Why the Bible Fellowship Church Today?

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Pastor Kirkwood delivered this message to Annual Conference, Oct. 18, 1962, at its meeting in Hatfield, PA.  The version here is considerably edited for space.  Still it demonstrates our brother’s gift for boldly addressing the issues of his time.  You can find the full address on line at bfchistory.org/whybfc.htm. Why print it now, nearly 60 years after it was delivered?  The BFC of the 50’s and the 60’s was dynamically changing both in response to the Scriptures and the times.  As we emerge from the Pandemic of ‘20 and ‘21, we must again face a time of self-examination and re-grounding.  In this article, we find the inspiration we will need to address changing times.  As a reformed body of believers, let us remember that change is a part of life as are also eternal truths. Ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church must ever be reforming).

Pastor Donald T. Kirkwood

In order to prepare the mind for what follows, it would be worth our time to consider the question, “What WERE the reasons for our existence?”  Then we will be ready to face the question “Why the Bible Fellowship Church Today?” This will bring into sharp focus the last and easily overlooked word in the theme, namely, the word “today.”

Originally we were brought into existence to meet the need for: an evangelical church in the true sense of the word, a separated and gathered church, a church with an eschatological message. Specifically these needs were met in the following ways by prayer meetings and the Sunday School on the local level and by camp meetings on the fellowship-wide level. In particular needs were addressed by the development of the Gospel Herald Society, by stressing the then needed negatives. By adopting immersion as the only mode of baptism, and by preaching the doctrine of Christ’s return in terms of a triumph on the part of Christ rather than the church in other words, historic premillennialism rather than post-millennialism.

In the course of time, these specifics ceased to be peculiar to the Bible Fellowship Church. Most of them became common to the evangelical movement of the time, and are part of the history of many churches and movements of the day. Thus, what may have marked us off from those from whom we originally separated did not in time differentiate us from our contemporaries.

Furthermore, the specifics which met the original needs are no longer capable of fulfilling their function apart from adaptation, or are no longer in existence. The Gospel Herald Society is gone. The then stressed negatives are no longer prohibited – the length of the sleeve, the cut of the hair, the use of the ring and jewelry, the role of men in sports and politics, eating in church, etc. The opposition has changed.

The invisible church concept is very much with us today, in fact, it has pushed aside the visible church concept in fundamental circles. Postmillennialism is all but dead. Eschatology has been over-emphasized. Thus in many respects the need today is precisely the opposite of what it was at the time of our origin. While we were moving, so was American fundamentalism. As a result we became more and more like a cross section of fundamentalism. Are we content to be this? Some are not, and believe that what is needed today is new implementation of the original reasons for our existence, bearing in mind, however, that the world has changed greatly during the century of our existence, admitting also the fact that we, too, have changed – theologically, ecclesiologically and practically. We need to have a reason for our existence and then consistently and consciously carry out that reason.

So why the Bible Fellowship Church today? Because there is a need for a church which in its vertical relationship is reformed in theology, in its horizontal relationship is denominational in ecclesiology, and in its “this-world” relationship is gathered church in practice.

Reformed in Theology

There is a need for a church which is reformed in theology. Originally we were not reformed. Historically we were Arminian; gradually but progressively we became dispensational; presently we are in transition. There are remnants of Arminianism and dispensationalism – also an active Calvinism. When one takes in hand the new Faith and Order, he finds that the “Faith” section is oriented toward the reformed faith – perseverance of the saints, election, free agency, the church, these and others are unmistakably reformed.

In the reformed doctrine of salvation, the following take place: God is exalted, man is humbled, Christ’s death is personalized, the Holy Spirit’s power is recognized, the perseverance of the saints is assured, and the motive for evangelism is born.

Now many churches today have incorporated most or all of these tenets in their system of doctrine. Yet they have an incomplete theology due to a system of thinking which limits the reformed faith to the area of salvation alone, thereby cutting off from theology their world and life view – if they have a world and life view. If the BFC is to be relevant, if it is to meet the needs of the coming generations with the present emphasis upon education, and if it is going to endeavor to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, it will have to be less traditional. It must enlarge its thinking to include a world and life view. Such a view has been a vital part of the reformed faith.

We need a world and life view for four reasons. First, salvation includes the whole man: intellect, will, and emotions. Reformed theology stresses that in salvation the whole of men is regenerated. Second, the divine mandate to image-bearers extends to the whole of creation. All of creation must be included in one’s world and life view. Third, the gospel must be made relevant to the everyday life of every man in every strata of society. Finally, every phase of church life must be subjected to the searchlight of God’s Word.

Thus, the reformed faith is more than a theology of salvation in the narrow sense of the word. It is a faith which believes in the relevance of the word of God to all of life. It has a world and life view. We have not given much thought to the matter of world and life view as a church. In this we were not alone. We merely reflected American fundamentalism. In the past we were able to get along without giving it much thought. But now there are changes all about us and within us which make it imperative that we give long and hard study to this problem. Fundamentalism has no world and life view. Modernism has an unbiblical world and life view. However, it has an Arminian and man-centered world and life view rather than a reformed and God-centered world and life view.

Advocates of the reformed faith turn to God’s word and derive therefrom principles which have a bearing upon all of life. Their periodicals contain articles on: race relations, birth control, artificial insemination, economics, government of the church, education, etc. In today’s world, in order to minister to this generation, a world and life view is a must.

Denominational in Ecclesiology

I believe there is a place for a church which is denominational, and putting it negatively and pointedly, non-dispensational in make-up. A concept of the church which does not necessarily deny autonomy to the particular church, but does modify it by the New Testament teaching of mutual subordination, of both the individual to the particular church and the particular church to the denomination.

We are a fellowship of churches. Formerly we were episcopal in our ecclesiology, progressively there were introduced elements of congregationalism, presently we are in a transition, with elements of episcopal, congregational and presbyterial government.

In order to highlight the difference between the denominational concept of the church and that held by most independents let me quote a paragraph which anyone who believes in denominations would, I believe, accept. “If local churches are to be free from domination by a secular power or from the authority of an ecclesiastical oligarchy, they must associate with one another, each recognizing the authority of the other, none claiming absolute autonomy or authority, and all recognizing the temporal but preeminent authority of the association of churches.” (Harrison, Authority and Power in Free Church Tradition p. 220)

Thus there is in my belief a place for a church which is reformed in theology and denominational in ecclesiology.

Gathered Church in Practice

There is needed a church which is not only reformed in theology and denominational in ecclesiology but also gathered church in its this-world relationship. When I say gathered church, I am not using the word in the new and World Council of Churches inspired connotation, but rather in the informal and traditional sense, a sense precisely the opposite of the new WCC meaning. There is a place for a church which in its relationship to this world is gathered church. This is a concept of the church which has always been part of our Anabaptist heritage. It is a concept which separates the BFC many other churches.

The term, gathered church, means a church which is separated from the state and separated from the world. Such a church requires evidence of personal salvation before admittance, practices believer’s baptism, and exercises discipline which demands separation. Inasmuch as the BFC has always been a believer in the gathered church principle, little will be said along this line. There is a place for a church which adheres to the gathered church principle, without the particular negatives of previous generations. The principle remains; the practices change. To take an absolute stand on a relative issue is suicide.

What Peculiar Place Do We Fulfill in the Body of Christ?

Now it is of course true that none of the three points is peculiar to the Bible Fellowship Church. There are other churches which are reformed in theology, still others which are denominational in ecclesiology, and still others which are gathered church in practice. However, when the combination of these three is used as the standard, I believe we have to say that there is room for a church with such a standard.

We fill a need. The need for a church like ours is not to be ascertained by conducting marketing surveys to find what the public wants, nor by looking at churches which have “succeeded”, rather it is found by searching the word of God. Many churches have been infiltrated by modernism and neo-orthodoxy, there is room for a church which adheres to the reformed faith. Independents have never had a truly denominational concept of the church, and have a built-in rejection of denominationalism in their undue and unmodified concept of autonomy, there is a need for a church which is both reformed and denominational. Other reformed churches have never accepted the gathered-church principle. There is a need for a church which consistently and self-consciously is reformed in theology, denominational in ecclesiology and gathered-church in practice. By this I do not mean that the BFC would be the only true church, far from it. (I do believe, however, that these three particulars consistently and self-consciously carried out would justify our existence and fill a void in American church life.)

At the outset we referred to what we were originally, let us now summarize what we said in the areas of theology, ecclesiology and practice, especially as it applies to the Bible Fellowship Church.

First of all, Theologically

The Bible Fellowship Church is no longer Anabaptist, except in the gathered-church principle. We vote, bear arms, have a different standard of separation, different form of church government, different theology, name, and on and on. We have changed.

Is it not time we recognize these changes and stop acting as though we still believed them, when all the time we don’t? We have a reformed statement of Faith and a non-dispensational ecclesiology in our denominational set-up. We have always been gathered-church in evangelical emphasis. Let us not then oppose reformed theology in areas wherein we agree. On the other hand, let us not give up our gathered church heritage in order to enjoy a short-lived advantage. Are we not doing this when we take into fellowship and baptize children ten and under?

Is this the gathered church principle? Note the warning of Harold S. Bender who says “The age of baptism has really become so low, numerous cases of ten years and below, that in spite of the outward form of voluntarism and even profession of conversion, the actual practice tends toward child baptism.” (Mennonite Encyclopedia Vol. I, p. 596)

Next, Ecclesiologically

We are a fellowship of churches, a denomination. Formerly we were episcopal in government, then we included elements of Congregationalism, now on the lower level we have a combination of episcopal, congregational and presbyterial. We have autonomy on the lower level, with a built-in subordination to the upper level.

Here I believe we need to do some study, rethinking, revamping. Vestiges of former systems need to be discarded. The inclusion of new elements needs to be spelled out. All of these stemming from a biblical approach with a view toward bringing the totality of the church under the shield of the Word of God. There is a place for this in the ecclesiastical world because it is biblical and because the lack of it has produced in America a large but ineffectual force of conservatives with a genius for promotion, fund raising, duplicity of effort and multiplication of agencies in evangelism, but a poverty of power, a paucity of social, educational and civic influence, and an indifference to the advance of the crown rights of the crucified.

Finally, Practically

We have always been gathered church. We have changed on our opposition to particulars. We are still gathered church nevertheless. Thus we have changed theologically, ecclesiologically, and practically.

Becoming What We Are

Now, let us become what we are. After we determine why we exist, then we must constantly seek to impart to our people the reason for our existence. If we are going to be just like others, then we have forfeited our reason for existence. I’m afraid that this has been an idea all too prevalent in the BFC of late. Once we were encouraged to believe that the Mennonite Brethren in Christ was the only church.

Now we have gone to the other extreme, we are just like every other fundamental church. Have we not been telling ourselves that we are just like others? When we support and act like a non-denominational church, are we not again falling into the camp of the independent churches? Are we a group of independent fundamental churches in which each church goes its separate way together? Where are our distinctives? Why expect anyone to move with us when we move, return to us when they move, if we are just another fundamental church?

We in the Bible Fellowship Church, after determining our reason for existence, must be: conscious of our heritage, committed to our principles, critical in our self-analysis, corrective in our actions, and concerned with making the BFC relevant to our generation. There is a place for the Bible Fellowship Church today. Let us assume this God-given role.

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