Further Thoughts on the Marks of a True Church

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.

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  15Comments

  1. David Rogers   •  

    Nathan,

    If I remember correctly, all of us who commented on the last post seem to be in basic agreement on what you say here (with, perhaps, some minor divergence on a few details).

    I am wrestling a bit, however, with this interpretation of the term “New Testament church.” It seems to me the traditional reading is to conflate this term with “authentic” or “valid” church. For example, what would a church that is not a “New Testament church” be–an “Old Testament church” or an “unbiblical church”? It seems to lend itself to black and white considerations, rather than to shades of gray.

    Personally, though I can sign my agreement with the BF&M on this point, in keeping with the interpretation you give here, I would prefer a different wording, that didn’t so easily lend itself to Landmark interpretations.

  2. Brett Beasley   •  

    Brother Nathan, I believe you are correct in your assessment of a true church in relation to baptism. Since we as Baptists hold to our belief that it is a symbolic act of obedience, and not a work of regeneration, we must surmise that the mode itself does not change the essential message of the Gospel. Therefore, we can agree that many of our pedobaptist friends are striving to be true churches, while maintaining our own convictions concerning baptism. As always, the defense of the Gospel is the most important point, and you have captured that thought well. Thank you.

  3. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    David,

    There is no doubt that the phrase “New Testament” church could lend itself to a Landmark interpretation. But that is not my interpretation, nor is it the interpretation of most Baptists in the 20th century, including most who drafted the BF&M statements. Like much of the BF&M, the language is vague enough to accomodate several interpetations (within reasonable boundaries). Again, I like the language because it allows me to balance exclusivity with catholicity–Baptist more closely conform to the New Testament pattern of local ecclesiology than pedobaptists, but pedobaptists are nevertheless authentic churches, though flawed in their ecclesiological convictions.

    I know that you are very concerned with Christian unity, but also very much believe that believer’s baptism by immersion is the NT pattern. With these dual concerns in mind, what langauge would you suggest to replace “New Testament” church language?

    NAF

  4. Louis   •  

    “New Testament” is better than “true” for the reasons you have stated.

    And “New Testament” should be read to mean, practicing in accordance with the churches then existing at the time of the writing of the NT and in accordance with what the NT teaches – as opposed to churches that have adopted practices based more on medieval or Reformation era arguments and theology.

    We have to be careful with language.

    The Baptists that influenced me so much in my early life always pointed to a scriptural directive and historical basis for doing what they did. That gave them historical and doctrinal legitimacy in my mind. They were not interested in what “tradition” or the “church” taught. But what the Bible taught.

    But these same people were always very quick to caution that they were not questioning the sincerity of others or their relationship to Christ who may be in a church that was not Baptist or did things differently when it came to ordinances.

    So, language is very important. We do not want to miscommunicate. I believe that things like “True Church” can carry a lot of unintended messages. So, in my mind it is not helpful.

    Thanks.

    Louis

  5. Dave Miller   •  

    Thank you, Dr. Finn, for his thoughtful article. As we struggle to define our Baptist identity we have to think through things like this, and I appreciate your insight (as always).

  6. David Rogers   •  

    Nathan,

    Thanks for your feedback on this.

    I think the following section on the Church from the Evang. Free Church Statement of Faith is not bad, for example:

    “We believe that the true church comprises all who have been justified by God’s grace through faith alone in Christ alone. They are united by the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ, of which He is the Head. The true church is manifest in local churches, whose membership should be composed only of believers. The Lord Jesus mandated two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which visibly and tangibly express the gospel. Though they are not the means of salvation, when celebrated by the church in genuine faith, these ordinances confirm and nourish the believer.”

    Of course, the BF&M is more complete, and more explicit on these matters. This, from my perspective, has both advantages and disadvantages. I also think the BF&M “throws a bone” to the Landmarkers in writing a long paragraph about the local church first, and, then, seemingly as an afterthought, throwing in a short sentence on the Universal Church, which could be interpreted as viewing it as strictly an eschatological reality.

  7. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    David,

    The statement in the BF&M was not intended to “thow a bone” to Landmarkers. Quite the opposite. The template for the original BF&M was the New Hampshire Confession, which says nothing about a universal church. Thus the 1925 BF&M was also silent on the matter. When the BF&M was revised in 1963, the statement on the universal church was added, but it was a carefully negotiated statement. There were some who opposed it and tried to have it struck from the confession, but those efforts failed. So instead of “throwing a bone” to the Landmarkers, the statement is actually a movement away from Landmark influence, though admittedly it is a “lowest common denominator” understanding of the church universal (and one that some Landmarkers can affirm).

    I am comfortable with the local church receiving priority over the universal church in the confession–I believe this reflects the NT emphasis, though I know you would likely disagree with me on that. And while I do believe more about the universal church than the BF&M confesses, I do believe that the universal church will culminate (and finally assemble) at the end of the age. So while it is not merely an eschatological reality, it is most certainly fully realized in the eschaton.

    NAF

  8. elnwood   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    Thank you for your helpful thoughts on this topic. I myself have taught on the true marks of the church, but have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the definition.

    My impression is that they were defined this way because of the Reformers’ differences with the Roman Catholic church and to declare themselves true churches over against the Catholics (and, sadly, the Anabaptists). As an historian, could you shed some light on the historical circumstances of Luther’s marks of the church and the subsequent expansion in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession?

  9. David Rogers   •  

    Nathan,

    Agreed. “Throwing a bone” was probably not the most accurate language, due to the historical background you mention.

    My point, however, is that the current language of the BF&M, regardless of the route taken to arrive there, seems to me to bend over too far backward in order to appease those with Landmark-leaning tendencies.

    Do you think the wording of the E. Free statement on the church could legitimately be described as “baptistic”? How about “Baptist”? If yes to the first question, and no to the second, where do we draw the line between “baptistic” and “Baptist”?

    Personally, I think the E. Free wording is very compatible with membership and active cooperation in the SBC. I actually prefer the wording of the E. Free statement. I have a feeling that many in SB churches, if made aware of the differences at stake, would opt for the E. Free statement as well. And yet, I have no problem affirming the BF&M on this point, provided that “New Testament church” is not interpreted to mean “authentic” or “valid” church.

    While the word “ekklesia” is indeed used more times in the NT referring to local assemblies (whether on a citywide or “house church” level), I personally find it helpful to see the “local church” as a local expression of the “universal church.” I think we are getting more at the essence of what “church” is all about this way.

    The articles by John Woodhouse I link to here (http://loveeachstone.blogspot.com/2008/01/john-woodhouse-on-christian-unity.html) have helped me in my understanding of this.

    I do agree with you, however, that “while [the universal church] is not merely an eschatological reality, it is most certainly fully realized in the eschaton.”

  10. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Elnwood,

    Luther actually argued similarly to me: the true church is wherever the gospel is righly preached. Melanchthon expanded Luther’s definition to include the right administration of the sacraments, over against both the Roman mass and Anabaptist credobaptism, both of which he rejected as errors.

    Melanchthon’s definition was picked up by Reformed theologians, and though to my knowledge Calvin never used this precise formulation, it is certainly implied in his writings. Other Reformed thinkers did use this precise formulation and even added the practice of church discipline as a third mark, which was also implied in Calvin. Unless I am mis-remembering this (which is possible) Malcolm Yarnell once told me that he traced the third mark language back to Martin Bucer. Regardless of where it started, it was incorporated by Guido de Bräs into the Belgic Confession in 1561 (a decade after Bucer’s death and seven years after Calvin’s death). The three marks were standard fare by the time of the Reformed Orthodoxy movement of the 17th century.

    That’s what I know, though my area of expertise is not Reformation theology. I do think the magisterial reformers definitely developed this schema over against both Catholics and Anabaptists.

    NAF

  11. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    David,

    I’m enjoying our dialog on this.

    I like the language of the E. Free statement, with one exception: it doesn’t clearly articulate believer’s baptism alone. And with good reason–though most E. Free churches are baptistic, as a denomination they do not take a position on this issue. So while I like what it says, I don’t think it says enough. I would prefer a clearly articulated statement about believer’s baptism by immersion alone. If it included that, it would be totally baptistic and/or Baptist (I tend to use those terms synonymously when speaking about beliefs). Right now, it simply leans in a baptistic direction.

    As for whether or not many SB churches would prefer the E. Free statement, I have no idea. They would probably like what it says, but I suspect if I pointed out the aforemention omission about believer’s baptism alone, the vast majority of SB churches would reject the E. Free statement because of what it does not say, even if they liked what it does say.

    I actually do not disagree with you that local churches are expressions of the universal church. I think this is true. But I still think the NT emphasis–priority–is given to local assemblies. This makes sense since we experience the Christian life through local assemblies to a greater degree than we do the universal church, which though a reality, remains unrealized.

    NAF

  12. David Rogers   •  

    Nathan,

    Yes, the E. Free Church is less specific on baptism. And, that specificity on baptism is indeed an important aspect of “Baptist identity.”

    However, the BF&M and the E. Free Statement of Faith are organized a bit differently in that the BF&M has, in addition to a section on “The Church,” a separate section on “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

    With the exception of the last sentence of the first paragraph of the section on “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper), I am quite happy with the wording of the BF&M on this point. It could stand to say a bit more on the Lord’s Supper, though.

    If I were on committee to revise the BF&M (pretty big “if”), I would favor a wording similar to the E. Free statement on “The Church,” combined with the present wording of the BF&M’s section on “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (minus the aforementioned sentence I disagree with).

    Incidentally, I think it is interesting that the E. Free Church Statement of Faith is specifically premillennial (compared to the openness of the BF&M), while, at the same time, being more flexible on baptism.

  13. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    David,

    Interestingly, the E. Free recently had a minor denominational squabble over the premillenial thing. There was a move to try and revise the confession toward neutrality, but it’s my understanding it was defeated.

    As for your view about how the BF&M should be re-worded, fair enough. I do of course hope you will eventually come around on the terms of communion issue, but we’ve been down that road before, haven’t we, my friend?

    Thanks again for your contribution to this conversation.

    NAF

  14. Bob Cleveland   •  

    Nathan, WRT your definition of a NT church: where do I sign?

    Also, David, I like the local church as a local expression of the Universal Church, or the Body of Christ. It’s a bit difficult for the Universal church to do some of the stuff it’s told to, without the local body and the guidance thereof.

  15. David Rogers   •  

    Nathan,

    That is interesting about the E. Free “squabble.” I was not aware of that. I have enjoyed the opportunity to discuss these issues with you.

    Though we still probably have some disagreement on the terms of communion, I think our disagreement is less than what many might assume. My “modified open communion” position is actually quite “modified,” in my opinion.

    I do believe that a church with “bene esse” will forcefully and frequently proclaim the scriptural foundation for believers baptism. I also believe that those present during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be urged to examine themselves regarding their obedience to the Lord (including on the matter of baptism) before partaking. However, I believe the ultimate decision (barring a specific church discipline ruling excluding a certain individual) lies with the individual, according to their conscience before the Lord. And, many paedobaptists, despite being mistaken in my opinion, would claim to have a clear conscience on this matter. While not ceasing to reason with them from Scripture, I do not believe we should obligate them to violate their conscience in order to share in the visible celebration of our communion in the Lord.

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