Landmark Redux

             If you didn’t grow up Baptist-and even if you did-you may not know much about the Landmark movement.  I grew up in a church that was heavily influenced by Landmarkism, and so it was part of my earliest definitions of faith and especially my view of the church.  We learned the Bible, the Trail of Blood (shorthand Landmark ecclesiology) and dispensational charts – and not necessarily in that order.

            What is Landmarkism?  In the mid-to-late 1800’s a movement arose among some Baptists teaching that adherence to some specific characteristics would mark a legitimate Baptist church.  Additionally, only those legitimate Baptist churches were true churches. In this view, churches of other denominations are religious gatherings or societies, but have no claim to being a church in the New Testament sense.  Along with that, there is a view of Baptist successionism, which asserts that all true churches across Christian history have essentially been Baptist churches.  British historian G.H. Orchard wrote, During the first three centuries, Christian congregations, all over the East, subsisted in separate independent bodies, unsupported by government, and consequently without any secular power over one another. All this time they were Baptist churches….” (Which ironically makes Landmark churches eerily similar to the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to apostolic succession and that other Christians and their churches are “defective”.  Ironic because one characteristic of Landmark churches is their virulent anti-Catholicism.)

            But I digress.  Landmark churches refuse to recognize the validity of any baptisms or ordinations performed in non-Baptist churches.   Some would not allow even Baptists from other congregations to participate in the Lord’s Supper. There were concerns about allowing non-Baptists to preach in their churches or about cooperating with non-Baptists in evangelism and missions. Landmarkers see themselves as maintaining the purity of the true church.  The term itself comes from an essay by J.M. Pendleton in The Tennessee Baptist, a paper edited and published by J.R. Graves in which he referred to Proverbs 22:28 (“…remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set…”) and Proverbs 23:18…. (“…remove not the old landmark; and enter not into the fields of the fatherless…”). A brief history of the movement from a Landmark position is here.

            Why do I bring up all of this arcane Baptist history?  Because recent actions in the Southern Baptist Convention have me concerned that we are entering a season of Landmark redux. In the past year, the International Mission Board has adopted a position that only missionaries who have been baptized in churches that hold to eternal security may be appointed. There is a growing movement to connect a person’s mode of baptism with admission to the Lord’s Table. 

            And then Malcom Yarnell, a dean and professor at Southwestern Seminary, in an on-line conversation with an SBC missionary, recently made these comments about Southern Baptist cooperation with missionaries from other denominations:

              “Please consider the definition of Great Commission Christians.  It seems that the hasty move to recognize other evangelicals as Great Commission Christians has introduced thoughts and practices that undermine the biblical mandate. Rather than rehearsing the historical basis of this destructive error in Southern Baptist life….Does a Great Commission Christian have to obey the Great Commission of Jesus Christ in its entirety and in its God-given order, or may we summarily dispense with some aspects of it, or practice it contrary to the God-given order, or emphasize something else?

           The problem in postmodern missionary practice in the Southern Baptist Convention is largely due to the unwillingness to maintain the beliefs that our biblicist forefathers held in this matter. In other words…let us be clear that on the basis of the long-standing Baptist interpretation of the Great Commission, the following groups specifically do not qualify to be called Great Commission Christians: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians (and other Reformed Churches), Non-Baptist Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Assemblies of God. I will not provide an exhaustive list, for that would require a dictionary, but suffice it to say that any other Christian group that believes or practices what these Christian denominations distinctively believe and practice may not be legitimately classified as Great Commission Christians, even if some of them may be classified as “evangelicals.”

           These Christian churches do not deserve to be classified as Great Commission Christians are that they violate Christ’s will in one or more of these three ways: 1) They do not obey the entirety of the Great Commission. 2) They do not follow the order of the Great Commission. Specifically, many of them place baptism prior to the making of disciples. 3) They do not emphasize the faith delivered by our Lord, but add other requirements. For instance, some of them elevate or transform the gifts of speaking in tongues or of healing, and then seek to sway other Christians to their unbiblical position.

          The errors of these other Christian churches are why some Baptists are more than willing to refer to them as “unrepentant sinners.” When you disobey Christ, you are a “sinner.” When you refuse to change your ways, you are “unrepentant.” Thus, those who refuse to repent from their disobedience of Christ are “unrepentant sinners.” This terminology seems to rub evangelical ecumenists in an especially noticeable way, which is probably why some of us readily use it. It helps bring forward important issues that are being buried in the rush of some naïve and errant children of the free churches to convert to Azusa Street, Canterbury, Geneva, Rome, and Constantinople.

         The use of this language is not a claim, however, that such people are not Christians. Rather, it is a claim that they need to repent and follow Christ alone and in full. Moreover, the use of this language is not a claim that Baptists are superior to other Christians. Rather, it recognizes that God has given Baptists further illumination with regard to His Word. This compels us to help others understand His Word better. The gift of further illumination of God’s Word carries with it a greater responsibility to teach that Word with conviction and humility. Baptists are not perfect Christians, but Baptists are responsible for obeying and proclaiming with conviction what they do know, and for seeking to know even more from God’s inerrant Word.  (emphasis mine)  Read the entire dialogue here.

            This is astonishing language.  While many of Yarnell’s observations are true, doesn’t this sound a lot like the “Baptists only” language of the Landmarkers?  There is a retreat into the isolationism of a “Baptists are the only true church” world.  A labeling of other groups as “unrepentant sinners”.  And more than just a whiff of arrogance in the claim that Baptists have more illumination of the Word than other evangelicals, who all need to repent and become like us. 

            I love being a Baptist because it matches the truths I see in Scripture.  But I have also watched for years as the leaders of the so-called Conservative Resurgence in the SBC have increasingly narrowed the ledge where we can stand in cooperation with each other and with other Christians. I want to stand for truth; I also want to be really sure that we are standing on the gospel alone-and not on secondary matters of Baptist preference or a recalibrated version of Baptist triumphalism.


7 responses

  1. […] David Head takes a look at the new Landmarkism in the SBC. Posted by: Michael Spencer @ 6:52 am | Trackback | Permalink […]

  2. How is this astonishing at all? Basic Baptist doctrine is that only baptism by immersion upon profession of faith is actual baptism and is alone what Christ instituted, not that it is merely one way of baptism or a personal preference of Baptists. It immediately follows, then, that anyone who imagines some other kind of baptism is not baptizing at all, that they are disobeying Christ, and that at least on this point, they don’t understand Scripture as well as Baptists. If the Baptist doctrine of baptism is true, then indeed, every pseudo-baptized Christian out there does need to repent and obey the command of Christ.

    If Baptists are to hold that their particular doctrinal distinctives are not Christ’s clear teaching and command, but that they are simply human preference, then they have no reason to exist and are universally in an unbiblical schism. Isn’t it sinful to divide in any way from other Christians over something that’s a mere preference? I don’t like or prefer my current denomination’s system of church government, but I would never think of advocating for a schism over an indifferent preference.

    What is the Gospel? Does it include baptism? If it doesn’t, then like I said, Baptists are in a sinful and unbiblical schism by having divided themselves from churches that practice infant and/or non-immersion baptism and should seek to restore church unity by getting rid of the church-dividing practice of exclusively baptism by immersion upon profession of faith. But if it does include baptism, than paedobaptists and non-immersion baptizers are indeed compromising the Gospel.

  3. David,

    Just wondering but what church did you grow up in that was heavily influenced by Landmarkism?

  4. Josh–
    The Gospel is God in Christ, reconciling the sinful world to himself by His sacrificial death and resurrection– and our response of faith to it. Baptism is a physical response declaring what has happened in the soul. Baptism is very important as a public sign of what has occurred, a declaration of dependence on and allegiance to Jesus. It is not, however, the gospel. It has no sacramental value, in the sense that it somehow confers grace to the believing sinner. The gospel stands alone as that which saves and puts a person right with God.
    So, I can stand with anyone who affirms that — and affirms baptism as necessary for Christian growth, but not essential to have spiritual life. Baptism is always secondary, never primary.
    The place I must begin to draw lines– and what I did not make clear in my post– is when baptism is viewed as sacramental or saving. So-called “baptismal regeneration” is a different gospel, as is the Roman Catholic viewpoint. But it seems to me that Yarnell’s position goes well beyond that to exclude people with a genuine relationship with God, based on Christ alone.

  5. Thank you for an informative, well-reasoned post. I hope I am not breaking in on an inside conversation. I am Assemblies of God. I must admit it is disconcerting to find ourselves on Yarnell’s list of non-Great Commission Christians. I have very good personal friends who are Southern Baptist, and I have seen the AG and SBC make some healthy moves as far as working together as the body of Christ, and, yes, specifically on the mission field as well. We baptize the same way you do and would agree with everything in your last response to Josh. I do understand that we differ in a couple of major doctrinal areas, but I hope Yarnell’s attitude is not too widespread. We have a firm confidence that the SBC is passionate about winning souls. We are, too (though not as much, as a whole, as we should be), and definitely consider ourselves Great Commission Christians. I’m not certain how Yarnell has placed us on his list, except that he may have confused us with some Pentecostal groups, which we consider cultic, who require tongues for salvation. We do not.

    We appreciate your movement and pray that God will help us both to keep winning … and baptizing … souls.

  6. Josh – are you southern baptist? If you are, you would realize that it is not only baptism that makes baptists unique. There are other characteristics. Priesthood of the believer, for one. I think your logic takes leaps that aren’t necessarily there. The above characteristic means that while Mr. Yarnell may write his ramblings, we, as baptists who hold to priesthood of the believer, don’t have to go along with it. It is one of the strong tenets of our faith that I cling to the most. As David Head said, we just need to go back to what is it that does the saving? I hope we all agree that it is the cross of Jesus – not the wetness of the individual believer.

  7. A great history lesson. I have never seen a credible argument that God will not admit paedobaptists to heaven based on being “wrongly” baptized. If that is the case, how can various denominations and/or local congregations justify having standards higher than God’s? I believe that is the trouble the Pharisees were having and were condemned for it.

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