The Gospel Developed through the Government & Order of the Churches of Christ

The Gospel Developed through the Government & Order of the Churches of Christ

By Rev. William Bullein Johnson, D.D. Founding President of the Southern Baptist Convention 1845

BACKGROUND: Today, many in our convention talk much about “returning to the faith of our fathers” and “reclaiming the values of the foundersof the SBC.  But the most important founder of the SBC would be shocked and dismayed by how far off today’s SBC has strayed from the original intent and purpose that the Southern Baptist Convention was established to accomplish. In recent days we have moved away from our historic foundations - 7 Baptist distinctives that gave us our unique identity and made the denomination grow. Every year in this new century, the SBC has becomes less Baptistand more Presbyterian in both our structure and style. While we still use the rhetoric of being “Great Commission Baptists” other issues and infighting by subgroups of Baptists with competing agendas have taken the focus off or personal, church, and global evangelism. The result has been decline every year for 17 years.

William B. Johnson was the most towering Baptist influence of the 19th century. He cast a long shadow overall Baptists in the entire nation, not just in the South. He served as president of the Triennial Convention of all Baptists in America, before Southern Baptists left separated from that group. He also served as president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, and he was elected as the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

It is no exaggeration to say that William B. Johnson was the "founder"of the SBC.

He wrote 3 of our founding documents. He came to the first Southern Baptist Convention in Augusta, Georgia, in May 1845, with the Constitution of the SBC in his pocket; he had already written it!  

He also wrote the SBC manifesto, “Address to the Public”,which explained the reasons for forming the Southern Baptist Convention And why we would have no creed. It was distributed to everyone at that first convention.But Johnson’s most persuasive and powerful explanation of the distinctives that formed the Southern Baptist Convention are found in the book he wrote during his first year as President. Called “The Gospel Developed Through the Government & Order of the Churches of Christ,” it energized and coalesced Southern Baptist  around the New Testament concepts that would become our Baptist Distinctives.

As a Baptist, Johnson was thoroughly opposed to man-made confessions of faith and creeds. He passionately believed all that Southern Baptists needed for unity was the Bible itself. Not only was he against a man-made confessions and creeds he was ardently Christ-centered. He believed the New Testament taught that every local church should be independent, autonomous, and under the control of Christ, not any denominational hierarchy or confession of faith. He called it a“Christocracy.”  Unity Among Southern Baptist , he contended, should never come from any confessions of faith or imposed doctrinal statements. Instead, Baptist unity would only from each individual believer being conformed to the will of Christ. Thanks to Professor WalterB. Shurden, Executive Director of The Center for Baptist Studies)_

 Below is Chapter 20 from W.B. Johnson's book .  Read it and see how far our convention has drifted from our original intent.




The Form of government instituted by Christ for his churches, is, as we have seen,a ‘Christocracy’. By this term I mean that form of government of which Christ is the head, and under which he requires his people to receive all their principles of actions from, and to frame all their doings according to, his laws and precepts containedin the Bible. He is their prophet and their king, and his dominion over them isabsolute, for they are not their own, but belong unconditionally to him. They Are, therefore, gathered together in the church relation by his sole authority. Being baptized into Christ, they have put on Christ. They have renounced their devotion to the world, and their allegiance to Satan. “They have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts,” and “sin shall not have dominion over them.” They have pledged themselves to submit to Christ’s authority, to obey his laws, and to promote his cause and glory in the world.

In This form of government, the wisest plan is laid for union among the members of a church. As there is but one “foundation” for their hope of salvation, so there is but“one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” All the members of a church of Christ meet as equals, for they are “fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of faith,”“where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision,Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” Whatever Distinctions may exist between these members in society, (and distinctions there must necessarily exist,) they are not known in the church relation, for the members of this body are “all one in ChristJesus,” having equal rights and equal privileges. The Jew, on entering the church, claimed no preeminence over the Greek, and the Greek, in becoming amember of the same body despised not the Jew, but both harmoniously joined inthe one faith to serve the one Lord. How gracious, howjust, how wise the principle on which the members of a church of Christ are gathered together. How admirably calculated to harmonize the materials of sucha body brought together from different communities, nations and empires, andeducated under systems of different and opposing principles and forms.

Now, to preserve the union of these materials, this first principle must ever be kept in view. That they are the subjects of one Master to be governed not by their own opinions, orby the opinions of others, but by the laws of Christ. Hence the duty of searching the scriptures…

Keeping This first principle in view, that Christ is the one Lord of his people, and has given the Revelation of his will in a complete and perfect code of laws and precepts, the impropriety of having any human selection and compilation of these as a standard of faith and practice, is manifestly evident!

If it is argued that the compilation thus prepared “contains what is in the Bible”  the question comes up,“Why then form a compilation? Why not use the Bible itself as the standard?Can man present God’s System in a selection and compilation of some of its parts, better than God has done it himself, as a whole in his own Book?

Suppose The legislature should select portions of the Constitution of the United States and compile them into a book, and then set it forth as the standard by which its laws should be made. Would the people allow that?

The Manner in which divine truth is taught in the Bible, is not that rigid, the dry manner which system makers adopt; but like its Divine Author, grand, striking,and  powerful. Is it respectful to our Great Teacher, who spoke as never man spoke, to turn away from his teachings to human compilations, in order to learn from them what the Master has required them to learn from Him, in his incomparable book, the Holy Bible?

If union is to be secured in the church - it must be in the truth as it is in Jesus, indrawing from the one fountain of knowledge, drinking into the same spirit of grace, in habitually referring everything to the one standard, “the law and the testimony.”

And that this may be effectively done, what is learnt from this standard must be reduced to practice. “Happy are ye, if ye know these things, if ye do them.” “Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord.”“Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” “If ye love me keep my commandments.” “He that keeps my commandments, he it is that loves me.”

The Lord has not given us his revelation to admire and approve in words, and then to neglect and disregard and trample it under our feet. But he has given it to us as the “more sure word of prophecy, to which we do well to take heed, as to a light that shineth in a dark place;” and to which implicit obedience is to be rendered.

In the government of a church thus formed by Christ, one is not the representative or delegate of another, for the principle of proxy in the church relation is abhorrent from its genius. Great responsibility thus rests upon each member of a church, a responsibility which cannot be shaken off. This responsibility may not be met, the duties which it imposes may be neglected; but the responsibility remains in all its force -it cannot be thrownoff. And what a responsibility is this! The apostle says, “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.” Such have voluntarily bound themselves to “observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded them.” This responsibility requires obedience, implicit obedience. Now knowledge is necessary to obedience, and hence the necessity of studying the scriptures to know the commands of Christ, that we may obey them.

Church of Christ, then, should be an intelligent, moral, spiritual community,maintaining intercourse with its Head, doing all things in obedience to his will and for his honor. Provided with a Perfect Code of laws for its government, and blessed with the Presence and teaching of the Holy Spirit, sucha body is an independent community of the highest rank on earth.

Its Members are to be living epistles of the truth, known and read of all men. Sucha community is the representative of Christ on earth. According to the principle on which the Christocracy is formed, one church of Christ is not to take another as her “pattern.” She is not to ask how anotheracts, in order to know how she should act. Nor is she to be deterred from acting in conformity with the “pattern” shown by the apostles, because others are not conformed to that pattern.

The valueof the Christocratic form of government consists in this, that each acting in reference to Christ alone, all will be conformed to Christ, and thus conformed to each other. And THIS is the manner by which uniformity is to be secured and preserved, and not by confederations of churches, confessions of faith, or written codes or formularies framed by man, as bonds of union for the churches of Christ.

When A church is formed, the question touching the order which she is to adopt,should not be,“What are the usages of other churches? but, “What are the laws and ordinances which Christ himself has appointed for the government of his churches?

And if, in the adoption of these, there be a departure from the usages of other churches, the question should not be, “What will those churches think of such measures?”  but,Are they right? Are They taught in the Word of God?”

Another Obvious advantage attending the Christocratic form of government is,that it frees the churches from the influence of mere human customs, and the authority of men.

The History of our race shows a strong propensity in man to submit to the guidance of mere names, and to yield obedience to customs of mere human origin. Hence the power of the traditions of men. But the principle on which the government of the churches of Christ is founded, scatters to the wind all this extraneous influence. It carries us back beyond our fathers, and places us at the feet of Christ. It delivers us from the traditions of men, and brings us back under the authority of the Lawgiver in Zion. It takes us back to the fountain, to first principles, and enables us to break from our necks the irondominion of mere names, by teaching us to call no man master or father on earth.

The Christocratic form of government does not treat the members of the churches asmere machines, but as rational, moral beings, the free exercise of whose power is required in ascertaining and performing their duty, upon high and noble principles of truth and righteousness. (This is called Soul Competency)

It makes provision, therefore, for the exercise of the voluntary, independent,democratic principle, as has been shown in the second chapter of this work.The noble principle of equal rights is also wisely maintained and guarded,in perfect consistency with enlightened and entire submission to the authority of the king in Zion. This form of government is, then, adapted mostfitly to the development of the gospel, as a scheme of salvation by grace,and for securing union between the dissevered parts of His kingdom, who will“gather together into one all things in Christ.”

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