Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Baptism, Indoctrination, and Church Membership - Part 1

There seems to be a growing sentiment, even among clergy, that the act of baptism is separate from either indoctrination or church membership. All that is "required" for baptism, it is proposed, is that a person accepts Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. Such an individual then learns the more finer points of doctrine and - at some point in the future - joins the body of Christ through church membership (or sometimes not at all).

While I am sympathetic to such thinking, it does not seem to enjoy the support of scripture whatsoever. Now, we may try to use our reasoning and logic and say "I think this" or "I think that," but I am not so concerned about what a person thinks, what a pastor says, or - to borrow a phrase from the apostle Paul - "even . . . [what] an angel from heaven" preaches (Galatians 1:8). I am interested in what the Bible teaches.

Over the past few years I have done quite a bit of study into this topic and just recently I explored it again. And, once again, the weight of evidence from scripture seems to indicate that some type of indoctrination and lifestyle change is required, and that church membership is tied into it.

So let's take a look at the scriptural evidence, addressing each subject one by one.

"Belief" the Only "Requirement"?

I have studied every usage of the word "baptize" (or a variation of it) in the New Testament and the weight of evidence is overwhelming. To begin with, in the book of Acts, anyone that is baptized before chapter 10 is already Jewish. Thus, the Ten Commandments (including the Sabbath), dietary laws, and even circumcision, were "non-issues" for such individuals. They very much had a firm grasp of the basics of the Christian faith since Christianity was grounded in the Jewish tradition and the Old Testament teachings.

One individual that many will point to as a shining example of "on the spot" baptism is the Ethiopian eunuch. On the surface, it appears as though Philip performed a kind of "shot gun" baptism with him. But context clears this up. Acts 8:38 tells us that he had "come to Jerusalem to worship," and upon his return he was sitting in his chariot, reading "Isaiah the prophet." Clearly, this is a pius man who had a pretty good grasp of the ethical and doctrinal basics of Christianity. We might say that all he was missing was Christ - admittedly, a pretty big component. Yet Philip obviously took time to clarify his questions about Christ because we read in v. 35, "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him."

Obviously, if Philip "began" in Isaiah and preached about Christ, he must have continued on and gave him a pretty extensive Bible study on the subject. And it was only after all this that the Ethiopian was then baptized.

Now, when we come to Acts 10 we see a shift between those who were baptized. As I said above, before Acts 10 they were all Jewish; after Acts 10 there are Gentiles who are baptized as well. And yet, in no instance that a Gentile was baptized do we see a simple "all that matters is that you believe in Jesus." None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

So let's look at all the instances of people being baptized from Acts 10 and onward and note how each person either received "indoctrination" or their lifestyle was in accordance with biblical principles.

1. Cornelius was the first Gentile convert. Before he was baptized we note that he engaged in the practices of fasting, prayer, and giving alms (10:30-31). He obviously also had some type of relationship with God because he recognized Him in vision and knew how to respond to His voice (vv. 31-33).

2. Lydia, the first European convert, was apparently a Sabbath-keeper who "worshiped God" (16:13-14). Yet it was only after "the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul" that she - as well as her household - was baptized (vv. 14-15).

3. Many will point to the next person - the Philippian jailer - as an example of a "shot gun" baptism. If not him, then his family, who was baptized with him. This is because in response to asking Paul and Silas what must he do to be saved, they responded, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household" (16:31). But most people stop there!

To begin with, Paul and Silas do not say "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you can be baptized." We need to recognize that. Even though baptism is vitally important, baptism does not equate to salvation.

But we mustn't stop at verse 31 either. After explaining to him the requirement for salvation (that being faith in Christ), it is only then that Paul and Silas prepare the jailer and his family for baptism. Notice what Luke goes on to record in the very next verse: "Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house" (v. 32). It is only after the word of the Lord is spoken to them - all of them - that they are baptized.

Admittedly, Luke says in verse 33 that after the jailer washed and cleaned up Paul and Silas that "same hour of the night" that "immediately he and all his family were baptized." But it is not clear what the antecedent to "that same hour" or "immediately" is. Was it their declaration in verse 31 of simply "believing" for one to be saved? Was it the same hour that "they spoke the word of the Lord to him" (v. 32)? If so, did they speak the "word of the Lord to him" for only one hour? We simply do not know.

Notice, too, that it says "immediately" after he washed their wounds that they baptized him. Luke almost implies that the baptism came in direct response to him caring for them. Thus, the fact that he demonstrated some type of "good works" demonstrated that he was ready for baptism.

4. In Acts 18 we read about people in Corinth that were baptized. We read of Justus, Crispus, his household, and "many of the Corinthians" that apparently took the plunge. But notice: Justus was "one who worshiped God" (v. 6); Crispus was the "ruler of the synagogue" (v. 8); and Paul "reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks" (v. 4). Thus, all of these people - whether Jew or Gentile - had some familiarity with Christian doctrine. They went to the synagogue every Sabbath and they obviously listened to Paul "reasoning" there for a number of weeks. The synagogue was Paul's venue to reach and persuade people of the Christian message. And both Jews and Gentiles worshiped there.

5. Acts 19 is one of the only examples of rebaptism, so it does not deserve much ink. Evidently, all those who were rebaptized by Paul had already been baptized into the "baptism of John." Whether this means they were baptized by John or one of his disciples, it is not clear. But as we will see below, being baptized into "John's baptism" was no "believe only" exercise.

So, quite astonishingly, those are the only five examples of Gentiles being baptized in the book of Acts (though the last one may not have even been Gentiles). All of them received instruction and bore "fruits" worthy of baptism. It wasn't a simple "I believe in Jesus" thing.

But there are also a few other things we need to note as it relates to baptism. That is, we need to recognize what baptism is a symbol of. It is a symbol of accepting Christ as your personal Savior, yes, but it is more than that. It is a symbol of repentance and a life change.

One example of this comes from John the Baptist's ministry when he actually refused to baptize some of the Pharisees and Sadducees because they were not bearing "fruits worthy of repentance" (Matt 3:8). In our day and age of "politically correct" Christianity, this offends our ears. Apparently, there is more to baptism than simply saying you "believe" or that you "love Jesus." There needs to be a noticeable difference in your life. There needs to be fruit that reflects the fact that you are having an abiding experience with Christ.

Because, the truth of the matter is, the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 6 that baptism signifies that we have been "buried with [Christ] . . . into death" and that because of this we should "walk in newness of life" (v. 4). Furthermore, baptism is a reflection of the fact that we are "no longer slaves of sin" (v. 6). Does this mean we need to be perfect and that we never stumble? Of course not. But it does mean that our lives should be fully surrendered to Christ and that we are not willfully living in sin.

Of course, beyond that, it is not as though - in light of this - that if I simply say that I have given up my past life from now on that this means I am ready to be baptized. Apparently, according to John the Baptist - the one who popularized baptism - I still need to "bear fruits worthy of repentance." In other words, my actions and behavior should be a reflection of my surrendered life.

Now, I also need to make sure we are all clear on one thing: that is, all of this may sound a little "legalistic" to some. It may sound like it is "too much" for such a simple thing. But this is not so for a few reasons.

One: it does not matter what we think it sounds like. What matters is if it is supported by scripture - which I believe it clearly is. Two: going to heaven and being baptized are not one and the same thing. There will be many people who have never been baptized that will be in heaven and vice versa. To deny someone baptism because they are not "bearing fruits" does not equate to keeping them out of heaven. This is something I think we unwittingly subscribe to. Three: if we truly understand what baptism really is - ie., a reflection of the fact that we have died to sin, by God's grace, and we are entering into newness of life - we will see that such an approach is very much a matter of righteousness by faith. And this is good news, not bad news.

Now, with all this being said, we will pick it up in Part 2 with what all this has to do with church membership.


Bill Cork said...

Compare the SDA practice to that of the Catholic church. Though Adventists tend to think of Catholics as baptizing infants (and that is what happens most often) the normative rite is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults--and is applicable to anyone of catechetical age (over the age of 7).

The RCIA presupposes a lengthy period called the Catechumenate--a year or two long in the US, longer in some places in Africa and Asia. The Catechumenate culminates in the Easter Vigil, a Saturday night service that is the high point of the liturgical year, when the catechumens will be baptized, then confirmed, then receive the Eucharist for the first time.

During the Catechumenate, the catechumens only sit through the first part of the liturgy--they are dismissed after the homily and then go and further discuss the scripture readings. They have other weekly meetings that cover the doctrines and practices of the church. They are assigned a sponsor, who works with them individually, comes to all these classes with them, and helps integrate them into the faith community. They have books to read and retreats to go on. At the beginning of Lent they go before the bishop for the Rite of Election, and they begin the final 40 days of spiritual preparation. They participate in all the rites of the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil). And THEN, following Easter, they have another 7 weeks of post baptismal catechesis called "mystagogia," reflecting on their experience of the sacraments.

This lengthy process was the norm for the first centuries of Christianity (you can read St. Cyril of Jerusalem's catechetical lectures in the ANTENICENE FATHERS), then disappeared in the middle ages; Vatican 2 recommended its restoration, and in the late 1980s it became widespread in the US.

I know some of those Adventists who urge immediate baptism. They get lots of numbers ... but where are those numbers in a month? Two months? Six months? And how many follow up with post-baptismal instruction? And how many of these are emotionally based "rebaptisms."

Anonymous said...

I think there are several questions that I would like to ask and answer.

1) Is Bible in fact concerned with the time-frame of the Baptism?

I don't think there's a clear indication as to when one should be Baptized as far as the time-frame. There are perhaps implications from the Bible not to delay the Baptism, but there's no indication to rush it.

Either way, I don't believe that people who have issue with our mode of Baptism have bones with time frame.

2) What exactly is Baptism for?

It's fairly clear that Baptism is a rite, and does not hold any saving power in itself.

Nothing "magical" happens when we go under the water and come back up again... likewise nothing magical happens when we eat the bread and drink the grape juice. These are rites that symbolize something and point to something bigger than the act in itself.

Catholic church went off on tangent of literal interpretation of ordinances. Thus, blood becomes literal blood, and bread becomes the literal bread.

On some level, we take similar approach when it comes to baptism. And, I hope the next question will clear this up... and it kind of deals with the issue that you brought up on your FB comment, which I don't think was clarified in this post.

3) Can person be a full-blown member of the local ecclesia, and the institutional church... and yet be missing from Christ's body?

You may think that in reality that would be "no", but it's not men's job to judge person's salvation based on his/her beliefs (at least right here, and right now). That job is reserved for God and God alone.

With that in mind, let's examine some of our church policies regarding the baptism. In order to become a church member, one has to be baptized by accepting ALL of the teachings as per fundamental beliefs.

We have to realize that many of these teachings were not held by early church fathers, and have to be derived by careful study of the scripture... and by making certain faith assumptions.

I have very easy time recognizing the need to follow all of the 10 commandments. Yet, at the same time I don't consider IJ to be a doctrine easily supported from the Bible apart from the inspired commentary. Likewise, there's no indication that we have to believe and understand IJ to be saved... which was not a part of the Jewish faith.

I would agree that we should not merely dunk people every time they come forward based on the emotional state that we ourselves induce while preaching the emotional sermons, and begging people to come forward :)

Yet, we should never deny baptism based on our unique theological understanding that primarily based on inspired commentary that we ourselves claim is not a test of membership.

Andrey Arkhipov said...

I don't believe that people who have issue with our mode of Baptism have bones are merely concerned with the time frame.

It's fairly clear that Baptism is a rite, and does not hold any saving power in itself.

Nothing "magical" happens when we go under the water and come back up again... likewise nothing magical happens when we eat the bread and drink the grape juice. These are rites that symbolize greater reality than the act itself. Baptism, and communion would be in fact the only ordinances that we are to keep ceremonially as far us I know (outside of Sabbath). The rest span from tradition (I.E. child dedication and etc).

Catholic church went off on tangent of literal interpretation of ordinances. Thus, blood becomes literal blood, and bread becomes the literal bread.

On some level, we take similar approach when it comes to baptism. I think a lot of times we tend to mystify the Baptism rite as something would happen that is bigger than act itself. When I was Baptized... nothing magical happened, just like when I married ... nothing magical happened. In fact, I and my wife confessed to each other that we expected to feel different, and we did not.

A person can undergo a marriage ceremony and not live up to the marriage expectations. The other side of it would be person being baptized into the local ecclesia and go through all the motions, fooling everyone, including himself... only to be absent from the body of Christ in the end.

In the end, we can't tell what will happen. That job is reserved for God and God alone to judge.

We have to realize that many of our teachings were not held by early church fathers, and have to be derived by careful study of the scripture... and by making certain faith assumptions that other people are not prepared to make.

Yet, these people, even after showing the fruits of the Spirit are denied Baptism, because they can't get over certain church teachings that should never be held as a test of faith or membership, and are not essential for one's salvation or participation in God's body.

That's the issue in the heart... not merely the time frame of Baptism.

Andrey Arkhipov said...

Please delete the duplicates. My apologies... did not see that these came through.