Thursday, June 07, 2007

Further baptism thoughts

Wulf's comment to the previous post on baptism is spot on. What matters is what happens after baptism - the months and years and lifetime that follows it.

And his likening it to marriage in some way helps to answer Graham's point. I agree that 'membership' is an extra-biblical idea. But relationship isn't. And it seems to me that Baptism in the New Testament always has an eye on our relationships with one another as well as with Christ. We are baptised into the body of Christ - always understood as a local community of followers of Jesus.

Membership - if it has any value at all (and I share Graham's scepticism about it as a thing in its own right) has value because it is our way of ordering those relationships.

In the New Testament churches functioned as households or as meal time symposia and thus operated according to a set of unspoken relational rules. People belonged to something and felt as though they belonged. And the NT adds to that advice on how to ensure those relationships function well.

So Philippians 2:1-18 tells us how we need to live together in a hostile environment in a way that will ensure mutual support and accountability and corporate, communal witness to the wider world. Or Ephesians 4:11ff talks about relating well within the household of God (outlined in chapter 2).

For me membership needs to function as our contemporary equivalent of those ordered relationships. if it doesn't we should scrap it. Membership is about us saying I want to be accountable to and supported by this group of people, I want to walk with them on my journey of discipleship, I desire their companionship and insight.

For this reason, I think membership should be something we opt into rather than get invited into (as in, 'do you want to join my club'); something that is focused on me agreeing to a way of life that enables me to walk with the brothers and sisters that I've met at this particular church. In other words, membership should be a covenant that we freely and regularly enter into.

I'm not sure that answers Graham's question. I'd be interested to hear how his church and others do this.

Marcus' comment about our rules flying in the face of what God is doing by calling people to be a part of our community is also spot on. He uses examples of Calvin, the wesleys and Jim Packer. I've used the example of John Stott. none of these people can join my church - or Marcus' by the sound of it - because they haven't got wet enough. I think it indicates a weakness of our position.


Anonymous said...

I'm following this conversation with interest. I'm interested in what alan kreider has been saying. His chapter in remembering our future basically says we've lost the importance of baptism and need to recover it. likewise is john colwell in promise and presence who points out despite being called baptists we are extremely lax in our baptismal practice.

- I think we need to recover the importance of baptism. I liked what stuart blythe said a while back about baptism being civil disobedience. we need to recover a deeper understanding of baptism, drawing out its different theological, political, sacramental, missiological meanings.
- I think we need to recognise the validity, as you suggest, of different forms of baptism, while suggesting believer's baptism is best. (Steve Holmes also makes an interesting case for this from the early church fathers in Listening to the Past). Here Sean Winter said in his whitely lecture that this must mean reading and listening to those baptismal passages with those who hold to infant baptism.
- We must link baptism more clearly with membership - membership as an outworking of baptism (here I think we need a more theological understanding of membership). My personal view is that open membership makes no sense, i prefer baptism to be a pre-requisite, but i would recognise infant baptism and confirmation as valid.
- we need to celebrate baptism more, like we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Kreider suggests in churches first sunday of each month we invite all those birthdays, anniversaries and baptismal birthdays to come forward for blessing and thanksgiving - this says something that baptism has continuing meaning; not something we do to cross a boundary (as you suggest about paul drawing his churches throughout his letters back to their baptism)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a more theological understanding of membership lies in membership of the Church Universal rather than the church local. But then again how do we then define membership local without making it more confined than membership into the Church Universal? Baptism is clearly a command of Christ and thus is an integral part of a persons membership into the Church Universal but then again what about Acts 19 where Paul comes accross some disciples who had not been baptised were they not part of the Church Universal until they received baptism at Paul's hands?

One of the questions that I want our congregtaion to face is; "what are the bare essentials to be a member of the Church Universal?" And if someone fulfills these bare essentials then what is stopping us from welcoming them into membership of a local church?

It seems to me that a lot of churches operate under a set of rules about what it means to be a member of a church local that is so constricting it almost leaves one with the idea that some Christians are good enough for God but not for membership into this particular fellowship!

I agree that we need to make more of baptism (in whatever form it is administered) and perhaps in doing this it would necessitate a more constructive approach to what it means to be a member of God's Church Universal.

graham old said...

Hi Simon,

I wouldn't want to use our local church practice as a model of my own views; we're quite a messed-up bunch! ;-)

I would certainly agree that relationship is the biblical idea and can see how membership might be one way to order those relationships. However, I also note that it is not the most common means of ordering, nor that of the NT, or early church. That leaves me thinking that us baptistic Christians need to see membership as one possible means to achieve healthy relationships. On that basis, we can then assess whether it is a helpful means for us to hold on to.

I don't know if that makes sense?

graham old said...

'For me membership needs to function as our contemporary equivalent of
those ordered relationships. if it doesn't we should scrap it.'

Sorry, I've just re-read this and would agree completely.

I guess I'd want to say that, on this basis, we should scrap it! It seems to me that membership can easily become a barrier and hindrance to commitment and relationship, rather than a means.

Anonymous said...

Graham - I'm going to try this out here. If baptism means we become an ecclesial being (I'm using John Zizioulas here), then does membership identify which particular local ecclesia that discipleship is work out at. I wonder whether a doctrine of the Spirit who calls us (elects us) to belong to gathered people. Membership is the Spirit calling and us responding. I have in mind a Colin Gunton quote: 'The Spirit liberates us, that is to say, by bringing us into community: by enabling us to be with and for the brothers and sisters whom we do not ourselves choose'. Membership helps us overcome the view that 'I'll belong to this church until the point it doesn't suit me' as if it were our choice. I want to say 'we don't choose a church', but the Spirit calls us and brings us into community.

I'm not sure I can make any biblical arguments, but I"m not sure I need to make membership valid.

Jonathan said...

Maybe some of my struggle in this whole area of discussion is that the context is one of church rules, something I guess I have a natural antipathy towards.

It seems like we're trying to create systems that people can be asked to fit into, rather than suggesting norms that might allow for a more personal and therefore real journey into Christ and his church.

But, we live in a context of rules and systems, so we need to find ones that work.

One the one hand, as 'big B' Baptists we have a history and theology that leads us to place (rightly in my opinion) huge emphasis on baptismal practise. On the other hand we follow a Messiah who was inclusive and welcoming of all who were seeking to relate to him.

Some of these discussions here are the ones that our forebears had in relation to who was truly a member of the church universal, not just the chuch local. Faith in Jesus, witnessed to in baptism was the norm that they looked for.

It would, of course, be difficult to suggest that only those who have confessed faith through the public act of baptism are saved, Simon has given examples of others who the vast majority of Jesus folowers would regard with fondness and respect who haven't done so.

So on the one hand, we have a particular understanding of how baptism is best administered and to whom, and on the other we have a grace-driven inclusion agenda that we perceive to come from Jesus who welcomed all.

Maybe this is why so many Baptist churches find themselves in the position of offering memebrship on the basis of faith, yet offering leadership roles only to those who have been baptised as believers.

Nevertheless, is it any less reasonable to expect someone in a leadership position in the Baptist church to be baptised as a believer than it is for an Anglican to offer his service to a bishop? Isn't there something in this about celebrating our distinctives?

The membership we are speaking of is the membership of the local Baptist churches that we are part of or seeking to give leadership to. If we have membership at all then it is our responsibility to make that work as well and as justly as it can, something I percieve conversations like this are really helpful in doing.

Thankfully, it is not in our gift to decide who gets into the church universal, a burden far too onerous for mortals, but my guess is that the net is cast a touch wider.

Given that we need to find ways of making this work then, in the context of organisations that need to have structures to legally exist in our culture, why not mix the two agendas, extreme grace in our membership, and our baptismal distinctives in our leaderships?

I have heard the argument that some church leaders of great standing would be exluded from leadership in churches that would take such a position, and I understand where that comes from, however an alternate understanding might be that if such a person felt God's call to minister in such a context, then they might also undergo the necessary steps to do so.

It would be odd, were I to sense God's call into anglican ministry (very odd indeed and some theological gymnastics needed), if I were to respond to God by saying "Change their rules and I'll obey you".

graham old said...

'Graham - I'm going to try this out here. If baptism means we become an ecclesial being (I'm using John Zizioulas here), then does membership identify which particular local ecclesia that discipleship is work out at.'

Thanks for the reply, Andy.

I can see that as a helpful step in contexts where that makes sense (and where it is actually true). However, I think I have problems with this understanding of the relationship between the church local and the Church universal.

If, following Colwell, the local church is a microcosm of the Church universal then 'membership' in one must entail membership in the other. So, either we genuinely emphasise baptism to Pauline levels and way beyond the usual Baptist understanding - and face all kinds of ecumenical headaches, or we suggest that unless you are a 'member' of a church then you are not a member of the Church universal. I don't see many Baptist churches willing to take either step.

I think that you simply give to much credit to a formal doctrine of church membership and - lacking biblical support or much historic precedent - I don't think it's warranted. Speaking personally, I've never been in a church where there was much of a distinction in the levels of discipleship or commitment between members and non-members, so it doesn't seem to function as you suggest it should.