Roots that refresh!

Next month, the folk in Charlesworth are hosting a one-off and perhaps unique event called Roots that Refresh”.

Roots that Refresh??  What on earth does that mean?  Well you should know by now.  It’s been advertised on the church website for weeks.  But just in case you’ve not looked at the programme yet,  it’s a four-day study-course in church history.  Our history.  The history of churches like ours: Calvinistic – or Particular – Baptist Churches.  (We call them “Particular” because they – and we – believe in the doctrine of “Particular Redemption” – the truth that Christ died not to save mankind generally, but to save the particular people God had chosen.)

The first known Particular Baptist church in England was established in London in 1633.  By the 1660s there were well over 200 such churches in England.  More than 100 of them gathered at an Assembly held in London from the 3rd to the 11th July 1689.  It was that Assembly which resolved to publish the 1689 Confession of Faith, the same confession to which we as a church give assent.  And three hundred and twenty years on, there are particular baptist churches all over the world.  We’re one of them. 

Our roots as a church are there – among the calvinistic and baptist believers of the seventeenth century who had the courage to break from the traditions of men and to return to the teaching of the New Testament.  They were determined that whatever the cost, they would build churches that matched the pattern laid down in the New Testament. 

The Big Issues

Does it matter how a church is organised and how it conducts its affairs?  Many Christians would say, no.  Providing a church preaches the gospel, has lively worship, and a friendly atmosphere, they’re happy.  To them questions about church-order are unimportant.  Who cares whether a church practises baptism or confirmation, providing that there’s some way for people to express their faith?  Why should it matter whether it’s governed by elders or by a committee, providing that the right decisions are made?   Why make an issue about whether the people who come to the Lord’s Table are church members, providing that they love the Lord?

Well, our Particular Baptist forefathers thought very differently.  They realised that every true church is God’s church, which He establishes for His pleasure and glory.  So isn’t it only right that He should decide how His churches should operate?  If He has told us in the Bible how he wants His churches to be built, shouldn’t we take that seriously?  Why did the Holy Spirit inspire Paul to write letters like 1 and 2 Timothy with all their detailed instructions for church life, unless He wanted us to put them into practice?

Baptism and the church

For our forefathers, baptism was of course a key issue.  Virtually all Christians and churches back in the seventeenth century took it for granted that babies should be baptised.  But these brave believers went back to the New Testament and discovered what it plainly said – that the only people who should be baptised are disciples – people who are willing to trust Christ alone and follow him.  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them, and teaching them to obey whatever I have commanded you…” said Jesus (Matthew ch 28 vs 19).  On the Day of Pentecost, those who received the word were baptised, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts ch 2 vs 41).  And once they had seen that in Scripture, they knew that they could never again baptise babies.  Baptism was for all believers and it was for believers only.

To take that stand in the seventeenth century was to invite persecution.  It was seen as heretical but it was also seen as subversive – an offence against the State as well as the Church.  Many of our forefathers suffered dreadfully because they refused to budge from that Bible principle.

But it was not just the issue of baptism that these brave men and women were concerned about.  Linked with that issue was the issue of the church

What is a church?  And what should it be?  Again they went back to the Bible to find the answer.  And again they found a clear answer. A church should be a company of believers, folk who individually have professed faith in Christ, and who show that their profession of faith is real by their holy lives.  Again, it was a revolutionary position to take.  The Church of England was the official Church of the nation, and of the State.  And through most of the 17th century, the State insisted that the Church of England was the only legitimate church, and that every member of the nation should also be a member of that Church.  Every baby should be baptised, and by baptism be admitted into the Church.  There could be no distinction between people who had personal faith in Christ, and others.  Once they had been baptised they were all alike members of the church.

There were, it’s true, some Christians who tried to take a middle position.  They agreed that church membership should be limited to believers, but still taught that babies should be baptised.  So children born to Christian parents and baptised as babies had a sort of in-between position – part of the church and yet not church members.  They might have no personal faith, but they had still been marked out by baptism as belonging to Christ.  Our baptist forefathers had a more consistent view.  They were determined that they were going to build churches where there was a clear line between believers and unbelievers.  They cherished their children just as we do, but they knew that until the children had trusted Christ for themselves, they could not be baptised, and they could not be viewed as belonging to Christ’s people. So these brave men and women broke away from all the established denominations to form churches where all the members were baptised on profession of faith – baptist churches.

So they had a clear view of what a church is.  But that was not enough.  There were many more questions that needed to be settled.   What are the privileges and the responsibilities of church members?  Who should make the decisions within a church?  What should a church do when one of its members falls into sin?  How should a church manage its affairs?   How should a church worship?  What is the role of women within the church?  How should churches relate to each other?   These were pressing questions for these believers more than three hundred years ago.  So on all these questions they searched their Bibles, discussed, debated, prayed, and then worked to put what they learned into action. 

They believed that the Bible gave a clear blueprint for church life.  And they were determined that their churches should be built according to the blueprint. 

Then and Now

Well the questions they asked are still pressing questions for us today.  And that is why we are organising this four day programme of lectures and seminars about the Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century.  We are rooted in what they believed and practised.  We believe that by going back to our roots, we can find our own faith and practice refreshed.  Roots that Refresh.

The conference/course – whatever we call it – is being sponsored by a number of churches in the North West which stand for particular baptist principles. They include Aughton Park Baptist Church;  Belvidere Rd Church, Liverpool;  Radcliffe Rd Baptist Church, Bury; Chorlton Evangelical Church;  Ramsbottom Evangelical Church; and ourselves in Stockport and Charlesworth.  The pastors of those churches meet together each month to discuss matters of common concern.  And together we agreed to plan this enterprise.  I’d have to say that nearly all the burden of organisation has fallen on Martin Grubb.  But hopefully, we’ll have folk present from all those churches and many more beside.

Who’s our speaker for the four days?   Answer: Professor James Renihan.  He probably knows more about 17th century Particular Baptists than anyone else alive in the world today. He’s written a book on the churches they built and the way they practised church life.  It’s called “Edification and Beauty: the Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1707″ and folk who have read it tell me it’s fascinating.  He teaches a course on that subject at the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, attached to Westminster Seminary, California.  The programme he’s teaching here is based on both the book and the course. We’re offering on the doorstep what others have to travel all the way to California to hear!

I’m expecting these sessions to be intellectually exciting.  It’s always exciting to hear an expert talking about a subject he really understands.  But I’m also expecting them to be very practical.  Professor Renihan isn’t just an academic.  He’s an experienced church planter and pastor, who’s worked at putting into practice the principles he’s talking about.  He knows what church life is really like – the problems as well as the ideals.

The Main Themes

On Monday, we’ll be “Learning from their story”.  So Professor Renihan will be introducing us to the history of the Calvinistic/Particular Baptists, setting the scene for all that follows.

Then on Tuesday, the question is “What is the church?” and we’ll be looking at how they answered that question.  We’ll look at issues like church membership, church covenants, church discipline and church planting. 

Then on Wednesday, we’ll ask “How shall we worship?”  Were our forefathers right when they insisted that every part of our worship should be dictated by Scripture alone?  Other churches thought that they could add things that they found helpful, even if they weren’t there in the Bible.  Where do we stand on that question?  And how does it work out when it comes to such matters as hymn singing and musical instruments? 

Then on Thursday, the subjects are “Eldership, congregationalism, and associations!”  The issue there is authority.  Who has the authority to make decisions for a church.  Is it the elders?  Or does authority lie with the congregation? The Bible certainly talks about elders ruling the church (eg 1 Timothy ch 5 vs 17).  But it also gives examples of the whole church assembling together to settle some matters (eg Matthew ch 18 vs 17).  How do we balance out those two Bible emphases?  And then to complicate things further, it seems only right that sometimes churches should confer together with other churches and seek their counsel (eg the discussions between the Antioch church and the Jerusalem church in Acts 15).  How far is one church bound by the counsel of other churches?  The 17th century churches believed that it’s good for churches to be linked in “associations”.  Is it possible for a church to be in such an association, and yet remain genuinely independent and autonomous? 

An opportunity not to be missed

How we need clear thinking on all these issues!  The folk at Charlesworth have been drawing up a constitution for the new church: they’re realising how important – and how hard – it is to give clear answers to all these questions.  We in Stockport have been promising for years to revise our trust deed and constitution.  If we’re going to do that, we too need to be sure that our way of doing things is truly Biblical.  Surely we’ve got something to learn from the believers who three hundred and fifty years ago wrestled with Scripture?

Of course, a conference like this isn’t suitable for everyone.  But the issues we’re discussing are issues that every church member should be concerned about.  Shouldn’t we all be interested in knowing how God wants his churches to live?  Even if you’re not planning to be at this conference, I hope you’ll take it as a reminder of how important it is to understand what the Bible says about the local church.

And for anyone who is called to any sort of leadership role in a church, this conference is a unique opportunity to grapple with these key issues.  We all of people, have a responsibility to know God’s pattern for the local church.  “Let each one take care how he builds…if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done…” (1 Corinthians ch 3 vss 11-17).

When we planned the programme, we hoped that people would come for all the whole time, since it’s a single course with a single theme.  Obviously, not everyone’s going to be able to do that.  I’m not sure I’ll manage it myself.  But I’ll be there for every session I can, and I hope that there’ll be others from the church here who think it’s worth taking time off work to attend.

May God give us all a vision to build churches worthy of his name.

For those who can’t get to this conference, you’ll have another chance to hear Professor Renihan at the God’s Glory Our Joy conference.  Again he’ll be talking about the life of the local church but this time he’ll simply be preaching from the Bible.  His two messages will be on “The local church – a community of love” and “The local church – a community of peace”.  And that is for all of us!

Stephen Rees

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