RELEVANT TO BAPTIST HISTORY
The returning light of Holy Scripture was everywhere influential in what is known in history as the Protestant Reformation. The Bible had not only been generally suppressed and forbidden to Catholic subjects, but in many nations and principalities possession of copies of Holy Scripture by anyone in the languages of the people was a crime. If such possession was not in itself a crime to be severely punished, it invited suspicion which could result in “inquisition.” “Inquisitors” could almost always find some “heresy” in the beliefs of subjects well read in the Bible. Strict Bible believers would seldom lie about their convictions in the interest of self-preservation. Many of their convictions were ruled “heretical” by the priestly powers, and were punishable by the cruelest deaths human ingenuity could devise at the hands of secular officials. Not only were most of the people grossly ignorant of Biblical teachings, but the Bible had been locked away and rarely read by the priesthood. Martin Luther, in the preface to his 1533 publication of CONFESSIONS OF THE WALDENSES, confirmed with eyewitness knowledge that “in the papacy, those who are called masters wholly neglected the Scriptures, and some of them had not so much as seen a Bible at any time.” (page 82, Volume 2, A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH by William Jones) As the scriptures began to be read, more and more cries for reform were heard throughout all of the realm dominated by Catholics. This reform began to take shape gradually, because men do not quickly shake off the shackles of superstition and error. The violent reactions history records arose not so much from the degree of protest stirred by Protestant reformers as by the rigid intolerance of those who opposed any disagreement with the “Holy Mother Church.” Protestant leaders were exactly what their name implies. They were Catholics at heart who, having been somewhat enlightened by Biblical truth, wished to eliminate some of the obvious errors which had evolved in their church. Finding some success because of the support they received from some local princes and nobles, they embarked upon the great task of reforming the Catholic Church. Generation after generation, Protestants continued to add reform upon reform. It was only natural that, given enough time and freedom, this movement would carry many ideas to extremes. Increasing toleration over the centuries, and finally, religious freedom, hastened and broadened that extremism. Reform became a religion in itself to some groups of Protestant offspring, who ever learning, were never able to come to a satisfying knowledge of the whole truth.
All the while this Protestant reform was in progress, and long before, there were hidden in the “wilderness” (Revelation 12:6&13-17) of this world, simple churches (assemblies) of God who had never departed from the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 1:3) Before, during, and after the reformation, they were essentially like their Lord, “the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.” (Hebrews 13:8) It is not to their credit that they existed as such, and preserved the faith through the worst of times. Their perpetuity credits the grace and immutable promise of their God and Savior who declared, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”(Matthew 28:20), who also said of His church, “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). A correct understanding of the lowly nature of the Church of Jesus Christ, coupled with faith in His immutable promise, makes historical proof of the succession of that church unnecessary. It did indeed succeed itself “world without end” so that there could be “glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages” (Ephesians 3:21) In some times and places they were little more than “two or three” whom HE had gathered “in His name” who successfully preserved the institution. (Matthew 18:20) The New Testament scriptures tell us of churches being maintained in the homes of men like Aquila and Philemon. No doubt there were many others also. They were meek and lowly, hated and despised, and being no part of this world, were sojourners in it. They had no fame except the infamy heaped upon them unjustly as Catholics and Protestants both accused them of heresy. There was no beauty in them that the world should desire, even as our Savior was before them described by the prophet (Isaiah 53:2). Were they not Christ-like? Most of them left no record except the one God is faithfully preserving in heaven. There it will remain, preserving the truth for God’s judgment to reveal in His own good time. In this likeness of his first coming, he will return and again discern between all who claim to be his disciples, revealing those “that serve God,” and those “that serve Him not” (Malachi 3:18).
The first church of Jesus Christ was gathered by his own hand during his personal ministry on Earth. We have enough of the narrative of this gathering and how He went about the task to understand His design. Certain ones were handpicked from among John’s prepared people, who all had repented toward God and believed in the promised Christ to come. These were the ones He personally “called out” from among the larger population and then assembled together to carry on His business. These he appropriately called “my ecclesia” (Matthew 16:18), promising to “build” that same invincible model on that same foundation throughout the world. He set up the machinery for the duplication on His ecclesia, translated “church” in English, and for its perpetuation into many nations and times to come. He is still building it in exactly the same way throughout the world.