“Only Scriptural Baptist churches can make a legitimate claim to an unbroken succession back to the time of Christ and the apostles. Christ only built one kind of church and that church is described in detail in the New Testament. The only churches meeting the requirements of that description today are true Baptist churches. Baptist churches have existed in every age since their founding by Christ, though they have not always been known by that name. We do not deny that there are those in other so-called â€œchurchesâ€ that have been born again by the grace of God. We do deny, however, that these man-made organizations are true churches of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
â€¢ Landmark Baptist Church self-description
When I was just a boy, I found a little red book in my fatherâ€™s drawer of religious literature. The book was called The Trail of Blood. It would be part of my world for many, many years to come.
I would continue to see the book around our home and then in church until I was given my own copy shortly after I was baptized.
The Trail of Blood was the primary popular expression of a belief called Baptist Landmarkism. Landmarkism was the Baptist version of apostolic succession; a way to prove that Baptists, not Roman Catholics, Campbellites or any other denomination, were the actual historical successors to Jesus.
The Trail of Blood fascinated me as a child because of a large chart in the middle of the booklet. The chart started with John the Baptist and Jesus, then the apostles, and then quickly began a list of names Iâ€™d never heard of at the time: Montanists, Cathari, Paulinists, etc. All of these led up to modern Baptists, who could confidently claim that they were the true church founded by Jesus Christ, as history proved.
The title of the book came from the assertion that these true Baptists had been almost extinguished in every age, and this was traced with variable red dots on the chart. Hence, The Trail of Blood.
Of course, The Trail of Blood is nonsense. The â€œhistorical precedents” werenâ€™t Baptists at all, and many of theme were heretical groups by any standard. Interestingly, The Trail of Blood remains in print, and is still sold in Lifeway stores here in Kentucky, despite its repeatedly disproven and discredited claims.
I remains in print because the concern with asserting that one group is the â€œtrueâ€ church amid a collection of impostors is as strong as ever.
The Trail of Blood was indicative of my churchâ€™s contention that only one denomination could be called the â€œtrueâ€ church. This anxiety over which denomination of all the denominations in our city was the true church ran deep through our community, its preaching, its teaching and relationships with other churches in our community.
Anxiety? Yes, anxiety about which denomination was the church Jesus founded was a major part of the spiritual atmosphere for the first two decades of my life. It took me many more years to come to terms with how this affected me. Only recently have I come to see what a subtly persistent poison this anxiety is been in my own life.
Why was my church so anxious about these matters? Why did a church in the largest denomination in the world- a church with close to a thousand in the pews on Sunday morning- have any concern at all about this issue of which church was the true church?
History and culture are part of the answer.
Historically, Baptists in our community had been drawn into these debates by the birth of the Campbellite movement. The Campbellite movement claimed to have restored the New Testament church in its simplicity. Almost a third of Baptist churches in Kentucky were claimed by the Campbellite movement. This confrontation and loss led to a Landmarkist counter-movement that answered the claims of restorationists with â€œhistorical evidence.â€
The difference between Baptists and Campbellites is so slight- mostly in the area of baptisimal regeneration- that itâ€™s amazing to know that these two denominations were bitter rivals for generations. Later Campbellite evolution went liberal (Disciples), Fundamentalist (Church of Christ) and generic evangelical (Bob Russell independent Christian Churches.)
But the historical debate with the Campbellites and their Church of Christ cousins did not create or sustain the anxiety over the true church that I experienced growing up. My church was barely aware of the claims of the Campbellite movement.
We were, however, deeply aware of the claims of Roman Catholicism.
The religious culture of our community was one-third Catholic and one-third Baptist. This was the day when a definable, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic culture was still a reality, and this meant that Baptists and Roman Catholics still had limited contact with one another. Issues of inter-marriage and even public schooling were alive and well.
Our churchâ€™s Landmarkism was firmly aimed at the Roman Catholic claim to be the true church. Landmarkism taught us that not only could this not be true on historical grounds- just read the chart- but it could not be true because of the obvious mistreatment and persecution of Baptists by Catholics.
Stories of Catholic abuses were common in our church. When I dated a Catholic girl in high school, I was bombarded with the usual stories of what would happen if we married and had children. In our church, Catholic control of the religious world extended beyond the Catholic church to all Protestants, so we were as suspicious of the Methodists as we were the Roman Catholics.
This anxiety was at least partially about the knowledge that we werenâ€™t the only people in the world claiming to be the church, and our many assertions about truth were not exclusive. There were Christians who drank beer, had dances, baptized babies and didnâ€™t consider every movie to be the road to hell. There were other Christians out there who were ignoring the things we believed were absolutely vital.
But most importantly, the Roman Church asserted itself as the one true church, a claim our church believed uniquely belonged to us. Landmarkism was a way to stake out our claim as the only ones who were right and to convince ourselves and our children than our answers were Godâ€™s answers.
What about this same anxiety today? There are apparently still thousands and thousands of Christians who engage in constant polemics in the cause of establishing that their tradition, even their denomination, is the â€œtrueâ€ church?
Despite the fact that our church did preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it followed another agenda as well: the idea that salvation is a gift to those who join the true church and stay with it. We did not hesitate to tell someone that they were not part of the church Jesus founded, but only a â€œreligious society.â€
Of course, I donâ€™t believe these things today, but they have not left easily. In some ways, Iâ€™ve never ceased to have that anxiety. When a comment thread here at IM takes off in the direction of Lutheran vs. Catholic vs. Evangelicals vs. Emerging, my anxieties are alive and well. All the arguments for who has the true sacraments and who is the true church still shake me down.
I prefer the better way of C.S. Lewisâ€™s Mere Christianity. The boundaries of the church are a generous view of baptism and the Eucharist. The substance of Christian belief is what has been believed in common by all Christians in all times and places. The essential center of each tradition contains what is most congenial to understanding the commitments of other traditions. The quest for the one, true denomination that all Christians must enter gives way to a critical appreciation of the church in its historical, cultural and geographic unity and diversity.
My problem is that while I can type this, itâ€™s been far more difficult getting this into the deepest places of my emotional life. I am the most ecumenical person in my predictably fundamentalist Southern Baptist setting, but Catholic polemics and apologetics still throw me far off center. The boy who grew up in the Landmark environment and mindset is still alive inside the psychology of a man who works with Christians from every tradition and denomination.
This has been, hands down, the worst aspect of the blogosphere for me. From relentlessly critical Catholic apologists, to Lutherans defending their particular stance between Catholicism and Protestantism, to the narrow Calvinistic exclusivity of the Truly Reformed to the arrogant over-confidence of my own Southern Baptist denomination, my fellow Christians who are strongly committed to their own traditions tend to throw me into a defensive mindset that makes me ashamed of myself.
The anxiety over the true church has no place at all in the Jesus-centered spirituality that is the heart of my journey. It is my goal to love all other Christians, but my past and muddled present continue to get in the way.
Thanks to the Little Red Book, Iâ€™m still kind of a jerk.