Ever since the Reformation era, it has been common to define a “true church” as a congregation where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments/ordinances are rightly administered. (Some would also include the practice of church discipline as a third mark.) Christians in a variety of traditions use this terminology all the time, but I suspect some have not thought through the implications of adopting this schema. Other Christians, however, have clearly thought through this language and its implications, and that’s the reason for this post.
I was alerted this past week to a cyber-kerfuffle between a non-SBC Reformed Baptist scholar and a pedobaptist United Reformed Church pastor and professor. The controversy began when the latter argued that there is no such thing as a “Reformed Baptist” because the Reformed tradition is incompatible with credobaptism, a claim that understandably miffed the Reformed Baptist. While that is an interesting discussion in itself, it’s only the backstory. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on a secondary aspect of the debate.
At some point during the debate, which spilled over onto at least four blogs and a message board, several of the pedobaptists argued that Baptist churches, whether they are self-confessedly Baptist or simply theologically baptistic (like many nondenominational churches), are not true churches. They claim that the refusal of Baptist congregations to baptize “covenant children” and the requirement of believer’s-only immersion as prerequisite for church membership makes Baptist churches “sects” rather than churches because they do not rightly administer baptism.
Some of you will know that we Baptists have our own version of this rhetoric. There is a long history among Baptists, particularly (though not exclusively) of the Landmark variety, to argue very similarly about pedobaptists. These Baptists more or less affirm the definition of a true church as tied to gospel purity and right practice of the ordinances, and because of the latter refuse to recognize pedobaptist churches of any kind as true churches. This is among the rationale some Baptists use for rejecting post-conversion immerisons performed by pedobaptist congregations. Pedobaptist churches are not true churches, but rather are sects or “religious societies” because of their aberrant view of baptism.
For the record, those who embrace this logic, whether pedobaptist or Baptist, typically do not go so far as to argue that those in the other camp are not believers. The Reformed pedobaptist referenced above believes that there are many Baptists who are sincere Christians-they are just wrong on baptism and thus not members of true churches. Landmark Baptists argue similarly-many pedobaptists are genuinely saved, though they are not a part of true churches because of their baptismal convictions. So let’s not criticize anyone for what they are not saying: we all agree that salvation is by grace through faith in the person and work of Christ, not ecclesiological practices.
Also for the record, both sides obviously think they are more biblical than the other. While I am dealing with a theological definition of true churches with roots in the 16th century, it is clear that nobody ultimately believes what they believe because of historical theology. All sides are attempting to be biblical, and historical theology is simply a secondary aid in that endeavor. To say it another way, both the Baptist and the pedobaptist who argue the other is not a member of a true church make their primary arguments from Scripture, not an extrabiblical definition of a true church. Keep that in mind as you read the next paragraph and contemplate answering my question. I am not looking for biblical arguments in this particular post, but rather am seeking input about langauge that many Protestants have used since the time of the Reformation.
So here’s my two-part question, and I am very much looking for some healthy discussion: is the so-called Reformation definition of a true church a valid descriptor, and if so, what does this mean for how Baptist Christians think of local churches in other Christian traditions?
I have some thoughts about this, but I am interested to hear where readers are coming from before I share my own perspective.