The Elephant and the Baptists

elephantNow, even though I’m a Presbyterian ex-Baptist, I try to stay out of debates on baptism. The arguments usually go round in circles, with people speaking past each other, defending positions, not usually seeking understanding. They’re not generally conducive to fruitful fellowship. However, two things make me wonder if this laissez-faire approach is the correct one.

First, some Presbyterians seem to find delineating a satisfying account of the practice of infant baptism alarmingly difficult. They take on board Baptist memes and try to incorporate them into their view, resulting in something of a dog’s breakfast. Second, some Baptists certainly do not adopt a laissez-faire attitude. They proselytise according to the Gospel of Believer’s Baptism. I don’t mean proselytise amongst the lost, the un-churched. I mean amongst the Presbyterians (or Anglicans), who they re-baptise into their own churches. Don’t get me wrong, over the past weeks I have enjoyed some wonderful fellowship with some wonderful Baptist friends in the unity of the Spirit – as it should be. But, some other Baptists seem to be very much on the attack.

Arguments tend to revolve around whether children should be baptised, or around how much water should be involved. But there is a more fundamental issue. An Elephant. In the Room. The apostle Paul expresses the foundation of Christian unity like this:

One Body and One Spirit…One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. One God and Father of All…    Eph 4:4-6

As Christians, we own the unity of God, the divinity and Lordship of Jesus as the Divine Messiah; we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ; we affirm the creeds of the church. We have One Lord and One Faith. And, we have One Baptism. There is one sign of entry into the Church; that is, the baptism practiced by the apostles themselves. One Baptism. Baptist theology has a different understanding of the baptism practiced by the apostles than do the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, Methodist or Congregational churches. The Baptists stand on their own in this regard. And most, if not all, of the former churches recognise each others’ baptism. This was certainly one of the fundamental tenets of the Reformers in their practice: they would not re-baptise someone who had been baptised in the Roman Catholic church. There is One Baptism. Presbyterians retain this tenet today.

And so we come to the Elephant. Baptists do not recognise One Baptism. Many of them would insist on re-baptising any professing Christian who had been raised in a believing family in any other (non-Baptist) church before allowing them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in their churches. This is essentially their declared judgement that these people are not, in fact, part of the Church of Jesus Christ. It declares other churches’ sacraments invalid, and comes close to declaring other churches themselves as invalid. With the Baptists, there is an ecumenical impasse. There is a fundamental problem. It’s not a problem of how much water you should use, or even simply a problem of whether children should be baptised. It is a fundamental problem of Christian Unity. To declare a church’s baptism as invalid, to insist on re-baptism, is to strike at the heart of Christian Unity. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism – this is not the view of the Baptists. And that’s why the Reformers regarded the Baptists in their day as a radical sect. Not a church, a sect.

My appeal is not for Presbyterians to change our attitude to the Baptists – we recognise Your Baptism, we count you as brothers and sisters. My appeal is to the Baptists – that we might receive the same respect from you, that you might recognise the validity of Our Baptism (and that of every other part of Christ’s church), the validity of our sacraments, the validity of our church itself (for it is that fundamental).

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.

What is a True Church? Looking Beyond the Constitution

DSC_0043Here’s a helpful passage from Professor Donald Macleod’s ‘The Basis of Christian Unity’:

The converse of this is that a church may have a defective constitution and yet preach the gospel. To take one example: the current effective constitution of the Church of Scotland is theologically minimal. While giving a courteous nod to the Westminster Confession, in practice the Church is bound to nothing except the doctrine of the Trinity and ‘the Scottish Reformation’. Because there is no standard of theology, the most bewildering theological pluralism prevails. The constitution does not safeguard the gospel. Yet, there is no denying that the gospel is preached: fully and brilliantly in some pulpits, adequately in others, minimally in yet others (and probably not at all in some).

In any judgment of a church then, we have to look beyond its actual constitution. Some with admirable constitutions do nothing by way of evangelism; while others, with radically defective constitutions, do a great deal.

The Basis of Christian Unity

cross1In Western culture, where the strength and influence of the church is declining, there is more need than ever for Christian unity. It’s a great sadness to actually see that whilst the church in Scotland faces challenges from without and within, unity seems to be somewhere near the bottom of the agenda. The moves in the Church of Scotland towards sanctioning the ordination of active homosexuals are testing our calling to unity as Scottish Christians. Some see schism as the answer (the antithesis of unity) and, sadly, some see the problems of others as an opportunity for growth.
Recently, I read again Professor Donald Macleod’s article ‘The Basis of Christian Unity’ published in Evangel in 1985. It is reproduced in the Christian Focus publication Priorities for the Church (which, if you haven’t got it, you should get). The opening of the article is striking:
It is very tempting to regard doctrinal agreement as the basis of Christian unity. We must resist the temptation, however. The basis lies much deeper. The real foundation of our oneness is our common membership of the body of Christ.
I would guess that after these opening four sentences, some readers would be dismissing the entire article. If that is true, it just illustrates how far we have drifted from the historic, Reformed understanding of the church and of Christian unity. Macleod quotes from Calvin, Owen and Hodge to back up his case. He summarises:
This is the clear New Testament position: we are one not because of a common polity or a common belief but because we are all Christians.
I’m glad Macleod puts it like that. The Reformed view of the church is not primarily political, or cultural, but is the most serious attempt to do justice to the New Testament scriptures themselves. For Presbyterians, their Reformed heritage provides an anchor to the NT whose chain runs through the Apostles, Church Fathers and the Reformers themselves.
Macleod continues:
Because we are united at this level, we owe one another, simply as Christians, recognition, love and co-operation. We have no right to insist on some other condition. We are one in Christ.
This unity operates on an objective level. We are so keen to turn to the idea of the ‘invisible’ church to justify our lack of unity, but as Macleod pointedly writes:
The believer is not an idea but flesh and blood. The Church is not an idea but flesh and blood. The unity of the church must have the same visible, concrete reality.
The unity of the church must be given practical, structural expression. In recognition, love and co-operation. It’s no good just to talk about it. And that’s why schism is not the answer. Schism disunites, and denies the unity of those who are Christians. And it’s also why inactivity in ecumenism, whether because of fear (usually of what others might think) or distrust, is inexcusable.

Rebaptising Christians

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Over the past months, I’ve heard of more than one instance where evangelical churches have either re-baptised, or were planning to re-baptise, Christians who had already been baptised in another church. It always deeply saddens me when I hear this sort of thing. It is deeply divisive to adjudge another church’s administration of a sacrament to be so deficient as to make it invalid. There aren’t many things more damaging to church unity. The logical conclusion of such a position is that someone might always get a ‘better’ baptism somewhere else!
In churches that call themselves reformed, this ought not to happen. If being reformed means anything, then surely it means we’ve got time for John Calvin!
…if we have rightly determined that a sacrament is not to be estimated by the hand of him by whom it is administered, but is to be received as from the hand of God himself, from whom it undoubtedly proceeded, we may hence infer that its dignity neither gains or loses by the administrator. And, just as  among men, when a letter has been sent, if the hand and seal is recognised, it is not of the least consequence who or what the messenger was; so it ought to be sufficient for us to recognise the hand and seal of our Lord in his sacraments, let the administrator be who he may.  
This confutes the error of the Donatists, who measured the efficacy and worth of the sacrament by the dignity of the minister.    Such in the present day are our Catabaptists, who deny that we are duly baptised, because we were baptised in the Papacy by wicked men and idolaters; hence they furiously insist on anabaptism.  Against these absurdities we shall be sufficiently fortified if we reflect that by baptism we were initiated not into the name of any man, but into the name of the Father,  and the  Son, and the Holy Spirit; and, therefore, that baptism is not of man, but of God, by whomsoever it may have been administered.    Be it that those who baptised us were most ignorant of God and all piety, or were despisers, still they did not baptise us into a fellowship with their ignorance or sacrilege, but into the faith of Jesus-Christ, because the name which they invoked was not their own but God’s, nor did they baptise into any other name.    But if baptism, was of God, it certainly included in it the promise of forgiveness of sin, mortification of the flesh, quickening of the Spirit, and communion with Christ.    Thus it did not harm the Jews that they were circumcised by impure and apostate priests.    It did not nullify the symbol so as to make it necessary to repeat it.    It was enough to return to its genuine origin.    The objection that baptism ought to be celebrated in the assembly of the godly, does not prove that it loses its whole efficacy because it is partly defective. (Institutes, IV,15,16)