Is Independency possible? (HCC #2)

Whenever I meet a Baptist or other Independent in a context where discussion of a slightly confrontational nature is permitted, I always ask, “how do you know you are part of the holy catholic church?”

So far, it has always stumped them.

To be fair, however, we have all been stumped, haven’t we, by questions out of the blue that we have never thought about before; then, at the hour of the wolf, an answer does occur, but too late for the discussion.

So let’s explore how an Independent might try to answer this.

1. Apostolic Doctrine

Ind: “We know we are because our doctrine is apostolic; we affirm the Apostles’ Creed, for example.”

Me: But so could the Arians!

Ind: “yes, but they were excommunicated for their heresy.”

Me: But as Independents, how could you possibly be excommunicated for heresy; and if that is not even possible, how, again, do you know you are in the Holy Catholic Church?

Moreover, what criterion do you have to know what is both essential and sufficient of “apostolic doctrine” to count? For example, how do you know whether not just the Apostle’s, but also the further clarifications of the Nicene creed are essential? What about justification by faith?

Does this not finally just boil down to an autonomous assertion by individuals?

2. Recognition by others

At this point, the Independent will I think be forced to appeal to “recognition by others.” Other churches recognize his church’s baptism, and so forth.

However, there is a problem with this. If his appeal is to recognition by other Independents, then there is some question-begging going on. How do we establish that those others are in the Holy Catholic Church so that their opinion on the matter even carries any weight?

On the other hand, if he appeals to non-independents (say, the Church of England) and if he admits that he must do so (based on the reductio of the last section), then he should give up the game. He is admitting that a non-independent, organically constituted church is needed in order to drag him into the fold. But this is cheating. There can’t be many ways to be the holy catholic church — that would certainly not be catholic, and probably not holy. It would simply be an arbitrary subterfuge to gain status through the back door.

Not only that, but how do you really know that that non-independent church recognizes you? Maybe one of your members transferred over to an Anglican church, and his baptism was recognized. But does this mean the Church of England would recognize your little church as legitimate if the question were posed explicitly?

3. Baptized

Next, the Independent might fall back on his baptism. “I and the other members of my church are baptized; this is sufficient to show that we are part of the holy catholic church.”

There are two serious problems with this answer.

First, everyone on your softball team might be baptized also; that doesn’t make your softball team the church, as I hope all will agree without further argumentation. To this, the Independent will probably amend his definition, “baptized persons that have covenanted together as a church” or something. Let me defer analysis of the covenanting aspect to the next section.

But second, me: How do you know you are baptized?

Here (as above) the point is certainly not to press for an answer to some epistemological skepticism, as if one should doubt his parents’ testimony as unreliable, a baptismal certificate as illusion, or such. No, the point is to explore the necessary conditions for saying that a baptism is valid, and to see what this might imply for the question of the holy catholic church.

To bring the point home, let me borrow an illustration suggested by Greg Bahnsen in a conversation I once had with him.

Suppose some boys are out in the back yard “playing church” and one of them takes a hose and sprays a dog while pronouncing the formula he heard in church, “I baptize you in the name…”

We all recognize that something is wrong with this picture. So, by free variation let’s see what the illustration reveals.

We all agree, the dog is not in fact baptized. Problem: animals are not to be baptized.

Ok then, modify the picture so that one boy sprays another boy and pronounces the formula. Say the sprayed boy was previously unbaptized.

“But the boy didn’t make a credible profession of faith.”

Say he did. The other boys cross-examined him carefully as to whether he had a credible profession of faith.

Let me not belabor the point. Let each reader work through all the possibilities for himself.

At the very least, it is going to emerge that some sort of legitimate church context is required for a baptism to be valid.

But then, baptism cannot be given as a sufficient condition for defining a legitimate church. That would be circular!

4. Covenanting

As I alluded to above, the Independent might add some sort of mutual covenanting as a sufficient condition to constitute a valid congregation of the holy catholic church.

At the outset, we can already see that this won’t work, because undoubtedly the Independent will insist that only baptized persons can make such a covenant, and we have (I trust) seen that the principle already fails at that point.

But maybe someone will take the viewpoint that the covenanting members do not have to already be baptized; once the group is self-bootstrapped into its status as church through covenanting, then the body can do what is necessary to baptize themselves or the remaining members that are not yet baptized.

Here is a group of people that covenant together to form an Independent church, and over there is another group that covenants together and constitutes themselves, let us say, as a Christian Science congregation. How do we know that one is a part of the Holy Catholic Church, and the other is not?

The Independent is going to have to answer with something other than covenanting — probably one of the first three answers listed above will be tried.

But each of those failed. A fallacy does not become a valid argument by virtue of being repeated ten times!

Covenanting as the sole and sufficient origin of becoming a valid church simply plasters over, with pious jargon, a situation that at bottom is a raw assertion the autonomy of the individual.


I can’t imagine where else an Independent might go. Every attempt either begs the question or grants a principle for the constitution of the holy catholic church that is alien to his own model.

In my next HCC post, I will illustrate this dilemma with an example of an historical personage that wanted to be Independent and was also willing to bite the bullet on this with great honesty, but with (it seems to me at least) tragic outcome.

22 thoughts on “Is Independency possible? (HCC #2)

  1. This is an area I am not yet myself decided on. It seems to me that the first point is the strongest argument and this is probably the point I would set up my defenses at.

    I would agree with Calvin’s comments on Eph. 2:20 if I am not misreading him: “They are built on the foundation,–they are founded on the doctrine, of the apostles and prophets. We are thus enabled to distinguish between a true and a false church.”

    It may be said that the Arians agreed with the Apostle’s Creed but it certainly couldn’t be said that the Arians agreed with apostolic doctrine (which may exceed that which is specifically stated in the creed).

    The fact that the Arian’s were excommunicated did not provide knowledge as to their being outside of the HCC but it was the demonstration (or acknowledgment) of the fact. Likewise, the Independent Baptist, not being or being excommunicated does not assure him that he is within the HCC. His relation to the HCC is something objectively outside of man’s declaration and it is evidenced by his fruits of doctrine.

    You need to start a wordpress blog or something and get off that Xanga site. I tried to leave a shout-out the other day to your EAAN but apparently you have to be a Xanga member to leave comments.

  2. ….Sorry about the crappy reply. I really should start proofreading this stuff before I post it. What I was trying to say is that it was the fact of heresy itself that put the Arians outside of the HCC and not the subsequent act of excommunication.

  3. As far as the Apostles Creed not having justification by faith, it was just a creed: a basic, simple understanding for the early believers to remember. I think (i may be wrong) justification came a little later.

    As far as Independents laying claim to any creed, we must remember the push by many in that camp to “have no creed, but Christ” which of course defeats itself in that it too is a creed.

    In my experience it was the very lack of government that brought about many a demise in the independent church. All one needed was the elders (or leaders or what ever the title) to form a body to oust the pastor (or assistant or what have you). I always tried to warn one of my pastoral friends — he was E-Free and would proudly state “we major on the majors and minor on the minors” – that the problem is, the Pastor could major on one set of items and his Assistants could major on other ones…no real standard. In the end he was ousted by a disgruntled “elder” who acted more like Absalom than a good elder and the Pastor had no recourse.. had to leave asap… Sadly i could recount this problem many-fold in the independent church: unless the guy was tyranical he would seldom stay over a long period of time…i will save the tyrant stories for another time:P

    s. e. hoffmeister

  4. Justification was an essential for early believers.What do you mean–justification came later? What about Galatians and Romans? I agree justification came to the forefront of biblical thinking at the time of the Reformation, yet would we not agree that it was a basic apostolic doctrine? The Apostle Paul labored a lot on it. As for “it was just a creed”–a creed is a statement of belief–and basic to any biblical Christian belief is that of justification by faith.

  5. JB — The question is, is there a public criterion to establish that you are part of the holy catholic church.

    The point about excommunication was to highlight the public nature of the HCC. A private determination doesn’t get off the ground if the HCC is a publicly recognizable entity.

    “I determine that quantity and locus of apostolic doctrine that is necessary and sufficient, and I have determined that I believe that adequately; therefore I’m in.” And “in” here must refer to the mystical, invisible body of Christ. By this criterion, a secret many-to-one relation is hypothesized, and you venture to say you are one of the many.

    Now, suppose you see the need to meet corporately for worship; so you need to establish a congregation. Of course, in reality you can seek an existing congregation; but then the question will be: how do you know this congregation is part of the HCC? So on your own principle, you need to be able to bootstrap a congregation into existence that is part of the HCC. How would you do that?

    You need to find, say, two others that also have determined they are part of HCC because of their self-evaluation of apostolic doctrine: Tom and Harry, say.

    Already, you now need to expand beyond “self-examination as to apostolicity”; now you need inter-subjective examination: you, Tom and Harry need to make the determination about each other (unless you just take each other’s word for it– hopefully it is clear that that won’t work).

    Say Harry demurs — he doesn’t find your profession of apostolicity adequate. So he’s out; or you’re out, depending on who you ask.

    You and Tom keep going, and you see 2nd Congregational over there, composed of Joe and Phil, and you examine each other and decide they pass muster. Meanwhile Harry finds Larry, forming what they say is 1st Congregational, which recognizes Curly and Moe’s 2nd Congregational.

    And so forth.

    Where is the HCC?

    Now you need to ordain officers. But how can the lesser ordain the greater? So this bootstrapping will only work if every Christian (which in turn is determined by his own autonomous profession) contains within himself, automatically, all the power of office of the church. (I’ll post more on this later; this is a sneek preview.)

    Why have officers then?

    And so forth. I could keep going; but perhaps I have mistaken your thesis — I’ll stop pending further clarification.

  6. Keith — I think you’re joking (since, if they are not indeed identical, it is at least that [being part of the body of Christ] implies [the need to be part of the HCC], for the reasons I highlighted in the first HCC post). However, if you weren’t joking, then try to unpack your comment with a few sentences that might help me understand your trajectory.

  7. Eliza — I think, if everyone defined terms and expanded concepts, you and Hoff would be found to be in violent agreement. He is highlighting the confessional aspect; you are highlighting the faith norm taught by Scripture.

    I think we have to say (1) the heroes of the faith in the early centuries had justifying faith even though they were not yet able to articulate the doctrine with perfect clarify; (2) therefore, the creed at any particular moment in church history may not be sufficient by itself as a salvific rule of faith; (3) but fortunately, people’s actual faith may exceed that of their church’s confession; (4) creeds or confessions are very useful nonetheless; (5) no one after the clarifications of the Reformation can any longer be given the benefit of the doubt if he articulates a creed that muddies justification by faith.

  8. Tim,
    I am a little confused. You stated in response, “[t]he question is, is there a public criterion to establish that you are part of the [HCC].” My first reply was addressing this question… or at least I thought it was. In your original post, you address several hypothetical defenses and in my reply, I attempted to defend one of those positions by responding to your reply to the hypothetical defense. The following defense is merely tentative as I am not decided on this issue yet:

    I believe that “we know we are because our doctrine is apostolic” is a public criterion since anyone can examine your doctrine, provided you communicate it in some way… perhaps by having a church or personal confession? You respond “who determines what is apostolic doctrine?” Nevertheless, I do not see this as defeating my argument because whatever gives group ‘A’ the right to determine those limits also gives group ‘B’ that right. In fact, though, it is not about determining those limits but recognizing them. Those who are within the HCC know this by their doctrine and they recognize the limits by being part of His sheep that hear and recognize His word. I believe all the problems of your developing church are answered by this. (i.e. How do I know Tom and Harry are part of the HCC? By examining their doctrine.)

  9. Opps my bad, i did not mean any disrespect in addressing the Apostles Creed as “just a creed” and yes we do agree (i don’t like being violent even though i was involved in martial arts for 20+ years and taught a good many of those) that Paul taught justification.
    i should have clairified my statement more and i was thinking more of the reformational development of said doctrine. so i humbly reply that i will try in the future to be more clear.

    s. e. hoffmeister

  10. JB — good comment.

    No matter how this falls out, examining the doctrine for apostolicity will be a necessary aspect. It would seem not to be sufficient however. It lacks the power to constitute. The church has a givenness, a prior existence, that we come to recognize, not constitute.

    The apostles, as founders commissioned by the Lord, were just that — commissioned. The Lord did not say, “well, now that you believe, you already are the church; nothing more for me to add.”

    You and I and our buddies are sitting around at Starbucks one day and someone blurts out, “let’s start a church.” Can we do that? Only, if all the power of ordinance and office resides in every individual just by virtue of “believing apostolic doctrine.” Actually, even more than that would need to be done.

    I intend to unpack this more in an upcoming post.

  11. Tim,
    I look forward to the upcoming post.

    Right now, I would say that in a sense yes, those at Starbucks could start a “church” and not just because Starbuck’s monopoly has extended into the ecclesiastical realm of ordaining ministers. I am aware that Charles Taze Russell once started his own Bible study and the mess that it created for us today; however, to project this instance into an evil of all independent Bible movements is a hasty generalization, I think.

    Let’s remove the setting of Starbucks and place the people in a first century town near Rome. The people in this town, Shlome, have never heard the gospel when one day a passerby comes into town that happens to a Christian, albeit an laymen who has never been officially ordained as a minister. The man shares the gospel with them and as many as are ordained to eternal life believe (12 people let us say). The passerby continues his journey and leaves the 12 new Christians with a copy of Isaiah (or we could just say that they somehow had all 66 books). What should the 12 do? Admittedly they would be in a jam but I might say that they should begin to study together the Scriptures given them and that this would constitute a church. What would be the authority base? The Scriptures. How would they recognize and make declaration of those outside of the faith? Scriptures. As they grew and matured they would acquire some greater credence on issues of faith not possessed by newer members, thus offices could be distributed.

    Would the older and more established church in Rome or even Jerusalem have authority over the church in Shlome? It seems to me that they would have some form of authority; perhaps I would call it greater credence, but I am not yet decided on how much authority this other church has. I believe Rome could suggest to the other church that Paedobaptism is the way to go but ultimately the decision is up to Shlome to search the Scriptures and recognize for themselves what the Scriptures teach. What’s more is that it is up to each individual in Shlome to recognize this from the authority of the Scriptures and not from the authority of the officers in the church (since the officers only receive authority in as much as they are in line with the Scriptures). Now, if Shlome decided upon some heretical doctrine then Rome could declare that Shlome is outside of the HCC, but it would not be a ratification of the fact but merely a recognition and confession of such. Likewise, if Bob, who belongs to the church of Rome sees from Scripture that Rome has erred in this then he can leave and go to the church of Shlome: Rome has no authority over him when it departs from the Scriptures.

    The Scriptures are our constitution, our common bond which brings us under the HCC. I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something. I’d like to hear you expound upon what you have in mind when you speak of the need to constitute. I look forward to your upcoming post.

  12. How do you deal with Machen? Thrown out by the “church” — unjustly, of course. Starts a new denomination, in line confessionally with the old. Did the old church excommunicate itself? Is it no longer a church, or a real church which made a mistake? When does an pre-existing church cross the line from real to phony under your rubric?

    I agree that modern day start-up churches are problematic, but am not sure you are deriving the correct answer to the why, how, when, and who of it all. I need to think it over more.

  13. JB — eek, let’s leave Rome out of it.

    There are two layers of distinction that need to be made.

    1. Does Shlome desire to be integrated into the organic HCC, or is it resistant? If the latter, then I wd say it is not in fact a church; indeed, it is a rejector of the church. If the former, and it is simply providentially hindered, then maybe we cd say it is a church but not a church with well-being.

    Here we cd make analogies like Romeo and Juliet stranded on a desert island. Can they fall in love, commit to one another for life before God, and become “married”? I would say yes, but with the understanding that something is providentially missing that needs to be regularized if they ever come into contact with civilization again.

    On the other hand, contrast that situation with a couple in society that defiantly tells people, “we’re married in the sight of God.”

    2. Even with that qualification, perhaps Shlome should not yet be regarded as part of the HCC. Perhaps something like the catechumen/baptised distinction should be made. It is not that they are heathen or “unsaved” in the eschatological sense. But they are not yet living in the house.

  14. Eliza — patience, there’s still a lot to unpack! Yes, Machen will be an important test case for the thesis. (…snip)

  15. Tim,

    Excellent point with marriage, I had not thought about that. I see now where you are coming from and I will have to do more reading on the subject; however, just to carry out this defense further let me respond.

    Concerning the marriage analogy, what is it that makes Romeo and Juliet’s marriage “official” within society proclaimed by an ordained priest and “unofficial” when stranded on an island? Alternatively, what if they are within society and covenant together without a minister? I may assert that there is nothing missing from their “marriage” provided that they come under a mutual covenant (maybe they could write the covenant in the sand or on a coconut). Having a third party in on the covenant makes it no more or less valid since the covenant is between the two (and before God). What makes the marriage legitimate is the fact of their covenant with each other — the third party is just a witness to the fact (and not necessary?). There does need to be some outward sign of the covenant so that we know they are not simply living together and for other legal reasons.

    “Does Shlome desire to be integrated into the organic HCC, or is it resistant? If the latter, then I wd say it is not in fact a church; indeed, it is a rejector of the church. If the former, and it is simply providentially hindered, then maybe we cd say it is a church but not a church with well-being.”

    This is a good point. Perhaps those movements that are Independent see such organizations as causing more trouble and debate than peace and prosperity. In addition, they believe they are part of the organic HCC church but that its manifestation is not limited to such dependent organizations. Thus, it isn’t that there is a desire to NOT be in the organic HCC but the debate is over whether such dependency is necessary to its organic manifestation. Either way, I’m reaching beyond what I have studied here so I will finally hold my peace till later.

  16. If a modern couple want a marriage tax deduction, they had better have their marriage registered with the State. On the other hand, I do not think it is necessary to have either a civil or religious ceremony in order for their to be even a Christian marriage covenant (or a marriage of unbelievers). These things are cultural signposts. As such they may be helpful to outsiders, provide moments to celebrate, and make nice memories, but not of the essence of the marriage.

    Waiting for more on Machen.

  17. You’re right, I wasn’t specific enough. If one is part of the body of Christ then must be saved, therefore salvation would the criteria.

  18. Eliza & JB — I’m a little nervous about opening up a new rabbit trail, but let me just suggest some food for thought on marriage. Both of you seem to take a libertarian view of marriage. I submit that is not adequate for a couple reasons:

    1. Marriage has a tribal aspect. Parental blessing should be seen as required, for example.

    2. The civil magistrate has other interests in the matter:

    a. some marriage contracts are unlawful (e.g. incest, age).

    b. there is a property right both for wife and for offspring that goes beyond the libertarian will of either husband or wife, and thus makes the matter a public and civil one necessarily.

  19. No question that parental blessing is desired, though probably not essential. BTW, the state never checks on parental consent.
    Agreed that the civil magistrate gets into the act because of certain prohibitions to marriage, inheritance, property divisions.
    You would agree that, however, that just as one has an education, having graduated from a Christian college, though unaccredited by the State, so one can be married (provided one complies with God’s laws concerning the same) though the State does not “accredit it”. That was my point. Does the State do much in terms of pre-approving a marriage (yes, they do an ID check and an age check). I think it might end there. So lawsuits about bigamy, divorce, etc. all go back to that license.

  20. Marriage is off topic and so the comments will be buried. But with this risk noted, a few points may be helpful.

    (1) Marriage was almost always by common law before Trent. This was accomplished by a contract between the couple witnessed by two men with the permission of the woman’s father. Trent demanded that the marriage take place before a priest.

    (2) Common law marriage has gradually been replaced by statutory marriage in which the state is involved. This involvement is that a magistrate of the state must witness the wedding and, more recently, a license is granted. The last European country to abolish common law marriage was Scotland in 2006.

    (3) In America, many states still allow common law marriage and all state recognize a marriage that is legitimate in other states. So if a couple were married in Alabama by common law (which allows it), that marriage would be recognized in Virginia (which has never alloed it).

    (4) Marriage licenses in America were originally required for interracial marriages. In fact, standard legal dictionaries still make reference to this. The following is from Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th Ed. This is the one used in family court.

    Marriage license – A license or permission granted by public authority to persons who intend to intermarry… By statute in most jurisdictions, it is made an essential prerequisite to lawful solemnization of the marriage.”

    Intermarry – See Miscegenation.

    Miscegenation – Mixture of races. Term formerly applied to marriage between persons of a different race. [Now called “intermarry”.]

    By implication, those not “intermarrying” do not need a license.

    (5) As my colleague has argued, the state has an interest in the marriage. This seems to be without question. But historically, the state has not been involved with witnessing or licensing marriage. It recognized marriages if they met the conditions noted under (1).

    This seems to be the ideal we should go back to. That the state now demands (in most cases) that a license is procurred in order for it to recognize a marriage is unecessary and a usurpation of authority.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *