Thursday, June 07, 2007

Baptism revisted

I might be shot down as a heretic for saying this but I'm not sure that the idea of the universal church helps us much. I certainly don't think that the New Testament separates belonging to Christ (and hence the universal church) from relating to a local group of his followers.

All the great baptismal texts in Paul's letters - Galatians 3, 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 6, Colossians 2 - are rooted in local church experience even though they have a cosmic sweep to them.

But I agree with Marcus that we need to get rid of the rules that restrict our membership on any grounds other than discipleship.

I'm just reading Alan Kreider's chapter in Deep church and will comment in due course. I am grateful to Andy for reminding me of Stuart Blythe's description of baptism as a political act - that is something we have lost.

I'd be interested in Andy unpacking his thoughts on having a more theological understanding of membership in relation to covenant. I wonder if this is the category that helps us make the best sense of what membership is and how it works.

If that's the case, then I think what I'm suggesting is that we see membership as a covenant with one another in our churches. Furthermore I'd be interested in exploring ways of regularly renewing that covenant commitment - possibly through an annual covenant service or renewal period (say in January). I know there are one or baptist churches that practice this kind of thing - maybe someone out there can give us chapter and verse.

By bringing the covenant aspect of membership to the fore I think it offers us the chance to have a deeper and richer theology of membership, while at the same time removing some of the unhelpful hurdles we make prospective members jump through before we let them aboard.


Stuart Blythe said...

I think that both ecumenical relationships and indeed 'open' local church membership can be based upon shared faith in Jesus Christ - rather than upon the idea that all expressions of Baptism are equally as good or even theologically valid. Having been in the situation for some 12 years in my experience an open membership-open leadership Church does not make people give more attention to membership. I actually suspect that open membership is likely to decrease attention to membership both because of the variety of ecclessiological backgrounds that are brought together and the accompanying various reasons people have for joining and on account of the theological disentangling of Believers Baptism from its wider convictional matrix of communal congregational discipleship.

Anonymous said...

Simon you asked for more on membership: I've posted over at my blog, where I've linked to something I wrote a few years back now, which may or may not generate more conversation than it did. A theology of membership must arise out of our theology of baptism and the fact that as baptists we emphasis the local church.

Anonymous said...

If you were to use discipleship as the only criteria for membership how would you define discipleship and decide if somebody were meeting that criteria? I think that within the defining we may find another set of hurdels.

Having said that I like the idea of membership going back to being a covenant relationshp with each other based simply upon discipleship. I believe this would in many ways lead to making membership more authentic and move us away from the "golf club mentality" that has tended to creep in.

Stuart Blythe said...

The easier you make membership the less likely it is that that membership will offer you the radical and committed group you want it to be! I quote from John Ruth on Anabaptist groups where he says that with a concern for new recruits we increasingly become 'so "average" in what we require by way of discipleship[of the new members] that we will end up with little that is distinctive and radical'. I think that there is something in here.

Anonymous said...

It does not necessarily follow that the easier we make membership the less radical we will become in our commitment - if membership of a local church is harder than membership of God's Kingdom then something is seriously out of step, which is what I and many others are wrestling with. If someone is good enough for God then who are we to say that they cannot come into membership locally - but within that we can spell out what we expect from ourselves as disciples of Christ thus keeping that radical edge. I had a discussion with our leadershp last night and asked them to finis the following sentence; "Members/Disciples are expected to..." now within that there were the usual "meet regularly for worship" but also "have fun together and enjoy life" ask you when was the last time you saw that in some church rules!? It was quite interesting to see what we thought should be expected from us as disciples together.

Stuart Blythe said...

Ah ah Marcus - to introduce the Kingdom in a discussion on Church membership is an interesting move. Slippery thing the Kingdom - has children and prostitutes and who knows what getting in there in front of the righteous but on the other hand is to be 'sought first and is like a pearl of greatest price that we should give up all for and well the rich better get rid of their wealth or go away. So, the question is how does the church relate to this Kingdom. For me the Church should bear witness to it. For me this means that any church 'community' (in the broad sense) will extend that gracious Kingdom welcome. Yet, for me to do that and to bear witness to the Kingdom it yet requires a committed covenant community - a gathered disciplined community at the heart of it all that bears witness to the message of welcome and the radical demands. I think that this cocenantrated core is what 'membership' should entail and I would stick by my statement that if you make that covenanted core something that does not demand committment to belong to then you cannot in the slightest complain when the covenanted community is not committed because by definition you have excluded that characteristic as a necessity of belonging! No?

Anonymous said...

To introduce the Kingdom into a conversation on church membership by no means precludes a covenant aspect to what we might currently describe as "membership". In fact covenant might be better than church rules! True prostitutes and children are in front of the righteous - but wasn't Jesus' point that the righteous were actually not all that righteous in God's eyes? And it almost seems that a lot of people's understanding of church membership is akin to the righteous who thought they were front of the line for the kingdom and discovered that those who were excluded had VIP passes.

Church should relate to the Kingdom as you say by bearing witness to it but also by developing Kingdom citizens (disciples) as opposed to church members and perhaps a covenantal aspect to our relating and belonging together is a better move forward than "rules" lest we become legalistic over who is at the front of the line and who isn't.