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

9 thoughts on “Seek First To Understand

  1. Although I later joined my wife in the Baptist denomination, I was raised in an independent Chistian Church (the denomination of Alexander Campbell, et al). They said that Baptism was ESSENTIAL for salvation. Later in life, when discussing this with a Christian Church minister, I asked him, “So, what that means is that the Christian Church believes in SACRAMENTS”. Looking horrified, he said, “NO, we don’t believe in sacraments!” Later, consulting a seminary president about that, I told him about the conversation. He said, “Well, if you believe that Baptism is essential for salvation, that makes Baptism a SACRAMENT!” Just for the sake of discussion, I asked him, iis my understanding correct that Baptists don’t believe in sacraments. He replied, “Yes, we believe in ordinances and that while salvation can take place if one happens to be standing in the baptistry at the time, it often takes place elsewhere.” So, that made me feel better about those who have died on the battlefield, in hospital beds, etc. who came to faith just before they died. Anyway, to try to make a long story short(er), what I am getting at is “do Baptists actually believe in sacraments or do they believe in ordinances?” If Baptist believe in ordinances, how do they feel about other denominations? Are they Christians or are they in some sort of “nebulous area”, theologically speaking? This might be a great opportunity to bring in to First Baptist represenatives of other denominations who can speak with authority about their beliefs and how they view Baptists as well as allowing Baptists to speak about how Baptists view the other denominations. Let me know when so I can bring some popcorn with me to eat as I watch! ;>

  2. Something does seems missing. Like how our church, as a Baptist church, identifies itself – our selves – within the larger family of Christians, churches, and denominations. How being Baptist, though not as critical as being Christian, is still very important. How a real sense of loss could be felt when considering “changing” our membership requirement regarding baptism. “But” … I could be wrong. Love in Christ, Robin

  3. After listening to my fellow committee members’ discussion, I would say that’s pretty accurate. I can’t help but say – but what about the rest of the story?

  4. Jim,
    I was surprized that you wrote the paragraph below; then, I realized it was an excerpt from a book.

    [“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: disciples are made through the act of baptism.]

    “Disciples are made through the ACT of baptism?” Maybe I take things too literally, but I believe disciples are made through the process of love and obedience , not the ACT of anything.

  5. Okay, let me make sure I have this right… The issue we are discussing at First Baptist is NOT if someone must be baptized to become a Christian BUT rather if we, at First Baptist, will accept into our membership those who have been baptized (or confirmed their baptism as a believer) in another denomination or tradition that was NOT BY IMMERSION. Will we require them to be RE-baptized to become a full member of our congregation? Jim, is this correct?
    The first point was that the Greek word “baptizo” means immersion. Well, I had to look this up. What I found after slogging through a great lot of technical and academic information about Greek verbs and usages was that the Greek word does mean immersion but that it can mean immersion of hands into water for a ritual ablution such as washing hands before eating. Suffice it to say that there was a great deal of information about the usage of this word including partial dipping as a piece of bread into wine and washing of objects like dishes. This word is used in Luke 11:30 to describe a Pharisee who was astonished that Jesus did not first wash (literally “be baptized”) before dinner. Could this passage also be demonstrating the disdain Jesus had for the rites and ritual requirements of the Pharisees? Jim, I am sure you could comment on this with more authority than I. Could it be that this argument is not as solid as we would like? Are we basing an important decision on interpreting a word in a way that may be inaccurate? And do we really know if Jesus was “fully immersed”? Could this too be a shaky argument? Will we be able to examine some of our long held and cherished truths fearlessly and open-mindedly? If we took this question to Jesus…”Jesus, what is the right way to baptize, by total immersion?” would he reply, “The Baptist denomination has it right” or would he say “you brood of vipers, you hypocrites.” I don’t know the answer to any of these questions but I do think that they are worth considering. I am listening.

  6. It seems to me the core of the status quo argument is in the third part of the Great Commission, “…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The status quo interprets baptize disciples as dipping/dunking after becoming a disciple, that it is very important, and feels compelled to ensure it is taught via the church membership rule.

    This discussion is being framed to make it sound like the second part of the Great Commission (baptism) is a hurdle to the first (making disciples). Perhaps we could instead frame it as, “does this membership rule help us glorify God?”

  7. Jim,

    The scriptures quoted are often the ones used to explain why Baptist doctrine is what it is regarding baptism. But there’s more to the story, and there’s more to consider than whether infant baptisms ought to be accepted at First Baptist Church. In fact there are two points more.

    First, baptism in any form is meaningless unless you know what Jesus was doing when he was baptised. He wasn’t fulfilling a Christian rite, ordinance or sacrament. He was performing a Jewish purification ritual preparatory to beginning his ministry. This Jewish ritual was very prescribed, with specific instructions as to how and when it was to be performed. The Essenes underwent baptism every day! Baptism was to be only in “living water” (meaning running water) if that was available, and the one performing the baptism was not to touch the person being baptised, because at the point of contact the person would not be purified. It is entirely appropriate for Jesus to do this in preparation for launching his ministry, as it was appropriate for him to follow up with forty days of fasting in the wilderness. He was purifying himself in that act too. The point is that baptism, to a true Baptist, is a matter of following in the footsteps of Christ and purifying yourself before entering his church as a member. Let’s make clear that no Baptist believes salvation depends on this, or that salvation depends on membership in a church at all. But because Baptists believe in free will, this purification ritual only makes sense when the believer has a need to be purified and only makes sense when it comes at the behest of the believer. It is a deliberate and very spiritual act. Christ received the Holy Spirit when he was baptised by John in the Jordan River, when he was preparing for doing the work of God. I think it is very unlikely that this was his only baptism, but it was the crucial one, the one when the Spirit descended on him like a dove.

    Second, for those committed life-long Baptists among us, denying this critically defining aspect of Baptist doctrine is insupportable. Some will likely leave for a “more Baptist” church. You would really have to be living in a bubble to not be aware of this. Do you really want to tell these people that our hesitant watchcare members of other denominations are indispensable to you while they are expendable? That surely is the message you are sending. I only hope and pray that they have not been dismissed as collateral damage.

  8. I think we need to put a face to this term “Infant Baptism” because it’s a term that keeps getting tossed around but we’re forgetting that you’re talking about people…about Christians. I’ll volunteer myself. As watchcare members my husband and I have served FBC’s community missions, tithed through unemployment, led friends to worship and taught your children in Sunday school. Could you pick us out from a crowd of “Immersion Baptisms?” I doubt it. Why…because we’re no different.

    If we don’t freely give away baptism then who owns it? The local church or the universal body of Christ? Well, in the New Testament there was a whole lot of baptizing going on before the concept of a “church” came to be so I find it hard to restrict baptism to any local church act.

    Did you know that in parts of Africa where there is limited water, they baptize with sand?

    I’ve had to defend myself as a Christian numerous times in my life to non believers in my family, my peer group, and my workplace. Never have I been asked by fellow Christians to “prove” that I’m a Christian….and I have to say it’s not a good feeling.

    We came to FBC because we believed in its vision and wanted to raise our family within its congregation. We may not be “life-long” Baptists but I can say with fair certainty that the visitors coming on Sunday probably aren’t either. So, if you keep praying for those of us to find our way to Richmond’s First Baptist Church and for your congregation and mission to grow, it would be nice to know that we’re truly accepted. No matter where we come from and no matter under what circumstances.

    Now I’m not claiming to be a biblical scholar but someone wiser than I shared this with me, “In every single case where Christ was presented with a challenge between grace and rules, Christ chose grace. Jesus Christ believed in obedience to his faith but he never ever felt that obedience to rules trumped his faith.”

    I’m not going to be re-baptized because I claim my infant baptism. I live it out every day. It would break my heart to leave First Baptist Church, but if we were never accepted in the first place then I guess the choice has already been made for us.

    As with most dilemmas in my life, I went to God in prayer. His answer of reassurance came quickly in a rush of warmth that encompassed my whole being. Jesus loves me…This I know. Infant baptism and all.

  9. Melissa,

    God bless you for your testimony. You clearly are an active member of our church. And you are a welcome member at that! The decision with which the church is currently struggling has nothing to do with whether or not you and your husband, and others like you who are of different denominations from ours, can be members — you already are, and from your testimony I surmise that you have been made welcome and been ushered into the fold. I would be highly surprised if anyone has asked you to prove that you’re a Christian, and for you to suggest such a thing misses the point entirely. The question is really whether or not we are going to remain a Baptist church or move toward non-denominationalism. The thing that defines Baptists more than any other distinction is the subject at hand, so I hope you don’t intentionally take offense if it is a weighty matter to us. First Baptist has a very long history as a Baptist church, and as far as I am aware this is the first departure from Baptist doctrine that has ever been proposed.

    Watchcare membership was designed as a way to embrace those who wish to join us but have reason to hold back as you have. There is nothing intrinsically derogatory about it.
    The category of membership in which you fall is, and has always been, your choice alone. You alone were, and still are, the one to hold back. Were you to declare that you want to fully join us, that you believe as we do, and you want to commit fully to all that being Baptist means, of course you would be welcomed into the category of full member with open arms. I want to point out to you that every single one of our thousands of full members has had to make that decision and that commitment, and has had to make that public declaration of faith, and we do so joyously and enthusiastically. We are evangelical Christians. We are not born into the church and we do not inherit it. We choose it. It is only when we are baptised as believers that we become full members. Since you admittedly do not agree with all of our beliefs, I can only wonder why full membership is so important to you.

    Finally, I cannot imagine how you could guess the denominations of our visitors, but if they are not primarily evangelicals I would be highly surprised. Usually they are people who have seen the telecast service, or they’re visiting guests of our congregation or Baptist newcomers to Richmond who are looking for a church. It is a testimony to the appeal of First Baptist that sometimes we can even draw into our congregation people from other Christian traditions such as you and your husband. Please do not seek personal slights where none are intended. We are all Christians. The only question is whether we are all going to continue to be Baptists.

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