The Search for Doctrine and The Role of Associations


      Without the succession of New Testament doctrine Church succession is meaningless. Churches are defined and identified by those doctrines which are essential to their beliefs and practices. If churches form for themselves new beliefs and creeds and forsake the teachings of Christ and the Apostles they become a new type of church apart from what Jesus began. These new churches only have a lineage dating from the time of their apostasy. In order for New Testament churches to have a ligitimate lineage they must be in doctrinal conformity with the first church of Jerusalem, for that is the prototype.

      Researching the doctrines and policies of the ancient churches (which were never a part of the Catholic Church) from the second to the sixteenth centuries is a daunting task. Often we are met with long periods of silence. The records given to us by historians are varied, incomplete and at times contradictory. However, there still remains enough evidence to give a general idea of what churches believed and practiced.

      Two sources of the beliefs of churches come first from self-testimony and second the testimony of those apart from them. While the first source is considered the most accurate the second, although not always factual, gives witness from observation. Both require a careful examination for authenticity and accuracy. This calls for an open mind, caution, and certain amount of skepticism.

      Self-testimonies of churches are usually presented as a declaration of faith. It may be in the form of statements of belief, catechisms, creeds and canons issued from a council or synod, from covenants, and finally from their tracts. Some declarations come from accepted persons with recognized authority to speak on behalf of their churches; these would be such as a Pope's papal bulls of the Roman Catholic Church and Donatus of Carthage. And lastly there are the personal testimonies and writings of men and women identified with specific churches. This last group would include the testimonies of martyrs, writers such as the authors of the Waldensian poem, The Noble Lesson, and the Paulician book, The Key of Truth, and the writings of prominent men as Augustine and Tertullian.

      Here is an example of how a source of the beliefs of the Waldenses has come to us from their persecutors. It was declared by the priests of the inquisition that the Waldenses were decadent and licentious in that they did not observe marriage. Now there is a seed of some truth in their accusation, but the whole truth is that they did not reject marriage but rejected the "Sacrament" of marriage as a necessity for salvation.

      The first record we have of any type of confession is the Apostles' Creed, sometimes called "The Old Roman Creed." It was written in the second century and has undergone several revisions since then. This misnamed "The Apostle’s Creed,” in its earliest historic form says: "I believe in the holy church." Later forms say: "I believe in the holy catholic [universal] church." Then later: "in the holy catholic and apostolic church." Still being incremented from other creeds it became: "The holy Roman catholic and apostolic church." This creed initially was to emphasize the true humanity of Christ, including His material body, since heretics of that time (Gnostics, Marcionites, and later Manicheans) denied the Christ had come in the flesh. As this creed changed we can see the evolution of new doctrine portrayed. The Nicene Creed was composed in the fourth century, and a comparison of it with today’s the Apostles' Creed gives a record of changes and departures from the first faith.

      At the beginning it is seen that creeds were made initially in reaction to changes to apostolic beliefs. Their nature was a defense of The Faith. However, later creeds were made to assert the changes and not to defend historical beliefs. These creeds were championing a departure from that which was commonly believed, traditionally accepted, and practiced as truth. Up until the Reformation all creeds were made to foster and advance changes in doctrine and policies made by both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.

      There is a phenomenon that the whole of dissenting churches "never put forth an authorized expression of their principles and practices in the form of a creed." (Armitage) There existed no need for churches to state beliefs which were obvious to all. It was not until the seventeenth century do we see Baptist confessions of faith published.* This lack of confessions and creeds of the Anabaptists may trouble some. However, this much is certain; that all of their beliefs came from the following four points: 1 The sovereign and absolute supremacy of Christ in His Churches; 2 The exclusive authority of the Scriptures, as containing His law for their direction in all things; 3 The supernatural regeneration of each member in the church; and 4 The liberty and responsibility to God, of every individual’s conscience for self-determination and judgment of religion.

* Some may argue that the Schleitheim Confession, 1527, is an Anabaptist confession, but evidence is that those Anabaptists were Reformers known as the Swiss Brethren and were not of the ancient Anabaptists.

      If we try to understand why they did not sense the need to publish their beliefs perhaps we can garner what their beliefs were. If the early churches were asked what they believed would they have offered anything other than scriptures as their creed? Their only defense of their faith was the New Testament; they resorted to nothing else for they believed nothing apart from it. Heretics and heresies need to produce and elevate a supplemental document to sustain their beliefs. The Bible was their confession of faith and there was no need to add any further. Later, because of the abuse of creeds, it seems that there was a genuine prejudice against authoritative creeds, as inadequate substitutes for the Scriptures, and as dangerous limitations upon the Spirit’s leadership in interpreting the Scriptures.* We may have many questions for them concerning their opinions on certain doctrines and practices on which they were silent, but these issues did not exist in their day. Examples of this would be the grace of God, women in the clergy, tongues, and points of prophecy; all of which trouble us today. These things are rarely, if at all, mentioned by them. Why? Was it because they held no stand on these questions, or is it more likely that they were not issues needing to be addressed? Where they were silent is not proof of approval or an absence of opinion. The most reasonable and rational conclusion as to what were the beliefs of the Apostolic, Anabaptist churches is that they were the same as the first church in Jerusalem. They never declared anything different.

*Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith.

      The Waldenses wrote, "When Papists ask us, where our religion was before Luther? We generally answer, in the Bible; and we answer well. But to gratify their taste for Traditions and human authority, we may add to this answer, and in the vallies of Piedmont." (Armitage)

      Here is a reference of the Albigenses found in Mosheim's writings, XI century, chapter V. "We find that even their enemies acknowledged the sincerity of their piety; but they were blackened by accusations which were evidently false; and that the opinions for which they were punished differed widely from the Manichaean system. They looked with contempt upon all external worship (rituals), rejected all rites and ceremonies, and even the Christian sacraments, as destitute of any, even the least spiritual efficacy or virtue." Why repeat the Bible for a confession, it is already before all.

      In 1030 it was remarked of them by Mosheim, “They maintained, in general, according to their own confession, that the whole of religion consisted in the study of practical piety, and in a course of action conformable to the divine laws, and treated all external modes of worship with the utmost contempt. Again, according to Mosheim, their particular tenets may be reduced to the followings heads:

Note these points are in the third person.

1. They rejected baptisms, and in a more especial manner, the baptism of infants, as a ceremony which was essential to salvation.
2. They rejected, for the same reason, the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
3. They denied that that the churches [church buildings] were endowed with a greater degree of sanctity than private houses, or that they were more adapted to the worship of God than any other place.
4. They affirmed that the altars were to be considered in no other light than as heaps of stones, and were therefore unworthy of any marks of veneration or regard.
5. They disapproved of the use of incense and consecrated oil in services of a religious nature.
6. They looked upon the use of bells in the churches, as an intolerable superstition.
7. They denied that the establishment of bishops, presbyters, deacons, and other ecclesiastical dignities was of divine institution, and went so far as to maintain that the appointment of stated ministers in the church was entirely needless [to preserve churches as lawful bodies of Christ].
8. They affirmed that the institution of funeral rites was an effect of sacerdotal avarice, and that it was a matter of indifference whether the dead were buried in church yards, or in the fields.
9. They looked upon those voluntary punishments, called penance, which were so generally practiced in this century, as unprofitable and absurd.
10. They denied that the sins of departed spirits could be, in any measure, atoned for by the celebration of masses, the distribution of alms to the poor, or a vicarious penance; and they treated, of consequence, the doctrine of purgatory as a ridiculous fable.
11. They considered marriage as a pernicious institution, and absurdly condemned, without distinction, all connubial bonds. [This article is scarcely credible, at least as it is here expressed. These churches did not reject marriage, but the sacrament of marriage as necessary for salvation, and may have held that to remain unmarried was in high esteem. I Cor. 7: 32, 33]
12. They looked upon a certain sort of veneration and worship as due to the apostles and martyrs, from which, however, they excluded such as were only confessors, in the which class they comprehended the saints, who had not suffered death for the cause of Christ, and whose bodies, in their esteem, had nothing more sacred that any other human carcass.
13. They declared the use of instrumental music in the churches, and other religious assemblies, superstitious and unlawful.
14. They denied that the cross on which Christ suffered was in any respect more sacred than other kinds of wood, and, of consequence, refused to pay to it the smallest degree of religious worship.
15. They not only refused all acts of adoration to the images of Christ, and of the saints, but were also for having them removed out of churches.
16. They were shocked at the subordination and distinctions that were established among the clergy, and at the different degrees of authority that were conferred upon the different members of that sacred body.

      These Albigenses were also known as Waldenses and Paulicians, and connected with the Bogomils. They were called Mystics, fanatics and odious. In Italy they were called Paterini and Cathari. “This pernicious sect adhered obstinately to their principles, and hence they were at length condemned to be burnt alive. A like set of men proceeded in vast numbers out of Italy in the following ages, spread like an inundation through all the European provinces, and were known in Germany under the name of the Brethren of the free spirit, while they were distinguished in other countries by the appellation of Beghards.” (Mosheim)

The Association

      In the second century there existed what may be called a loose association of churches. They were quite different from associations of today. We would consider them more of fellowships than any kind of organization. Initially, churches or their leaders gathered together for the comfort of mutual support and encouragement. The main concern of these fellowship-associations was the common interest of benevolence for individuals and churches that were destitute or under persecution. These needs were made known and a resolve was made by individual churches to alleviate their misery.

      At some point these fellowships began to conduct business and became councils issuing rulings. These councils are always appear with the dominant church in the large city, called the Metropolitan church or just the Metropolitan, accepted as the superior arbitrator. Mostly churches were first founded in the large metropolitan cities. These city churches spread the gospel to surrounding towns and villages and it was not uncommon for these smaller churches to be considered as daughters of the Mother-Church. So it was natural that they should resort to the Mother-Church (since they had a closer succession to the apostles and assumed to be purer in faith) to resolve theological questions. Moreover, the Metropolitan had more influence with civic government and more resources to assist the poorer country churches. Naturally, it followed that the Metropolitan Bishops also enjoyed this elevation of reverence. It was not long before the concept of the diocese (meaning neighborhood) arose and the Arch-Bishop was made with his authority over all churches in his sphere.*

*A Church without a Bishop, Lyman Coleman 1844.

      Records show that it became a prestigious matter of being an officer of the association and of asserting supremacy. Pastors impressed with the idea of an umbrella of strength of associations led their churches to take an oath of allegiance and loyalty to the Metropolitan association. What had begun with councils became synods issuing laws and rulings binding on all their churches. Church independency gradually slipped away over the course of several centuries and any thought of self-rule, self-determination, disappeared. The number of these organizations grew and expanded. Bishops of the greater associations ruled over the lesser. A hierarchy was born, and this developed into the Catholic Churches: in the west the Roman Catholic and in the east the Greek, both struggling for supremacy over the other. What had been reserved exclusively to Christ as the Head of His body was slowly and inextricably being usurped. A union was forming and not that of unity but of uniformity. This can be seen in the treatment of Novatian and his followers as they were charged and condemned for dividing the body of Christ for only one church in Rome was acceptable. Later they were condemned for re-baptizing those who came from the Catholics adding to the charge of causing ecclesiastical disharmony.

      As seen at the time of the development of authority by a ruling body and synods, slowly churches began to lose their sovereignty and no longer were independent but a part of what was to become a monstrous super church. Except in the East, Rome was considered as the seat of the truest and purest orthodoxy. It was granted that this church and especially its bishops had a special, unique, and sometimes secret knowledge imparted to them from both Paul and Peter, the first pastors. They held in high esteem not only the succession of their church but also in the lineage of ordination of their bishops. The East also used this same method of determining their Patriarchs, through the question of the line of ordination they had; what bishop ordained you and who ordained him?

      This mega catholic alliance was the conduit through which Constantine made his pact with "Christians." It should not be believed for a moment that the Catholic Church had its shroud over all churches. Churches such as the Donatists, who were of no small number, refused the yoke of Rome and its hierarchy. They separated from and rejected the Catholics. They stood for freedom of conscience and hated the union with Constantine, complaining, what has the Empire to do with Christ or His church. In Spain, Gaul, and Britton Catholicism struggled for over a millennium to achieve its domination.

      All associations are man-made without any claim of divine origin. If they limit their role to assisting the spread of the gospel, edifying churches and Christians, they serve a very useful purpose. But if associations overstep this function and assume authority of any kind over churches they are a danger. Many have asserted themselves as masters over the conscience of churches for self determination. Unfortunately, men are seemingly too quick to forget that it is the church which is the pillar and ground of the truth and not associations. We have the lesson before us.

      In spite of the risks of an abused association they have accomplished much good. For the purpose of this study we are indebted to the New Hampshire Association for its confession of faith. Not until the early nineteenth century do we find individual churches publishing authoritative confessions of their faith. Associations and such like organizations were the catalyst for bringing forth the first published Doctrines of Faith.


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