A new policy requiring that Southern Baptist missionaries be baptized in a church that “practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone” is being defended by a seminary professor and pastor associated with a largely discredited view identifying Baptists as the only true church.

Hershael York, immediate past president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, wrote in a Monday Web log that he believes the new International Mission Board baptism policy is consistent not only with what Baptists have traditionally believed, but also is what the Bible teaches.

“In all candor, the controversy that has erupted over this policy is nothing less than stunning and probably reflects decades of neglect of Baptist ecclesiology (theology relating to the church,)” wrote York, pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., and professor of preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

Critics of the policy change, including an Oklahoma trustee recommended for removal from the IMB for airing his concerns in a blog, say tightening of the baptism requirement is unnecessary and will disenfranchise conservative Southern Baptists who agree on essential doctrines in the Baptist Faith & Message but differ on non-essential articles of faith.

But York said Baptists have never had serious disagreement that the only biblical mode for baptism is immersion, it is for believers only, is purely symbolic and therefore is not a “sacrament,” and it is an ordinance for the local church.

“Any denomination sending missionaries would be within its rights and responsibility to make certain that every candidate representing its churches has been baptized in a way consistent with that denomination’s view on baptism,” York said.

Before joining the faculty of Southern Seminary, York served 14 years as associate pastor and pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., long an Independent Baptist church that re-entered the Southern Baptist fold in 1996.

The church holds the copyright to a booklet titled The Trail of Blood, written in the 1930s and popular among fundamentalists holding to a view of Baptist origins introduced on the 19th century American frontier called “Landmarkism.”

The book is subtitled “Following the Christians Down Through the Centuries” or “The History of Baptist Churches From the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day.”

It argues that Baptist churches are the only “true” churches and can be identified by certain “marks.” They include believer’s baptism by immersion, congregational government and the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice.

Today most scholars believe that modern Baptist churches are products of the Protestant Reformation, either the English Separatist movement of the 1600s or the earlier Anabaptist movement on the European continent.

Landmarkism, however, holds that true churches predate the Reformation by centuries. The Trail of Blood, for example, argues for an unbroken succession of dissenting groups sharing a common history of persecution by the Roman Catholic Church (by inference a false church, with its infant baptism, hierarchy and authoritative church teaching) that goes all the way back to the New Testament church.

While these sects were not “always loyal in all respects to New Testament teachings,” preacher J.M. Carroll said in a series of sermons eventually published as The Trail of Blood, “in the main they were. And some of them, considering their surroundings, were marvelously so.”

While Landmark theology never completely won out in the Southern Baptist Convention, its influence has over the years been profoundly felt. Landmarkers forced the resignation of Southern Seminary President William Whitsitt in 1899, for example, for writing it is historically impossible to trace the Baptist denomination back prior to 1641.

Tension over the movement can still be found in the SBC’s doctrinal statement, adopted in its first form in 1925. The Baptist Faith & Message defines a “New Testament church” as “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers,” a nod to Landmarkers’ belief that there is no such thing as an “invisible” church.

Yet it also recognizes that “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,” balancing the Landmark view that the Bible speaks only of local churches and that only Baptist churches are true churches.

Critics of the new IMB policy view it in part as Landmarkism once again rearing its head. They say allowing it to stand will only open the door for new battles between those who believe tongues are a valid spiritual gift for today and those who think they ceased in the New Testament–and between those who emphasize predestination and others who affirm free will, and so on–until Southern Baptists become hopelessly divided and culturally irrelevant.

But York said he worries about “what underlies the strong objections to this policy.”

“Are they raised because we now deny what Southern Baptists have always held?” he said. “Do we now understand our founders to be provincial and not as enlightened as we? Or are the objections because we have fallen prey to the age and find it uncomfortable to set doctrinal parameters in general?”

York insisted that he is willing to work with fellow Christians who disagree with him on the baptism issue, adding, “I am probably in the minority that hold that view on the faculty of Southern Seminary.”

He said he also has “a more restrictive position” than the church he now leads but has chosen not to force the issue. But if hypothetically a person who was baptized by a Methodist minister serving as a chaplain in Iraq came to his church requesting membership, York said he would recommend that the person be rebaptized.

“I believe scriptural baptism has four ingredients,” he said: “a proper candidate, a proper mode, a proper purpose and a proper authority, and I deny the authority of a Methodist minister to administer baptism that my church should recognize as much as I would deny him the right to administer communion in my church.”

York asked: “Are we going to ask our missionaries to hold to a Baptist understanding of baptism, or are we going to surrender our Baptist distinctives in favor of becoming a nebulous and amorphous evangelical cooperation. I really believe that is at the heart of the question and the answers that I am hearing.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous related stories:
Kentucky Baptists Elect Conservative, Decline BWA Study
Kentucky Baptist Convention Candidate Linked to ‘Trail of Blood’ Theology

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