Church Succession Part One: Myth, Invention, or Fact?
In this discussion of church succession the term church is used in the generic sense, meaning the aggregate church composed of visible, independent bodies of Christ existing in specific locations. Succession is an array of churches coming one after another in series, each being an extension in some manner of a predecessor. The original church is the Jerusalem church, and from her all other commissioned New Testament churches have their lineage. This succession is the propagation of like kind. These churches were replicas of one another but without exact uniformity. However, they had unity of doctrine, morality and prescribed practices according to the commands of Christ. When heresy or immorality infected churches they ceased to be churches of Christ. In the formula defining a denomination, the church of the New Testament is a denomination body. By definition a denomination is a group of religious congregations united under a common faith (the New Testament) and name (Christian) and organized under a single administrative and legal hierarchy (Jesus Christ).
Opposition to Church Succession
Today the Protestant denominations, including a large segment of Baptists, mostly receive this principle of succession with either ridicule or indignation and deride such a proposal of an unbroken church lineage. They adamantly reject the notion that Christ founded a denomination. They argue that church succession cannot be historically confirmed and that any attempt to do so will only result in embarrassment. They hold the sentiment that any ancestry, pedigree, descent, heritage, or parentage of local churches now existing to the New Testament Apostolic Church is a myth. They present two arguments for this position; first, that if there ever was a succession it was broken, and second, that local churches came into existence by the means of impromptu gatherings of saints organizing themselves into churches. These critics have no other concept of the True, or Real church as being anything other than Universal, and Invisible, consisting of all the saved. To them it is a fool’s errand to attempt to uncover any consistent survival of a “denominational” church with perpetuity. For a short time Calvin did hold the succession view but later abandoned it. Catholics claim this church succession for themselves, but with a different definition of the Church as existing only in a single universal organization.
A second common criticism is that this doctrine is an invention of J. R. Graves and J. M. Pendleton in the mid-nineteenth century. J. R. Graves wrote in his introduction of Old Landmarkism: “The name of Old Landmarkers came in this way. In 1854, J. M. Pendleton, of Kentucky, wrote an essay upon this question at my special request, viz.: ‘Ought Baptists to recognize Pedobaptist preachers as gospel ministers?’ which I brought out in tract form, and gave it the title, ‘An Old Landmark Reset.’ This calm discussion, which had an immense circulation in the South, was reviewed by many of the leading theologian writers, North and South. They, by way of reproach, called all Baptists ‘Old Landmarkers’ who accepted his conclusions, and the impression was sought to be made that Brother Pendleton and myself were aiming at dividing the denomination and starting a new sect.” Thus the critics of Landmarkism place the birth of the doctrine of Church Succession with these two men, and prior to them the doctrine did not exist. Moreover, they assert that this was the subsequent creation of the church being defined as Local, Visible and not Universal, Invisible.
Church Succession an Ancient Belief
The following discussion is not meant to either validate or contest the claims of those who assert succession but rather to demonstrate that the idea of succession is not of recent invention. ------
"The Church, having received this preaching and this faith [of the Apostles], although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. . . For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world"
Irenaeus of Lyons 175 - 185
This status of the church lasted until the mid-fourth century when Novatian broke with the church at Rome, and then in the early fifth century Donatus broke from the Carthage church and was condemned by the Catholic Church and Augustine. A large number of churches, but not the majority, were falling into heretical doctrines and vicious practices, but even they had a physical church succession. Both the Catholics and the dissenters judged the other to have ceased to be true churches of Christ since they abandoned the purity of the gospel, and thus their succession had ended.
The Novatian churches, Donatist churches, Montanists churches, and the Roman church could all prove their succession from the first century church. Succession was a key argument of Tertullian and Irenaeus of the second century when they assailed the heretics of their day.
The first notable establishment of a protestant church occurred through the efforts of Peter Waldo in the middle to end of the twelfth century. Prior to this several unsuccessful attempts were made to reform the Catholic Church.
Throughout ecclesiastical history there have existed churches which declared a succession from the apostolic church of the New Testament. Some of these are the two groups of the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Bogomils, the churches of Britain later known as the Welsh churches, the churches of Spain until the end of the thirteenth century, and churches in Bohemia. This list also includes churches of central Europe such as Germany, Poland and France, other groups as the Paulicians, and for a time, reformation era churches as the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites. Also included are men as Luther, Zwingli, and later Spurgeon. All these believed for a time that a church lineage did exist and most of them claimed it for themselves. Robert Robinson in his Ecclesiastical Researches, 1792, called Church Succession the holy grail of the Protestants; they never found it.
Of course, churches which believed in their own succession did not all hold the same view of the nature of the church or the same beliefs. Nor did they formulate succession into a doctrinal position. Succession was commonly accepted and hence there was no need to emphasize it.
By the end of the second century the church had nearly spread throughout all the regions of Europe: today’s France, Germany, the British Isles, parts of Asia, and the coastal regions of the Mediterranean, which includes Greece, Italy, Egypt, the North African coast, Spain, and the Balkan States.
A disastrous fate of many of these early churches fell into three categories. Many of them became ruined churches, departing from the teachings of the gospel in doctrine, practice, and purity. Some simply fell into obscurity, and more were persecuted out of existence. But a great number survived and propagated other successive churches.
An example of this is the church in Spain. Many notable historians believe the gospel was first preached in Spain in the first century, and churches were established at that time. They were isolated from the controversies and persecutions of the early apostasies involving first, the preeminence of the Church at Rome; second, the mandated imperial code of uniformity; third, the hierarchy of bishops and their dictatorial power and fourth, the influence of such men as Augustine. When the Roman Church was empowered with the secular sword of Roman Emperors it began to turn its attention on Spain. However, the influence and power of the Roman Church was weak in this country, for the monarchs and princes vigilantly guarded their independence and freedom from foreign domination. For centuries intrigue and conspiracies instigated by Catholic priests plagued this country. Spain was not a unified nation at this time and consisted of several monarchical states that embraced a common thought of independence for Spain. As long as there was no dominant state church Christians, Moors (Muslims), Jews and Catholics enjoyed religious freedom. No persecutions for religious beliefs are found prior to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church as the supreme all-powerful State Church. It is true that some Catholic priests were imprisoned and put to death during this time. But the reason was for crimes of sedition and plotting the overthrow of the governments, not for religious beliefs.
In those peaceful centuries Spain and the Spanish churches flourished greatly. They spread into the Pyrenees Mountains. There they were called Vaudois, meaning "of the mountains." Vaudois is the same name as the Waldenses of the Valleys of Piedmont. The Pyrenees churches were later known as Waldenses, and they spread into France; the city of Albi is best known for having them. The Albigenses had Waldensian roots. When, at the end of the 1400’s the Roman Catholic Church finally gained control and unified Spain, the great Spanish Inquisition immediately began. Jews, Moors, and Christians all suffered equally. The Moors retreated to North Africa, and the Christian Churches were either extinguished by murder, forced recanting, or they fled into the Pyrenees. Eventually they were driven out of these mountains and spread into France, Germany and the Lowland countries of Holland and Belgium in Western Europe. All through this time the common epitaph of derision was the name Anabaptist. By the time of the reformation the number of Anabaptist churches existed in the thousands, from Britain to Bohemia and beyond.
With some variance this same story is repeated with other churches in their respective countries. The Paulicians of Armenia experienced much the same as the Spanish churches, except their persecutions were from the pagan secular Emperors and Empresses. Tens of thousands were deported to Greece and the Balkans.
The reformation brought out the best and the worst in men. But the deed was done. Many saw this as a great opportunity to “re-establish” the New Testament church. Many churches, which already existed in maturity, came to the forefront. These were all called Anabaptists. It must be emphasized that all Anabaptists were not the same. However, it can be said they all had the same vision of liberty, separation of church and state, and a strict adherence to the Word of God only (ref. the chapter on the Anabaptists). Modern authors have the tendency of grouping all Anabaptists into the same church society. This is far from the truth. This error, intentional or not, obscures and denies the uniqueness and antiquity of the Anabaptist churches. For example the Munster Rebellion is blamed on the Anabaptists, and indeed they were called Anabaptist. But the Munster Anabaptists were not of the older Anabaptists, they were a radical splinter group of Lutheranism. Furthermore, Anabaptist was a common name given to all whom the State Established Churches deemed to be heretical and dangerous. Initially it was term of ridicule given because they re-baptized those coming to them with the baptism of corrupt churches. This demeaning epitaph can be proven to exist as far back as to the Donatists of the fourth and fifth centuries.
During the reformation Anabaptists held widely diverse opinions. There were those of the ancient Anabaptists and the Neo-Anabaptists. The most prominent new Anabaptists were the Swiss Brethren. They were formed in 1525 in protest against Zwingli and his keeping to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The history of the Swiss Brethren is well recorded, it might be said over-recorded. Many, especially the Mennonites of today, credit them as the founders of the Anabaptists. (William Estep is terribly guilty of this in his The Anabaptist Story, which was sold in 1975 under the banner of Commemorating the 450th Anniversary of Anabaptism.) This is a tragic error, for it attempts, and has succeeded in the minds of many, to rob thousands of churches in Europe of their heritage and deny their right of antiquity. The ancient Anabaptist church superseded in age and number the revised (not revived) 1525 Anabaptist movement.
Dr. Harold Bender* wrote in his The Anabaptist Vision (copyright 1944) the following in speaking of the Anabaptists. “Ludwig Keller finds Anabaptists throughout the pre-Reformation period in the guise of Waldenses and other similar groups whom he chooses to call ‘the old-evangelical brotherhood,’ and for whom he posits a continuity from the earlier Baptist historians (and certain Mennonites) who rejoice to find in the Anabaptists the missing link which keeps them in the apostolic succession the true church back through the Waldenses, Bogomils, Cathari, Paulicians, and Donatist, to Pentecost.” Dr. Bender added to this, “However, there is another line of interpretation, now almost 100 years old, which is being increasingly accepted and which is probably destined to dominate the field. It is the one which holds that Anabaptism is the culmination of the Reformation, the fulfillment of the original vision of Luther and Zwingli, and thus makes it a consistent evangelical Protestantism seeking to recreate without compromise the original New Testament Church, the vision of Christ and the apostles.”(pgs.12, 13) Mosheim, however disagrees with this assessment, and wrote under the title of The reformation and its development: "all Christians, if we except Roman Catholics, Socinians, Quakers and Anabaptists, may claim a place among the members of the Reformed Church."
*Dr. Bender, 1897 – 1962, was a prominent person in the Mennonite Church, having been dean of Goshen College, chairman of the Historical and research Committee, and president of the Mennonite World Conference in 1952.
Two important facts come to light in Dr. Bender's discussion of the Anabaptists, First there initially existed a belief of church succession (which has no foundation to Graves or Pendleton in the mid nineteenth century), and second, his accurate prediction that this belief would be abandoned, and the Anabaptist would be relegated to protestant status with the original vision of Luther and Zwingli.
Also in Bender’s book he gives the “essential and distinguishing characteristic of the church” as being a local, visible body of Christ. He makes no mention of a universal invisible church, but that the church is local in content and has the aim of bringing together all the true believers out of the great degenerated national churches into a true Christian Church. (pgs. 13, 14)
The Swiss Brethren in 1527, just two years after their formation, created the Schleitheim Confession, which contains seven articles. A careful reading of this confession reveals a belief in the local church (Art. 2 and 3) and closed/close communion (Art. 3). Why is this noteworthy? Because it shows that these positions are not an invention of nineteenth century Baptists.
BAPTISM and THE CHURCH
In the third and fourth centuries when the Novatian, Cathari, and Donatist churches re-baptized ex-Catholics who came to them, the Rome church was up in arms. Augustine argued vehemently against the Donatists’ re-baptizing, and he eventually established the doctrine of persecution to enforce uniformity. Why all the concern? Because all churches involved knew that by re-baptizing it was a condemnation against the Roman Church, the Catholics. These dissident churches proclaimed that no longer were catholic churches sound or pure and that many had become synagogues of Satan. These separatists’ churches were called Anabaptists, re-Baptizers. But the Anabaptists maintained that they were not re-baptizing but baptizing anew.
Church succession was a great concern for many Reformers and Protestants. They were disturbed over the matter of authority to administer baptism.
The Catholics challenged the Reformed Pedobaptist Churches their right to baptize or baptize anew since their own baptism came from the Catholics. The Catholics argued that since they (all Protestants) had Catholic baptism then by their doctrinal statements they condemned their own baptism, and made it invalid, and thus had unlawful baptism. The debate arose; can a person legitimately baptize others when he himself is not baptized? But if their baptism was valid then Catholic baptism is valid as well, and they had no grounds to re-baptize. At the heart of this debate was succession by the means of the rite of baptism. All Reformers and Protestants had in some degree a succession from the Catholic Church through its baptism.
The second generation of reformers fared no better. Many of them, such as the General and Particular Baptists of London, also recognized this problem.1 Their question came down to this, “Can an un-baptized person baptize others?” John Smyth of the General Baptists with others went to the Mennonites in Holland to receive their baptism. They never accepted Smyth or baptized him because of his “radical theology.” The record is that he baptized himself and then others. The Particular Baptists who were in agreement with the Dutch churches in Calvinism thought to receive their baptism and authority from them. But in the end they took another course; one person of their group was elected to baptize another who in turn baptized him and they proceeded to baptize in general.2
The authority to baptize rests squarely on the issue of succession. Today this question no longer exists among universal churches due to their redefining the nature of the church. Very few denominations hold to the notion that authority is necessary and allow that any “believer” may rightly baptize. This removes that portion of the Great Commission out of the church and delivers it into the hand of any individual who wishes to claim this right for himself. Thus baptism is no longer a "church" ordinance and becomes quite meaningless.
A DEAD CHURCH?
Let us suppose for a moment that the church which Jesus built did cease and not leave a succession of churches. Two questions begged to be answered. First, when did it die? Second, how did it meet its death? What would it take to remove the church from the world?
Of all the men writing of the cessation of the church there is not one who tells us when this happened. At what point in history could the church not be found? The Church of Latter Day Saints, through Joseph Smith's testimony, declares that the church had died in the dark ages and that God had directed Smith to rebuild His church (which incidentally began with Smith's authority to baptize). Joseph Smith is not alone in this opinion; for many of the reformers believed the same thing and that they also had the same mission of rebuilding the lost church. Many pastors and preachers today are on a quest of leading people to recapture what had assumedly been lost of the church. But rational and reasonable people should not just mindlessly accept what they teach but ask these men when was it lost? Give us the day, the year, or the century when you say the church died! Prove to us what you claim. They cannot answer, for they have no answer. It is just an assumed fact forced by their theology which they purport must be true without any debate. If it cannot be established when the church ceased then why should it believed that it ever ceased at all?
The second question is just as vital as the first: How did the church die? We are not speaking of one church, or a cluster of churches, but of every church which was an extension from the first church of Jerusalem. For the first twelve centuries it was never questioned that churches were anything but successions of the first church. Never was it asked of any church if they had a lineage to Jerusalem, it was just accepted.
As mentioned the fate of these early churches fell into four categories. Many of them became ruined churches, departing from the teachings of the gospel in doctrine, practice and purity. Some simply fell into obscurity, and more were persecuted out of existence. But a great number survived and propagated other successive churches. When persecutions assaulted the faithful churches, just as it did to the Jerusalem church, the brethren were scattered and went everywhere preaching the gospel. Can it be thought that Christians who would gladly suffer torture and death would not continue to live according to their faith and teach and propagate their beliefs and their churches? This was a great complaint of the Inquisitors that the more heretics they killed the more the heretics grew and expanded.*
* When Obadiah Holmes was publicly whipped in Boston in 1641 many of the witnesses of this persecution were deeply affected. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had their charter making the Puritans (Congregationalist) the exclusive authorized religion. Holmes was a Baptist, and along with John Clarke and John Crandall, he was arrested for conduction an unauthorized, illegal church service in Boston. The beating he received of ninety stripes caused many people to re-evaluate their church and the denial of freedom of conscience. Consequently many became Baptist. - Frank Louis Asher, John Clarke (1609 – 1676)
It must be kept in mind that we are not talking about an insignificant number of churches but churches numbering in the thousands if not tens of thousands. Neither are we talking about churches existing in small obscure pockets but living throughout the known world at that time. Whenever the Roman Catholic Church took it upon itself to hold inquisitions and crusades they never found a lack of heretics to persecute. Further, we see no evidence that the church succumbed to corruption for there were many throughout the centuries that were called Cathari, Pure. Whenever the Catholic Churches turned away from the doctrines which had been previously practiced and accepted as scriptural there were always those who held to the old way and refused these innovations and inventions. These were faithful ones who stayed the course, adhering to the word of God only. The church did not fall into obscurity and die a slow death of neglect. History shows them as fervent Disciples of Christ as they stood for the truth, died for the truth and propagated the truth. The church may have been hidden at times in different countries but when they were known it was discovered that they had always been there.
Whatever reason which may be given for the death of the Lord's Church, it will not hold up to examination in the light of history. As J. M. Carroll wrote the continued existence of the church is a record written in blood.
If the time and cause of death of the church cannot be determined then why should it be believed that it had died at all? Where is the dead body of the church? Where is its grave? Let those who claim this death prove it or stop pontificating.
THE VALIDATION: Matthew 16:18
It is not by the historians that the proof of church succession is established. Even though there is firm evidence to this day of churches having a succession from the apostolic churches. But opinion does not establish a fact. The proof is in the words spoken by Christ in Matthew 16:18, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it [His Church].” What more is needed to be said? Faith in God's word accepts it as truth. These "gates of hell" are the portals of death, and death will not conquer. It is clear that Jesus is speaking of His Church and of its continual unbroken survival till the day of His return.
There are two things, either of which if Satan can accomplish, will destroy the testimony of God and make Him fallible. These are the annihilation of either the descendants of Abraham or the Church. Both are called the elect of God. God has committed Himself through promises, covenants and prophecies of their indestructibility. The first attempt to destroy Israel is found in Esther 3:6, when Haman sought the death of all Jews, but by God's providential intercession Israel survived. The Church has been assailed in every century through the means of persecutions, apostasies, pollutions of immorality and impurities of all sorts. But Israel and the Church are still standing, perhaps battered and scarred and still under attack, but they stand. In the past the Church itself was molested, but today the very meaning and concept of the church is attacked and refuted. What could not be killed is now denied as ever existing.
THE INTEGRITY OF CHRIST AT ISSUE
How could it be possible that Christ spoke in His omniscience and yet not know that the gates of hell would prevail against His Church? Or how can it be explained that Christ with His omnipotence would be powerless and not prevent the gates of hell prevailing against His Church, bringing His wife, His Church, to her death as claimed by the believers of church apostasy?
Christ has kept His integrity. He has preserved His Church. From the moment He spoke these words till today His Church lives. This church is not a mystical, vague, unseen body but one that is real and tangible in this world. Whenever it gathers, Christ is there. This body, this little flock, this house of God, this bride of Christ is the sole property of Jesus. It rests securely in the hands of God and is absolutely dependent upon Him. It survives by the providential care of God, the intercession of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
1 The same concern of baptismal authority worried the founders of the Particular Baptists of London. The General Baptists began with John Smyth who was reported to have had self-administered baptism. This is also true of the founders of the Swiss Brethren, also called Anabaptists. Thomas Crosby in his The History of the English Baptists volume 1, devoted 13 pages on this subject of baptismal authority. Here is an excerpt of what he quoted from a Pedobaptist criticism:
“That when the Anabaptists (The reformed London Baptists) had framed so many devices to deny all infants baptism, they were confounded in themselves, what to do, to begin baptizing in their way of baptizing adult persons only – but one John Smith – being more desperately wicked (as he was called by his adversaries) baptized himself, and then he baptized others, and from this man the English Anabaptists have successively received their new administration of baptism on men and women only.” (These people were the General London Baptists) [pg. 95]
Then Crosby wrote:
2 “This difficulty did not a little perplex them; and they were divided in their options how to act in this matter, so as not to be guilty of any disorder of self-contradiction. Some indeed were of opinion, that the first administrator should baptize himself, and then proceed to the baptizing of others. Others were for sending to those foreign Protestants that had used immersion for some time, that so they might receive it from them. And others again thought it necessary to baptism, that the administrator be himself baptized, at least in an extraordinary case; but that whoever saw such a reformation necessary, might from the authority of Scripture lawfully begin it.” (These people were of the Particular London Baptists) [pg. 97]
Here was their problem, they believed “a man cannot baptize others into a church, himself being out of the church, or being no member.”
Smyth supposed true baptism was lost for some time, through the disuse of it, and thus was necessary there should be two persons who must unite in the revival of it, in order to begin the administration thereof. And, that the first administrator be a member of some church, who they shall call and empower him to administer it to others. However others held this view, “That first they formed a church of their opinion in the point of baptism; then the church appoint two of these ministers to begin the administration of it, by baptizing each other; after this one, or both these, baptize the rest.”
Oddly enough Crosby said, “this is no blemish on the English Baptists; who neither approved of any such method, nor did they receive their baptism from him (John Smyth).” This gives hint of three branches of English Baptists. He goes on, “The former of these was, to send over to the foreign Anabaptists (Holland), who descended from the ancient Waldenses in France and Germany, that so one or more might become proper administrators of it to others. Some thought this the best way, and acted accordingly.” [pg. 99, 100] These Waldenses most likely were not the Valdous of the Valleys of Piedmont, but rather the Valdous of the Pyrenees, also called Albigenses. What they were seeking were churches with Apostolic succession and were satisfied that they had found them. This group sent Mr. Richard Blount who understood the Dutch language. He was warmly received by the church there and was baptized by them. Upon his return he baptized Mr. Samuel Blacklock, a minister, and these two baptized the rest of their company, 53 in total. Strangely enough the succession they sought existed in their own country with the Welsh Baptists. I find no connection of these men with either the London General Baptists of the Particular Baptists. This indicates a third Baptists group.
But the greatest number of the English Baptists looked upon this as needless trouble and that an un-baptized person might justifiably baptize and so begin a reformation. They reasoned that since none had baptized John the Baptist before he baptized others they had this same right (the justification of the un-baptized baptizing). This was the opinion and practice of Spilsbury the co-founder of the Particular Baptist, who denied having received his baptism from John Smyth.
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