Jeremy Sarber, Reformed Baptist pastor

 

Honest With Me

The Denial of Genuine Christian Believers

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

You mentioned some false doctrines in your response, but I would like to know where you would draw the line. Do you follow a more ecumenical point of view that the line is just belief in Jesus Christ? Or are false doctrines such as Arminianism and the absolute predestination of Calvinism not grounds for exclusion as well?

I find the works-based religions of Arminianism and Calvinism just as applicable to Paul’s rebuke of circumcision and the law at Galatia. If these doctrines stand in contrast and contention with the doctrines of grace that we know to be true doctrine, does this not qualify for exclusion and division?

Ephesians 4:5 gives us pretty clear and plain language about the true church in my opinion: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We use this and other Scriptures as a line in the sand. He didn’t tell the church that there was one Lord with differing viewpoints, one faith but of differing varieties, and one baptism with multiple modes. He said one, one, and only one. That indicates that there is a homogeneity of the church.

There is a true church that is exclusive, specific, and uniform going back to the beginning. God preserves this one faith, one church throughout the ages. It may be that the Primitive Baptists are not the sum total of all the true churches in the world, but I would say in the United States I have not heard of another church or denomination that holds to the truths of the scriptures. The Primitive Baptists are it, and I feel this does correlate with the preservation of the remnant. God has preserved his true believers, and true church through the Primitive Baptists in contrast to the multiplicity of denominations that have gone away to “other gospels.”

As far as practices that you are considering as secondary issues, I can agree that there is a level of Christian liberty that allows small differences in cultural, procedural practices from church to church. We are not a “denomination.” We do not exercise absolute authority over every church calling its name Primitive Baptist, and each church is autonomously ruled. However, in continuing with the principle of one Lord, one faith, one baptism, we see in this list a practice of the church and not just a doctrine.

Obviously, the Lord through Paul was teaching that there is one way of practicing baptism. It’s the same way we see time and time again demonstrated for us in the Scriptures, and that is immersion. No other baptism is acceptable because it’s not the way the Lord did it or prescribed for his church.

Now as touching other practices such as Sunday schools or musical instruments, which have been added to the church over the years, we have to look at the early practices of the church as our only guide. No, we don’t have a commandment in the Scriptures, “Thou shalt not use musical instruments in worship.” I would argue that Amos 6 comes pretty close considering it says “Woe to them,” but that discussion would be far too much for this and I do not want to stray from the topic (Am 6:1).

In regards to these and other practices, they are additions by men over the years and were not a part of the original church. The Scriptures are the only manual we have to go by as to how to conduct our churches and our services. There is no record in the Scriptures or even the early church writings from history that things like instruments and Sunday schools were practiced in the first 100, 200, or even 1,000 years of the church.

Given this lack of evidence for the use of them, why would we abandon what the church clearly never prescribed or practiced just because in the last 500 years men thought it was good to do without any scriptural backing?

The point of God telling the church that there is one way of doing things and that anyone (even an angel) adding or preaching anything otherwise should be rejected is to prevent the church 1,000 or more years down the road from adding in things that are distracting and distasteful for the worship of God.

In the Old Testament law, there was one type of fire to be used for the service. God gave that precept. He didn’t give any exceptions to that either, and when Aaron’s sons brought strange fire into the temple service, God struck them dead for it. When men decide that it is better to worship him with laser lights, smoke machines, and electric guitars versus what he commanded with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord,” we are bringing strange fire into the worship service, and God will hold us accountable for that (Col 3:16).

So these are not secondary issues. These practices, just as the doctrines, carry on the legacy and perpetuity of the church as established by Jesus Christ.

You alluded to Scripture being the church’s only authority, our manual. So let’s start there because I absolutely agree.

Landmarkism, however, undermines the authority of Scripture by suggesting that a true church can only exist if the people (1) understand and agree with (in this case) Primitive Baptists’ interpretations of Scripture and (2) gain the approval of Primitive Baptist elders. At least that would be the case here in the United States since, as you said, there are no other true churches in this country. Therefore, church perpetuity isn’t maintained from generation to generation by Christ and his Word, but by a very small minority of believers.

Well, that defies my understanding of the church according to the Bible. We’ve referenced Matthew 16 several times now, but look at it again. Jesus emphasized the fact that it was God who revealed the truth to Peter. And that truth was simply yet profoundly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. “And on this rock I will build my church,” Jesus said (Mt 16:18).

So what does that tell us? It doesn’t exclude the possibility of unbroken church succession, but it doesn’t endorse the idea either. Rather, the church comes into existence when God reveals the truth of his Son to his people whom he calls out of this world and into an assembly with one another. It is the Lord himself and his Word that authorizes the authenticity of a church.

Now that’s a description of the church at its most basic level, of course. And that’s all I’m talking about. When I mention the Apostles’ Creed, I’m not suggesting that those few doctrines are the full extent of what the church needs to believe or understand. The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t even cover the Lord’s Supper, not directly anyhow, or baptism. But if we’re talking about what the Bible defines as a true church or a true Christian, then I have to reject the notion that our test be anything more than what I’m calling the essential doctrines of the church.

For example, if a new convert to Christ wants to be baptized, I don’t expect them to understand the doctrine of election. But I do expect them to know enough to believe in the Holy Trinity and that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. Isn’t that how Paul defined the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15? Isn’t that what those baptized in Acts 2 believed? Of course, a conversion to Christ implies a person not only believes the gospel, but is also willing to repent and submit to baptism. If so, they become a part of the church. According to Jesus, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” them, and he gives them “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).

That’s where the church begins. Every believer grows up from that same starting place. Whether they’re initially converted in a Primitive Baptist church, or a Southern Baptist church, or a Methodist church, or in a chariot somewhere between Jerusalem and Egypt, it is God, his Word, and their faith that qualifies them to become a member of the true church.

Having said that, the local church has a right and an obligation to teach and defend any and every doctrine of the Bible. According to Romans 8, the very reason God has saved us is “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8:29). The local church is a group of believers working together to that end. With the help of one another, we’re striving to become more and more like Christ in doctrine, practice, and general morality. And every person and every church is somewhere on this uphill climb of sanctification.

The mistake of Landmarkism is not in believing there is a true church or that God preserves his church, or even defining the church’s doctrines for the sake of clarity and biblical accuracy, but in denying the greater part of the church because they haven’t attained what you perceive to be a minimum level of growth and understanding.

If the elders at Philippi had been Primitive Baptist Landmarkers, they would have denounced the church at Corinth as a false church. But Paul certainly didn’t. No, he wrote, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co 1:2). He wasn’t quite as generous with the Galatian churches, but he still called them “brothers” in the end (Gal 6:18).

Speaking of Corinth, let’s not forget what they were guilty of. They had significant moral problems including perverse sexual sins which the church refused to discipline or even acknowledge. They were divided and showing favoritism toward their upper class members, the wealthy among them. Apparently, they were confused about a number of theological issues such as marriage, divorce, participation in pagan rituals, corporate worship, the Lord’s Supper, and even the resurrection of God’s people. But to Paul they still represented the true church.

My point is, a local church’s degree of purity is a separate issue from its status as a true church. So where I draw the line between “true church” and “false church” is different than where I draw the line between—well, where I’d be willing to regularly worship or join.

For instance, at this point in my life, I wouldn’t likely join a Primitive Baptist church, but I believe Primitive Baptists represent the true church. I think of them as my brothers and sisters in Christ. I would worship with them. I would share the Lord’s Supper with them. If someone came to my church who had been baptized in a Primitive Baptist church, I wouldn’t think of re-baptizing them. I consider us all part of the body of Christ even though I have my disagreements with the Primitive Baptist Church.

Now for the sake of this discussion, let’s turn the table. And to keep things simple, let’s say the only disagreement between us is that I approve of using musical instruments in worship. So basically, I’m a Progressive Primitive Baptist. It might seem silly to focus on instruments when there are much greater issues at stake. But Primitive Baptists clearly believe this subject is significant enough to exclude people, so I’ll stick with it.

By the way, if you want to know my real views on musical instruments, I’m almost entirely indifferent. Use them. Don’t use them. Personally, I don’t consider the matter a spiritual concern at all. But for this example, I’m pro-instruments.

Primitive Baptists, of course, are adamantly against using instruments in worship. And the argument usually goes something like this: “It was David who introduced instruments into worship, not God. Even then, instruments were always used in connection with the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament (offering sacrifices, and so on). The church in the New Testament never used them either because they were considered null and void under the new covenant or because God never actually prescribed their use in worship. Either way, we shouldn’t use them.”

Now I’m going to lay aside the obvious rebuttals. We’ll just ignore the fact that God never rebuked David for praising him with instruments. I think you mentioned Amos 6. I wouldn’t use that as a proof text against instruments no more than I would use it to condemn people for sleeping on “beds of ivory” or eating lamb chops (Am 6:4). That entire passage is about personal indulgence and ignoring God’s warnings. We’ll also ignore passages such as Psalm 150 where God’s Word tells us to praise him with instruments.

Even with those points removed from the discussion, musical instruments still cannot be a proper test of fellowship. As you said, under the old covenant, God was very strict about how people worshiped him. Nadab and Abihu “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev 10:1-2).

But who ever died for playing instruments? Miriam wasn’t struck down when she praised God by playing a tambourine and dancing. David wasn’t struck down when he organized a 4,000-man praise band. So even under the strict limitations of the old covenant, God was not offended by instruments enough to say or do anything about them.

As for their connection with bygone, Old Testament worship, they are a perfect example of where Christian liberty comes into play. In Romans 14, Paul addressed several matters related to the ceremonial customs of the Old Testament. Apparently, some of the Jewish Christians refused to let go of the dietary restrictions as well as the observance of the Sabbath and other holy days of the past. And here’s what Paul said about it:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. 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. (Romans 14:5-6)

In other words, these issues fall squarely into the realm of Christian liberty. Each person is more than welcome to follow their own convictions. But notice Paul’s primary reason for stepping into the middle of their debate over food and holidays. It comes in the form of a question: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (Ro 14:4). If you’re persuaded about what’s right in your own mind, that should be good enough. Even within a single church body, a local church, you should not be judging others, or casting stumbling blocks, or being divisive. No, Paul says, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (Ro 14:22).

I see no biblical reason to think that musical instruments should be treated any different. Of course, a local church can choose not to use them. They can even believe that congregational singing sans musical instruments is a sign of greater purity in the church. And two groups may feel it’s best to worship separately because one wants to use them and the other doesn’t. But breaking or refusing fellowship over instruments is carrying the matter way too far. I imagine Christ saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of” (Lk 9:55).

Yet if I joined a Primitive Baptist church during their Communion time—remember that I’m pro-instruments in this hypothetical scenario—I would be denied. I would be excluded from the most important act of Christian fellowship, one that is not based on something as trivial as musical instruments but the death of our Lord and Savior, as though I were “a Gentile and a tax collector,” or a “heathen man and a publican” if you prefer (Mt 18:17). That is an offense to the gospel itself because it denies the very people whom Christ purchased with his blood.

Paul wrote, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6). Look closely at that passage. Notice how our unity is grounded in the Holy Trinity. He mentions God the Father in verse 6, Jesus our Lord in verse 5, and God’s Spirit in verse 4. God’s people are unified as God, Christ, and the Spirit are unified.

First, he says there is “one body and one Spirit.” It is the Spirit that brings us together into this one body. In another place, Paul said we are all “empowered by one and the same Spirit…For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1Co 12:11-13). You see, the body of Christ encompasses the entire church, every person called and baptized of the Spirit.

Second, he says there is “one faith.” Perhaps he was referring to God’s gift of faith, but I’m inclined to believe he was talking about the body of Christian doctrine. Jude used this word the same way when he said, “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Now you might say, “A-ha! There can be only one faith which proves my point.” Yes, but let’s keep that verse in context. Jude then said, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). So those excluded from the “one faith” were ungodly people promoting blatant sin and denying Christ.

Third, Paul says there is “one baptism.” While I agree there is one proper mode of baptism, which is immersion, Paul adds no caveat about who can or cannot baptize. Obviously, Christian baptism is implied. But who does the Bible authorize to baptize and be baptized?

Well, according to Christ in Matthew 16, every believer holds the keys to the kingdom. Every believer has the power to “bind on earth” (Mt 16:19). As Jesus passed this authority to his followers, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). Every believer in Christ and his gospel possesses the authority to baptize. And every repentant person who believes in Christ and his gospel is qualified to be baptized.

If we limit the purpose and significance of a believer’s baptism to a mere church-joining exercise, then we grossly misunderstand the meaning of baptism. More than an initiation ritual into an institution, baptism is an outward display of one’s belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It signifies to God and the church that this person is ready to begin his climb of sanctification. Read Romans 6:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

Doesn’t a Progressive Primitive Baptist believe in the essential doctrines, the “one faith” of Christianity? Doesn’t the Southern Baptist believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ for our sins? Why would we ever think these precious believers experienced anything less than the “one baptism” Paul mentioned in Ephesians 4? Maybe they haven’t learned every theological distinction of the Bible, but God forbid we deny their conversion and faith. And if we reject their baptisms, that’s precisely what we’re doing.

In case I haven’t done so already, let me make it abundantly clear that I believe the church should maintain and teach right doctrine in every area possible. But classifying every non-Primitive Baptist church as a false church is unnecessary and, frankly, it’s wrong.

Not only can the tenets of Landmarkism not be proven using Scripture or history, but they also lead to spiritually devastating results such as ungodly arrogance, cultish isolation, and a stifling of growth. And by growth, I primarily mean spiritual growth. You can’t grow if you think you’ve already reached the pinnacle of biblical understanding. You can’t grow if church policy doesn’t tolerate even the slightest change.