Saturday, July 12, 2014

Baptism and Fellowship

Over the past few days, an article has appeared on my Facebook news feed a few times, and I want to make some comments about it. The title of the article is "Time for Churches of Christ to Fellowship Other Groups?"

Go ahead and read the article, because I'll be discussing a theme in that article in this post. I think I'm reading that article correctly when I say that the author builds the case that the Church of Christ should not extend Christian fellowship to other groups. That is a belief that is widely held and taught in churches of Christ. I could probably find dozens of articles on the Internet that make a very similar argument.

This one interests me because the author specifically mentions baptism to illustrate why he believes we should not extend fellowship to believers in groups other than the Church of Christ. This article helped me realize that the Church of Christ position on baptism is at the center of the belief that fellowship should not be extended. This belief is sometimes referred to by others as the belief that "they're the only ones going to heaven". So, in this post, I want to look at baptism and how it relates to fellowship in churches of Christ.

But before I do that, I want to mention that I almost agree with what the Church of Christ teaches about baptism. I appreciate the willingness to restore baptism’s importance. The theologies of the reformation went too far in their insistence on faith only and distanced baptism from salvation. Since baptism isn't faith, they argue, it is not connected at all to salvation. However, I do not believe this is correct because the Bible very often connects baptism to salvation. So, I agree with the Church of Christ's emphasis on the immediacy of baptism.

However, I believe that the discussions of baptism in the Church of Christ over the past 50 to 100 years have unnecessarily reduced baptism to essentially two positions. The church of Christ position is that baptism is absolutely essential for salvation and nobody gets to heaven without it. The other position is that baptism is not essential to salvation at all and it may be postponed for weeks or even months. I don’t think the Bible teaches either of these positions, but I believe that the church of Christ position is closer to what the Bible actually does teach about baptism.

Now, let’s look at baptism and how it relates to fellowship in the Church of Christ. The Church of Christ has attached baptism to salvation. There is significant biblical support for that. However, we also have attached understanding the purpose of baptism to salvation, and there simply isn't any biblical support for that. The Bible says, (Mark 16:16) “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” The Bible does not say, “Whoever believes and understands the purpose of baptism and is baptized will be saved.” The Bible says, (Acts 2:38) “Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.” The Bible does not say, “Repent and understand the purpose of baptism and be baptized for the remission of sins.” The Church of Christ has added “understand the purpose of baptism” as a condition for salvation. The Bible does not attach such an understanding to salvation.

The Church of Christ teaches a five step plan of salvation. (I do not believe in a “five step plan”. I believe that salvation is far more intimate than any step by step process or procedure, but that's a different topic.) However, in practice, we really have believed in a six step plan of salvation. We can provide a Bible verse for five of the steps, but not all six. In our explicit teaching of the plan, we do not include all six. This extra step usually comes up when someone responds to our teaching about baptism with, “But I’ve already been baptized.” After this response, there will often be an effort to show that the baptism was invalid because the person didn't understand the purpose of baptism. "You were not really saved," some say, "because you did not do it for the right purpose. You must be baptized for the right purpose in order to be saved."

Here is the six step plan that I've never seen documented anywhere or heard formally taught, but that we have practically taught.
  1. Hear. (Romans 10:14-17)
  2. Believe. (John 3:16)
  3. Repent. (Luke 13:3,5; Acts 2:38)
  4. Confess. (Romans 10:9)
  5. Understand the purpose of baptism. (There is no Bible verse that connects this to salvation.)
  6. Be baptized. (Mark 16:16)
The result of adding “understand the purpose of baptism” as a condition for salvation is requiring people to be baptized again in order to be accepted. Even someone who was baptized by choice in an effort to obey God, but didn’t understand the purpose of baptism before their baptism, must be baptized again, according to many in the Church of Christ. In effect, we have told people who were previously baptized as an act of faithful obedience that God did not accept their obedience.

The God of the Bible accepted the worship of those in Hezekiah’s day (2 Chron. 30:1-27) even though they did so “otherwise than was written” (2 Chron. 30:18). The God of the Bible looks at the heart and honors obedience from the heart. Technical soteriological understanding is never a biblical requirement for God to honor the obedience of a tender and contrite heart. We (the Church of Christ) need to stop requiring this understanding before we honor the baptisms of others.

Adding the requirement of understanding the purpose of baptism as a condition for salvation serves to separate the Church of Christ from other baptized believers in Jesus. So, baptism becomes a very divisive and isolating issue in the Church of Christ. Jesus prayed for unity. Separating from other believers in Him based on an extra-biblical requirement for understanding does not promote the unity that He prayed for.

The article that I mentioned at the beginning of this post suggests that in order to extend fellowship, because of his beliefs about baptism, he would have to abandon logic, conviction, and scripture.

I wouldn't ask someone to abandon logic I actually very much encourage a well-reasoned faith.

I wouldn't ask anyone to abandon conviction. I would persuade someone to change convictions based on reason and scripture, but not abandon them.

And I'm certainly not asking for anyone to abandon scripture. I actually believe that the extra requirement that the Church of Christ has placed on baptism is not in Scripture and we should get rid of the extra-biblical requirement of understanding the purpose of baptism as a prerequisite to salvation.

At the end of the article, he asks, "Can there ever be unity?" There can never be unity as long as we continue to use baptism as a divisive issue. Instead of using baptism to divide believers, we should honor baptism as the entrance into a covenant with Jesus by bodily confessing His death, burial, and resurrection and continuing to live the new life, proclaiming the resurrection which promotes healing and sharing and unity bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth..