Discerning the True Church of Jesus Christ

If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.

I understand some of what you are saying. I get your explanation of the idea of church perpetuity in relation to Roman Catholic views of the Peter succession, but more to the point I think is the argument of the true church. Christ made the point to his followers that his kingdom would always stand. The gates of hell cannot prevail against it. We, therefore, assume that the kingdom of God is perpetuated in this world.

We know that the kingdom extends beyond the borders of the church house but we also recognize the church is a representation of the greater kingdom, and therefore there must be a legitimate and illegitimate representation. This extends to the false teachers and false doctrines that existed even in the early days of the church. Obviously, if there are false teachers, it means that there are true teachers. Jesus and the apostles were clearly drawing a line in the sand that there is “The Church” and then there are those who would try to draw people away from what is the true church to a form of the gospel, another gospel, which is not another gospel.

Also, references are made to the remnant that Elijah was told of in the Old Testament, that God preserves a people, that even if the whole world appears to be going away from God, God preserves a remnant of his people to continue to worship him. In Elijah’s day, it was those who had not bowed down the knee to Baal. Today we view God’s preserving hand on the remnant of true believers who worship in spirit and in truth.

Even though there might not be a continuity of all Baptists or all believers, we look at the preserving hand on the Primitive Baptist Church as the manifestation of this continued, perpetual preservation of the remnant that God promised Elijah, and the apostles that he would take care of.

Do you not see this as a legitimate perpetuity throughout the ages? Does God not preserve the true church in this fashion? I don’t think you can say that decline in the Primitive Baptist Church equals error, because again, Elijah lamented the decline of the followers of Jehovah, and claimed that he alone was the last one, yet God revealed to him that there were 7,000 that God himself had preserved.

I would never deny that there are false churches. We might call them “synagogue[s] of Satan” (Rev 2:9). But we should be extremely careful when we’re tempted to label someone a false church or exclude them from our fellowship. I guess you remember the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13. The servant asked his master, “Do you want us to go and gather [the tares]?” (Mt 13:28). But the master said, “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them” (Mt 13:29).

Having said that, there are several passages in Scripture that teach us to quickly and decisively excise false teachers and false doctrine from among us. For instance, Galatians chapter 1 uses strong language to convey this idea. Paul did not mince words when he said, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). Let him be anathema. Let him be devoted to destruction.

In Romans 16, Paul wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Ro 16:17). In Revelation 2, Jesus warned the church at Pergamum, “You have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev 2:15-16).

There’s also Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders where he said:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30)

I could quote other passages, but I think that’s enough to establish the point that there are false churches and false teachings, and that the true church of Christ has an obligation to separate themselves from those destructive people and doctrines. But again, we have to be careful. If we haphazardly plow through the field trying to remove every plant that resembles a weed, we will likely destroy good wheat in the process.

For example, let’s say Pastor Bob is teaching that it’s a sin to eat pork. Technically, that’s a false doctrine. When Peter refused to eat what he considered unclean meat, God said, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Ac 10:15). But that doesn’t mean Pastor Bob should be excluded from Christian fellowship or deemed a heretic. Paul responded to that very issue and said, “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Ro 14:6).

Paul went on to say, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats” (Ro 14:19-20). So Paul simultaneously rejected the view of Pastor Bob while also rejecting any notion that Pastor Bob should be considered anything less than a true Christian disciple. My point is, not all false doctrine necessitates exclusion.

So then, the church has an obligation to separate itself from heresy, but not before carefully defining from what or whom we are separating. What is heresy according to the Bible? What doctrines deserve such firm denouncement that we would mark their teachers for anathema. Well, the passages that I read before provide some clues.

Let’s go back to The Book of Galatians. What was the false gospel which Paul was condemning? Well, he gets to the heart of the matter in Galatians 2 where he says, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law” (Gal 2:15-16).

The teaching in question was the same teaching that afflicted the church throughout the New Testament. I believe we first read about it in Acts 15 when the Jews tried to convince the Gentiles that they must be circumcised to be saved. In short, they were teaching that justification is by works, by a sinner’s own merits. Until you keep X, Y, and Z of God’s law, you cannot be saved. God will not declare you righteous.

That teaching, of course, is in direct contradiction to the gospel. Our righteousness comes only from Christ and is applied to us, according to Paul, “through faith,” which is itself a “gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). So the heretics described in Galatians were not just teaching a false doctrine, but they also denied the gospel itself. They might as well have said, “Sure, you can believe in Jesus. That’s fine. I’m sure he was a wise teacher. But he can’t justify you. You have to keep the law. You have to be circumcised to be justified before God.”

Look at Romans 16 again. I read only verse 17 before, but the next verse gives us the insight we need here. The full passage says, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Ro 16:17-18). These men that we are to avoid are not merely misguided Christians. They do not serve Jesus Christ. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

John defined these people as antichrists. He said, “As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come…They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1Jo 2:18-19). He also wrote, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist” (1Jo 2:22). Then he said, “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you” (1Jo 2:26).

So the kind of people that the Bible warns us about and commands us to separate ourselves from are not fellow Christians with a few errors in their systematic theology. They are not Christians at all. They deny the gospel and oppose Christ.

Clearly, not every false teaching fits that category. So once again, there are false churches and false teachers. But we should also recognize that true churches have varying degrees of doctrinal purity. And if we’re not careful to make that distinction—well, what did Jesus say in Matthew 18? “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). As a reminder, Jesus said that in response to the disciples who asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt 18:1). Suffice it to say, it would be a grave mistake to accuse genuine believers of being a false church.

Consider the Progressive Primitive Baptist split in the early-20th century. Now the real issue is not that the Progressives separated from the “Old Line” Primitive Baptists (or vice versa); it’s that fellowship was severed between the two. It’s one thing to meet and worship separately because of different views on musical instruments or Sunday schools; it’s quite another to break fellowship to the point of labeling the other group a false church.

Now I don’t know if anyone has actually used the term “false church,” but they apparently believe it. I doubt any “Old Line” church would accept a Progressive’s baptism or allow them to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Well, there’s no biblical justification for that. Neither musical instruments nor Sunday schools warrant that kind of exclusion. Progressive Primitive Baptists are as much a part of the body of Christ as any “Old Line” church.

You know, I dealt with an issue at Angier Church once where another Primitive Baptist church refused to “grant a member’s letter,” as they say. We had someone from that church who wanted to join our church, so we followed Primitive Baptist custom and asked the other church for this person’s letter. We were giving them an opportunity to essentially sign off on that person, stating she was a good member with no outstanding disciplinary issues.

We eventually received a message back from them that said, “Yes, she’s a member in good standing, but we can’t give you our blessing.” Why? It was because Angier Church was not in fellowship with a local association of churches whom this other church was in fellowship with. And the reason we weren’t in fellowship with that association goes back decades. Apparently, years and years ago, Angier Church allowed a divorced and remarried couple to become members, and the association didn’t approve. So they denounced Angier and broke all fellowship.

Granted, that’s an example on the extreme end of the spectrum, but that is precisely where Landmark views have led the Primitive Baptists. Like the Pharisees or the Roman Catholic Church, elders have made themselves gatekeepers of God’s kingdom. Rather than allowing the Bible to define the true church, they’ve added their own arbitrary standards, which are not very consistent, by the way.

For instance, we have a clear command in Scripture to wash one another’s feet. Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). But some churches don’t wash feet and, to my knowledge, it has never been grounds for exclusion. But then we have no clear commandments regarding musical instruments in worship, yet that has been a cause for disfellowship. Surely, anyone can see the inconsistency in that.

Here are the underlying problems. First of all, Primitive Baptists—and I am generalizing—don’t seem to grasp the severity of what constitutes heresy. Second, they don’t grasp the severity of breaking fellowship, denying baptisms, and refusing to allow believers to join in the Lord’s Supper. Again, such exclusion should be reserved for legitimate heretics, unbelievers and antichrists, and unrepentant sinners who continue to live in blatant immorality despite the church’s best efforts to convert them. And lastly, Primitive Baptists use secondary issues and sometimes non-issues as tests of fellowship.

Let me talk about that last one for a minute because it may be the crux of the matter. We need to define the essential doctrines of the church because there are probably as many warnings in Scripture, implicit or explicit, about dividing the body of Christ as there are concerning false doctrine.

Peter wrote, “Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1Pe 3:8). Paul said, “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents” (Php 1:27-28). He told the Corinthians, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1Co 1:10). And on and on they go.

As believers in the gospel, we are to live the gospel by being merciful, long-suffering, and patient, striving for unity with one another. The Bible compels us to be of the same mind and spirit. And remember that these things were originally written to a diverse group of people representing cultures and backgrounds from all over the world, Jews and Gentiles. The churches were not made up of people sharing an identical upbringing or socioeconomic class. So the extent of mercy and patience demanded by Scripture extends even further than what many of us might think or typically apply.

But as you pointed out, our unity hinges on worshiping “in spirit and truth,” as Jesus said in John 4 (Jn 4:23). Now the word “spirit” suggests our worship should not be a mere external ritual. Rather, we should worship inwardly with the right attitude and reverence in our hearts. As for “truth,” this word obviously means we should worship in accordance with God’s revealed will. But we can be more specific. I think you’d agree that the Bible reveals more than what is absolutely necessary to be a true believer who truly worships God. I mean, even Pastor Bob who thinks it’s a sin to eat pork can worship God. So we have to define the essential doctrines of the church.

Well, just consider some of the examples in Scripture. Jesus said he would build his church upon the people who shared Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). When 3,000 people were baptized and added to the church in Acts 2, what did they know? Based on Peter’s sermon, they knew that the miracles they saw were a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. And they knew Christ was their Messiah and Savior who had died and rose again. If you were to continue following the sermons throughout The Book of Acts, you’d see those same basic doctrines over and over again.

Ultimately, our faith and our worship are based on Christ and his gospel. There are many facets of truth for Christians to learn and grow in our understanding of, but the person of Jesus and his work of redemption are the pillars of genuine faith. Anyone who denies or distorts these fundamental tenets of Christianity essentially excludes himself from Christianity.

Now I don’t know of a better summary of the essential doctrines of the church as taught by the apostles than the Apostles’ Creed. Of course, there’s no proof that the apostles actually wrote this creed, but someone prior to the 4th century did a marvelous job of concisely articulating what the apostles taught.

The Apostles’ Creed says:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church [that is, all Christians, universally], the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

There we have the essential doctrines of the church. If you compare the apostles’ sermons or the ways in which they defined the gospel throughout the New Testament, you will find they harmonize quite well with the Apostles’ Creed. In short, I would be hesitant to label someone a heretic who sincerely believes these doctrines.

The Bible obviously teaches us more than what is contained in the Apostles’ Creed. But we can’t possibly use every doctrine as a standard for determining whether or not a church is a true church. We certainly can’t use such secondary matters as, let’s say, musical instruments. Christians can agree to disagree on secondary issues, even dividing into separate churches and denominations. But even then a unity over the essentials can and should still exist. We are still united as believers in Christ and his gospel.

After all, who is the Bible talking about when it refers to the church? Is that a description of only a minority of believers who have attained a certain level of doctrinal understanding? Or does the church encompass every called-out, gathered believer who confesses that Jesus is the Christ?

With that in mind, let’s consider the remnant in Elijah’s day. They were a remnant, of course, because they were a minority. But what made them distinct from everyone else?

In Romans 11, Paul quoted God as saying, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Ro 11:4). So they continued to worship Jehovah alone, the one true God. Then Paul added, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Ro 11:5). Here we have the modern-day application. Just as it was in the days of the prophets, God has a chosen people who will not succumb to idolatry, but continue to worship him faithfully.

I’m not sure how that could be exclusively applied to one particular denomination of churches. The remnant of people whom God preserves are his elect by grace. And as born-again, assembled people, the elect become the church of whom Jesus said, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). In this case, the word “hell” refers to Hades, the realm of the dead. In other words, the church of Christ is redeemed so the gates of the cemetery can never permanently slam shut on them.

In short, God preserves his people, his church, and his truth. And the church has an obligation to teach truth and oppose false doctrine. But I don’t consider the Primitive Baptist Church the totality of his remnant nor do I think Primitive Baptists are the sole possessors of the truth.