by George Bailey
James Singleton writing in the book, Planting the Independent Fundamental Church, said the first question he was asked at his ordination was: “Will you always be loyal to this denomination?”1 The night I was ordained in the denomination of which I was a part, the bishop called upon us “to be loyal to our church.” One of the questions, from the Book of Discipline of my denomination, asked as a part of the ordination of elders under the “Examination by the Bishop” was: “Will you loyally maintain the doctrines and polity of the Evangelical United Brethren Church? If so, answer ‘By the help of God, I will.’”2 I am sure we can all understand this call for loyalty. It is good and right to be loyal to those who are over us in the Lord – (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:17). The passages cited are referring to a local church with local leaders, not a denominational officer. While submission to leaders is the instruction of God’s Word, rebuke for them that sin is also commanded in 1 Timothy 5:20. Paul rebuked Peter in Galatians 2:11-14. On what basis did Paul do this? He had greater loyalty to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:14-16). The apostles were told by the religious leaders of their day, “Did not we straightly command you that ye should not preach in this name? And behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). The apostles’ response to this was, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Their loyalty was to Jesus Christ and not to any man or council. These passages along with others would teach the believer that his first loyalty is to Jesus Christ.
How does this relate to the independence of the local church or the Ohio Bible Fellowship? Denominationalism is “devotion to denominational principles and interests” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary). As the questions at the beginning of this article indicate, organizations come to the place where loyalty to the organization exceeds loyalty to Jesus Christ. Church history teaches that apostasy has come to every church organization down through the centuries. There is no guarantee that an independent church will not turn from the Word of God, but its accountability is localized instead of being off in some distant headquarters. Local government is more responsive to its constituents than state or federal government because local government lives among the people to whom it is responsible. The local church operates on a local level and with sound leadership is not as likely to be led astray as those whose leadership is away in denominational headquarters. Historically, the positions of the hierarchy or leadership of the denominations have always grown more liberal than the people in the pews. Thus it is relatively simple matter to “trickle down” the ideas of the organization to the local level, especially if one is to be “loyal to this denomination.” The indication of history is that the program of the organization becomes more important than the doctrine, or more precisely the Word of God, that bound them together in the first place.
The Ohio Bible Fellowship come out of an organization that was an organization of independent churches and Christian workers. Some of the OBF men had come out of denominations. They knew the dangers of denominationalism. They saw that same spirit of denominationalism working in the independent organization from which we withdrew. Thus the men were determined to establish an independent organization. Article III of the constitution of the OBF, says: “This organization shall be a Christian fellowship for mutual helpfulness and cooperation. It shall be independent, strictly self-governing in all matters, and shall not be under the direct control of any denomination or federation.” Thus the organization will never, if it is true to its founding document, come under the control of another group or federation.
One of the criticisms of independence is illustrated by this statement: “Moreover, the theory that each church is independent of every other church, fails to express the unity of the church of Christ, has a disintegrating effect, and opens the door for all kinds of arbitrariness in church government. There is no appeal from any of the decisions of the local church.”3
The purpose of organizing the Ohio Bible Fellowship is stated in the Preamble of the constitution, which closes with this statement: “Whereas, our obedience to the Lord requires clear-cut Biblical preaching to meet the needs of human hearts; and, forthright warning to the church about the dangers of the hour; and, the maintenance of means to express the unity of the body with fervent love and fellowship among brethren of like mind; We do therefore form such a bond of fellowship and cooperation.” We do believe the body of Christ is one body and that body is Christ’s church – 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:18. All who are in Christ, having been baptized into that one body by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13) are members of that body. It is our relationship to Christ that makes us brothers and sisters in Christ, not some organization unity. Membership in an organization or denomination does not make us children of God in Christ Jesus. We are born spiritually into that relationship – John 1:12-13 and 3:3-6. All who are born of God have unity, oneness in Christ, of which the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4:3, that we should earnestly endeavor to keep. This is not maintained by organizational oneness. Rather, it is kept by those who believe the same essential truths of the Bible. In Philippians 2:2 Paul tells these saints to “be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” He then writes in v. 5, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” That mind of Christ was humble and obedient unto the death of the cross. By that death we are forgiven of our sins and born into the family of God. If one rejects the substitutionary death of Christ or any of the doctrine of our Lord, does that one have the same mind as Christ? As Calvin says, “that where the Lord is not, it is not a union of believers, but a faction of the ungodly.”4
Thus we value our independence, since it allows us to fellowship and cooperate with others on the basis of those who have a like mind on Christ and his Word. There can only be unity on the basis of submission to the head of the church, Jesus Christ. All of the denominations in the world, including the pope himself, cannot produce unity among members of the organization. However, at the foot of the cross we can be of the same mind. We have not disrupted the unity of the true church by our independence, rather we have found that unity in obedience to Christ and his Word.
Some would argue that an external control or rule is necessary to keep the local church in harmony with what God desires of his church. Someone suggested to me years ago that, as the pastor of a local church, I should bring that church into a certain fellowship, if I wanted to have a good mission program, the assumption being that an independent could never come up with a mission program. In over twenty-one years at that church, I never found independence to be a hindrance with missions or anything else in the life of a local church. In the denomination the local church is called upon to support the program of the “church.” As an independent, one can support any and all who stand on the same principles of the Word of God. The answer James Singleton gave to the question at the beginning of this article was this: “As long as I feel that my Lord and the convention walk hand-in-hand, I shall be loyal to the convention. If the time ever comes that I feel they part company, I do not give you the second guess as to which I shall follow.”5 He remained for eighteen years, but finally left because of the growing liberalism of the organization. He ended the chapter with these words: “With the wisdom of hindsight, I think how much better it would have been from the inception of my ministry to have remained free from all entangling alliances, pastor of a church that was completely autonomous, responsible only to the will of God as revealed in His Word.”6 I believe we both learned the same thing from experience. But experience is not the final guide to what we do as Christians. What does the Bible say about the independence of the local church? Is there any justification for independent churches and for the independence of the Ohio Bible Fellowship?
You will search for a long time to find the word independent in the Bible. However, that does not mean the idea is not there. Paul addresses the churches as, “the church which is at Cenchrea” – Romans 16:1; the church in the house of Priscilla and Acquila – Romans 16:3-5; “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth,” – 1 Corinthians 1:2; “unto the churches of Galatia:” – Galatians 1:2; “unto the church of the Thessalonians” – 1 Thessalonians 1:1. There is nothing said of a denominational structure. These are individual churches located in various parts of the Roman empire. Paul makes it clear that Christ is the head of the church and that there is a unity of the body, but organizational officers are not found. The leaders are local leaders. The apostles were servants to the entire body of Christ, but even the apostle Paul did not exercise episcopal control. In 1 Corinthians 16:12 Paul says: “As touching our brother Apollos, I greatly desired him to come unto you with the brethren: but his will was not at all to come at this time; but he will come when he shall have convenient time.”
As one reads Acts 15, the council of the apostles and elders (v. 6) met to deal with the issue of mixing circumcision or law with the grace of God for the salvation of the Gentiles. A decision was reached and messengers sent with a letter. Verses 23-29 contain the text of the message. There is not one verb of command in the letter. A. T. Robertson says, “This letter is not laid down as law, but it is the judgment of the Jerusalem Christians for the guidance of the Gentiles (16:4) and it had a fine effect at once (15:30-35).”7 This was not the authority of an organization telling the Gentiles what they had to do, other than telling them what would benefit the fellowship of believing Jews and Gentiles.
Church discipline, as spelled out in 1 Corinthians 5, instructs that local church to do something about the immorality in that local church. 1 Corinthians 6, lawsuits among the saints, is again a local situation in which the Church at Corinth is instructed in how to deal with the problem. The same can be said for 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul deals with the problems of the Lord’s Supper. I do not see how Matthew 18:15-17, Christ’s instruction on discipline in the church, can be taken as referring to anything other than a local church. I do not see any instruction for those outside the local church to care for the problems, which would strongly suggest the independent nature of the local church. Thus I believe the New Testament pattern is that of local independent churches.
Thus an organization or fellowship of churches cannot control a local church, nor can a local church or organization exercise control over a fellowship of churches. Their cooperative efforts must be based on common agreement of the Scriptures. That does not mean total agreement in every Biblical concern, but there must be agreement on the essentials of the Christian faith or there can be no fellowship. Amos 3:3 says, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” Because of the Biblical pattern and because of what we learn from church history about the apostasy of the churches, the only safe ground for a fellowship or church is to be independent, and maintain fellowship on the basis of agreement with the Word of God.
It is a saving relationship with Christ that makes possible fellowship with God and with those who have received Jesus Christ as Savior. If you have never trusted Christ as Savior, will you give serious thought to your own need of forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ. Repent of your sin and trust Christ that you may have fellowship with him whom to know is life eternal – John 17:3.
1Planting the Independent Fundamental Church, compiled by Charles M. Underwood, Bob Jones University Press, 1972, p. 9.
2 “The Discipline of the Evangelical United Brethren Church,” 1959 edition, p. 370.
3Systematic Theology, by Louis Berkhof, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, Reprinted, June 1991.
4Calvin’s Institutes by John Calvin, Volume II, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1964, p. 309.
5 Op. Cit., “Planting the Independent Church,” p. 16.
6 Ibid., p. 16.
7 “Word Pictures in the New Testament,” by A. T. Robertson, Vol. III, The Acts of the Apostles, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London, 1930, p. 237.