This article is a response to Landmarkism. The tone is irenic. I am indebted to men who espouse Landmarkism for much doctrinal fellowship, friendship, and sound counsel.
Landmarkism is an ecclesiological (doctrine of the church) position. Landmarkers typically hold two key distinctives: (1) the Baptist church is the only true church; (2) there is no such thing as a universal church. Period.
It appeared in the 19th century under the influence of well-intentioned men like James Robinson Graves, Ben Bogard, and Amos Cooper Dayton. It was largely in response to the downgrade, which reached a boiling point in the 19th century. Some historians allege it was the downgrade that contributed to Charles Spurgeon’s ill-health, and ultimately, his premature death! The downgrade consisted of many compromises in Christian orthodoxy, and it transcended denominational lines. One of the central doctrines at stake was the inerrancy of the Bible. Both conservative Baptists and Presbyterians combated the threat of a Schleiermachian-influenced liberalism.
In my opinion, Landmarkism sought to retreat, rather than combat, liberalism by claiming exclusive ecclesiological rights for Baptist churches… without much argument. A denial of the universal church only ensured that no one, except Baptist congregations, could rightfully think of themselves as “the church.” Consequently, rather than dousing the already agitated theological landscape through careful theological thought and skillful polemics, Landmarkism opened yet another front in the war already plaguing evangelicals. Graves was disciplined out of his Baptist church for being schismatic, and Dayton was forced to resign from the Bible Board.
Despite the good intentions behind this position, I cannot endorse it in good conscience. For more on Landmarkism, see my video here:
In this brief article, I would like to present various problems/obstacles Landmarkism encounters. Below are three glaring issues I see in the movement, which I perceive to be insurmountable:
It Cannot Account for General Uses of the Term Ekklesia (Church) In Scripture
In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.”
What is the church? To say, “the church, in this context, really means the local church only,” is to forfeit the plain meaning of the words.
There must be one bride of Christ. Our Lord, after all, is not an adulterer! Therefore, this church must be one. Landmarkers may respond, “The bride is eschatological, or future, to us, but not present (cf. Rev. 19; 21).” While this is a positive departure from the original position, since it at least grants a universal church (albeit future only), it cannot account for the language of Ephesians 5:26, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word.” The bride cannot be future only, since Christ washes and cleanses her in the here and now.
If Consistently Held, It Ends In Admitting Satan Prevails Upon Christ’s Church Frequently
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Local churches close their doors all the time. Oftentimes, it’s because sin has prevailed upon the congregation in some way. Either the congregation divides over doctrine, or cultural practice, or it slides into apostasy. This is precisely what Christ said would not happen to His church.
There needs to be a category preceding the local church which can help account for this seeming discontinuity between the one infallibly victorious church on the one hand and failing local churches on the other, and I believe that category is given to us here in Matthew 16 and in Ephesians 5, which is nothing short of the general assembly (cf. Hebrews 12). Landmarkism removes this category from ecclesiology and so cannot account for failing local churches in light of Jesus’ promise.
What About Christians Who Do Not Belong to a Baptist Church?
Landmarkers will frequently admit there can be Christians who are not part of the Baptist church, which, remember, is local only. But if we return to Ephesians 5:25, we see that the very object of Christ’s atoning work is the church, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her…” If the only church is the local church, then Ephesians 5:25 is telling a half truth. Either Christ died for His church and then some (indefinite atonement, not in the text), or He died exclusively for His church (what the text expressly declares). If the former is true, then limited atonement is false (1 Pet. 5:13; 2 Jn. 1; Is. 45:4). If the latter is true then the church cannot be local only. There are, after all, saints who no longer worship in local churches, i.e. those in heaven.
Now, I do not want to be misunderstood here. I fall in line with mainline Particular Baptist orthodoxy on this locus of theology, namely, that while there is a catholic or universal church, it is most certainly not a visible institution as Rome perceives it to be (cf. 2LBCF, 26.1; Savoy 26.1). Rome, contrary to its name, is not catholic at all, but is apostate. To understand the universal church as a present, visible institution on earth is a fatal ecclesiological error, and it has led to the mistake of sacral society-like establishment of church-state governments.
I also want to be very clear about my personal policy on ecumenism. Landmarkism is not the only way to avoid inviting Presbyterians or liberal Lutherans from taking over my church’s pulpit! I have confessional standards which serve as a kind of rubric for who and who I would not allow into the pulpit at the church I’m blessed to serve. Remaining doctrinally pure by no means requires we deny the existence of Christ’s one bride which has a present subsistence, albeit not a visible institution.
I hope this helps to parse my own thoughts on this issue. I want to again reassert my gracious tone and hearty love for those who would disagree with the preceding content. I personally do not see this particular issue as a test of fellowship. Ut ferrum ferro acuite. May iron sharpen iron.