SO WHAT’S THE POINT?
What is there to learn from this tracing of the tangled threads of church history? First, that God is able to work in wonderful and mysterious ways to bring the Gospel to people. This would accord with our Saviour’s statement in Luke 9:50 that “he that is not against us is for us”. Wherever the Gospel is preached and souls are saved, this is the work of God. Secondly, that often the work of God at a particular time and place lasts but one generation. This bears witness to Jesus’ statement in Luke 11:23 that “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” Often both verses could apply to the same individual. They are preaching the Gospel and souls are being saved, but at the same time they are not gathering believers together, but rather dividing them from one another.
Whenever a leader is not willing to subject himself to fellow believers, it divides the children of God. Whenever a group of believers unite on the basis of culture or social status rather than Gospel, it divides them from fellow believers. When ceremonies or outward forms become the basis of church affiliation, church members can only fellowship with one another on the basis of those practices, anything else would be subversive of their unity. When converted and unconverted are baptised alike, the true Christians are deprived of spiritual fellowship. When personal experiences give new light on the Scriptures, rather than allowing the Scriptures to shed light on the experiences, it divides believers from one another. God is not the author of confusion. The Spirit of God can be trusted to draw believers together, if they are willing to forsake all teachings and traditions of men.
One does not have to doubt the authenticity of various revival movements of the past and present. But it can be noted that these movements have little staying power. John Wesley’s followers came from the poorly educated and desperately poor working class of his day. The Gospel literally transformed their lives, and as they cast off the vices to which they had previously looked for solace in their misery, they began to prosper. Wesley looked at the results in alarm as he saw that their children, raised in a more prosperous setting than their parents, were more interested in the things of this world than in spiritual things.
Two individuals stand out in my mind in this whole happy and sad account. Petr Chelčický who told people to dig and search for the old foundation rather than taking some piece of rubble to be the foundation. And John Smyth who sometimes appeared to act rashly on the light he had, but always remained willing to obey when further light was revealed to him. This is the way that God can gather believers together.
Almost forty years ago my wife and I attended a series of revival meetings sponsored by all the evangelical churches in the medium sized city where we then lived. The messages that we heard night after night emphasized the need of personal cleansing. A Christian cannot prosper or effectively serve God if he neglects to deal with the sin in his own life. Our hearts were touched by the messages. But we looked around us and wondered what would happen to us and to others who were revived? I was acquainted with people from many of these churches and knew that every one had serious internal controversies and dissensions. Not to mention the doctrinal differences between denominations. At that time there were eleven different denominations in that city which could be classed as evangelical. Today that number would stand closer to twenty. Why didn’t the evangelists address the same message to the churches that they did to individuals? How long will a revived Christian be able to stand in an unrevived church? Was there any hope for a genuine revival in these churches? Sadly I had to conclude that the answer was no. From their very beginning they had been founded on some piece of overgrowth, not on the true foundation.
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Coggins, James Robert. John Smyth’s Congregation. Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1991.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1958.
Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1963.
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The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Mennonite Publishing House, 1956. (Articles on England and John Smyth.)
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Wagner, Murray L. Petr Chelčický. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1983.
Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945.