Wednesday, July 26, 2006

True Churches & False Churches: A Systematic Attempt

I propose the following as introduction, not conclusion—as rough draft, not finished product. I say this not to discount my thinking. I have thought hard about what I am now writing. I hope that the tedious, laborious journey we have taken together over the past several posts has demonstrated the lengths to which I have gone. I am not uncomfortable with my amount of thinking and research.

I am, however, aware that I am dusting off a topic that has been on the shelf for a long time for Southern Baptists. This is not one of those topics that I have discussed in the hallways of the seminary a thousand times over. Thus, these ideas are carefully crafted, but they are not yet proven. I invite you to help me prove them. Be my editors. Tell me what you find reasonable and what you find unreasonable. This is the moment for free and thorough discussion. But first, read this really long post.

Defining the Concept

What does it mean for a church to be invalid? I take my cues from Christ's lampstand analogy. I think that the removal of the lampstand implies the removal of the blessing associated with the intensive presence and leadership of Christ in the church.

Many have noted the tendency for entire denominations of Christian churches to form, experience some period of extremely high productivity, and then plateau and decline. Often, the proposed explanation for this common historical phenomenon is a sociological one. For example, one might conclude that churches start out poor and disadvantaged, which causes them to grow through connection to poor and disadvantaged people, but then they attract wealthy and privileged people and lose touch with the source of their growth. Also, one might suspect that churches are born in a time-bound culture that makes them particularly relevant at the time of their birth, but then the culture changes and the very things that once made them relevant come to make them irrelevant.

But is there no spiritual dynamic at work behind the rise and fall of churches? Some groups have never been a true church (I believe), and therefore I accept the sociological theories as explanatory of some groups, but I wonder whether this phenomenon is not the evidence on this earth of Christ's removal of heavenly lampstands in at least some cases? Statistics are not the one true measure of the presence, headship, and blessing of Christ, yet I believe that some churches are small because they are spiritually dead. I acknowledge that it is possible to be one of the worst churches in the nation and yet be very large. Other factors are more important indicators of the presence of Christ. But I believe that tangible, mundane measures sometimes offer evidence of spiritual reality.

Now is a good time to make an important point: Because I believe in the autonomy of local congregations, I refuse to speak categorically of true churches and false churches with reference to entire denominations. Certainly, if we can establish that every congregation in an entire denomination is guilty of something that falsifies a church, then it is possible for an entire denomination to consist entirely of false churches. Yet being a part of a bad denomination is not enough to make a local congregation invalid—that local congregation must participate in the sins of the larger group in order to be guilty. To put it another way, I believe that it is possible for a single local congregation to repent, change their ways, and validate their congregation without necessairly gaining the consent of the entire denomination.

How to Invalidate a Church

So, what makes a once-true church a false church?

Abandoning our Original Purpose

I interpret the act of losing "your first love" as mentioned in Revelation 2 (see earlier post) to be the act of losing sight of the church's purpose. Please don't read too much Rick Warren into that. Purpose involves the heart (first love) as well as activity (the deeds you did at first).

I think that a church can lose sight of its purpose and become a club (by the way, I don't like to use the phrase "country club" in that though if your church is blue-collar and poor you are in no danger of committing this sin). A church exists to change me, a club does not. A club allows me to associate comfortably with my peers; a church confronts me and my peers uncomfortably with the nature and expectations of God.

I think that a church can lose sight of its purpose and become a charity. Making the world a better place is a doomed enterprise. Making the world a better place is not our purpose. If we fulfill all the purposes that God has given us, the world will become a somewhat better place incidentally, because we will become better inhabitants of it. But Jesus has given us good reason to believe that, no matter how much good we try to do, we will always be outnumbered. Forgive me for a disparaging use of the word charity and understand that I have contrived a meaning of the word to fit my present purposes. A charity is focused on earthly solutions for earthly problems; a church is focused on eternal solutions for eternal problems.

I think that a church can lose sight of its purpose and become a concert. It all exists to entertain me. The style of the music, the topic of the preaching, the timing of the activities, and the demographics of the other people around me—all of these must meet my demanding preferences. At a concert, the customer is always right; at a church, the sinful and fallen creature is very prone to being wrong.

I think that a church can lose sight of its purpose and become an academy. "We are here to exercise the mind. Let us debate. Let us refine our positions." Yet the heart and the will, the hands and the feet, can sometimes remain unaffected by the exercises of the mind. I don't know why we are that way. It makes sense to me that our thinking, if sincere, ought necessarily to show up in our actions. But experience proves this not to be the case as often as it should be. Perhaps it is just laziness.

I find it instructive that the Ephesian church's abandonment of its first love was in the past when Christ sent the letter, but the threatened punishment of church invalidity was yet in the future. I take that to mean that we get a lot of grace. Churches may be guilty of any of the above violations for some period of time. Christ doesn't pull the lampstand out at the first infraction. We get warnings. We get chances to repent. But the church that ignores the warnings and pushes forward in its abandonment of God's purposes for the church can reach the point, I believe, where it ceases to be a true church at all.

Let me not be guilty of beating around the bush here. I think that most of the Mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are guilty of losing sight of the purpose of the church in some way mentioned above. I believe that most of them have done so long enough to be false churches [please direct all hate mail to...]. I also believe that a very large proportion of Southern Baptists churches are in grave danger of letting their grace periods expire, if they haven't done so already [more hate mail]. I further believe that some of the changes proposed by some portions of the EC movement and other modern trends will make the problems worse, not better [now the hate mail really begins].


I interpret 1 John 2:19 (see earlier post) to refer to doctrinal heresy. Churches that abandon the Christian faith for a different god, a different canon of scripture, or a different gospel are (to quote Paul) anathema. Unitarians are out, for example. Mormons are out. Jehovah's Witnesses are out. So long as anyone is in agreement with these false churches, that person is heading toward an eternity in Hell.

There are lesser levels of doctrinal error. These, I believe, can invalidate a church without casting such eternal aspersions upon all of the church's adherents. Some churches acknowledge the same canon as we do, but they hold a much lower view of the Bible's worth and authority than I do. They treat it as a starting place for discussion rather than a final word. "Yes, the Bible says what it does about homosexuality, but the Holy Spirit has led us to a more up-to-date position, so we'll ordain this homosexual bishop." I believe that such doctrinal deviations mark a false church, but in a less severe manner than I would use that terminology to refer to Mormons.

In the most severe category (doctrinal error so severe as to make a church a cult), I've listed the three topics (God, scripture, gospel) for which I think error boots you out of Christianity. But what about the other category (those "lesser levels of doctrinal error" in the preceding paragraph)? What doctrinal differences count to make a true church a false church?

I don't have an exhaustive answer to that question. I do, however, believe that some passages of scripture indicate to us their centrality to the being of church. For example, look at Ephesians 4:4-6, the famous listing of the "ones" that form the basis of Christian unity. There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.

Baptism, by the way, is in that group. For all of the other items in the list, we do not tend to interpret them by saying, "No matter what you do with it, it is all essentially the same thing--there's only one." We don't say, "Allah, Buddha,'s all the same thing...there's just one God." Rather, we take the "ones" as limiting, not expansive: "There is one and only one God, and if you've acknowledged another, then you are outside the faith." So, I take baptism the same way. The immersion of a believer is the one and only baptism. To practice otherwise is the be in jeopardy of being a false church, but a false church in the second, less severe sense. I believe that pedobaptist churches are false churches.

These two categories are reflected in the two passages of scripture I referenced in my previous post. Revelation 2 almost certainly refers to a congregation that remained within the broad sphere of Christian orthodoxy but was in danger of somehow becoming less than a true church. 1 John 2 almost certainly refers to a thoroughly heterodox and no-longer-Christian group. Both of these levels of church invalidity are accessible through doctrinal defectiveness.


I believe that a church excessively populated by or led by lost people is a false church. If the Pope is lost and the Pope is in charge, then Christ has been dethroned in the church and it is no longer a true church. If the majority of members are lost and the membership is in charge (congregationalism), then Christ has been dethroned in the church and it is no longer a true church. If the pastor is lost and the pastor is in charge, then Christ has been dethroned in the church and it is no longer a true church. One of the great benefits of congregationalism, in my opinion, is that it takes a lot more lost people to take over the church under congregational polity than it requires under other forms of church governance. Other models make it far too easy for one lost man to hold hostage a congregation full of saints.

How to Re-Validate a Church

Repent. That's the formula Christ gave in Revelation 2. When I describe a group as a false church, I am in no way forever writing them off. Repentance is always available and to be encouraged.

What About the Members of False Churches?

I believe that there is salvation available outside of true local churches. In other words, I do not believe that the invisible church and the local churches are coterminous. Many Christians are members of false churches. Think about it this way: If the Ephesian church failed to repent and if Christ removed their lampstand, did that mean that all of the Christian members of that church suddenly lost their salvation? I don't think so.

I do believe that Christian members of a false church will find God's blessing in either provoking their local congregation to repentance or, if that is ultimately unsuccessful, in moving to unite with a true church. I do also believe that membership in a thoroughly heretical group (the first category mentioned above) almost always bespeaks affirmation of concepts that demonstrate a person not to be in the faith.

Can True Churches and False Churches Mix?

I'm not sure that it is always completely evident to other churches when a sister church crosses the line and becomes a false church. Is it always completely evident to Christians when another church member is not a Christian? I think the same sort of situation applies to churches.

With church members, we (should) affiliate based upon what they profess to be and give evidence of being. As I have already suggested, I suspect that our membership in the SBC puts us in affiliation with some number of false churches, but it is unwitting. We try to reserve our truest and fullest level of inter-church fellowship for those whom we regard to be true churches.

Unlike the Landmark Baptists, I do not believe that I am endorsing a church or a minister when I listen to that person preach or join with such a one in a joint worship service or partnership activity. At FBC Farmersville, our policy of interaction and partnership with other churches attempts to make our level of agreement with them correspond to what we are trying to do together. For example, we'll tend to the poor in partnership with every church in our local ministerial alliance, but we wouldn't plant churches in partnership with the Methodists. So, we do affiliate with churches that I regard as false churches, and I don't see any problem with that as long as we are circumspect about what we do with them (and we are).

Church Validity and Church Health

In his excellent book, John Hammett refers to the difference between "being" and "well-being" when describing a church. Is there a difference between assessing whether a church is valid or invalid and assessing whether a church is healthy or unhealthy?

I do believe that a church can be true, but not healthy. I do not believe that a church can be false, but healthy. I believe that being unhealthy long enough can cause you to become a false church. I cannot completely sever the two concepts, as perhaps Hammett may be doing. Neither can I completely conflate them.

False Churches and Their Officers

The Landmark claim that a false church cannot produce a true gospel minister is one that I think history disproves. I point you back to the discussion of the First Great Awakening. Whitefield, Tennent, Edwards, and Frelinghuysen gave every evidence of the Spirit of God at work through their ministries. Yet one also notes the historical anomaly that the denominations which produced the Awakening leaders did not, by and large, benefit from their ministries. The great benefactors of the awakenings (in the long term) were the Baptists and Methodists. These men were exceptional in their denominational traditions. Many of them were opposed from within their own churches. I think that there have been valid ministers in invalid churches throughout the centuries. Let us not forget that John Smythe and Roger Williams were ordained while yet Anglicans.


So, I'm the kind of guy willing to fling around the terminology, "false church." Does that make me uncharitable? Some will believe so. Some will (no doubt) go so far as to say so.

But I hope all will recognize that I employ this terminology in fear and trembling. I have not used it denominationally in such a way that I remain untouched by it. In some ways, I fear for our church. We have much to correct and rekindle here, and leading to do that sort of thing without exploding the church is hard. I dare not refuse to speak of such things, because I know that I need the warning that this topic provides, and suspect that many others need it, too.

I have deliberately not use the four classical marks of the true church, nor have I employed the Reformation marks. I have tried to work exegetically rather than historically, although history has helped to shape my exegesis. I don't have any huge problem with these frameworks. In fact, I could take much of what I have said here and choose to organize it under such rubrics. Just put my comments about Ephesians under "one", my comments about "club" churches and "impurity" under "holy", etc. But when the marks employ words like catholic and apostolic, I find that it is easier when speaking to Baptist audiences to explain what I mean without using these words rather than with them—they carry too much baggage.

You have been very patient, all of you. I now yield the floor to you. This process has taken much longer than I anticipated, and I find that I am going on vacation as I complete this task. I'll be at Greers Ferry Lake in Central Arkansas. God resides there, but the Internet does not. Please comment like crazy, and I promise to read every word of it and respond to the best of my ability starting next Thursday (8/3).

In Christ,

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