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.

On the Marks of a True Church: A Question

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.