“Don’t Mess with My Tinkertoys!”

TinkertoysDo you remember Tinkertoys, that set of wooden sticks and spools you could build things with, wonderful things as tall as you were when you were a kid? I talked about Tinkertoys at church last Sunday, when I facilitated a question-and-answer session following Art Wright’s three-week lecture on “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.”

I talked about how all people build a “framework of understanding” to make sense of their experience. If you step outside and a bird flies past you say, “That’s right; birds fly,” and you hang that experience on your framework of understanding (this is where I always picture a Tinkertoy framework, with experiences hanging from it like Christmas tree ornaments). But if you step outside and a cat flies past you’ve got a problem; there is nowhere on your framework of understanding to hang that experience. You have to decide: “Did that really happen? Did a cat really fly past? Or did someone throw a cat across my field of vision? Or am I hallucinating?”

Birds? No problem. Cats? Big problem.

I said, “You’ve spent your whole life building and re-building your framework of understanding and it’s precious to you. You don’t want anybody to mess with it. But somewhere in there is your understanding of heaven, hell, and the afterlife, and I get the feeling that for some of you Art Wright’s lecture was troubling, that some part of it messed with your Tinkertoys.”

I saw heads nodding around the room.

That led into an interesting exchange about what we use to build our frameworks of understanding in the first place, and we acknowledged that much of what we have heard about heaven, hell, and the afterlife comes from books, movies, songs, and popular theology. Not all of it is authoritative. For believers, the Bible is authoritative; it’s that one source we can gather around and study together with general agreement that what’s in there is true.

My guess is that much of what Art Wright was teaching in his three-week lecture was biblical. He is a New Testament professor, after all, which means that he’s spent a good bit of time studying the actual text of the New Testament. I’ve done that myself, and I’m often surprised by what’s not in there as well as by what is. Sometimes it “messes with my Tinkertoys,” and forces me to rebuild some part of my framework of understanding.

I don’t like that.

My framework of understanding is precious to me. But it’s more important to me that it be right than that it be easy, and Scripture is the best way to ensure that. It is, in almost every way, the “blueprint” by which my framework must be built.

And I mean all of scripture: not just the parts I like.

Sharon Parks has a name for that framework of understanding: she calls it “faith.” I think that’s a good name for it, and even though there are ways to build frameworks of understanding that don’t include God, those are not ways I’m interested in. I want to build a distinctively Christian faith, one with Jesus right at the center of it. As far as heaven, hell, and the afterlife are concerned, I’m content to follow him. If I can trust Scripture on this (and I think I can), the Way that he is is the Way that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.

Why would I follow anyone else?

A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Truth

I came across this prayer in this morning’s devotional reading, and loved it, as I love many of William Barclay’s prayers.  Be edified.

O God, we thank you for all those in whose words and in whose writings your truth has come to us. For the historians, the psalmists and the prophets, who wrote the Old Testament; for all those who in every generation have taught and explained and expounded and preached the word of Scripture: we thank you, O God.

Grant, O God, that no false teaching may ever have any power to deceive us or to seduce us from the truth. Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would encourage us to think sin less serious, vice more attractive, or virtue less important; grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would dethrone Jesus Christ from the topmost place; grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which for its own purposes perverts the truth.

God, our Father, establish us immovably in the truth. Give us minds which can see at once the difference between the true and the false; make us able to test everything, and to hold fast to that which is good; give us such a love of truth, that no false thing may ever be able to lure us from it. So grant that all our lives we may know, and love, and live the truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

From: William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year (New York: Harper, 1965)

A Simple Question

My recent visit to the mosque stirred up a good bit of discussion on Facebook, most of it from a college friend who is convinced the Muslims are trying to take over America.  I don’t believe “the Muslims” (all 1.5 billion of them) are trying to do anything of the kind, although I wouldn’t put it past some Muslims (or Christians, or Jews, or Buddhists, or Hindus) to give it a try.  There are extremists in every religion.  

One of the extremists in my religion has declared September 11th “International Burn a Koran Day.”  His name is Terry Jones and he is the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which he describes as “a New Testament church—based on the Bible, the Word of God.”  A link on the church’s web site directs you to a Facebook page called “International Burn a Koran Day,” where you are greeted by a banner that reads, “Islam is of the Devil.”  Under the banner is this announcement:

On September 11th, 2010, from 6pm – 9pm, we will burn the Koran on the property of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL in remembrance of the fallen victims of 9/11 and to stand against the evil of Islam. Islam is of the devil!

Frankly, I cannot imagine a more effective way to stir up the anger of the Muslim world than to publicly burn its sacred text.  I can think of a hundred good reasons not to do it.  But the one that comes to mind most quickly comes straight out of the New Testament, which Pastor Jones describes as “the Word of God.”  Here it is, from Matthew 7:12: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, I want to ask Pastor Jones a simple question: “Do you want a Muslim Imam to burn a Bible on the property of his Mosque on September 11?  If not, then don’t burn a Koran on the property of your church.  This is good advice, and it comes from Jesus himself.  If he is your Lord, and not just your Savior, then you might want to do as he says.  If you won’t do what he says, then (with all due respect) what kind of pastor are you, and what kind of ‘New Testament church’ is the Dove World Outreach Center?”

I’m just asking, because I don’t want to have to answer that other question, the one my Muslim neighbor will ask me on September 11: “Why are you Christians burning the Koran?”

…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

Making Disciples Out of…Disciples?

Older_CoupleIf you’ve read my last two posts you know that I’ve had a fresh insight about baptism and church membership.  In the first post I commented on the difference between the child who comes down the aisle in a present-day Baptist church and the adult who would have been a candidate for baptism in the first century.  In those days people were hearing about Jesus for the first time.  They responded in faith, repented of their sins, and entered the waters of baptism.  That “New Testament pattern” is just what you would expect under such circumstances, and it is still the pattern we follow when people are hearing about Jesus for the first time.

But the child who comes down the aisle in a Baptist church has likely heard about Jesus all her life.  She was probably dedicated in the church, rocked by caring Christians in the nursery, taught to love the Bible in Sunday school.   When she finally makes up her mind about Jesus and comes down the aisle we celebrate right along with the angels in heaven, and as soon as we can we baptize her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.  I call that “raising” a disciple, and in my second post I pointed out the striking similarities between the way we do it and the way people of other denominations do it. 

But here’s the thing:

In our sincere desire to follow the “New Testament pattern”—to be thoroughly biblical in our approach to baptism—we Baptists have sometimes treated disciples who were raised in other denominations as if they were not disciples at all.  When they present themselves for membership we try to make disciples out of them by asking them to enter the waters of baptism just like those first century converts.  But they are not converts, they are Christians, and although I have searched the Scriptures I cannot find a single place where a Christian is baptized.  If that’s true then our current practice at Richmond’s First Baptist Church is a departure from the “New Testament pattern,” in which the only appropriate candidate for baptism is a new convert to Christianity.

We need to think about these things, and we need to consider the implications carefully.  To insist that Christians of other denominations be baptized before they can become members of our church is to treat them as if they were new converts; it is to empty their previous Christian experience of any legitimacy.  Not only that, but it empties “believer’s baptism by immersion” of its meaning;  it turns this powerful symbol of dying and rising with Christ into little more than the fulfillment of a membership requirement.

I heard such a story just recently.  A couple from another denomination told me they had visited a Baptist church in the area for several months, but when they inquired about membership the pastor told them they would have to be immersed.  “But we’re Christians!” they insisted.  “We’ve been Christians for a long time.”  “Oh, I’m sure you are,” he said.  “I have no doubt about that.  But it’s a requirement for membership in this church.”  They were indignant, and on the verge of taking their membership to another church when he offered this option.  “What if we wait till everyone else goes home on Sunday and I baptize the two of you privately?  That way, if anyone asks if you’ve been immersed, you can say yes!” 

“And so we were dunked,” they said, chuckling at the memory.  And so the life-giving, life-changing symbol of baptism was reduced to the fulfillment of a membership requirement, in an empty church on a Sunday afternoon, with no celebration, no singing of hymns, and no angels rejoicing in heaven—only a preacher in rubber chest waders dutifully doing what his church required as two long-time Christians allowed themselves to be “dunked.”

Whatever else that may be, it is not the “New Testament pattern.”

By the Way, Christ is Risen

pantofaceI went to Starbucks this week to study for Sunday’s sermon and took my Greek New Testament with me.  When I put it down on the counter to pay for my coffee the guy at the register said, “Why are you studying Greek?”

“Because I’m a pastor,” I said.  “I’m a Christian pastor.  We tend to preach from the New Testament and the New Testament was originally written in Greek.”

“And Aramaic,” he said, knowledgeably.

“Um, yeah…I guess.  But this is a Greek New Testament so it’s mostly just…Greek.”

He told me that he had studied Latin in school–five years!  You’ve got to watch these Starbucks baristas.  You never know what kind of skills or knowledge they might bring to the job.  And being around all that coffee seems to stimulate their thinking: some of my liveliest conversations have occurred right there at the point of sale, as I hand over my card and wait for a receipt.  There we were, talking about the Greek and Latin languages as he pushed my coffee cup toward me.

“By the way, Christ is risen,” he said, as I turned to go.  It was Christian “code” language, a secret way of saying, “I’m a believer, too.”  It dates back to the first century where it was almost certainly whispered in Greek—“christos anesti!”  I stopped in my tracks and turned back to take him in, this young, bearded barista who had just revealed himself as my brother in Christ.  He was grinning, and for a moment I was tempted to say something smart like, “By the way?”  But before those words could come out of my mouth those other words came, the traditional response to the traditional Easter greeting.  I raised my coffee cup, smiled, and said:

“Christ is risen indeed.”