This is a follow-up to my earlier article “On the Marks of a True Church: A Question.” Thanks to everyone who offered a comment. What follow are my own thoughts on this issue.
I first began to think deeply about this question during my doctoral studies. During my college and seminary days, I unhesitatingly embraced the so-called Reformation definition of a true church. But there was a problem: as a Baptist, I am honestly convinced that practices like a regenerate membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational polity characterized the local churches of the New Testament. So if I believe that a right administration of baptism is tied to the essence of a true church, and if I am a convictional Baptist (as opposed to a Baptist by conditioning or convenience), then it logically follows that I must reject all pedobaptist churches as true churches ispo facto.
But the fact is I don’t actually think that pedobaptist churches are not true churches. Wrong on baptism and perhaps other ecclesiological practices? You bet. But not false churches, or mere religious sects or societies. So the dilemma is this: either I needed to reject a widely used definition of what constitutes a true church or reject the validity of pedobaptist churches. I chose the former.
In his comment on yesterday’s post, Paul Brewster mentions my SEBTS colleague John Hammett, a theologian whose expertise is ecclesiology. In his fine work Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Kregel, 2005), Hammett distinguishes between beliefs that are essential to a true church, and beliefs that are important, but not essential to what constitutes a true church. A right understanding of the gospel is part of the being (esse) of a church, while a right administration of baptism (or the Lord’s Supper) is part of the well being (bene esse) of a church (Hammett, 62-66).
Southwestern Seminary administrator and theologian Thomas White makes the same argument in his chapter “What Makes Baptist Valid?” This chapter is found in a helpful recent collection of essays titled Restoring Integrity to Baptist Churches (Kregel, 2008), which White co-edited with his SWBTS colleagues Jason Duesing and Malcolm Yarnell. White argues that the gospel, a belief in the ordinances, and the intentional gathering of believers are of the essence of a true church, while beliefs/practices like having pastors and deacons, practicing discipline, a correct view of baptism, and an emphasis on missions are beneficial and preferable, but not essential to the church qua church (White, 113).
I agree with Hammett and White (some of yesterday’s commenters also made similar remarks). The right administration of baptism is more about the health of a church than it is the “trueness” of a church. What makes a local church a church, rather than a more generic group of like-minded folks, is most fundamentally belief in the good news of all that God has done on behalf of sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So in my classes, I define a true church as followers: a true church is a gathering of believers where the gospel is rightly preached, the ordinances are administered in such a way that they do not reject or redefine the gospel, and the gathered individuals understand themselves to be a local church.
I think our Baptist Faith and Message is helpful in this discussion. Article VI is devoted to “The Church,” and says the following:
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.
Note that the BF&M refers to Baptist churches as “New Testament” churches. This is because Baptists believe their churches more closely conform to the New Testament pattern than other types of churches. (And lest you think this is arrogant sectarianism, rest assured that every other group, including non-denominational types, believes this about their churches as well.) I like the “New Testament” language for two reasons. First, it allows me to be appropriately exclusive-I believe Baptist churches are more biblical than pedobaptist churches in several important areas. Second, it allows me to be appropriately catholic-I believe pedobaptist churches that embrace the gospel are still churches, even if some of their practices are inconsistent with the New Testament pattern.
In my thinking, we have to allow for a category of true churches that are defective in some of their practices, like baptism. Some of our Baptist forbearers called such churches “irregular”-they are really churches, but they are also really wrong on the ordinances. Frankly, this seems like a charitable approach to take; after all, even though I think Baptist churches are “New Testament” on baptism, there may be blind spots where we fall short of the New Testament witness. And we need other types of churches to speak prophetically to us in such areas, just as we want to speak prophetically to them about certain ecclesiological convictions.
So in closing, I reject the Reformation definition of a true church because, if I were to accept it, I would be forced to argue that the vast majority of Reformation-era churches were not, in fact, true churches. All of the magisterial reformers failed to rightly administer baptism. Some of the radical reformers failed to rightly preach the gospel. (The Catholics missed it on both counts.) The church is first and foremost the community created by the gospel. The ordinances are important-very important-but are not of the essence of the church.