novations of the same period, the Waldenses, from about the twelfth century and others. Concerning the Waldensians Armitage writes, "If they opposed infant baptism it is unaccountable that their literature, running through four centuries, gives no formal argument against, and no accompanying demand for the baptism of believers only" (History Of The Baptists, Thomas Armitage, p. 302). However, some Baptist disagree on this issue.

Another group with which the Baptist identify is the Mennonites. "As puritans, Separatists, and Mennonites practiced affusion at this time and as no issue was raised in the controversial literature called out by the new movement among English Separatists or in the later negotiations between these English Anti-pedobaptists and the Mennonites respecting the act of baptism it seems highly probably that Smyth (founder of the Baptist church) practiced affusion" (New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Vol. I, p. 457-458). Whether the founder of the Baptist church really practiced immersion or sprinkling is still in question, but many believe he was sprinkled, and there is little question that the Mennonites and others from which the Baptist are supposed to have come practiced affusion. Cairns says, "This group (Helwys, Murton and others who organized the Baptist Church in England, JWC) practiced baptism by affusion and held to the Arminian dispute in Holland" (Christianity Through The Centuries, Earle E. Cairns, p. 367). This historian says that Smyth baptized himself by pouring.

But the point is clear. When Baptists begin tracing their heritage back through the centuries, they run into groups with which they identify which, as a friend of mine says, "is not a thirty-second cousin" to the Baptists of today. Ross recognizes this when he says, "It is highly doubtful, however, that these groups (Anabaptists, Waldenses, Albignses, Novatians, etc., JWC) acclaimed by Graves as `our fathers from the third to the sixteenth century,' would be regarded by Landmarkers of the twentieth century as scriptural churches" (Ross, p. 40). And again on the next page, "These groups certainly could not constitute a `link' for Landmarkism, if judged by current standards of Landmark faith and practice" (Ross, p. 41). The truth of the matter is, if any fundamentalist group calling themselves Christians today desired to do so, they could claim a "line" of succession through these same groups and for the same reason the Baptists do. Many churches could find similarities with the present-day doctrines of their church. What a ridiculous situation! Could not the Lutherans do the same? Could anyone think that these Montanists or Novations were really Baptists? Try giving the identifying marks of these groups today without calling them by name, and I doubt a Baptist in the country would want to claim them. Yet to justify their claim of church authority, the Baptist must make such a claim, at least the Baptists who hold to the view of church authority.

But remember that the seed of the kingdom is the word of God. When men and women believed it and obeyed it, they were called Christians (Acts 11:26; 1 Pet. 4:16), not Baptists. No church can trace a successive line of congregations to the apostles, nor is it necessary. Paul did not need an official pronouncement from Antioch to establish the church in Thessalonica, for when he preached the gospel, and when men obeyed it, they became Christians, and the group as a unit was called "the church of the Thessalonians." When the gospel Paul preached is preached today, it will produce Christians. Nothing else is necessary.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 4, pp. 99-100
February 17, 1983