Q. Recently I came across a person who insists that Baptists are the only true church because only Baptists can trace their heritage to John the Baptist. Is this Scriptural?
A. You have encountered a position of certain Baptists, mainly in the southern part of our country, known by several labels, including Baptist Brides, Landmarkers, Missionary Baptists, Successionists, and Historic Baptists. Variation seems to exist among these groups over specific beliefs. Some believe that only their group of Baptists will go to Heaven. Others believe that while everyone who is saved will go to Heaven, only those in their churches will compose the Bride of Christ, while everyone else will merely be guests or friends at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Membership in a “true” Baptist church is extremely important to these people, as they deny a universal sense of the Body of Christ.
They’re often called Landmarkers because they see themselves as protecting the purity of the church by not removing “the ancient landmark” (Proverbs 22:28), and they may be called Successionists because they, as you heard from your acquaintance, believe they trace their heritage—an unbroken succession of their churches—directly to “John Baptist,” to the time of Christ and the apostles.
In studying the views and practices of these groups, one readily sees that they represent extremes in certain positions that otherwise have validity. For example, we do believe that Bible-teaching groups of believers have existed down through the centuries since the early New Testament church. But we place emphasis on common sound doctrine, not on a name or lineage; we never associate the name “Baptist” with a church in the New Testament. Further, we believe that all true believers compose the Body of Christ, not just Baptists, even as we unashamedly believe and teach the Baptist distinctives.
Let’s look at some Scripture passages that refute Landmarkism. Ephesians 2 describes the new birth and those who have experienced it. This passage refers to all believers, not just people who hold the name Baptist. All born-again believers compose the household of God (v. 19). This chapter also presents the Body of believers as something beyond the local assembly. Hebrews 12:22–24 bears out this truth as well. While we believe that the word “church” almost always refers in Scripture to a local body of believers and we, for example, try not to use broad, nebulous terms like “the church in Africa” or “the church in China,” we still recognize the Biblical truth that all believers everywhere and in every age do compose something—the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22, 23).
Landmarkers fail to see that “one baptism” in Ephesians 4:1–6 is not water baptism, but the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which places us into the Body of Christ. This failure not only positions the movement dangerously close to those who embrace baptismal regeneration, it also keeps the movement from realizing that not just Landmarkers have been baptized into Jesus Christ. Every true believer receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit the moment he or she experiences the new birth—even if that person has not yet been baptized in water. Water baptism does not place a person into one Body (1 Corinthians 12:13); the baptism of the Holy Spirit does.
Landmarkers hold that a believer’s water baptism isn’t legitimate unless one of their men performs it in one of their churches, and they will not accept for membership someone from another Baptist church even if that person was baptized by immersion after salvation. The apostle Paul condemned this unscriptural attitude in 1 Corinthians 1:10–17.
Landmarkers also practice closed communion. In other words, not even a Baptist outside their assembly—let alone born-again non-Baptist believers—may partake in their observances of the Lord’s Supper. This view contradicts Romans 15:7: “Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.” We have no right to bar an immersed, doctrinally sound believer from obeying the Lord by observing His Supper.
As for succession from John the Baptist down, the church did not begin with him but with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, ushering in the present dispensation (Acts 2; 11:15, 16). Keep in mind John the Baptist’s attitude and purpose: to “decrease” and to exalt Jesus, the Lamb of God (John 1:36; 3:30). Christ is the head of the church (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:20), not John the Baptist.
Examples of a group thinking it is the only true church have existed through time. Roman Catholicism is one example.
This article appeared in the “Q & A” column of the Baptist Bulletin by Norman A. Olson.