Not a Black Eye in the House

Hear or download this post: Not A Black Eye in the House (mp3 file – 3:01)

Some of you may be eager to hear how the second round of Holy Conversations came out.  Let me give a brief summary and then we can move on to other, less important, things (like my next trip to the DMV).

We had another overflow crowd in the Dining Hall at Richmond’s First Baptist Church last night.  I started by thanking everyone for following the ground rules I had laid out the week before, and then asked them 1) to tell me how they felt about the idea of changing our membership requirements to include Christians from other denominations who had not been immersed, and 2) to try to do it in two minutes or less.  You could almost feel the tension in the air.  It was one of those moments when everyone sensed that things could either go very well, or very very badly. 

I tried to set an example, saying that I felt we should change our membership requirements, and that I felt that way because I knew too many sincere Christians who were hurt because they were being denied full membership in the church.  The next speaker said he didn’t feel we should change our requirements because believer’s baptism by immersion was the New Testament model, and that’s what we should follow.  With minor modifications to those two essential arguments (and occasional rhetorical flourishes), the rest of the evening’s speakers followed suit. 

Someone noted that if the Greek word baptizo had been translated (“immersed”) rather than transliterated (“baptize”), we might not be having this conversation.  Someone else noted that we welcome Christians of other denominations to take communion with us, but not to be on our church rolls.  One person said that the answer to the question “I’m not Baptist, may I join your church?” should be “Yes, if you want to be Baptist.”  Another implied that we are living in a post-denominational era, and we need to get over ourselves.

The remarkable thing, to me, was that the arguments didn’t get louder and louder, no one offered to punch anyone else in the eye, and we finished the evening with a sense that we had talked about a divisive issue without being divided.  It was what I had been praying for–a truly holy conversation.

From here our feelings (which were carefully recorded on a flip chart) will go to the deacons, who will pray over this issue for a month or more, discuss it, and decide whether or not it needs to go on to the church for a final vote.  If that happens we will vote as a congregation and live with the outcome.  I will live with the outcome, even if it’s not the outcome I was hoping for.  To me that’s just part of what it means to be Baptist, and it may be an even more important part than how much water we use when we baptize.

If you’d like to weigh in on this topic, please click on the word “comments” below and tell me how you feel.  And if you are a member (or think you might want to be), I will be glad to pass your feelings on to our deacons.

12 thoughts on “Not a Black Eye in the House

  1. Jim,
    I feel very strongly about the Baptism issue. I do not want to be a “blog hog” but I feel compelled to express my thoughts/feelings, again. When I met with you for the first time, the first question I asked was, “Do I have to be Baptized in order to be a member of First Baptist Church?” Your response was, “Glad you asked.” Then you proceeded to tell me about the upcoming “Holy Conversations” meetings. I was Baptized in the Methodist church as an infant. I truly believe that God accepts that Baptism. Having said that, you know that I recently made a personal decision to be immersed in a river (when it warms up a bit) whether or not First Baptist, Richmond makes Baptism a requirement. I believe that if the congregation opens its arms with an invitation to all who wish to follow Christ, it will open many doors!

  2. Jim, first let me say that I feel we should revise our membership requirements to accept persons who have experienced believer’s baptism by whatever means. I was present last night with my wife but didn’t speak for two reasons. We are among the newest members of FBC and felt we should honor those who have a longer stake in the church. Second, I was deterred by the certain wrath of my wife if I opened my mouth!
    Though I’m a new member, I’m a lifelong Baptist. I was baptized at ten after making what we call a profession of faith. Unlike a lady who spoke last night who was also baptized at an early age, I confess I didn’t know a thing about what baptism meant. In fact, at my baptism I was more enamored with the pool that appeared where the preacher always stood. (That probably bears explanation, but I’ll leave it a mystery for those who don’t know what I’m talking about). I just knew that baptism was required to be a member of the church into which I was born.
    Last night I was thinking that if a person from another faith group—say, Methodist—who had been baptized by whatever means as a believer presented himself or herself for membership in our church; and perhaps that person had been an active Christian for years, had led others to Christ and ministered faithfully in His name; who am I (who are we) to say, “Well, you’ve still got to prove your loyalty by being re-baptized”?
    Just thinking: Did Jesus say, “Peter, you’re the rock on which I’m going to build my church, but anybody who wants to be a part of it has to be immersed”? Did Jesus require his disciples to be baptized? We don’t know. Apparently it wasn’t important enough to include in scripture. If not, what you had was unbaptized folks going out and discipling and baptizing others.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think immersion is the best way to demonstrate one’s conversion to Christ. And I like the fact that we will continue that practice for new believers (we make a new disciple and we baptize him/her as instructed in the Great Commission). However, to enforce a man-made rule stating that you have to be immersed to be a member of our local expression of Christ’s church (again, Jesus didn’t require it to be a part of His church) just smacks of a “club mentality” (“Here are the rules to join our club”). I don’t feel that honors the Kingdom. Seems to me grace should trump doctrinaire rules.

  3. Baptized at FBC ?

    Yes, I am a member and have been going to FBC all my life (50yrs) but to think that a person that has been “baptized” whatever way cannot be a member of FBC unless by immersion is COLD – Don’t we all believe in the same Christ – the same Holy Spirit – The same God? As it says in my translation of Act 1:5 John bapitized with water, but I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit – HELLO people it seems to me it really doesn’t matter how you are bapitized just that you are a Follower of Christ. Am I missing something here – Hopefully when I get to Heaven I will be asked have you accepted Christ as your Savior and not So How Were You Baptized – Oh not by immersion – well forget you. Hello people get your head on straight this is about all of us being believers of Christ not the pickeyness(?) of well you can or cannot be a member of FBC if you haven’t been immersed.

  4. Jim,

    Thanks for the insights. In my mind, the major issue comes down to when someone joins FBC, are they joining a group that is “warm & fuzzy”, that provides some sort of ministry that appeals to them, that provides some experience in worship that they like or are they wanting to be a Baptist?

    If they are wanting to be a Baptist, then maybe we need to do a better job educating one and all about what it means to be a Baptist.

  5. I agree with your position. If it is the Lord’s church, then we need to welcome those whom the Lord would welcome. Jesus talked to the pharisees about their rules and regulations, saying they had made clean the outside of the cup and left the inside dirty; and had failed to care for the poor, the widows, and the sorrowful. The most important thing is the relationship of the believer to his/her Lord, not whether all the rules have been followed.

    I grew up in a very fundamental church in southeast Missouri,and when I moved to Michigan, I joined a wonderful Baptist church affiliated with the American Baptist Convention. When my letter was requested, they at first refused to grant it because I was not joining a Southern Baptist Church (they were few and far between in Michigan). That would have left me with no proof of my baptism, and I possibly would have had to be rebaptized. So this issue is a very personal one for me.

    I certainly believe in baptism, but do not think I have the right to say to another believer that his/her baptism is not valid because he hasn’t been submerged.

  6. How do I feel about changing the current practice of re-baptizing Christians? I feel we need to open our hearts and minds to God’s leading as we discern this “provocative” question.

    Sometimes the answer to a question comes when we delve into more questions that are relevant to the initial one.

    As I was leaving the dining hall after the second of our “holy conversations,” and was about to hand in the index card with my written comments on it, I heard a lady ask the question to the person beside me “How would you feel if we changed the sign out front to read the “First JESUS Church?” The obvious reference was to the distinctiveness of being Baptist vs. the total Christian community.

    That question rattled around in my head for most of the trip home! And then I thought…

    You know, our sign does say First BAPTIST Church.

    It does not say First IMMERSED Church.

    It does not First ANABAPTIST (to RE-baptize) Church.

    So what does it mean to be “Baptist?” That question is certainly a thesis in and of itself. In grappling with that question, still another rises: What, if anything, has been consistent over the 400 years of Baptists?

    I found two practicing “constants” about Baptists; perhaps there are more. They are:

    · The Priesthood of the Believer
    · Believer Baptism.

    While believer baptism does appear to have been a bedrock theme for Baptists, the mode of baptism has not been consistent. It is not uniform today. Some immerse once in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some immerse three separate times, once for each of the aforementioned. Some Baptists immerse face forward; some backwards like our congregation does. Some “pour” water over the head. Some “sprinkle.”

    I saw an amazing comment on a denominational website the other day. The site was that of a denomination that grew out of European Baptists who came to America, but it made the statement that they wanted to focus on what the Bible said rather than their particular denomination’s practices. It then said, “We recognize that no denomination is fully faithful to the Bible’s teachings.”

    What part are we not being “…fully faithful to the Bible’s teachings” about? DO we have some part of the baptism thing out of line with the Scriptures? It’s a fair – and as Dr. Somerville calls it – “provocative” question.

    There was no indoor baptistery in the New Testament times. So are we any more wrong or right by not baptizing in a “real” body of water, like an ocean or a river or a lake?

    Our answer to that appears to be that baptism in the Baptist denomination is generally held to be a symbol, an act of obedience, preferably done at or near the beginning of our walk with Jesus. Its meaning is for the believer, and to those who witness it. Meaningful believer baptism takes place by differing methods.

    To be Baptist, to me, as it relates to the issue of baptism, means that I have experienced believer baptism, in obedience to Christ, and not necessarily immersion.

    I feel…we are focusing on the wrong aspect of baptism: Mode vs. Meaning.

    I feel…we risk tainting the teaching of Christ with dishonor to require someone who has experienced believer baptism to be re-baptized.

    I feel…we should seek God’s will for us and allow Him to lead.

  7. We have all watched with grief as the fabric of our “denomination” has unraveled due to a slavish devotion to dogma and black and white thinking, where “Right” and “Wrong” were drawn as lines in the sand. This left many us wondering what happened to the “priesthood of the believer”, the “autonomy of the local church” and the founding “Baptist” principle of freedom. I am grateful that, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, we can have an open and honest conversation about how we want to express our faith as a congregation. I thank Jim, for being willing to pastor us through this discussion with such grace and courage. I am grateful that we continue stand as an autonomous church, free to make this decision, independent of any other hierarchy or denominational decrees.
    I struggle to understand how Baptism by immersion can make anyone a Baptist; it simply makes us a Follower of Jesus Christ who has been baptized by immersion. Our great church is an independent and autonomous church called “Richmond’s First Baptist Church”. That which makes a baptized believer a First Baptist “Baptist”, is that they choose to walk down the aisle on Sunday morning. To stand before the entire congregation and say,” I want to be part of this community of believers. I want to give of my time, my talents and my treasure through this church. I want to serve my Lord and savior Jesus Christ HERE. Will we decide to welcome these folks to our congregation by relegating them to a second class citizen status in of hierarchical system of “better than” thinking. Will we be a church that puts obstacles in the path of believers deciding that we are “right” and their declaration of “Jesus is Lord” does not count with us? If baptism is a symbol of what has already happened, is our rejection of the validity of one’s baptism, by extrapolation, also a rejection their faith in Christ? Will we allow ourselves to slip into that slavish devotion to rite and ritual that disenfranchises and marginalizes sincere believers? Yes, we do have watchcare but, it is “watchcare” – not full membership, but rather a sort of second class designation that sends the message “you’re not quite good enough”. Will we allow our attachment to a beloved tradition prevent us from fully welcoming the beloved of God into His church.
    We are in a new century and our world, our society and our culture are changing at an unprecedented pace. As a church, we must explore the ways that we are being challenged to meet the needs of our rapidly changing world. Will we have the courage to change? Or, will we find ourselves proclaiming the “rightness” of our rituals while stomping our feet in the dust or irrelevancy.
    When speaking on the topic of Adaptation to the Divorce Recovery Group, my husband tells a story of a family and a ham baking tradition. In this family, the end of the ham was always cut off before baking it. One year, the daughter asked her mother “Why do we always cut off the end of the ham before we bake it? The mother explained that her mother had always done it that way. The daughter then went to her grandmother and asked her “why do we always cut the end off of the ham before we bake it? The grandmother explained that her mother had always done it that way. This necessitated a trip to the nursing home where the daughter asked the great grandmother” Why do we always cut off the end of the ham before we bake it? The great grandmother explained, “Why, I had to cut off the end of the ham because my pan wasn’t big enough to hold the whole ham.”
    Will our church continue to “cut off the end of our ham” because we have always done it that way or will we embrace the challenge and begin placing the whole ham in a bigger pan?

  8. One of the most meaningful experiences of my adult life was being immersed at age 28 to become a full member of FBC. I had been confirmed as a preteen in another denomination, but had to really ponder the weight the significance of my actions and beliefs when part of the requirement was to be dripping wet from head to toe in front of the whole congregation. It could be embarrassing, for goodness sakes! For me, it involved becoming Christ-conscious instead of self-conscious, and wanting more than anything else to begin walking with the Lord down a new road and in a new direction. Baptism was a mile-marker, a place I can return to in my memory that says I made a commitment with that bold act, and I want to honor that promise. I don’t have any objections to long-time Christians from other denominations being able to join FBC as full members, but by allowing them the option to avoid believer’s baptism, I think we might be denying them a precious gift that they would give thanks for later.

  9. Jim, I believe it is good to give believers who began as another faith to be baptized and become full members of First Baptist. We christians should be blessed when any person wants to join our church and family.

  10. Jim,
    I came across the following while sitting by a camp fire Friday evening. It’s written by Richard Rohr and is from his book “Simplicity”. Perhaps it will help us in our deliberations of the baptisim question.

    “I’ve never found that a lot of wisdom comes through people who have planted themselves dogmatically somewhere or other. I have found that a great deal of wisdom comes into the world through people who creatively hold the tension of opposites on difficult and complex issues. Their out-stretched arms, nailed in the truth on both sides, make them look like the crucified, who was a living icon of the opposites of human and divine, heaven and earth, male body and female soul, hanging between the good thief and the bad thief, which is the two parts of all of us. That is the magnificent image of transformation.”

    Regardless of how we decide the issue, may it be a transformative process for us all.

  11. Dr. Somerville,

    Thank you for initiating these conversations regarding baptism. It occurs to me that if we don’t change our position on baptism and thereby start accepting those who were baptised by other modes as full members to our congregation, then perhaps we need to be clear when giving the invitation that we require immersion. You could say something like “If you’d like to join our church and have been, or are willing to be immersed, then we invite you to come while we sing this hymn…” Can you imagine?

  12. I have considered carefully whether or not I should participate in this conversation. I’ve seen churches divide over less important matters, and I love this one too much to contribute to any schism. Nevertheless, I feel that we should consider opening the door a bit wider to Christians who come to us from other Christian traditions.
    In the earliest days of radical protestants, the issue was less about the mode baptism itself than it was about spiritual regeneration–the reality that one had, with full understanding, entered into an intentional relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. Baptism was the identifying outward testimony of that decision and God’s corresponding inner work of grace (much like circumcision was an identifying characteristic of Abraham’s descendents). Believer’s baptism was believer’s baptism regardless of how it was administered until the era of Smyth and Helwys.
    Today, baptism remains an outward symbol of God’s inward activity. Just as Christians of different traditions have different expressions of communion, many also have different expressions of the symbol of baptism. I do not wish to disrespect the faith journey of a Christian from another expression who desires to unite with me in my commitment to serve the cause of Christ here on planet earth.
    There are many things that identify us as Baptist: the centrality of Jesus Christ, the Bible as the foundation of the Christian life, the priesthood of the believer, congregational autonomy, religious liberty, separation of church and state, commitment to missions, as well as believer’s baptism. The question before us now is this: how we will respond to our fellow Christian believers whose expression of baptism differs from our own?

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