The Heritage of the Bible Church

The church of which my family is a part is named Fairview Bible Church. I had always thought this was simply because the church wished to emphasize that they valued the study of the Word of God. Indeed, this may have been a primary reason in the minds of many for the designation. As I learned that there are a great many churches so titled, I grew to believe the designation merely referred to the non-denominational status of such churches, since, I learned, Bible Churches are usually, if not always, independent, non-denominational churches.

Another misconception that is often held at Fairview Bible Church is that the title of “Bible Church” necessarily connects the church to the tradition and teachings of the late Colonel R. B. Thieme Jr., a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, former pastor of Berachah Church in Houston, and a significant influence on thousands of pastors and conservative churches across the world, including our own.[1] For a time, Pastor Thieme, or, “the Colonel,” as his congregants and listeners called him, was a force for conservative evangelicalism, holding staunchly to the fundamentals of the faith, at a time when many churches began compromising right doctrine in favor of broader acceptance and perceived relevance. Thieme cared deeply that believers have a thorough understanding of Scripture, and was held up by Dallas Seminary as a shining example of success. The loosely-connected network of believers and local churches influenced by Thieme came to be known (primarily by those within the network of influence itself) as the “Doctrinal Movement”—churches and believers who espoused “Thiemeite” doctrine being referred to as “doctrinal” churches/believers.

However, as is the danger for so many pastors, that which was particular to Thieme began to be what was most important to Thieme, and his peculiarities both in doctrine and practice turned into hills to die on for both him and his “Thiemeites.” Thieme had several peculiar views, a few of which were perhaps even dangerous. By the late 1970’s, Dallas Seminary had begun to distance itself from any public association with Thieme, and several DTS professors, including Ryrie and Walvoord, had written critiques of Thieme’s teachings and leadership methodology.[2] Since the 70’s, solid, Bible-teaching pastors and churches (several of which I am personally familiar with) have, now and then, sought to distance themselves from any official connection to Thieme, acknowledging that which was valuable in his unwavering teaching of the Word of God, yet also laying aside the errors of “Thiemeite” doctrine.

For many within the Doctrinal Movement, the designation of “Bible Church” has been viewed as inextricably associated with the Thieme-inspired, Thieme-defined, and Thieme-regulated Doctrinal Movement. This is despite the fact that Thieme’s own church—Berachah Church—had no “Bible” in its name. Nevertheless, many, if not the majority, of churches within the so-called Doctrinal Movement have taken the title of “Bible Church,” thus causing many of us who were within the Doctrinal Movement, but who had little exposure to conservative evangelical/fundamental churches outside that movement, or to American church history, to gain the misperception that the title of “Bible Church” refers universally or historically to the Doctrinal Movement. Therefore, in an effort to distance, or perhaps extract, themselves from this tradition, as well as perhaps because of some seeming perception the broader unbelieving community has of any church so named, some well-meaning members of Bible churches have recently advocated stripping the moniker of “Bible Church” from their church’s name.

Over recent years, however, I have learned that the name of “Bible Church” carries with it a more significant amount of history, and one of far more theological and historical import, than that of which I had previously been aware. The history of the Bible Church Movement—which has little to no direct connection with the comparatively small and less significant Doctrinal Movement—is a history of which I am proud to be a beneficiary, and which impels me to treasure and cherish the title of “Bible Church,” which connects us, not necessarily to the teachings of R. B. Thieme, but directly to the rich history of a tradition of independent, conservative teachers and churches who have held up the Word of God as the ultimate and inerrant authority for the past 140 years, and in so doing have, to a very real degree, preserved conservative Christianity in America as we know it today. I’ll look at that spiritual heritage of the Bible churches in our next post.


Notes

1] Joe L. Wall, Bob Thieme’s Teachings on Christian Living, (Houston: Church Multiplication, 1982), 1.

2] Ibid, 5.

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