Landmark theology, or heritage theology, is the belief among some independent Baptist churches that only local, independent Baptist congregations can truly be called “churches” in the New Testament sense. They believe that all other groups, and even most other Baptists, are not true churches because they deviate from the essentials of landmarkism.
Those essentials are 1) church succession—a landmark Baptist church traces its “lineage” back to the time of the New Testament, usually to Jesus’ calling of the disciples in Galilee; 2) a visible church—the only church is a local (Baptist) body of believers; there is no such thing as a universal Body of Christ; 3) opposition to “pedobaptism” (sprinkling of infants) and “alien immersion” (any baptism not performed under the auspices of a landmark Baptist church)—all such baptisms are null and void.
Another corollary belief is that only faithful landmark Baptists will comprise the Bride of Christ. Other Christians (non-Baptists) will either be the guests or the servants at the marriage supper of the Lamb. These other Christians are called the “family of God” or sometimes the “kingdom of God.” So, in heaven will be all the redeemed (the “family of God”), but only those who have been duly baptized by immersion (in an independent Baptist church) will have the special honor of being the Bride of Christ. The landmark Baptists use the story of the choosing of Isaac’s wife to illustrate God’s choosing of Christ’s Bride (Genesis 24).
Landmark Baptists consider church membership one of the highest priorities in life; in fact, being a member of a landmark Baptist church is second in importance only to one’s personal relationship with Christ. Because of their emphasis on local church membership (and their denial of the universal Body of Christ), landmark Baptists hold a closed communion; that is, only official members of their own local church are allowed to share in the ordinance of communion. No one, not even a Baptist, can partake of the Lord’s table away from his or her home church.
Landmarkism had its beginning in 1851, when a group of Southern Baptists met to oppose the liberalism creeping into their denomination. At issue was an “open” pulpit vs. a “closed” pulpit. Was it right to welcome non-baptized preachers from other denominations as guests in their pulpits? “Here are men,” they said, “who are not baptized according to the New Testament model, men ordained by churches that do not teach salvation by grace through faith, yet we are inviting them to preach as if they were true Christian ministers of the gospel.” Out of this meeting came the Cotton Grove Resolutions, the first articulation of the tenets of landmarkism.
The term landmarkism comes from Proverbs 22:28, “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set” (KJV). Landmark Baptists also use Leviticus 25:23-34 as support for their doctrine. Just as the Israelites were not to “remove the ancient landmark” or sell, neglect, or give away their property, Baptists today are not to remove the theological “guideposts” that separate the church from the world. “The faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) is their heritage. Landmark Baptists see themselves as safeguarding the purity of the church, as originally established in the New Testament. It is this purity which will be rewarded with being selected as the Bride.
The landmark Baptists’ original goal—to stem the tide of encroaching liberalism—was admirable. The problem is that landmarkism, in its attempt to fight error, has fallen into error of a different and more egregious kind—the misinterpretation of Scripture. Here are a few points that landmark theology fails to acknowledge:
1) The “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 is not a water baptism, but a spiritual one.
2) The church did not begin with John the Baptist but with the Spirit’s baptism on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 11:15-16).
3) The baptism of John is not sufficient for the New Testament church (Acts 18:24-28; also Acts 19:1-7).
4) The church is not just a local body but a worldwide entity comprised of all believers, with Christ as their Head (Ephesians 1:21-22).
5) Scripture lists three categories of people: unsaved Jews, unsaved Gentiles, and the church (1 Corinthians 10:32). The “family of God,” therefore, is not separate from the church.
The “Baptist Bride” churches, with their emphasis on the ordinance of baptism, are surely missing the point of 1 Corinthians 1:10-17. There, Paul rebukes the church for the schisms arising over who had baptized whom. Paul goes so far as to say, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” Strange words, indeed, if water baptism is what makes one part of the Bride of Christ.