After the Vote

If things go as planned, the deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church will vote on the question of baptism and church membership at their next meeting, and if the motion carries it will be forwarded to the congregation for a vote.  That’s how Baptists do these things; neither the pastor nor the deacons make the final decision: the people do.  While I was the one who raised the question of why we re-baptize Christians from other denominations, and while the deacons have spent a year or so discussing it, in the end it will be up to the congregation to determine the requirements for membership at First Baptist.

We call this “local church autonomy,” and it is one of our cherished Baptist freedoms.  No pope, bishop, or pastor tells us what to do; we get to determine our own mission and ministry, and in this case our own membership.  Now we’re getting close to a vote, and some people are getting anxious.  “This is going to split the church!” they say.  I don’t think it will, and I’ll tell you why.  We are following a slow, careful process of discernment that has some built-in checks and balances.  Although the congregation will make the final decision the deacons are trying to provide the kind of leadership that will avoid anything as dramatic as a church split.  The vote they take at their next meeting, for example, will give them some guidance as to how they might proceed. 

Let me suggest some possible scenarios:

Scenario One: At their May meeting, the deacons vote on a motion to accept Christians from other denominations as full members without requiring them to be re-baptized.  The motion fails.  The deacons report back to the congregation by saying that although the discussion has helped us think more deeply about what it means to be a member and what it means to be baptized, we will not be changing our membership requirements.

Scenario Two: The motion carries, but by such a slim margin the deacons choose not to take it to the congregation for a vote, believing it would be too divisive.  They do, however, ask the congregation to consider some other matters that have come up in this discussion.  For example: asking all new members to attend the Connections class, or allowing Watchcare members to vote on church issues, or welcoming those baptized as believers even if it was by a mode other than immersion.

Scenario Three: The motion carries, decisively, and the deacons select a date for a congregational vote.  The motion is made available to the membership for study, reflection, and prayer.  The congregation is given at least two opportunities to discuss the motion publicly.  On a given Sunday the church votes by secret ballot at the conclusion of each morning worship service.  The vote is counted by the deacons that afternoon and the results made public as soon as possible thereafter. 

There are other possible scenarios, of course; I’m only speculating.  But if we end up with something like Scenario Three then, whether the motion carries or fails, we will have made the decision together, and it is my prayer that we would live with the outcome together.  If it fails I will be disappointed, obviously; I think I have made my position clear.  But at the same time I will be proud of the church for having considered this issue so carefully and thoughtfully, and I will know a little better who we are.  If it carries there will be no raucous celebration in the streets, just a quiet recognition that we have opened the doors of membership a little wider.  And I would hope that those who voted against the motion would wait to see how it impacts the church.

On a Sunday after the vote, and perhaps even the next Sunday, I will enter the baptistry with someone who is making a first-time profession of faith in Christ, and dip him down under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Some in the church will breathe a sigh of relief, seeing that we haven’t abandoned our way of making disciples, that we still baptize believers by immersion, just as we always have.  Others will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that we really are doing this “to fulfill all righteousness” (as it says above our baptistry), and not simply to fulfill a membership requirement. 

And while I wouldn’t expect a flood of people to come forward at the end of the service there may be some who have been under our watchcare for years now who would want to become members.  I think we might be surprised by who they are, and how much we already think of them as “family.”  Suppose we come to the end of the day and say, “Oh, so that’s what ‘open membership’ means”?

“Well.  That’s not so bad.”

Been There, Done That?

We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the issue of baptism and church membership at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Whole books of the New Testament were written to persuade people that Gentiles as well as Jews could be Christian, that keeping the Law of Moses was not essential to salvation, and that you didn’t have to be circumcised to join the church.  This conversation is no different.  In fact, take another look at this passage from Acts 15, where the church is wrestling with the question of whether Gentiles who wish to join the church must be circumcised.  Substitute “Deacons” for the apostles and elders, “Christians from other denominations” for Gentiles, and “believer’s baptism by immersion” for circumcision, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what our deacons have been dealing with for the past year or so.

The Council at Jerusalem

 1Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

 5Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

 6The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

 12The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
 16” ‘After this I will return
      and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
   Its ruins I will rebuild,
      and I will restore it,
 17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
      and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
   says the Lord, who does these things’
    18that have been known for ages.

 19“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (NIV).

It’s interesting to compare Paul’s version of this account in Galatians 2:1-10 with the version Luke has given us here in Acts 15.  For Paul, who had been preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, and who had seen for himself what wonderful Christians they could become (with Titus as “Exhibit A”), the idea of asking them to be circumcised in accordance with the law of Moses was hugely offensive.  In Romans 2:29 he asserts that now that Christ has come the only kind of circumcision that matters is “circumcision of the heart.” 

I wonder what Peter, Paul, and James would say to us on this issue.  Would they require Christians from other denominations to get into the baptistry?  Or would they say, as Peter did, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:11).

…And Then to Be Understood

In my last post I tried to state as clearly as possible my understanding of the position held by those who believe we should continue to require Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they join Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  It wasn’t my position, but only my understanding of that other position.  As Stephen Covey has suggested:  “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

So now, in an effort to be understood, I’d like to state my position:

Those who say that believer’s baptism by immersion is the New Testament model are absolutely right, but the New Testament tells the story of people who were hearing about Jesus for the first time.  That crowd on the Day of Pentecost, for example, had never been given an opportunity to profess their faith and be baptized.  When they were, they jumped at the chance.  Some 3,000 were added to the church.  As the gospel swept across the ancient world it was good news in the most literal sense: it was good and it was news.  So, what do you do when someone repents and believes in the gospel?  You baptize them, and that’s exactly what you ought to do with converts. 

But that’s not what you ought to do with Christians.

If I were trying to invent a way of welcoming converts into the church, I think I would do it in just the way we do it now, and for all the same reasons given in my last post:  I would want to stand waist deep in the water with that new believer, just as John stood in the Jordan with Jesus; I would ask her to profess her faith in Christ by saying “Jesus is Lord,” and to do it in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear; I would dip her down beneath the surface in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus commanded; and I would raise her up to her new life in Christ as if she were rising from the dead, just as Paul describes.  I think believer’s baptism by immersion is the perfect way to welcome converts into the church of Jesus Christ.

But if I were inventing a way of welcoming Christians into the church I might simply ask that person coming down the aisle:  Are you a believer?  Yes.  Have you received baptism in some form?  Yes.  Have you made a public profession of faith in Christ?  Yes.  And do you earnestly seek to follow Jesus?  Yes.  Then welcome to First Baptist Church!  

And then maybe we could toss confetti from the balcony.

I say this because I don’t believe we should treat Christians in the same way we treat converts.  There is a difference–a real difference–between someone who is making a first-time profession of faith in Christ and someone who has been a faithful Christian for years.  Our membership requirements should reflect that.   To those who fear we would be leaving behind the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter I say no, we would not.  There is no clear teaching of Scripture on what to do when a Christian from another denomination wants to join the church.  There is only clear teaching on what to do when someone becomes a Christian for the first time.  When it comes to that we Baptists try to be as faithful to the New Testament model as possible.  We baptize believers by immersion.  That’s the way we’ve been doing it for the past 230 years at Richmond’s First Baptist Church and that is the way we will continue to do it. 

In other churches they make disciples in other ways.   I’ve written about this in previous posts, and talked about how Presbyterians, for example, make disciples by baptizing babies, doing everything they can to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then, when they are old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus, confirming them as believers.  We make disciples by dedicating babies, doing everything we can to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then, when they are old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus, baptizing them as believers.   Unless we are willing to say (out loud) that that process of discipleship is not valid, and those churches are not churches, and those people are not Christians, we ought to welcome them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Perhaps we could even feel honored that of all the churches they might have chosen, they have chosen this one.  What I hear from them over and over again is what a warm welcome they have received here, how much they sense the spirit of Christ among us, and how eager they are to be part of this church.  You might think we would throw open the doors to people like that instead of going down a checklist of Christian credentials and furrowing our brows when we discover they weren’t baptized in the same way we were.

I told someone recently that when we stand before Jesus he won’t ask us how much water was used or when it was applied.  He will only ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore:

“Do you love me?”

Seek First To Understand

I’m going to try to write a whole post without using the word “but.”

It’s not easy, because when we are caught up in the kind of conversation where one person is trying to persuade another we often stop listening.  We say things like, “Yes, yes.  I understand.  But…” when maybe we haven’t understood at all.  That’s why one of the seven habits of highly effective people is to “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”*

So, even though I have been in Baptist churches for twenty-five years that didn’t require Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they joined I’ve been trying to understand why this one does.  I have been listening, carefully, to those on the other side of this issue.  I have tried to put myself in their place, and see it from their point of view.  What I’d like to do here is articulate my understanding of their position without saying “but,” without interrupting to interject my own precious opinion.  Maybe when I’m finished one of them will tell me if I’ve got it right or wrong. 

Here we go…

When Jesus began his public ministry, he did it by being baptized.  He came to John at the Jordan, and when John protested Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15, NIV).  Although none of us was there, we assume that John then baptized Jesus by immersion, by dipping him beneath the surface of the water, since the Greek word baptizo means literally “to dip,” or “immerse.”  In baptism, we follow the example set by Jesus himself; we come to the river in humble obedience to a righteousness greater than our own.

At the end of his public ministry Jesus commissioned his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, NIV).  The meaning is clear: baptism is essential to the disciple-making process. 

When Peter preached to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost they were “cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins'” (Acts 2:37-38, NIV).  So those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.  Although that day was unique in many ways, the pattern that was established—repentance followed by baptism—was not.  For the remainder of the New Testament, this is how people are “added to the number” of believers.  In other words, this is how they join the church.

When Paul talks about baptism he talks about it as a symbolic way of dying and rising with Christ.  He writes, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him in baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4, NIV).  The only appropriate mode for such a symbol is immersion, where the old self is buried in a watery grave and the new self rises to the new life in Christ. 

To summarize: Anyone who wants to join the church of Jesus Christ should be willing to follow the example of Jesus Christ, who was—himself—immersed.  In the Great Commission He told his followers to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, presumably by immersion and only after a profession of faith.  Peter told the crowds on the Day of Pentecost that they needed to repent and be baptized—not the other way around—a pattern that is followed in the remainder of the New Testament.  Believer’s baptism by immersion is a powerful symbol of dying and rising with Christ, and clearly the mode Paul had in mind in Romans 6:4.

How about it, friends: have I understood?

___________________________________
*from Stephen Covey’s book by the same title

Emily the Episcopalian

I heard a story recently about a woman from another denomination who was visiting a Baptist church in the South.  Let’s call her Emily the Episcopalian.  She loved the church and wanted to join, but then she had a talk with the pastor.  What follows is a close approximation of that conversation. 

—————————————–

Pastor, thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time.  I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying the church!  I’ve been visiting for about three months now and I’ve gotten such a warm welcome from your congregation.  I love the music and the message of your worship services.  I don’t think I’ve ever left here without feeling blessed by the experience.  I’ve even visited a Sunday school class where people did everything they could to make me feel at home.  So, I think I’m ready to join, and I just want to know how I should go about that.

Well, that’s wonderful, Emily!  And when it comes to joining, nothing could be easier.  If you’ll just come forward at the end of any worship service, when I give the invitation, I can introduce you to the congregation, they’ll lift their hands to “vote you in,” and then, as soon as possible, we can schedule your baptism. 

My baptism?

Right.   

But I’ve already been baptized.

Have you?

Yes.  When I was a baby.

Oh, right.  You grew up Episcopalian.  In the Baptist tradition we don’t really think of that as baptism.  The Greek word for baptize means literally “to dip,” or “immerse.”  That’s the way they did it in the New Testament and that’s the way we do it.  We baptize believers by immersion.  So, (smiling) let’s get that on the schedule as soon as possible.  You are a believer, aren’t you Emily?  

Of course.  I’ve been a believer for…thirty years. 

Great, then I’ll look forward to welcoming you whenever you choose to come down the aisle.

Um, Pastor?

Yes?

Are you telling me my baptism doesn’t count?

No, not at all, Emily!  I’m sure it was very meaningful for your parents and for the church.  But, see, you didn’t choose to be baptized, and in the Baptist tradition we think you need to make up your own mind about Jesus.

But I did make up my own mind about Jesus.  I was confirmed when I was twelve.  I stood before the church and claimed my baptism, professing my faith in Jesus as Lord.  Nobody made me do that.

That’s wonderful, Emily.  It really is.  And you’ll have a chance to profess your faith again when you are baptized.  That’s the way we do it here: you stand in the baptistry and I ask you if you want to follow Jesus.  You say “Yes” and then I dip you down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I don’t mean to argue, Pastor, but that sounds like what you do when you become a Christian, and I’m not becoming a Christian.  I’ve been a Christian for years.  It sounds as if you’re saying that doesn’t count either.

No, no!  That’s not what I’m saying at all!  Of course you’re a Christian.  There’s no question about that.  But if you want to be a member of a Baptist church you need to be baptized in the Baptist way. 

Why?

What do you mean, why?

Why doesn’t my baptism count?  Why doesn’t my Christian experience count?  I’m not moving from one religion to another, just from one church to another.  Why can’t I just transfer my membership?

That’s just not the way we do it, Emily.  We place a high value on believer’s baptism.  It’s the biblical way, and if you’re not willing to be baptized in the biblical way, well….

Wait a minute.  I’m confused.  I became a Christian in the Episcopal church.  Now I want to join a Baptist church.  But it sounds like you’re telling me I have to become a Christian all over again, in the Baptist way.  Not only that, you’re telling me the Baptist way is the “biblical” way, as if the Episcopal way were not.  I came into this meeting eager to join your church, but in the last few minutes you’ve told me my baptism doesn’t count, that I’m not a real Christian, and that my tradition is “unbliblical.”

No, no!  I’m not saying that at all! 

Well, that’s how it sounds to me (she gets up to go).  Thank you for your time, Pastor.  I’ll have to think about this.  But, honestly?  I’m not nearly as excited as I was about joining.  In fact (she pauses), I think I just made up my mind.

—————————————-

This is what happens when real people encounter a membership requirement that treats their previous Christian experience as if it were no experience at all.  I post this example because it is so similar to some of the conversations I’ve had with people from other denominations when I explain to them the current membership requirement of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  They can’t understand why their Christianity isn’t “good enough,” or why their baptism “doesn’t count.”  Although I assure them that it’s not like that at all, many of them decide not to return. 

I’m still hoping that we can come to that place where we welcome committed Christians from other denominations without asking them to start all over again.  I think there is a way to honor their baptism, honor their previous Christian experience, and then “immerse” them in the Baptist tradition.  Who knows what kind of Baptist Emily might become if we simply welcomed her with open arms, as if she were—in fact—our sister in Christ?

Because—in fact—she is.

Does Baptism Save You?

The deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church spent a little more than two hours talking about baptism and membership on Sunday, and whether or not we should continue our practice of requiring Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they join our church.  We had good discussion but we didn’t come to any conclusions on Sunday, and at our regular meeting on Tuesday night we decided to take another month to pray over the matter before we put it to a vote.  In the meantime let me share one of the insights I have gained in this process.  It’s about baptism, and whether or not it saves you.

When I ask Baptists that question they say, “Of course it doesn’t save you; Baptism is just a symbol!”  It is a symbol, but it’s not “just” a symbol.  It stands alongside the Lord’s Supper as one of the most meaningful things we do in worship.  What does it symbolize?  Lots of things, but in the broadest sense it symbolizes our response in faith to the gift of God’s grace.

In Ephesians 2:8 Paul says, “For it is by grace that you were saved, through faith.”  I sometimes think of this as the “salvation equation”: God’s grace + our faith = salvation.  Believer’s baptism is a symbol of the second half of that equation: our faith.  Infant baptism, on the other hand, is a symbol of the first half of that equation: God’s grace.  It’s a way of saying, “Before this child has done one thing right or wrong, God loves this child and wants to save her.”  Believer’s baptism is a way of saying, “…and this child wants to be saved; she wants to accept God’s gift of grace.”

In the Baptist tradition we point the spotlight at the second half of that equation—our faith.  In other traditions they point the spotlight at the first half—God’s grace.  Which half of the equation saves you?  Neither.  Not God’s grace or our faith, but only God’s grace plus our faith. 

We have a way of recognizing that at First Baptist Church.  We do something called baby dedication which—except for the water—is very similar to infant baptism.  We receive those children born into the church family as gifts from God.  We say publicly, “Before this child has done one thing right or wrong, God loves this child and wants to  save her.”  And then we charge the parents to bring her up in the Christian faith, to sing the songs and tell her the stories of Jesus, and we ask the church to help, to do everything they can to set an example of Christ’s love before this little girl so that when she gets old enough to make up her own mind about Jesus she will want to choose him for herself.  Baby dedication is a celebration of God’s grace.  That little girl’s baptism—when she’s ready—will be a celebration of her faith.  We will fill up the baptistry and immerse her in water as a beautiful symbol of purification, identification, and incorporation. 

In other traditions the process is similar.  At the Presbyterian church down the street, for example, infants are baptized in a celebration of God’s grace.  Parents are charged to bring their children up in the faith, the congregation is asked to help, and then—yes—some water is sprinkled or poured over the child’s head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But that’s only the beginning.  From that point the child enters into a process of Christian formation that will take years.  He goes to Sunday school and Bible school.  He sings the songs and learns the stories of Jesus.  And then, when he is old enough to make up his own mind, he goes through an experience of confirmation that includes writing a personal statement of faith, presenting it to the elders of the church, answering a number of theological questions, and making a public profession of faith.  All of these are ways of recognizing the child’s faith-full response to the gift of God’s grace celebrated at his baptism. 

Both of these ways of making disciples recognize the importance of that salvation equation, that it’s not God’s grace or our faith that saves us, but God’s grace plus our faith.  Both of these ways are capable of producing “real” Christians.  And that’s why we’re talking about changing our membership requirement at First Baptist Church.  Because those who have been through the process of discipleship in another denomination shouldn’t have to go through it all over again in ours.  If God’s grace plus their faith has saved them then they are saved.  They are our brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the family of faith.  We will see them in heaven, and sit down at the same banquet table.  And if God is going to let them in there…

…we ought to let them in here.

Freedom of Speech on Parade

I had an interesting chat with the Pope on Sunday.

I was walking along Monument Avenue during the annual “Easter on Parade” event—smiling at the dogs wearing bunny ears and the parents pushing strollers—when suddenly there he was, standing with six or seven other guys in black T-shirts.  At first I mistook him for a bishop, but he said, “No, man.  I’m the Pope!”  He pointed to his hat as evidence.  It did look something like the Pope’s hat.  It was the right size and shape.  But it was made out of some kind of padded polyester material and I’m guessing the Pope’s hat is not.  “Where did you get it?” I asked.  “Costume store,” he answered.  But he told me how much fun he’d had wearing it to the bar where he’s a bouncer.  “I see a couple of Catholic priests sitting at a booth and I say, ‘Hey, you two!  Get back to work!’  And they almost jump out of their skin.” 

I laughed at that, but it was odd coming from a guy pretending to be the Pope while wearing a T-shirt that said, “Jesus Hates You.”  In fact, all these guys were wearing T-shirts with atheist and anti-Christian slogans on them, including one that said, “Thank God I’m an Atheist!”  I remembered last year’s Easter on Parade, when there was a street preacher screaming at people, telling them they were going to Hell if they didn’t accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  I wondered if there was any connection between that kind of aggressive evangelism and this kind of in-your-face backlash.  I also wondered what Jesus would make of all this, Jesus—who died for atheists, street preachers, and the Pope.  Wouldn’t he put an arm around the guy in the black T-shirt and say, “You’ve got it wrong, friend.  I don’t hate anybody“?  And wouldn’t he put an arm around the street preacher and say, “Stop screaming, friend.  I came because God loves the world”?

I tried to keep that in mind as I strolled on down Monument Avenue.  I had just come from a worship service where I had preached the good news that “Christ is risen!” and the choir had closed things out by singing the “Hallelujah” chorus.  It was one of those days when a few guys in black T-shirts weren’t going to spoil my mood, when I was sure that in the end the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,

“And he shall reign forever and ever.”