Historical Roots of Local-church-onlyism


I’d like to add a few comments on an interesting debate over at my Dad’s blog about the New Testament’s use of the term translated “church” (ekklesia).

  • In one post, he argues that the biblical usage of the term “church” suggests that there is such a thing as the “universal church,” defined as “a universal body of believers that includes all believers from all ages in one spiritual union, the church.”
  • In a followup, he goes further, demonstrating from biblical texts that the word is also used for what we call the “visible church,” inclusive of the sum total of professing believers on earth.

Why does this matter?

Suggesting that the word “church” can mean anything other than a “local church” can get you into trouble with some Baptists, and so an interesting discussion broke out in the comments on both posts. In the comments, my Dad asks one question for his local-church-only interlocutors: “Why is the idea of local church only so important? Or, to put it another way, why is the idea of the universal church dangerous?”

Ideas and Consequences

I’d like to suggest one reason why local-church-only advocates cannot concede the existence of the universal church. (Of course, doing so requires that they ignore the plain reading of texts such as Ephesians 1:22–23, but for the exegesis I refer you again to the original post.) The idea that the term “church” can only refer to a local assembly is simply a necessary corollary of Landmarkist theology. Landmarkism depends on an uninterrupted succession of local assemblies to support the theory that the “true church” comprises the Baptist tradition throughout the ages. This (widely discredited) view of history is known as Baptist successionism.

If a Landmarkist allows for a universal aspect to the church, he implies that genuine believers might be found outside of the supposed succession of local churches (the “Baptists”) but within the scope of Christendom (including medieval Catholics).

Because the Landmarkist is predisposed to avoid that conclusion, he must go to great lengths to justify a local-only view of the church. Seen in this light, the local-only view becomes nothing more than part of an artificial perimeter around the Landmarkist theory.

Historical Evidence

If the explanation above is correct, we would expect to find the idea that the local-church-only idea in the writings of the early Landmarkists. Today, I ran across some evidence that confirms that early Landmarkists indeed believed that the Bible does not allow for a universal or invisible church.

J. R. Graves
J. R. Graves

J. R. Graves was not the first to hold Landmarkism, but he was certainly one its most vociferous early proponents. Through his influence, successionist historiography and Landmark ecclesiology became a significant force within American Baptist circles.

In Leon McBeth’s history of the Baptist movement, he notes that Graves believed the church to be “a single congregation, complete in itself, independent of all other bodies, civil or religious, … amenable only to Christ.”1 He thought that the “invisible church” was nothing more than “invisible nonsense.” In a more extended quote, Graves argues that

the only church that is revealed to us is a visible church, and the only church with which we have anything to do, or in connection with which we have any duties to perform, is a visible body…. Christ never set up but one kingdom; and if this is visible, he has no invisible kingdom or church, and such a thing has no real existence in heaven or earth. It is only an invention to bolster up erroneous theories of ecclesiology.2

Evaluation

In evaluating Graves’ statements, this quote from Sidney Ahlstrom is telling.

At the heart of Graves’s argument was a doctrine of the Kingdom which allowed a syllogism to do the work of historical research: the Kingdom has prevailed; the Kingdom must always have included true churches; Baptist churches are the only true churches; therefore, Baptist churches have always existed.3

As an historical theory, successionism is bankrupt because it is based on an absence of evidence. Likewise, the view that the New Testament only speaks of the local church requires us to ignore clear biblical evidence. It seems to me that the only reason to hold this view is to support the scaffold for the rest of Landmark theology.


  1. J. R. Graves quoted in Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), 450–451.

  2. Ibid., 451.

  3. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1972), 723.

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