In his book The Doctrine of the Church, Kenneth Good divides the different origin of the church theories into three main categories.[i] These are:
- Covenant view. The church begins with Abraham, or some even go back to Adam.
- Dispensational view. The church begins with the ministry of Christ, either before or at Pentecost.
- Ultra-dispensational view. The church does not begin until the ministry of Paul.
Reformed/Covenant Theology teaches (with some variation in details) that the church is made up of the elect of all ages, and therefore the church must have begun with the first person who was saved. This is the common view, although some begin the church with the nation Israel.
- The Church began with John the Baptist or at some time during the Lord’s earthly ministry.
- The Church began on the day of Pentecost, specifically on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
The Church began after Pentecost (some say in Acts 13 and others in Acts 28).
In his book Churches and The Church, John R. Rice divides the different origin of the church theories in a slightly different way that Good. He sees “three principal and important theories.”[ii]
- At Pentecost.
- In the lifetime of Jesus.
- When the first soul was saved.
- When the first soul was saved.
- With the Abrahamic covenant.
- In the earthly ministry of Jesus.
- On the first Pentecost after Jesus crucifixion.
- Under the apostolic ministry of Paul.
After relegating other views’ origins to “a misunderstanding of the word church,” Rice writes:
“When, then, did this body, this household of God, this holy temple which is now growing by the addition of every convert—when did this body, the church, begin?
I suppose it would be when the first living stone was laid on the foundation. And that first stone, I suppose, was Adam who, cast out of the Garden of Eden for his sin, surely looked to God for mercy. Does not that coat of skin, which God made to hide Adam’s nakedness and Eve’s, picture the righteousness of God which covers the poor, naked sinner? If so, then Adam was saved, and became the first living stone built upon Christ, the foundation stone. Or if it were not Adam, then perhaps it was righteous Abel...[iii]
C. H. Spurgeon’s view agrees with Rice, though he approaches the subject and arrives at his conclusion differently. Noting there is “Only One Covenant of Grace” Spurgeon writes:
“Surely, beloved brethren, you ought not to stumble at the anachronism of comprising Abraham, David and others, in the fellowship of the Church! If you can understand how we, who live under the present economy and, unlike those Jews, have never been circumcised, are nevertheless accounted the true circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, and not in the flesh, you can have very little difficulty in perceiving that those Old Testament saints, who were participators in the faith of Christ’s death and resurrection, were verily baptized into Him according to the Spirit. Neither time nor circumcision founded the faith of Abraham. He rejoiced to see Messiah’s day; and he saw it and was glad. He believed in God who ‘Calleth those things that be not as though they were.’ It were well for us to walk in the footsteps of the same faith.”[iv]
With the Abrahamic covenant
Beginning the church with the Abrahamic covenant is a common part of Protestant “Covenant Theology.” I have not found Baptists who move within Covenant Theology – which posits continuity between the covenants and “churches” of the Old Testament and New Testament – make a clear statement on when the church began.[v] But this idea of continuity possibly puts them in the camp of believing the church starts with God’s promise to Abraham. They would acknowledge themselves as the true heirs of the “Old Testament church” since the people of God are essentially one. Consider the statement of Richard C. Barcellos:
“The Reformed Credos then say, ‘Now let us look at our New Testaments. What we should see is the inauguration of the same New Covenant promised in the Old Testament, one New Covenant community (not Israel and the Church but a transformed or New Israel, which consists of those only who know the Lord) and New Covenant privileges given to New Covenant citizens only.’ In others words, the Reformed Credos say that the Old Testament doctrine of the New Covenant prophetically rescinds automatic infant inclusion and the New Testament bears the fruit of that by reserving New Covenant ordinances to New Covenant citizens, that is, believers, those who are of faith, the seed of Abraham, all who know the Lord...It is interesting to note that in Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, he makes a distinction between Israels (Romans 9:6). In other words, within Old Covenant Israel there were two groups: believers and unbelievers. All of the Israelites considered here by Paul were covenant members, however, the majority were cut off after Christ inaugurated the New Covenant. Why? Because of their unbelief. Why were others (Gentiles) grafted in? Because of their belief. Here we see both covenantal continuity and discontinuity. The believing Jews went from being Old Covenant citizens to New Covenant citizens-continuity; and the unbelieving Jews went from being Old Covenant citizens to those who were cut off- discontinuity.”[vi]
In the earthly ministry of Jesus
Ben Bogard and B. H. Carroll are representative of Baptists who believe the church started sometime within the ministry of Jesus Christ while on earth. All may not pinpoint the beginning the same as another, but nevertheless agree on a beginning in this period and before the day of Pentecost.
“When our Lord established His church He declared He would build it up, edify it, enlarge it, and the gates of hell should not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18) The Greek word ‘oikodomeso,’ in Matt. 16:18, translated ‘will build’ means ‘will build up,’ ‘enlarge,’ ‘edify.’ His church was already in existence when He uttered these words, as can be proved by numerous passages, hence we are forced to so under this passage.”[vii]
“Was the church instituted, established, or organized on this Pentecost? There is not a syllable on that in Acts 2. Christ instituted the church. He established it in the days of his flesh. The church was this day accredited – received its credentials. It was a house complete, but empty. It then received its Inhabitant, but the church was not instituted, nor established, nor organized on this Pentecost.”[viii]
On the first Pentecost after Jesus’ crucifixion
Billy Graham’s comment summarizes an origins view that is held by many Baptists:
“To summarize, it is my belief that Pentecost instituted the Church. Then all that remained was for Samaritans, Gentiles and ‘belated believers’ to be brought into the Church representatively. This occurred in Acts 8 for Samaritans, Acts 10 for Gentiles (according to Acts 11:15), and Acts 19 for belated believers from John’s baptism. Once this representative baptism with the Spirit had occurred, the normal pattern applied—baptism with the Spirit at the time each person (of whatever background) believed on Jesus Christ.”[ix]
“We believe that all who are united to the risen and ascended Son of God are members of the church which is the body and bride of Christ, which began at Pentecost and is completely distinct from Israel. Its members are constituted as such regardless of membership or non-membership in the organized churches of earth. We believe that by the same Spirit all believers in this age are baptized into, and thus become, one body that is Christ’s, whether Jews or Gentiles, and having become members one of another, are under solemn duty to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, rising above all sectarian differences, and loving one another with a pure heart fervently.”[x]
The House Mountain Church’s Doctrinal Statement above provides further detail, while H. C. Thiessen succinctly states:
“The Church was born in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost with 3,000 converts.”[xi]
Under the apostolic ministry of Paul
I have not found any Baptists who believe what some consider the “ultra-dispensational” view of the origin of the church, such as held by Charles Baker or E. W. Bullinger. Perhaps such a view leads one away from Baptist ecclesiology and does not exist among Baptists.
For others, the date of the origin of the church may not distinctly matter. Or, in some cases, an individual may posit different origins for different “churches”. In other words, one might think the New Testament church (congregation as an organization) begins in the Gospels, while holding that the church as a body of redeemed persons began in the Old Testament or on the day of Pentecost. Notice David F. Reagan sees one origin for the local church, and another for the universal church:
“When did the Church Begin?...it depends on what you mean by the church. The institution of the local church obviously existed during the ministry of Christ, else how could He give the advice to "tell it unto the church" (Matthew 18:17)? However, if you refer to the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23) that includes all believers in heaven and in earth, this probably began after Christ left this world and sent the Comforter—the Holy Ghost—for it is the Spirit that places us into the body of Christ as per 1 Corinthians 12:13.”[xii]
[i] The Doctrine of the Church, Kenneth Good, pp. 37-38
[ii] Churches and the Church: a Convincing, Scriptural Study, John R. Rice, p. 23
[iii] Churches and the Church, John R. Rice, pp. 23-24
[iv] Old Testament Saints: Members of the Church,” From Sword and Trowel, March, 1867. Since the answer to the paper’s correspondent contains no signature, the response is presumably by the editor, C. H. Spurgeon. Concerning dispensations, he says, “…however various they may have been, His covenant has endured the same through them all. It is a mere truism that Abel was not circumcised, that Noah did not observe the Passover, and Abraham was not baptized.”
[v] This certainly doesn’t mean they do not exist.
[vi] Paedoism or Credoism? A Reformed Baptist Argument for Believers’ Baptism Based on Covenant Theology, Richard C. Barcellos, a pastor at Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA
[vii] The Baptist Way-Book, Ben M. Bogard, p. 30
[viii] An Interpretation of the English Bible, Volume 12, Acts, B. H. Carroll [Accessed 28 March 2013]
[ix] The Holy Spirit, Billy Graham, Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1978
[x] Doctrinal Statement of House Mountain Baptist Church, Corryton, Tennessee [Accessed 27 March 2013]
[xi] Introduction to the New Testament, H. C. Thiessen, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1955, p. 136