September 28, 2020

A Generous Catholicity

ls23.jpgWe like the creeds….except for the catholic parts.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…” -The Apostle’s Creed

“And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;… Amen.” – The Nicene Creed

I’ve been in probably 3000+ Baptist led worship services. With the exception of seminary and two years that I was on staff at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, I have almost never been in a Baptist church service or class where we used the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds for any reason. (OK…the Founder’s Conference. You guys get some love.)

That’s because we knew they were trouble. And I know why. Let’s journey back to my youth among the Landmark version of Southern Baptists, a common variety in Kentucky in the 50’s and beyond, even to this day.

The anti-Roman Catholicism in my SBC upbringing extended to a general suspicion that “creeds” were instruments of Roman Catholic superstition. So while we were devoted to the King James Bible, the 1956 Baptist Hymnal and Southern Baptist Sunday School literature, the great creeds of the church could take a hike. A long hike.

If, however, by some strange circumstance, these two creeds were to somehow have found themselves used in worship or teaching, and our people had been able to hold them in their hands and see the words for themselves….they would have not been happy.

“Catholic.” That word. The “c-word.” The word that must be explained a thousand times. The word that is so much trouble, some have reworded those lines of the creeds to avoid the controversy.

It’s not just in Baptist circles…or in conservative evangelical circles, for that matter. I’ve had to explain the term “catholic church” to almost every visitor who has ever come to my church. (Yes…mostly Baptists.) They listen and nod, but I don’t think my explanation does much good. Given the choice of “No creed by Christ,” or “We believe the Apostle’s/Nicene Creeds,” the majority of Christians in my environment would have no trouble choosing door number one.

The Apostle’s creed and the Nicene creed were never going to surface in my Baptist circles, because the language of those creeds defined the church in a way that opened all sorts of difficulties for people who believed that the church was their local congregation, and local congregations just like them.

The Campbellites (Church of Christ) and the Roman Catholics would engage us Baptists in debate about which church was the “one, true” church Jesus founded. Landmark theology allowed my church to give an answer: the true church was the church that had the New Testament marks of the church.

What were the marks of a true church?


1. Its Head and Founder–CHRIST. He is the law-giver; the Church is only the executive. (Matt. 16:18; Col. 1:18)

2. Its only rule of faith and practice–THE BIBLE. (II Tim. 3:15-17)

3. Its name–“CHURCH,” “CHURCHES.” (Matt. 16:18; Rev. 22:16)

4. Its polity–CONGREGATIONAL–all members equal. (Matt. 20:24-28; Matt. 23:5-12)

5. Its members–only saved people. (Eph. 2:21; I Peter 2:5)

6. Its ordinances–BELIEVERS’ BAPTISM, FOLLOWED BY THE LORD’S SUPPER. (Matt. 28:19-20)

7. Its officers–PASTORS AND DEACONS. (I Tim. 3:1-16)

8. Its work–getting folks saved, baptizing them (with a baptism that meets all the requirements of God’s Word), teaching them (“to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”). (Matt. 28:16-20)

9. Its financial plan–“Even so (TITHES and OFFERINGS) hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel,” (I Cor. 9:14)

10. Its weapons of warfare–spiritual, not carnal. (II Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:10-20)

11. Its independence–separation of Church and State. (Matt. 22:21)

Or, from the same source…

1. A spiritual Church, Christ its founder, its only head and law giver.

2. Its ordinances, only two, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are typical and memorial, not saving.

3. Its officers, only two, bishops or pastors and deacons; they are servants of the church.

4. Its Government, a pure Democracy, and that executive only, never legislative.

5. Its laws and doctrines: The New Testament and that only.

6. Its members. Believers only, they saved by grace, not works, through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.

7. Its requirements. Believers on entering the church to be baptized, that by immersion, then obedience and loyalty to all New Testament laws.

8. The various churches–separate and independent in their execution of laws and discipline and in their responsibilities to God–but cooperative in work.

9. Complete separation of Church and State.

10. Absolute Religious liberty for all.

What these distinguishing marks did was very good. What they did not do, however, was address two issues raised in the creeds and in our interactions with other Christians.

First, what is the “universal,” or “catholic” church? The invisible, one body of Christ through all time and history? Is there such a thing?

How does this universal church relate to the local church? Are they identical? Particularly, how does membership in the universal church relate to membership in the local church?

It appeared quite possible to my Baptist friends that if one admitted that the Methodist pastor was a member of the true body of Christ, then the local Baptist church’s claim to being the “true” church in the above list was compromised. Here was someone who was accepted by Christ, but unacceptable to our local congregation.

This caused a host of problems. As the idea of the “universal” church was virtually eliminated from our way of thinking about the church (and even ridiculed), it became necessary to tell a host of people that they could not be members of our church unless they were rebaptized (or in most cases, reprofessed their faith in Christ from scratch, as if they had never been Christians.)

This eventually came to mean something else; something that was said, not loudly, but plainly: our church, the Baptist congregation, was the one, true church that Jesus founded, and other churches were…were…well….

That was the second issue. What were other churches? The Roman Catholic Church was the whore of Rome and the home of the future anti-Christ. But what about the Methodists? Pentecostals? Presbyterians?

Our church was straightforward. These other congregations were not churches. They were “religious societies,” and the persons in them were, generally, lost, or at least so confused and poorly taught that you should approach them as unbelievers and seek to get them saved.

One, holy, catholic, apostolic church? Such a concept played no part in our church at all. Our church was the church. Our denomination was not a church. There was no invisible, universal church. There was a New Testament list of the characteristics of local congregations, and our church had them all. No other church did.

(Non SBC Baptists really bugged us, by the way. Our church finally decided that if they didn’t use Southern Baptist literature and participate in our denominational missions program, then there was good reason to assume they were not “real” Baptists.)

Now a majority of trustees of the IMB and an increasing number of conservative SBC leaders are ready to move the SBC back toward the atmosphere and claims of my youth among the Landmarkers, where you were about as likely to hear a sermon on the “catholic” church as you were to hear a list of the pastor’s favorite beers.

Today, these advocates are prepared to say that those not baptized in a Baptist church that believes in “eternal security” (i.e. any Arminian/Charismatic/independent church) and ties that endorsement explicitly to baptism have not been baptized legitimately and must be rebaptized. They are prepared to say that baptism is an endorsement of an entire slate of conservative Baptist theological positions, and any church that falls short of those commitments is not providing a legitimate Baptism.

They are prepared to say that there is no legitimate Christian church, no Christian baptism and no Christian ministry outside of what is practiced by non-Arminian Baptists in local churches. They are prepared to, once again, emphasize an understanding of the church that will never be disturbed by the question of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church existing outside the distinctives of contemporary conservative Southern Baptists.

I will not roll call the names of the churches, ministers and fellow Christians whose legitimacy in the Body of Christ will be rejected by this shift. Most Baptists are not interested in a return to the catholic Christianity of the creeds. I am well aware of this. They will stand side by side with brothers and sisters in the cause of the contemporary culture war, but they have no interest in seeing the church itself in larger, more catholic terms.

What does this mean? It means that, for all intents and purposes, until someone comes to a Baptist congregation, walks a Baptist aisle, is immersed in Baptist water by a Baptist minister, they will not be accepted as one who is legitimately part of the Body of Christ. It may take a while for this to be revealed, but it is the case.

Those of us who believe in the catholicity of the church are also, generally, persons who value our denominational confessions and who understand the differences in our churches. We grieve over the divisions in the family/body, but we recognize that we cannot take the church seriously one one level (catholicity) and not on another level (local congregation/denomination.)

I have no quarrel with those who derive a “list” of New Testament church characteristics from the Bible and seek to live by those. But I do reject the notion that our churches are so right, so correct and so in conformity to scripture that we can pronounce other churches, baptisms and ministers as merely “religious societies.” Rejecting those who profess faith in Christ and seek to follow him as I do is a serious business, and I am unsure why we seem to be relishing the opportunity to do more of it.

In other words, we need a “generous catholicity.” Not a competition where the winner plays the role of the brat, but a humble and sincere attempt to see Christ in his church, and not just in ours. It will not hurt us to say that Christ’s church is larger than our own, or to act like it.

We differ on Baptism. Can we agree that Baptism belongs to Christ, and is not dispensed by the church? We differ on matters such as “eternal security” and speaking in tongues. Can we agree that the Holy Spirit manifests himself in his church according to his good pleasure, and not only within the bounds of our preferences (or nice theological conclusions?) We differ on church government. Can we agree that Christ is the head of the church? We differ on how we profess our faith. Can we agree that we receive a brother in Jesus name’ and not our own? We differ on the Lord’s Table. Can we agree that all of us read the same texts with the same passion to be connected to Christ through that table, and that even if we cannot share it together, we can agree that it is our table, and the table where our elder brother seats us all in places of honor?

We differ on much and always will. Can we agree that we are all…all of us…the church catholic? The one, holy, apostolic, blood-bought, inheritance of Jesus? That we are all the fruit of his incarnation and suffering, and that our divisions do not divide Christ (I Corinthians 1:13), but only ourselves from our family?

I am glad for all the Baptist tradition gave to me and to my family, but if my Southern Baptist brothers are going to all but erase the “catholic” church from our common faith, I will pray that the project fails and that God will raise up a better generation, with a deeper love for all the church.


  1. Amen.

  2. I was raised in a small pentecostal church. We had the same view toward other churches that you mention with the Landmark Baptists. Many pentecostals are now moving back to that view, as well. Why do we keep falling into the same pit, over and over?

  3. Bro. Spencer,

    Very interesting article. I am one of those Landmark Southern Baptist pastors in Kentucky. There are still quite a few of us left in the state, although admittedly not as many as there used to be. One problem with your article is it tries to tie three viewpoints together:
    1. – There is no universal church
    2. – Baptists are the only true church
    3. – Alien (non-Baptist) immersion should be rejected.

    While one could argue that it is logical to believe all three (I personally do), there have been many Baptists throughout history who believed #3, but not necessary #1 or #2. For example J.M. Pendleton comes to mind. He believed #2 and #3, but not #1. Or what about John Broadus and James Boyce. They believed #3 (which is shocking to most Founders Baptists, but nevertheless true), but rejected #1 and #2

    To many Southern Baptists, the doctrines non-Baptist churches believe and practice (teaching one can lose their salvation, or teaching baptism is necessary for salvation, or teaching infant baptism, or teaching sprinkling for baptism, or making baptism a part of the salvation process makes us uncomfortable with the immersions they do perform. This is the root of the IMB issue.

  4. It’s been a long time since I visited a Baptist church like you described, but it still brought back a lot of bad memories. Can anyone doubt the wisdom of the Spirit of God in inspiring Paul to write that “I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos” divisions have no place among the people of God?

  5. I’ll say amen to that Bro Monk. What’s funny to me, is that I grew up with virtually the same type of teaching/beliefs – yet we were “Independent, Fundamental, Non-Denominational, Evangelical” to quote the long time pastor of my youth. In my experience, such churches provide an excellent foundation of biblical knowlege, and focus on Jesus Christ, but seriously botch things like the idea of the universal church. It was never explicitly stated to us, but my sisters and I grew up with the not so subtle sense that we truly were the only “real” church – and everyone else was damned.

  6. oliattrinity says

    I think the ideas identified are another sign of the “One” Universal catholic churc. We all argue over essentialy the same issues. We may call them by different names, but once we boil it all down, it shows our human nature of dividing into “Us” and “Them.” In God’s eyes, we are all the same. But our human nature wants to order things. This desire it not necessaril a result of modernism, but goes further back. Despite knowng that our salvation is by grace, we still try to make ourselves closer to God by dividing up who is holier. We need to grab hold of the essentials and move on. From the post it sounds like we may have Baptists out there protesting like the Muslims over the portayal of Allah in the Dutch press. Anyway, nice post.


  7. BryanKMills says

    Wow. I’ve never heard “SBC is the only way” explicitly stated before. I have been SBC all my life. There’s always been an unstated assumption that Baptists have it right and everyone else is “off”, but I have never heard any explicit statement saying that our way is the only right way.

    The circles I’ve run in have never presumed to judge the “Christian-ness” of other denominations (except Catholicism. That got bashed often). We’ll go after their theology and practice with gusto, but saying they don’t count as Christians–that’s a line I’ve never seen crossed.

    As to the existence of a universal church… how is this to be denied with any seriousness? Is Christ going to have multiple wives, each wife composed of members of a single denomination? Last I read, it was a wedding supper (singular), and the bride (singular) has made herself ready.

  8. I’m a Campbellite (or rather more of a Stonite, if I’m honest with myself).

    I’m not going to repeat here what you probably already know about the movement and the thinking that led to the no-creed heritage.

    I think you are right to accuse no-creedists with falling to human nature and using their philosophical stance to divide rather than unite. Seeing the creed itself as divisive, it is odd that they would replace the historic “grand” creeds of understanding with near infinitude of “detailed” creeds of church practice.

    But the problem isn’t the rejection of the creeds. I still see that as a good thing. I believe that dividing the Church (in the CofC we refer to the “universal” or catholic church as the *big* “C” Church as opposed to the *little* “c” church being an individual assembly) along trinitarian lines would be just as wrong as dividing the Church along the lines of who practices instrumental music.

    Dividing little “c”s this way is fine. But whether one is a creedist or a non-creedist, one must separate notions of theology which separate little “c”s from issues of salvation which separate the big “C” from the world.

    Salvation is the only thing which separates us from the world. Creeds were used to equate orthodoxy with salvation.

    Unfortunately, it is my experience that we’ve taken “Christ and him crucified” and “the authority of the scriptures”… and then added all sorts of other things labeled “also important”.

    This creeping “if you don’t cut your hair right, it’s a salvation issue” sort of theology comes from from a bizarre sort of “right thinking” theology. It goes like this… if you have a theological position different from the *obvious* Biblical one, you must have taken this erronious position defiantly. Since it’s clear what God wants, you are being a stubborn, rebellious, fallen man. Since you are habitually sinning in this way, you must not be a real Christian(tm). Therefore your salvation is in question and you are not a member of the *big* “C”.[QED]

    Countless times it seems the apostles give reproach for bad theology and bad practice in the early Church. But rarely do they directly say that such theology or practice is dangerous to the point of questioning salvation or necessitates the removal of some persons from the assembly. Surprisingly enough, three big ones come to mind:

    1. Galatians who say you must be Jewish to be Christian
    2. John’s readers who claim to be without sin, not confessing sin and living accountable lives
    3. James contention that people who claim faith but their faith produces no good works

    These examples (and I’m sure it’s consistant with others you can think of) clearly address the core teaching of Christ. That we are sinful creatures in utter need of God’s grace, that grace utterly paid the price for our sin and that we are changed when we accept that grace.

    In fact, the “running of the Church” has suplanted this teaching. Organizations require rules of membership. We must be assured that brother Jack who’s in charge of Sunday school will teach all the “right” things to our kids.

    I’ve begun to ramble. Allow me a bit more to sum up.

    Creeds and practices amoung the churches professing Christ around the world are fine for living a cooperative life in Christ. I don’t even mind artificial lines of denominationalism. We are not all feet, hair or spleens-in-Christ. We are different and probably for a purpose. But we need to keep these artifices out of the discussion of who belongs in the catholic Church.

    Colossians 1:21-23
    Colossians 2:16-23
    colossians 3:8-17 (14!)

    Oh, just go read the whole book 🙂

    Let us be one with another as the Son is one with the Father.

  9. I grew up in a small independent Pentecostal church. For a long time I thought that they were the only spooky “true church.” Praise God from whom all good things flow that I am now at home in my very catholic United Methodist church. I pastor some of the most beautiful children of God in the world, many of whom seek the Holy Spirit to repair the damage done by some of those “real churches” up here in northeast Georgia. Gratefully, I’ve only met a few really hateful church people out in my community, who take delight in sneering at our flock (and at me behind my back.)


  10. Did I forget to mention that Campbell and Stone didn’t come to agreement on the trinity or even baptism? How few of the members today remember this!

    I guess the churches of Christ have forgotten that we used to be the emergent Church. We are a far cry from supporting Stone’s definition of Christian: “Whoever acknowledges the leading truths of Christianity, and conforms his life to that acknowledgement, we esteem a Christian.”

  11. Great post. I linked to it here.

  12. As per Somerville, ” Religion is our vehicle for the journey. Once arrived, it will be left at the door.” and

    “Two short articles worth reading if you have time”

  13. Smiling at Sharon. 😀

    I grew up Souther Baptist on the “progressive” west coast, but my childhood church sounds precisely like your description. I am grieved by the direction of my former denomination.
    Excellent post. Thanks for your continued honesty. I am an observer from a distance these days, but the Assemblies of God is not so very different from the SBC, in spite of that tricky “tonues” issue. And I pray. “Alien baptism?” Oh my.

  14. Ah, open minds, open hearts, open theology…

  15. brotherterry says


    A very good post.

    I am very concerned about the IMB and what their new baptism and private prayer language policies have wrought.

    The SBC must remain a big enough tent for a spectrum of churches with minor differences of belief to cooperate.


  16. Great post! I’m what you call a “Campbellite” (it’s 2006 and people still call us that? I had no idea). Most of what you wrote could have been written by one of “us.” Wow. I’m gonna have to chew on this one for awhile.

    By the way, I just discovered your website a few weeks ago. I really enjoy reading your stuff.

  17. What an eye-opener this was for me. I’ve never belonged to any other than the Episcopal church, and I had no idea that Baptists viewed other churches as “un-Christian.” We are homeschoolers, and live in an area with lots of Baptists and evangelicals, and, thankfully, no one has ever expressed this thinking to me. Now I wonder is it is because we are below the Bible Belt in Florida, or because the people I spend time with have nice manners. I Love the creeds, and the idea of a “catholic” church.
    Your article was interesting, though depressing.

  18. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I’ve met some people who are insistent that there is no “big C” church other than a metaphor for the sum total of individuals who happen to be Christians and that God’s relationship to mankind is only on the basis of His saving interaction with individuals. Exactly how a person gets that idea out of the Bible is utterly beyond me but it seems to be an attempt to avoid “creeping Catholic heresies” about how to define what a church is. My problem with this sort of definition of the church is that sum total of individual Christians in any given area would, I hope, have the Holy Spirit in common. If we share the Holy Spirit as the seal of our salvation doesn’t that make us slightly more than “just” the individual Christians who happen to meet at the same location at least once a week to read from Scripture?

  19. I was SBC for a while…attended an SBC University also. I never heard it said that Baptists were the only true church. There was a certain amount of smugness that SBC was the closest in truth, but never an outright condemnation of other denominations.

    I briefly dated a Church of Christ boy/man…briefly because I soon realized how restrictive they were in their views about others and where they stood with Christ(which was nowhere, in their view.)

    I do wonder how mind-blowing it would be for some people to travel back in time to see the 1st and 2nd century churches and compare them with what we currently believe and practice today. I think most everyone who believes that their denomination is a “return” to the early church would be surprised and shocked.

  20. Man, those guys need to read Richard Hooker. Except they’d need him to be a Baptist, not a 16th century English Anglican Evangelical.

  21. I’ve spent 6 years in the SBC after being raised Quaker for 25+ years. I have been shocked and astonished at some of the things I’ve heard behind closed doors.

    While no SBC church is going to say outloud that they are the “only church” the very sad fact is that most of them are THINKING it if they’re not downright saying it to your face.

    We have since left the SBC and we are in the midst of wondering in the wilderness, not sure where we’ll end up. Personally, even though I’m a Christian and know the “forsake not the assembly of the saints” bit quite well, I could care less to ever step foot in a traditional church again. The backbiting and arguing about who we are and how we “do” church is sickening to me. Half the blogs I read are fighting with one another on the emergent church movement.

    I wrote about something similar today on my blog. In a nutshell, when it comes to church and religion I don’t fit in anywhere nicely. I’m too liberal for the conservatives, and too conservative for the liberals.

  22. Can anyone say “Donatism” — except in a SBC corporate fashion. Didn’t the early church already thrash that idea? If Donatism was, in essence, the idea that the efficacy of a person’s salvation was contingent upon the personal and theological holiness of the minister — isn’t that what the SBC is doing then, just on a corporate, denominational basis? I don’t know much about the SBC, just what I got in the article, but just a thought that I had about it….

  23. Now, what prompted the resumption of comments to this thread?

    Anyway, I’d like to suggest that “catholic” in the creed has the connotation of whole at least as much as the connotation of universal (and these two have different senses in modern English popular usage, I think). To give a non-Catholic citation for that, my concise Oxford dictionary has:

    [ME, f OF catholique or f. LL f. Gk katholikos universal f. cath’ holou in general (kata in respect of, holos whole)]

  24. I have a small quibble with this: “Its only rule of faith and practice–THE BIBLE. (II Tim. 3:15-17)” These verses were written within the first 100 years after Christ’s death. Since the Bible was not cannonized until the 300s, the verses and scripture it MUST be referring to is the Old Testiment. Thus, this cite is a poor choice to support sola scriptura.

    Otherwise, well written.

  25. Memphis Aggie says

    If I can comment as a Catholic, we believe that all Baptisms made in the name of the Holy Trinity are valid. In practice this means that almost all Protestants (excluding only those with radical non-trinitarian theology) are brothers and sisters in Christ.

    However, we don’t hold to baptism as a eternal assurance of salvation, that’s called “presumption” in the Catholic Church. Certainly I like the idea of a guarantee (who wouldn’t?) but I reluctantly recognize that I function as a better Christian without it. The fear of the loss of grace forces me to re-examine my conduct and to submit more of my will and pride to Christ. I’d love to say I come to Christ wholly out of love for His righteousness but, if I’m honest, I recognize that I am also motivated by fear. I fear that my own weakness could lead me to sin again. This recognition keeps my head bowed and my knees bent. If I believe I had a “guarantee” I might be tempted to be lax. So I trust in Christ but not in my flawed self.

    Forgive my ignorance, but what is the origin of the “eternal assurance”? Is that a Calvinist doctrine?

  26. Chad Winters says

    canonization was only a formal recognizing of the NT scriptures that the church had been using for hundreds of years. It is incorrect to say that the early church did not have NT scriptures just because formal church council canonization did not happen until later. It is clear that early church fathers considered hte epistles and gospels that were later canonized to be Scripture