Tag Archives: baptism

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: Gavin Ortlund’s Case for Theological Triage

Do you know how to diagnose theological controversy, and treat it well? Author Gavin Ortlund helps us to figure this out.

Wearing masks in church? Vaccinations? What about critical race theory? Racism? QAnon? The Election!! I try to be optimistic, but it seems like Christians have had a lot of opportunities to divide over many different issues in 2021, many of them with theological underpinnings (The challenges of trying to do “online church” for over a year has not helped matters). Finding the right hill(s) to die on is not easy. I have my own story to tell about theological controversy, but it goes back a few years.

However, before I jump into that, I need to issue a disclaimer: It is very tempting, in the face of intractable theological disputes (or political disputes among Christians) to either run off into a corner, and cut yourself off from other people, and double-down on your viewpoint. It is also tempting to try to “church hop,” in order to find another expression of Christian faith that suits you better…. only to find that your new church has a lot of the same problems as your old church did, just framed in a different way.

Yet perhaps the most difficult temptation is to become cynical, and simply get disgusted when theological controversy arises, over a matter that you find to be somewhat trivial, over-hyped, or perhaps destructive, or even downright stupid, but that someone else considers to be super-important. Of course, there is the other side to this: someone ELSE might strongly disagree with YOU, because they think the issue is really super-important, and they find it frustrating that you do not seem to understand the gravity of the issue! After all, the same Jesus who loves the whole world is also the same Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the Temple, challenging the complacent! So, maybe you SHOULD be more concerned about the issue being discussed!!

An extreme example of the temptation to become cynical can be found in Abraham Piper’s recent TikTok videos. Abraham Piper is a son of John Piper, one of evangelicalism’s most well-known pastors. At age 19, Abraham was excommunicated from his church, then tried to return later, only eventually to walk away from the faith. In the meantime, Abraham Piper has since become a multi-millionaire making jigsaw puzzles. He also has a TikTok page, with over 900 thousand followers, (compare that to his famous pastor/father, who has a 1 million Twitter followers) where a number of Abraham’s videos flesh out how he has deconstructed his faith on subjects ranging from “Almost nobody believes in a literal hell,” “If you’ve ever quit a religion, did you become something else?”, “If you still live with evangelical parents,” and “Three times Jesus stole stuff from people.”

Provocative stuff, for sure. But pretty sad in the end.

By the grace of God, I have not gone to such major extremes, with any of these temptations, and I certainly would not encourage them in others. When Christians double-down on their beliefs, or church-hop to get away from other Christians who do not see things exactly the same way, or who walk away completely and give into cynicism, the result is usually bitterness and resentment towards others, and that is never healthy. However, I can see how a lack of honest conversation, preventing people from expressing their questions and doubts in a non-confrontational way, can drive people to go to certain extremes. Finding the right hills to die on is not a very easy thing to figure out. Raising questions and doubts can sound scary when theological controversy surfaces, but they need not prompt conversation partners to automatically go into “freak out” mode when controversy arises. I would like to share my own brief story, and offer a positive resource I have found for working through such difficulties.

Why Splits in Churches and/or Other Christian Fellowships Can Be Nerve-Racking

Perhaps this will sound like a rant, but it is a pet peeve of mine: There are certainly times where Christians do need to separate from church bodies and/or other Christian fellowships, when they have lost their way spiritually or morally, drifting into theological error. However, there are other times when Christians can divide over matters that during the time of crisis seemed all-important and ultra-critical. However, looking back on the controversies months or years later, we realize that such controversies were far too overblown, doing more harm than good.

Here is my story: It was the 1980s and I was a campus leader in my small college Christian fellowship group. The charismatic movement swept through my group and I was caught right in the middle. Two of my dearest friends, who both helped to disciple me, took opposing perspectives in the controversy.

One of them, who later married a wonderful gal I had dated in college, had taken me to a charismatic prayer meeting. For a guy like me, growing up in a liberal mainstream Protestant background, I was dumbfounded when people started to speak in tongues all around me. My friend helped to establish me in having a regular “quiet time” with the Lord, using the Dake Annotated Bible, a popular Pentecostal study Bible in those days (Though I must confess I found myself buried more often in reading Finis Jennings Dake’s notes, as opposed to just focusing on the text of Scripture itself… but that is another topic for another time).

My other friend, who helped to answer a lot of my spiritual questions while I did my laundry, was one of the most passionate defenders of biblical inerrancy… a real stickler for clinging to the text of the Bible. He had been kicked out of a charismatic Bible study, for asking too many questions, and was told never to come back. To say that he “disliked” the “charismatic movement” would be an understatement. He firmly believed that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to operate after the last of the first century apostles had died. Once the New Testament was completed, the church had no more need for such miraculous gifts. In his mind, speaking in tongues in our modern era has continued to be all about promoting deception in the church.

Both of my friends truly sought to love Jesus, but they had a difficult time getting along with one another. Trying to find common ground between my two friends was like trying to get my dog to get along with another neighbor’s dog. It was exceedingly difficult. And the rancor disturbed our whole fellowship group. Most people simply tried to stay on the sidelines, adopting more of a “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” approach, but that did not go over very well either.

After my friends both graduated from my school, the controversy erupted among the followers my two friends left behind. As a campus Christian leader, I was simultaneously accused of “quenching the Spirit” by one party and of “smuggling charismatic deception” into the group, by another party. Weeks of meeting with people who had gotten their perspectives out of joint eventually produced some good fruit, and many relationships were eventually restored. We got through the crisis, but this was not terribly unlike the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” parties that have divided churches in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.

I really hated being in the middle of this theological controversy, which was also a controversy of different personalities. Nevertheless, theological controversy is just something that Christians, particularly Protestant evangelicals, simply do and have from time to time. The question is how do we navigate such treacherous waters. Trying to figure out which battles to fight and which battles to lay aside requires gaining a lot of wisdom, a process that I must honestly (and personally) admit can be pretty hard to discern.

Gavin Ortlund’s Helpful Resource for Doing Theological Triage

That is why I took a great interest in Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, put out by the Gospel Coalition and Crossway books. It is a pretty short yet powerfully succinct book, that elaborates on Al Mohler’s theological triage model, discussed in a previous Veracity blog post. Another helpful resource in this category is Andy Naselli’s and J.D. Crowley’s book on the Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, also reviewed here on Veracity.

Gavin Ortlund outlines, as I would frame it, basically four orders of theological issues, faced by Christians:

  • First rank issues:  These would be theological issues that are “essential to the gospel.” For example, if someone denies the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, or the necessity of believing that Jesus died for our sins, then these would be issues serious enough for a Christian to leave a church and seek a new fellowship.
  • Second rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).
  • Third rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “important for Christian doctrine (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church.”
  • Fourth rank issues: These would be teachings that are “indifferent (they are theologically unimportant).

The ranking system that Ortlund uses is reasonable enough. The problem comes in trying to figure out what doctrines fit in which ranking. This is where the “triage” part comes in, where being able to diagnose which issues belong in which category requires some wisdom and forethought.

Starting from the bottom up is easiest for me to process. A good example of a fourth rank issue is about where the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians from. My lead pastor holds the view that Paul wrote these letters while in a prison in Rome. This is the predominant view among many scholars as well. But I disagree with my pastor on this one, as I find the case for Paul having been in an Ephesian jail, when writing these letters, as more convincing. But is this dispute weighty enough for me to leave the church? No, of course not. The average Christian probably might yawn, and say, “Who cares?“, and for the most part, they would be right. The theological ramifications involved are in the category of indifferent.

However, there are other issues that are important, but neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church. Like Gavin Ortlund believes, issues such as the age of the earth, and the timing sequence of events surrounding the Second Coming of Jesus, including the nature of millennium, are surely important, but they are neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church.

It is the second rank category that most troubles me. Yes, there are issues that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).” But I find that the category of urgent is far more elusive and slippery than what counts as essential and non-essential. For example, Gavin Ortlund is a credo-baptist, believing that believer’s baptism for adults should be a doctrinal standard for the church, while generally accepting previous receivers of infant baptism as members in his church; that is, infant baptism is “improper, yet valid.”

Ortlund therefore places the nature of baptism in the category of a second rank issue. It is urgent for the church, and it has an impact on how a local church governs itself.

But as someone in an interdenominational church, who values the diversity of different church backgrounds, I am not convinced that baptism necessarily belongs in that second rank category. As I experienced in my college years, I found it valuable to look for common ground, and cling to that, for the sake of the unity of the fellowship, while honoring that a subset of the group, or particular individuals, might hold to one particular perspective rather strongly. To that end, I find it worth it to try to keep the category of second rank issues as small as possible, and move as many issues as possible down into the third rank category. Ideally, I would hope that the second rank category can be squeezed down to basically nothing….However, that is not always practical.

The issue of baptism, to me, can fit within a third rank category, as long as there is a genuine commitment to find common ground. For example, both proponents of credo-baptism (adult believers baptism) and paedo-baptism (infant baptism) can agree that adults can be baptized. So, it surely makes sense that you can have adult, believer’s baptisms in a Sunday morning worship service.

But it is also reasonable NOT to have infant baptism performed during a Sunday morning worship service, lest you disturb the consciences of those credo-baptists, who do not find paedo-baptism to be legitimate. Instead, if someone wants to have their infant child baptized, then why not have a private, at-home service, or part of a small group experience, as long as a pastor is willing to perform such a baptism?

Such a solution sounds acceptable to me, but this may not satisfy the need for clarity that a pastor like Gavin Ortlund would have for a local congregation. Being content with having a “common-ground” solution, with allowances for practices that fit an individual’s or a small group’s consciences, may not satisfy a local church’s desire for consistent doctrine and practice across the entire church fellowship.  There are those for whom a “common-ground” solution would not be good enough, coming across to some as being too restrictive and over-emphasizing conformity, while others would protest that not enough uniformity in church doctrine and practice can lead to other problems in the life of the local church.

The two areas that stick out for me, where this would be most problematic, is in the charismatic movement controversy, as exemplified by the introductory anecdote from my years in college; and in the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, particularly regarding whether or not women should serve as elders in a local church, in terms of governance of the church.

Some local churches do have a commitment to look for “common-ground,” while honoring issues of conscience, whereas other churches will find certain conflicting applications of conscience to be unworkable, in a local church. For example, speaking in tongues in a corporate worship service, in an interdenominational church, is not a workable solution, as that would not be pursuing a “common-ground” approach, though it might be very permissible to allow speaking in tongues in a small group Bible study, in the same church.

The various complexities surrounding the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” debates have taught me over the last year that the quest for unity can often be elusive when dealing with “urgent” matters, where the coronavirus controversies do fit within that second-rank category. Compound all of this with seemingly endless controversies regarding critical race theory and racism on the left, and nutty QAnon conspiracy theorizing on the right, have left many churches struggling for maintaining bonds of fellowship and unity. The craziness of 2020 led apologist Natasha Crain to call this “disagreement fatigue,” and I think that is a good way to put it. Finding “common-ground” is not always easily found.

For example, I know of Christians who refuse to wear masks and/or refuse to get vaccinated, based on some moral principle. They will cite their “freedom in Christ” as a reason why they should follow their conscience on this matter. But if someone is in church leadership, and they hold to this position, they also need to realize that their exercise of freedom is not beneficial to those other believers, whom for whatever reason, are unable to take the vaccine. Such vulnerable persons will likely not feel safe to stay in such a church. If the exercise of someone’s “freedom in Christ,” particularly in leadership, causes another fellow believer in Jesus to feel like the only path they can reasonably take is out the exit of the church door, then that tells me that such a church needs to rethink what it means to truly follow one’s conscience. If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught me, is that I have a greater appreciation now for why some churches implement theological triage that includes the value of second-rank categories of controversy.

I just wish we did not have to be so distracted by such second-rank category issues, as I believe they keep us from focusing on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission, to make disciples of all of the nations. But alas, that is just the nature of things, in our social media driven world today.

Gavin Ortlund has a helpful YouTube channel, where he tries put of lot his theological triage philosophy into practice, by in particular inviting Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox persons into conversations, in an attempt to find common ground with his own Protestant evangelical tradition, and the other major historic Christian faith movements. It is worth taking a look at the Truth Unites channel to see how he does it.

In the following video, Gavin Ortlund applies some of the insights from Finding the Right Hills to Die On to the discussion of the millennium, making the case that the millennium is a third-rank doctrine, and not a first or second-rank doctrine. So, I appreciate Gavin’s graciousness towards others, even in areas of disagreement, which is a big reason I consider Finding the Right Hills to Die On to be an excellent resource for working through issues of Christian conscience, within the context of a local church.

 


On Baptism: Why I Want to Worship at an Interdenominational Church

Some might think my view on baptism is quirky, but I have it for a good reason. I was baptized as an infant, and in 6th grade, I went through a confirmation process, that was, frankly, rather lame. So, when I finally came to a genuine awareness of having faith in Christ in high school, and I started attending a Baptist church, I really was not sure what to do with baptism.

My Baptist friends kept telling me, “Now that you are a believer in Jesus, you really should get baptized as an adult.” They would cite to me passages like Acts 2:38, arguing that those who came to faith in Jesus at Pentecost were told by Peter to become baptized. Heartfelt faith and water baptism go together. The practice of being baptized as a believing adult is known as credobaptism.

That made a lot of sense, when I first heard it.

But it also confused me, too, the more I thought about it. After all, I still had the certificate that my parents gave me, telling me that I was already baptized as a child.  The Bible clearly stated that “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). If I was already baptized as a infant, a practice known as paedobaptism, then to get “re-baptized” as an adult essentially served to de-legitimize my first baptism. There are not two baptisms for a Christian. Only one. “Re-baptism” would effectively make my infant baptism improper at best, or false, at worst, …. and that really bothered me.

After all, for most of church history, paedobaptism has been the standard practice throughout the centuries, for those raised in Christian churches. It has only been within the past few hundred years that there has been a shift towards credobaptism, among evangelical, Bible-believing people. Does this really mean that for the bulk of church history, that most Christians growing up in Christian families; that is, millions of them, received a “false” baptism? Perhaps my own baptism as an infant was “improper,” just as the disciples of Apollos in Ephesus needed to be properly baptized by Paul (Acts 19:1-7), but I could not bring myself to think of my baptism as a baby as “false.”

I went back and forth on the question for years.

Coming to Grips Personally With the Baptism Controversy, In Evangelical Christianity

When I had an opportunity to go to the Holy Land, and a really good friend, who was a Baptist pastor, was going to go with me, it seemed like this was the breakthrough I needed. So, I asked my Baptist friend if he would baptize me, as a thirty-some year old adult, in the Jordan River. He felt really honored to do that, and I felt privileged that he would participate. It would be an act of obedience, resolving to follow the teachings of the Bible, as best as I knew how. I had a peace in my heart and mind about that decision.

I remember talking with another companion on that Holy Land trip, relaying the above story to him, of my theological struggle with baptism, along with my decision to go ahead and get baptized as an adult. I told him that I was not completely sure about the validity of my infant baptism, but out of an act of obedience, though I did not understand it all, I would go forward with an adult believer’s baptism.

My companion’s response shocked me. He was quite honest to tell me that my reasons for getting baptized in the Jordan River were “rather lame.” In his view, my reasoning was theologically unsound.

Well, I have to admit that I did have some bizarre, inappropriate expectation that it would be some cool, spooky experience to be baptized in the Jordan River. After all, Jesus Himself was baptized there!

If you have been to Israel/Palestine, you will probably know the spot where most baptisms in the Jordan are performed, for American visitors to the area. It was indeed a special moment in my life. Any anxiety about not being properly baptized before was removed, at least at that moment. But it was not all that spooky. Experientially, nothing spectacular happened, as far as I could tell. The water in the Jordan River was just as wet as it is in any American baptismal pool or river.

The popular baptismal site at Yardenit, along the Jordan River, where I was baptized as an adult in 1994 (credit: Maranatha Tours)

When I got back to the States, after the trip, I got some chagrined looks on the faces of my paedobaptist friends, when I told them I got “re-baptized.” For those paedobaptists, baptism is a sign that signals identification with the New Covenant in Christ, just as circumcision has been a sign that signals identification with the Old Covenant. Just as circumcision was for infant males under the Old Covenant, so is baptism for infant male and females, under the New Covenant (Acts 2:39). Infant baptism does not automatically lead to faith, anymore than circumcision necessarily leads to the inward circumcision of a person’s heart, though that is what these outward signs point inwardly towards. I had never understood that before.

Mmmm. Had I done the right thing? I still was not completely sure. My friend’s judgment, that my decision to be baptized was “rather lame,” and theologically unsound, stuck in my head. As a result, I began to have doubts. Nevertheless, it was all water over the bridge now. At that point, the deed was done.

Sometime later, I began thinking about some of my credobaptist friends, who were baptized as older children, through a form of believer’s baptism. They later on fell away from the faith, only to come back to faith years later as older adults. Some of them wanted to get re-baptized, because now their faith really meant something. They simply had no idea what they were doing being baptized at 9-years-old. Therefore, now they wanted to get baptized… for real.

I know a few credobaptist pastors who would gladly baptize (re-baptize?) someone who was baptized as an infant. Why? Because that infant baptism was either improper or not a genuine baptism, since there was no genuine faith exercised by that infant. But I have to ask such credobaptist pastors a followup question: What would you do if a credobaptist person, baptized at age 9, were to come to you years later, perhaps at about age 20-30, saying that now they really understand what faith is about, and requesting re-baptism? Would you perform the baptism?

To make it even more complicated, what if that person had also been baptized as an infant? Would her baptism be a third baptism, or would her latest baptism cancel the previous two “improper” baptisms?

Is there some statute of limitations involved as to how many times you can get rebaptized? How do you distinguish between an improper or proper baptism, or even a false versus genuine baptism? Where is the cutoff on the age limit, if there is one, and who decides, and on what basis?

When such analysis extends down to this level, it all gets rather silly, if you ask me.

Baptism and the Conscience of the Christian

These are thorny questions that lead me to think that the question of baptism is one that is best reserved to take place between the person requesting baptism (or re-baptism), and the pastor or other person performing the baptism, or between parents, with their newborn, with their pastor. If families are already members of a particular church, that takes a definite stand on the issue, then they should naturally follow with what that church teaches.

But what if, like me, you are not so sure about all of this? Perhaps you lean a particular way, but you do not want to exclude being in fellowship with another believer who thinks differently? Perhaps you do have a strong conviction, but that you are trusting the work of the Holy Spirit that the Spirit might change the hearts and minds of your fellow believers, and that God might be calling you to be in a community of faith, as an instrument of change, where such introspective reflection is deemed permissible. In other words, while we can surely affirm that there is but one baptism, publicly signaling our initiation into Christian faith, the particular manner of one’s baptism, its mode, and its timing should be a matter of conscience.

Water baptism is the outward expression corresponding to the inward reality of a heart washed by the cleansing blood of Christ. Stressing out too much over exactly when someone really first experiences that inward reality and when you should get baptized can be counterproductive to spiritual growth. The timing of baptism with respect to when someone comes to actual faith is a matter of prayer, the study of Scripture, and having a sense of peace in your mind and heart.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of churches that take partisan approaches to baptism, that are not particularly helpful. Though I have never seen this personally, I have heard of some paedobaptist churches that look down judgmentally upon someone who was baptized as an infant, but then re-baptized as an adult. Perhaps such re-baptisms are improper, upon further reflection, but this is ultimately a matter of standing alone before God.

More often, there are credobaptist churches that will refuse membership to a person, if they only received infant baptism. Moreover, such churches might even allow a paedobaptist preacher to speak at their church, but then refuse them to become members. Even more extreme are those credobaptist churches that would refuse to serve communion to a paedobaptist. Some credobaptist churches, in some branches of the Churches of Christ tradition, even teach a kind of “baptismal regeneration” doctrine, insisting that unless you have been water baptized as an adult, you can not even be saved.

Some of this type of thinking just seems insane, if not outright wrong.

This is why I desire to worship in an interdenominational church, that takes an “agree-to-disagree” posture on the question of baptism. In a biblically-balanced, interdenominational church fellowship, the question of what constitutes genuine baptism is left as a conversation between the one with their question and their pastor, with Bibles open and hearts open with prayer.

Baptism was originally meant in the Bible to publicly signify our identification with Christ, and our profession of faith, a sign of unity of the one, true faith we have in Jesus. It is sad to see how so many churches mistreat baptism as a cause for division, instead of seeing it as a cause for rejoicing for the unity we have in Christ. Some believe that being a part of an interdenominational church, that stresses the principle of “agree to disagree” on non-essential issues of faith, is simply an excuse to avoid “taking a stand” on important issues facing the church.

I view it differently.

It is more about recognizing the complexity of how growing Christians develop in their understanding of Scripture, even changing their views over time, like I have. There is but one baptism, and one faith, not separate paedobaptist and credobaptist faiths, or baptisms, plural. Nevertheless, different Christians can approach issues, like baptism, and come to different conclusions, all under the supervision of Scripture. What matters most is the meaning of baptism, not the mode or timing.

We have come a long way from the early debates over baptism in the 16th century, among Protestant evangelicals. In those years, Protestants sought to settle these debates by actually putting to death the lives of those who held different viewpoints on baptism. I am so glad that those days are behind us. Thankfully, in our day and age, we can rely on a robust theology of conscience, to help us navigate what can be a confusing issue for at least some Christians. Thank the Lord!!

Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, by Andy Naselli & J.D. Crowley, is a great book that I am currently reading, to work through difficult questions, like the “proper” understanding of baptism.

Addendum: Applying a Theology of Conscience to Other “Disputable Matters” 

If I had enough good sense, I would have ended this post at the previous paragraph. But in view of a lot of things that I have been thinking about, this past year, I need to tie up some loose ends.

Specifically, the inner questions of how baptism works should fit within the category of “disputable matters,” that the Apostle Paul addresses in Romans 14. As an example, I see a parallel here between the question of “women in ministry” and baptism (I could also add topics like the age of the earth, specific views of the “End Times,” the gifts of the Holy Spirit, etc., but for this discussion, I will just stick with the “women in ministry,” question that seems so utterly divisive among believers today). As I wrote about in my 20-post series on “women in ministry,” there is a sacramental character about church eldership, as well as baptism, whereby we have a physical act, that serves as a visible reminder of an invisible reality.

God has mercy towards us humans, who need physical, visible reminders of spiritual realities. With respect to “women in ministry,” the church needs to exhibit a physical, visible reminder of the invisible differences between men and women, in the corporate life in the church. Likewise, water baptism serves as a physical, visible reminder of what in means to be invisibly washed clean inwardly, by the precious blood of Jesus.

In that 20-post series, I made the case that an all-male eldership, exercising spiritual authority within a local church (as opposed to an eldership mixed with men and women), serves as that outward, sacramental reminder of the differences between male and female. Secular society today is very confused about gender; that is, we continually debate as to whether being male or female is essentially a characteristic defined at birth, or is it merely a social construct? In response, Christians who hold to an historic view of orthodox faith need to bear witness to the invisible reality that being male and female is more than just biology. Admittedly controversial for some, I contend that an all-male eldership, committed to listen to and serve men and women in a local church, empowering women to use of all of their God-given gifts for service in God’s Kingdom, has been a remarkably consistent expression of that spiritual reality, for 2,000 years of church history.

Why we need sacramental reminders, like all-male eldership and water baptism, is a great mystery. But God knows why we need these things. The problem is that we often get hung up, as Christians, on the physical, visible characteristics of the spiritual realities, which can dangerously obscure the precious inward meaning of those spiritual realities.

One more thing about this idea of conscience, with respect to baptism, and its connection to the “women in ministry” issue: We must be careful not to impose something that violates the sensitive conscience, of other Christians, in these matters.

In other words, if someone is being compelled to believe that women should not serve as elders or pastors in a church, when they are not convinced by this, then that would be a violation of conscience to impose such a belief, through something like a church doctrinal statement, to that effect. Likewise, to compel a person to submit to an eldership community, where women exercise spiritual authority, when such a person does not believe that the Scripture allows for such practice, would be a violation of their conscience.

Likewise, with baptism, having a good conscience, for me, is essential. Compelling a person to get re-baptized (??) as an adult, when the person believes that their baptism as an infant was perfectly valid, now that they have a professing faith, seems to me to be a violation of conscience. Furthermore, compelling a Christian to have a particular view of baptism, whether that be paedobaptist or credobaptist, when someone does not hold such a particular view, is also a violation of conscience.

Of course, there are plenty of churches that take definite theological positions on “women in ministry,” and baptism, that further divides the Body of Christ into particular factions. If a Christian can accept such a definite theological position, with a clean conscience, then surely, they should become (or remain) members of such a church (or churches). At the same time, such a Christian should be aware that a defined theological position, in such an area, puts one at risk of being isolated from other believers, to a certain degree, in the Body of Christ.

Yet if a person is not completely persuaded as to what they believe is the most biblically faithful view on such matters as “women in ministry” and/or baptism, then being in a community, where there is the freedom to “agree to disagree,” where one is given the freedom to work out the theological difficulties, in their own heart and mind, is a good and proper thing, that demonstrates the respect of a person’s conscience.

The surrounding secular culture, that seems so divided today, needs to see churches that display this type of community, where the principle of “agree to disagree” is lived out, where love for one another is paramount.

Nevertheless, could I worship in a church that takes a “hard line” on a particular stand about baptism? Well, it depends, but I would hope so. That is something that I would have to discuss with the elders of that church, if I am not personally convinced of that church’s view. Otherwise, I would have to register the view that I have, due to my conscience, that I am just not completely sure of the proper mode and/or timing of baptism, and see if the elders of that church would still find me as an acceptable candidate for membership in that church, if God were to lead me, in that direction.

In the end, issues like these come down to maintaining a posture of theological humility, in the Body of Christ. It is also this respect for the conscience of others, who do not necessarily accept my views. And this posture of theological humility, and respect for conscience, are things worth striving for.

That is why I desire to worship in an interdenominational church, if such an interdenominational church really exists.

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For more on baptism, see these other blog posts.


Is Belief Always a Prerequisite for Baptism?

One of the more contentious issues in the church, for centuries, has been about the nature of baptism. Must baptism be reserved for only believing adults (or older children), or can babies be baptized, too? A targeted study in Acts 16 shows us why this issue can be difficult to resolve.

Two key individuals in Acts 16 become believers, resulting from the Apostle Paul’s preaching: Lydia and the Philippian jailer. But what generates confusion is that for both Lydia and the jailer, not only were they individually baptized, the text tells us that all in each “household” were then baptized as well (Acts 16:15, and Acts 16:30-34, respectively).

Were there infants in the households of each? Unfortunately, the text never tells us, as the original word for “household” is ambiguous.

Advocates for infant baptism look to the broadest interpretation of household, assuming that infants would have been implicitly present in those houses. Advocates of believer’s baptism argue less broadly, saying that without explicit reference to infants being in those houses, we have no warrant to baptize infants.

What really throws a wrench into the whole thing can be seen in the account of the Philippian jailer. Look at what we read in the ESV (English Standard Version translation), and see if you can see the issue:

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God (Acts 16:30-34 ESV).

First, you can see that when the Philippian jailer asked about what he must do, Paul and company instructed that he should believe, in order to be saved. Interestingly, we find that his “household,” is included here. Paul and company preach to the entire household. However, aside from the jailer himself, we know little about the state of belief among the others. Did they believe, along with the jailer?

A question is raised here: Does this mean that the other members of the Philippian jailer’s household would be saved, on the basis of the jailer’s faith, a kind of “salvation by proxy?”

I have heard a similar argument before, but this is hard to square with the rest of Scripture. As Paul teaches elsewhere in the New Testament, salvation comes by believing in the Lord, with no exceptions mentioned, as in Romans 10:10-13. More likely, it means that as the Philippian jailer was head of his household, God would providentially use the Philippian jailer’s influence to bring the others in his household to believe in the Lord Jesus, and experience salvation. This happened quite frequently in the ancient world, when the believing faith of the leader in the home would eventually lead to believing faith among others in that same home, including slaves and servants.

But how long would it take for that to happen? Would the others believe in Jesus right away, or at some future time? Specifically, if there were infants or other small children in the home, does this imply that they would come to faith at a later time, under the instruction of the Philippian jailer? The text is unclear at this point.

What we do know from what follows is that the entire “household” was baptized (the ESV translates “household” here as “family,” as some other translations do, too). But notice how the ESV ends the episode: “He rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” The rest of the household rejoices, along with the jailer, that the jailer had believed in Christ. But it is not clear if the others themselves had believed in Christ at this point…. even though they had all been baptized!

A paedobaptist; that is, someone who believes in the validity of infant baptism, might be affirmed in their view. Presumably, this would allow for the practice of infants to be baptized, assuming that as the children grow up in the home, with proper instruction, they might eventually come to believe in Jesus.

A credobaptist; that is, someone who rejects the validity of infant baptism, and insisting that belief is a prerequisite for baptism, would object to this ambiguity. Does this not suggest that the entire household rejoiced for the jailer, because they all themselves believed, as well? The credobaptist might contend that infants would not have been in the position to rejoice for the jailer’s belief. But then, if a young child sees that the parent is rejoicing, would that child not also rejoice together, despite knowing the reason?

This is where looking at another Bible translation might give us some further insight. Here is that last verse again in that passage, from the Kings James Version:

And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house (Acts 16:34 KJV).

Notice how the KJV not only has the household members rejoicing, they had all come to believe, along with the Philippian jailer! This chimes in well with the theme of how baptism was practiced earlier in Acts, as in Acts 2:38, where the order was established, “Repent, and then be baptized.” But before you score a point for the credobaptist, consider what is going on with these different translations.

In the world of Bible translations, some translations are more word-for-word oriented; technically called, formal equivalence, whereas other translations are more thought-for-thought oriented; technically called, dynamic equivalence.  But the relationship between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations is actually pretty fluid within translations themselves. For example, the KJV has the reputation for being a more word-for-word oriented translation. But here the KJV takes a more thought-for-thought approach, as opposed to the ESV, which follows the original Greek word ordering more tightly.

Looking at another translation, in this case the NET Bible, shows this difficulty more clearly:

At that hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized right away. The jailer brought them into his house and set food before them, and he rejoiced greatly that he had come to believe in God, together with his entire household (Acts 16:33-34 NET).

The NET Bible follows the KJV more closely than the ESV, moving a phrase around, and gives the reason in a footnote:

The phrase “together with his entire household” is placed at the end of the English sentence so that it refers to both the rejoicing and the belief. A formal equivalence translation would have “and he rejoiced greatly with his entire household that he had come to believe in God,” but the reference to the entire household being baptized in v. 33 presumes that all in the household believed.

So, is the NET correct in presuming that all in the household believed? As we have seen, making such a presumption is not always made clear by the evidence given in the text.

Back to the main question: Is belief always a prerequisite for baptism? Unfortunately, a targeted look at Acts 16, as we have done here, does not really resolve the issue. Paedobaptists read the text one way. Credobaptists read it another. An examination of Scripture as a whole is necessary to make progress here on this debate.

The question of infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism has been a source of division among Christians for generations. By default, today many evangelical churches that defer to one’s conscience on the matter, publicly celebrate believer’s baptism, for adults and older children. Nevertheless, they offer “baby dedication” for infants, a workable solution that fulfills some of the intentions behind infant baptism, while technically not being “baptism,” and yet where the whole idea of “dedication” is surprisingly lost on most parents. Thankfully, this is not an essential issue that impinges upon one’s salvation. It is a non-essential matter in which different Christians will continue to “agree to disagree” on. Let the conversation continue.


Did King James Order His KJV Translators to Conceal the True Meaning of Baptism?

A baptismal font in England, dating back to 1405, large enough to be used for full infant immersion, throughout the Reformation period. Note the table top on the left hand side of the photo, to gain some perspective as to how big this baptismal font really is: Saint Bartholomew the Great Church in London.

This might be a bit nerdy, but it is a pet peeve of mine: Is the proper mode of baptism by pouring, sprinkling, or full immersion? What follows is an example of how an arguably plausible theological doctrine can be improperly justified with a flawed piece of historical “evidence.” The actual history of baptism is far more interesting, and it makes for a good rallying point for discussing the Scriptural mode of baptism.

I recently listened to a YouTube sermon whereby the pastor claimed that King James, the early 17th century English king, who authorized the famous 1611 King James Version translation of the Bible, purposely sought to obscure the true meaning of baptism. King James “did not allow [his Bible] translators to translate [the word] ‘bapto’” into English. The Greek word “bapto” is where we get the English word “baptism,” which is basically a transliteration from Greek into English. Most concordances, such as Strong’s, will translate “bapto” as to “dip” or “immerse.

So, why did King James steer his translators clear from actually translating this Greek word into English?  The pastor went onto explain, “Because the Anglican Church did not practice what [baptism] means. The Anglican Church sprinkled.”

My ears perked up. But the pastor continued…

The problem with leaving “bapto,” or our “baptism,” untranslated is that it has encouraged people to interpret the word however we imagine it to mean. As a result, this ambiguity about “baptism” has led English-speaking Christians, since the time of King James, to be unsure as to how baptism should be practiced in the churches. Should we practice sprinkling, pouring, or full immersion? Readers of the King James Version of the Bible, the pastor concludes, are left in this state of confusion. What a tragedy.

Well, when I heard this, my fallacy-o-meter started to register near the red-zone. I will not link to his sermon, as this is pure bunk. Things like this just annoy me….

Obviously, this pastor rejects any form of baptism that is not full immersion, which would implicitly include most modern practices of infant baptism. My longtime pastor, Dick Woodward, from years ago, told the story of a Baptist kid, who had a cat that had gotten himself entangled in some pile of garbage, and the cat came out smelling just awful! The Baptist kid wanted to wash this cat, before letting him into the house. He tried to immerse the cat into a tub of water, but the cat resisted. He tried to pour water on the cat, but the cat kept dodging the water. Frustrated, to no end, and scratched up by the rebellious cat, the Baptist kid finally uttered, “Cat, you stink so much, that I will make a Presbyterian out of you, and just sprinkle you, and let you go to hell!Continue reading


Does Baptism Save a Person?

 

(37) Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (38) And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38 ESV).

Acts 2:37-38 is one of the most controversial set of verses in the New Testament. Particularly in verse 38, the larger issue concerns the order of salvation; that is, what is the process by which a person becomes saved? This doctrine of ordu salutis, from the Latin, has been discussed in various ways by different Christian traditions, ranging from Catholic, to Calvinist, to Wesleyan. We will save this bigger question for a later discussion but will focus here on one narrower, particular part of the puzzle, namely water baptism.

Does water baptism save a person? According to some traditions, such as a few branches of the Churches of Christ in Protestantism, water baptism is a requirement for salvation. In fact, in some cases, if you are not water baptized in certain churches, then these church traditions will not consider you to be a true Christian. This doctrine of baptismal regeneration argues that Acts 2:38 describes a sequential process prescribing what salvation entails, specifically, that water baptism leads a person to be forgiven of their sins.1

Critics of baptismal regeneration say that this flips the New Testament teaching on salvation by faith, and not by works, upside down, suggesting that the physical act of baptism is somehow a work that saves a person. How can this be?

If baptism can save a person, what does this mean? Continue reading


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