When the Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) and his friends recaptured the biblical perspective on the responsibility of both preacher and hearer of the gospel to understand the call to believe in Christ to be a duty of the sinner there also emerged a fresh perspective on the nature of the church. The older Baptist thinking about the church—the church is a place where the Word of God is purely preached, the ordinances rightly carried out and discipline exercised—was, of course, not rejected or abandoned. Listen, for example to Fuller in a tract that he wrote on the meaning of baptism. This ordinance, he maintained, is not designed “merely to separate between believers and unbelievers individually considered; its design is also to draw a line of distinction between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan. Whatever may be said of baptism as it is now generally understood and practised, and of the personal religion of those who practise it, it was originally appointed to be the boundary of visible Christianity. This is a principle which, if properly acted upon, would go far to prevent the confounding of the church and the world… Had the Christian church in all ages admitted none to baptism…but those who professed to repent and believe the gospel, it is scarcely conceivable that any others would have been admitted to the Lord’s supper; and if so, a stream of corruption which has actually deluged it with antichristianism would have been diverted at the spring-head.” [The Practical Uses of Christian Baptism (Works, III, 342)].
Here, Fuller clearly affirms as his own the heritage that had been passed down to him from his 17th century forebears. The church is a body of people who have personally repented and exercised faith in Christ, and borne witness to this inner transformation by baptism. But Fuller is also concerned to emphasize something else about the church.
When Fuller spoke of the local church his emphasis often fell on the church’s responsibility to evangelize and indeed participate in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. As he wrote in 1806:
“The primitive churches were not mere assemblies of men who agreed to meet together once or twice a week, and to subscribe for the support of an accomplished man who should on those occasions deliver lectures on religion. They were men gathered out of the world by the preaching of the cross, and formed into society for the promotion of Christ’s kingdom in their own souls and in the world around them. It was not the concern of the ministers or elders only; the body of the people were interested in all that was done, and, according to their several abilities and stations, took part in it. Neither were they assemblies of heady, high-minded, contentious people, meeting together to argue on points of doctrine or discipline, and converting the worship of God into scenes of strife. They spoke the truth; but it was in love: they observed discipline; but, like an army of chosen men, it was that they might attack the kingdom of Satan to greater advantage. Happy were it for our churches if we could come to a closer imitation of this model!” [The Pastor’s Address to his Christian Hearers, Entreating their Assistance in Promoting the Interest of Christ (Works, III, 346)].
Fuller certainly had no wish to abandon either the stress on doctrinal preaching for the edification of God’s people or that on proper discipline, but he had rightly noted that the pursuit of these concerns to the exclusion of evangelism had produced in all too many 18th century Baptist churches contention, bitter strife and endless disputes. These inward-looking concerns had to be balanced with an outward focus on the extension of Christ’s kingdom. Moreover, evangelism was not simply to be regarded as the work of only “the ministers or elders.” The entire body of God’s people were to be involved.
Retaining the basic structure of 17th century Baptist thinking about the church, Fuller has thus added one critical ingredient drawn from the experience of the Evangelical revival: the vital need for local Baptist churches to be centres of vigorous evangelism. This missionary conception of the church is well summed up in another text, which, like the one cited above, compares the church of Christ to an army. “The true churches of Jesus Christ,” he wrote five years before his death, “travail in birth for the salvation of men. They are the armies of the Lamb, the grand object of whose existence is to extend the Redeemer’s kingdom.” [The Promise of the Spirit, the Grand Encouragement in Promoting the Gospel (Works, III, 359)].