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Harold Camping and the End of the Word: Part 4

April 15, 2011

W. Robert Godfrey

Part 1 appears here, Part 2 appears here, Part 3 appears here.

Heresy on the Church

Camping’s calculations and allegorical readings eventually led him to a truly heretical conclusion: that the age of the church was over and that all Christians were required to separate themselves from all churches. I had rather admired him over the years for not making himself a minister without proper education. I had never dreamed that he would instead abolish the pastoral office and the church.

The end of the church age, according to Camping, paralleled the exile of Israel for its faithlessness in the Old Testament. Camping concluded that the organized church had become faithless and that individual Christians must leave the church and fellowship informally with other true believers. He seems to have come to this position somewhere around 2001, and supported it with various allegorical appeals to Scripture. Once again he rejected the clear teaching of the Bible for his own strange approach.

We must remember that God clearly warned Israel at the beginning of her history that she would be faithless and be exiled from the land of promise (Deuteronomy 28-30). By contrast the New Testament contains no such warning to the church as a whole. While Jesus warns specific congregations that they may be rejected as false churches (Revelation 2-3), he nowhere teaches that the church as a whole may fail. In fact, he teaches quite the opposite. Jesus said to Peter, “And I say unto thee, That thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18, 19). Notice that in this passage Jesus is not thinking of the church only in terms of faith, but also in terms of office in his reference to Peter and the keys of the kingdom. Reformed theology certainly does distinguish the visible church as the whole covenant community from the invisible church of the elect. But throughout the New Testament the believing church is linked to its offices. For example, we read that “the church of the living God” is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15) in the same context as Paul’s instructions about the elders and deacons of the chuurch (I Timothy 3:1-4). Similarly we read Paul’s commission to Timothy as an officebearer in the institutional church to preach and fulfill his ministry in the light of the false teaching that attacks Christian truth (I Tim. 4:2-5). Timothy is given this commission for the church in preparation for Christ’s “appearing,” that is, his second coming (I Tim. 4:1). This apostolic commission certainly implies that the work of the ministry remains crucial to the church until Christ comes again.

The vital necessity of the institutional church as God’s way of gathering and nurturing his people could be demonstrated in many ways. One final example must suffice here. Christ gave the great commission for the spreading of his truth and included in it the charge to baptize (Matthew 28:19, 20). This charge to baptize is related to Jesus’ promise to be with his people to the end of the age. How can the charge to baptize be fulfilled without the institutional church?

Camping’s false teaching on the church puts him in opposition to the Belgic Confession which as an elder in the CRC he once subscribed and promised to uphold and defend. On the church the Belgic Confession is clear, strong, and biblical: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and disciple thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them” (Article 28).