Vol.XII No.IV Pg.4
June 1975

Self-Created Churches

Robert F. Turner

New Testament congregational independence rests upon twin principles of structure and polity. John Wyclif, in 1380, took one of the first steps toward home when he sent forth lay preachers. Martin Luther stressed the priesthood of believers and in 1523 advocated the right of a Christian congregation to call, to elect, and to depose its own minister... But congregations of pure Christians, capable of self-government, could not be found in Germany at that time... Luther abandoned this democratic idea after the Peasants War, and called on the arm of the government for protection against the excesses of the popular will. (Schaff, VII, 538.)

A fierce independence developed in the mountain canton of the Swiss Grisons, and by 1526 the episcopal monarchy was abolished and congregational independency introduced. . . But apparently it was the Swiss Anabaptists (Radicals according to Schaff) who first moved resolutely toward restoration of true N.T. independence. The Reformers aimed to reform the old Church by the Bible; the Radicals attempted to build a new Church from the Bible. The former maintained the historic continuity; the latter went directly to the apostolic age, and ignored the intervening centuries as an apostasy. The Reformers founded a popular state-church, including all citizens with their families; the Anabaptists (re-baptizers, rt) organized on the voluntary principle select congregations of baptized believers, separated from the world and from the State. The first and chief aim of the Radicals was not (as is usually stated) the opposition to infant baptism, still less to sprinkling or pouring, but the establishment of a pure church of-converts in opposition to the mixed church of the world. The rejection of infant baptism followed as a necessary consequence. (Schaff, VIII, 71, 75.)

There were revolutionary Anabaptists (Munzer, in Germany, 1521-f.) who saw independence as incompatible with submission to civil authorities, and sought to overthrow them. The tie between church and state was such in those days, that any independent doctrine was likely to be considered heretical; so, early advocates of congregational independence and autonomy were subject to terrible persecution. They were drowned, beheaded, burned at the stake, etc. Extreme revolutionaries and non-violent moral citizens were judged indiscriminately and persecuted by Roman Catholics and Protestant Reformers alike — God will judge. But the concept of local churches, self-created by agreement on the part of saints, self-sufficient in support, oversight and operation, was now well planted and would not be destroyed.

A blending of Dutch Anabaptists and English Independents was made possible because of their common opposition to national churches and in the demand that regeneration should precede church membership. By 1535 congregations were formed in Norwich, England. Later, the independent principle was given impetus by Scotch Baptists, Sandemanians, James Haldane and John Glass — known to the Campbells, and surely influencing their concepts of congregationalism, which they preached in this country.