An old friend recently asked me about a book called The Torch of the Testimony by John W. Kennedy. I assume he’s thinking about reading it, so I figured what the heck, I’ll do a review. The following quote is taken from the back cover and I think sums it up pretty well:
The 2,000 year history of those Christians-and churches-that have stood outside the Protestant-Catholic tradition. This book was originally published in India in 1964 and is little known in the western world. Beginning in the first century John Kennedy traces the history of Christian groups who remained outside formalized religion down through the ages. A stirring, passionate and sometime heart-rending story of suffering to the centrality of Christ within the Body of Christ.
I first got my hands on a copy of this book about seven years ago, sometime during my tenure at Bible college. I wasn’t nearly as interested in history then as I am now-hardly at all, to be honest-so nothing about the Torch really stood out to me at that point in time. I was a little intrigued by the thought of believers coming together outside of formalized religion, but I knew so little of what that meant that I wasn’t really compelled to give Kennedy’s book the time it deserved. All I remember from my brief perusal was being struck by a passing comment the author made about the testimony of the Moravians fading away because they did not have an adequate wineskin to contain the flow of spiritual life they were experiencing. I found this interesting, but I just wasn’t ready to hear it.
Add a couple more years to the journey, throw in some fresh light on the Lord’s eternal purpose, not to mention an experience of fellowship in the Body of Christ that cut straight across the grain of everything I formerly associated with the word “church,” and I became ready for the message of this book.
Kennedy begins by exploring the origin of the Jewish synagogue and the historical context of the first Christian communities. He highlights how God was pressing on from the day of Pentecost to gain a full and undivided expression of His Son through the church, which He found first at Antioch and then in the Gentile assemblies spread throughout the Empire.
Chapters three and four examine the spiritual life and order of those churches, as best as they can be garnered from scripture, and the signs of declension which were in evidence as early on as the Jerusalem church. Ultimately threats of division, self-appointed leadership, and false teaching culminated in a widespread departure from primitive order stemming from the loss of spiritual life among the people. The development of the clergy system, consolidation of power in a single man, the rise of a federated church system-Kennedy shows how all these were unfortunate reactions of human expediency against the many perils facing the community of believers.
From there he goes on to consider the triumph of Constantine and his alliance of church and state, various reactions against the ensuing spiritual fornication of the “church” (so-called) with the world, and then the long and often overlooked history of the “torch bearers”-nameless groups of believers who held to the primitive testimony of Jesus Christ as preeminent over all things. Here is where the story gets especially bloody.
Eventually the path leads us to the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the believers called Anabaptists (independent churches who received as much persecution from the hands of the Protestants as they did Catholics), and a number of other groups who sought namelessness but were again and again labeled by their accusors according to the name of some outstanding figure among them or some practice which roused the particular hatred of the establishment. Sadly, according to historian Will Durant, “the church has killed only two types of people: those who do not believe in the teachings of Jesus and those who do.” And again, from Philip Schaff: “More Christian blood has been shed by Christians than by heathens and Mohammedans.”
Kennedy concludes with a general history of the Plymouth Brethren in the mid-1800’s (I’m still waiting for someone to take up the story from there) and a summary chapter on some of the lessons we may learn from both the mistakes and triumphs of the past. “The denominations of today are often the churches of yesterday,” he reminds us, and declares to the reader in no uncertain terms that
The testimony of the church is positive, not merely reactionary… It is a testimony to the truth that all who are born of the Spirit into the family of Christ are one, and must grow and witness together in the fellowship of the church where the Lord dwells in their midst. The church meets on that positive ground, neither adding anything to it, nor taking anything away. But it entails sacrifice. It means the taking up of the cross, the cross of misunderstanding, of shame, of being called ‘separationists.’ Yet every spiritual movement has begun in sacrifice. That is another of history’s lessons.
The true church is the scene of a continual spiritual struggle for its own existence… If we do not hold firmly on to the fellowship of the church, it will slip from our grasp. It is of all things most vehemently assailed. It is tempted to compromise with organized Christianity. It is tempted to organize itself in order to conserve what it has gained. It is tempted to sectarianism by limiting its growth to a certain emphasis of Christian truth. When it succumbs to any of these temptations, declension follows, for progress has been limited, and when it has reached the end of its possible progress, it must fade out as a spiritual power.
There are just so many lines like this one to quote from The Torch of the Testimony that I have struggled with what to leave out and what to include in this review. At any rate, I highly recommend this work to anyone who is interested in the history of the church in the margins. You will be convicted, intrigued, inspired, and challenged by the witness of history, whose testimony unequivocaly declares, in Kennedy’s own words, that
Churches as they were in the times of the apostles have never ceased to exist… wherever God works through the power of His unchangeable Word, people made partakers of the divine nature, anxious to obey the Word which has shed a flood of light into their souls, have gathered together and are gathering together as the disciples did in Acts.