The Implications of Graves’ Position
Graves’ foundational assumption impacted his entire ecclesiology. Many of Graves’ Landmarker distinctives flowed directly from his peculiar views on the Kingdom of God. Now, to be sure, a Baptist can believe any of the following implications and not care one whit about J.R. Graves. But, for Graves himself, his faulty view on the Kingdom of God was the determining factor.
Implication #1: The True Church Is Only a Local, Visible Institution Located upon this Earth
A kingdom is nothing if not literal and physical. Thus, in Graves’ view, the church is always a local, visible institution. “He has no invisible kingdom or church, and such a thing has no real existence in heaven or earth. It is only an invention employed to bolster up erroneous theories of ecclesiology.”1 Graves lists three possible views on the church:
- The universal, catholic church. “According to this, there can be but one church, of the denomination adopting it, throughout the world. No single congregation is a church in any sense, but an infinitesimal part of the universal idea.”2
- The state church.
- The Baptist model. The church is a local organization. “This church acknowledges no body of men on earth, council, conference or assembly as its head, but Christ alone, who is invisible, as ‘head over all things’ to it.”3
Unless Graves was willing to claim that only Baptists are saved (and he specifically repudiated this idea), then he must admit that believers of every denominational stripe exist all over the entire world. There is certainly a universal church in prospect; Paul tells us all about the great reunion we’ll all have together with Christ in the air (1 Thess 4:13-18)! Indeed, this is the first time the entire church will actually be gathered together. In several places in Scripture, “the church” is spoken of as a corporate, collective body (e.g. Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 1:2; Col 1:18; Eph 5:25). However, Graves certainly was correct that, for practical intents and purposes, the church is a local, visible body.
And yet, one wonders why Graves was so reluctant to admit that an individual local church is a local branch office, as it were, of the larger entity—the universal church? He wrote:
And this, too, is manifest, 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. It has a specified organization, officers, faith, laws and ordinances, and a living membership, and therefore it must be visible.4
Could it be that Graves’ peculiar view about promised Kingdom of Christ was driving this assertion? He went on to argue:
He built it, and it must therefore be visible. Every term selected by the inspiring Spirit to designate the institution Christ was to originate when He came to this earth, in both Testaments, is a term necessitating form, and therefore visibility, e.g., “Kingdom of God,” “of Heaven,” “of Christ,” “Bride,” “wife,” “Church,” “House,” etc.5
Pay attention to Graves’ reasoning. He said Christ’s institution must be visible. Why? According to Graves, it’s because the descriptive words from the Old Testament necessitate a physical form. He then applied the terms “Kingdom of God,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of Christ” and equated them with the church. Clearly, the reason Graves believed the true church was only a local, visible institution was because he believed the local Baptist church was Christ’s promised Kingdom.
Implication #2: Baptist Churches are the Only True Churches in the World
If Baptist churches are the only true representation of Christ’s kingdom on this earth, it logically follows that only Baptist churches are true churches:
It must be true that those who originate such false churches, and those who support them by their means and influence, occupy the positions of rebels against the rightful and supreme authority of Christ. Designed as the “house and church of the living God” was by an architect possessing infinite wisdom, who saw the end from the beginning, every conceivable exigency that could effect it to the end of time, must have been foreseen and provided for; and the very intimation that changes have become necessary, the better to adapt it to fulfill its mission, is impiously to impugn the divine wisdom that devised and set it up.6
Thus, a non-Baptist church is more than merely disobedient. It is a “false church.” Moreover, such people are in open rebellion against Christ’s authority. They impugn Christ’s divine wisdom for the sake of expediency. Why would Graves use such harsh words? Again, it is because he believed the promised Kingdom of Christ had come and been inaugurated in the local Baptist church. To defy the Kingdom of God was nothing short of deliberate disobedience!
So all organizations and their officers of non-Baptist churches are no more churches and officers of Christ than are Masonic lodges and their officers churches of Christ, and if not churches of Christ, how can we recognize them as such without disobeying the injunction “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness.”7
Graves compared attending church at these false “religious societies” with willfully worshipping Nebuchadnezzar’s blasphemous image (Dan 3).8 These false churches were human institutions and Anti-christian, because they are opposed to the model Christ instituted.9 He even specifically claimed the Methodist Church was the Antichrist.10 Graves went so far as to compare the sanctity and dignity of the local church to the theocracy of Israel, which makes perfect sense according to his ecclesiology:
If I am right in my conception of the character of this divine institution, then it follows that the sanctity and authority of its divine Founder are so embodied in its government, as they were in its type—the Jewish theocracy—that as men treat His church, its doctrine, its laws or its members, “they treat its Author.”11
It is a fact that Graves’ erroneous view on the Kingdom of God shaped his thinking here. Infant sprinkling was the great evil in Graves’ ecclesiology. It was the bond which united church and state, which he saw as the iron and clay in the prophesy of Daniel 2:44. It was the duty of Baptist churches, the Kingdom of God on earth, to destroy and eradicate this great evil.12
It is clear that, to J.R. Graves, any deviation from Baptist polity rendered a church a false, counterfeit organization. He wrote, “un-immersed bodies of Christians are not churches, nor are any privileged companies of them the church, hence all Pedo-Baptists denominations are only religious societies.”13 Any organization which tampered with Christ’s model was guilty of treason.14 Therefore, in Graves’ view, a Presbyterian church has as much legitimate claim to being a “church” as the nation of Midian had to being God’s chosen theocratic kingdom from the Old Testament.
1 Ibid, Kindle Locations 617-618.
2 Ibid, Kindle Locations 656-658.
3 Ibid, Kindle Locations 691-692.
4 Ibid, Kindle Locations 613-616.
5 Ibid, Kindle Locations 610-613.
6 Ibid, Kindle Locations 585-589. Emphasis mine.
9 Ibid, 47.
10 Ibid, 52.
11 Graves (Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 590-592).
12 Graves (Great Iron Wheel, 49). “How is the Church to break to pieces the monarchisms of earth? Not with the sword, literal or physical force, for her weapons are not carnal. How then can these iron monarchies be overthrown by moral force. Let us notice that the feet and legs of this image are composed of iron mixed with mirey clay, two substances God never made to unite. Of what two elements are the despotisms of the Italian and European States composed? Church and state—answering to the clay and iron, elements God never intended to unite. What is the cement that now unites them? Answer: Infant sprinkling. The influence of the Church of Christ is to dissolve this cement, and then the iron and clay will part and crumble.”
13 J.R. Graves, “A Statement of Landmark Principles, 1857,” in A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, ed. H. Leon McBeth (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), 319.
14 Ibid, 319. “Christ gave no men, society, or church, the authority to traffic with the ordinance or organization of his church or kingdom so as to make, or change his laws, and substitute one thing for another. To surrender what He has established, is treachery—to change them is treason.”