Is going to church really that important?

Let no man deceive himself: if anyone be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses (Matt. 18:19) such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. (Ignatius, To the Ephesians 5)

For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. (Ignatius, To the Philadelphians 3)

And as in the sea there are islands, some of them habitable, and well-watered, and fruitful, with havens and harbors in which the storm-tossed may find refuge,—so God has given to the world which is driven and tempest-tossed by sins, assemblies—we mean holy churches—in which survive the doctrines of the truth, as in the island-harbors of good anchorage; and into these run those who desire to be saved, being lovers of the truth, and wishing to escape the wrath and judgment of God. And as, again, there are other islands, rocky and without water, and barren, and infested by wild beasts, and uninhabitable, and serving only to injure navigators and the storm-tossed, on which ships are wrecked, and those driven among them perish,—so there are doctrines of error—I mean heresies—which destroy those who approach them. For they are not guided by the word of truth; but as pirates, when they have filled their vessels, drive them on the fore-mentioned places, that they may spoil them: so also it happens in the case of those who err from the truth, that they are all totally ruined by their error. (Theophilus, To Autolycus II, 14)

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If anyone could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church. (Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church 6)

But, moreover, the very interrogation which is put in baptism is a witness of the truth. For when we say, “Dost thou believe in eternal life and remission of sins through the holy Church?” we mean that remission of sins is not granted except in the Church, and that among heretics, where there is no Church, sins cannot be put away. (Cyprian, Epistle 69.2)

Moreover, all other heretics, if they have separated themselves from the Church of God, can have nothing of power or of grace, since all power and grace are established in the Church where the elders453 preside, who possess the power both of baptizing, and of imposition of hands, and of ordaining. (Cyprian, Epistle 74.7)

But what is the greatness of his error, and what the depth of his blindness, who says that remission of sins can be granted in the synagogues of heretics, and does not abide on the foundation of the one Church which was once based by Christ upon the rock, may be perceived from this, that Christ said to Peter alone, “Whatsoever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19) (Cyprian, Epistle 74.16)

Obviously, the fathers have quite a bit more in mind than simply “going to church.” But none of what they have in mind happens without a person first going to church…faithfully.

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20/20 Episode on Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) Churches. What should we take from it?

Those who are in IFB churches should be thankful that apparently either Elizabeth Vargas or her producers have very limited rhetorical abilities. I know what they were trying to prove, and they even alluded to it several times in the episode. But I found the episode’s narrative quite unconvincing. But I was not raised on MTV or Twitter. I am sure many found it emotionally compelling, but I have to imagine that people with critical thinking skills found little worthy of praise. For the most part it was sensationalism-which only hurts the victims in the end because sensation goes away but persuasion remains.

One example: the show’s claim that a male hierarchical authority structure fosters abuse and its cover up. Really? That is why there is abuse in IFB churches? That is the distinguishing characteristic? If that is the case we will certainly have episodes coming soon on a certain organization headquartered in Rome then. I believe reports of abuse in that group have been far more widespread and attempts at cover-up have been far more devious. And I am sure that there will be upcoming episodes on a certain organization centered in Mecca and the numerous rumors of child abuse, forced marriages, temporary marriages… All of the abuses mentioned are heinous and reprehensible, but they do not occur because of male-dominated authority structures. They occur because of the wickedness of the human heart.

Another problem with the report was Vargas’ seeming inability to grasp the concept of an “Independent” Baptist church. Pastor Brain Fuller attempted to speak to this issue on at least one occasion, but I am not sure Vargas ever really understood what he was trying to communicate. This is going to be a groundbreaking assertion, so brace yourself for it: but an “Independent” Baptist church means it is independent! One of the churches highlighted was First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana. Also featured in the episode were numerous sermon clips from undisclosed churches. (Something quite irresponsible by the way. “Here is something someone said somewhere, trust us.”) In any event, I grew up in an independent Baptist church and went to college and seminary at two of the institutions referenced in the episode and at none of those three places did I ever associate or was I encouraged to associate with FBC Hammond or was I ever taught the kind of deplorable things pronounced in the anonymous sermon clips. The fact of the matter is that anyone can call himself an Independent Fundamental Baptist. When anyone can claim to be one, it is a mistake to assert that everyone believes like that one. Let ABC or 20/20 assert that all imams preach hatred and suicide bombings since some of them do. Would ABC or 20/20 do such a thing? But we are to believe that just because 20/20 can find outlandish sermons from a few, or even some, Independent Baptists that all believe and preach the same thing? Nonsense.

Yet this does point out a problem with far reaching implications. There is really no effective way for Independent Baptist Churches to definitively separate themselves from association with other Independent Baptist Churches. When you give yourself the same label as a pervert, a whacko, or a heretic gives himself- what else are people to think? A tremendous theological problem with such churches is their separatist ecclesiology.

The Independent Fundamental Baptist Church is a purity movement. As a purity movement it is not new, or unique. In the 3rd century, Cyprian faced the purity movement of the Novatianists. At the turn of the 5th century Augustine dealt with the purity movement of the Donatists. Cyprian and Augustine were clear that the ideals of purity and spiritual unity could not be used as excuses to break physical communion with the established, visible church. Scripturally this is perhaps seen nowhere more clearly than in Revelation 2 and 3. In addressing several churches with serious moral and doctrinal perversions, the Lord Jesus also addresses the faithful remnant in those churches. Jesus never tells them to leave to start a new church, but to remain and stay faithful.

In their pursuit for fidelity and purity, Independent Baptist Churches have actually cut themselves off from the mechanism that fosters and protects fidelity and purity: communion with other churches. A member of ABC Baptist church can run roughshod over innocent victims secure in the knowledge that he can always move on to XYZ Baptist church. A pastor can preach or do pretty much anything he wants secure in the knowledge that it is “his” church and no one else can tell him how to run it.

“One, holy, catholic, and apostolic” is a package deal. If there is not substantial communion and fellowship with other churches, there is no protection for holiness.

I have no idea what the fallout of 20/20’s report will be. But I do know this: Christ promised to build one church. Not a conglomeration of Independent churches. Perhaps this will be used to awaken eyes that there is something more important that “independence” for the sake of purity: fellowship for the sake of accountability.

As long as Trinity Baptist in Concord, NH; First Baptist in Hammond, IN; Marquette Manor in Downers Grove, IL; Colonial Hills in Indianapolis, IN; are all “independent” churches, they will continue to be collectively evaluated by their dirtiest scoundrel.