Reformed Baptist Ideas of Authority

A critical examination of the Reformed Baptist Ministry

Preface

I have purposed here to write a critique of the Reformed Baptist ministry; this is done out of the conviction that it is a most necessary thing to do. Having been a Christian for thirty years, I have been exposed to a great many things in the Christian church that deserve criticism. But there are few things that strike me as worthy of it more than the ideas men hold on authority in the Reformed Baptist ministry. Fifteen years of my time as a Christian in the American church has been spent in association with the Reformed Baptist church. Therefore, I feel compelled, as well as especially qualified to write on some of the issues I have personally witnessed firsthand. Since I had been a part of this particular church identity for a considerable period of time, I have formed my own personal perspective on what constitutes its idea of authority. I am referring to Elder authority in particular, as this is a major theme as well as source of controversy in these churches. I have ruminated long and hard upon the subject before coming to the point that I would write about it. Also, I have studied the issues surrounding this matter from church history as part of the formation of my present thinking.

Since I am a student of the Bible as well as church history in general, I seek to write this critique from a thoroughly biblical perspective. As a Christian, I am one who cares deeply about the glory of God in general, and in the glory of Jesus Christ in the church in particular. There is nothing I want more than to see it prosper. The things that I seek to write about in this work are therefore, born from this burden that I have had concerning it for many years. My critique in every respect will be put forth as I see things from the word of God. Of course, my experiences and subjective opinions will certainly influence what I write, just as they do everybody else. What is written herein is my own analysis of the ideas that Reformed Baptist ministers hold to. So I am not just regurgitating what someone else has said. But I’m also a believer in what is referred to as feeding on everyone’s pasture, but giving your own milk. Therefore, I will attempt to buttress these opinions, if indeed they are valid, with proper support from others as well as Scripture.

It is the duty of anyone who reads my analysis of the subject, to examine what I have to say objectively. I hope it will appear to be as objective as I intend it be, in spite of the fact that it is a critical assessment. I’m under no illusion about how this critique will be viewed by any Reformed Baptist pastor, who may see it. I have no doubt that it will be taken as an unjustified, unbiblical attack on them from someone who has no authority. Since biblical authority is the very thing that I’m attempting to analyze in regard to the Reformed Baptists, I want to be absolutely clear at this point about the anticipated objection. I’m not criticizing legitimate biblical authority that Christ gives to His servants in the ministry. I’m criticizing the abuse of that legitimate authority that Christ gives to His ministers in the Reformed Baptist church. I believe the unauthorized and improper use of authority of the kind I have seen and experienced in the past, has led to a great deal of declension in the Reformed Baptist church today.

My purpose in writing this will be to define exactly what that improper use of authority is, and the reason for why it occurs as well. The witness of Christ in the world is what is at stake here. If the beliefs and actions of Reformed Baptist ministers are outside of all scrutiny, then how will any defect in it be improved upon? This present time in the church’s history is a time of widespread spiritual decline throughout the visible church. And there are many today outside of it who for that reason, are emboldened to hurl insults, attacks, and complaints against the organized church. To do this is a personal affront to Jesus Christ our Lord. But woe unto us if any of their complaints against us are justified. We who believe in Christ, and presume to teach and defend His doctrine and His church, are most certainly subject to the scrutiny of His word.

For the record, I must make it known that I do not make the judgements here based on unsubstantiated second hand allegations, though I admit these things are widely discussed by others. Nor do I make them on merely one bad experience I have had. Most of the substance of this work is derived by my own firsthand knowledge and experience of certain events which have taken place in the Reformed Baptist church. The remainder is based on circumstances which are publically well known by many people. Also, I have read and heard many of the views that I’m criticizing in this paper from the Reformed Baptist ministers themselves, not the least of which is contained in numerous audio recordings available to the public. Indeed, the Reformed Baptist church has obtained for itself quite a negative reputation about its views and practices on authority. For this reason there is a great deal of material available from which to look at in compiling a critique about it.[1]

Another reason that I feel eminently qualified to undertake this project is due to the fact that I have been associated with three different Reformed Baptist churches since I have been a Christian. The first two I was a member of. The third one I never sought membership. All three of these churches went through public scandal due to sin and ministerial misconduct. In all three of these cases, a coverup of the misconduct had been attempted by the ministers involved, making the matters far worse. All of these churches have suffered serious spiritual declensions within them due to a refusal on the part of these ministers to repent of their personal and ministerial sin. All three of these congregations had splits due to personal loyalties in the membership to the authoritarian leadership. Authoritarians are always encouraged in their sin when excused by those who blindly follow them in their many acts of ministerial misconduct.

Although it would be wrong to accuse every Reformed Baptist minister of being guilty of the same sins in everything they think or do, nevertheless, there are certain discernable patterns that can be seen in virtually all of them. Why is this so? I believe that it stems from the underlying ideas that all Reformed Baptist ministers seem to think on the subject of authority in the church. And I say this not just about authority in general, but of the specific authority that they believe they legitimately have in the church by virtue of their calling. In every situation that arises there always seems to be the same set of circumstances surrounding all of the controversy that takes place in any given Reformed Baptist church. The issues surrounding the circumstances in question always seem related to the actions of the Pastor in reference to the limits of his authority. The controversies always seem to come down to the perception which both he and the congregation have on its limitation.

The various methods of church discipline frequently exercised on its membership are far and away the biggest source of conflict and division found among Reformed Baptists. These methods often involve actions taken against church members by them without church knowledge or approval. This may involve the removal of a member over some petty legalistic thing, or some other questionable circumstance. Not only do some Elders clandestinely remove some of the members, but many tyrannical men have even removed fellow Elders through power plays of various sorts. A campaign of slander and intimidation in which the congregation is encouraged to take sides is commonly employed in these churches, in order to oust an Elder. These types of things are not confined exclusively to Reformed Baptist ministers.[2] They can be found at the root of many problems that affect the Christian church today. But there is within the Reformed Baptist church a peculiar set of ideas on this that I want to address in this essay. The fact that other denominations experience similar things is incidental to this study. But certainly the things which I speak of here will be applicable to them as well.

The question might be asked, why would I undertake a work of this sort? Is it because I think low thoughts of the Reformed Baptist church and its ministry? Not at all, as I have already said I have spent half of my time as a Christian in one Reformed Baptist church or another. I am not currently in one of these churches now, but I see myself as a refugee from them. Personally, I do not care to ever associate with one of these churches again, specifically for the reasons contained in this critique. Another question might be asked, why then would I care to deal with this? It is because there is an excellent form of biblical Christianity that has been known and practiced among Reformed Baptists in its earlier history. This can be ascertained by the writings and records of the many good men who have been Reformed Baptist ministers. What I mean to say here is that if you remove the authoritarianism from the church and restore it to what it once were historically, there is a great deal to commend it to the glory of God.

The London Baptist Confession, though not perfect is nevertheless, a marvelous confession of faith. And there are many positive things to point out about the Reformed Baptist church and its ministry. There are many false practices and teachings that currently infect the Christian church at large that you will never find in a Reformed Baptist church. I believe that the ministers are deserving of credit for this. The men who become ministers in the Reformed Baptist church are in my opinion, men who are highly motivated by sincerely held convictions about their calling. And Reformed Baptist preaching is without doubt practically speaking, the embodiment of what true preaching is supposed to be. This being said, I want to make it abundantly clear that my purpose in criticizing the ministry of the Reformed Baptist church is because of my love for them.

Introduction

The Reformed Baptist church is one distinct identity within the modern Christian church. Even among Baptists themselves the Reformed Baptists form a distinct group. There are today numerous churches and people who would call themselves Reformed Baptists. To some degree all of those who identify themselves this way may share many things in common with each other. But there is a distinct definition of what a Reformed Baptist really is that can be boiled down to a single specific identity. It is this one single identity that is the primary one being considered when examining and critiquing the views and practices of the Reformed Baptist ministry on authority. There are indeed similarities of thought on this subject that exist among all of these others that call themselves Reformed Baptists. With these similarities of belief and practice, there are similarities in criticism to be made of the ministers of these churches also. But as there is only one distinct definition that can legitimately be given to what a Reformed Baptist truly is, this is the one that is in view here.

This is an important point to make because there are a number of particular false views and practices that will be addressed here. In order to examine them correctly it requires accuracy in ascertaining whom and what is being referred to. Indeed, those views and men that will be referred to do require a specific definition of what Reformed Baptist means. The definition that we will consider then admittedly will not suit everyone that goes by the name Reformed Baptist. This makes it absolutely important that a single, comprehensive definition is arrived at so that it can be properly applied to the term. Even though it is the modern day expression of Reformed Baptist thought that we are to examine, it is the historical definition of the term Reformed Baptist that will occupy this project.

So what is the legitimate historical definition of a Reformed Baptist? A Reformed Baptist first of all is a Christian by the Biblical definition of that term (Acts 11:26). The people who were first called Christians were the disciples of Jesus Christ. A disciple of Jesus Christ is one of those people who recognize and believe in Him as their Savior. A disciple is a follower, and those who are Jesus’ followers are devoted to Him. Those first Christians were known as such because they met together in the name of Jesus Christ to worship Him as His church. Second of all, the Reformed Baptist is a Protestant, and has his doctrinal roots in the Reformation.[3] The term Protestant is in reference to the rejection of the Roman Catholic Pope as the head of the visible church on earth. It was that corrupt, ancient church that was reformed by a return to Biblical Christianity.

The Reformation was responsible for a re emergence of five biblical principles that are inseparably connected to true Christianity. Those principles are known as the five Solas or sole points of truth that pertain to Christian salvation. These are: 1-Scripture alone; 2-By faith alone; 3-By grace alone; 4-Through Christ alone; 5-To the glory of God alone. These five principles are regarded by Reformed Baptists as what defines them as Protestants. The third thing that defines what a Reformed Baptist is, has to do with their acceptance of a specific set of doctrines that are often referred to as Calvinism. This name has arisen because of an association that was made of it with John Calvin; Calvinism was named by people other than John Calvin after his death. Another term for these set of doctrines, which are five in number also, are by description known as the doctrines of free grace for their connection to the biblical concept of salvation. These doctrines are enumerated by the acronym “TULIP.” The five doctrines of grace are: 1-Total depravity; 2-Unconditional election; 3-Limited atonement; 4-Irresistable grace; 5-Perseverance of the saints.

Last of all, Reformed Baptists believe only in baptizing those who have shown a credible profession of faith performed by the mode of full immersion in water. Baptism as a condition of Christian conversion does not stop there for the Reformed Baptist. In order for the Reformed Baptist Elder to administer the sacrament of Baptism to a new believer, there is the requirement made of them to commit themselves to becoming a church member under that Elders’ authority. So church membership is part and parcel of this procedure. For this reason, the Reformed Baptist position can rightfully be called one that is a Credo-Baptist position. This identity as a Baptist, along with a commitment to the doctrines of grace, is what make Reformed Baptists what they are. This identity is expressed in a document called the London Baptist Confession of faith which all true Reformed Baptists are required to accept as their system of belief .

There is one other distinctive truth of the Reformed Baptist position that should be pointed out too. Reformed Baptists are independent rather than denominational, believing in the autonomy of the local church as their polity. Reformed Baptists are Presbyterian in their church government, meaning that they subscribe to the view of rule by a plurality of Elders. Also, because of its independency, the Reformed Baptist Elder is a member of the local church in which he is called rather than some synodical body outside of it. It should be noted also that Reformed Baptists are known for their strict adherence to what is called the Regulative Principle in matters of worship and practice. The Regulative Principle is another Protestant truth that re emerged from the Reformation. This doctrine of apostolic origin was restored to the church through the Bible being recognized as the only source of it’s faith and practice. Whatever the Scriptures command or forbid, either explicitly or implicitly we are to obey. The Regulative Principle dictates God’s will from His word to the church. Therefore, the Reformed Baptist church seeks to regulate the essence of its worship in the manner prescribed by this principle.

I. The Origin Of The Reformed Baptists

In order to understand anything about the Reformed Baptist church and its ministry, it is helpful to know something about its history. The Reformed Baptist church was one of three main churches that came about as the result of the Puritan movement in 17th century England. The church of England came into being after King Henry VIII had separated it from Rome, claiming himself to be its head rather than the Pope. The separation occurred right in the midst of a movement which was taking place on the continent of Europe at the time known as the Protestant Reformation. Although King Henry separated the English church from Rome it still remained for the most part however, Roman Catholic in it’s belief and practice. The Reformation of course, did find its way to England and taking opportunity of it, many converted churchmen within sought to bring about the same changes there.

The attempt at reformation by these churchmen led to many years of struggle within the church of England with the prelates of the church, who resisted these attempts at purifying it according to Reformed biblical principles. The effort to reform the church of England became known as the Puritan movement. Out of this movement there were three distinct Puritan groups that emerged which all eventually separated themselves from the state church, identified as Anglican. All three of these Puritan groups were in general agreement with the most essential elements of the Christian faith, especially the doctrine of God and salvation. In other important areas of doctrine there was overlapping agreement to a certain extent. But as this was a reform movement that desired the absolute purification of the church, agreement amounting to church fellowship tended to end at these points. Among the points of disagreement were those of the proper church government and the correct view of the sacraments.

The three Puritan groups that separated themselves from the Anglican church were the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists and the Baptists. These were referred to as nonconformists by the state and the prelates of its church. Of the three churches, the Presbyterians were the largest and most dominant influence within English Puritanism. A political attempt to bring Puritan reform to the state church led to an assembly of noted men which began in 1646 at Westminster chapel. The result of this assembly was in the formation of a comprehensive confession of faith known as the Westminster Confession. The name of the Confession was quite obviously due to the location of the meeting whence it arose. Among the main tenets of this Confession was a thorough treatment of the Calvinistic doctrines of grace, a Presbyterian church polity, and a commitment to the sacrament of Paedobaptism.

The second Puritan group was known in England as the Separatists, and in America as the Congregationalists. The Separatists differed from the Presbyterians in church polity only, eventually setting out to express this in their own confessional identity known as the Savoy Declaration of 1658. The Presbyterian polity is denominational in character, being ruled by a body of Elders sent from each local congregation as representatives to a synodical assembly. Congregationalists believe in the autonomy of the local church and the input of its membership in the life of the church. Congregationalists are Presbyterian in that they too have a plurality of Elders in each local church to teach and rule. The difference between these two is that Elders of Congregational churches are members of the local church, and as such, are subject to the calling and discipline of the assembled church. The congregation votes on matters of church life unrelated to the maintenance of worship and teaching which is regulated by Confessional standard. In this manner the Elders fulfill their duty to teach and discipline, but with accountability to the assembly that calls them.

The third Puritan group in England was the Baptists, made up of two distinct groups known as General and Particular Baptists. It is from the Particular Baptist Puritans that modern day Reformed Baptists in America claim their heritage. The Baptists were part of the separatist Puritan movement too. The sacrament of Baptism was what separated them from the others. The Particular Baptists were actually the first of the three seventeenth-century Puritan groups to form a Confession of faith, this they did in 1644 when it was quite illegal to do so. The closeness of the Baptists to the Paedobaptist Separatists on church polity is expressed in this confession which borrows heavily from a prior Separatist confession of 1597, when both were in close contact with each other as nonconformists. The division between the General and Particular Baptists occurred before the 1644 Confession was formulated.

In 1660 the efforts of the Puritans to reform the English church were overthrown by a newly restored Monarchy under King Charles II. This happened when he re imposed a former Act of Uniformity upon the newly restored Anglican church. Two thousand ministers refused to comply with the unbiblical elements of Anglicanism which in turn led to their ejection from the ministry. This drove all of the nonconformists into hiding to conduct their worship in secret. Following this upheaval and the end of King Charles II, religious freedom finally came to England under a new King in the form of an official Act of Toleration in 1689. Religious freedom meant the Baptists could now assemble openly without fear of reprisal from the Anglican Bishops which had been the reason for all of the previous turmoil. It was at this time that a new publication of the Particular Baptist faith was made public. This new statement of faith was called the London Baptist Confession of 1689, so named after the first one. However, it was actually formulated in 1677.

This second London Baptist Confession is considerably different from the first. Where the second London Baptist Confession did resemble the first one, was in that it once again borrowed heavily on a previous Congregational Confession, this time the Savoy Declaration of 1658. This makes for what could be an interesting study by itself. The Paedobaptist Separatists based their Confession on the Westminster, owing to the fact they agreed with all that was in it except for church government. Also, they modified certain language in the Westminster to reflect the view that Baptized infants should not to be considered communicant church members because of it, but only according to a credible profession of faith. The Baptists modeled their Confession on the Savoy Declaration, changing only the meaning and mode of Baptism. It is very crucial to understand this about the Particular Baptists. Authoritarian church polity, like that which is commonly practiced today among modern Reformed Baptist ministers, has no historic legitimacy to it whatsoever.

Over the next two hundred years following the 1689 Act of Toleration there were prosperity and growth among the Particular Baptists both in England and in America. Many prominent ministers came forth from the Particular Baptists whom God used in the advancement of His kingdom. Perhaps the first and most notable man among the Baptists are John Bunyan. Even though John Bunyan died in 1688, his life and works were foundational to the Baptist heritage which was to follow the Act of Toleration. It was John Bunyan who gave us Pilgrims Progress and The Holy War, the first of which was written while he was imprisoned for preaching without a licence. John Bunyan could have spent a short time in jail for this offense, but rather, he refused instead to agree to stop preaching outside of the Anglican church. For this, Bunyan spent 12 years in prison.

It is precisely this kind of tenacity and devotion to preaching the gospel which became the hallmark of the Particular Baptist tradition. And like the central theme of Pilgrims Progress, which in allegorical form outlined the experience of Christian life and struggle, the ministers of this heritage emphasized the same in their preaching and Pastoral ministry. Other notable men since the Puritan era include Roger Williams (1603-1683) who founded the state of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in America. John Gill (1697-1771) the Baptist Theologian and Preacher, wrote “A Body of Doctrinal Divinity” as well as a complete exposition of the entire Bible. John Carey (1761-1834) was a Baptist Preacher and missionary to India who is considered the father of the modern mission movement. Carey also founded the Baptist Missionary Society. James Petigru Boyce (1827-1888) was a Baptist Preacher and Theologian who founded the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and wrote the “Abstract of Systematic Theology.” And finally, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) who is referred to as the prince of Preachers. All these men were Reformed Baptists.

II. The Modern Reformed Church Movement

The Particular Baptists who emigrated to America adopted the London Baptist Confession of Faith in 1742, calling it the Philadelphia Confession, after the association they formed of the same name. After the formation of the Republic the Reformed Baptist church grew exponentially as did all other denominations seeking to evangelize the new immigrants settling in frontier America. But the nineteenth century was also a turning point for the worse in the history of the church in terms of what was to take place theologically. A century earlier the great awakening revivals saw many newly converted former Paedobaptists become convinced of the Baptist position. This did not however, necessarily translate into Confessional Christianity, for there were many newly converted Calvinistic Baptists at the time who eschewed any kind of creedal commitment. This created two groups of Calvinistic Baptists in early America with only one that adhered to the Confession. The issue of anti confessionalism was not contained within the Calvinistic Baptists either, for the whole Disciples of Christ Movement which were Baptistic also, adopted the same mentality.

With the introduction of Higher Criticism and it’s evil relative Theological Liberalism, all of the major Christian denominations by the beginning of the 20th century, had been radically diminished in terms of their conformity to the Bible. Surprisingly, Baptists of all stripes seemed to fare better than all the rest when it came to the maintenance of their core beliefs. Part of the reason for this may have been the fact that Baptists are independents, who are generally bound together by associational agreements, rather than having a denominational structure that can collapse. Liberalism had its beginnings in the Seminaries of the various denominations among the academics, and then filtered down into their prospective churches, corrupting them as it went along. In time though, even the Baptists became susceptible and suffered from these liberalizing influences.

Calvinistic Baptists were much different from the rest. Most of these were bound together by strict confessional standards, whose ministers managed to keep the liberalizing influences out of their churches. But the religious climate was such however, that people began to withdraw from an interest in historic confessional Christianity, especially from anything related to Puritanism. For this reason, Calvinistic churches of every type in America and England began to wane in their membership. The first half of the 20th century was a very dark period for Christianity, due too many factors taking place at the time. The Modernist movement paralleled Theological Liberalism which led to an interest in science over religion. Decades of Liberalism joined with such new and novel ideas as evolution, left people disinterested in the Bible. War took place in all the major denominations between the Modernists and the Conservatives. A new movement emerged from this called Fundamentalism. With such an organizational spectacle as this it tended to sour the public against Christianity in general, but especially against any kind of precise biblical definition of it.

Amidst all of this, there was one bright light that shone, albeit obscurely. A man named Arthur Pink (1886-1952) immigrated to America from England to attend school at the Moody Bible Institute, and entered the ministry in 1919 as an itinerant preacher. Through his efforts in the first half of the 20th century, this man Arthur Pink, became an instrumental cause in the revival of Calvinistic and Reformed Christianity in the second half. Arthur Pink held four different pastorates in both England and America over a number of years which ended in failure each time. Although Pink was an eccentric man, this was not the primary cause of his failures. Arthur Pink was an extremely devoted follower of Jesus Christ who had a zealous interest in the promotion of Reformed biblical teaching. This was at a time when Liberalism and Fundamentalism, both errant and unbiblical forms of the Christian faith ruled the day. Most of what passed for Evangelicalism in America was man centered, and works oriented Arminianism.

The story of Arthur Pink is interesting, but much too lengthy to take up here in detail. A couple of things about him however, are very relevant to this study. As Reformed Calvinistic doctrine disappeared by the early part of the twentieth century its place was taken by a new, novel, distorted theological system called Dispensationalism. This system of theology was adopted by the majority of those people called Fundamentalists, who battled with the Modernists for control of the churches. Among the many distortions of truth contained in Dispensationalism there were several that figured most prominently. These were that of a shallow, easy believism marked by a semi-Arminian gospel message, a universal concept of Christ’s atonement, and a complicated and bizarre system of end time prophecy. In fact, the novelties of this prophetic system called Dispensationalism became the primary focus of those who embraced it. It was into this spiritual landscape that Arthur Pink began his ministry, being himself a Dispensationalist at the start.

Over time, because of his intense study of Scripture and the reading of classical Christian works, Arthur Pink became a Calvinistic Baptist in the true Puritan tradition. Pink decried the horrendous spiritual condition of his time and his preaching was rejected because of this. In spite of the fact that Pink had little impact in the several churches he had pastored, he was to have a tremendous impact in both England and America through his efforts at writing. Arthur Pink began a magazine called “Studies in Scripture” which never went beyond a thousand subscribers. But those subscribers were made up of people who like him were zealous for historic, biblical Christianity. The people who read the Studies in Scripture were scattered all over the world, and through it Pink was able to minister to an entirely different sort of congregation. Arthur Pink had to move a number of times over the years that he wrote, but through this magazine he maintained this audience of enthusiastic readers.

The Studies in Scripture was a gold mine of Bible exposition. Over the years that Pink published this magazine, he was able to cover a wide variety of doctrines and even wrote whole commentaries on various books of the Bible from both the Old and New Testaments. What was especially notable about the writings of Arthur Pink, was that they were laced with quotations from classic Reformed writers, ranging from John Calvin in the sixteenth century to J.C. Ryle in the nineteenth century. The last reprints of all the old Puritan works were done in the mid nineteenth century, and Pink had acquired and read them all. Through his magazine Studies in Scripture, Arthur Pink reintroduced Puritan and Reformed theology to his subscribers, and ultimately to the entire English-speaking world.

Arthur Pink’s greatest influence upon the Christian church came after he had passed on to be with the Lord in 1952. Pink was little known when he left this world, but that was to change when his wife began to compile the expositions from the Studies in Scripture into book form in order to publish them. This brought about a much larger readership of Pinks writings than he ever had while living. The result was that a revival of Reformed Christianity began to take place among many people in a number of different types of churches who had read Pink’s books. Perhaps the most widely read book of all from among them was one called the “Sovereignty of God.” This small book reintroduced the biblical teaching on the sovereignty of God against the backdrop of a man-centered sort of Christianity that had engulfed the entire religious landscape.

The result of this was that all three of the historic Reformed churches, the Presbyterian, the Congregational and the Baptist saw a huge resurgence of interest in the Bible and it’s teaching. This led to the establishment of many new churches being planted that adopted one of the three historic Puritan confessional identities.[4] Also, there were many existing churches that were liberal or nominally Evangelical, that after being strongly influenced by this resurgence, in turn adopted one of the traditional identities themselves. Because of a strong demand for the writings of this obscure fellow Arthur Pink, there was an interest too, among several publishers to print his works so that they became widely disseminated in various bookstores in both England and America. Along with interest in Arthur Pink’s books there also was interest on the part of the publishers and the public in the reprint of classic Reformed Puritan books too.

At this point it is necessary to mention one more man who was instrumental in this general Reformed Christian awakening that took place in the mid twentieth century. This man is David Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981). David Martyn Lloyd-Jones began his adult career as a medical Doctor, but in 1927 after a brief iterant preaching ministry, he accepted the call, to Pastor a church in Wales. As a contemporary of Arthur Pink, for many years Martyn Lloyd-Jones found himself in the same Liberal/Fundamentalist spiritual milieu as did Pink. This man was destined by God to become one of the most powerful and influential preachers of the twentieth century. Through personal study of both the Scriptures and the classic Puritan works, Martyn Lloyd-Jones became a staunch Calvinist and a promoter of an older, sounder brand of Christianity. But unlike Pink, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a successful Preacher and Pastor, who in turn used this success to encourage his listeners to learn about the great doctrines of Scripture and of the Protestant Reformation.

In 1939 Martyn Lloyd-Jones became the Pastor of the very large and influential Westminster church in London, preaching there until his retirement in 1969. In 1950 along with several other men Martyn Lloyd-Jones organized the “Westminster Conference” in order to promote an interest in the Puritans and their theology. This conference still meets annually today. Through his preaching and efforts David Martyn Lloyd-Jones contributed greatly to this revival of historic Reformed Christianity. In 1957 a publishing house called the Banner of Truth Trust was established in part, because of these conferences and the ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This was done in order to republish the old Puritan classics. Since his death in 1981 David Martyn Lloyd-Jones sermons have been transcribed from recordings and notes and put into book form for distribution and the benefit of the church at large. In this manner through the life and work of a number of godly men, the Lord preserved His church in the twentieth century just as He promised to do (Matt. 16:18).

III. The Reformed Baptist Movement

It was out of the modern Reformed Christian movement begun in the 1950,s that a revival of Calvinistic Baptist belief occurred as well. It was primarily through the writings of Arthur Pink that this took place. By the 1950,s there were virtually no Baptist churches left in America that could legitimately be considered part of the confessional Reformed heritage. In England, the Particular Baptist denomination that began in the seventeenth century, managed to maintain a collection of congregations that call themselves Gospel Standard churches today. In America there is still a small group of churches called the Primitive Baptists, that have been around since the founding of the Republic. This is that group of Baptists that claim to be the spiritual descendants of the pre republic anti confessional Calvinists. These have never considered themselves to be a part of the Particular Baptist church, or, even Protestants. The Primitive Baptists, just like most other Baptists today refer to themselves as Landmarkers, in the belief that they are original and descending from the very ministry of John the Baptist himself.

For this reason, most Baptists outside of the Reformed tradition have always considered themselves not to be Protestants, but as having been in an unbroken succession of churches going back to the days of the Apostles. This claim is not only false but it is not the concern of this present study. The Primitive Baptists do happen to state that they are in agreement with the 1689 London Baptist Confession, but they are also not a confessional church as such. So neither the Particular Baptists of England, nor the Primitive Baptists of America are the focus of our present study of Reformed Baptists and their ministers. Instead, our focus is on the Reformed Baptist movement that came about in the 1950s which is an entirely different group of Baptists. One very important aspect of this is that the new Reformed Baptist movement was made up almost entirely of people who were previously outside of any communion that could be called Reformed.

The way this phenomenon came about was due to an interest in Arthur Pink’s books among primarily Fundamentalist readers. Arthur Pink attended Moody Bible Institute only briefly before he struck out into his itinerant preaching ministry. Moody is a Dispensationalist school and part of the Fundamentalist movement. Moody published a series of Pinks writings which were called the “Gleanings” series that received a wide readership among Fundamentalists because of the Moody name. Arthur Pink began himself as a Dispensationalist and wrote several books which were of special interest to Dispensational Fundamentalists. Moody endorsed the Gleanings series even though most of the books that were in it were more reflective of Pink’s eventual change into a Covenant Theology view. With this kind of attention given to Pink’s books by Moody Press, many Fundamentalists that read them were deeply affected by the sound biblical teaching in them. The teaching in these books is far better than what most Fundamentalists are normally accustomed to reading. Dispensationalism is fundamentally a doctrinally deficient system.

But there was another exposure to Pink’s writings that took place through the Moody endorsement that brought an even wider number of readers toward the Reformed Baptist faith. An itinerant Preacher named H.A. Ironside (1886-1951), became associated with Moody Institute in 1924, and this continued until his death in 1951. Ironside came from an obscure group of Christians known as the “Plymouth Brethren,” so named after the place of their origin in Plymouth England. The founder of the Plymouth Brethren J.N. Darby (1800-1882) was also at the same time, the founder of the Dispensational system. Owing to the fact that Arthur Pink wrote the first couple of his books, The Antichrist and The Redeemers Return, from a Dispensational perspective, this connection brought his books into that circle of readers too.

Dispensationalists, whether they were from a Plymouth Brethren background or from a Fundamentalist background, tended to be Baptistic in their sacramental view. Books like “The Sovereignty of God,” “The Atonement,” and “Studies in the Doctrine of Sin,” all from a Reformed view were circulated among these two groups. The result of this was an interest in many to become Calvinistic Baptists. It was through these means that God brought about what is called today the Reformed Baptist movement. For many years it has been a common occurrence to be told by a Reformed Baptist minister that his introduction to the Reformed faith came through the reading of Arthur Pink’s books. Indeed this can be said by many Christians both in and outside of the Reformed Baptist church. The impact of Arthur Pink upon the church at large has been profound since his books have been widely disseminated since his death.

It is also true that for many years since the Reformed Baptist movement began that most of the ministers in it have come from a Fundamentalist background. It is important to understand this history and it’s significance in the formation of the modern Reformed Baptist movement. Many of the peculiarities of Fundamentalism were exported directly into the Reformed Baptist church, especially in the way of its ministerial philosophy. What was it about Fundamentalism that affected Reformed Baptist ministerial thinking? Primarily that Fundamentalist ministers all tended to be authoritarian mini-popes in their church. This made them unaccountable to their congregations in the sense that they were an authority unto themselves. This was due in part, among the Fundamentalists because they were non confessional, or should we say, anti confessional in their philosophy.

Fundamentalism derived its name from the position they held, that only the Bible was authoritative, as it is the word of God. Also, they reduced the Bible to a small number of what they viewed as essential or fundamental teachings to the exclusion of the rest of the book. The logic is that these bare bone doctrines, stated in utter simplicity without comment, constitute the Christian faith. Historically, the church always developed doctrinal or creedal statements of definition on the overall, and especially the most important of the truths necessary for faith. Without a confessional position to uphold which defines not only the truth of salvation but all other aspects of Christianity, the ministers of these churches were free to promote their own opinions. This they did with a view to absolute authority in the church, simply because they were ministers, and considered themselves defenders of the faith among the faithful.

For this reason, Fundamentalist ministers were usually strong, domineering personalities. This created a cult of personality among them that was carried over into the Reformed Baptist church. The problem that confronted Christians in the middle of the twentieth century was a diminishing attitude in the public mind over the authority of Scripture. Scripture as the word of God is absolutely authoritative, and should be promoted as such by the church. With theological Liberalism dominating the religious landscape at this time, authority was a major issue for all Christians, especially in its application to society. The problem that developed from Fundamentalism however was in equating the authority of God as it properly exists from His word, with the man that handles it in the pulpit. A distinction between the two blended together, so that the personal opinions held by them, apart from those small number of fundamental truths being proclaimed, became the word of God too.

The second thing was that Fundamentalists were legalists as well as separatists in their Christian outlook on life. With such a skimpy theological system as they had, Fundamentalist preachers were left to create law as they saw fit. This is rather an amazing thing due to the fact that the doctrines being defended were supposed to be the free grace of God in the gospel. But truth, when it is devoid of a sound systematic approach to it in its formulation, makes grace extremely cheap. Easy believeism is the result of shallow teaching. Therefore, the tendency is to bring in all sorts of law work, in order to give some substance, if you can call it that, to religious devotion. Fundamentalists, when they were not engaged in novel end time theories, placed utmost stress upon the concept of what they called “personal work” in evangelism. Evangelism was in their mind, the primary purpose for why God saves. And being Arminians, they imagined God’s work in winning the world to Christianity depended on them. This led to a system of do’s and don’ts of a purely aesthetic nature, that were imposed on Fundamentalist Christians, supposedly as a witness to the world in support of this cause of evangelism.

Separation was another major matter for Fundamentalist ministers. Seeking to establish a “pure” fundamental church became an obsessive endeavor for these men, and ultimately their people. In the pursuit of being pure and separate, authoritarian ministers in these churches would literally throw people out if they deviated from the “law” in any respect. This definition of purity often included, what became known as second and third level separation. Even if a member of the church was in all points Fundamental and separate, but they associated with someone who was not, this constituted a violation of purity. And we do not simply mean, thrown out for a violation of Gods law when we say law, for that is certainly a legitimate reason for proper church discipline. But we are talking about such things as television viewing, or styles of dress or other things of this nature. So the minister in these churches would become as god to their congregations, who in turn, worshiped and feared them as gods.

So this was the cultural atmosphere that existed among the Fundamentalists that was imported into the Reformed Baptist church. Now, a great deal of this legalism and separatism that was inherited became diffused by the introduction of better doctrinal teaching. But it did not disappear altogether as an influence that is still felt and seen in many Reformed Baptist churches today. This is especially true of the cult of personality. The Reformed Baptist pastor today tends to be a strong domineering type, who people naturally react too accordingly. Men idolize this sort of male figure as an image to aspire too. Women are drawn to strong male figures out of sheer physiology. So the Reformed Baptist ministers, have since the beginning of this movement in the 1950’s, embodied the same sort of personal aura that the Fundamentalist prototype set forth for him.

This is especially true in the matter of promoting and maintaining purity in the church. The Reformed Baptist minister today speaks as god from the pulpit, railing against all perceived deviations to purity in the church. And just like his Fundamentalist predecessor, the Reformed Baptist minister demands subservience to his authority. It is not uncommon for those in Reformed Baptist churches who question the pastor in the humblest of manners, to be accused of being insubordinate. It is common for a Reformed Baptist minister to make a pronouncement from the pulpit on some policy of theirs, to conclude with ” there shall be no discussion” in the church on the matter. It is common in Reformed Baptist churches today to hear of people put out for doing just that, either questioning the pastor or, discussing something controversial with other church members. In this, the modern Reformed Baptist minister has become the new and improved Fundamentalist authoritarian pope.

As new Reformed Baptists churches began to spring up across America, it was natural that an interest in the confessional roots of the Particular Baptists of seventeenth century Puritan England should have taken place. But here is where the story takes an interesting twist. The twentieth century American Reformed Baptists’ adopted the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith rather than the Philadelphia Confession as it is called. Some conjecture about this is in order. For the record, the Philadelphia association and the American version of the 1689 London Baptist Confession are the same but differ in only two points. There are two additional chapters in the Philadelphia Confession, the first requires the laying on of hands in Baptism and communion, the second requires the singing of Psalms and hymns in worship. Legend has it that this confession was originally interpreted to mean exclusive Psalm singing. Since charismatic error is present today and Psalm singing is controversial, this may account for the decision toward the London Confession.

But there is one other more probable reason this might have taken place. The Philadelphia association and its confessional heritage morphed over time into what became the Southern Baptist church. All of the major denominations in America underwent regional splits over the political issues surrounding the civil war. After the war, reunification occurred, but with regional sympathies still in place. Prior to the war in 1853, the Northern Baptists adopted their own confession, the New Hampshire Confession, which reflected the rank free willism that came to characterize that region among many of its religious groups. The Southern church maintained its commitment to Calvinism. 1n 1858 the Southern Baptist association and seminary were founded, and a new statement of faith called the Abstract of Principles became its official confession. Although this confession is purely Calvinistic, it is also quite different from the Philadelphia or London confessions.

After the turn of the century, in the midst of the Modernist crisis the Southern Baptist seminary and ultimately the same association of churches made a radical departure from its original commitment to the Reformed faith. They did this by the adoption of a man centered, works oriented agenda through its then President, EY Mullens. Since that time the Southern Baptists have been for the most part a group of churches completely adrift of historic Reformed Christianity. This has culminated in many of the ministers of this church even denying the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Since the 1990,s however, there has been a movement within the Southern Baptist church to return to its confession and Reformed roots.[5] Praise God for this! There has been a transformation among many of these Pastors and the church since that time as a result of this having taken place. It is reasonable to assume that the previous Reformed Baptist movement played a part in this too. It also might explain in part, the dissociation of the 1950’s Reformed Baptists to the American reformed confessional heritage.

Once again thanks should be given to Arthur Pink for all of this, for it was through the liberal quotation of various Puritans in his books that there has come to be such an intense interest by American Baptists in learning about them and the circumstances of their time. This is also probably where the second largest influence in the thinking of most Reformed Baptist ministers has come concerning the development of their view of authority. This has to do with the various conflicts that took place at that time between the English authorities in government and in the church against non conformity. There is a tendency on the part of most Reformed Christians today of any kind to do that. When Puritan classics are read, they are often read outside of the context of their times. What this means is that many Puritan enthusiasts are often given to reading the Puritans as though their circumstances are relevant to our own peculiar times. This has led many to try to apply them to our own circumstances today in America, sometimes with disastrous results.

In the seventeenth century there was tremendous conflict over the matter of authority in England, indeed going back to the Reformation in all of Europe. That era was marked by an entirely different way of thinking about human authority on the part of society. Human authority at that time received far greater deference than it was entitled to. There is and has been among Reformed Christians a tendency to accept many things about that era that should not be, this was one of them. The Reformation, and even the Puritan era that followed it, did not cure every evil that existed from the middle ages overnight. Many of the wrong ways of their thinking about things are still being held onto today in Reformed churches. There is no more Monarchical government in western society to contend with. There are no more threats from Roman Catholics against the Protestant church, at least not in the way there once was.

Seventeenth century Christians were born into a society that believed in the Medieval doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings.” Simply put, this doctrine which originated with the Roman and Holy Roman Empires said that because God ordained the king, therefore, his authority was unlimited. This translated into the idea that the king was above the law and unaccountable to any authority, except maybe to the Popes. When King Henry separated England from Rome he assumed the role of head of the Church entirely on his own. That meant that Henry was both King and Pope of the English church. The Puritans were right in opposing not only the Pope, but any claim by a Monarchs to be head of the church. There is only one Head of the Christian church, and that is Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:22,23). The Puritans rightly recognized that there were different spheres of authority in the world ordained of God, and that Ecclesiastical authority is the right of the church and its ministry.

Seventeenth century England also had a view of Ecclesiastical authority concerning its human ministers that was just as excessive a view as that of the Divine right of the King. At least this was true of much of it. The term “Reverend” as a title of Ecclesiastical respect is that which even Jesus would reject in His humanity. “Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Mark 10:17,18). In this passage, the term “good” is a description, not a title such as Reverend is. What man could possibly be more good than Jesus was? Yet, Jesus would not allow Himself to be worshiped as a man and rightfully so. So for men to accept titles such as Reverend, which imply moral goodness is perhaps the most irreverent thing that can ever be done.

The Reformed Baptist view of ecclesiastical authority is derived from the Puritan era as well as influenced by Fundamentalist views of the twentieth century. The 1689 London Baptist Confession is an excellent doctrinal statement which the Reformed Baptists have as their Confession. But many of their ways of thinking about the church and the authority that the minister has does not come entirely from the doctrine of the confession, nor from Scripture itself. The patterns of thinking that prevail among the largest portions of these men today come from ideas gleaned from reading about these things as they were in a different time and place than now. And not only that, but the men of the Puritan era were entirely different men than those today in many respects. Certainly, the people that make up the church in modern day America, are not the same people that lived in seventeenth century England.

IV. Controversy and Decline in the Reformed Baptist Movement

Between the 1950s and the 1980s there was an explosion of new churches that were both Calvinistic and Baptist in America. The way that this came about in a great many of these cases, was through reform of an already existing church of one kind or another. Usually, a Pastor in one of these churches might become Reformed in his views through reading and study, then he would proceed to start preaching it to his congregation. In many instances the result was that the congregation might become convinced as well of these things, then purpose to reconstitute itself a Reformed Baptist church. In other instances a split might follow from a commotion in the church over the doctrines which would then lead to the establishment of a new Reformed Baptist church. In still some other instances an entirely new church might come about as the result of a new plant by an already existing Reformed Baptist church. Due to the fact there was an entirely new movement behind the formation of these churches, they faced the difficult task of trying to determine exactly what a Reformed Baptist church was supposed to look like.

It would be fair to say that this new Baptist movement did not come into being without a great deal of controversy surrounding it. In many cases a Reformed Baptist church arose from the remains of a declining church situation in some local Baptist or independent congregation. There was also a lot of argumentation among those folk who wanted to become Reformed Baptists, as to what actually constituted a Biblical church identity. The arguments that ensued over these things were primarily conducted by ministers among themselves, but were often done in the presence of individual church members. There were also different camps that emerged from this situation, all with their own interpretation of what constitutes a Reformed Baptist church. Those who wanted to be reformed in the traditional sense did so by the full adoption of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith. There were others that rejected certain portions of the confession. A very good account of the rise of the movement with its problems is found in an excellent article entitled “Reformed Baptists in America” by Steve Martin, the Pastor of Heritage Baptist Church, Fayetteville, Georgia.

“In the 1960s, Baptists began to adopt the Second London Confession of 1689 as their understanding of the Bible and its theology. Baptist churches in the Mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York began to form around the 1689 Confession, holding family conferences, pastors’ conferences and publishing materials consistent with their theology. The Banner of Truth placed its North American headquarters in Carlisle, Pennsylvania largely through the impetus of Reformed Baptist, Ernie Reisinger and Grace Baptist Church of Carlisle. By the 1970s, conferences and influence were growing just as Calvinistic Baptists began to struggle to understand their own theology in greater depth and how it related to other Protestant Reformation theologies and the Word of God. What was the place of the Law of God in the New Testament? How did the Old and New Covenants inter-relate? Was dispensational theology compatible with Reformed theology? Did one need to be covenantal to be Reformed? Could one be covenantal and a Baptist? What, if anything, should be retained from Fundamentalism? Was Fundamentalism’s practice of seeing the local pastor as the Baptist Pope biblical? Was the Kingdom of God shaped like the USA? How was American Civil Religion intertwined with Baptist understandings of Christianity in the late 20th century? What was the place of associations of churches? What was ‘hyperautonomy’ and were some Baptists guilty of it? Were all elders also pastors? What was the authority of elders? What was ‘authoritarianism’ and what was it like to be infected with it? These were the burning questions. And as before, whenever true Calvinism is recovered, hyper-Calvinism arises as a plague to confuse the saints and give fodder to the Truth’s enemies. What’s more, the moral crisis of the West which followed the demise of Protestantism and confidence in the Word of God also plagued Reformed churches of Baptist persuasion. Prominent Baptist leaders fell into immorality and spoiled not only their own testimonies but also the credibility of the doctrines they were called to adorn and defend.”[6]

It would be fair to say that a number of the things Pastor Steve Martin mentions in his article all relate back to the one issue in particular of which we now here write, that of authoritarianism. That being so, there were a number of themes that began to emerge along with this movement in reference to this one underlying principle of authority. One of them was the place of the law of God in the church, this was and is central to the history of the modern Reformed Baptist movement. As we have previously noted, Fundamentalism was primarily a movement built upon a system of doctrine called Dispensationalism. Without going into all the peculiarities of this system of thought, we will just state here for the record that it is an antinomian approach to theology. As such, the issue of the law became fundamental to many of the disputes and tumults that took place in these churches. Also, the modern Evangelical hates the law of God. Dispensationalism makes the claim that it no longer exists as a duty incumbent upon the Christian to keep. Reformed theology on the other hand, rightfully asserts a proper place for the moral law of God.

Reformed Baptist ministers seeking to rid the church of this antinomian error, often applied the most over the top, tyrannical methods in doing so. There was and is a movement which coincided with the advent of the modern Reformed Baptist movement, that capitalized on this by drawing disgruntled members away from the Reformed Baptists to their own churches. This movement calls itself Sovereign Grace, or, simply New Covenant theology.[7] The idea behind it is the same as Dispensationalism, from which this movement came too. By using the term tyrannical in reference to this controversy, what is meant is the view that Reformed Baptist Elders took of their authority in dealing with the errors. The tendency of this view is to believe in a kind of authority vested in them by Christ which goes way beyond what Scripture itself teaches, a sort of Baptist Episcopalianism. By Peters own definition, he was not only an apostle, but an Elder too, and yet, he took no authority unto himself except as an under shepherd of the Lord (I Pet. 5:1-4). This would imply that anything he did by way of ministerial duty in dealing with error, and those who propagate it, must be done according to a specific ethical procedure found in Scripture.

Reformed Baptist ministers routinely violate the principle of under shepherding by railing against people from the pulpit like angry dictators. Oftentimes, a private conversation with a church member about a difference of understanding on doctrine, or, of practice, is put forth before the congregation from the pulpit in the form of a sermon. Anyone who is not privy to the conversation and hears the sermon is made immediately aware that someone in the church is in opposition to the Pastor. This causes fear and embarrassment on the part of people to ever ask a question in private, if it will become the subject matter of a sermon. It is clear by this also, that the Pastor becomes the embodiment of God’s law in the same way the Pope does, speaking on every matter officially. When all matters in the church not covered in the confession are established by means of the pulpit, the place of authority concerning exposition of the word, becomes a sort of papal like authority. It is like Moses thundering the words of God to the people in the form of “Thus says the Lord.”

Authoritarians attack anyone who merely raises a question, or objects to some particular point of application being made toward them that is not a matter of orthodoxy. Jesus told His disciples about religious rulers that would not tolerate deviation from their point of view (Matt. 10:17). The Pharisees were so punctilious about the law they became monsters who threatened anyone that did not agree with them, so that all objectivity in interpreting the Scriptures was lost (verse 28). Reformed Baptist Elders have often been known to throw people out of the church without the knowledge or consent of the congregation too. And though it may have been for some fundamental error in doctrine, without the church’s knowledge or consent however, there is no way to establish this. It may have been for a refusal to submit to some command an Elder gave to a person, involving a matter that is not even doctrinal, whether legitimately sinful or not.

Reformed Baptist Elders trying to fight the errors of New Covenant Theology, very often split and even destroyed many churches in the process of rooting it out. This has served to create a fraternity of believers who are all refugees from Reformed Baptist churches, who in turn, speak evil of them because of the way they were treated. It is true that a Shepherd is called on to protect his sheep, and this is a duty that Reformed Baptist Elders have always taken to heart. And error just like cancer must be removed. It often requires a sharp instrument to do the job effectively, so that a pastoral ministry is by no means a non contact sport in many cases. But be that as it may, people are involved in this affair, people made in the image of God. And God will not hold him guiltless who causes His little ones to stumble (Matt. 18:6). In church disputes, where people leave or put out, there is always a tremendous amount of collateral damage done. Oftentimes, when raw authority is invoked in disputes rather than reason from the word of God, which is supposed to be a minister’s weapon, more harm than good is accomplished (II Cor. 10:1-6).

Another major theme in much of Reformed Baptist controversy, is the doctrine of the church. In Reformed Baptist circles the catch phrase “churchmanship” is used to mean obedience to the law of God in the church, especially Sabbath observance. Sovereign Grace Baptists, just like most other modern Evangelicals deny the Sabbath is required of Christians in the New Covenant. This was and is a central issue of contention between them. But Elder authority typically goes far beyond that of Scripture and the confession on stated church meetings, usually requiring 100 percent attendance by everyone at them, no matter what. So not only is Sabbath attendance at church expected, and rightfully so, but Sunday school, mid week prayer, and any other stated meeting. Failure to maintain at or close to perfect attendance makes one subject to church discipline in a Reformed Baptist church.

While this may in one sense promote good “churchmanship,” on the other hand it may also promote hypocrisy. Of course, any believer who loves the Lord and His people, wants to be at every possible meeting they can. And it is true that there are times in which slackness in the faith can creep in. For that, exhortation is always in order from a pastoral perspective. Most people who come to a Reformed Baptist church and stay, do so because they want to be more biblical than what passes for mainstream Christianity. But there are reasons why someone might not be able, or don’t want to attend meetings at times other than Sunday worship. It is not untypical for people to travel long distances to a Reformed Baptist church. This can be a daunting thing for many reasons, certainly one that might influence a personal decision about racing to church in the rush hour traffic on a Wednesday night. But when discipline is put before someone for failure to be there, something less than willing obedience is the result.

Sunday school and mid week prayer meetings are not found in Scripture, but are more recent inventions in the modern church. And hypocrites are often studious in church attendance, so that it is no measure by itself of the spiritual condition of every member per se. Reformed Baptist ministers are right to expect church members to be at Sunday worship, for this is what the Lord has ordained. But these Elders have typically gone way beyond that in matters that are between the Lord and the individual believer, demanding their conscience be subject to them (Rom. 14:5,12,22). Authoritarians try to usurp the headship of Christ over individual believers, in matters outside of their purview. We don’t mean to imply that it is not the purview of a pastor to be concerned for the spiritual well being of the people under his charge, only that there is a legitimate line between pastoral concern and outright authoritarian forcefulness. Even the apostle Paul, who certainly understood the authority conferred on him by Christ, did not seek to use it in every instance he encountered, though he might have done so legitimately (II Cor. 1:24,10:8,13:10).

The fruit of authoritarian leadership in Reformed Baptist churches is evident, and the reason no doubt, why Pastor Martin would write as he did. The result is they, just like the rest of the American church in general, is in spiritual decline. The issues outlined in Pastor Steve Martin’s article present a very good outline of the many controversies that have wracked the Reformed Baptist Churches since the beginning of the modern movement. And this one issue of Elder authority has stood out as the most controversial among them all. The burning issue is what is an Elders duty in regard to the members? This question involves both the use and the limitation of authority. The ministers themselves will state this as the reason for many, if not all of the conflicts they face as Pastors in the church.

But this is where a major difference of opinion arises. Most Reformed Baptist Pastors would attribute the decline in the church to a lack of respect for authority, especially ministerial authority. The fact that there is a problem with respect for authority in America cannot be denied. Therefore, surely some of what these ministers think about the current state of things must be valid. But to suppose that accounts for all of it is overly simplistic and way off the target. The standard position that most Reformed Baptist Pastors take is that this society and the people in it are woefully corrupted by democratic values. Therefore, because of this most Christians will not submit themselves to true biblical authority. Again, this may be true to a certain degree, but it is not entirely the correct explanation of what has happened among the Reformed Baptists. America has slowly been descending toward totalitarianism, so democratic values can hardly be the reason. This is the result of corruption and the abuse of authority. People never respect authority when it is like that. So to say lack of respect for authority in society accounts for all church ills is just not realistic. The Reformed Baptist church has grown exponentially since the 1950,s. Again, this is attributable to many people being tired of Evangelicalism, so they are seeking for a more biblical form of Christianity. But while the Reformed Baptists have grown, many of their churches have dwindled to nothing because of authoritarian rule in them. There have been so many squabbles and church splits over the last several decades in these churches that a certain picture has started to emerge. In this picture there can be seen a certain tendency toward an authoritarian attitude by the Pastors which can be objectively analyzed. In that analysis, over and over again, it is found that there is not an unwillingness on the part of members to submit to biblical authority, but rather authoritarian, unbiblical policies are at issue. When such a thing as this happens in the church, it tarnishes the church’s reputation in the world, and the end result is the loss of true spiritual authority in it.

Part of the task of any ministry in any generation is to spiritually nurture those whom Christ regenerates into holy people. It is one thing when unsound people leave, or, they are put out of the church for unrepentant sin through legitimate censure. But it is another thing altogether, when godly men (and women) leave, or, they are put out in the absence of this. Is it possible that a Pastor can be disrespected or maligned by people in the congregation? Absolutely, and it happens sometimes. Can a church member be mistreated by an authoritarian Pastor? It has happened all too often in Reformed Baptist churches by those who are charged by Christ to be His under shepherds (I Peter 5:1-4). The key to understanding why Reformed Baptist pastors are embroiled in so much church controversy and scandal has to do with the expectation they have about the way things should be in it.

V. The Historic Reformed Idea of Church Authority

Much of the current philosophy Reformed Baptist ministers have of authority, has little to do with Scripture, and more to do with how they associate it to their heritage. Their view of society in seventeenth century England affects their way of thinking, if for no other reason, their adoption of the 1689 London Baptist Confession. By this is meant the view people had in seventeenth century England and America made them accustomed to authoritarian, theocratical rule. This kind of a culture is looked at as desirable by many Reformed Baptist Pastors today as the ideal for which they should aspire. This was a time when people were put in prison or put to death over their beliefs by a state government influenced by Ecclesiastical authorities. In England this was called Erastianism. A single point of difference concerning any matter of religion against the accepted Ecclesiastical norm could put a person at serious risk in such a society as this.

The Puritans contended with the King and the church of England over who would rule the church. Would it be the state or the Anglican Bishops, most of which were in sympathy to some form of Popery? Should there be a state church at all, or should it comprise entirely Independent, autonomous congregations? Oftentimes, the Puritans contended with each other over these matters, with each group desiring domination of Ecclesiastical policy over the others. If someone was to read only the Puritans for their perspective on society, it should be no wonder that an authoritarian view of things might follow. How did Popery come into being except by an incremental assumption of authority and power over large numbers of people in society? After the Pope’s ungodly claim to authority was overthrown in the English-speaking world, there arose his replacement in the Monarch over the prelates of the Anglican church that served him.

The Puritans rightly resisted the attempts of the state run church to dictate to them how the church of Jesus Christ was to be ordered. The adoption of Congregational polity as the foundational principle of the church was for many of the Puritans a way of return to biblical Christianity. Both Paedobaptist Congregationalists and Baptists shared this position. In fact, both churches began as one movement until they officially separated over the issue of Baptism in 1644. Despite a fairly rigid view of society in terms of outward conformity to God’s law, the spiritual fathers of both of these churches, did not believe the Christian church was to be ruled by a king.

John Owen, the Congregationalist, is considered the great seventeenth century theologian, England’s equivalent to Calvin. Early on Owen was a Presbyterian but switched in the middle of England’s controversies to Congregationalism. The reason for this being the Presbyterians desired their own version of the Erastian system of government. English Presbyterianism also viewed the Elders of the church as members of a ruling body outside of the local congregation, so that church authority was in effect, exercised autocratically from the top down. Members of the local church chose their Elders, but other than that, they were not accountable in any way to the congregation, something Scripture knows nothing about (Mark 10:42-45; II Cor. 8:5; I Tim. 5:19,20). Owen recognized the error of this structure, and that “the new Presbyter was the old Bishop, writ large.” Owen was an authority on the subject of church authority and independency, and expressed as much in his treatise on church order.[8]

Owen endorsed the idea of what he called the gospel church-state. One brief excerpt from him will suffice. “Christ, therefore, alone is the author of the gospel church-state. And because this is the only foundation of our faith and obedience, as unto all that we are to believe, do, and practice, by virtue of that church-state, or in order thereunto, the Scripture doth not only plainly affirm it, but also declares the grounds of it, why it must be so, and whence it is so, as also wherein his doing of it doth consist. Three things, amongst others, are eminently necessary in and unto him who is to constitute this church-state, with all that belongs thereunto; and as the Scripture doth eminently and expressly ascribe them all unto Christ, so no man, nor all the men of the world, can have any such interest in them as to render them meet for this work, or any part of it” In other words, Jesus Christ is the Head of His church, and no one else. Beside that, the church being constituted a “gospel church-state” it was in effect an organization that received authority from Christ to manage its affairs apart from the political state.

John Owen wrote another treatise entitled “The True Nature of a Gospel Church and its Government.” In it he defined the Eldership as having authority to govern the church. But of this government Owen also said “This authority in the rulers of the church is neither autocratical or sovereign, nor nomothetical or legislative, nor despotical or absolute, but organical and ministerial only. The endless controversies which have sprung out of the mystery of iniquity, about an autocratical and monarchical government in the church, about power to make laws to bind the consciences of men, yea, to kill and destroy them, with the whole manner of the execution of this power, we are not concerned in. A pretense of any such power in the church is destructive of the kingly office of Christ, contrary to express commands of Scripture, and condemned by the apostles,” Isaiah 33:22; James 4:12; Matthew 17:5, 23:8-11; Luke 22:25, 26; 2 Corinthians 1:24; 1 Corinthians 3:21-23; 2 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Peter 5:1-3.[9]

Church power, according to Congregational principle as found in Scripture is absolute from its Head, Jesus Christ, essential in its organization as found in the church, and derivative in its ministry which is called. The church, whether it is mystical or visible, is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22,23). As such, the power of Christ is exercised in it here on earth according to His will, expressly set forth in His word. Essential power, as delegated by Christ to His church is found in the assembly of the saints, to whom He gives the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:18,19,18:17,18; Rev. 1:18,20). Ministers are called by Christ both in and through His church, therefore, whatever power they receive from Him to govern is derived and not essential. And why is it this way, but because the church existed before and apart from its officers who are drawn from it (Acts 1:23-26, 6:3-5, 13:1-3; I Tim. 6:12). As such, they are accountable to Christ in the church as members of it, not the other way around (Heb. 13:17). So when Elders are called and given authority to govern in the church, and everyone is expected to obey them, it is understood they will also be held accountable for the manner in which that power is used.

Although the Baptists separated from the Congregational Paedobaptists in 1644, they were still in absolute agreement with them on church polity and authority. This is reflected in the fact that the new Baptist confession, which was drawn up in order to reflect their particular position on the sacrament, borrowed heavily from previous Puritan statements. This was done most notably from one in particular called the True Confession of Faith (1596), a Congregational document written while both groups were still in loose association with each other. According to the Reformed Baptist historian Dr. James Renihan, this confession was reflective of the Baptist point of view on doctrine. Commenting on The 1644 London Confession of faith, Dr. Renihan states:

“The Baptists were concerned to demonstrate to all that their doctrinal convictions had been, from the very start, orthodox and too a large degree identical with the convictions of the Puritans around them. In order to do this, they looked for the best available means by which to prove that their views were indeed closely in line with the convictions of the other churches around them. They did this by issuing a Confession of faith. This First London Confession of 1644, published prior to the Westminster Confession of Faith, was heavily dependent on older, well-known documents. It was their purpose to prove that they did not hold wild new ideas, but rather shared the same basic theological perspectives of the best churches and ministers around them. Probably the best and most detailed Confession available to them was the True Confession of 1596, a document that had been issued by men of stature like the famous commentator on the books of Moses, Henry Ainsworth. About 50% of their Confession was taken directly from this older document.”[10]

By the time Baptists adopted the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, the Westminster (Presbyterian), and the Savoy (Congregational) confessions had both been published. The new London Confession reflected the substance of both of these documents, especially the Congregationalism of the Savoy Confession. The only fundamental difference between them was in church government and the sacrament of Baptism. Both of the church identities mentioned above also adopted church polity platforms, in spite of the fact that the confessions themselves addressed this subject. The reason for this should be obvious to the reader. It was to provide a more in-depth means of defining church life in terms of its government, membership, and discipline. A confession served the purpose of providing a summary of these. A church order document spelled it out in more detail.

The Puritans believed in the Regulative Principle found in Scripture that dictates everything that should or should not be done in the New Testament church. Concerning the manner of implementing this principle, everyone agreed that the New Testament church, unlike the old dispensation under Moses, does not have every detail spelled out, down to the last nail in the tabernacle (Ex. 25:9). So we, under the newer covenant, dwelling on a more advanced revelational plane than Moses, are told by the apostle to implement this same principle too, but in a slightly different way. There are specific commands in the New Testament on what constitutes the elements of worship. And concerning the polity of the New Testament church Paul says to Timothy “but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Tim. 3:15). But without every last detail being given, and no Urim and Thumim to consult, Paul also gave this sound instruction as well: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (I Cor. 14:40).

So, the New Testament implementation of the Regulative Principle is twofold, instruction or prohibition from the Bible, combined with sanctified common sense from nature. This is to be the manner in which the church conducts its affairs in the New Covenant dispensation. Obviously, the church needs a government, and Christ provided for it out of His abundant grace (Eph. 4:7,11). But notice what else is said in the same passage (Ephesians 4) concerning the purpose of that government. It is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12,13). Christ appoints officers in His church to equip the saints for ministry, for edification, for unity, and for perfection. In other words, church government has its officers to direct it, but it is by no means a dictatorship, but rather a joint effort in which both ministers and members have their purpose.

The presence of spiritual gifts in the church to all members, has the implication there is what the Puritans referred to as the priesthood of the believer (I Pet. 2:5). In fact, the adopted children of God, the brethren of Christ, are jointly and to some lesser extent prophets, priests and kings with Him (Rev. 1:5,6; Acts 1:8, 2:18). The recovery of this New Testament truth at the reformation, was fundamental to the overthrow of papal tyranny. The priesthood of the believer does not imply any kind of singular competence in the church other than personal liberty of conscience. The priesthood of the believer rather, implies that spiritual competence is found among the assembly of the saints. This is a far cry from the modern day notion of individual competence which lends itself to crass democratic attitudes to governing the church. The church so assembled, is competent to recognize and call its officers that Christ has chosen to lead them.

We have already quoted from Owens two treatises on polity. The American counterparts to the English Congregationalists were the Pilgrims who settled here in the original Plymouth colony. A church polity document reflecting the same principles as their spiritual brethren in England were adopted by them called the Cambridge Platform in 1648. These churches were able to associate as independent, local congregations under the Savoy and Cambridge documents. The Baptists had their own manual of church order too, just like the other Puritan churches did. In fact, the Baptists published several of them over the course of time. The first Baptist church order document was written in England by Benjamin Keach in 1697, one of the original signers of the 1689 London Baptist Confession. The second one was written by Benjamin Griffith in America, and appended to the Philadelphia Confession of 1743 by that association.

Both of these church order documents are certainly unique to the Reformed, or, Particular Baptists as they were called at the time. But both of these documents also express the substance and sentiment of Owen and the other Congregationalists concerning church government. Keach’s work is entitled The Glory of a True Church and it’s Discipline Displayed. In his order of church discipline Benjamin Keach makes numerous remarks in reference to the works of John Owen on the church, indicating his substantial agreement with Owens views. The same is true of Griffith’s work entitled A Short Treatise Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church.[11] Not only does Griffith make reference to Owen’s work On the Nature of the Gospel Church, but Thomas Goodwin’s work Of the Government of the Churches of Christ.[12] And perhaps the most telling example of agreement between these two churches on the subject of polity is found in Benjamin Keach’s references to a Dr. Chauncy. Chauncy was considered the chief authority next to John Owen on Congregational principles, in the seventeenth century.[13]

On this account we now bring forth testimony from Benjamin Keach, on both his and Dr. Chauncy’s idea of church authority. Keach brings the very same point into view concerning church competency, as providing the basis for its essential power which Jesus Christ ordained for it. In the five sub points that underlie the subject of church power, Keach makes it clear that the church exists first without any officers, even though they are necessary to the proper management of it. Also, that ministers are first and foremost members of the church body themselves, and therefore, subject to Christ and the church. He states this unambiguously in point 2. The Power of the Keys, or to receive in and shut out of the Congregation, is committed unto the Church: The Political Power of Christ, saith Dr. Chauncy, is in the Church, whereby it is exercised in the Name of Christ, having all lawful Rule and Government within it self, which he thus proves, viz.

1. The Church essential is the first Subject of the Keys.

2. They must of necessity to their Preservation, purge themselves from all pernicious Members.

3. They have Power to organize themselves with Officers. Yet I humbly conceive I may add, that the Concurrence of the Presbytery is needful hereunto.

4. If need be that they call an Officer from without, or one of another Church, they must first admit him a Member, that they may ordain their Officer from among themselves.

5. They have Power to reject a scandalous Pastor from Office and Membership.

This Power of Christ is exerted as committed to them by the Hands of the Elder appointed by Christ, the due management whereof is in and with the Church to be his Care and Trust, as a Steward, whereof he is accountable to Christ and the Church, not lording it over God’’s Heritage.[14]

Congregational church polity became historically defined as one that recognized the keys of the kingdom as belonging to the church apart from individual Pastors. The Apostles appointed Elders in churches that already existed and were operational at the time of their appointment (Acts 14:23). After the doctrine of Elder rule was established in the New Testament church, the appointment of new Elders to it became the concern of the same assembled churches. Indeed, there is no conception of a Biblical church as complete and properly functional apart from such an institution as that of a plural Eldership. But the point is that there is a difference in the authority between them. The assembled church receives its authority directly by Christ by virtue of His presence among them (Matt. 18:18-20). Apostolic authority no longer exists except through their writings, which is the voice of Christ to His church (Eph. 2:19,20, 3:5, Heb. 1:1,2).

The Elders on the other hand, receive Christ’s authority through the church and it’s recognition of their calling by Christ. There is no one verse that explicitly defends the notion of an Elder being called by the authority of the assembled church, but it is implicit in Scripture nonetheless (Acts 6:3,5,6).[15] The 1689 Baptist Confession agrees as well in the use of the Acts 6 passage when it states it like this. The way appointed by Christ for the Calling of any person, fitted, and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the Office of Bishop, or Elder, in a Church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the Church it self; and Solemnly set apart by Fasting and Prayer, with imposition of hands of the Eldership of the Church, if there be any before Constituted therein; And of a Deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by Prayer, and the like Imposition of hands.[16]

Furthermore, congregational authority is implicitly taught in Scripture in the matter of removing unrepentant sinning members as well through church discipline (I Cor. 5:4,5,13, II Cor. 2:6,7). Again the 1689 Baptist Confession of faith makes the same assertion. To each of these Churches thus gathered, according to His mind, declared in His word, He hath given all that power and authority, which is any way needfull, for their carrying on that order in worship, and discipline, which He hath instituted for them to observe; with commands, and rules, for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.[17] Pastors are members of the churches that call them, and therefore, may be removed as well by the assembled church for the same reasons. So there is nothing in the historic documents of the Reformed Baptist church that is in conflict with Scripture on this matter of authority in the church.

In America, as already asserted above, the Pilgrims established the gospel church-state according to congregational principles. Paedobaptists were in the majority, and because of that, the early American colony was heavily influenced by the Cambridge Platform. This was true in and outside of the church. The principles of biblical church government were applied to the civil order too. The essential power to govern resides within the collective body. Out of that, the body chooses its officers who rule according to power derived from the body. Of course, the Pilgrims recognized the source of all power and authority to come from Jesus Christ. The Cambridge Platform defined congregational authority in the same way in the matter of calling and removing. In case an elder offend incorrigibly, the matter so requiring, as the church had power to call him to office, so they have power according to order (the counsel of other churches, where it may be had, directing thereto) to remove him from his office, and being now but a member, in case he add contumacy to his sin, the church, that had power to receive him into their fellowship, has also the same power to cast him out that they have concerning any other member.[18]

The Baptists, in their church order of 1697 came very close to stating the same position as the Cambridge Platform. They have power to reject a scandalous pastor from office or membership. This power of Christ is exerted as committed to them by the hands of the elder appointed by Christ, the due management whereof is in and with the church to be his care and trust, as a steward, whereof he is accountable to Christ, and the church, not lording it over God’s heritage. And that the power of the keys is in the church, appears to me from Matt 18: If he will not hear the church, it is not said, if he will not hear the elder, or elders. As also that of the Apostle, in directing the church to call out the incestuous person, he doth not give the counsel to the elder or elders of the church, but to the church; so he commands the church to withdraw from every brother that walks disorderly. Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump.[19] It seems clear from a look at these various portions of the historic documents, that a proper biblical idea of authority was known and accepted by all the Independants.

VI. The Modern Reformed Baptist Idea of Church Authority

We now turn our attention to the modern Reformed Baptist church. In doing so, we hope to examine what it thinks about church authority, and in doing so, draw some important conclusions from it. With such a rich documented history of sound biblical thinking which can be found from the past, one would think there to be a connection between it and the present. What we find however, in examining this in the present church, is something quite different. There is no intention here to imply there is no connection to it whatsoever, only that there are important differences that account for the charge being made of authoritarianism. All of the aforementioned complaints of authoritarianism as outlined by Pastor Steve Martin are indeed grounded in an underlying philosophy. Philosophy always determines practice too, so it will not be difficult, if the present philosophy can be defined, to see a connection between it and the common practice of most Reformed Baptist men in the ministry.

The modern Reformed Baptist minister, or, Elder as they usually refer to themselves, has a certain view of authority which is elevated far beyond that of the historic definition as held by their spiritual forefathers. The view Reformed Baptist men have today of church authority can be determined by breaking it down into two separate categories that of doctrine and practice. The first, which is doctrine, pertains to what they teach from Scripture, and to a lesser extent, the confession. When one listens to or reads their teaching, to a large extent, no obvious error seems to come through from it. Yet error is something which is often obscure, hidden from observation by underlying intricacies which subvert the truth, so that its true intention is hidden below the surface. At points, it will emerge, rising to the surface where it can be seen. This often happens in the heat of controversy.

What is far more telling about doctrinal teaching is how it is practiced. Pastor Steve Martin presented the point perfectly in his article quoted above. Martin put forth a series of questions that were being asked in the Reformed Baptist churches. It should be noted that these were not questions being discussed by the church in open meeting by the membership. These were the questions the Pastors were discussing among themselves. One question in particular stands out in references to this. “Was Fundamentalism’s practice of seeing the local pastor as the Baptist Pope biblical?” People do not always seem to practice what they say they believe. However, when looked at more closely, the belief system of a person will always emerge from what they practice, giving definition to it, so that it tells much more than they say in the teaching. That is the case in much of the issue here. When one digs below the surface of these two things, teaching and practice, a clearer picture emerges on what these men truly believe. For this reason, many people come into these churches thinking of them a certain way from the teaching, only to find out differently by the practices they observe.

We have already stated that much of the seventeenth century mind set about authority exists among not only Reformed Baptists, but a lot of other Reformed Christians today. This is due to reading the literature and history of that time, as filtered through our own circumstances. There is no exaggeration in saying the people of those times had a far greater respect for authority than we do today. This was because the people of Europe were brought up in monarchies, unlike our own form of representative government. The King in Christian countries was viewed as ruling by Divine appointment. The clerics of any of the state run churches of Europe were accustomed to being called Reverend, out of respect for their calling from God. Before the Reformation, Kings and clerics, who were both representatives of the Pope, claimed extraordinary power from God. Since Scripture talks about the true Lordship of Christ, and of submission and support “for kings and all who are in authority” (I Tim. 2:2), it is easy to infer that the Divine right of human office is true as well.

The Reformation overthrew the ungodly notion of Pope, but the ungodly exaltation of a human King took longer. Even though it did eventually take place, the idea of Divine right however, still exists in the mind of some men in the ministry. They believe it is now their prerogative to stand in the place of a monarch within the confines of the church sanctuary. As we have already stated, Divine right means above the law, unaccountable to it according to men. This is exactly what Reformed Baptist ministers think of their own authority. Divine right means no decision or action can be called into question by the subjects under the King’s dominion. To do so, is the height of disrespect toward divinely given authority, and, is worthy of all condemnation. Divine right is the view that the King, or in this case the Pastor, is accountable only to God from where his authority originates.

Why do we reiterate all this about Divine right, but to show a connection between the way of thinking then and now in respect to the Reformed Baptist view of authority? The Reformed Baptist Elders often, and we emphasize the word often, inform their congregations of what the Bible says about them and their office. Since this is biblical and confessional, it is a good thing for the people of God to be informed of what the Bible says about church government, and especially its officers. The problem here is, there is an overly extreme emphasis that is placed upon it in these churches. This is a difficult thing to pin down, but do it we must. Most non Baptist Reformed churches are and always have been in the practice of teaching children important doctrines through catechetical instruction. By using a method of catechetical instruction, most children raised in these circumstances grow up, knowing and understanding exactly what the Bible and their confessions teach on the subject of the church.

In Reformed Baptist circles however, a different view of children exists. Children are made to think of themselves as completely outside of the church in terms of its visible manifestation. We might say they are taught as though they are living on the outside looking in. For this reason, there is often little if any catechetical instruction given to the children of Reformed Baptist parents, at least as an official requirement from the Eldership.[20] Now, it must be immediately said, that the Reformed Baptist Pastors never neglect to emphasize the duty of family worship in the home. And because of very aggressive pastoral shepherding in these churches, a subject in which we will take up shortly, most members of these churches, whether willingly or not, adhere to this requirement. Since the instruction received by this form of teaching is usually entirely gospel oriented, rather than catechetical, the only teaching children and their parents usually have about the church and their duty toward it is from the pulpit, or, maybe in an adult Sunday school class on the confession.

Reformed Baptist Elders are deathly afraid, even paranoid, of people coming into their churches who might bring a point of view with them that do not conform to what they officially teach. Therefore, it is common to hear teaching on churchmanship, Eldership, and authority on a regular basis in a Reformed Baptist church. This is typically done way more often than virtually any other Reformed church might do. We invite the reader to look at any of the strictly Reformed Baptist book services, or, any strictly Reformed Baptist audio sermon archive to see this. We don’t say this to disparage them in any way for placing an emphasis on such an important subject. But we make the point to suggest that this subject of authority is one that consumes the minds of the ministers of these churches. And so much so that one cannot be in these churches without getting the distinct impression that it should be a subject of paramount concern to every member.

By placing such a strong emphasis on the subject of authority in the church, mostly from the pulpit, people in them become absorbed in the authority figure of the church, the Elder. This is a very subtle thing, and one not easily discerned. That is until a problem or dispute arises in the church. Because of the view Reformed Baptist Pastors have of themselves in terms of authority, they consciously seek to condition the consciences of the people to conform to their conscience, whether it is in a biblical matter or not. It is doubtful that this is ever put exactly like that by any of them, but it is something they clearly teach among themselves. What proof do we have of this? Well, if not for the fact that the Pastoral Theology course of the former Trinity Ministerial Academy in Montville, New Jersey was recorded, we might not. Pastor Al Martin, makes it clear to the students on the audio recordings they were to teach church members it is their duty to please their Pastor.[21]

Martin deliberately argues in this course against the notion that it is carnal idolatry for a Christian to strive to please their Pastors. Of course, no worthwhile argument can possibly be made by asserting it is a good thing to displease a Pastor, especially in disobeying Christ and what He expects of His church, but that’s not the point of what is being said. The point is that church members are to concern themselves with pleasing their Pastor, as proof they are pleasing to Christ. This sort of man pleasing Pastor Martin talks of involves the conscience of the Christian. He taught the students of the academy they were to condition the conscience of the church member to themselves, as the very mouthpeice of God. In a sermon on John chapter ten, preached by a well known Reformed Baptist Elder just prior to a church split, it was asserted that he (the Elder) was the good shepherd.[22] The verse in question reads thus: “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” (John 10:14). Throughout the sermon, this preacher kept speaking the words of Christ in the first person in such a way, it was hard to see to whom he was applying it, himself or Christ.

The basis of Al Martin’s point made to his class is drawn from the comparison he makes of pleasing the Pastor, to that of pleasing parents. In other words, a Pastor, by Reformed Baptist definition, is a spiritual parent to those under his authority. In a way, this cannot be completely refuted, for the Bible makes a similar comparison. Scripture makes reference to notable saints as church fathers (Rom. 9:5,11:28,15:8, etc.). So it is not surprising that the apostle Paul applies this term to himself, as the one who preached Christ to the Corinthians, leading to their conversion (I Cor. 4:15). The question is however, does this mean that they, the Christians of Corinth, were to subject their consciences to him? We think not, because the apostle clearly spoke of the Christian conscience being subject to Christ alone, rather than to men, even prominent ones (Rom. 13:4,5,14:22; I Cor. 10:28,29). Paul mentions the matter of conscience toward men when he addressed the sectarianism of the Corinthian Christians (I Cor. 1:10-15). Christ is mentioned in this list of rhetorical questions not as the Lord who should be followed as the ruler of conscience, but as a mere man, a teacher of whom these Corinthians were divided over.

So what Scriptural grounds does Al Martin have in teaching the future ministers of Christ’s church that their people should be in subjection to their conscience? Martin cites only one verse in support of this contention by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians. “Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” (Phil. 2:2). This is a fairly innocuous verse by itself, which simply shows the desire of the apostle to see the perfection of those believers as his personal joy. This is hardly a Scriptural ground which would support the notion that an Elder was to be Lord of a Christian’s conscience. Of course, neither he nor any other Elder would put the matter in such crass terms as that. The problem is that it is exactly what happens when it is done. The Pope demanded the conscience of his adherents as a condition not only of church membership, but of entrance into the kingdom of God itself.

Perhaps applying the example of the Pope to a Reformed Baptist minister is going a bit far. But since one of their own, Pastor Steve Martin has already done this in writing, we do not think it too extreme to do the same. The idea of comparing ministerial authority to parental authority rises to this level. It is also an error on two separate but related counts. First, parental authority is exalted by the Lord Himself to the status of a moral absolute in His commandments (Ex. 20:12). The same cannot be said about any other authority, whether it is Ecclesiastical, or even civil in nature. The second flows from the first, namely, that the relationship that children have to parents after the flesh, is far more comprehensive than any ministerial relationship could possibly be. It might be a grief to an Elder not to see a Christian doing exactly what pleases them, but there is no judgement seat of theirs that will be encountered some day. Elders are called to perform a function in the church, and believers will answer to Christ on whether they behaved properly toward them or not. But God forbid any believer giving a Pastor the respect due alone to Christ.

So how is it that Reformed Baptist Elders frequently in practice do exactly what Al Martin tells his students to promote? This is to be accomplished primarily in their preaching, and to a lesser extent in their pastoral shepherding. Reaching the conscience is without doubt the aim of every preacher of the gospel. Any true preacher desires to see his hearers converted and conformed to Christ. But Martin mixes this goal with the stated purpose of ruling the conscience of the believer as a Pastor. He makes it one of the main motivations in their preaching and oversight. The prophets of old commanded respect as inspired servants, their word was sealed with a “thus says the Lord.” The same cannot be said of the Pastor who is not inspired but charged to bring forth the inspired words of the apostles and prophets. When that is done, then, and only then is a believer required to receive the words of the preacher in good conscience (II Cor. 5:11). Why is this, except for the fact they are not his but Christ’s? But when the word of God is proclaimed with thus says the Pastor, inevitably, people will set their consciences upon him rather than Christ.

Which brings us to the next issue that naturally arises from this unspoken, yet, practiced policy of the Reformed Baptists, it has to do with accountability. With the people in these churches conditioned to submit themselves not only to the Pastor as one of Christ’s under shepherds, but to his conscience too, as lord, inevitably there will end up being a certain amount of abuse. No one in any of these churches dares to question the Pastor. We do not mean by this, the act of scandalous behavior, only the sincere inquiry that any true believer should make when something does not appear right. When the consciences of believers are conditioned as Al Martin proposed should be done, there are few if any in a church that will speak up concerning a matter they find troublesome. We mean to say by this of course, the conduct of the Pastor himself. It is common to hear people say that a Pastor who sins in fulfilling his duty as a Pastor is not to be criticized.[23] Such an attitude as this amounts to exactly what Al Martin said should not be the concern of a Pastor, an idolatrous devotion to him from the people.

By the time someone does speak up in one of these churches, concerning a matter of ministerial misconduct, the consciences of a vast majority of the people have become so compromised, they will accept almost anything he does. For this reason, most Reformed Baptist Pastors will not repent of wrongdoing when it is brought to their attention, but rather go into defense mode against the so-called troublemaker. The reason for this is, should a large majority of the church wake up and realize that this is only a man such as them, and no god, he might actually be found wanting as a Pastor and forced to step down. In order to convey the seriousness of this as the Elders see it, it is only necessary to return to what we have already pointed out before. This is an over emphasis on the Elders’ importance. Reformed Baptist Pastors continually parade before the congregation such a high standard for their office that it is hard to imagine anyone being qualified for it. Therefore, the temptation to defend wrongful behavior is so great, most of them will go to any lengths to do it.

Some Reformed Baptist ministers will receive a private visit from a member who has a question concerning something that has happened that doesn’t seem right in the church. Usually, they will be told that the Elder knows things they don’t about it, which of course, can be true. But most of them also reserve the right not to disclose anything they do not want to, to anyone, claiming Elder authority. This might brush a privately enquiring mind aside for the moment, but when scandalous behavior from him comes to general attention, the same reply is nothing less than a coverup for sin. This comes right back to where we started, the philosophy these men hold too in their idea of authority. Unaccountable authority almost always and eventually will behave wrongly, this is a simple fact, everyone knows. When Christians have their consciences compromised by the subtleties which Reformed Baptist men often introduce through their preaching, trouble often arises in the church. One side of a dispute is for the Pastor, and the other is not. Because the Pastor commands the high ground in a manner of speaking, the solution for him apart from repenting is to split the church. This is the tragedy that Reformed Baptist churches are commonly known for.

How does this happen? Well, we have already focused on the felt need of this ministry to correct the wrong attitudes that prevail in society on authority. We concur with them in as much. Now, the Reformed Baptist confession rightfully acknowledges the importance of church authority in discipline.[24] In practice however, this is functionally denied by the circumstances which almost always take place in these churches. Biblical church discipline and order are non existent wherever authoritarian philosophy rules. It happens when the Elder claims his actions in dealing with a matter are the actions of the church. This can only happen when the church knowingly and willingly consent to those actions. When truth of a matter is suppressed out of fear and intimidation from the Pastor, there is no biblical consent. This is why the Scripture, and the confession rightfully show all matters of discipline to be the business of the church (Matt. 18:17). But when an Elder is exempt from disclosure to the church, this is nothing but a charade.

For the record, we do not accuse these Pastors of usually trying to defend themselves against such gross sins as sexual immorality, alcoholism, stealing, idolatry, or, any other number of things common to Evangelical church culture, although these sins have happened at times. Reformed Baptists have been swift in treating such sins in their Pastors in a very decisive manner. No, what usually occurs by way of ministerial sin is some sort of outrageous over reach concerning the treatment of a church member, and at times, even toward another Elder. This sets off a chain of events that starts like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger, until it is finally a boulder. Oftentimes, lying and slander occurs by these Elders in their attempt to exercise Elder authority in a matter. This happens by behind the scenes wrangling and manipulation, trying to control the fallout of a single egregious act against somebody, only to have it end in the public scandal of a church split.

Even though the Scripture and the confession clearly teach a plural, or shared Eldership, it is common to find Reformed Baptist churches with only a single Elder. This circumstance contributes greatly to the problem of authoritarianism. God’s design of the Eldership is to prevent authoritarian abuse. Presumably, if multiple Elders exist in a church setting, each one’s opinion is to be tempered by the collective wisdom. But with an authoritarian philosophy at work, even where multiple Eldership exists, there is usually the sort of policy that goes along with it. And what has happened in these circumstances is that internal struggle for control eventually ends with a church split anyway. This is what happened at Trinity Baptist church in Montville New Jersey, where the academy was located. Infighting among the Elders over this very theme led to a split in the church and the closing of the academy.

In fact, as the Reformed Baptist churches grew over the years and became filled with men from the academy, a pattern of abuse and disintegration in the churches always followed. Eventually, many Reformed Baptist churches that underwent horrendous splits and turmoil, vowed never to call another man from the academy again. This happened at the Reformed Baptist church in Amesbury Massachusetts. This is where James Renihan had his first Pastorate, fresh out of the academy. This church admittedly was full of problems having to do with New Covenant Theology. This is an antinomian heresy already mentioned. The first thing that happened there was an attempt by Renihan to remove half the congregation, including one of its Elders, who was summarily excommunicated when he objected to the proceedings in an open church meeting. What that church discovered was that along with a Pastor from the academy, they got the Eldership of Trinity church too, by way of behind the scenes manipulation within their church. Renihan resigned some time after this, leaving the church in complete disarray. Disillusioned by the whole affair, the remaining folk went so far as to call a new Pastor from Canada, Ronald Johnson. However, he too ended up ruling with an iron fist as well. Today, this church has but a handful of attendees, mostly his family.

Usually what happens in most Reformed Baptist churches that are not very big, which few of them are, no more than two men end up as Elders. Usually, a single, commanding dynamic personality sees to it that another weaker man is called by the church. This amounts to the second Elder being his assistant, even though no such thing exists in Scripture or the confession. As long as this man does what he is told, and it appears to be a plural Eldership, peace and happiness within the church are achieved. But if that man should disagree with the more senior Elder, or, fall out of favor with him in any way, then he is ousted. The second Elder may choose to quietly step down and avoid trouble in the congregation. In some instances where it has not happened this way, all manners of dirty, unethical behavior have been employed to achieve the same end. Those within the church membership who object to the forced removal of another Elder are marked as troublemakers and dealt with too.

The senior Elder, finding himself to be alone in the circumstance, and facing the possibility of removal himself by the membership, will often resort to what they call a council of Elders outside the church. This is a remarkable thing since Reformed Baptists’ claim there is no authority outside of the local church. But since those same Pastors also teach plural Eldership, and do render the church less than biblical by their actions in removing the other Elder, they have no choice but to violate their independency by calling on this council. So, unaccountable situations then turn into something even more out of control when officers, not called by the church, assist the offending Elder against it. It also functionally serves as a Presbyterian, not a Baptist body, exercising authority outside the local church on its members. This is because the council, made up of the offending Elders friends, comes to his aid to keep him in the ministry where he would otherwise be removed due to lack of confidence.

This writer had the unpleasant circumstance a number of years ago, of having to join with others in an accusation against a Reformed Baptist Elder, who had managed to run another Elder out of the church over petty false complaints. The Elder was Sherwood Becker, and the church Grace Community Baptist church which met at the time in Cumberland Rhode Island. The details of how this was done are not important here at the moment, but suffice to say it was dirty and unethical how it happened. It was also done without the full consent and knowledge of the church membership. The fallout from it led to multiple lies and manipulation of people in order to cover up the wrongdoing, much like any corrupt political situation we see done in the public square today. The ousted Elder not only resigned, but he and his family left the church. They did this without uttering a single false word to anyone that might cause scandal. Several men pursued him and investigated the matter before confronting the man who started the whole thing. This attempt at reconciling things was circumvented when the Pastor called on his friends outside the church to “assist” him in ousting those who demanded he come clean and repent.[25]

This led to several meetings by several different councils that went nowhere. That is, until it was finally agreed by all to bring in a Presbyterian minister, Ron Selle, who was highly recommended in settling church disputes. He presided over the next scheduled meeting with the said council. What occurred was most revealing about Reformed Baptist ideas of authority and church polity. Here the men were, sitting in front of a confessional Presbyterian with a solid background in dealing with church disputes and trials. Two things came up immediately in the proceeding that revealed the mentality of those Reformed Baptist Elders. The first came when one of the Elders attacked one of the particular accusations in which I Timothy chapter five was cited as having been circumvented in the forced removal of an Elder without proper procedure. This is the text where Paul says to Timothy “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.” (I Tim. 5:19). These words to Timothy are in full accord with Jesus’ words on church discipline (Matt. 18:15-18). What is especially striking here is the way in which Paul ties the process of discipline to a church member with that of an Elder, it is to be done in exactly the same way.

This should not be a problem for a Reformed Baptist Elder who is by confession a member of the church himself, rather than some outside political body. Keep in mind too, that this view we have just expressed is not novel, but the opinion of church expositors over the centuries. We refer to Patrick Fairbairn in his exposition of the Pastoral epistles.[26] The reason for this particular authority being mentioned here in reference to what happened, is that this particular commentary was recommended reading at the Trinity Ministerial Academy in Montville New Jersey, founded and headed by Al Martin. Martin himself has been probably the most notorious authoritarian Elder of them all, going back to the 1950’s. So this one Elder at the meeting, Gary Hendrix Pastor of the church at Mebane North Carolina, asserted that Paul’s words to Timothy mean that only Elders are entitled to accuse Elders of sin, not church members. Consequently, only Elders can discipline Elders, making it wholly illegitimate for anyone else to be offended over what this Elder had done.

The second thing said by Pastor Hendrix to the Presbyterian minister centered on the discussion about church trials. It was asserted by the Presbyterian that unless the matter was resolved here in this venue, a church trial would have to necessarily follow it. This is exactly what the Reformed Baptist council was trying to avoid. The four accusers simply requested that repentance and reconciliation between the two Elders take place, so that order and harmony could be restored in the church. Not only had Pastor Becker acted falsely against the other Elder, which certainly made this a church issue, but he had repeatedly lied to the congregation both publically and privately concerning all of these things.

So Pastor Hendrix, not wanting a public airing of the matter before the church stated for all in attendance at this meeting[27] to hear that Reformed Baptists have no Ecclesiology, meaning no procedure for church trials. That’s right, this is what the man said, Reformed Baptists have no doctrine of the church! This was said to legitimize everything that had been done in the name of Elder authority, including sin and unethical conduct! This confession made by the Reformed Baptist minister in the presence of all revealed the entire reason for why there is authoritarian leadership in the modern Reformed Baptist church. It is the belief these men hold that there is no fixed historic church polity they are bound to follow in their dealings with people in the church, such as the Presbyterians and others have.

Apparently, all of these Reformed Baptist Elders were completely ignorant of the confessional heritage of Reformed Baptists. Not only is there a Reformed Baptist church order document, the one written in 1697 by Benjamin Keach, a signer of the 1689 London Confession, but the same was attached to the Philadelphia Confession of 1742. When the Philadelphia association was formed, a minister by the name of Benjamin Griffith was asked to write a church order for them. His document is a virtual restatement of Benjamin Keach’s document. In fact, there were many such documents formulated by Reformed Baptists over the years, in order to establish a consistent church polity and order.[28] So for a Reformed Baptist minister to say this in a public meeting of this sort was nothing short of astounding.

When the meeting could progress no further, Ron Selle made it clear he could not continue without a church trial. Believe it or not, another council of Reformed Baptist Elders was convened to pick the matter up. This time it comprised the three Elders of the Albany Reformed Baptist church.[29] By this time half of GCBC was aware either of what was going on to a certain extent, or at least, that something not right was going on. When the next business meeting came up and the question was put to Becker, he responded by saying only that four men had made an accusation against him, but there would be no discussion about it. He also stated that another church Eldership was asked to be a council for him.

So what was the result of this church council, what were its finding and recommendation to Grace Community Baptist church? It was simply this. Pastor Becker had made some “mistakes” while conducting his rightful authority all in the name of serving God and His people. No admission of sin was made however, nor was any disclosure of what had transpired made known to the people. So an Elder they voted to affirm as called of God, was effectually removed from office by another other Elder, and all with the support of an outside council. Furthermore, if anyone had a problem with it, they were asked to leave. The following Sunday came and several people were absent. This is when the sermon previously mentioned was preached on the Good Shepherd from John 10:16, where the vague inference was made that he, the Pastor is the good shepherd of the sheep. And so, the following week, many more were absent from the service, including this writer. Only the faithful followers of this “good shepherd” [sic] remained, waiting for him to choose his next “assistant.” The church was deliberately split in two and left as a one Elder ministry by this council, rather than counseling him to admit sin, and the church to take appropriate action.

Authoritarian actions such as these oftentimes end in splits with single, rather than plural leadership the result. Single Elder churches have become commonplace among the Reformed Baptists today. Because Elder rule is seen as absolute in these churches, nothing can be done by the membership to remedy the situation, once it exists. If another Elder is brought in, it can only be done by the first single Elders’ discretion. No congregational meetings are ever allowed in one of these churches to address a crisis, if that one Elder does not call it. For anyone else to attempt to get the membership to meet and discuss a crisis or a division which the remaining Elder has caused, it is tantamount to insurrection in the eyes of the broad Reformed Baptist ministry. So the single Elder utterly controls the situation he has created, using his position to threaten anyone who does not go along with the program. The bottom line is, preservation of the single most domineering Elder at all costs in these churches is the program.

Here is where the unspoken, untaught philosophy of the doctrine of the church is manifest in practice. The official view of Reformed Baptist Elders is supposedly according to Scripture and the Confession congregational. It is also supposed to be independent. The local church has the authority to recognize its ministers whom Christ has gifted and called, and they have the power to discipline. This sounds good so far. But that is never what happens in a Reformed Baptist church. And why is it so, are we missing something here? The missing ingredient here is the Reformed Baptist Elders actually have an Episcopalian view of church authority which they never openly teach so that it is apparent to people as a doctrine. Those who study Scripture and experience these circumstances can see it, but to try and put a finger on the root cause is difficult, if not downright impossible.

An Episcopal view of Ecclesiastical authority is easily defined when put before the public. It is the view that the church is the clergy, and vice verse. What do we mean by that? Well it is just this, Episcopalian Bishops view themselves as the essence of the church, therefore, all power is vested in them. They rule from the top down, answerable only to God. This is the system the Reformers and Puritans threw out as something that is detestable in the sight of God. When ministers seek to rule the consciences of God’s people, unaccountable and all powerful, this is anti Christian. No wonder then, the Reformers called the Pope the antichrist. Again, we do not mean to imply that Reformed Baptist Elders are antichrists, only that their view of church authority is eerily similar to that of the Pope. And again, it must be reiterated that the issue is not so much in the teaching as the practice. When ministers behave as authoritarians as a matter of policy, it is because they have an authoritarian philosophy of their power, one that does not square with Scripture.

This policy is one that demands and expects the church members to go along with them in every decision they make, no matter what it might entail. Consequently, Reformed Baptist Elders routinely tell Deacons, who are charged with the administration of church funds, what to do with the money, how and what to spend it on. Consequently, since church members are expected to approve of their every decision, no one is allowed to ask any questions. There may or may not be full disclosure of the financial dealings to the church. At any rate, it is merely a formality if they do so which they base on corporate tax requirements that require a recorded vote. So Elders will channel money at their discretion, give themselves a raise or even buy a building without any sort of oversight committee in place.

The same is true of church discipline. If an Elder tells the church to censure a member, they will do it, with or without any pertinent information as to why they should. The wrong type of question put forth at a congregational meeting will almost inevitably end up as another case of discipline. It is standard for those leaving a Reformed Baptist church disaffected to be the subject of church discipline. Rarely if ever, are the details of why they left made known to the congregation. If a letter of resignation is given by these members, it will never be read to the congregation, especially if there is any complaint of the minister, which is usually the case. And though the people are expected to go along with the censure which always includes shunning, they dare not ask for any more details than is offered them about it. Reformed Baptist Elders always claim the right to act in this way.

Another egregious example of this kind of unaccountable behavior happened in another church this writer attended for a number of years.[30] Located in Worcester, Massachusetts, it is known as Heritage Reformed Baptist church. The brother of Dr. James Renihan, Dr. Mike Renihan, is the Pastor there. This has been a single Elder church for more than twelve years now. At one time, the church had two Elders and was growing and thriving spiritually. Today, there are but a handful of people in this place, so what happened there? The foundation for an unaccountable ministry had been laid there long before trouble ever came to this church. Heritage Baptist church constituted itself as a 1689 London Confession church in 1997, with James Renihan its Pastor. A second man, Ronald Baines, was brought into the Eldership at his recommendation to the church. James Renihan later left to pursue further education, and his brother Mike was put before the congregation as his recommended replacement. The second Renihan had previously and unsuccessfully Pastored a church in Spokane Washington, leaving there amid charges of ministerial neglect and abuse. The congregation knew nothing of the details of this due to the fact that they were expected to call him anyway. And so they did.

Pastor Baines eventually left to Pastor a church in Maine, leaving Heritage with the one Elder. The people of the congregation assumed there would be an eventual replacement for Baines, as there were several competent men in the church that could fill his place. But the church constitution had been set up by the previous Renihan, so as to ensure that nothing could ever happen in the church without the Elder(s) initiating it. This was done according to a model that is followed by most Reformed Baptist churches when they constitute. So that being the case here, there was never a bit of interest on the part of the one Elder to see to it that at least one more man was called to join him in the leadership. Under a single Elder, the church fell into deep spiritual decline. Sunday night and midweek services were cancelled due to the supposed strain that it placed upon Pastor Renihan.[31]

Eventually, almost all of the church’s funds ended up in his pocket instead of where much of it had formerly been committed to other things, including outside missions. An examination of the 2010 financial report showed that of the $116,000 taken in through offerings, $108,000 of it ended up being paid to the Pastor in salary and other miscellaneous expenses he benefitted from. Things came to a head however, when a Deacon everyone had expected to become the next Elder, suddenly resigned his office and left the church.[32] As always, the matter was shrouded in secrecy. There was no information provided, other than there was a disagreement between the two men. It would be later discovered that among other things, the illegal transfer of church money by Pastor Renihan in order to aggrandize himself was central to the argument.

The situation sparked an undercurrent of discord in the church due to the fact that this man was highly respected as a preacher and teacher beside fulfilling his duty as a Deacon. So Pastor Baines was asked to come and mediate the situation. The final report made to the congregation was there was no sin on the part of either man in the dispute. Yet, in spite of this, there were repeated unqualified denunciations of the man’s character made to members of the church by Pastor Renihan. People in the church were encouraged to shun the man and his family without the benefit of any proper disciplinary procedure, something commonly done in Reformed Baptist churches. In fact, this followed a pattern that had taken place many times in the church. Those who left the church, in a quiet and orderly manner over private disagreements with the Pastor, received similar treatment. There was other public censure made by the Elder against people who had left, but all without disclosure to the church as to why they were to be shunned.

Following the departure of this Deacon, people spoke up at the business meeting, asking questions about it and the need for another Elder, only to be ignored by the Pastor. There was another member present there that everyone respected as legitimately qualified to become an Elder. When his name was put forward, it was quickly rejected by the Pastor. It was made clear by him there would not be another man called to that position unless the Elder did it himself. And so the church remains without a plural Eldership to this day. It has also since that time lost almost all of its membership. This occurred over the course of the next couple of years stemming from these circumstances.

In each case, when a member left, they did so after speaking privately to the Pastor. Next they sent him a letter of resignation, all done quietly without any public disorder. Eventually, a publicly made blanket condemnation against those who left came from the pulpit. They were all accused of sinning by leaving, even though it was done peacefully. However, not one specific charge was made by the Pastor against anyone, except that is, for one man who asked to transfer his membership to another Reformed Baptist church. What was the reason for the public charge? This man was the only one to send his reason for leaving in writing to the remaining members, due to the fact that no one else ever had their letters read. Too utter a single word of complaint against a Reformed Baptist Elder is tantamount to committing the unforgivable sin.

Many other things could be said about this particular church and the situation that occurred there. It would not be profitable nor helpful to the purpose of the study to do so. It is mentioned in order to make the point that this sort of behavior is a reversal of historic Reformed Baptist principle which says that men are recognized by the congregation as qualified by the Lord for the ministry. LBC Chap. 26, Of the Church. Par. 8. A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons. ( Acts 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1 ). Par. 9. The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands. ( Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; Acts 6:3, 5, 6 ).

Two things stand out here in the confession concerning the calling of Elders. First, those appointed by Christ as church officers are to be chosen by the church, not the Elders (Par. 8). Second, these officers are to be chosen by the common suffrage of the church, meaning it is a congregational decision (Par. 9). Therefore, it is the church that has the duty to call them. It is not simply a rubber stamp in favor of someone the Pastor chooses or puts before them. And conversely, it is not submission to an unaccountable, unbiblical ministry which denies the congregation its God given duty to call officers from among themselves. Yet, this is exactly what frequently happens in these churches, not as a matter of Reformed Baptist doctrine according to the confession, but rather, as a matter of Reformed Baptist practice.

Reformed Baptist Pastors today view their own authority as far above what it is as defined from the word of God, as well as from their own historic position as expressed in their own church order documents, such as the first two drawn up by Benjamin Keach and Benjamin Griffith. This brings us to a very interesting part of the present discussion. If authoritarianism is a problem in the modern Reformed Baptist church, what role does this or any other established church order document play in it? The answer to this question tells a story, one that we think develops the entire thesis of this study, that Reformed Baptist ministers are indeed guilty of being authoritarians as charged. For there is absolutely no formal recognition of either Keach’s or Griffith’s church order, or any other one for that matter, made by any Reformed Baptist minister today.

The idea of having a well-defined church order is completely absent from the mind of Reformed Baptist ministers, which is, in our estimation, the very reason for the present problem. It is also a reflection of their Fundamentalist origins. Fundamentalists, indeed, virtually all Evangelicals outside of the Reformed church today consider themselves to be what they refer to as “Biblicists.” What this means is they have a no creed but the Bible mentality. This may sound good on the surface, but it is far from that, for what it actually means is no creed at all. The anti creedal position asserts that the individual has absolute authority vested in them by virtue of the Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture. So the modern church has become a democratic institution by and large, where every man’s idea reigns supreme. Now, the Reformed Baptists were out to remedy that by their adoption of the London Confession. The problem is in not going far enough.

Both Presbyterians and Congregationalists recognized that a Confession is only a summary statement on Theology. As such, its definition of church power and government are limited. The solution for this inadequacy was to draw up a separate more detailed document for use alongside the confession. It does not always ensure that men won’t deviate from it. But, without such a document, government style is left up to, either, the congregation as a democratic society, or, to the ministry as a matter of personal opinion. Fundamentalist ministers always assert a creed by their preaching. Whatever the preacher says, that’s what the church believes, or else. The notion of Biblicism, though bandied about by non reformed Christians as a license to do as one pleases, is the same thing in the hands of an authoritarian minister that has no amount of accountability to anyone. This is the Divine Right of Kings, as expressed in the church in the form of absolute Elder authority. Reformed Baptist Elders are for all intents and purposes, a law unto themselves. The argument they make that they rule by the authority of Christ means absolutely nothing if it is not defined confessionally for all to see.

So the question might be asked, how did this happen, how did the Reformed Baptists adopt the 1689 London Baptist Confession in the 1950’s but fail to adopt the Baptist church order? That is a question this writer has asked for years, but has never found a satisfactory answer. But it is one that is glaringly obvious in any Reformed Baptist church when trouble presents its ugly head.in the form of a church dispute. And church disputes will naturally arise in any society of sinners, even though they are saved by God’s grace. Reformed Baptist ministers simply make up the rules as they go along, selectively applying Scripture if it suits them. In the absence of an established church order, most Reformed Baptist ministers manage to write their own rules into the church constitution the state requires of any 501c-3 tax exempt organization. Since most members of a church pay little attention to church bylaws, they are shocked when the Pastor of the church ends up in a completely accountable situation because of it. This is especially true where sin and misconduct are concerned, without congregational remedy.

The modern concept of a church constitution or bylaws that govern it suggests that it is a creation of the state, not of Christ. In fact, a 501c-3 organization is considered a tax exempt corporation, licensed and governed by the state. This means its business is conducted according to Roberts rules of order, something not found in Scripture. Anyone who has participated in a local town meeting knows that Roberts rules can be manipulated toward a desired end. By using this sort of method an authoritarian minister can manipulate any church meeting that takes place, so as too not allow it to go in any way they do not choose. Of course, churches are instructed by Christ to operate in an orderly fashion, and Roberts rules are certainly that. But there is no intention in Scripture to have a method of conducting business where matters that concern the entire congregation is suppressed, and a sinning Elder is unaccountable to the congregation who called him. Technically and scripturally, the body that calls a man to office has power to remove him. So the use of Roberts rules, or extended church councils is nothing but a means of subverting that process.

One recurring problem in Reformed Baptist churches since the 1950’s has been the ability and practice of the Elders to suppress information about their scandalous behavior from public view. From the start Reformed Baptist ministers have held to a very secretive way of conducting themselves and the proceedings of their churches. Discussion of controversial church business is forbidden in these churches, with the threat of discipline and removal from the congregation behind it. This sort of practice is in sharp contrast to other denominations which record their business dealings for posterity. For instance, the history of the split of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and subsequent formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in J. Gresham Machen’s day, is a matter of recorded history. Some church history is certainly unpleasant to read. But since Christ is building His church and the gates of hell cannot prevail against Him, the end is positive in an ultimate sense.

Reformed Baptists on the other hand, hide their dirty laundry along with their true history. To read any of their writings other than the odd article like Pastor Steve Martin’s, someone would suppose that modern Reformed Baptist history has been nothing but a matter of progress. Try to search out anything about Reformed Baptist authoritarianism on the internet, and outside of a small handful of sour grapes type posts, one will generally find little to nothing. This is due to an enforced code of silence. The thousands of people who have left or been put out of a Reformed Baptist church do know otherwise. This writer was warned several times by different people about the danger of associating with Reformed Baptist churches. These warnings were dismissed as perhaps coming from rebellious or maybe apostate people. Today, these warnings come to mind in a completely different light.

Recently however, something new and unusual has occurred that has broken the silence open. This has come in the form of a series of articles written by a Reformed Baptist Pastor, Tom Chantry, who has exposed the sordid history for all to see. Tom Chantry is the son of Walter Chantry, one of the early founders of the modern Reformed Baptist movement. Chantry has a great deal of inside knowledge about the history of authoritarianism that has plagued the movement from its beginnings. There are two very interesting things to note in these articles. The first is that Chantry frames the history as three main spheres of activity surrounding three sets of figures within the movement. As such, he points the finger at one sphere in particular, as the main culprit concerning authoritarian rule.[33] We deny this and charge all Reformed Baptists as guilty of it, though maybe in various degrees. This is due to the same set of philosophical predelictions about authority that all share, though Chantry would say otherwise. The second has to do with our point about church order. Before commenting on this we offer a quote from Chantry.

Chantry writes- In 1964, with the Grace Baptist Church still smarting from a painful split a year before, Ernie Reisinger wrote a letter to Iain Murray, the Editor of the Banner of Truth. He needed resources better to understand historic Baptist polity, and although Murray was Presbyterian, it was hoped that help might be found among the old literature which the Banner was re-popularizing. Reisinger wrote: I am writing for some guidance concerning a discussion in our local church (Independent Calvinist Baptist). We all seem to lean to the Presbyterian idea of elders and deacons and yet we do not go so far as to outrule all local autonomy. My reason for writing is to inquire, is there some book or article or source of information that you could recommend that may be helpful. What I’m trying to say is this. We are a congregation of Baptists that is almost Presbyterian. We do not see a strictly congregational rule and yet we do not see the extreme hierarchy type of government. We would be grateful for any suggestion or help you may have. (Once again the material in this post on the life of Ernie Reisinger is found in greater detail in: Geoffrey Thomas, Ernest C. Reisinger, a Biography. Amazon Most other material here has been gathered in private conversation.) At first glance this letter may seem naïve to today’s Reformed Baptists. How could an officer of a church say that they were leaning to the two-office system five years after the adoption of the 1689 Confession? In fact, his letter is more insightful than it may at first appear. For one thing, the Confession is less clear than it might have been on specific matters of polity; a handful of the early Particular Baptists had no plurality of elders. For another, the Confession is not strictly congregational in the modern American sense.[34]

Grace Baptist church of Carlisle, Pennsylvania was the first official church of this movement to constitute as a 1689 Reformed Baptist church in 1959. First of all, Iain Murray is not a Baptist so perhaps he might not have had an intimate knowledge of Baptist confessional history. But it is hard to imagine that he (Murray) would not have brought to Reisinger’s attention the church order documents of the other Reformed churches. Nowhere in Chantry’s articles is there any mention of Keach’s or Griffith’s work. This we think proves our assertion that the Reformed Baptist movement was defective from the beginning, as well as not legitimately connected to the heritage it claims. We also see this as the obvious connection to authoritarian rule found among these churches.

There is however, another curious statement about the beginnings of this church in Pastor Chantry’s articles that are relevant to the matter. “In what can only be described as an astounding providence, the second pastor of the church – Bob Doepp – provided the first contact between Grace Chapel and the evangelical Strict and Particular Baptists in the UK. Pastor Doepp’s wife was from an English family, and her uncle was S.M. Houghton, the school-teacher from Wales who would later serve as an editorial assistant in the early days of the Banner of Truth. As Doepp, along with the other leaders of the church, began to consider Reformed theology, he wrote to his wife’s uncle, who promptly began to send more literature to Carlisle. As their reading broadened, the leaders of the young church discovered the depths of Reformed theology. They were introduced to the Second London Confession of Faith and began a thorough study. Each advance took time, and there were objections along the way. Pastor Doepp left in 1956, still uncertain of his own theological convictions and worn down by the controversy which accompanied Reform. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1950s, a remarkable transformation had taken place. In 1958 the decision was made to consciously adopt Baptist polity and to change the name of the congregation from Grace Chapel to Grace Baptist Church. Early the following year the church formally adopted the Second London Confession.”[34]

This is very interesting for the simple fact that the heritage attached to the 1689 London Baptist Confession still exits in England today. This group is now known as the Gospel Standard Strict Baptists. They follow Benjamin Keach’s church order and the result of it is, they are a Congregational church polity, not known for authoritarian rule. Now why this man Bob Doepp did not bring it into the church for consideration is certainly a mystery, other than he objected to it as the quotation refers to some unnamed thing. Chantry tells us they sent literature to Carlisle explaining Reformed Baptist history. It is hard to imagine how Keach’s church order could be overlooked. Perhaps it was read, and rejected early on. Perhaps Fundamentalist authoritarianism was more appealing to the early Reformed Baptists in Carlisle. There is no way to know in the absence of any direct statements about this from one of them.

A church order document certainly is not inspired any more than a confession. But it is a means of providing a set of rules and principles from Scripture that regulate the conduct of a church and its ministry. Like a confession, of which it is actually a part, a church order document is agreed on by all within a church organization, and forms the basis of its polity. Now, modern Reformed Baptists usually write their church constitutions like they are church order documents, complete with an abundance of Scripture references. But here is where they differ from the true document heritage. They are constructed in such a manner as to assign essential authority to the Elders, rather than to recognize its reality and presence in the assembled church. Indeed, Reformed Baptist Elders sneer at the suggestion that their authority is derived from Christ through the congregation. A comparison is made in order to underscore what is meant.

In Keach’s church order, he poses a question concerning the church’s duty toward sinning Elders. It is most telling, for he refers what he says to another author. Since congregationalists John Owen and Isaac Chauncey are mentioned by name in this document as authorities on what he writes, its fair to assume it is one of them. Quest. How ought a Pastor to be dealt withal, if he to the knowledge of the Church, or any Members thereof, walketh disorderly, and unworthily of his Sacred Office, and Membership? Take the Answer of another Author here. Answ. ‘‘Those Members, to whom this is manifestly known, ought to go to him privately, and unknown to any others, (and with the Spirit of Meekness, in great Humility) lay his Evil before him, and intreat him as a Father, and not rebuke him as their Equal, much less as their Inferiour; and if they gain upon him, then to receive him into their former Affection and Esteem, for ever hiding it from all others. But if after all tender intreaties, he prove Refractory and Obstinate, then to bring him before the Church, and there to deal with him; they having Two or Three Witnesses in the face of the Church, to testify matter of Fact against him to their personal Knowledge. 2. ‘‘But before he be dealt with they must appoint one from among themselves, qualifyd for the work of a Pastor, to execute the Church’’s Censure against him, &c.Yet no doubt, the Church may Suspend him from his Communion, & exercising of his Office presently, upon his being fully Convicted. But seeing in the multitude of Counsel there is safety, sure no Church would so proceed without the advice of the Presbytery, or of a Sister-Church at least.[36]

It is abundantly clear in this section of the document that the Reformed Baptists were in agreement with not only the Congregationalists on church order, but the Presbyterians on the matter of disciplining Elders as well. Patrick Fairbairn’s exposition of I Tim. 5:19,20 is affirmed in this document. The way an Elder is to be dealt with concerning sin is no different from any other member of the church. And why is this? The church itself, so assembled have essential power, holding the keys of the kingdom. Keach-2. The Power of the Keys, or to receive in and shut out of the Congregation, is committed unto the Church: The Political Power of Christ, saith Dr. Chauncy, is in the Church, whereby it is exercised in the Name of Christ, having all lawful Rule and Government within it self, which he thus proves, viz.”[37]

Keach clearly makes a distinction between the church and the Elder, as to where the essential power lies. And that the Power of the Keys is in the Church, appears to me from Mat. 18. If he will not hear the Church; it is not said, if he will not hear the Elder, or Elders. As also that of the Apostle, in directing the Church to cast out the Incestuous Person, he doth not give this Counsel to the Elder or Elders of the Church, but to the Church; so he commands the Church to withdraw from every Brother that walks disorderly. Purge out the old Leaven, that you may be a new Lump.[38]

Contrasted with this is the way the modern Reformed Baptist constitution is constructed. Take for example the Heritage Reformed Baptist church constitution. In it we find the following statement. Paragraph A. Warrant for the Discipline of Officers. While elders are overseers of the flock, they are themselves members of the flock. Therefore, each elder is under the oversight of his fellow elders and is subject to the same discipline as are all the members of the church, but must adhere to a more rigorous standard of conduct than other members (Gal. 2:14; 1 Tim. 5:20). Deacons likewise are under the oversight of the elders and are subject to the discipline of the church. In addition to the ordinary strictures of public reproof and censure, suspension of privileges, and excommunication, officers are subject to removal from office as part of the disciplinary action of the church (1 Tim. 3:2).[39] This appears to be an outstanding statement on the surface.

That is however, until we go to the next part of the statement where the procedure for the implementation of it is spelled out. Paragraph B. Procedure for the Discipline of Officers. The process of discipline may be initiated either by the elders or by individual members of the congregation. Any member who is offended by the behavior of any church officer should first approach that officer privately and express his concerns. If the concerns are not resolved, the member should inform the elders of the situation and wait upon them in the determination of the matter (Mt. 18:15ff). In the case where a sole elder is involved in such proceedings, an Advisory Council shall be convened with the responsibility to investigate the matter and to recommend congregational action if they judge it to be warranted.[40]

Notice what this statement instructs a member of the church to do if offended by an Elder. After an unsuccessful private encounter, he or she is instructed to inform the Elders of the church, and wait on them to decide what to do, if anything about it. Then Matt. 18:15ff is cited. Now first of all, the text in Matthew instructs a church member in the event of obstinance on the part of a sinning brother, they are to “take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” (Verse 16). Conspicuously absent from this text is any mention of Elders. This is because what this Reformed Baptist constitution says is not biblical, but designed to circumvent any attempt at reconciling a sinning Elder to a church member. In fact, reference to the Matthew eighteen passage is telling in a greater way about this. Its use in the context of this section of the constitution, suggests that the Elders is the church, precisely what we have previously charged.

Rather than agree with what Benjamin Keach wrote in the Reformed Baptist church order, its use of Matthew eighteen agrees with the interpretation of I Tim. 5:19 that Pastor Gary Hendrix gave at the so-called council meeting mentioned earlier. The sort of interpretation that is used in the document above concerning Matthew eighteen begs the question. How does one go to the Elders if there is only one Elder to go to, the one who is sinning in the first place? This is where the document gets even murkier. The solution provided is to seek an Advisory Council. In order to find out what an Advisory Council is, one must go to a previous section of the document for a definition of what is meant by this.

This section reads as follows. In addition to respecting the principles articulated in our Confession of Faith (26:15), the church shall seek the assistance of an Advisory Council in cases of critical concern which threaten the integrity, unity, or biblical order of this congregation (Acts 15:2). The Advisory Council shall consist of a minimum of five elders chosen jointly by the elders and the church. They shall be chosen from a minimum of three sister churches of like faith and practice with whom we have close fellowship. The Advisory Council shall be convened or consulted at the discretion of a majority of the elders or, should the church be without elders, at the discretion of a majority of the deacons, or at the request of 75% of the members in good standing of the church. It shall be charged with the responsibility of investigating the circumstances surrounding the difficulty in the church, and with giving the church detailed advice as to the course upon which it should proceed. The decisions of the Advisory Council are not binding on the church, though they should be given careful consideration. All expenses related to the work of the Advisory council shall be provided by this church.[41]

This Advisory Council is mentioned no less than five times in this section. It is mentioned only once in the rest of the document, the one we began with. So here it is defined in context. It is a collection of at least five Elders, chosen by the Elders and the church. Remember, the church is the Elders, so mention of it here is a mere formality. The Elder chooses his friends to come to his aid. So what we have in effect here is a Synodical authority. Ah, but that has been dealt with sufficiently by stating they have no binding authority. Now this Advisory Council’s main concern so stated is the preservation of the church order when it has been threatened. This begs another question, threatened by whom? By the church member who would obey the Lord Jesus Christ by following what He said in Matthew five, not what an unbiblical church constitution says. Jesus instructs His disciples to take church members with them if necessary when dealing with a sinning brother. If that fails to bring about repentance and reconciliation, then they are to take the matter to the church.

Of course, that would imply the Elders are to be involved in the matter, as they are church officers who have real responsibility and the authority to do as Christ has commanded them (John 21:15-17). But this involvement would also be contingent on there being such, and they are not involved in the offense. It is then to be brought to the church for discipline. When it is the Elders that disturb the peace of the church, an outside Advisory Council, called and controlled by them is little more than a rubber stamp upon their pernicious behavior that caused it in the first place. Looking back to where we started, this Advisory Council mentioned above is the built in means for a single sinning Elder to avoid accountability to the congregation, and ultimately to Christ. In the case of Heritage Reformed Baptist church, God’s judgement on the situation ended with the withdrawal of almost all the members of the church leaving, the same as has happened over and over again in these churches.[42]

This brings us to another side of this distorted idea of authority common among Reformed Baptist Elders. Thus far we have focused primarily upon them, but there is the other side to it which is the effect that they and their philosophy have upon God’s people. The type of Christianity produced in the seventeenth century was one of devoted steadfastness to the cause of Christ, in the face of persecution. This could only happen if the people were truly strong in the faith. The exact opposite can be said of most Reformed Baptist Christians today. And why is this so, but because authoritarian leadership breeds weak Christians. When leaders exalt themselves to the level of a god in the eyes of their people, no good comes of it. How does this happen? By constant preaching and oversight that tear the conscience of the hearer to pieces, then binds it up with ministerial commands not found in Scripture.

The classic example of this in Reformed Baptist churches is the command they give to appear at every stated meeting. Of course, Sabbath day services are never something open to debate. It is the duty of every Christian to faithfully attend every Lord’s day service, unless kept from it for good reason. And the non scripturally binding events such as Sunday school or a weekly prayer meeting is certainly something every Christian should try to attend if possible. But outside of the Sunday service there is no other day of meeting ordained of God. Therefore, it is up to a Christian to decide for them self whether they are able to attend these, based on the multitude of personal circumstances they encounter each week. In other words, no one becomes a more sanctified saint because they allow themselves to be dominated by a man. True exercise of faith requires decisions be made on the part of a Christian, motivated by love for God (Matt. 10:28). The fear of man does not produce holiness.

Now, Reformed Baptist ideas of authority do not recognize personal circumstances to any degree, though some Pastors are more lenient than others about it. In fact, some will speak against the Reformed doctrine of the priesthood of the believer, as though it were a threat to their domain. Most reformed Baptist ministers demand attendance at every meeting they call, as a matter of duty toward God, even if He has not commanded it. For this reason, these Elders are extremely intrusive into the personal lives and business of their church members. It is common for these Pastors to interfere in family relationships, even husbands and wives, telling their people what they ought to do. Now, Pastors are given the task of counseling God’s people, of this there is no denial. But we talk here of forced compliance at the threat of church discipline. For this reason, there are many marriage relationships that are destroyed by authoritarian ministers. And this has earned these churches, the reputation of being cult-like in character.

This writer will never forget something said by a church member at a business meeting of Grace Community Reformed Baptist church in Cumberland. This was the meeting where Sherwood Becker informed the people that accusations had been brought against him concerning the removal of another Elder. This church member asked in the meeting what he did to cause the Elder and his family to leave? This is amazing, but it showed the cult like atmosphere that existed there. To Reformed Baptist Elders, their congregation is not just a spiritual family, which of course it is, but a human earthly family that no one can leave. In that case, the Pastor was jockeying people behind the scenes to prepare an excommunication toward the other Elder and his family in their absence. It all backfired however, when his unethical dealings became completely out of control, which led to all the secret council meetings already mentioned.

In fact, Reformed Baptist Elders encourage every member to intrude upon the personal life and business of every other church member. For example, they are to observe and comment on how much food they eat at a meal, or how they discipline their children. This writer was once told by a church member that if my parents would not attend church when they came to visit, I should not allow them to stay in my home. Never mind that they were unbelievers at the time. One year this writer was traveling and was kindly invited to a Reformed Baptist Pastor’s home for dinner in Rocky Mount North Carolina. There at the table eating it was asked by his wife, “so, is there anyone fat like me in your church?” In these churches’ members are encouraged to inform the Pastor of anything they see or hear he might be interested in about another member, which amounts to tale bearing, a sin condemned in Scripture (Lev. 19:16).

Of course, every instance of mentioning something about another Christian does not necessarily rise to the level of tale bearing. But running to tell a Pastor about what someone said or did, certainly is not a wholesome thing to promote in a church. Especially if it leads to some sort of action against them. One of the most prominent features of the Matthew eighteen passage of Scripture is the obvious interest of keeping personal sins and offenses between people at a personal level as much as possible. The desire of our Lord is evident in this, for if the matter is resolved at this level, peace is maintained in the church. This is not the same thing as suppressing issues that concern the church in secrecy. It is also not the same thing as using privacy to manipulate and control people.

The most serious effect that authoritarianism has upon people is to make them followers of men, willing to do as they’re told without questioning it. This is why eighteen year olds are conscripted into the military. It is so they will do as they’re told without knowing or considering why they are told to do something, even if it is wrong, or to their own detriment. Maybe this works for a human organization such as the military, but it has no place in Christ’s church. The Bible is full of direct commands or prohibitions from the Lord. The Bible is also full of implications to these that must be worked out. But the Bible is also a book where the Author not only tells His mind, but explains it too. Jesus is not called the Logos without reason in John (1:1,14). This is where we get the word logic.

Certainly, when a preacher applies the word of God, he must give something of his own subjective opinion toward its implementation. We all have opinions from God’s word. But that is what they are, in the absence of a widely recognized agreement. So some things are controversial. Should we do this or that on the Sabbath? This is a question best answered by principles, rather than directives. What each Christian holds in their conscience about this is between them and the Lord. The Bible is full of applications that are clearly spelled out to the reader. For this reason, there is never legitimacy in a pastor pouring his personal convictions out on a congregation that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture. That is the realm of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:10-12). In fact, there is really only one place in the New Testament where God’s people are called on to submit their conscience to a man. This is the apostle Paul, who was constantly attacked and vilified as an imposter (II Cor. 4:2). The apostle was inspired. Elders are not. This is why Paul set before the Corinthians his behavior as well as his words, not his authority as a matter for their conscience.

Men who lean on men are always weak. This is what the Reformed Baptist Elder wants of the people they rule over. There is always a certain pattern that emerges in a Reformed Baptist church that bears this out. Everything is peaceful until the Elders have overstepped themselves once too many times in the management of the church. There are always people in them whose consciences are sufficiently enlightened by God’s word to see this, while a large portion of them does not. This leads to a private meeting between a member and an Elder, which usually does not turn out good. Sometimes a person who has truly sensed the severity of the matter simply finds a reason to leave without incurring the Elders’ wrath. Sometimes a couple of families might leave quietly and the Elder is able to squash any discussion of inquisitiveness in the congregation. But when trouble spills out to the congregation, then the stuff people are made of becomes evident.

The portion of the congregation which has fully submitted their consciences to an Elder is blind to see sin and wrongdoing on his part. They will believe anything he says, and follow him anywhere he goes, no matter how wrong it is. The most grievous thing about this next to the direct offense this is against the Lord, is the dissolution of relationships that take place in such a situation as this. Now this is a problem the church has always faced. Relationships are often the reason that men in ministry fail to do their duty concerning heresy and gross sin in the church. The opposite is usually true of Reformed Baptist ministers.

Oftentimes a person cannot leave a Reformed Baptist church without censure, whether it is public or simply a slanderous report made by an Elder privately to people. Reformed Baptist Elders believe they have the right and authority to implement many levels of what they consider discipline. This may include everything from telling a member to leave the church behind closed doors, to public condemnation and excommunication. Of course, there is a place in Scripture for legitimate excommunication (I Cor. 5:1ff). But oftentimes, excommunication is practiced in these churches for petty reasons, or simply disagreeing with an Elder. Usually, unlike the case given in Corinthians, there is no real disclosure of the reason. Sometimes, there is even slander and lies put forth to cover the sin of the Elder.

This writer sat and listened to a letter of resignation written by the ousted Elder at Grace Community Reformed Baptist church read to the congregation. His reason for resigning his office was family medical and employment problems that were preventing him from fulfilling his duties. This was true as everyone knew, so no one questioned it at the time. But when he and his family left the church after this, discussion among the members of the church began. A handful of people there was aware that behind the scenes intimidations over false accusations were being leveled against him. The truth is, he was forced to resign amid personal attacks from the Pastor at an especially difficult time for him.[43] So reading that letter without further comment amounted to a lie. This became evident to many when the Pastor who did this met privately with each member of the congregation to tell them each a different version of the matter, in order to squash the discussion. Believe it not, there were people in the church who concluded it did not matter what this Elder did if it was sin, as long as he was looking out for them. This is the result of conscience being completely given over to a man, one who is no different from them.

Reformed Baptist Elders do not want anyone in their church who does not accept everything they say and do without question. Even a relationship that has been established for many years can be thrown in the trash in order to assert Elder authority. Certainly, when a church eventually splits, longstanding relationships are destroyed and the cause of Christ diminished before the world. The Reformed Baptist idea of authority is such, that it actually encourages them to sin and become abusive. Many a man has started out well in this ministry, only to end in a ruined church with a ruined reputation for authoritarianism. Unaccountable authoritarianism can and does lead many of these men to fall into other sins of a gross nature, such as adultery, divorce, theft of funds and so on. Of course, when this happens, all the ministers of the church turn from him as a disgrace to the office. But why does this happen, except that they have been allowed to conduct themselves in a completely unaccountable way for years before this happens?

This is where we want to end this sad but necessary examination and critique of the Reformed Baptist ministry. In this day of overall decline in the American Christian church, the Reformed Baptists have contributed to it by the things brought to light in this paper. The Scripture teaches that judgement begins with the house of God (I Pet. 4:17). If that is so, we call upon these men to repent of authoritarianism and restore the full documented heritage of the Reformed Baptist church. This means the catechism as well as the church order that Benjamin Keach put together, for apart from that, there is no such thing as a true Reformed Baptist church today. These documents were written not only to instruct, but to limit what a church and its ministry can do in reference to Scripture. We hope the people in these churches will come to their senses and demand reform in them.

Notes

[1] This paper was begun several years ago as a personal project designed to unburden my thoughts on paper of certain things that troubled me. Until now, I did not think I would ever publish it. Part of the reason is that it could be viewed by people as an unqualified attack on ministerial authority I didn’t agree with. The reason for this change of mind is due to a series of articles written recently by Tom Chantry of the history of the modern Reformed Baptist church. Although I think it is biased in some ways, yet, I also think it gives verification of my critique.

[2] See a paper entitled Imperious Presbyterianism by Kevin Reed. It can be found on The Trinity Foundation website (http://www.trinityfoundation.org).

[3] This might seem superfluous to some, but indeed, it is not. The reason being is that most modern Baptists fancy themselves to be the original Christian church, founded by John the Baptist himself. They claim their heritage through the various separatist congregations that existed in Europe outside of the Roman Catholic church. Reformed Baptists are a reformation church.

[4] Arthur Pink was a Baptist. However, his view on this, as well as church polity, rarely, if ever stood forth in his writings. Pink stuck to the doctrines of God, Scripture, and salvation, lining his expositions liberally with practical applications in them.

[5] This movement toward reform in the Southern Baptist Convention is called the Founders movement (http://www.founders.org). Many within the Convention have since then actually adopted the 1689 LBC.

[6] Grace Magazine-Historical and biographical articles. Reformed Baptists in America. (www.gracemagazine.org.uk/articles/historical/reformedbaptists)

[7] One of the founders of this movement was John Reisinger, the brother of Ernie Reisinger, mentioned in Pastor Steve Martin’s article as one of the founders of the Reformed Baptists. There has been a huge divergence between the NCT churches and the LBC churches over the years. At one time there was some association between them, but it ended with John Reisinger and Al Martin having a big falling out. Following that, Reisinger made it his business to go about seeking to disturb and convert as many LBC churches as he could over to the NCT side. Reisinger wrote a paper expressing his view of authority entitled When Should a Christian Leave a Church. (Published by Sound of Grace). The article has many good points in it, but there is a certain tone in it that stems from the falling out.

[8] John Owen, An Inquiry into the Original, Nature, Institution, Power, Order and Communion of Evangelical Churches, Works, Vol 15, p.373

[9] John Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church and its Government, Works, Vol. 16, p.176

[10] CONFESSING THE FAITH IN 1644 AND 1689 (Article by James M. Renihan, Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved )

[11] Both documents can be found in a book entitled POLITY: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents, Edited by Mark Dever. Copyright ©©2001 Center for Church Reform, All rights reserved.

[12] Thomas Goodwin, Of the Government of the Churches of Christ, Works, Vol. 11

[13] Isaac Chauncy (1632–1712) was an English dissenting minister who succeeded David Clarkson, who was John Owen’s successor. Chauncy published numerous works on a number of subjects, including Congregational church polity.

[14] Ibid.. POLITY, The Glory of a True Church, And its Discipline display’d, The Power of the Keys, with Church-Discipline, and Members Duties one to another. p.60, Copyright ©©2001 Center for Church Reform, All rights reserved.

[15] The qualifications for recognizing both Elders and Deacons given by Paul (I Tim. 3:1-13) are identical, except for being “able to teach” (verse 2). In fact, both offices require the ability to rule well (verses 5,12). The title of Bishop in Greek is Episkopos, and it means ruler. The Reformed church has historically considered both offices to be that of the Eldership. The specific point made in Acts six concerning the calling of Deacons has to do with the need and function they perform which is separate from the preaching and teaching ministry. Elders are not even mentioned in Acts until chapter eleven (verse 30).

[15] LBC Chap. 26, Par. 9, Of The Church

[16] LBC Chap. 26, Par. 7, Of The Church

[17] CP Chap. 10, Par. 6, Of The Power Of The Church And Its Presbytery

[18] Keach’s Discipline, Chap. 7, Num. 5, The Power of the Keyes, with Church Discipline

[19] Benjamin Keach wrote the Catechism for the Reformed Baptists in 1685, which is included with the original 1689 London Baptist Confession. Very few modern Reformed Baptists pay any attention to the original confession which is published and sold by the Gospel Mission Book Service in Choteau, Montana. This church has close ties to the Gospel Standard churches in England. Most Reformed Baptists use a modern, edited reprint of the confession that does not include the Catechism.

[20] Al Martin remark, Pastoral Theology class TMA #85, 28:30-29:15 into the message.

[21] A sermon preached by Sherwood Becker of Grace Community Reformed Baptist Church of Cumberland Rhode Island in 2001. This writer was present at the sermon. The following week, half the church was absent. The sermon to the remaining congregation was on Acts chapter eight on Simon Magus the apostate, which meant those who left were apostates too.

[22] This writer has heard the same concerning ministerial sin in a Reformed Baptist church from people who should know better. This sin eventually ended in a church split.

[23] Chapter 26: Of the Church, 7. To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.(Matthew 18:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 )

[24] There was an interesting providence from God surrounding this event, one that undergirds the complaint of this paper. Becker asked three men from three different churches to join him in a council. One of them was Pastor Kent Hughes from the Reformed Baptist church of Yazoo City Mississippi. Hughes was a single Elder of a church that had but a handful of members at the time, due to similar authoritarian circumstances. It was arranged for Hughes to stay at a church member’s home while this council was to meet. Supposing the member of the home he was staying at was a follower of Pastor Becker, Pastor Hughes informed the man that he was there to assist him (Becker) in ridding the church of some troublemakers. However, the man he said this too happened to be one of the four men bringing accusations against Becker. Some time later, the church at Yazoo City dissolved over its problems too.

[25] The Pastoral Epistles, by Patrick Fairbairn. Klock and Klock Publishers, Inc. Minneapolis, Minnesota. I Timothy 5:19,20 (pp.220,221). Fairbairn ties this text together with Matthew 18:15 as one procedure though pertaining to different circumstances.

[26] There were many more people present at this and all of the other meetings that took place, besides the Elders and accusers. This was a tactic Becker employed from the start. Any time a meeting was set up, he would have a number of supporters show up who knew nothing about what was going on except what they heard from him. With the council there to defend him, this served to persuade the select men to side with him. Meanwhile, the rest of the church was ignorant of it all.

[27] See POLITY: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents, Edited by Mark Dever.

[28] This church underwent a split too, when one of the Elders who was also part of Pastor Becker’s council was forced out of the church.

[29] A number of former members of GCBC of Cumberland were at this church. This writer never did seek membership there however, though attending for six years. The reasons will be obvious by what is further said about this church.

[30] This claim was made without foundation, for the simple fact that Dr. Renihan sought and obtained part time employment at a state college. This was done despite the fact he was fully supported by the church.

[31] This is another example of authoritarian rule. This Deacon, who will remain unnamed, was formerly the Pastor of a non Reformed church. He eventually adopted the Reformed Baptist view of the Christian faith and this is how he ended up at Heritage. Another man, Harry Maples was the former Pastor of Heritage church before it constituted as a Reformed Baptist church. He was convinced by Jim Renihan he was unqualified to be an Elder, though being a gifted preacher and possessing an impeccable character. This sort of thing is done in these churches all the time. Regardless of whether the congregation recognizes ability and character sufficient in a man to call him, these Elders decide who will hold what office or not.

[32] Chantry seems to point the finger at Al Martin and the church circles that surrounded him as though they are the chief culprits of authoritarian practice.

[33] Reflections on Reformed Baptist History, by Pastor Tom Chantry. Quote taken from article #3 – Almost Presbyterian? This series originally appeared on his website and has now become a book.

[34] Ibid. Article #2: Pink Wave.

[35] Ibid. POLITY, The Glory of a True Church and it’s Discipline Displayed. pp.65,66.

[36] Ibid. POLITY, The Glory of a True Church and it’s Discipline Displayed. p.60.

[37] Ibid. POLITY, The Glory of a True Church and it’s Discipline Displayed. p.61.

[38] The Constitution of Heritage Baptist Church, Worcester, Massachusetts, Adopted January 5, 1997. Section 5 – Discipline of Church Officers, Paragraph A. p.19.

[39] Ibid. Paragraph B. p.19

[40] Ibid. Article V-Affiliation, section 3. p.4.

[41] Keach makes reference to the Presbytery in Quest. How ought a Pastor to be dealt withal, etc. He says “no Church would so proceed without the advice of the Presbytery, or of a Sister-Church at least.” This squares exactly with what we’ve said about a non involved Eldership within the church. But provision is made in Keach’s statement if there is not by advising they seek the help of another church. This is proper church order. Nothing is supposed to nullify the essential authority of the assembled church in dealing with such things.

[42] Thus, far we have refrained from saying much about this. This Elder was widely recognized not only as a gifted preacher, but a gracious man. What proof is there of this? GCBC actually has in its constitution a reconfirmation vote every three years for the church officers. This man had just been unanimously reconfirmed by the congregation when a program of personal attack started against him by Pastor Becker. The man had a daughter who was extremely ill for a long time. At one point, it was thought she would die. He had also lost his longtime job, and was unemployed for a long while. This was used as a basis for complaint against him. The complaint was, he must have sinned and brought all this on himself, just like Job’s comforters. Since this is a ridiculous and false thing to do, petty things were dredged up in order to intimidate him into resigning. The reason the story could be verified is because Becker put it all in writing, which went on for three years. The men who brought the accusations against him (Becker) read the letters and pieced it together. For the record, the ousted Elder never attempted to defend himself or his integrity before the church. Eventually he relocated to another state, and it is believed he is an Elder in another church now. Needless to say, GCBC did not have a reconfirmation vote for the remaining Elder when it was supposed to happen.

 

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