Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Baptism, Indoctrination, and Church Membership - Part 2

To read Part 1 click here.

When one reads the book of Acts, it is alarming to discover how community-oriented the early church was. Coming from a Western perspective, where we are very individualistic, we have a hard time appreciating just how "corporate" the thinking of the New Testament church was. This, of course, was very much rooted in the Hebrew mindset - as ordained by God, I do believe - and it is evident in the Old Testament. When one person sinned, it effected the whole camp, and vice versa. It was a "one for all and all for one" mentality.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is found in Acts 5:32. Quite poignantly, Luke records that "the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common." Furthermore, Luke goes on to say "nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need" (vv. 34-35).

In light of this reality, I am not even sure if I need to continue talking about baptism and church membership. But in case it needs to be spelled out a little more clearly, imagine this scenario: the apostle Peter comes along one day to a group of Gentiles who have been responding to the Holy Spirit. He teaches them about Jesus and they inquire of him about baptism. When he tells them that they need to believe and they can be baptized, they respond by saying, "Okay, good. We want to be baptized into Christ, but we do not want to join the church."

Now . . . how do you think Peter will respond? This is the same Peter, by the way, who - along with all the other Christians at that time - in an act of unselfish and mutual submission, has willingly given up his land, his property, his goods, and donated them to the wellbeing of the whole body of Christ. No longer "did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own" (v. 32). Those who bore the name "Christian" did not live in isolation. They lived for the common good of all others who bore the name Christian.

So I ask again: how do you think Peter would respond?

Interestingly, the very next story in the book of Acts is a sobering picture of what happened when two persons did not want to live in mutual submission to the Christian community as a whole. They wanted to keep a little bit of "individualism." The story of Ananias and Sapphira does not need to be repeated here, but it is very relevant to this discussion.

But what is perhaps the most intriguing part of this little vignette into the life of the Christian church (in Acts 4 & 5) is this little insight that comes from Luke's pen in Acts 5:14. Notice: "And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women." This is all written within the context of the Christian community, of mutual submission, of forsaking individualism and "Christian" isolationism. Quite clearly, Luke equates believers being "added to the Lord" as being "added" to the Christian community.

Interestingly, this phrase "added to" is also mentioned in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, where we read that on "that day about three thousand souls were added to them" (that is, the apostles) and that "the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (vv. 41, 47). In other words: when a person is "added to the Lord" they are also "added to the church," the body of Christ, and enter into all the perks, responsibilities, and privileges of Christian fellowship, community, and submission.

To put it plainly: to suggest to one of the Christian believers in the book of Acts that a person could be baptized yet not come into submission to the church body would be anathema! It's that simple. To them, being a part of Christ meant that you were a part of the body.

Now, some may want to make the argument - as I have heard - that being a part of the "body" does not mean you are a part of the "organized" body, or a denominational body, per se. And, while I recognize that the context in which the New Testament church was working is a bit different than ours, I am not sure that it is as much different from ours as we think.

To begin with, let's be clear on one thing: the New Testament church was organized! It wasn't this nebulous "body" that was vaguely defined. There was structure. There were leaders (apostles, elders, deacons). Each knew his or her role.

As we saw above, for example, when a person sold his or her possessions, he or she brought the proceeds and "laid them at the apostles' feet," who then distributed them as people had need. Two chapters later, the twelve apostles recognized this work was getting too great for them and so they appointed (the Greek literally means "to set in order" and seems to have formal - almost legal - connotation to it) "seven men" to carry it out.

Elsewhere, Paul uses the same Greek word to Titus when he tells him to "appoint" elders throughout Crete (Titus 1:5). This was the same Paul, by the way, who baptized Lydia and the jailer in Philippi, and later wrote a letter to "believers in Philipi, with the bishops and deacons." Do you think that it was somewhat likely that Lydia and the Philippian jailer were at all connected with this body of believers, or are we to suppose that after their baptism they simply continued on with business as usual, never aligning themselves with the organized body of Christ?

Of course, the greatest illustration of the church's organization comes in Acts 15, when the Christian church held one of the first "General Conference" sessions. A dispute had surfaced about what was required of Gentile converts (which goes back to Part 1 of this topic: that there were actual "requirements" beyond simple belief is worth noting), and so instead of deciding individually, or even as local congregations, it went before the apostles at the GC headquarters. And after reaching a verdict, the apostles actually sent Paul out to "strengthen the churches" throughout Syria and Cilicia, and to "deliver to them the decrees to keep which they determined" (15:41; 16:4).

So it seems pretty clear that church organization and church structure was a very key component of the early church. And so, when a person joined him or herself to Christ, he or she was also joined to the body. This is why, in at least three occasions, both Paul and Jesus talk about being joined to Christ in the corporate context. First, in John 15, Jesus talks about His followers being branches that are connected to Him, as "the vine." Paul also picks up this theme in Romans 11 and talks about how anyone who has faith is grafted into the "olive tree." And then, of course, in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul quite plainly states that we are all "members" of "one body." In other words, according to Jesus and Paul, none of us live in isolation when we come to Christ. We are brought into fellowship with the whole body.

This is also demonstrated by the fact that there were clear disciplinary procedures that took place in the New Testament. Jesus, Himself, set up such a model in Matthew 18 when He told His disciples that if someone sinned against a person, they were to be brought (after a few other steps) to the church and disciplined. Adding further weight to the church's authority, Jesus quite poignantly announced to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (v. 18). (He also said this a few chapters before to Peter in 16:19.)

I know that my particular denomination gets a little uncomfortable with this concept, feeling like it is a little too "Catholic," but, apparently, God has given His church a bit of ecclesiastical authority that not only affects earth but also heaven. So Jesus, Himself, places importance on the organization of the church, not only to provide for its members and proclaim the gospel, but to hold one another accountable (see also 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Thesselonians 3:6; etc.). And this last point is what I find many people want to avoid by not coming into submission into the body.

Now, I know there is another objection: "But there are so many denominations! How can we say that a person has to be a member of this church or that church? Can't they just be a part of the 'invisible' 'worldwide' church?" First of all, show me where the Bible talks about the "invisible" church and then we can begin our discussion. Secondly, while it is true that Jesus said that there were "other sheep" that He had who were not of "this" (ie., the Jewish) fold, He also went on to say in the next breath "them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:16).

So it seems to me that the goal of any person who is getting baptized into the body of Christ should be to become a part of that "one fold." Christ is not satisfied with simply having His sheep scattered abroad with no clear demarcation. He is trying to bring them all into one fold!
Of course, the objection will go forth that there were no "denominations" in Jesus' or the apostles' day. And my response is that there absolutely were! Notice Paul:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you shall all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions [Grk. schisms] among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me among you my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or '" am of Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).
There was "denominationalism" going on in the first century! And Paul, of course, urged the believers to put it behind them and to "all speak the same thing." But this is not an example of denominational pluralism coming from Paul's pen, nor was he trying to legitimize anyone's belief system and say that all that mattered was whether people "believed in Jesus." There is an unhealthy brand of that type of ecumenical thinking going on today at the expense of theological clarity. No, this was not what Paul was promoting. What he was promoting was that all should come under the banner of true Christianity and true Christian doctrine.

How does this relate to baptism? Does it lend support to the idea that a Christian pastor - no matter what denomination he or she belongs to - should just baptize people into the "general" Christian body of Christ and not worry about what specific denominational label is slapped on the person? Quite the opposite, in fact! This denominationalism that Paul contended with was over specific personalities, not doctrine. It was over "Paul," and "Apollos," "Cephas," and even "Christ." But, again, what he urged was for each believer to, as the marginal reading of the NKJV says, "have a uniform testimony" (v. 10) - a testimony, of course, that aligns with scripture.

So, if I am a Baptist pastor or a Pentecostal pastor or a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, I am baptizing that person into the body of Christ, yes, but into the clearest expression of what Christ teaches. According to scripture, I cannot, in good conscience, baptize someone and then encourage them to find any shoe that "fits" their preferences or find a church where the pastor has a personality that suits their fancy. I am admonished to baptize them into the body of Christ - and the clearest revelation of the body of Christ.

Look, let me just be honest with you: according to my understanding of scripture, the Bible is pretty clear that there is something called the "remnant." If you disagree with me on this then there are other issues that we need to clear up before we can even have this discussion. If you are pretty clear on this concept, then we can proceed. But, according to this remnant concept, this body of believers are those who are the "remaining" ones, leftover from the true expression of the faith as set forth in the New Testament church. As a starting point, at the very least, this remnant people needs to "keep the commandments of God," which is precisely what the New Testament church did (see Revelation 12:17, 14:12). To put it plainly, simply because a denomination labels itself "Christian" does not make it thus! To be a Christian means to "follow Christ," and when a denomination (this does not speak to the individuals inside that denomination) refuses to continue to follow Christ into His truth, they cease from truly being a "Christian" church. (Again, this does not mean that individuals inside that particular denomination are not Christians. As noted above, Christ has many sheep in other "folds," but He is seeking to bring them all into "one flock.")

So if I understand this, and I recognize that God has invited me, as a pastor, to baptize people into His body, and that He is seeking to make "one flock," which consists of a group of people who, among other things, "keep the commandments of God," how can I baptize them into the so-called "invisible" church - which is an ambiguous term that is not supported in scripture? Remember, part of the last-day mission of God's people is to invite others to "come out" of Babylon (see Revelation 18:4 and, incidentally, note that the Greek word for church - ekklesia - literally means the "called out ones."). And Babylon essentially consists of a "general" body of believers who enjoy surface unity at the expense of theological clarity.

In essence, then, what this last objection boils down to is whether a person understands that scripture teaches there to be a "true church" or not. Simply put, the book of Revelation teaches that there are two "churches," one that keeps the commandments of God, has the faith and testimony of Jesus, and another church where "confusion" and "ambiguity" are its middle names. This was already an issue in the apostles' day (see 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff, etc.), though it was not nearly as visible as it is today. And the apostles would baptize believers into the true body of Christ - the one that uplifted the Gospel and the truth of scripture.

So how can I, as a pastor, not do the same?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you for your exposition on Baptism and your reasoning. One some level, it does make sense, so don't take the below as rebuttal, but rather as a perspective.

I don't quite understand your dismissal of the universal church as a worldwide body of believers which is independent of denominations. God has his people scattered worldwide, otherwise the command of "coming out of her" would not make sense. This "coming out" does not merely constrained to Adventist movement.

The universal church (or invisible church) is a prevalent understanding of Adventists... meaning that God has his people in denominations that don't teach full truth, just like He had the likes of Luther and his protestant supporters during the reformation age.

I do understand your point of the remnant, but it should be clear that not every Adventist church member is an automatic part of that group. I would argue that there are Adventist churches where majority of people are not part of that group, based on mere observation and how people treat each other (just take a trip to southern Ohio and you'll see some of what I'm talking about)

On the other hand, there are churches that are of other denominations, who are filled with the believers who practice the love of Christ, although they don't practice the whole law. God is the judge, and God will judge.

I'd like to make a couple of points that perhaps we are not touching on when discussing this subject:

1) Baptism is not something that will prevent believer from defecting. It's not a magical rite that seals the deal. We should stop treating it that way.

2) Baptism is an outward rite that portrays what already happened inside. It's like a marriage ceremony... it's an outward rite of what's already happenening.

3) Baptism existed before many of Adventist doctrines were formulated... you will not find a passage that baptizes one in a named denomination. We are being baptized into the body of Christ... not into Adventist Church. The body of Christ would include all of the believers who truly search truth and live up to their understanding of God's will the best way they can. Submitting oneself to the local ecclesia does not mean "forfeiting all reason". It does not mean conforming to doctrines that are gained through reaching assumption and stringing bunch of "proof-texts" together. God does not require perfect understanding... He requires love and to things that we can and should be able to understand clearly.

I think I'll end here for now.