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Membership Matters - What is the History of the Church?

By Michael Lawrence

9Marks -


What is the History of the Church?

Session 4



Why study church history?  I trust most of us aren’t church historians in the room, so why spend an hour in a membership class on such a “scholarly” topic?  To refine the question slightly, “Why should Christians study history?” By way of introduction, let me offer four reasons. 

First, because God commands it.  Throughout the Old Testament, God admonishes the people of Israel to “remember” His faithfulness in delivering them from slavery in Egypt, in bringing them through the wilderness and to the Promised Land.  In the New Testament, we are urged to remember the teaching we have received, and to recall God’s work in our lives. Why? Because history at its highest – the study of God’s gracious work in the past – should inspire us to worship Him. 

Second, history can instruct us.  Many challenges or opportunities we face as the church today are “nothing new under the sun”; the answers found in the past can often be brought to bear on the questions of today. 

The third reason is related.  History should humble us.  In the words of Wilfred McClay, studying the past should “disabuse us of our narcissism.”  Even the most cursory glance into the past reminds us of the relative insignificance of our own lives, that we are not the lords of our own destiny, that people greater than us have come before, that whatever we may attain in this life will be but a passing shadow. 

Fourth, history should encourage us.  What could be more edifying than witnessing a glorious display of God’s majesty in the pageant of the past, of taking encouragement in our own lives as we see His faithfulness throughout the past?  After all, God is sovereign, and history is His story: a story that he began, a story that he is guiding to the end that He has already determined.

So in this next hour we want to learn not only a little about the history of this particular church that you are joining, but also help you understand where CHBC fits into the big picture of what God has done in history.  

But to understand that, you will need to understand why this church is a Baptist church.   So you’re going to need to know a little about the history of Baptists, especially in America.

But to understand Baptists, you will need to understand where they came from. They came out of English Protestantism. So we need to know a little about the Reformation.

And of course to understand the Reformation, you will need to know what needed reforming, and why – which means you need to know a little about the first 1500 years of the church.

But of course, it all begins with the founding of the church. So that’s where we’re going to begin.  We might call this talk “From John the Baptist – to Capitol Hill Baptist.”  We’ll have a lot to cover: 2,000 years in 60 minutes (about 33 years/minute).

The Church

One of the basic truths that the Bible reveals is that God creates, convicts, converts and conforms His people by His Word.  God’s Word is central to the life of his people.

We see this in the OT with Adam & Eve as God speaks life into them.  We see it with Abraham as God calls him out of Ur.  We see it with Moses - God’s spokesperson of His law for His people.  And we see it perhaps most vividly in Ezekiel 37.  How does the valley of dry bones come to life?  By the very act of God’s Word as it is spoken and heard.

And we see it ultimately in the New Testament, with Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. It’s Jesus who saves us from our sin through his death on the cross. But in saving us as individuals, he saves us into a community, an assembly of people, called the church.  It was the early church father Cyprian who said, “There is no salvation outside of the church.”

You see, the church isn’t man’s idea.  The church is God’s idea.  Jesus founds the church, not the apostles (Matthew 16:18). Jesus commissions the church. Matthew 28:18–20. Jesus builds the church through the Spirit (Acts 2:42–7). And Jesus rules the church through his word. His word, as revealed in the Bible, was and is to be the rule of our faith. This is why the early church kept and preserved the apostles’ writings – because they recognized it from the first as Scripture – God’s word.

But it was not long in the early church before error began to creep in. The Apostle Paul warned that there would come a time when people would not want to hear sound teaching (2 Tim 4:3–4). This happened soon enough.  The church in one city tolerated perverse sexual immorality among its members; the church in another city taught that righteousness could be earned by good works and following Jewish rituals; the church in another city embraced parts of the Gnostic heresy and taught “secret knowledge;” and churches elsewhere showed gross favoritism to the wealthy and powerful – and that is just in the New Testament.  I am referring, of course, to the Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, and to the book of James. 

It didn’t get any better as time went on. The history of the church from the death of the generation of the Apostles until 1500 is a long history of the spread of the church geographically, but also of the struggle of the church doctrinally.

Repeatedly during this period heresies emerged which sought to redefine the faith.

            Gnostics (early 2nd century) – claimed that matter and the body are evil, and that the spirit is good, and that “secret knowledge” was necessary for salvation; we see this today in those who deny the goodness of God’s creation, and who want to add to God’s revelation in the Bible (e.g. Scientologists and Christian Scientists)

            Montanists (mid–late 2nd c) who claimed to be the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, thus denying the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; something we see again in our own day in certain quarters of the charismatic movement, and among many evangelical pragmatists.

            Marcionites, (mid 2nd c) who claimed that there were actually 2 “gods”: the God of the OT was wrathful, while the God of the NT was sweetness and love. Their heirs today are theological liberals who reject any notion of divine judgment.

            Arians (early 4th c) rejected the divinity of Christ, much as Unitarians or Jehovah’s Witnesses do today.

            Pelagians (mid 5th c) denied original sin. We’re not dead, just corrupted. Sin is a problem of education and the will, not our nature. This is what we see today in some branches of Evangelicalism, and in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church – the fall did not entirely erase our ability to choose the good.

And so we see that as Solomon said so long ago, truly there is nothing new under the sun. Today’s cults and heresies are simply repackaging old mistakes.

In response, the church repeatedly returned to the Scriptures. And then confessed what they believed the apostles had taught. This is where we get some of the early creeds and confessions that we use here at CHBC, such as the Nicene Creed. They weren’t creating new doctrines, but recognizing what the Scriptures taught and required. They understood that the Gospel was at stake.

But the early church not only confessed and held firm to the faith through their confessions and creeds; they also held fast to the faith with their very lives. Organized persecution began with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and continued periodically -- but often brutally -- until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. The early church martyrs illustrate for us what it means to be a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ: someone who is willing to affirm that Jesus is Lord, even unto death.


There is perhaps no more important figure in the early church than Constantine, who became Emperor in 311 AD. The following year he associated himself with Christianity, having had a vision of a cross in the sky and the words “In this sign conquer”; frankly it’s unclear if he actually converted. Only God knows. But the result was that Christianity, which had been persecuted, soon became the favored, and eventually the official, religion of the Empire – the establishment religion. This brought an end to persecution. But it also brought worldliness. The church began to resemble the structure of the Roman civil hierarchy, and we see the growth of monarchical Bishops. At their head, the Pope claimed to be the representative of Christ on earth, and it was his word that now ruled the church.

Though the church faced its struggles, not everyone succumbed to worldliness and error.  Augustine, for example, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the late 4th/early 5th centuries, strongly defended both the depravity of human nature and the sovereignty of God in salvation.  He also brilliantly distinguished for Christians between our temporary home in the kingdom of man here on earth and our permanent home in the kingdom of God. 

At other times when the church became too corrupt or co-opted by the world, periodic renewal movements, usually led by monks and monasteries, would call Christians back to their spiritual identity. 

Meanwhile, as various Popes attempted to consolidate their power and authority, not everyone recognized the supremacy of the Pope in Rome. In 1054 AD, after growing further and further apart for some 600 years, the church in the East finally broke from the Western church, in part over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and in part over the universal authority that the Pope claimed. This is where we get the Orthodox family of churches, 15 in all, including the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches.

But whether in the East or the West, we also see the growing distortion of the authority of the church over the centuries leading up to the Reformation. The church began to claim to forgive original sin through baptism, and to forgive ongoing sin through the practice of confession and penance. Eventually, these theological innovations developed to the point that the church was seen as the repository of God’s grace on earth, and she could dispense that grace as she saw fit.

How was that so? Because salvation came to be understood, not as the gift of free grace from God, but as the process by which you and I participated with God, by faith and because of Christ’s death, in doing good works. According to Rome, doing one’s best was a prerequisite to receiving the grace of God. Thus the saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” People were taught that they were saved on account of their cooperation with God, as the medicine of his grace was infused into the Christian through good works and the sacraments.

They were also taught that most people didn’t cooperate enough. So when they died, they had to go to purgatory, in order to be purged of their remaining sins. Then having been made holy, they would be justified, declared holy, and let into heaven. But some, who were canonized as saints, not only did enough good works for their own salvation, but they went above and beyond. And it was these extra good works which the church, through the Pope, had control of, and could dispense.

In 1517, Joseph Tetzel came to Germany in order to dispense some of this extra merit to those who were willing to buy it. These were called indulgences, and the church sold them to raise money and enhance its power. He had a great jingle: “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”. And it was this practice that led to the Reformation, and the recovery of the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.


One of the principal figures of the Reformation was Martin Luther. Born in 1483, he was a monk in Wittenberg, Germany. He had long struggled with the question of how he was accepted by God. But after much struggle of soul, the Lord brought him to a Biblical understanding of the Gospel. The insight Luther had was on a verse that had long been oppressive to him (Read Rom 1:17). Luther had always been taught that this meant his righteousness, and he knew he didn’t have that. But finally, through his study of Psalms and Romans, the Lord brought him to realize that Paul wasn’t talking about his own righteousness, but about an alien righteousness, a righteousness that was outside of himself–the righteousness of Christ. That it was on the basis of Christ’s righteousness that he was justified. And this justification, being declared righteous before God, was based not on his own efforts, but was the free gift of God received by faith. Luther described this as the “sweet exchange”. Christ on the cross bore my sins, imputed to him, and died as a substitute in my place, removing God’s wrath and obtaining my pardon; while Christ’s righteousness was imputed to me by faith thus bringing me into a right relationship with God.

For the first time in his life, Luther knew the peace of soul that comes through the Gospel, of knowing that he was forgiven of his sins.

And so it comes as little surprise the he was outraged at Joseph Tetzel’s crass attempt to sell salvation.

Luther didn’t set out to start a new denomination, and he certainly didn’t set out to break with Rome, which was the only church he or anyone in western Europe knew.  He wrote: “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone… How did I, a poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my name?”

But Luther did want to see reform of the teaching of the church, and so in normal fashion at the time, he proposed a debate by nailing 95 theses, or debating points, to the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517 – good reason to celebrate, not Halloween, but Reformation Day.

But the Church of Rome was having nothing to do with what they perceived as Luther’s novel ideas. He was tried before the Diet of Worms in April of 1521, and told to withdraw his books and his teaching. His reply stands as a bracing call of Christian conviction:

Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments that I am in error—for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves—I cannot withdraw, for I am subject to the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. It is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against one’s conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God. Amen.


And for this stand, Luther was eventually condemned by Rome.

But what Rome condemned, when it condemned Luther, was not an innovator or a revolutionary. It condemned the biblical gospel. For what Luther affirmed was that Scripture was to be the final authority, not the Pope, and that righteousness, or justification was the free gift of God in the Gospel, not something that the church could dispense at will, and certainly not sell for money.

Luther wasn’t the first or the only person to have perceived the problems with Roman Catholic teaching. Similar reformers were popping up all over Europe: Zwingli in Zurich, Calvin in Geneva, Bucer in Strasbourg, and Cranmer in England.  And before them, and throughout the Middle Ages, voices had risen which sought to recover the gospel of grace. We could point to John Wycliffe in the 14th century or Jan Hus in the 15th c. – or even any medieval peasant who lay his head on his pillow at night trusting in Christ and not his own efforts for his salvation.  God never left his church without a faithful witness. But it was Luther that God used in a unique way to recover the faithful preaching and teaching of the gospel so that the church would never be the same again.


Out of the Reformation came several strands of Protestants, or those who protested against the abuse and heresy of Rome.

There were the Lutherans, who affirmed a biblical understanding of the Gospel, the supreme authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of all believers, but also maintained some similarities with Catholic doctrine, especially in their understanding of baptism and the Lord’s supper.

There were the Anabaptists, whose main distinctive was the rejection of infant baptism for believer’s baptism, but who also questioned original sin, rejected civil authority, embraced pacifism, and even in some extreme cases, polygamy and anarchy.

There were also the Reformed churches: Presbyterians, Congregationalists and the Church of England, who along with free grace emphasized God’s sovereignty in salvation, a Protestant view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and God’s ongoing work in making each believer’s life more holy. 

Out of this last group came the Baptists. As early as 1608, some in the Church of England such as John Smyth were rejecting infant baptism. By the middle of the 17th century, a small but growing number of Congregationalists in England were becoming Baptists.  And it is out of this Reformed stream, rather than the Anabaptist stream, that Baptists in America come from.

At the same time that some Puritans in England were realizing that the Bible commanded baptism for believers, in the new World of America, Roger Williams and eleven others in Providence, RI founded the first Baptist church in America in 1639. The Congregational authorities in MA had exiled them for their beliefs, and Williams sought a charter for the colony of RI that would specifically grant religious toleration.  Though Williams himself soon went off the theological deep end, more and more Baptists began emerging in England, and many immigrated to America.  These late 17th and 18th century Baptists almost all shared a Reformed, confessional understanding of the faith: A sovereign God saves us not through our good works or even our wise choice, but through His grace realized in Christ’s work on the cross. 

Baptists in England distinguished themselves in literature (e.g., John Bunyan) and in America contributed significantly to the cause of religious liberty – Isaac Backus and John Leland.  Backus linked the principles of the American Revolution with the need for religious tolerance, contending that it made no sense for a nation to protest against “taxation without representation” while forcing some of its own citizens to support state churches which they neither belonged to nor believed.

Though not formally educated, Leland taught himself well, and held that establishments of religion harm both state and church.  He wrote an influential treatise on religious liberty with the memorable title The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore, Religious Opinions not Cognizable by Law; or, the High-Flying Churchman, Stripped of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo.[1]  During the debates over the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Leland either corresponded with or met with George Washington and James Madison, and seems to have been quite influential in developing the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. 

Baptists also pioneered the world missions movement.  For example, Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice were among the first missionaries ever sent out from America in 1812, then as Congregationalists. On their trip to India to work with William Carey, who was a Baptist, they were convinced of believer’s baptism. Rice returned to America to raise funds for missions. He founded what is now George Washington University, and also helped form the Baptist General Convention for Foreign Missions, which was the precursor to the Southern Baptist Convention, and was intended to help churches cooperate in financing and sending missionaries. Judson went on to be a pioneering missionary in Burma.

Baptists in America grew at an astonishing rate, particularly during the times of revival. In 1790, there were only 3,100 Baptists in Kentucky in 42 churches. Thirty years later, the population of Kentucky had grown sevenfold. But the number of Baptists and their churches had grown by over a factor of 10. Because of their emphasis on personal conversion, the simplicity of the Gospel, relatively informal worship services, individual conscience, and the egalitarianism of congregational church governance, Baptists had a particular appeal to people in the new democratic nation.  Religious liberty did not mean religious anarchy, however.  Most Baptists continued to hold to reformed confessional standards, exemplified by the widespread embrace of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, a version of which is used by our church today.  

At the end of the 19th century, when this church was being founded, Christianity encountered another formidable threat: the rise of theological liberalism and modernism. This began in the universities in Germany, which had begun to teach so-called higher criticism of the Bible. This technique rejected the possibility of the supernatural and miraculous and so increasingly called into question the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible. This academic and now religious movement quickly spread to the rest of Europe, and then to America. Meanwhile, as respect for the Bible decreased, respect for humanity increased. Many churches downplayed or even denied human sinfulness and just emphasized moral living and social activism. 

In the end, theological liberalism rejected the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His miracles, and His bodily resurrection. So fundamental was its denial of orthodox belief that J. Gresham Machen, a leading Presbyterian theologian in the 1920s, described liberalism as a different religion altogether.  By 1930, almost every Protestant denomination in America had been captured or greatly influenced by theological liberalism. This led to the splintering of these denominations as conservatives who wished to hold on to the historic teaching of Jesus and the apostles were forced out or left – Conservative Baptists out of the Northern Baptists; the OPC out of the PCUS; the Missouri Synod out of the ELCA.

Fundamentalists in the 1930s and 1940s sought to preserve orthodox Christianity by withdrawing from an increasingly secular and irreligious culture.  Sympathetic to fundamentalism’s theological convictions but frustrated at its cultural and intellectual marginalization, a new movement known as neo-evangelicalism sought to re-engage the culture while also defending the inerrancy of Scripture and the necessity of supernatural grace for salvation.

Neo-evangelicalism was led popularly in America by Billy Graham, and intellectually by Harold J. Ockenga, E.J. Carnell, and Carl F.H. Henry, and in England by the likes of John Stott and J.I. Packer.  Neo-evangelicals came from a variety of denominational traditions, but united around a shared commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, the necessity of being born again in Christ, the imperative to share the Gospel with others, and the importance of engaging with the culture.  They founded a variety of para-church organizations and ministries, including the National Association of Evangelicals, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Youth for Christ, Fuller and Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminaries, and Christianity Today magazine.  And that brings us to Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church

In the late 1860s, Mrs. Celestia Ferris began a prayer meeting in her house in the 200 block of A Street, NE. The neighborhood in the area was expanding, and there were a lot of children who needed to hear the Gospel, so in 1871, the group incorporated as the Metropolitan Baptist Association, and started holding Sunday school for the kids in a building on the corner of 7th and A. In 1872, the lot where the main building now sits was purchased. At this time, the closest Baptist churches were either down at the Navy Yard, or over towards Georgetown.

By 1878, this group decided that a formally organized church was needed, and so, in association with delegates from other Baptist churches from the city, Metropolitan Baptist Church was organized on February 27, 1878, with 31 members. You can see their signatures on the original church covenant, which hangs on the wall right behind you. The first pastor of the church was Stephen Mirick, but he lasted only a year. The church had five pastors in the next 15 years, but still by 1892 had grown to 244 members. In 1888, a new chapel was built, replacing the old Sunday School chapel.

Stability was right around the corner. In 1903, John Compton Ball became pastor, a position he would hold for 41 years. Under Dr. Ball, the current main hall was built in 1911, and the membership roll grew to over 3,000, peaking at 3,577. This growth paralleled the growth of DC during the course of the expansion of the Federal Government during two world wars.

While American Protestantism struggled through the tumultuous theological battles of the 1920s and 30s, by the grace of God, this church remained a church in which the Bible was believed and preached as the inspired and inerrant Word of God. And the Articles of Faith, first adopted in 1878, remained unchanged as the congregation’s confession of faith.

In 1941, Dr. Ball became Pastor Emeritus, and was succeeded for the next 9 years until 1950 by Dr. K. Owen White, a future President of the SBC.  Five pastors then served the church over the next 20 years. Those short pastorates paralleled years of slow but steady decline. Like lots of cities around America, DC was slowly draining of people as they moved out to the suburbs. The membership of the church became a commuter membership, and many eventually stopped commuting, having found churches closer to home. This process was accelerated by the urban riots of the late 1960s. In 1967, the church’s name changed to Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist Church.

From 1980–88, the church was served by a pastor that tried to take the church to a seeker-sensitive, Willow Creek type model, which was not well received. And in 1990, another pastor came, whose preaching was well liked, but who badly wounded this church through marital infidelity. When he left in 1993, many wondered if this church had a future. While the membership roll stood at 500, attendance was barely above 100.

But there were some, like Matt Schmucker, who thought it was worth trying to keep this church going. And in September 1994, Mark Dever began his ministry here as Senior Pastor. The past 9 years have seen another name change, to CHBC, and a new era in the history of this church. The membership roll is back to turn of the 19th century levels at roughly 425, but attendance is now well over 600.  Our support for foreign missions is growing at a pace faster than our budget, and the church is once again more rooted in the neighborhood.

Most importantly, as I hope you have experienced since you’ve started coming, it is a church that resembles what we read about in Acts 2: a community of believers who are committed to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship of believers, to breaking bread and to prayer. By the grace of God, this church remains committed to the same Gospel believed by Christians through the centuries, and proclaimed by the Christ who is the “same yesterday, today, and forever.”


[1] Quoted in McBeth, 274.

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