Monday, July 24, 2006

Recognizing a Real Church: Landmarkism; The Twentieth Century

This is the one everyone knows so well, so I won't belabor the point too much.

Landmarkism emerged in Southern Baptist life in the 1850s asserting that Baptist churches are the only true churches. Landmarkism was more diverse than some historians have been willing to acknowledge, but the core notion of Landmarkism fits precisely with what I have been blogging about in this series. Quoting from the excellent dissertation by Bart Barber [snicker, snicker]:
Landmarkism is an ecclesiology that denies the validity of the existence or acts of any church that does not: (1) consist solely of members who have received symbolic immersion pursuant to a public self-declaration that they have been converted; (2) organize into a gathered, autonomous, local congregation; (3) acknowledge only two scriptural church offices—the pastor and the deacon; (4) perform only baptism and the Lord's Supper as symbolic ordinances; and (5) demonstrate without defect its continuity to the original New Testament church.
One point of clarification is probably necessary to avoid confusion. Under my point number five, I am carefully not specifying Graves's theory of church succession. Not all Landmark Baptists agreed with Graves, although his view came to be the majority position (as it always did). Nevertheless, however they imagined the connection, all Landmark Baptists seemed to affirm the idea that the true church was connected in some way back through history to the New Testament church, and indeed, imagined this to be part of the evidence that the Baptist church was the true church.

Landmarkism rapidly became the dominant, militant ecclesiological position within the Southern Baptist Convention.

Graves believed that there was salvation outside the church...that some of these folks in these non-Baptist "societies" were real Christians and would be in Heaven. But although false churches could have real Christians as members, they could not, in the Landmark view, have true gospel ministers or perform valid ordinances. Ordination, unless performed under the auspices of a Baptist church, was not valid. To allow someone like that to preach in your pulpit was, in Graves's view, tantamount to signing their ordination certificate. Baptism, unless performed under the auspices of a Baptist church, was not valid.

Landmarkism and "Historic Baptist Ecclesiology"

So, was Landmarkism an innovation out of thin air, or was it merely the restatement of truths that had been around since the time of Jesus? Well, is it OK if I say "neither" and propose another way?

I see a lot of similarity between the Landmark system and the beliefs of early Baptists, with a few caveats. The earliest Baptists (Smythe, etc.) were not immersionists, the earliest Baptists were not successionists (or at least, those who became successionists tended to stop being Baptist, a la Smythe & Williams), some of the earlier Baptists were not as clear on the offices of the church as the Landmarkers were, and finally, the course of history rarely put the earliest Baptists in a position to rule on the validity of anything other than pedobaptist churches.

Some Landmark Baptists augmented the rudimentary tenets of their system with other concepts: local church communion, strict church succession, etc. Much of the "extras" of Landmarkism do indeed appear to be nonexistent (or at least very rare) in the foregoing story of Baptist history.

This has been a lengthy historical survey, but I think it has provoked questions that are necessary for addressing this issue. I, for one, would not have thought to ask them all without looking at what others have done in the past:
  • What makes a once-true church a false church?
  • Can a once-false church redeem itself into a once-again-true church? If so, how?
  • What are the eternal implications of being a member of a false church?
  • How is it permissible for a true church to interact with a false church or with members of a false church?
  • How is it permissible for a member of a true church to interact with a false church or with members of a false church?
  • How should we relate the validity of a church with the health of a church? Is there such a thing as a true-yet-unhealthy church?
  • What is the relationship between the validity of an elder/pastor/overseer and the validity of the church he serves? Does an invalid minister invalidate the church he leads? Does an invalid church invalidate the minister who leads it?

The Twentieth Century

In my opinion, Baptists have done a poorer job in the past century of addressing these questions than in any of the other centuries of our existence. As I have been fond of saying elsewhere, I fear that Southern Baptists have managed to replace Landmark ecclesiology with no ecclesiology at all. I don't want to be guilty of that; therefore, in my next post I'm going to articulate my theory of church invalidity.

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