Beware the Elijah-complex: a lesson from history

As followers of this blog will know, or those of you who care enough to read the ‘About’ page, my formative Christian years were spent in Strict & Particular Baptist circles. My family were stalwarts of the Liverpool Brethren scene but as my father’s theology and location changed, so did our denominational allegiance. Whilst I will always be grateful to the Brethren for their zealousness in evangelism that is rivalled by few other denominations and that was instilled in my the youngest age, by the time I was old enough to know the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, dispensationalism and covenant theology, I was pretty much convinced of Strict & Particular Baptist theology and ecclesiology.

Most Strict & Particular Baptists realise that their denominational label probably represents the worst naming decision in all church history. It is a name that suggests we have made a virtue out of obsessing over minute details (particular) and are extremely aggressive about enforcing our fussiness (strict); a presumption interestingly true of some S&P congregations, even if entirely unintended by the nomenclature.

In reality, the name refers to their particular theology and their ‘strict’ position on church membership. The former refers to the belief that Jesus died on the cross for particular people, rather than all people in general, and amounts to a belief in the reformed Calvinistic theology of election. The latter refers to their ‘strict’ position on communion and membership, namely that communion is a visible sign of belonging to the visible church and thus is only for members of the visible church, rather than those whose sole claim to membership remains the invisible church. You can see why I share these views here, here, here and here (you can search for other articles on these themes on this site).

Over at the Reformation21 blog, Michael Haykin has written an interesting article about the Particular Baptists of the 17th Century. He references Abingdon Particular Baptist church, a nearby church to the Grace Baptist church in which I grew up. Interestingly, Haykin’s focus is on the decline of the Particular Baptists during the 18th Century. Haykin notes that in 1715 there were 220 Particular Baptist congregations in the UK. Just 35 years later, this had declined to 150. Haykin goes on to outline some of the reasons for this sharp decline.

Most interestingly, Haykin states in response to a creeping Unitarianism beginning to infiltrate the church, some Particular Baptists were led into Hyper-Calvinism. He comments:

Pastors and believers of this [Hyper-Calvinist] persuasion were rightly convinced that salvation is God’s work from start to finish. On the basis of this conviction, however, they erroneously reasoned that since unbelievers are unable to turn to Christ, it was therefore unscriptural to urge them to come to the Saviour. Genuinely desirous of exalting God’s sovereignty in salvation, Hyper-Calvinist preachers shied away from calling all and sundry to repentance and faith, lest any of the credit for the salvation of sinners go to them. God, in his own time, would convert the elect and bring them into the churches of the Particular Baptist community. Many of this persuasion were also convinced that their churches were “the only gospel churches” in the land and their spiritual pride became a source of further decline.

Haykin’s article is worth reading in full but I was struck by his final sentence. The cry of Elijah – we are the only one’s left – exposes a spiritual pride that tends to lead to decline. It is an interesting lesson from the annals of history. Those who cannot find gospel unity in any other church typically can’t find it in their own. Likewise, those who cannot find any other church with whom they can have fellowship evidence a spiritual arrogance that suggests only we know how to do church properly and only we are truly faithful.

The Bible has much to say about this sort of position. There is Paul’s warning that following after one who stirs up division:

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned – Titus 3:10f

Then there is Paul’s warning to Timothy that some will leave him simply because they despise the Word of God and want teaching that tickles their ears:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry. – 2 Timothy 4:3-5

Indeed, Paul is clear about their motives:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. – Romans 16:17f

Jude is clear about who they are and their end:

These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage. But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. – Jude 1:16-19

Beware of those who insist they are the only true church. Beware of those who cannot find fellowship with other gospel-preaching churches. Beware of those who stir up dissent and division wherever they go. Such people are warped and sinful and self-condemned.

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