Organizations and institutions come and go. They are modes of the adaptation of principles to circumstances; or, better stated, institutions are means of the functioning of spiritual (or demonic) forces in the changing situations of history.

The redemptive program of God has in all ages functioned through a visible congregation (ecclesia) of God’s people. This congregation is described in the Westminster Confession (XXV, ii) as follows: “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal … consists of all these throughout the world who profess the true religion.…” The “invisible Church” in all ages consists of “the whole number of the elect …” (ibid., par. i) and in any particular time consists of those persons who are born again, members of the “body of Christ.” Through the invisible Church the Spirit moves to express the redemptive program of God in the visible Church.

According to the Bible, and according to the provisions for discipline in all Bible-adhering denominations, the visible Church is never perfect in this world but is to be kept as pure as possible. In this regard the Church is analogous to the individual. We do not have sinless perfection in this life, but the Christian must constantly strive against sin. Similarly, the Church must constantly strive to maintain purity of life and testimony.

The Corinthian Epistles explicitly set forth the doctrine of the purity of the visible Church. In First Corinthians 10:14–22, Paul declares that the forces behind false religion are demonic. “You cannot partake from the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” In First Corinthians 5 he teaches that one must not eat the Lord’s Supper with a wicked idolator. Put that man out from your communion, he says; thus the flesh will be disciplined and the person himself may really be saved. In Second Corinthians 6:14–7:1 Paul states: Get out of the communion in which false religion is so thoroughly entrenched that it cannot be put out.

With reference to blatant denial of Christian fundamentals, someone has remarked: “Either you put it out, or you get out, or you sell out to false religion.”

The opposite opinion is sometimes advanced on the basis of an appeal to Christ’s words (see Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43), “Let both grow together until the harvest” (v. 30). But in the parable in which these words occur Christ explicitly stated, “The field is the world”—not the Church, not the individual—“the harvest is the end of the age, the reapers are the angels.” The “servants” who wanted to root out the “tares” from the field (“the world”) right now—these are the angels, the apocalyptic angels, I suppose, who will in due time pour out the vials of God’s wrath upon the kingdom of “The Beast.” God’s longsuffering in the administration of cosmic affairs is no more an argument against the biblical doctrine of the purity of the visible Church than against the purity of the individual life.

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The Bible plainly tells us that the world as a whole will never be persuaded into the Church of God. Nor will the visible Church always be true to its calling.

The Historical Roots

The background of the formation of the ACCC and the ICCC lies in a movement among Presbyterians in which the late Professor J. Gresham Machen was a conspicuous leader and also in similar movements in Baptist and other denominations.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. had from time to time (1910, 1916, 1923) given testimony to these five points of doctrine as “essential to the Word of God and our standards”: (1) the inerrancy of the Scriptures, (2) the Virgin Birth, (3) the miracles, (4) the substitutional Atonement, and (5) the bodily Resurrection of Christ.

Shortly after this testimony of 1923, some 10 per cent of the ministers in the denomination signed a document called the “Auburn Affirmation,” in which they stated that the inerrancy of the Scriptures is a harmful doctrine and that the other four points are not essential for Presbyterian ministers in good standing. Signers of the “Auburn Affirmation” were found in high places in the church. Dr. Machen now came forward as a leader in the struggle for the purity of the Church. In a carefully documented case he exposed the “inclusive” policy of the Board of Foreign Missions. Along with missionaries whose loyalty to the Gospel was unquestioned, others were being sent out who denied the Virgin Birth and other fundamentals. At least one missionary who was writing and speaking in sympathy with Soviet Communism was on the payroll of the board.

“Conservative” men on the board took the position that denial of the fundamentals should be treated as a partisan difference within the church and within its foreign mission program. Machen pointed out that even a political democracy cannot tolerate within itself a party that would destroy its very existence.

Although I was a member of the presbytery, my work was independent and interdenominational. I could have stood to one side (Obad. 11) and washed my hands of the matter (Matt. 27:24). But when Dr. Machen asked me, among others, to give my name to the cause, the possibility of refusing did not even enter my mind.

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We spared no effort to purify the ecclesiastical machinery from within. Our best efforts were overwhelmingly defeated. But we were not dismayed. Our efforts and the results are a matter of public record. Could we have used some better method? Obviously! So could Calvin and Luther. We used various methods, the best we knew. A friend wrote, “I agree with your cause, but I don’t like your method.” I sent him a long telegram, “You are just the man I need to hear from. I am not committed to any method. Please tell me your method, and answer quickly.” I got no reply.

A scared young pastor said, “If we oppose the leaders of our denomination we’ll be unfrocked!” I was a little older and, I suppose, a little tougher. I remember telling him, “I’d be ashamed not to be unfrocked by such ecclesiastical leaders at such a time.” In the same General Assembly in which Machen and the rest of us who stood with him were variously deposed from the ministry of that denomination, a pastor in Wisconsin was removed from his church for pointing out the poison in the denominational Sunday school literature. At the same time the name of a minister in Los Angeles was erased from the roll of the presbytery for conducting independent Bible classes among university students. That same General Assembly excommunicated a minister in Wisconsin for participating in an independent Bible conference camp.

Dr. Machen’s death on January 1, 1937, was an unspeakable loss to those who had stood with him. We soon found that the experiences of groups of men in other denominations, Baptist and Methodist Protestant especially, had been very similar to ours. The Independent Fundamental Churches of America (IFCA) also had gathered a strong group of ministers and churches who had come out of Congregational and other connections in which they felt that apostasy was dominant. We had much in common and were drawn together. Our small denominations were harmonious. Any opposition we met in our missionary programs was from the Federal Council of Churches (later known as the National Council) and its international “ecumenical” connections.

Formation Of A. C. C. C.

Then came World War II. Numbers of our ministers desired to serve as chaplains in the armed forces. We found that the Federal Council virtually had control over the appointment of Protestant chaplains. The armed forces administrators did not intend to foster such a monopoly, but they naturally took the Federal Council, as they had in World War I, as representing all Protestants. It was then that the American Council of Christian Churches was formed of denominations of sound evangelical faith not in the Federal Council. By grace and hard work we broke the council’s monopoly on the chaplaincy and supplied a large number of patriotic, courageous, Bible-preaching, soul-winning chaplains for the armed forces.

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As the war drew to a close, the missionary agencies of our ACCC denominations found that the World Council of Churches had a virtual monopoly over visas for foreign missionaries in many parts of the world. Moreover, through this near-monopoly pressure was exercised to keep from the foreign mission fields missions and missionaries who stood for the purity of the Church and against inclusivistic ecumenism. History must credit Carl McIntire and the ICCC with breaking the syncretistic near-monopoly of the World Council in several foreign mission areas.

But why am I now outside these councils? And why is my church, the Evangelical Presbyterian (formerly Bible Presbyterian), not in these councils? The story is an uninteresting, petty one of undemocratic organization, hyperbolical exaggeration of statistics, and erratic leadership. I tried my best to persuade the church to which I belong to stay in the councils and make corrections from the inside, but the majority of our synod refused to do so. We pray for these councils. Their people are people we love. We trust the Lord that the testimony for the purity of the visible Church may not have been in vain.

Shortly after the organization of the ACCC, another group met in St. Louis to organize the National Association of Evangelicals. Our interests and purposes were similar in many ways. With others of the ACCC I attended the meeting and prayed for rapprochement and understanding. But our differences came clearly to light. The NAE view crystallized in opposition to the ACCC constitutional provision that constituent membership be limited to denominations not in the Federal Council.

Thus the NAE was formed of brethren who sincerely desired to spread the Gospel but who did not see the doctrine of the purity of the visible Church as we believe the Bible sets it forth.

Is the doctrine of the purity of the visible Church in conflict with the doctrine of “the communion of saints”? The Bible clearly teaches that born-again children of God should love one another and should have fellowship with one another in spiritual matters. “We know that we have passed from death into life by the fact that we love our brethren” (1 John 3:14, my translation). “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Such Scriptures are more numerous than those commanding separation from communion with false religion.

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In the Second Epistle of John the church to which he writes is commanded not to receive into its household (its communion) and not to give endorsement (mé legete chairein) to any teacher who does not “abide in the doctrine of Christ.”

The Deuteronomic law forbids plowing with an ox and an ass yoked together (Deut. 22:10). Sometime about 1937 an article in McIntire’s Christian Beacon spoke strongly against what we call “second-degree separation.” We do not call an “ox” a “donkey” simply because he is foolish enough to plow in fellowship with a “donkey.” We do not call a Christian a heathen simply because he is willing to continue worship in communion with those who teach false religion.

When a Christian earnestly says, “I believe it is wrong for a believer to do so and so under such and such circumstances,” two things happen. First, zealots who agree say, “I won’t have anything to do with those who disagree.” Second, some who disagree say, “He says I am not a Christian because I do such and such!” Both groups are to blame for the bitterness that follows. We separatists have consistently tried to restrain the zealots. We have suffered much from the false image created by some who need a defense for their disagreement. I have traced out a number of instances in which Machen was said to have shown “bitterness” toward the inclusivists. In each case the evidence for his lack of love was that he had logically ruined their arguments!

There are many accusing generalizations, but I do not know of any specific charges of lack of love against our present leaders. We have not felt ourselves committed to any human movement. I, for one, had serious differences with Machen and discussed them frankly in writing and face to face. On certain clearly defined issues we saw eye to eye, and I have no regrets in having taken my stand on those issues, and in being counted with those who took this stand.

A younger friend whose ability I genuinely admire writes, “It has been a costly thing for you to stand across these years first with the Machen movement and then with the McIntire movement and now to find your way back to a broader evangelical framework of cooperation.” These words are Christian and full of kindness, but they reveal a misunderstanding.

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We have never felt ourselves cut off from the broadest possible evangelical framework of cooperation. Some of us have occasionally been thrown out of certain connections by sincere brethren who thought they were doing God service. But this exclusion was theirs, not ours; and we have always found broad opportunity for cooperation with a great variety of God’s people.

We who would emphasize the doctrine of the purity of the visible Church have found good fellowship in our several churches. But there is no interdenominational organization at present which stands for what we believe to be the scriptural view of the Church, and in which we would be welcomed. Some of us hope that the Reformed Ecumenical Synod may partly fulfill the need.

I should like to see a series of conferences—not just programs of speeches—among those who truly believe that the Holy Spirit moves in the Church through the Bible. There are competent exegetes and clear-sighted, courageous leaders among American evangelicals. Let us get these competent men together and seek the mind of the Lord as it is revealed in his Word. Thus let us propose to our churches a strategy that will point forward along biblical lines.

We who believe that the Bible teaches those principles of church purity for which the ACCC and the ICCC ostensibly stand must approach conferences in the spirit of self-examination, welcoming the sincere criticisms of our brethren. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” Earnest convictions are not incompatible with personal and group humility. If we can confer in the spirit of the second chapter of Philippians, especially verses 3 to 5, surely some great good can be accomplished.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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