Monday, February 26, 2007

The Universal Church, Landmarkism, and John Dagg

Back when I was in seminary (1983-84, 86-87 at Mid-America, and 88-89 at Southwestern), I was most interested in the practical side of ministry. I think I sort of saw theology classes as a “necessary evil” to get to what I felt God had called me to do. I remember at Mid-America from time to time hearing students talk about whether the church in the Bible was always “local” and “visible” or sometimes “universal” and “invisible.” At that time, although I never really understood where the “local church only” folks were coming from, it didn’t seem to make that big of a difference to me. “Let’s just get on with ministry, tell people about Jesus, make disciples, and love one another,” I thought.

Since that time, after 17 years of career missionary service, as I have matured a bit in my faith, and reflected on the Scripture and how it applies to life and ministry, I have come to appreciate more and more the importance of the Universal Church. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly when and from where this increased appreciation has come: perhaps from preparing sermons on and preaching through the book of Ephesians; perhaps from some great times of Christian fellowship with believers from other denominations and backgrounds; perhaps from assorted books I have read, and messages I have heard down through the years; or, perhaps, just through the conviction of the Holy Spirit in my life.

In any case, I have come to believe that the essential unity of the Body of Christ, or the Univeral Church, is one of the most important doctrines in the New Testament. As a missionary, I see that, as I am working to fulfill the Great Commission, I am at the same time to be doing my best to work towards the fulfillment of the “end-vision” so poignantly described by that great missionary model, the Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 4.11-13:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

I never have been in favor of ecumenism, in the sense of the World Council of Churches, or dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. I firmly believe that the Reformation principles of sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia and sola fide (“only Scripture”, “only Christ”, “only grace”, and “only faith”) are watershed issues that necessarily divide between those who preach the gospel of Christ, and those who preach “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1.6-7). If I did not believe that, I probably would not be dedicating my life and missionary ministry to a place with such a strong Roman Catholic tradition as the country of Spain.

At the same time, however, I believe the early Church was right on target when they decided to include in the Apostles’ Creed, as part of the set of basic beliefs that set us apart as followers of Jesus, the line: I believe in…the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.

In any case, when I first heard about the new policy on baptism at the IMB, and read the comments of Wade Burleson on how it tied in somehow to Landmarkism, a few things began to “click” for me. I believe strongly the Bible teaches believers baptism, and have even spent hours showing believers from Reformed backgrounds the biblical basis for obeying Christ’s command regarding baptism. However, to say that those who have been baptized as believers, motivated by their desire to be obedient to Christ’s command, may not be qualified to be missionaries, just because those who baptized them may not dot every “i” and cross every “t” like us as Baptists, seemed from the beginning, to me, to be “over the top.”

As I have begun to reflect back on my seminary days, and research a little more on Baptist history, I have come to see how all this does seem to be tied in, one way or another, to Landmarkism. While not many today would go so far as J. R. Graves et al in saying we should never even allow non-Baptist ministers to preach in Baptist churches, it has been eye-opening to me to see how many in prominent positions in Southern Baptist life still seem bent on either denying the legitimacy of the Universal Church, or minimizing its importance. Consider the following quote from Mid-America Seminary Theology Department Chairman Jimmy Milliken, taken from his article “The Nature of the Church: Local or Universal? in the November 2006 edition of the Mid-America Theology Journal "Theology for Ministry", (pp. 62-77), describing the view of church in which I personally believe:

Universal Invisible/Local Visible

A widely held view of the meaning of “church” in the New Testament is that it refers both to a universal invisible spiritual body, and also to a local visible assembly of believers. This view is similar to the above view, except it limits the visible church to a local body with a distinct identity. Unlike the above view, the visible church does not include all professing believers. One automatically becomes a part of the universal church through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and personal faith in Christ. However, one must personally unite with a local assembly of believers to be a part of the visible church. In other words, a person may be a part of the universal church and never join a local visible church. Likewise, a person may be a member of a local visible church and not be a part of the universal invisible church.

This view of the church is held by many Southern Baptists and other Baptist groups. The Baptist Faith and Message, the official statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention, included an acknowledgment of the universal use of “church” in the 1963 revision. It basically defines church as a local visible autonomous assembly, but added this statement: “The New Testament speaks also of the church as the body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages.” The 2000 revision kept the universal statement with a slight expansion: “The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.” Although acknowledging the universal use of church in the New Testament, both versions support the view that the primary meaning of church in the New Testament is that of a local visible autonomous assembly of baptized believers in Jesus Christ. The statement of a universal church amounts to simply an addendum that seeks to accommodate those within the Baptist fold who sees (sic) some sort of a universal church, but it is not an essential factor in defining the New Testament church.

Consider as well the following interchange at the recent Baptist Identity Conference between Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and Dr. Paige Patterson, at the end of Dr. Patterson’s presentation on “What Contemporary Baptists can Learn from Anabaptists” (as reported by Marty Duren)…

First question from Malcolm Yarnell–”I’ve been looking in the Bible for the invisible church and it’s just not visible.” Would the anabaptists have held to the doctrine of the invisible church? Answer- Ekklesia is overwhelmingly used to refer to the visible, local church.

Consider also the following quote from Dr. Yarnell’s article on The Baptist Renaissance at Southwestern:

Yet Baptist identity has fallen on hard times… It has become common to hear people refer to “the church,” not in its primary biblical sense of a local body, but in the secondary and eschatological sense of a universal body.

I have no problem at all with recognizing and taking seriously what the Bible has to say about the local church. The only problem I have is when this emphasis, at the same time, demands downplaying the importance of our unity and cooperation with other born-again believers who were bought with the same blood as us, and will spend eternity in heaven together with us. It would appear, from what I am able to observe, that this belief on the relative unimportance of the Universal Church underlies the inference that our only real “partners” in the gospel and the fulfillment of the Great Commission are those who share not only our beliefs in the fundamentals of the gospel, but also our specifically “Baptist distinctives” as well… and, if we can’t cooperate with them on the mission field, we most certainly are not going to allow those who may have come to Christ and been baptized in their “churches” to join with us, and benefit from our Baptist Cooperative Program funds.

I realize that for many all of this may seem like theological quibbling. You may prefer, just like I did before I got wind of what was at stake, to just “get on with ministry, tell people about Jesus, make disciples, and love one another.” However, if this line of thinking is not going to eventually affect how we as Southern Baptists do ministry in a very practical way on a day-to-day basis, I believe that some of us are going to have to do our “homework.” If you think God may be leading you to be one of these, I invite you to investigate further the important words that Gene Bridges has to say about Landmarkism in the Southern Baptist Convention here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, and especially, what classic Baptist theologian John Dagg has to say about the Church Universal here.


Paul said...

David, I am from another denomination, yet I have had great respect for your father (met him and had family in his congregation) and (from what I have read) of your ministry as well. I trust you will forgive a brief intrusion.

I fundamentally agree with your ecclesiological bent, but I wonder if you have considered a way of combining the biblical understanding (and sense of unity) of the universal church with the autonomy of the local church by considering the "city church."

In our city, (State College, PA), many of us pastors say that there is one church but many congregations. It is the Church of State College just as it was the Church (singular) of Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, et. al., not the "churches" of those cities. (The only plural is Galatia, which was a region, not a city.) We respect each other's denominational DNA, but feel that our calling/local mission field actually gives us more in common with each other (my closest pastor friend is BGC) than we do with denominational colleagues on the other side of the continent. We meet together, pray together and hold each other accountable, but we don't try to force uniformity on secondary issues.

It seems to me that restoring the NT model means that the Church of State College is connected to the Church Universal, yet is not governed by (yet may be informed by) the Church of Pittsburgh, New York, and certainly not Rome.

I don't see anything in the NT that speaks of the autonomy of the local congregation (or Sunday school class, for that matter:)). The plurality of the elders is in the city, not necessarily in the congregation.

The autonomy of the local congregation only makes sense when we consider all others in the city who consider themselves believers to be anathema--meaning we are the only true "church" in the city. And hence the grief that we cause our Lord whose only extended canonical prayer (John 17) is treated as extraneous by many who otherwise claim to uphold biblical fidelity.

Groseys messages said...

and of course, each city has its Apostle...
David who would you advocate as the Apostle for Nashville?

As I have indicated in the past, I have no difficulty in working with other members of the Universal church in ministry. I, two days ago, shared time with the Bishop of Wollongong, at a large men's ministry where all the speakers were Anglican ministers including Bishop Frank Retieff of South Africa. I took 10 men of my congregation to this meeting. Twelve months ago I suggested that the former Bishop of Wollongong be called to undertake a great ministry in the Sydney Anglican denomination. I have good friendships and relationships with these evangelicals. Today I contacted a Sydney Anglican minister today to run a youth outreach and equipping session at our church for our city.
I believe in the Universal church.

But I also believe in the local church. I believe that each church has the autonomous right to define itself. It also has the right to fellowship with other churches of like faith and order. It is because I do maintain our self definition, that churches of other communions are willing to fellowship with us. They know that becasue I repect my right to self definition, they also know that I respect their right to self definition and self determination.

Both truths of the universal and local church must be held in tandem. One cannot be sacrificed for the sake of another.


Anonymous said...

Thinking out loud....Perhaps in God's economy autonomy is important because He desires that we individually grow in our love for Him (and because we naturally are individualistic first) and thus grow more and more like Him (we love Him because He first loved us, and as our understanding of His love increases so then does our love for Him). As we are drawn nearer to Him through the increase of our individual love for Him, then we are more unified in the Body universal.

Anonymous said...


Today in the Southern Baptist Convention, the issue is not about is there really such a thing as the universal / invisible church. Rather the issues are:

1. Is baptism an ordinance of the local church or is it an universal church / Christian ordinance?

2. Is the Lord's Supper an ordinance of the local church or is it an universal church / Christian ordinance?

3. Do the scriptures teach the primacy of the universal church or the primacy of the local church? Is the term "church" used more in the Bible to refer to the universal church or the local church?

The issue of whether local churches should have church fellowship with churches that have doctrinal error is really not an issue that is related to the universal church, at least not in my opinion. For example only a few of the fundamentalists who separated from mainline denominations because of their doctrinal error were Landmark Baptists.

Anonymous said...

Again, thought provoking!
Dagg alludes to a more definitive study of Kingdom and I agree with his thorough treatment of ekklesia. Like the Brother that mentions the "Church at State College", I fellowship with a group that uses the same analogy! I personally am inclined more toward the inclusion of Basilion as a preferred term, and that probably reflects my association with Dr. Fred Fisher and his research in this area. The breadth of our fellowship here in Tallahassee has allowed us to accomplish some wonderful things for Jesus! Though I'm not comfortable with with their terminology, I sure am, with their service to the Master! Blessings on your continued "blogging" and commentary..... I believe it edifies the Saints! Philemon 4-7 (NIV)....and I continue to pray for your family!

David Rogers said...


Very happy to have you comment here. Please "intrude" more often.

I completely agree with you that the "city church" concept, as you describe it, is probably the best practical compromise, given 2000 years of church history, toward true biblical ecclesiology, especially regarding unity. I wonder if the theologians would call this "visible" or "invisible" church, though. I appreciate the "visible" aspect of it involving real people with faces and names that everyone recognizes as part of the "church." Yet, at the same time, I also appreciate the fact that there appears to be no "apostle" or hierarchical structure (as Steve Grose alludes to below), thus perhaps tending more toward the "invisible" side, at least from some people's understanding.

Also, I am interested in how you relate to those churches and pastors in your city who don't meet together with you, and don't necessarily recognize the biblical legitimacy of what you are trying to do.

By the way, I have been a part of a dynamic very similar to what you describe here, in the Extremaduran Evangelical Council, which I wrote about awhile back in this post. Since moving to the Madrid area a few years ago, I have come across several different networks of churches and leaders that are somewhat similar, but nothing that actually comes as close to embracing the whole Body of Christ in the region as what we had in Extremadura. I think this may have something to do with a larger population, and more churches and structures to deal with. I am imagining State College is also small enough to make doing what you say more practical. What about the case of a bigger city? Do you have any observations or suggestions?

David Rogers said...

Steve Grose,

Technically, I can find no fault in what you write here. I think we are in basic agreement.

However, I wonder how you interpret the phrase "of like faith and order." I personally think this phrase has sometimes been used in Baptist circles here in the States to justify a degree of separation from believers in other denominations that doesn't do justice, as I understand it, to biblical teaching on the unity of the Body of Christ.

David Rogers said...


I agree with you. I have often used the illustration of a pyramid, with each of us as individual believers (and I guess, individual congregations as well) at some place along the edges, and Jesus at the top. As we each get closer to the top, it involves us getting closer to one another at the same time.

David Rogers said...


I will continue to do my "homework," as time and the Lord permit, on Landmarkism. As I understand it now, the issue of the Universal Church is a key issue on which the other issues of baptism and the Lord's Supper hinge.

I also don't see why it is necessary to talk about the "primacy" of the Universal Church or the local church, as if emphasizing one necessarily means de-emphasizing the other at the same time. I believe that biblically, the two are complementary, and do not need to conflict or compete with each other in any way.

What do you think?

David Rogers said...

Barrett Lampp,

Good to hear from you again, as always. Do you know if Fred Fisher's research is available on-line? I would be interested in reading more of what he has to say.


Paul said...


Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful response.

First, if I may respond to Steve, I reject the idea of "the Apostle of the City" as promulaged by C. Peter Wagner. I believe there is no biblical or historical basis to support it. If the term "apostle" is to be used today at all, it is probably most akin to the term "missionary."

Now to your questions...
1. I think the City Church is both visible and invisible, just like the Church as compared to the local congregation. The invisibility is a given, of course, because it is the work of the Holy Spirit. The visibile part (which we believe is enjoined upon us by John 17:23) is the harder part, which we continue to work on.

2. How do we regard those who don't fully participate? Pretty much the same way as we did before we began to pray, work, sometimes worship together. We regard those who are born-again believers as dear brothers with whom we desire closer fellowship. It's a bit like distance between brothers within a congregation. Not optimal, but we don't try to twist arms. If what we are doing is of God, the Holy Spirit will bring it to fruition.

3. What about large cities? Great question. While I salute the great work of Jim Herrington and the others involved in Mission Houston, I think the size is much too great and unwieldy for quality relationships. Maybe they have found a way to break it down into smaller units, but I'm not aware at this point. I think the "Katy (TX) Church" is one of the best models I've seen yet (they have a website at, and I think, again, it's a model that has SBC brethren at the forefront (the Church of Modesto (CA) is yet another example of that).

In discussions we've had here about geographical boundaries for the "city" (because we had men about an hour away want to be part of what we were doing), we tentatively concluded that school district boundaries may be the most helpful parameter.

I do think this is a genuine movement of God birthed by the Spirit, and I think it is the polar opposite of the ecclesiology of Landmarkism as I understand it.

Thank you again for allowing me to share these thoughts.

Megablessings to you and your work in Extremadura!

knnuki said...

The use of the word "church" in scripture is limited not merely to the local, nor to the universal. It is also used to describe a church in a city, in a region, in someone's home. It's also used to describe church populated by a certain race of people (the church of the Gentiles). It is also used to describe the "whole" church or "all" the churches. Scripturally, the word has wide use but I wonder if we work too hard to narrow it to suit our various biases.

David Rogers said...


Interesting reference to the "churches of the Gentiles" (I presume you are referring to Rom. 16.4). Also interesting that Aquila and Priscilla, who are being referenced in Rom 16.3, in the same context as the "churches of the Gentiles" in 16.4, are Jewish. When you compare this to Eph. 2.11-22, and all it says about "breaking down barriers" and making "both groups into one," I wonder what conclusions you can make about McGavran's "homogeneous unit" principle, and how it relates to the unity of the Church.

Groseys messages said...

Oh David, bye the way, as one of those humurous events that happen in one's lives, yesterday I was asked to drop everything and go do a funeral. I got the minimum of information on the deceased and their family (she had personality problems, so they didn't expect more than 5 in attendance). I arrived to do the funeral and discovered that the 5 members of her family present were all AOG ministers.
I had avoided contact for ten years with one of the pastors of that group because of his desire to be "the apostle of the city" and his attempts to control all outreach in the city. My comment yesterday intimating "apostles of the city" preceded this funeral.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Steve: I am wondering what your answer to David's question to you is.

Unknown said...


You ask some very important questions… However, one even more basic question must be answered first

• What constitutes a “local church”?

It would stand to reason to me that when you reject one’s baptism as invalid, you are in reality stating that one’s “local church” is invalid…

Grace to all

Tim Sweatman said...

I don't see a dichotomy between the idea of the universal church and the local church. Both are clearly found in the NT, which means that setting one up against the other is improper. I see nothing in Scripture to indicate that God ever intended for local churches to see themselves as separate from the universal church. There is one church; does Christ have a bride or does He have many brides?

While the church is one, the NT pattern is that this one church exists in many local congregations. I believe God ordained this for practical reasons. To have deep fellowship and accountability would be difficult (basically impossible) if the church were structured as one gigantic entity. To reach different types of people in the variety of cultures in the world would be exceedingly difficult if the church were not organized into local congregations that could readily adapt to the culture they are in. The practical basis for the local church explains why most of the NT references to the church are in the local sense: much of the NT (especially the epistles) were written to address practical concerns in specific local congregations.

Strider said...

One faith, one Lord, ONE BAPTISM, one God and Father of all....
This answers the question about to whom baptism belongs. It is not for a local body of believers to steal it and 'lord' it over someone else. We belong to our master and He is Lord of His Church.
Too often the discussion about local vs. universal church is really about power and control. Many reject authority and control and emphasis the universality of church while too many others emphasis the local church in an attempt to steal the authority of Christ and control 'their' part of the Kingdom. Both of these extremes must be avoided and condemned. He must be Lord or we are no true church at all.
As for the Apostilic issue that was mentioned. We must recover the truth of this vital position in order to be obedient to our Lord. I will put forth the the incomplete thought that the City Apostle concept is an oversimplification which is used by too many to build their own kingdoms. We must recover the concept that the apostle is the 'sent one'. He is sent by God for a given task and has been given the authority to do the task at hand. He is a servant to do the Lord's mission that is given him. Not a stand-in king left to rule until the Great King returns. I wont take up time on your blog space to elaborate on this secondary issue but it would be great to have an in depth discussion of this.

David Rogers said...

Tim & Strider,

Great points!


I would be interested in discussing a bit more the "apostle" concept as well. But I don't foresee writing a specific post on it anytime soon. If you want to expound your ideas here a little more, that's fine with me. Or, if you want to post something on your blog, I would likely join in on the conversation as well. Whatever way you prefer.

David Rogers said...


I checked out the Katy Church link, and it looks interesting. However, I noticed that Seventh-day Adventists and Roman Catholics were included as well. Some of this gets a little complicated at times deciding who is a part and who is not. Also, I don't know if you saw this yet. All this is not enough to convince me to "throw in the towel" on the "city church" idea, but, it does help you to be a bit sober regarding the complications of putting it into practice sometimes.

Paul said...


Oh, my! I did not know what you shared re:Katy. I am amazed at how well/broadly informed you are, David. The distressing link really caught me off-guard.

As you say, it is sobering indeed, and yes, it is more difficult than we would wish, yet I believe the "City Church" movement is the most faithful expression of NT ecclesiology I know (I know that's saying alot), so I still think it's worth the effort.

What a shame it is when movements end up becoming the opposite of what they were intended to be. My understanding of the original 5 Fundamentals from the early 19th century was that they were to bring unity to the embattled orthodox (small "o") believers, but it seemed that within short order everyone kept adding to *their* list of fundamentals. It seems to me, logically, that when virtually everything becomes a "fundamental," then nothing is. It totally destroys the meaning of the word.

David, "Knnuki" has raised some interesting thoughts regarding the use of the word "church" in the NT. I'd like to respond, but it may take some space to do so. Would you find that helpful, or do you think we've wrapped up this discussion at this point? Maybe another venue? What do you think?

Also, I wrote a paper back in 2001 on the City Church movement for the Louisville Institute that is on the internet. Also, I was called in the late 90s by one of the more conservative members of the SBC Home Missions Board about the movement, but the conversation didn't go on after that.

There was some optimism, I think, within the American evangelical church in the 90s (largely due to Promise Keepers, I think) that we might actually be getting somewhere, but that optimism seems to have largely dissipated.


David Rogers said...


We are talking about something I am very interested in, and also well within the scope of what "Love Each Stone" is all about in general.

I've got a suggestion. If you send me the text of your message via e-mail, I could look it over, and then post it as whole separate post, with you as a "guest poster." That might be the best way to attract the type of attention I believe this issue merits.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Paul wrote: "It seems to me, logically, that when virtually everything becomes a "fundamental," then nothing is. It totally destroys the meaning of the word."

Good point.

Paul said...

Thank you, David.

Lord willing, I will do that in the near future.