In addition to being an Investigations Manager for a Washington State agency, I’m also a pastor at my church. So, I’m pretty busy – which is why I haven’t written much here for the past year or so. But, having said that, this past March, I self-published a book about Baptist polity.

Why did I do this, and what do I have to say that’s worth reading? Fair enough. Here are some short answers:

  1. I wrote the book in a deliberately low-key, conversational style. I tried to avoid using an academic tone. Basically, my target reader is an interested, “ordinary” Christian of any denominational stripe.
  2. I frame the matter as a contrast between the members of the Old and New Covenants. If you’re a dispensationalist, this is a unique way of putting things. Basically, I argue like a Reformed Baptist.
  3. I argue for open communion; that is, anybody who confesses Christ as Savior and claims to be a member of the New Covenant may partake of the Lord’s Supper.
  4. I argue that believer’s baptism isn’t a prerequisite for participation in the Lord’s Supper, and interact at length with the arguments against this position.
  5. I argue for immersion as the correct mode of baptism by a very thorough look at the relevant passages. But, I’m also honest enough to admit the case isn’t a “slam-dunk.” It’s an inference from good principles. I’d give immersion a C+/B- on a grading scale, but I think it’s the best way.
  6. The book isn’t polemical. I love and respect other ecclesiastical traditions, and interact with them fairly. I just think they’re wrong!

I wrote the book for ordinary church members. Most books about polity are written for pastors by theologians. Mine is written for ordinary Christians by a pastor. The only recent book with similar aims is one by Kevin Bauder, a theologian at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis. But, Bauder writes from a dispensational framework and his audience is Baptist fundamentalists.

I tried my best to present a winsome, irenic and positive case for the Baptist way to “do church.” If you’d like to check the book out, here it is (in trade paperback and Kindle):

Baptismal Chaos!

Many Christians (and some Baptists) don’t realize that Baptists have a completely different view on baptism than most other Christians. What are the differences? I’ll tell you. We believe baptism is only for believers. This means we don’t baptize babies or other children who are too young to understand and obey the command to repent and believe the Gospel. We believe baptism is by immersion, because, well … that’s what the word “baptize” means! The Scripture also shows us Jesus coming up out of the Jordan River (Mk 1:10), which means He originally went out into the river, which wouldn’t be necessary if he was sprinkled. The early churches understood baptism was by immersion, because they wrote and told us so, and that’s why ancient churches have been found with baptisteries! There are other reasons, too. We also don’t believe baptism does anything to the person. Instead, we believe Scripture teaches baptism is an outward picture of a spiritual reality that’s already happened. You don’t become a Christian by being baptized. You’re baptized to show that you already are a Christian. I say all that (and, to be sure, there’s a lot more to be said!) so you have a context to understand why I’m going to criticize this (below). It’s a short excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer, which is a product of the English Reformation, in the mid-16th century. The first edition was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, a faithful believer and Archbishop of Canterbury who was later killed for his faith. The Church of England has largely folded like a paper doll on the moral and ethical issues of the day, at least at the higher bureaucratic levels. Its cousin in the USA, the Episcopal Church, is not really a Christian organization any longer (there are local exceptions). But, the official doctrine of the Church of England is thoroughly conservative. Though some quarters of the Church of England has largely given up following or caring about its doctrine, on paper, at least, they have a conservative, Bible-believing theology. The 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer says the following about baptism. There are a few things that are so good here. But, there’s also a lot that’s so bad. See what you can spot:
Dear Lord, forasmuch as all men are conceived and borne in sin
Too true. Good.
and that no man borne in sin can enter into the kingdom of God (except he be regenerate, and born again of water and the holy ghost),
Why is this mentioned in the context of baptism? Well, because of John 3:5, in which Jesus says to Nicodemus, ““Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” (Jn 3:5). As early as the mid-2nd century, Christians began misinterpreting this verse to be referring to a synergy of baptism + Holy Spirit. No. Both references (water + Spirit) are referring to the Holy Spirit. See, for example, the numerous passages about the New Covenant that refer to the Spirit as a water that cleanses the recipients from sin and unrighteousness (Ezek 36:24-29). Mark tells us that John the Baptist understood these references to be a baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would cleanse Israelites from all their sins (Mk 1:4, 8). The Apostle Paul adopted these water metaphors, and spoke about how Christians are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,” (Titus 3:5-6). Again, note the water metaphor.  But, you see, many Christian denominations still believe baptism “does something” to the recipient. This is what the Book of Common Prayer assumes. This is terribly wrong. Wrong every which way you slice it. It’s what the Church of England still teaches. Consider what their doctrine says about baptism:
BAPTISM is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Nope. But, we return to the excerpt we were discussing previously:
I beseech you to call upon God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bountiful mercy he will grant to the children that thing, which by nature they cannot have, that is to say, they may be baptized with the Holy Ghost and received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made lively members of the same.

These are instructions for the priest to utter during the baptismal ceremony for babies being brought for baptism. The priest is supposed to call upon those present to ask God to grant forgiveness of sins and spiritual life to the baby as she is baptized.

No. No. No. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ who aren’t Baptists. They’re just so terribly wrong about this whole matter. The Book of Acts doesn’t show unbelievers being baptized. Never. The Book of Common Prayer is a beautiful piece of literature, and it’s shaped much of Christian liturgy in the English-speaking world. But, it’s wrong here. What you think about the church matters. Being a Baptist matters. Ciao.

Getting Baptism Wrong

augustineIt’s astonishing to me how quickly Christian churches lost the meaning of believer’s baptism in the first centuries after Christ returned to heaven. The early church quickly adopted a baptismal regeneration view of the ordinance; a view that is completely at odds with the New Testament documents.

Perhaps the largest culprit for this misinterpretation is a wrong-headed understanding of Jesus’ words from John 3:5, in which Jesus explains the meaning of the new and spiritual birth to Nicodemus. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

For several reasons, this is best understood as a double-metaphor, with water and Spirit both referring to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in salvation (cf. Ezek 36; Mk 1:8). However, anyone who has spent time reading the early apostolic and post-apostolic literature knows very well how this passage (and others) were interpreted to teach a spiritual regeneration view of the ordinance of baptism.

Indeed, Christian literature from the mid-2nd century demonstrates that some believers thought there was no forgiveness for sins committed after baptism.[1] Again, this isn’t a concept taught anywhere in the New Testament. By the mid-4th century, the process for adult baptism had become quite elaborate and superstitious.[2]

I’ve started reading Augustine’s Confessions, which is one of those books every seminary graduate comes across, knows he should read, but usually doesn’t. Well, I decided I’d better.

Here are some remarks Augustine made about baptism. It gives us a representative glimpse into what Christians in North Africa thought about the ordinance in the mid-4th century. It also shows us how far they’d slipped from any semblance of a New Testament doctrine of baptism:[3]

Even as a boy I had heard of eternal life promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God condescending to our pride, and I was signed with the sign of the cross, and was seasoned with His salt even from the womb of my mother, who greatly trusted in Thee.

Thou sawest, O Lord, how at one time, while yet a boy, being suddenly seized with pains in the stomach, and being at the point of death—Thou sawest, O my God, for even then Thou wast my keeper, with what emotion of mind and with what faith I solicited from the piety of my mother, and of Thy Church, the mother of us all, the baptism of Thy Christ, my Lord and my God.

On which, the mother of my flesh being much troubled,—since she, with a heart pure in Thy faith, travailed in birth more lovingly for my eternal salvation,—would, had I not quickly recovered, have without delay provided for my initiation and washing by Thy life-giving sacraments, confessing Thee, O Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins.

So my cleansing was deferred, as if I must needs, should I live, be further polluted; because, indeed, the guilt contracted by sin would, after baptism, be greater and more perilous.

A few remarks:

  1. Augustine was not a believer at this time
  2. He refers to the church (that is, Christ’s church in a corporate sense) as “the mother of us all.” I believe Cyprian coined this terminology during the Novatian controversy, about 100 years before.
  3. Augustine considers baptism to be “life-giving,” and in some way efficacious to wash away sins. Given the context of his time, he believed in baptismal regeneration. He refers to baptism as “my cleansing.”
  4. His mother deferred Augustine’s baptism, because she didn’t want him to contract sins after baptism if he ended up living after all. This ties back to the false ideas that (a) baptism actually removed sins, and (b) that it only removed sins prior to baptism, and not afterwards.

The New Testament knows nothing of any of this. It’s more important than ever for Christians to hold fast to the inspired word of God. Creeds, confessions, books and theologians are good and helpful guides; very helpful, actually. But, the only infallible source of faith and practice is the Bible.

Always be willing to conform your theological tradition to the Scriptures. We’re all prisoners of our own context and times, even if we don’t realize it. You’ve been molded and shaped by your own unique circumstances, culture and theological tradition. That’s a good thing. But, it can also be an echo-chamber.

Always go to the sources. Always go to the Bible.


1 See, for example, “Shepherd of Hermes 2.4.3,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe; trans. F. Crombie (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:22.

2 For an excellent summary of the baptismal rites at the time of Augustine’s baptism from a series of contemporary sources, see David Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville: BJU Press, 2013), 1:342-347.

3 This excerpt is from Augustine of Hippo, “The Confessions of St. Augustin” 1.1.17, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. G. Pilkington (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 1:50.

Were the Novatians Early Baptists?

baptistryWere the Novatians Baptists? Many Baptists like to claim the Novatians as their own. Landmarkers believe they were Baptists through and through.

For example, J.R. Graves declared “that all the churches of Christ, before the ‘apostasy,’ which took place in the third and fourth centuries . . . were what are now called Baptist churches.”[1] Thomas Armitage, the great Baptist historian, rightly said this was a rash characterization.[2]

If they cannot be claimed as direct descendants, can Novatians be claimed as the distant spiritual kin of modern-day Baptists? Some Baptists would agree.

Much of what has been written of the Novatians by Baptists of any stripe is at best a gloss, and at worst completely incorrect. As an example of the latter, G.H. Orchard, a Landmarkist, wrote:

One Novatian, a presbyter in the church of Rome, strongly opposed the readmission of apostates, but he was not successful. The choice of a pastor in the same church fell upon Cornelius, whose election Novatian opposed, from his readiness to readmit apostates. Novatian consequently separated himself from the church, and from Cornelius’s jurisdiction. Novatian, with every considerate person, was disgusted with the hasty admission of such apostates to communion, and with the conduct of many pastors, who were more concerned about numbers than purity of communion.[3]

J.M. Carrol, in his infamous treatise Trail of Blood, declared that when the errors of compromised local church autonomy, infant baptism and baptismal regeneration crept into true churches, the Novatian Baptists sallied forth for the cause of ecclesiastical purity:

Some of the churches vigorously repudiated them. So much so that in A.D. 251, the loyal churches declared non-fellowship for those churches which accepted and practiced these errors. And thus came about the first real official separation among the churches.[4]

Jack Hoad, a solid historian, likewise missed the boat when he wrote that Novatians were “making a strong protest against the same moral laxity and the weak, almost non-existent disciplinary standards in the churches . . .”[5] Thomas Armitage observed, “[t]he Novatians demanded pure Churches which enforced strict discipline, and so were called Puritans.”[6]

All of these brief characterizations are wrong. They are either so simplistic as to be unintentionally misleading, or terribly anachronistic. A thorough review of what Cyprian and Novatian actually wrote will demonstrate that the Novatian’s doctrine of (1) baptism, (2) local church autonomy and (3) church discipline are completely incompatible with New Testament (i.e. Baptist) ecclesiology.

Background to the controversy[7]

Cast of Characters

Cyprian was Bishop of Carthage from 248-258 A.D. He fled Carthage during the Decian persecution (250-251 A.D.) and communicated with his flock by letter. He returned to Carthage after the persecution ended, and quickly worked to restore order in his church and deal with the problem of the “lapsed;” those who worshiped the Roman Emperor during the persecution.

Novatian was a leader in the church at Rome, which may have numbered over 50,000 at this time. The Bishop of that church, Fabian, perished at the beginning of the Decian persecution. Novatian handled official correspondence from the church after Fabian’s death, and probably expected to be appointed as the new Bishop. It was not to be. Cornelius was installed instead, and shortly thereafter Novatian officially broke with the church at Rome over how to handle the problem of the lapsed.[8]

The background

In the year 250 A.D, Roman Emperor Decius ordered all Christian “spokesmen” to offer a sacrifice of incense to him, to demonstrate their submission to his authority. Christian “spokesmen” were the clergy, and thus each Christian Pastor had a very serious decision to make. Sooner rather than later, a Roman pro-consul would roll into town and require all Christian leaders to come forth and make the requisite offering and, in return, receive a certificate proving obedience.

Many Christian leaders resisted this infamy and persecution, imprisonment and martyrdom soon followed. “Any refusal to obey the edict would be tantamount to treason. With many refusing to obey, the church quickly appeared as a serious threat to the unity of the Empire.”[9] This persecution ended as abruptly as it began when Decius was slain on the field of battle in 251 A.D. fighting the Goths.

It is a fact that many Christians apostatized during this time of trial. The tortures were great and terrible. Eusebius, for example, relates a representative account:

They seized first an old man named Metras, and commanded him to utter impious words. But as he would not obey, they beat him with clubs, and tore his face and eyes with sharp sticks, and dragged him out of the city and stoned him.[10]

Cyprian wrote a comprehensive treatise entitled On the Lapsed after he returned from exile. He admitted that, in Carthage, “the greatest number of the brethren betrayed their faith.”[11] They had voluntarily betrayed their Savior. Cyprian was shocked that all the clear warnings from the New Testament about persecution could be ignored. “Have not prophets aforetime, and subsequently apostles, told of these things?”[12]

Cyprian reminded his readers that Christ had ordained eternal punishment for those who rejected Him. Even worse, many Christians apparently rushed to deny Christ and escape potential harm; “freely they hastened to death, as if they had formerly wished it, as if they would embrace an opportunity now given which they had always desired.”[13]

Cyprian couldn’t help but wonder if their consciences betrayed them as they offered worship to Emperor Decius; “did not their tread falter? Did not their sight darken, their heart tremble, their arms fall helplessly down?”[14] In their zeal to apostatize, some Christian mothers even brought their infants along as they offered worship to Decius![15] Cyprian flatly condemned all apostasy during the persecution; “[n]or is there, alas, any just and weighty reason which excuses such a crime,”[16] and attributed the lax character of Christians to love of things of the world rather than Christ.[17]

Once the persecution was over, what should churches do with believers who had so readily and enthusiastically apostatized from the faith? There were two categories of people to consider;[18]

  1. those who had offered incense to the Emperor and obtained certificates proving it, and
  2. others, usually the wealthy, who had simply bribed Roman authorities and obtained their certificates without sacrificing to the Emperor. This was the question which sparked the Novatian schism.

Novatian had a peculiar view on what ought to be done about the lapsed. He broke from the Church at Rome after Cornelius was elected as Bishop. Novatian’s enemies painted a picture of him as a bitter and spiteful man, consumed with jealousy, anxious for revenge. Dionysius claimed “a long time ago this remarkable man desired the episcopate, but kept this ambitious desire to himself and concealed it,—using as a cloak for his rebellion those confessors who had adhered to him from the beginning.”[19]

Novatian’s split from the church, and his self-declaration as the Bishop of Rome, was a naked attempt to “grasp and seize the episcopate, which had not been given him from above.”[20] Dionysius even claimed that Novatian plied gullible men with liberal amounts of alcohol and “compelled” them to support his rival claim to the Bishopric![21]

Schism was a matter that Cyprian could not tolerate. To him, the corporate, catholic church (in the true sense of the word) was unbreakable. Like distinct sunbeams come from a single source, and tree branches draw strength from one root, and tiny streams flow from one large body of water – the church was the source of divine life. Cyprian wrote, “ . . . she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.”[22] Indeed, Cyprian believed that those who left church, like the Novatians, proved they were never believers in the first place (1 John 2:19):[23]

Whoever he may be, and whatever he may be, he who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian. Although he may boast himself, and announce his philosophy or eloquence with lofty words, yet he who has not maintained brotherly love or ecclesiastical unity has lost even what he previously had been.[24]

To Cyprian, the Novatians and their ilk were like the men of Korah, Dathan and Abiram – traitors to Christ! Not only that, such men were actually worse than the lapsed![25] A schismatic may die a martyr’s death but is still without hope of salvation; “[t]hey cannot dwell with God who would not be of one mind in God’s Church.”[26] The Novatians, as far as Cyprian was concerned, were not even believers – they were counterfeits; “[h]e professes himself to be a Christian in such a way as the devil often feigns himself to be Christ.”[27]

Sometime in 251 A.D., as the Novatian schism was heating up, Dionysius received a letter from Novatian asking for his support. His response sums up the prevailing attitude towards schism during this period. He told Novatian that it would better if he were martyred for the unity of the church, rather than to divide it!

For it were better to suffer everything, rather than divide the Church of God. Even martyrdom for the sake of preventing division would not be less glorious than for refusing to worship idols.[28]

This is a brief background of the situation. This complicated intrigue is usually simplistically portrayed as (1) Novatian the Baptist (or Baptist forerunner) standing on principle against the (2) dark and sinister forces of a centralized church. Well, what did Novatian actually believe? Can he be claimed as a Baptist, or at least a Baptist forerunner?

Doctrine compared


Baptists believe the New Testament teaches that baptism is only for a believer, by immersion, upon a profession of faith, as a step of obedience and public testimony. Baptists do not believe baptism is a means of grace or a means of regeneration. Novatian disagreed with every single one of these propositions. One very important document from this period is entitled On the Apostolic Tradition, which may have been written by Hippolytus and records the practices of the church in Rome in the early 3rd century.[29]

The Decian persecution, and the subsequent Novatian schism, took place during the early to late 250’s A.D. Therefore, Apostolic Traditions is a very important resource for understanding how the church at Rome likely operated in Novatian’s day. It is a fact that the church practiced infant baptism:

You are to baptize the little ones first. All those who are able to speak for themselves should speak. With regard to those who cannot speak for themselves their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family, should speak. Then baptize the grown men and finally the women, after they have let down their hair and laid down the gold and silver ornaments which they have on them. Nobody should take any alien object down into the water.[30]

This snapshot of church polity in Rome around the time of Novatian demonstrates that the church practiced infant baptism.[31] “Little ones” were to be baptized before adults. These “little ones” were divided into those who could speak for themselves, and those who could not. Apparently, the little ones were members of a family who were all being baptized together.

Unless a critic is prepared to dismiss Apostolic Traditions out of hand, or is willing to explain away the baptism of these “little ones” too young to speak for themselves, or perhaps even argue that Novatian secretly disagreed with this practice in his own church where he was already an acknowledged leader, then it is a fact that Novatian’s church in Rome practiced infant baptism and he likely approved of the practice.

Novatian himself was baptized by pouring. He was sick and near death, and was baptized upon his sickbed. Eusebius, the historian, recorded a now lost epistle from Cornelius (Novatian’s successor) to this effect:

But Satan, who entered and dwelt in him for a long time, became the occasion of his believing. Being delivered by the exorcists, he fell into a severe sickness; and as he seemed about to die, he received baptism by affusion, on the bed where he lay; if indeed we can say that such a one did receive it. And when he was healed of his sickness he did not receive the other things which it is necessary to have according to the canon of the Church, even the being sealed by the bishop. And as he did not receive this, how could he receive the Holy Spirit?[32]

Cornelius went to observe that Novatian’s irregular baptism was not becoming of a clergyman, and it nearly cost him his position:

For this illustrious man forsook the Church of God, in which, when he believed, he was judged worthy of the presbyterate through the favor of the bishop who ordained him to the presbyterial office. This had been resisted by all the clergy and many of the laity; because it was unlawful that one who had been affused on his bed on account of sickness as he had been should enter into any clerical office; but the bishop requested that he might be permitted to ordain this one only.[33]

There is more evidence to suggest that Novatian’s doctrine of baptism was suspect. In his treatise on the Trinity, in the context of defending the humanity of Christ, Novatian wrote, “ . . . in baptism and in the dissolution of death the flesh is raised up and returns to salvation, by being recalled to the condition of innocency when the mortality of guilt is put away.”[34]

Is Novatian speaking of Spirit baptism, or of the ordinance of water baptism? Elsewhere, commenting on the fulfillment of Jewish dietary laws in the finished work of Christ, Novatian condemns those who still observed the Mosaic Law – likening it to voluntary slavery. “Yet there is no advantage at all of righteousness, while we are recalled by a voluntary slavery to those elements to which by baptism we have died.”[35] This quotation could also be seen to refer to Spirit baptism.

Novatian does make one very clear statement that strongly suggests he held to some form of baptismal regeneration:

He it is who effects with water the second birth, as a certain seed of divine generation, and a consecration of a heavenly nativity, the pledge of a promised inheritance, and as it were a kind of handwriting of eternal salvation; who can make us God’s temple, and fit us for His house; who solicits the divine hearing for us with groanings that cannot be uttered; filling the offices of advocacy, and manifesting the duties of our defence . . .[36]

J.N.D. Kelly, for one, is convinced that Novatian believed the Spirit did something at baptism. [37] One cannot read Novatian’s words and come away with another interpretation. His successor in Rome, Cornelius, went a step further and believed that the Holy Spirit was only given to a believer after baptism and after the bishop laid hands on the candidate![38] Cornelius went so far as to question whether Novatian was actually indwelt by the Spirit because of his irregular baptism:

And as he did not receive this [confirmation by laying on of hands after baptism], how could he receive the Holy Spirit?[39]

The third-century book On the Apostolic Tradition documents what the church in Rome (Novatian’s church!) did immediately after baptism:

And afterwards, each drying himself, they shall dress themselves, and afterwards let them go into the church. And the bishop, laying his hand on them invokes, saying: Lord God, you have made them worthy to deserve the remission of sins through the laver of regeneration: make them worthy to be filled with the Holy Spirit, send your grace upon them that they may serve you in accordance with your will; for to you is glory, to the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit in the holy church both now and to the ages of the ages. Amen.[40]

Briefly, it has been demonstrated that (1) the church at Rome likely practiced infant baptism during Novatian’s day, (2) Novatian himself was baptized by pouring, not immersion, and (3) his baptism was not done as a public testimony of his new-found faith – it was done in private, upon a sickbed.[41]

Moreover, Novatian made numerous statements that could be interpreted to support some form of baptismal regeneration. Not only that, but documents from the church at Rome from the 3rd century suggest that Novatian’s church believed the Holy Spirit was bestowed after baptism and after confirmation by the bishop. Cornelius, Novatian’s own successor, criticized him for (1) his irregular baptism and (2) not having been confirmed afterwards! This is not the portrait of a Baptist crusader.

Autonomy of the local church

Baptists believe that the local church is an autonomous, independent, democratic body. It is not a representative democracy, like the Presbyterian model. It is a direct democracy, more akin to a town-hall meeting, where every member has a say and carries equal weight. This does not rule out cooperation and consultation with other like-minded churches; it simply means that, in the end, the local church makes its own decisions.

In 250 A.D., Novatian had stepped into the breach when good Bishop Fabian was martyred. In this capacity, he corresponded with other churches on behalf of the church at Rome. He was on friendly and cordial terms with Cyprian at this time. In a letter to Cyprian, Novatian[42] agreed with him that, as soon as the persecution ended, a council should be convened to determine what to do about those who had lapsed from the faith:

However, what you also have yourself declared in so important a matter, is satisfactory to us, that the peace of the Church must first be maintained; then, that an assembly for counsel being gathered together, with bishops, presbyters, deacons, and confessors, as well as with the laity who stand fast, we should deal with the case of the lapsed.[43]

More specifically, Novatian believed this issue was too big for individual churches to make on their own. He believed in what Robert Reymond would call a connectionalism,[44] or a catholicity among churches. Important decisions ought to be made only after close consultation with other men from other churches:

Look upon almost the whole world devastated, and observe that the remains and the ruins of the fallen are lying about on every side, and consider that therefore an extent of counsel is asked for, large in proportion as the crime appears to be widely propagated.[45]

J.M. Carroll warned his readers that if they found a church which didn’t hold to a series of identifiable “marks,” then beware! Among these marks, he wrote:

[t]he churches in their government and discipline to be entirely separate and independent of each other. Jerusalem to have no authority over Antioch; nor Antioch over Ephesus; nor Ephesus over Corinth; and so forth. And their government to be congregational, democratic. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.[46]

If this be the case, Landmarkers should stop claiming Novatians as their kin!

After the persecution ended, Cyprian held his own council in North Africa, as did Cornelius in Rome[47] (by this time Cornelius had been elected as Bishop and Novatian had split from the church). The Western churches by this time appear to have developed a distinctly Presbyterian-style of polity, whereby the decrees of representative councils were expected to be obeyed. Notice the corporate decision-making process in Cyprian’s North African council:

 . . . the advice gathered from the comparison of all opinions being communicated and weighed, we might determine what was necessary to be done. But if any one, before our council, and before the opinion decided upon by the advice of all, should rashly wish to communicate with the lapsed, he himself should be withheld from communion.[48]

Novatian agreed with the idea of a cooperative council to decide what was to be done with the lapsed. His successor, Cornelius, later held a council in Rome to formulate that policy. There is no concept of the autonomy of individual, local churches. The best that can be said for Novatian is that he wished to include the laity in his council. Instead, there is a distinctly Presbyterian-flavor to this ecclesiology. In the ensuing controversy, Cyprian would move the church well along the path towards an Episcopalian polity.

Church discipline and the lapsed

 Most Baptists would agree with Cyprian on church discipline, if they would only read what he wrote. Ernest Pickering’s characterization is representative of what most Baptists believe about this issue; “[b]asically, he and his followers were contending for a stricter view of the requirements for church membership than was generally accepted in his day.”[49]

Thus, Novatian is a crusading separatist; Cyprian is a lax compromiser. The truth is that Novatian was a schismatic exclusivist.


Cyprian was not lax. He believed that the truly repentant ought to be re-admitted into fellowship, and the unrepentant be excluded. When some of the lapsed presumptuously demanded to be re-admitted to the church, Cyprian condemned this “seditious practice” and charged that the clergy who permitted it were “frightened and subdued” men, who “were of little avail to resist them, either by vigour of mind or by strength of faith.”[50] Instead, Cyprian advocated a moderate, sensible policy:

 . . . we balanced the decision with wholesome moderation, so that neither should hope of communion and peace be wholly denied to the lapsed, lest they should fail still more through desperation, and, because the Church was closed to them, should, like the world, live as heathens; nor yet, on the other hand, should the censure of the Gospel be relaxed, so that they might rashly rush to communion, but that repentance should be long protracted, and the paternal clemency be sorrowfully besought, and the cases, and the wishes, and the necessities of individuals be examined into . . .[51]

A priest must be able to discern false confessions from real ones.[52] Cyprian actually believed the lapsed were actually being re-admitted too readily! Those who allowed the unrepentant to return to fellowship were actually harming them.[53]

Returning from the altars of the devil, they draw near to the holy place of the Lord, with hands filthy and reeking with smell, still almost breathing of the plague-bearing idol-meats; and even with jaws still exhaling their crime, and reeking with the fatal contact, they intrude on the body of the Lord![54]

Pastors who re-admitted the lapsed rashly ought to be shunned.[55] Cyprian fumed at these men; “[w]hy do they hinder those who ought to weep continually and to entreat their Lord, from the sorrowing of repentance, and pretend to receive them to communion?”[56] Folks who are truly unrepentant are easy to spot, Cyprian argued – just look at their fruit![57] These people received no forgiveness for their denial of Christ.[58] Cyprian’s policy was to look for fruits of honest repentance; for example, he recommended accepting some lapsed people back into fellowship who had been repentant for three whole years!

 . . . we think it may be sufficient for entreating the mercy of the Lord, that for three years continually and sorrowfully, as you write, they have lamented with excessive penitential mourning.[59]

If a priest unwittingly admitted a false repentant person, Cyprian was content to let the Lord sort it all out;

Moreover, we do not prejudge when the Lord is to be the judge; save that if He shall find the repentance of the sinners full and sound, He will then ratify what shall have been here determined by us. If, however, any one should delude us with the pretence of repentance, God, who is not mocked, and who looks into man’s heart, will judge of those things which we have imperfectly looked into, and the Lord will amend the sentence of His servants.[60]

The following words from Cyprian should destroy the false idea that the man was lax about re-admitting the lapsed:

To a deep wound let there not be wanting a long and careful treatment; let not the repentance be less than the sin. Think you that the Lord can be quickly appeased, whom with faithless words you have denied, to whom you have rather preferred your worldly estate, whose temple you have violated with a sacrilegious contact? Think you that He will easily have mercy upon you whom you have declared not to be your God?

You must pray more eagerly and entreat; you must spend the day in grief; wear out nights in watchings and weepings; occupy all your time in wailful lamentations; lying stretched on the ground, you must cling close to the ashes, be surrounded with sackcloth and filth; after losing the raiment of Christ, you must be willing now to have no clothing; after the devil’s meat, you must prefer fasting; be earnest in righteous works, whereby sins may be purged; frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, whereby souls are freed from death.[61]

All in all, Cyprian advocated a sensible, strict and practical approach to the lapsed. He was not lax at all. Historians who claim otherwise have simply have not read his writings.[62]


What did Novatian really think about lapsed apostates? Could they ever be re-admitted to fellowship? Some irresponsible historians have painted a false picture in their writings. One of these men is G.H. Orchard, who wrote:

Novatian, with every considerate person, was disgusted with the hasty admission of such apostates to communion, and with the conduct of many pastors, who were more concerned about numbers than purity of communion.[63]

To Orchard, Novatian was a pious, principled Baptist – a man who exercised an influence of “an upright example, and moral suasion.”[64] The fundamental question is this – is there any circumstance where an apostate may be re-admitted to fellowship in a local church? Is any amount of repentance sufficient? Or, are these believers cut off from fellowship, let alone membership, in a local church?

Novatian believed the sin was unforgiveable. J.M. Cramp accurately summed up the issue:

Novatian held that apostacy was a sin which disqualified them from again entering into church fellowship, and to secure a pure community, he formed a separate church, which elected him for its pastor.[65]

Alas, it wasn’t always this way! Novatian did not leave many extant writings. The best and most helpful of these is Epistle 30, found in Cyprian’s collection of writings. In this letter, before the schism, Novatian was in full agreement with Cyprian on what to do about the lapsed. Strict discipline was essential for preserving the church.[66] Hasty restoration of the lapsed was an insult to the fallen and a detriment to the lapsed themselves.[67] He advocated for a prolonged and genuine repentance; what Novatian himself called a “middle course:”[68]

Let them indeed knock at the doors, but assuredly let them not break them down; let them present themselves at the threshold of the church, but certainly let them not leap over it; let them watch at the gates of the heavenly camp, but let them be armed with modesty, by which they perceive that they have been deserters; let them resume the trumpet of their prayers, but let them not therewith sound a point of war; let them arm themselves indeed with the weapons of modesty, and let them resume the shield of faith, which they had put off by their denial through the fear of death, but let those that are even now armed believe that they are armed against their foe, the devil, not against the Church, which grieves over their fall.

A modest petition will much avail them; a bashful entreaty, a necessary humility, a patience which is not careless. Let them send tears as their ambassadors for their sufferings; let groanings, brought forth from their deepest heart, discharge the office of advocate, and prove their grief and shame for the crime they have committed.[69]

In all respects, the Novatian who wrote Epistle 30 around 250 A.D, before the schism, was in complete agreement with Cyprian. Anyone who compares Epistle 30 with Cyprian’s On the Lapsed would believe they were written by kindred spirits. Unfortunately, Novatian changed his mind. Nobody knows why he changed his mind; there are no extant writings which tell us. There are rumors Novatin was a reluctant figurehead, but Eusebius very much doubted it.[70] All the record tells us is that, after the schism at the church of Rome, Novatian apparently decided that the lapsed could never be forgiven.

Cyprian complained to Cornelius in Rome (who had been elected to the position Novatian likely craved for himself) that the Novatians were guilty of “grievous rigor” and “inhuman hardness.”[71] Novatian was “the opponent of mercy and love.”[72] Moreover, Dionysius lamented that Novatian “has calumniated our most compassionate Lord Jesus Christ as unmerciful.”[73] Cyprian wrote to a church leader in Arles that Novatian was in grave error:

 . . . holding that most extreme depravity of heretical presumption, that the comforts and aids of divine love and paternal tenderness are closed to the servants of God who repent, and mourn, and knock at the gate of the Church with tears, and groans, and grief; and that those who are wounded are not admitted for the soothing of their wounds, but that, forsaken without hope of peace and communion, they must be thrown to become the prey of wolves and the booty of the devil . . .[74]

It appears, from the words of his enemies, that Novatian decided the lapsed were simply without hope of forgiveness. This was why Dionysius called him “brother-hating and inhuman.”[75] He had become an exclusivist somewhere along the way; an anonymous critic sneered, “[c]ertainly he declares that he and his friends whom he collects are gold!”[76]

Cornelius, for his part, saw Novatian as a “wily and subtle man” with the “poisoned cunning” of a serpent.[77] Novatian apparently based his position on Matthew 10:33; “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” This same anonymous author rejected this line of argument, noting that “its meaning is assuredly with respect to future time—to the time at which the Lord shall begin to judge the secrets of men—to the time at which we must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.” [78] The author did not understand how Novatian could change his mind so radically. He compared Novatian to Saul, who likewise turned rotten at the end.[79]

Other men have wondered the same thing throughout the years. Ambrose, writing in the late 4th century about the Novatian schism, remarked that “[f]or when the Lord forgave all sins, He made an exception of none.”[80] How could Novatian be so harsh as to suggest that the lapsed could never be forgiven? Jerome, writing at roughly the same time, went even further. Denying Christ, he argued, certainly was not the unpardonable sin. How could Novatian suggest it was?

But to put a more searching question still: let Novatian tell us how he distinguishes speaking against the Son of Man from blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. For I maintain that on his principles men who have denied Christ under persecution have only spoken against the Son of Man, and have not blasphemed the Holy Ghost.[81]

Later Novatians continued to believe that the lapsed had indeed committed an unpardonable sin. The historian Socrates Scholasticus, writing sometime in the late 4th and early 5th century, recorded Emperor Constantine’s interview with a Novatian Bishop. The record tells us that Constantine was casting about, trying to find a way to heal the division between the Novatians and the church. He called for the Novatian Bishop, Acesius, and asked why the schism still persisted:

When, therefore, the emperor further asked him, ‘For what reason then do you separate yourself from communion with the rest of the Church?’ he related what had taken place during the persecution under Decius; and referred to the rigidness of that austere canon which declares, that it is not right persons who after baptism have committed a sin, which the sacred Scriptures denominate ‘a sin unto death’ to be considered worthy of participation in the sacraments: that they should indeed be exhorted to repentance, but were not to expect remission from the priest, but from God, who is able and has authority to forgive sins.

When Acesius had thus spoken, the emperor said to him, ‘Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven.’ [82]

Constantine’s answer can still draws a laugh today! The implication, of course, is that Acesius is arrogant, haughty and exclusivistic. Later in his church history, Socrates relates his own account of the Novatian schism, and makes it quite clear that Novatian believed the church had no power to accept the lapsed back into fellowship. They had committed a “deadly sin” and could not partake of the sacraments. Novatian exhorted the lapsed to repent and to hope that God would forgive them. Meanwhile, they could not fellowship with other believers. Socrates observed;

As he asked that they should not receive to the sacraments those who after baptism had committed any deadly sin this appeared to some a cruel and merciless course: but others received the rule as just and conducive to the maintenance of discipline, and the promotion of greater devotedness of life.[83]

It appears, in the final analysis, that Novatian changed his mind somewhere along the line. He and Cyprian had been in essential agreement. However, he came to believe the following:

  1. The sin of the lapsed was so great (a “deadly sin”) that the church could not re-admit them to fellowship under any
  2. Meanwhile, the lapsed must be encouraged to seek repentance from God and could be given no encouragement or assurance that He even would forgive their sin
  3. He felt Cyprian’s policy towards the lapsed was too loose; indeed, it was blasphemous for the lapsed to be allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper.


So, was Novatian a Baptist? Much more could be written about the Novatian schism. However, just from a brief examination of Novatian’s doctrine, it is apparent that the man cannot be claimed as Baptist:

  • His church likely practiced infant baptism, he himself was baptized by pouring and, in his own case, the ordinance was not performed as a public testimony of his faith. Moreover, there is good evidence that Novatian’s church believed in some form of baptismal regeneration.
  • Novatian favored a primitive, Presbyterian-style church polity characterized by a connectionalism between churches. He favored large ecclesiastical councils which decided doctrine and practice for several churches. There is no evidence that Novatian believed in the independence and autonomy of the local church.
  • Finally, Novatian was un-Biblical in his exclusion of the lapsed from fellowship in the church. He felt their sin was unpardonable, and declared they were without hope of forgiveness. He was schismatic and exclusivistic.

This is a far cry from the sweeping generalizations in so many Baptist publications. In three key areas of Baptist polity, (1) baptism, (2) autonomy and (3) church membership, Novatian was sub-Biblical and decidedly un-Baptist. John Christian, in his Baptist history, gamely tried to salvage something from the Novatians:

The Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists held diverse opinions, not only from each other, but from the teachings of the New Testament; but they stressed tremendously the purity of the church.[84]

Novatian did not merely stress the purity of the church; he believed the lapsed were without hope of forgiveness! No amount of honest repentance was apparently enough for Novatian; it would be difficult to find a fiery Baptist who would agree with Novatian on this point. The man was not a Baptist, and cannot legitimately be claimed as the spiritual kin of any Baptist.


[1] James R. Graves, Old Landmarkism: What Is It? (Memphis, TN: Graves, Mahaffey & Co, 1880; Kindle reprint, First Vision Publishers, n.d.), Kindle Locations 2235-2236.

[2] Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists, revised and enlarged ed. (New York, NY: Bryan, Taylor, & Co.,

1890; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, n.d.), 482.

[3] G. H. Orchard, A Concise History of Baptists (Nashville, TN: 1855; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 2003), 53.

[4] J. M. Carroll, The Trail of Blood, Kindle ed. (Emmaus, PA: Challenge Press, 2013), Kindle Locations 294-295.

[5] Jack Hoad, The Baptist (London, England: Grace Publications, 1986), 30.

[6] Armitage, History of the Baptists, 178.

[7] Two church historians have particularly excellent accounts of this whole matter. First, see Philip Schaff, A History of the Christian Church, 8 vols., 5th ed. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1858; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 2:193-197, 849-853. Second, see David O. Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2013), 1:183-199.

[8] Schaff, History, 2:849-850.

[9] David O. Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2013), 1:187.

[10] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.41.3, NPNF2, 1:283.

[11] Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed 7, ANF 5:439.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, On the Lapsed 8.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, On the Lapsed 9.

[16] Ibid, On the Lapsed 10.

[17] See On the Lapsed 11-12.

[18] Beale, Historical Theology, 1:187-188.

[19] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.43.5, NPNF2, 1:287.

[20] Ibid, 6.43.8, NPNF2, 1:288.

[21] Ibid, 6.43.9-10, NPNF2, 1:288.

[22] Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church 5, ANF 5:423.

[23] Ibid, On the Unity of the Church 9, ANF 5:424.

[24] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 51.24, ANF 5:333.

[25] Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church 18-19, ANF 5:427.

[26] Ibid, On the Unity of the Church 14, ANF 5:426.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.45.2, NPNF2, 1:290.

[29] See the introductory material to Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition, trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Popular Patristics Series, Number 22, ed. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 20-32.

[30] Ibid 21.4-5, 110–111.

[31] The interpretation of this passage is hotly contested! G. Wainwright observes, “[h]istorians and exegetes have a heavy ecclesial and ecclesiological investment here, for the answer effects, even if it does not finally settle, the contested issue of the impropriety, legitimacy or necessity of infant baptism,” (“Baptism, Baptismal Rites,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids [Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1997], 123).

[32] Eusebius, Church History 6.43.14-16, NPNF2 1:288-289.

[33] Ibid, 6.43.17, NPNF2 1:289.

[34] Novatian, On the Trinity 10, ANF 5:620. Emphasis mine.

[35] Ibid, On the Jewish Meats 5, ANF 5:649. Emphasis mine.

[36] Ibid, On the Trinity 29, ANF 5:641. Emphasis mine.

[37] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1978), 209.

[38] See Eusebius, Church History 6.43.14-16, NPNF2 1:288-289.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition 21:20-21, 112.  The editor of this edition disagrees that the text supports bestowal of the Spirit. He believes it is a prayer that believers be filled with the Spirit at a later date; something like an early Keswick doctrine (123).

[41] There is not sufficient space to explore why, precisely, Novatian felt it necessary to be baptized upon his sick-bed. Did he feel that baptism was more than a mere symbol, and actually did something to the subject? Philip Schaff noted that believers in this day often postponed baptism as long as possible, believing that baptism itself only washed sins away that were committed prior to baptism (History, 2:254). The seeds of baptismal regeneration and the concept of penance were germinating in Novatian’s day; and Cyprian would do a great deal of the fertilizing.

[42] Cyprian later explicitly identifies Novatian as the author of this letter; see Epistle 51.5 ANF 5:328.

[43] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.5, ANF 5:310.

[44] Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 900-904.

[45] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.5, ANF 5:310.

[46] Carroll, Trail of Blood, Kindle Locations 179-181.

[47] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 51.6, ANF 5:328

[48] Ibid, Epistle 51.4, ANF 5:328.

[49] Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 1979), 13.

[50] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 22.3, ANF 5:300.

[51] Ibid, Epistle 51.6, ANF 5:328. See also Epistle 54.13, ANF 5:343.

[52] Ibid, On the Lapsed 14, ANF 5:441.

[53] Ibid, On the Lapsed 18, ANF 5:442.

[54] Ibid, On the Lapsed 15, ANF 5:441.

[55] Ibid, Epistle 27.1, ANF 5:306.

[56] Ibid, On the Lapsed 16, ANF 5:441.

[57] Ibid, On the Lapsed 30, ANF 5:445-446.

[58] Ibid, On the Lapsed 34, ANF 5:446.

[59] Ibid, Epistle 52.2, ANF 5:336.

[60] Ibid, Epistle 51.18, ANF 5:331.

[61] Ibid, On the Lapsed 34, ANF 5:447.

[62] This author read every single epistle and treatise Cyprian wrote. Much more evidence could be marshalled in support of Cyprian’s approach to church discipline than what is presented here.

[63] Orchard (Concise History of the Baptists, 53).

[64] Ibid, 54.

[65] J. M. Cramp, Baptist History: From the Foundation of the Christian Church to the Close of the Eighteenth Century (London, UK: Paternoster, 1871; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, n.d.), ii.

[66] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.2, ANF 5:309.

[67] Ibid, Epistle 30.3, ANF 5:309

[68] Ibid, Epistle 30.8, ANF 5:311.

[69] Ibid, Epistle 30.6, ANF 5:310.

[70] Eusebius, Church History 6.45.1, NPNF2, 1:290.

[71] Cyprian, Epistle 53.5, ANF 5:338.

[72] Ibid, Epistle 66.4, ANF 5:369.

[73] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 7.8, NPNF2, 1:296.

[74] Cyprian, Epistle 66.1, ANF 5:368. See also Epistle 54.13, ANF 5:343.

[75] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.43.2, NPNF2, 1:286.

[76] A Treatise Against the Heretic Novatian by an Anonymous Bishop 1, ANF 5:657.

[77] Cyprian, Epistle 45.1, ANF 5:322-323.

[78] A Treatise Against the Heretic Novatian by an Anonymous Bishop 7-8, ANF 5:659.

[79] Ibid, 14, ANF 5:661.

[80] Ambrose of Milan, Two Books Concerning Repentance 1.2.5, NPNF2 10:330.

[81] Jerome, Letters 42.2, NPNF2 6:57.

[82] Socrates Scholasticus, Eccesiastical History 1.10, NPNF2 2:17, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. A. C. Zenos (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890).

[83] Ibid, Ecclesiastical History 4.28, NPNF2 2:112.

[84] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists,  2 vols. (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013), vol. 1, Kindle Locations 79-80.

On Potlucks and Baptist Business Meetings

It’s normal in Baptist circles to interpret the so-called Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) as a local church business meeting. I remember when I first came across this interpretation in Paul Jackson’s little book on Baptist polity. More recently, Kevin Bauder wrote:

Sometimes called the Jerusalem Council, this assembly was not really a church council at all. It was a business meeting of the local church in Jerusalem. The need for the meeting developed when teachers from Jerusalem came to Antioch with the message that circumcision was essential to salvation.[1]

Acts 15 was a church business meeting? Where, pray tell, was the potluck? I don’t think this argument really holds up, and Acts 16:4 is one reason why. But first – a brief survey of the text.

Big Trouble in Little Antioch

Certain men “from Judea” (not necessarily the Jerusalem church) came down to Antioch and began teaching that people had to follow the Mosaic law (specifically ritual circumcision) in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Paul wrote against this heresy in the book of Galatians.

After Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and debate” with these brigands, the church at Antioch appointed them to head to Jerusalem and go “to the apostles and elders about this question,” (Acts 15:2). It seems Antioch recognized the apostles’ inherent authority, and the Jerusalem church’s status as the “mother church.” A church plant naturally looks up to the parent church. The leaders in Antioch looked up to the apostles in Jerusalem. They sought advice and consensus.

They arrived in Jerusalem and “were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders,” (Acts 15:4). Paul and Barnabas explained how God’s grace had clearly gone out to the Gentiles. This was too much for some of the Christians “who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.” They protested, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses,” (Acts 15:5).

The fight was on. It is interesting that James and the others in the Jerusalem church had to know this was simmering below the surface, yet they apparently did nothing. The Jerusalem church was always characterized by a velvet-glove approach to this issue (cf. Acts 21:20-25).

The church did not gather to hash this out; only “the apostles and elders” did (Acts 15:6). “Much debate” ensued (Acts 15:7). Peter spoke (Acts 15:7-11). Paul and Barnabas gave testimony (Acts 15:12).  Then James issued his judgment – “we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,” (Acts 15:19).

James didn’t mention Antioch. He mentioned “Gentiles” in a generic sense, indicating he was speaking to a much larger issue. The dispute in Antioch was the impetus for a decision which had implications far beyond that single city. The letter the council sent with Paul and Barnabas was not for Antioch – it was for the entire region encompassing “the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia,” (Acts 15:23). This was a circular letter.

The letter read, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things . . .” (Acts 15:28). This is not the language of a friendly suggestion. It is the language of an ecclesiastical superior to an inferior. A Pastor of a church cannot “lay upon you” a burden to another church. He can offer friendly advice. This is not what happened here.

The Dogma of Acts 16:4

If Acts 15 simply depicts a Baptist church business meeting (minus the casserole potluck and fried chicken), then why does Acts 16:4 read thus:

As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem (Acts 16:4).

This is strong language. Paul and Timothy are passing through Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41), apparently revisiting “the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord,” (Acts 15:36). As they passed through these cities, they “delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.”

It is very possible this circular letter hadn’t yet reached the region beyond Antioch. Paul and Timothy were making sure it did. Notice the language Luke used. This letter is not a suggestion. It is a dogma. It is an ordinance, an order, a decree. It was a decision reached by the “apostles and elders” at Jerusalem. It carried authority. It was “delivered to them for observance.”

Does Acts 15 still sound like a local church business meeting?

To make matters worse, the word the RSV translates as “decision” is actually much stronger than that.[2] It was more than a decision – it was an order.

The phrase here is τὰ δόγματα (“the dogma”). It is well attested in the LXX, the NT and the early post-apostolic era. Silva wrote the semantic range encompasses the concepts of decree, ordinance or doctrine.[3]

  • In the LXX, we read that Nebuchadnezzar issued a decree (i.e. an order) that all the wise men of Babylon be brought forth, to interpret his dream (LXX Dan 4:3). Later, Darius issued a decree (i.e. a law) that no man could pray to anyone except him for 30 days (LXX Dan 6:9; see also 6:11, 13, 14, 16, 27).
  • In the NT, we read about the decree (i.e. an order) which went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world must be taxed (Lk 2:1). The Jews in Thessalonica claimed Paul and his companions were advocating for another king, in violation of Caesar’s decrees (i.e. laws; Acts 17:7). Paul wrote that Christ abolished “the law of commandments and ordinances,” (i.e. regulations; Eph 2:15). He also stated that Christ “canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands” (i.e. regulations; Col 2:14). Kittell wrote that “In Ac. 16:4 the word signifies the resolutions and decrees of the early church in Jerusalem which are to be sent out to the cities of the first missionary journey. In the post-apostolic fathers the word comes to be applied to the teachings and prescriptions of Jesus.”[4]
  • In the early post-apostolic era, Ignatius wrote that Christians must “be diligent therefore to be confirmed in the ordinances (i.e. commands, orders)[5] of the Lord and the Apostles,” (Magnesians 13.1). Barnabas wrote, “there are then three doctrines (i.e. teachings, commands) of the Lord,” (Epistle 1.6). The Didache reads, “and concerning the Apostles and Prophets, act thus according to the ordinance (i.e. command, order) of the Gospel,” (11.3).

So, how should we understand “the dogma” which Paul and Timothy delivered for observance to these churches? It is clear from this short survey that something anemic like “decision” is a poor fit. It is doubtful the translation law will do; the Jerusalem Council was not a civil body with legislative authority. Perhaps regulation or ordinance is best. To be even more blunt, perhaps we can bring things down to the bottom shelf, so to speak, and drop ordinance in favor of order. After all, the very word “ordinance” means an authoritative decree or a law.[6]

The word originally meant opinion or belief in the early classical period, and its usage gradually morphed into something like judgment, decision or resolution (NIDNTTE, 1:752). But, don’t see evidence to suggest Luke was using the word to convey this weak of a meaning.

Basically, I don’t think you can escape the fact that this was not a suggestion from the Jerusalem Council; it was a decree, an order. Some might seek to soften it and say decision, but I don’t believe you can justify that weak of a translation from the word’s usage in the LXX, the NT or the early apostolic era (contra. NASB, RSV, ESV, NIV).

So, What Now?

I am a Baptist who leans heavily towards a dual-elder congregational view of church government. But, I think there are two ditches to avoid here:

  • Interpreting Acts 15 to be a Baptist business meeting. This is what many Baptists do.
  • Taking an apostolic ecclesiastical situation and imposing it in a post-apostolic era. This is what Presbyterians do.

There are no apostles today. There is no “mother church.” The situation in the Eastern Mediterranean in those days was a one off, a non-repeatable event. Robert Reymond, a Presbyterian, wrote, “Clearly, these congregations were not independent and autonomous. Rather, they were mutually submissive, dependent and accountable to each other.”[7] This is correct. But remember – this was an apostolic situation, not a normative situation. James is dead, and the Jerusalem church is gone. I fear Baptists are reading polity back into Acts 15 that simply isn’t there.

There was no business meeting in Acts 15, and there was no potluck following. Maybe next week.


[1] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg, IL: RBP, 2012), 97.

[2] For a grammatical discussion of Acts 16:4-5, see my translation here.

[3] For a full discussion, see Moises Silva, NIDNTTE, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 1:752-753.

[4] Gerhard Kittel, “δόγμα, δογματίζω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 2:231.

[5] Michael Holmes (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989]) translated this as “precepts.”

[6] Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), s.v. “ordinance,” 1a, 1b.

[7] Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 901.

Baptist Identity in 17th Century England

King James I
King James I

English Baptists emerged during persecution in 17th century. Various groups, among them Separatists, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, all tried to court favor with the new sovereign, James I. Separatists were sadly mistaken if they felt they had a friend in King James. McBeth observed “[t]he idea of religious liberty horrified him.”[1] James, that “most dread sovereign” whom God, by “great and manifold” blessings[2] sent to rule over England, was determined to exercise authority over the church as well as the state. He believed it was “the chiefest of kingly duties . . . to settle affairs of religion.”[3] The separatists, however, couldn’t disagree more. They urged King James I to show mercy. “They asserted that every man had a right to judge for himself in matters of religion and that to persecute on account of religion is illegal and antichristian.”[4] James I feared a freedom of conscience in religion might well lead to civil anarchy. He saw a very basic political necessity for religious conformity; a sentiment shared by his Son, Charles I. It was therefore the policy of the Crown to harass and persecute dissenters from the Church of England. Baptist identity in Britain was forged in the midst of this persecution.

John Smyth (1612) stated, in embryo form, the very principles of religious liberty many Baptists continue to argue for today. Essentially, he asserted that Baptists recognized the civil authority of the state, but “would not allow the government to determine or regulate their relation to God.”[5]

“That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Rom xiii), injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft, etc., for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience (James iv. 12).”[6]

Other Baptists, such as Thomas Helwys (1612), plainly stated that any man should be free to worship, or not, as he pleased without any interference from the state.[7]

“And we bow ourselves to the earth . . . beseeching the King to judge righteous judgment herein, whether there be so unjust a thing, and of so great cruel tyranny, under the sun, as to force men’s consciences in their religion to God, seeing that if they err, they must pay the price of their transgression with the loss of their souls. Oh, let the King judge, is it not most equal that men should chose their religion themselves, seeing they must only stand themselves before the judgment seat of God to answer for themselves, when it shall be no cause for them to say, ‘we were commanded or compelled to be of this religion’ by the King, or by them that had authority from him . . .”[8]

“For men’s religion to God, is between God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither ma the King be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever; it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”[9]

Leonard Busher (1614) colorfully, but somewhat crassly, compared forced worship to spiritual rape. Busher argued that “regeneration is the result of faith in Christ; and that no king or bishop is able to command faith. Persecution, therefore, is irrational, and must fail of its object; men cannot be made Christians by force.”[10] He wrote:

“. . . to constrain princes and peoples to receive that one true religion of the gospel, is wholly against the mind and merciful law of Christ, dangerous both to king and state, a means to decrease the kingdom of Christ, and a means to increase the kingdom of antichrist . . .”[11]

“And no king nor bishop can, or is able to command faith; That is the gift of God, who worketh in us both the will and the deed of his own good pleasure. Set him not a day, therefore, in which, if his creature hear not and believe not, you will imprison and burn him. Paul was a blasphemer and also a persecutor, and could not be converted by the apostles and ministers of Christ; yet at last was received to mercy, and converted extraordinarily by Christ himself . . . And as kings and bishops cannot command the wind, so they cannot command faith; . . . You may force men to church against their consciences, but they will believe as they did afore.”[12]

Baptists stood on the Scriptures when they declared that men must never have their religious convictions forced.

The Baptists, and other dissenters, had a brief respite during the time of Oliver Cromwell, but that all came crashing down when the monarchy was restored and the Church of England welcomed back as the official state church. Armitage writes that “the Baptists became, as usual, the special subjects of hate, storm and chains; prisons and doom became their gloomy fate.”[13] The Act of Uniformity (1662) decreed that all English ministers be “uniform” in doctrine and liturgy. The Conventicle Act (1664) forbade unauthorized worship services with more than five persons present (beyond the immediate family. Another act forbade ejected ministers from forming new congregations within five miles of their previous residence. King Charles II did declare a year-long moratorium on persecution, provided dissenters register to receive leniency. When the tide of public opinion shifted one year later, these same registers were used to hunt down dissenters![14] Desperate Baptists resorted to all manner of deception and ingenuity in order to simply meet for worship. One desperate plea to the King sums up the Baptist experience in this time of tribulation:

“We dare not walk the streets, and are abused even in our own houses. If we pray to God with our families, we are threatened to be hung. Some of us are stoned almost to death, and others imprisoned for worshiping God according to the dictates of our consciences and the rule of his word.”[15]

In large measure, the modern Baptist identity was forged amidst the persecution in England in the 17th century.



[1] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1987), 100.

[2] From the “Epistle Dedicatory” to the King James Bible.

[3] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 100.

[4] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists,  2 vols. (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013), vol. 1, Kindle Locations 4109-4110.

[5] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 102.

[6] John Smyth, “On Religious Liberty,” from H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), 70.

[7] Ibid, 103.

[8] Thomas Helwys, “The Mistery of Iniquity,” from McBeth, Sourcebook, 72. I modernized the spelling myself.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christian, History of the Baptists, vol. 1, Kindle Locations 4138-4139.

[11] Leonard Busher, “Religion’s Peace, 1614,” from H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), 73.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (New York, NY: Bryan, Taylor & Co., 1890; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Archive, n.d.), 603.

[14] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 115-116.

[15] Armitage, History of the Baptists, 603.

Where Did Baptists Come From? A Brief Case for Spiritual-Kinship

What Saith Baptists?

Where did Baptists come from? There are many different theories out there:

  • English Separatism. Some say that the Baptist identity, as it exists today, is an outgrowth from 17th century English Separatism
  • Anabaptist Origins. Some say that Baptists have their origins in the Anabaptist movement from the 16th century
  • Spiritual-Kinship. Others say that Baptistic churches, to greater or lesser extent, have always existed since the church has been founded
  • Unbroken Succession. Still others claim that there has been a sure, certain and unbroken chain of true Baptist churches since the time of the apostles

This paper will not evaluate each position. I will simply put forth my own modest case for believing in the Spiritual-Kinship view of Baptist origins. This position is simply stated by Jack Hoad:

“Making a full allowance for the failures of those early baptistic witnesses for the truth, we conclude that the Holy Spirit has continually raised up a biblical witness against apostasy and to a surprising extent those upsurges have borne a common testimony, majoring on those principles of faith and order which are characteristically Baptist, or what is even more important, the marks of true apostolic Christianity.”[1]

Thomas Armitage adds:

“So, likewise, the unity of Christianity is not found by any visible tracing through one set of people. It has been enwrapped in all who have followed purely apostolic principles through the ages; and thus the purity of Baptist life is found in the essence of their doctrines and practices by whomsoever enforced.”[2]

“Truth calls us back to the radical view, that any Church which bears the real apostolic stamp is in direct historical descent from the apostles, without relation to any other Church past or present.”[3]

 What is a Baptist?

Baptists are not a denomination, as such. A denomination has a united, common confession and a creed. It has a hierarchy and layers of authority. It has periodic meetings and issues edicts that the churches are required to follow, or be at risk of expulsion. In short, a denomination controls its churches, in some form or fashion. No Baptist ought to submit to this. We’re autonomous, not monolithic. Basically, I think it is safe to say that that the Baptist is not defined by a list of distinctives per se, but by a philosophy of ministry.

“Baptists, let it be repeated, are not in essence a denomination at all. Their ‘stripes’ or ‘spots’ may be deep-dyed but are not all found uniformly and consistently in all those families of Christians called by that name . . . One clear factor, which is emerging in thus ecumenical age, is that Baptists, true Baptists, are uncomfortable bedfellows. Their inherent nonconformity and rugged independence is liable to wreck the best laid schemes to merge into one the many strands of professed Christianity in the world.”[4]

Baptists are concerned with the purity of the church, and simply abiding by what the New Testament says about the church – nothing more and nothing less. Jack Hoad bluntly stated, “the Baptist Identity is therefore defined by the thorough-going submission to the Word of God in everything, with the consequent rejection of all else that has no explicit requirement in scripture.”[5] What does it means to be concerned with the “purity” of the church? This is where the various acrostics of “Baptist distinctives” come into play. All the Baptist acrostics (both BAPTIST and BRAPSIS2) exist to explain what the New Testament teaches about the church. The distinctives do not, in and of themselves, explain the Baptist identity. They are not infallible “marks” of a Baptist. They merely elaborate on what the New Testament teaches about the doctrine of the church.

“From their earliest manifestations, they have been a protest movement against any over-riding authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical. They stand for the simplicity of the New Testament order of local independent churches. Not that they are isolationists for they have readily recognized like-minded churches and sought to express their inherent responsibilities towards each other. They have, however, persisted in there being one only God-appointed basic unit, the local church, with no overlordship of any kind, other than that of Christ Himself, who is the Head of the Church. It is this, taken with the insistence on a regenerate, believing and baptized church-membership, which makes that primary distinctive of Baptist churches. This is the Baptist doctrine of the church.”[6]

To define what a Baptist is, and to therefore answer the question ‘where did Baptists come from,’ it is necessary to set aside detailed acrostics and distill and crystallize what the Baptist philosophy is. They are:[7]

  • The supremacy, sole authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures in all matters of Christian faith and practice, which translates into a complete obedience and submission to . . .
  • The Biblical Doctrine of the Church and a willingness to be always reforming our church polity, practice and philosophy to that ideal

A Baptist believes the Bible is the only place where the doctrine of the church (and all that entails) is taught. The distinctives flow from that principle:

“Where scripture rules there can be no marriage to the state, no shared rule with the magistracy, no subservience of the local church to denominational structures or officialdom, no use of force of any kind to compel faith, no unwilling or unconscious ‘baptisms’ and no compromise with erroneous bodies.”[8]

Notice that Hoad touched on all of the so-called “Baptist distinctives” in this brief explanation. Obedience to Scripture will yield every single Baptist distinctive without exception. Insofar as a local church pursued the NT doctrine of the church, it was a baptistic church.  This is why the so-called Spiritual-Kinship theory of Baptist origins is correct. There is massive evidence that various separatist groups throughout church history have struggled, to greater or lesser extent, to cast off the doctrines of men and follow a distinctly Biblical church polity.

The Struggle for Purity – Separatist Groups

The Novatians

In the mid-3rd century, the Novatian schism arose in the aftermath of religious persecution. Should church members who apostatized during persecution be re-admitted to fellowship? Novatians insisted the apostates not be re-admitted. They were separatists who took church membership seriously. Rome developed her own ecclesiology partly in response to this challenge.

“The Novatianists considered themselves the only pure communion, and unchurched all churches which defiled themselves by re-admitting the lapsed, or any other gross offenders. They went much farther than Cyprian, even as far as the later Donatists. They admitted the possibility of mercy for a mortal sinner, but denied the power and the right of the church to decide upon it, and to prevent, by absolution, the judgment of God upon such offenders. They also, like Cyprian, rejected heretical baptism, and baptized all who came over to them from other communions not just so rigid as themselves.”[9]

Thomas Armitage wrote:

“The Novatians demanded pure Churches which enforced strict discipline, and so were called Puritans. They refused to receive the lapsed back into the Churches, and because they held the Catholics corrupt in receiving them, they re-immersed all who came to them from the Catholics. For this reason alone they were called ‘Anabaptists,’ although they denied that this was rebaptism, holding the first immersion null and void because it had been received from corrupt Churches.”[10]

As Justo Gonzalez has put it, “the issue was whether purity or forgiving love should be the characteristic note of the church.”[11] The Novatians were worried about the purity of the church, and took the Bible’s commands for church discipline and membership seriously.

 The Donatists

This schism was once again about the purity of the church, specifically those who has apostatized amidst persecution. We have more information about these folks than the others. They were concerned about:

  • Church membership (true believers)
  • Separation from impure fellowships
  • Church purity
  • Godly ministers
  • A free church mindset (autonomy)

“The Donatists championed a church which was pure, a church was intolerant of those elements which would contaminate it. A chief emphasis of the Donatists was upon the holiness of the church.”[12]

The tale of the Donatist controversy is too long to tell here, but suffice it to say that they stood firm amidst intolerance and persecution – because they believed what the Bible taught about the church. Augustine, when gentle persuasion failed, turned to force to achieve his aims.

“. . . by his misuse of the words of Luke 14:23, ‘Compel them to come in,’ Augustine, during this time, set forth teachings that would ultimately make him the first widely influential churchman to assert and argue the doctrine that the power of the state can legitimately banish separatist Christians in favor of the Catholic Church and transfer their properties to the Catholics.”[13]

Schaff’s words here are excellent:

“The Donatist controversy was a conflict between separatism and catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the church as an exclusive community of regenerate saints and the idea of the church as the general Christendom of state and people. It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian church, and, in particular, of the predicate of holiness.”[14]

As Beale has observed, “[t]he orthodox Donatists’ only crimes were separation and rebaptism.”[15]

 The Medieval Era

It’s easy to scour historical records, searching for something “Baptist” to hang one’s hat on. “We may attribute to them more light and knowledge than they really believed, thus adopting too rosy-hued a viewpoint.”[16] You see traces of concern for a pure church from groups in the medieval age. The Albigenses thought the Roman Catholic Church was the whore of Babylon.[17] The Paulicans “were really ‘men who were disgusted with the doctrines and ceremonies of human invention, and desirous of returning to the apostolic doctrine and practice.’ ”[18] The Waldensians were likewise very concerned about the purity of the church and believed in separation from false teaching. Pickering concludes that “[i]n the study of these dissident groups, the doctrine of the ‘gathered’ church, that is, the church of the regenerate only, comes to the fore time and again.”[19]

 The Anabaptists

“They thought that the Reformers stopped half-way, and did not go to the root of the evil. They broke with the historical tradition, and constructed a new church of believers on the voluntary principle. Their fundamental doctrine was, that baptism is a voluntary act, and requires personal repentance, and faith in Christ. They rejected infant-baptism as an anti-scriptural invention. They could find no trace of it in the New Testament, the only authority in matters of faith. They were cruelly persecuted in Protestant as well as Roman Catholic countries. We must carefully distinguish the better class of Baptists and the Mennonites from the restless revolutionary radicals and fanatics, like Carlstadt, Muenzer, and the leaders of the Muenster tragedy.”[20]

One scholar says that Anabaptists “were the main forerunners of ‘sectarian Protestantism,’ and their views on religious liberty are today common currency among free church groups.”[21]

In the main, the orthodox Anabaptists believed:

(1) Church members had to be regenerate, and therefore only believers could be baptized. “By baptism the believer comes under the discipline of a Biblical people, and if the door of entrance is closely watched a strong and true church can be maintained.”[22]

(2) Separation. If you’re concerned about a pure church, then it means that separation is sometimes necessary

(3) Church discipline, which is rooted in the concern for the purity of the church and its members. “Spiritual government rests, in the end, upon the threat of expulsion from the congregation of believers: the Ban. In some cases this may have meant social ostracism, but generally it meant the loss of privileges within the brotherhood.”[23]

(4) Soul liberty. Because of incessant persecution, Anabaptists firmly believed that a man ought to be left alone to worship God as he sees fit. For example, Schaff writes that in Zurich the Anabaptists were forced to baptize their infants:

 “The magistracy decided against them, and issued an order that infants should be baptized as heretofore, and that parents who refuse to have their children baptized should leave the city and canton with their families and goods.”[24]

“The blood of these poor people flowed like water so that they cried to the Lord for help.… But hundreds of them of all ages and both sexes suffered the pangs of torture without a murmur, despised to buy their lives by recantation, and went to the place of execution joyfully and singing psalms.”[25]

Baptists have inherited this insistence on religious liberty from the Anabaptists. “The concept of religious freedom was implicit in the Anabaptist movement. They, as well as others within that which has been called the ‘Radical Reformation,’ insisted that one’s personal religious commitment was between himself and God alone and that the nature of the Christian faith, discipleship, and the church demanded complete freedom.”[26]

Estep well remarks, “[i]f we can learn anything from the Anabaptist experience, it should teach us that coercion makes no true Christians, but, as Roger Williams said three centuries ago, only hypocrites.”[27]


There have always been groups throughout the ages who have sought to go “back to the Bible” for their ecclesiology. Insofar as a group actually followed the New Testament doctrine of the church, they were baptistic (to greater or lesser extent). The Baptist “denomination” (philosophy would be a better term) is not an invention of 17th-century English separatism.

Leon McBeth writes that Baptist viewpoints certainly did exist before that time, but “[t]he seventeenth-century Baptists did not invent these doctrines; they rediscovered and articulated them afresh for a new era.”[28] This is specious reasoning. Baptist ecclesiology is Biblical ecclesiology. To say that the Baptist identity did not form until the 17th-century is to suggest that every single local church, to some extent, was not following the New Testament pattern up until that time. Nothing could be more outrageous.

McBeth anticipates this accusation, and retorts that “one should distinguish between faith assumptions and historical evidence.”[29] To follow McBeth’s reasoning, one would also have to conclude:

  • The doctrine of justification by faith first came about during the Reformation. The Reformers didn’t invent the doctrine, but rediscovered and articulated it afresh for a new era. No church must have actually taught the doctrine as a whole before the Reformation, because it wasn’t neatly packaged and systematized until that time.
  • The deity of Christ came about at the Council of Nicea. They didn’t invent the doctrine, but rediscovered and articulated it afresh for a new era. No church must have actually taught the doctrine as a whole before that time, because it wasn’t neatly packaged and systematized until then.

I could go on, but the point is made. Just because a doctrine is systematized at some later date, it does not follow that the doctrine was not taught, believed and practiced prior to that date. If it is a Biblical doctrine, men everywhere have taught, believed and practiced it to some extent. This is why I believe in the Spiritual-Kinship view of Baptist origins.


[1] Jack Hoad, The Baptist (London, UK: Grace Publications, 1986), 24.

[2] Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (New York, NY: Bryan, Taylor & Co., 1890; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Archive, n.d.), 1.

[3] Hoad, The Baptist, 2.

[4] Ibid, 10.

[5] Ibid, 17.

[6] Ibid, 10-11.

[7] Ibid, 14.

[8] Ibid, 17.

[9] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2011), 2:196.

[10] Armitage, History of the Baptists, 178.

[11] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, combined ed. (Peabody, MS: Prince Press, 2007), 1:90.

[12] Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 1979), 20.

[13] David O. Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2013), 1:376.

[14] Schaff, History, 3:365.

[15] Beale, Historical Theology, 1:376-377.

[16] Pickering, Separation, 29.

[17] Ibid, 31.

[18] Ibid, 33.

[19] Ibid, 39.

[20] Schaff, History, 7:607.

[21] Franklin Littell, “The Anabaptist Doctrine of the Restitution of the True Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950), 33.

[22] Ibid, 36.

[23] Ibid, 37.

[24] Schaff, History, 8:82.

[25] Ibid, 8:84.

[26] William Estep, “The Reformation: Anabaptist Style,” Criswell Theological Review 6.2 (1993), 201.

[27] Ibid, 206.

[28] Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1987), 61.

[29] Ibid, 62.

What is ‘Landmarkism?’ A Quick Look at a Strange Baptist Polity

Graves_older_web Introduction

If you’re a Baptist in America, you’ve probably heard of a peculiar brand of Baptist polity called “Landmarkism.” This kind of philosophy is also called the “Baptist Bride” mentality. It is an incorrect and Biblically-indefensible idea that says that the only “true churches” are local Baptist churches. This point of view holds that all other churches are false churches and illegitimate. This brief paper will show that the “Landmarkism” point of view is wrong, and not for the reason you’re probably thinking. A fiery, intelligent and formidable preacher from the late 19th century named J. R. Graves is largely responsible for the development of Landmarkism. He wrote in 1880:

 “I think it is no act of presumption in me to assume to know what I meant by the Old Landmarks, since I was the first man in Tennessee, and the first editor on this continent, who publicly advocated the policy of strictly and consistently carrying out in our practice those principles which all true Baptists, in all ages, have professed to believe.”[1]

It is always a warning sign when a man boasts that he alone has re-discovered a great truth, and that we all must listen to him. On a continent swarming with staunch Baptists, Graves claimed to other Baptists that he alone was following the New Testament model of “how to do church.” This paper is not a history of this movement. It is a quick look at what Graves has to say about the distinguishing features of the movement.

A whole bunch of pious Baptists will proudly say that they believe there have always been churches which have followed Baptist polity, to greater or lesser extent, since the church was founded. This is not Landmarkism; it is a perfectly legitimate view about Baptist origins known as “Spiritual-Kinship.” No, the distinguishing mark of Landmarkism is that the local, Baptist church is God’s Kingdom on earth. They are terribly wrong on this point, and because their entire doctrine of the church is built on this house of sand, their entire doctrine of the church is simply and terribly wrong.

Basic Teachings of Landmarkism

#1 – The Churches and the Kingdom are the Same

Graves stated:

“The locality of Christ’s church, and therefore kingdom, is this earth; all the subjects of His kingdom are here; all the work of His church is here. This earth was given to Him by His Father to be the sole seat of His throne and His kingdom.”[2]


This is the linchpin of Graves’ entire system. It is a deluded piece of reasoning, a polemic without any Biblical support. The closest Graves comes to Biblically justifying his position is this: “I understand that Christ’s declaration (Matthew 16:18), and Paul’s statement (Heb. 12:28), are emphatic commentaries upon the prophecy of Daniel (2: 44).”[3] Other Landmarkers, like historian John T. Christian, agree but mute their view: “[t]he churches so organized are to continue in the world until the kingdoms of this earth shall become the kingdom of our Lord, even Christ. Prophecy was full of the enduring character of the kingdom of Christ (Daniel 2:44, 45).”[4]

There is no space here for a critique of this statement. However, suffice it so say that the context of Daniel and the writings of the prophets on New Covenant (not to mention the kingdom itself) are enough to dismiss Graves’ view out of hand.

Graves goes on:

“I understand these Scriptures to teach that this organization, called here ‘kingdom’ and ‘church’ is the conception of the divine mind, the expression of the divine thought, and the embodiment of the divine authority on earth.”[5]

If Graves considers the kingdom to be the local churches, then this very easily explains why the doctrine of the church is so important to Landmarkers:

“And for man to set up any form of church as equal, or in opposition, to it, and influence men to join themselves to it, under the impression that they are uniting with Christ’s church, is an act of open rebellion to Christ as the only King of Zion . . .”[6]

Again, this is perfectly understandable if one thinks the local, Baptist churches are the Kingdom of God. Graves essentially says other denominations are in rebellion against God Himself. The church is God’s Kingdom, and “[t]o despise and reject its teachings is to despise the Author of those teachings.”[7]

Here is where it gets interesting:

“The churches of Christ constitute the kingdom of Christ, as the twelve tribes, each separate and independent of itself, constituted the kingdom of Israel; as the provinces of a kingdom constitute the kingdom; as all the separate sovereign States of these United States constitute the Republic of America. Now, as no foreigner can become a citizen of this Republic without being naturalized as a citizen of some one of the States, so no one can enter the kingdom of Christ without becoming a member of some one of His visible churches.”[8]

Do you see his reasoning so far?

  • Baptist Churches = Jesus’ Promised Kingdom
  • Not a Baptist = In Rebellion Against God
  • In Rebellion Against God = Not in His Kingdom
  • Not in His Kingdom = Not a Believer


  •  Not a True Baptist = Not a Believer

Graves might not push the implications quite this far, but they’re obvious enough for any intelligent person to realize.

#2 – Baptist Churches are the Only True Churches in the World

According to Graves, Baptist churches are the only true representation of Christ’s kingdom on this earth. It logically follows, therefore, that only Baptist churches are true churches:

It must be true that those who originate such false churches, and those who support them by their means and influence, occupy the positions of rebels against the rightful and supreme authority of Christ. Designed as the ‘house and church of the living God’ was by an architect possessing infinite wisdom, who saw the end from the beginning, every conceivable exigency that could effect it to the end of time, must have been foreseen and provided for; and the very intimation that changes have become necessary, the better to adapt it to fulfill its mission, is impiously to impugn the divine wisdom that devised and set it up.”[9]

“Christ enjoined it upon His apostles and ministers for all time to come, to construct all organizations that should bear His name according to the pattern and model He “built” before their eyes; and those who add to or diminish aught, do it at their peril. (Rev. 22: 18,19). Organizations bearing the name of Christ devised and set up by men are manifestly counterfeits, and certainly impositions upon the ignorance and credulity of the people.”[10]

Graves had two axioms for Baptist life that are particularly relevant to this topic:

“1. That un-immersed bodies of Christians are not churches, nor are any privileged companies of them the church, hence all Pedo-Baptists denominations are only religious societies.

2. That Baptism and an official relation to a church are prerequisites to a regular gospel minister – hence all ordinances administered by an unbaptized and unordained although immersed minister, are null and void.”[11]

Graves is wrong. Insofar as Baptist churches adhere the closest to New Testament ecclesiology, they are the most obedient churches. They are certainly not the only “true churches.” Some Baptists might object. “Wait a minute!” they may say. “Baptist churches follow the New Testament model. There is a little bit of truth here, isn’t there?”

Those who suggest that Graves had a “kernel of truth” in this assertion are terribly mistaken. Graves believed Baptist churches were the only true churches because of his views on the Kingdom. He believes the Kingdom of God is the local Baptist church! Unless a man is willing to side with Graves on the Kingdom of God, then a man must also repudiate this false view of a Baptist church being the only “true church.” You cannot have it both ways. If a man is right for the wrong reason, he is still wrong.

#3 – The True Church is a Local, Visible Institution

Once again, Graves’ overriding presupposition is that the local church is God’s kingdom on earth. A kingdom is nothing if not literal and physical. Thus, on Graves’ view, the church is always a local, visible institution. “He has no invisible kingdom or church, and such a thing has no real existence in heaven or earth. It is only an invention employed to bolster up erroneous theories of ecclesiology.”[12] Graves lists three possible views on the church:

  • The universal, catholic church. “According to this, there can be but one church, of the denomination adopting it, throughout the world. No single congregation is a church in any sense, but an infinitesimal part of the universal idea.”[13]
  • The state church.
  • The Baptist model. The church is a local organization. “This church acknowledges no body of men on earth, council, conference or assembly as its head, but Christ alone, who is invisible, as ‘head over all things’ to it.”[14]

Graves’ presuppositions cloud his thinking. His view on salvation is a prisoner of his doctrine of the church. Unless Graves is willing to claim that only Baptists are saved, then he must admit that believers of every denominational stripe exist all over the entire world. There is certainly a universal church in prospect; Paul tells us all about the great reunion we’ll all have together with Christ in the air (1 Thess 4:13-18)! In several places in Scripture, “the church” is spoken of as a corporate, collective body (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 1:2; Col 1:18; Eph 5:25). Again, Graves’ view here must be repudiated because his wrong-headed views on the kingdom are driving this assertion. The reason why he is so pro-local church is because he believes only Baptist churches are God’s Kingdom.

#4 – There Must Be No “Pulpit Affiliation” With Non-Baptists

Graves writes, “[i]If Baptist preachers are scriptural ministers, Pedobaptists certainly are not, and vice versa, since two things unlike each other cannot be like the same thing— scriptural.”[15] He wrote:

“There are no authorized ministers, but immersed preachers, acting under the authority of a regular church – and who have been ordained by a presbytery of immersed believers.”[16]

“Nothing could be more inconsistent than to admit those preachers into our pulpit who hold and teach doctrines, on account of which we would exclude both from our pulpits and our churches, any minister of our own denomination.”[17]

Therefore, a non-Baptist minister is a false minister. Moreover, as we have seen, a non-Baptist church is not a true church, but merely a “religious society.” Not to beat a dead horse, but presuppositions matter a great deal. Having said that, Graves is wrong. As a Baptist, my own general rule is that I will not have a non-Baptist preach in my church. If I will be out of town, I’ll have a trusted Baptist cover for me. If I am going to have a special speaker on a special topic, the speaker’s ecclesiology is the last thing on my mind. Here is my grid, in order of importance:

  • Orthodoxy – is the person actually a Christian (e.g. the fundamentals)?
  • Fundamentalist – is the person willing to defend orthodoxy?
  • Separatist – does the person put their money where their mouth is? If they aren’t willing, I’m not so sure they’re actually a fundamentalist!
  • Baptist

Ecclesiology doesn’t sum up one’s entire theological outlook. There are other factors to be considered, and there are plenty of Baptists (like Graves) who are schismatic and advance un-Biblical views. Pulpit affiliation is about more than being a Baptist; ecclesiology is simply one narrow slice of the theological pie. To make it the defining characteristic for pulpit affiliation is naïve and simplistic. Being “a Baptist” is not an umbrella term for Biblical orthodoxy, and it shouldn’t be viewed that way.

#5 – Only a Church Can Do Churchly Acts

If only Baptist churches are true “kingdom churches,” as Graves held, then it logically follows that only Baptist churches can do churchly acts. Graves believed Christ set up his kingdom a certain way – the Baptist way. There is no other form of this kingdom other than true Baptist churches. Therefore, only true Baptist churches may do any acts related to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. Graves focused particularly on the Lord’s Supper. He advocated what Leon McBeth called a “double closed communion.” Zealous to protect the kingdom of God, Graves was concerned about inadvertently allowing a heretic to partake of the Lord’s Supper:

“If the supper is a repast for the members of each particular church only, it is because the Divine law governing the feast has made it so, and, therefore, it would be in violation of that law for a church to invite, or allow others than her own members, to partake of it; and equally so for members of another church to accept such an unlawful invitation. This is so plain to my mind that discussion is useless.”[18]

“Such churches can exclude heretics, drunkards, revelers, and “every one that walketh disorderly” from their membership, that they may not defile the feast; but they cannot protect the table from such so long as they do not limit it to their membership.”[19]

The logical extension of this view is that no “kingdom work” may be done apart from the local church. It must also be firmly kept in mind that Graves position is not simply that only local churches can do churchly acts. His position is that only local Baptist churches can do churchly acts; he regards other denominations as false.

#6 – Baptist Churches Have Always Existed in Every Age by an Unbroken Historical Succession

It is a common charge to say that Landmarkers believe in a chain-link, almost apostolic-like succession of local churches. What saith Graves?

“Landmark Baptists very generally believe that for the Word of the Living God to stand, and for the veracity of Jesus Christ to vindicate itself, the kingdom which He set up ‘in the days of John the Baptist,’ has had an unbroken continuity until now.”[20]

This makes good sense, from Graves’ point of view. However, he takes great pains to emphasize he is not speaking of an apostolic succession of churches (Ibid, Kindle Location 1690). So, what one earth does he mean?

“Nor have I, or any Landmarker known to me, ever advocated the succession of any particular church or churches; but my position is that Christ, in the very ‘days of John the Baptist,’ did establish a visible kingdom on earth, and that this kingdom has never yet been ‘broken in pieces,’ [notice the allusion to Dan 2:44-45!] nor given to another class of subjects— has never for a day ‘been moved,’ nor ceased from the earth, and never will until Christ returns personally to reign over it; that the organization He first set up , which John called ‘the Bride,’ and which Christ called His church, constituted that visible kingdom, and today all His true churches on earth constitute it; and, therefore, if His kingdom has stood unchanged, and will to the end, He must always have had true and uncorrupted churches, since His kingdom cannot exist without true churches.”[21]

Graves seems to suggest that, while he eschews the idea of an apostolic succession of local churches, he insists that true “kingdom” churches (i.e. Baptists) have always existed. He likens local churches to branch offices of a large organization; local offices may close or even move, but the company itself is obviously in business. Dunkin Donuts may close in your town, but America still runs on Dunkin:

“From the day that organization was started, it has stood; and, though it may have decayed in some places, it has flourished in others, and never has had but one beginning. Thus it has been with that institution called the Kingdom of Christ; it has had a continuous existence , or the words of Christ have failed . . .”[22]

Therefore, Graves does not claim this succession is apostolic; for example, there is no First Baptist Church of Judea. He does claim there have been Baptist churches in existence upon this earth, somewhere, since the church began. Graves must have been pressed on this issue in his day, and he retreated behind the bulwarks of piety when his attackers closed in:

“We do not admit that it devolves upon us more than upon every other lover of Jesus to prove, by uncontestable historical facts, that this kingdom of the Messiah has stood from the day it was set up by Him, unbroken and unmoved; to question it, is to doubt His sure word of promise. To deny it, is to impeach His veracity, and leave the world without a Bible or a Christ. We dare not do this. We believe that His kingdom has stood unchanged as firmly as we believe in the divinity of the Son of God, and, when we are forced to surrender the one faith, we can easily give up the other. If Christ has not kept His promise concerning His church to keep it, how can I trust Him concerning my salvation? If He has not the power to save His church, He certainly has not the power to save me. For Christians to admit that Christ has not preserved His kingdom unbroken, unmoved, unchanged, and uncorrupted, is to surrender the whole ground to infidelity. I deny that a man is a believer in the Bible who denies this.”[23]

This is all well and good, but elsewhere, Graves is less careful with his choice of words and gives his opponents ammunition:

“Baptists claim that they are successors to the ‘Witnesses of Jesus,’ who preserved the faith once delivered to the saints, and kept the ordinances as they were originally committed to the primitive Churches. They claim to be the lineal descendants of the martyrs who, for so many ages, sealed their testimony with their blood. They claim that they can trace the history of communities, essentially like themselves, back through the “wilderness,” into which they were driven by the dragon, and the beast that succeeded to him, and the image of the beast, by a trail of blood, lighted up by a thousand stake-fires, until that blood mingles with the blood of the apostles, and the Son of God, and John the Baptist. They believe that they never did, ecclesiastically, symbolize with the Papacy, but ever repudiated it as Antichrist, and withdrew from it, and refused to recognize its baptisms or ordinances, or its priests as the ministers of Christ.”[24]

“On this account the Baptists may be considered the only Christian community which has stood since the apostles, and as a Christian society which has preserved pure the doctrine of the gospel through all ages.”[25]

 Implications of the Landmark Position

Graves may object all he likes, but the clear implications of his position are that local Baptist churches have been the sole repository of Biblical faith and practice since the time of Jesus Christ. On his view, as we have seen:

  • All other churches are false.
  • All other ministers are false.
  • All other Gospel work is false.
  • Only like-minded (e.g. Landmark) Baptists ought to partake of Lord’s Supper in their churches (double-closed communion).
  • Only like-minded (e.g. Landmark) Baptists may preach in a Baptist church.

This is exclusivist and flawed reasoning, and it is all due to Graves’ wrong-headed idea that the local Baptist church is God’s Kingdom on earth; the Kingdom promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the prophets. The kingdom spoken of by our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Graves denies an apostolic succession of Baptist churches, but his denials are meaningless. The logical conclusion of his position suggests otherwise:

“It ought to be clear from these statements just how much importance is attached to church succession by Landmarkism. You can have no churches, no ministers, no baptism, and no Christian societies without proper authority, and you can only have that from a church in the line of succession. Thus all the churches, ministers, and baptisms outside the supposed Landmark Baptist succession are without authority, regardless of their being blessed and used by the Holy Spirit. All the great revivals of religion outside of Landmarkers, all the great evangelistic efforts by those other than Landmarkers, many of the greatest preachers of the ages, and many other movings of the Holy Spirit are without authority because some Landmark Baptist church did not meet and give its voice of approval.”[26]

Indeed, as Bob Ross has observed, if Christ’s Kingdom is the local Baptist church, then why has the Spirit done such marvelous work in and among men who were not Landmarkists?

“The great evangelists and revivalists were not Landmarkers; the great revivals of history were not within Landmarkism; the great preachers such as Bunyan, Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, Roland Hill, and others were not advocates of Landmarkism. Yet these men were Spirit-filled men who were blessed in great revivals, with souls saved, lives changed, and churches blessed. What is a Landmark valid baptism compared with such powerful blessings of the Holy Spirit of God? A succession of men of God, used by the Holy Spirit, would be a far superior succession to any visible, physical succession of baptism or church organizations.”[27]


Graves’ ecclesiology is rotten to the core. Even Leon McBeth couldn’t help himself; he abandoned all pretense of scholarly detachment when he wrote, “. . . the Landmark movement is best understood as a Baptist equivalent of nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism.”[28]  Graves must believe what he believes about Baptist churches because his salvation is tied to his doctrine of the church. He has no historical proof to offer, only righteous indignation. I reject his position because it is so clearly influenced by his fundamental presupposition – that Baptist churches are Christ’s Kingdom.



Graves, James R. Old Landmarkism: What Is It? Memphis: Graves, Mahaffey & Co, 1880; Kindle reprint, First Vision Publishers, n.d.

———————. The Trilemma; Or, Death By Three Horns. Memphis: J. R. Graves and Son, 1890; reprint, Roger Williams Archive, Watertown, WI, n.d.

Christian, John T. A History of the Baptists, 2 vols. Texarkana: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013.

McBeth, H. Leon. A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage. Nashville: B&H, 1990.

———————. The Baptist Heritage. Nashville: B&H, 1987.

Ross, Bob. “Landmarkism: Unscriptural and Historically Untenable.” Central Bible Quarterly CNEQ 11:1 (Spring 1968), 2-19.



[1] James R. Graves, Old Landmarkism: What Is It? (Memphis, TN: Graves, Mahaffey & Co, 1880; Kindle reprint, First Vision Publishers, n.d.), Kindle Locations 384-387.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Locations 629-631.

[3] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1713-1714.

[4] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists,  2 vols. (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013), vol. 1, Kindle Locations 247-249.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Locations 577-579.

[6] Ibid, Kindle Locations 582-583. Emphasis mine.

[7] Ibid, Kindle Locations 592-593.

[8] Ibid, Kindle Locations 622-626.

[9] Ibid, Kindle Locations 585-589.

[10] Ibid, Kindle Locations 595-598.

[11] J.R. Graves, “A Statement of Landmark Principles, 1857,” in A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, ed. H. Leon McBeth (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), 319.

[12] Graves, Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 617-618.

[13] Ibid, Kindle Locations 656-658.

[14] Ibid, Kindle Locations 691-692.

[15] Ibid, Kindle Locations 2883-2884.

[16] Graves, “Landmark Principles,” 319.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Graves, Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 1449-1452.

[19] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1596-1598.

[20] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1688-1690.

[21] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1700-1706.

[22] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1709-1711.

[23] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1714-1721.

[24] J. R. Graves, The Trilemma; Or, Death By Three Horns (Memphis, TN: J. R. Graves and Son, 1890; reprint, Roger Williams Archive, Watertown, WI, n.d.), 119–120.

[25] Ibid, 136.

[26] Bob Ross, “Landmarkism: Unscriptural and Historically Untenable,” Central Bible Quarterly CNEQ 11:1 (Spring 1968), 5.

[27] Ibid, 11.

[28] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1987), 459.