The Heritage of the Bible Church [part 2]

Over recent years, 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 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 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.

The heritage of the modern Bible Church is traced not primarily to the Reformers, but to the dissenting tradition—the radical reformers, as they are sometimes called.[1] This included groups such as the Quakers, Methodists, Congregationalists (Independents), Baptists, and Presbyterians. The dissenters, (later called non-conformists for their stand against the Church of England) believed the Reformers had not separated from the Roman Catholic Church enough, and were persecuted by the Reformers themselves for their disagreements over believer’s baptism, the nature of the Lord’s Supper, regenerate church membership, and separation of church and state. It is within this dissenting tradition that one can consistently find upheld, even when lost in other traditions, the absolute authority of Scripture, the autonomy of the local church, the importance of personal piety and regenerate church membership, as well as certain dispensational distinctives such as the future salvation of Israel and a literal millennial reign of Christ.

In the 19th century, during the twilight of the trans-denominational shift toward theological liberalism, believers from the dissenting tradition, primarily Independents, Baptists, and Presbyterians, began to hold interdenominational Bible conferences across England and the U.S., which provided the laity with deep, sound Bible teaching—a dwindling phenomenon within the mainline denominations. As Hannah puts it, “with liberal theology making inroads at the same time, conference attendees became more and more zealous for the type of teaching only available to them in the summers.” [2]

One solution for this search for more consistent Bible-teaching was in the establishment of Bible institutes and colleges, which served to train lay workers, rather than professional ministers. However, believers came to desire and value a pastoral ministry defined by the deep study of the Word, and some Bible colleges became seminaries, of which Dallas Theological Seminary became one of the most prominent, geared specifically toward the training and equipping of men for vocational ministry. Hannah points out that Dallas Seminary was in a way “the institutionalization of [the Bible conferences’] ideals, methods, and beliefs.”[3] Eventually, Christians began to separate from their denominations and form their own independent churches, led by men trained under the great teachers of the Bible conferences, such as Darby, Scofield, Ironside, Moody, Torrey, and Chafer, committed to the expository teaching of God’s Word. [4]

Naturally, many within the denomination, especially the leadership, did not look on the Bible conferences, colleges, and new churches as a positive move for Christianity. From the viewpoint of the denominations, as Churchhill puts it, the abandonment of the denominations for the Bible churches, with their widespread “dispensationalism, antinomianism, and Arminianism,” was seen as an abandonment of orthodoxy: “The church was not destroyed, but the strength of its theology was diminished.”[5]

Of course, from the viewpoint of those within the Bible Church Movement, full-throated orthodoxy was not lost, but regained. That being said, however, I do at times grieve the reaction of some within the Bible Church Movement against historic Christian heritage. Perhaps because the Bible Church Movement was seen as novel, and a rejection of the denominations (which were seen as traditional), many within the Bible Church tradition have learned to devalue tradition and heritage, which has indeed (though I don’t grieve it quite in the way Churchhill does) resulted in a tragic disconnect from, or rather, an ignorance of, historic orthodoxy.

The fierce independence which characterizes the Bible Church Movement can be viewed as a positive, and indeed, it certainly can be. The autonomy of the local church can be defended both Scripturally and practically. However, it can also be seen as a potentially negative consequence of the Bible Conference Movement, resulting at times in anti-intellectual, anti-denominational, and even anti-authority sentiments within the Bible Church movement. [6]

Although some Bible churches have no outside affiliations whatsoever, there are many who have joined voluntary fellowships and organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, or the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (with which the seminary I attend is affiliated). [7]

The Bible conference movement supported, and in many ways formed, fundamentalism in America (another despised but extremely valuable movement), [8] produced the Bible institute movement, which birthed seminaries to train faithful pastors, and this revived a craving thirst within Christians for the truths of Scripture, and a network of conservative, independent, faithfully Bible-teaching churches was formed—the Bible churches. [9]

As Bible churches consider the possibility of excising the “Bible” from their name, in an effort to remove unwanted affiliations, I pray they do not strip themselves of either the authority of the Bible, or of the valuable traditional affiliations associated with the name of a Bible church.

I believe it is valuable to consciously retain fellowship and connections not only with like-minded churches today, but also with the faithful churches and Bible teachers of yesteryear who have upheld the Biblical distinctives we now so cherish within the Bible Church Movement—a tradition of faithful, Bible-teaching churches vital to the preservation of conservative Christianity in America.


Notes:

1] Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 11.

2] John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 285.

3] Hannah, 286.

4] Paul C. Wilt, “Bible Church Movement.” Pages 137–138 in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 138.

5] Robert K. Churchhill, Lest We Forget (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 36.

6] Hannah, 285.

7] Wilt, 137.

8] Sidwell, 76.

9] Hannah, 287.


Sources

Churchhill, Robert K. Lest We Forget. Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986.

Hannah, John D. An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Sidwell, Mark. “Come Apart and Rest a While: The Origin of the Bible Conference Movement in America.” DBSJ, no. 15 (2010): 75-98.

Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.

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

Weber, Timothy P. “Bible and Prophetic Conference Movement.” Pages 136–137 in Dictionary of Christianity in America. Edited by Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Wilt, Paul C. “Bible Church Movement.” Pages 137–138 in Dictionary of Christianity in America. Edited by Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Advertisements

Reflections on Transcendent Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

I believe that truth, goodness, and beauty are transcendent realities rooted in the nature and character of God. Belief in these absolute, transcendent standards is rooted in a recognition that God is the source, sustainer, and end of all things (Romans 11:36).

All truth is grounded in the reality that God is True. All virtue is grounded in the reality that God is Good. All beauty is grounded in the reality that God is Beautiful.¹

Therefore, as image-bearers of God, I believe Christians must commit themselves to thinking God’s thoughts after him, to behaving in ways that conform to God’s moral character and will, and to loving those things that God calls lovely.¹

Belief in objective, transcendent standards of truth, goodness, and beauty is a uniquely conservative distinctive. Most Christians readily affirm that the Bible should shape our beliefs and morals. Many, however, have not even given thought to how the Bible ought to shape our affections as well. That is, we must work to align our values and affections with those of God. This is what Paul refers to in Philippians 4:8 when he says to dwell on whatever is “true,” “right,” and “lovely.” The word for lovely is defined as “worthy of taking delight in,” or, “worth the effort to have and embrace.” In other words, there is an objective standard for what is worthy of our delight and affection. It is, therefore, wrong to love what God hates, or take delight in what God is disgusted with, or to call beautiful what God calls ugly.

We must not only learn propositional truth about God and live in accord with His moral imperatives, but we must allow Scripture to shape and cultivate within us rightly-ordered affections as well. Nevertheless, right beliefs, morals, and affections are not always transparent, and thus require careful judgment to discern biblically.¹

Part of the image of God in humanity is the capacity to love, for God loves and He is love. The Scriptures clearly teach that the most important human duty is to love God and love others. Love is a function of the will, and not merely of the understanding. A right relationship to God involves more than an abstract or theoretical understanding of the truth of His Word. Rather, it includes grasping the truths of God’s perfections and mighty deeds and relishing these truths as beautiful and lovely.²

Furthermore, as an intellectually conservative Christian, I seek to not disparage or shun tradition simply because it is tradition, nor praise and value innovation simply because it is new and progressive. On the contrary, conservatism seeks to cherish and nourish tradition as valuable and worth conserving—not simply because it is tradition, not as though tradition is authoritative, and not as though it is necessary to preserve all available elements of church history, nor to remain in a bygone century—but rather out of a genuine respect for the permanent things, that by carefully evaluating the values, forms, and functions of traditions, we may preserve and hand down to future generations that which is true and good and beautiful within the Christian tradition.

Conservative Christians seek to take what is timeless, true, and permanent, and apply it to our changing world. We desire to be faithful Christians in the present, while honouring and building upon what we have been handed.³

Conservative Christianity wishes to conserve and pass on the truth, goodness, and beauty of essential Christianity.³

(Exodus 28:2; Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Psalm 15:4; Matthew 22:37–39; Mark 12:29–30; John 17:17; Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 11:2, 16; 14:40; Philippians 3:17; 4:8, 9; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6; 2 Timothy 2:2; Hebrews 12:28–29; James 1:17; 1 John 4:16–21)

virtus et honos