Jeremy Sarber

I'm Reformed Baptist, pastor of Joy Christian Church, and founder of Sermon Transcription Services.

Honest With Me

Who Holds the Keys To the Kingdom?

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

Second Timothy 2:2 says, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” This has been the methodology of the church going back to A.D. 60 when Paul wrote this letter.

Are you implying that there is no perpetuity of the church? Does this not imply that the methods Paul was teaching Timothy have continued throughout the ages down to the church today? I’m confused as to whether you are saying there is no continuity of the church progression or that you are just condemning denominational perpetuity. Which is it?

I probably didn’t explain what I mean by Landmarkism well enough, so let me back up and offer a fuller definition.

As you know, the Roman Catholic Church believes Christ built his church not upon all of his believing disciples, but upon divinely-appointed authority figures, the papacy, the pope. They misinterpret a vital passage in Matthew 16 where Peter confessed that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). And Jesus responded:

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [a name which means ‘stone’], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19)

Jesus used a clever play on words here. After confirming that Peter’s confession could only be the result of God’s sovereign revelation, he said, “You are Petros [a small stone], and on this petra [a foundation boulder] I will build my church.”

Now there is a real sense in which Peter and the rest of the apostles played a foundational role in the building of the church. Paul said, “The household of God [is] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20). But he also said, “Christ Jesus himself [is] the cornerstone.” Jesus is the foundation boulder if you will. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1Co 3:11).

So in Matthew 16, a boulder-like truth came from the mouth of a small stone. It’s fitting then that Peter would later describe all believers as “living stones” (1Pe 2:5). We, like Peter, have made the same confession that Jesus is the Christ.

So the rock upon which Christ built his church is himself and by extension all believers who know Christ through God’s revelation. It is to all believers that he says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

But the Catholic Church says, “No, he gave the keys to Peter, the first pope, who then passed those keys in unbroken succession to the next pope and the next.” In other words, they believe it is only by the pope’s authority that a church can be a true church of Christ or that people are allowed entrance. It’s not much different than the self-righteous methodology of the Pharisees to whom Jesus said, “You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Mt 23:13-14). The papacy effectively makes itself the gatekeeper of God’s kingdom.

Of course, Baptists have always vehemently rejected that notion, even going as far as to label the papacy, the Antichrist. The kingdom has only one King, and he is Jesus Christ, not a fallible man who “exalts himself…proclaiming himself to be God” (2Th 2:4). No, the keys to the kingdom are passed from the hand of Christ to every born-again person called by God and made “alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:5). There’s no longer an elite priesthood that mediates between God and his people. According to Peter, all of God’s people are part of a “royal priesthood” (1Pe 2:9). We all hold the keys to the kingdom.

Strangely enough, however, this distinctly Roman Catholic view of church authority and perpetuity crept in among Baptist churches in the mid-19th century. I know elements of it existed before then, but it was a man by the name of J.R. Graves who propelled it into something resembling a movement. He’s the father of what we now call Landmarkism.

In his day Graves was a very influential Baptist preacher. As the editor of The Baptist publication, he had a large audience. Well, Alexander Campbell and his misguided teachings had divided and devastated Baptist churches all over the South. I mean, he nearly destroyed Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church which was the oldest Baptist church in the state of Tennessee, not to mention a relatively large church. So Graves had good reasons for responding to the Campbellite movement, but he also committed an unfortunate overreaction.

Campbell was seeking what he believed to be a much-needed reformation of the church, a restoration of what it once was. Though his views were radically different, his motivation was similar to the first Primitive Baptists. He was trying to lead the church back to what he considered primitive Christianity.

In response, Graves wanted to establish the Baptist Church’s authenticity. He wanted to prove that the Campbellites did not represent the true church of Christ and the apostles, the church of the Bible. But rather than go to the Bible to make his case, he chose to rely on church history and succession. He thought that he could prove that Baptist churches belong to a pure lineage of churches that goes all the way back to the first Nonconformists and, ultimately, the apostles.

Well, there are a few problems with the underlying principles of Landmarkism. I’ll state the first in the form of a question. Why? Why would anyone feel that it’s necessary to prove unbroken succession? Most every church confession throughout history has said virtually the same thing; the Holy Scriptures are the church’s authority in all matters. That being the case, our denominational forefathers are, for all practical purposes, irrelevant. They could have strayed into damnable heresy, but that doesn’t change whether or not the church today is in line with what the Bible teaches.

Second, the Bible doesn’t teach unbroken church succession. You quoted 2 Timothy 2:2 where Paul told Timothy to entrust the truth of Jesus Christ to faithful men. Obviously, ideally, the church will pass the truth in unbroken succession from generation to generation. But never does the Bible require any church body to confirm its continuous lineage back to the apostles.

Let’s say, for example, God reveals the truth to a group of Mormons who are studying the Bible together. They denounce their former heresies and submit to the authority of Scripture. Well, if Landmarkism is true, then they could not be a legitimate church of Jesus Christ without first obtaining recognition or permission from a supposedly authorized church, one that can prove their perfect succession from the apostles. Not only would that be a convoluted process, but it also stands in direct contradiction to such passages as Matthew 16.

A third reason to reject Landmarkism is that it’s a pipe dream. Similar to the topic of Bible manuscripts, it’s impossible to prove there is an unbroken succession of churches. The history of sinners is too messy for that. Furthermore, what criteria do we use?

In recent years, I’ve read a lot of church history, particularly Baptist history. And if I’ve learned anything from what I’ve read, it’s that there has been very little consistency even among Baptists. I suppose they all practiced baptism by immersion, and they all believed the essential tenets of the Christian faith—you know, those doctrines summarized by what’s known as the Apostles’ Creed—but otherwise, they were all over the board.

Well, that creates an obvious problem for a Landmarker. Depending on the strictness of your standards, you will find it difficult if not impossible to trace your church’s exact form of doctrine and practice throughout history. And let’s not forget that church history contains many holes. Inevitably, a Landmarker will be forced to fill in the gaps by making assumptions.

This exercise is especially tricky for Primitive Baptists because of the strictness of their standards. I mean, they’ll sever fellowship, refusing to join together in Communion or accept the baptisms of other churches, over a lot of secondary issues (secondary at best). I read about one association in Georgia that split after the Civil War because some of the churches supported the federal government’s forgiveness of Southern debts. A few of the pastors said it was unbiblical, so they formally broke fellowship between the churches.

Forgive me for citing such a trivial example, but it’s not that far removed from the general precedent set by Primitive Baptists. There is virtually no room at all for disagreements within the denomination. I mean, it’s a serious thing to refuse a fellow-believer the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. According to Scripture, such exclusion is reserved for unbelievers, unrepentant people, and heretics. But Primitive Baptists are willing to do just that over—

Well, it’s not my intention to air dirty laundry. Suffice it to say, it is impossible to find mirror images of Primitive Baptist churches throughout all of church history. They don’t exist. Just try to trace Hyper-Calvinism back through the years. You’ll run into roadblocks even in the earliest days of the Primitive Baptists.

Now to my knowledge, Primitive Baptists have never formally adopted Graves’ Landmarkism. In fact, the denomination predates Graves. But the perspectives and practices that grow out of Landmarkism are apparent. Without even thinking about it, the churches have adopted a Roman Catholic system.

You know, since I resigned from Angier Church, I’ve been involved in starting a new church in the area. And not long ago, one brother from Angier asked me, “Who gave you the authority to start a church?” Well, whose authority do I need? Whose authority do I need to worship God with other believers, to serve Christ and one another, to study his Word together?

God chooses his people. He’s the one who calls us, draws us, grants us repentance, and adds us to his church. By his grace, we’re all members of the royal priesthood. We’re all those living stones built upon the foundation of Christ. As believers in Christ, we’ve all received the keys to the kingdom. We’ve submitted to Christ’s lordship and Scripture’s authority.

This brother has learned a black-or-white mentality that is prevalent among Primitive Baptists. In his mind, a church is either a true church or a false church. Period. There are no gray areas. But I would argue that there are, in fact, false churches as well as true churches with varying degrees of purity. That’s not hard to see when we compare the churches mentioned in the New Testament. For instance, the Philippian church and the Thessalonian church were both relatively free of any major doctrinal or moral problems. But the same can’t be said for the Galatian churches or the Corinthian church. Nevertheless, Paul still considered them true churches of Jesus Christ.

Now think about that in light of Primitive Baptist history. How many divisions have there been? How many separate factions exist? How many times has “non-fellowship” been declared? According to Ephesians 4, the body of Christ should be striving for unity. Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples” (Jn 13:34-35). And what does love require? Paul said, “Humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).

You see, Landmarkism does nothing to promote unity. It actually discourages unity by giving people the idea that they’re responsible for preserving what’s left of the Lord’s true church.

Listen, I’m not trying to be overly critical. My heart breaks for the Primitive Baptist Church. Year after year, most of the churches seem to dwindle in size and influence. And that’s contrary to what Jesus taught about his kingdom in the parables of Matthew 13. He said his kingdom would grow into a massive tree. The influence of the kingdom would permeate through the world like leaven. And you’ll notice that he put no expiration date on those promises. In fact, when he told his followers to go out and make disciples, he said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). No, I don’t see an expiration date in Scripture.

So we should ask ourselves why the churches are in decline. Personally, I believe Landmarkism has something to do with it.

There’s a moment in Luke’s Gospel when John says to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us” (Lk 9:49). What does that mean? Well, we’re not told who this other group was, but they weren’t the apostles, and that seems to have been enough for John and the others to rebuke them. But Jesus responded, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (Lk 9:50). I see a parallel in that passage.

There may be very practical reasons for believers to worship and serve separately, separate churches, separate denominations. I know that I wouldn’t join, let’s say, a Methodist church. But that’s a separate issue from who is and who’s not part of the true church. You know, my parents are Primitive Baptists. And even though we share a devout faith in Christ, we may never again share the Lord’s Supper. Church policy forbids it. The principles of Landmarkism won’t allow it. But why? What biblical justification is there?

Anyway, to answer your question concisely—I know it’s a little late for that—there is church perpetuity. When Christ returns, his church will still be here. But it may not look like a Primitive Baptist church, certainly not all of it.