Tag Archives: disputable matters

What is a Christian Conscience?

How well do you sleep at night?

Thinking about the nature of having a Christian conscience has often kept me up at night. What about you?

I wrote a post a few months ago about the subject of conscience, when it came to troublesome questions about baptism. I got some rather puzzled questions from readers, about that post, so I thought I would address some of those questions in the following review of a book that I highly recommend.

Southern Baptist leader, Al Mohler, says that there are three different orders of theological controversies in churches today. First order controversies, such as different views on the divinity of Jesus, have to deal with essential doctrines of the faith, where Christians should break fellowship with those who disregard such fundamental doctrine(s).  Second order controversies deal with certain established practices or beliefs of a local church, that are not essential in nature, but rather do strike at the heart of how a church operates on a normative basis; such as the composition of elders, certain approaches to baptism, etc. Third order controversies deal with nevertheless important matters, but that are non-essential in character, that do not necessarily impede the normal operations of a church, such as different views on the age of the earth, the timing of the Rapture, or whether or not a Christian should only buy fair trade coffee.

There are times where some Christians are unable to agree on certain non-essential matters of faith, that nevertheless are important to them. One believer adheres to a particular belief, that when practiced, interferes with the conscience of another believer, who holds to quite a different belief. In those matters of conscience, how do believers learn to respect and love one another, in a local church?

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.

Do You Struggle With Issues of Conscience? Then Read This Book

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, by Andrew Naselli and J.D. Crowley, is a very helpful book, to better understand what it means to have a Christian conscience, calibrated by the Word of God. I am not familiar with co-author J.D. Crowley, but I have greatly benefited from the work of Andrew Naselli, a professor of New Testament and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, formerly pastored by the well known pastor/teacher John Piper.

The topic of conscience is directly related to that of “disputable matters,” the adiaphora (your Greek word for the day), that we find in Romans 14:1 (NIV): “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”

No one likes to think of their faith being “weak,” but the idea suggests that the one who is pretty indifferent to a non-essential matter of faith should defer to the one for whom the matter means a great deal. For example, in the early church of the New Testament era, the idea of eating food sacrificed to idols was a very grave matter. It was such a big deal that the great first council of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15), required that all Gentile converts to the Christian faith should refrain from eating meat that was sacrificed to idols (See Acts 15:20, in particular). This solution regarding eating such food kept the peace between the Jewish and Gentile parties in the church.

The context for this prohibition, of food sacrificed to idols, was initially about participating in a pagan worship ritual, whereby such food was prepared in a pagan temple kitchen. This would be the context that the Apostle Paul has in 1 Corinthians 10. Paul taught that believers should refrain from eating such food, if the food was used as part of a sacrificial, worship ritual. However, if an unbeliever, hosting the dinner, offers such food, without mentioning any pagan ritual belief, then Paul encourages the Christian to lay any personal scruples aside, and joyfully receive the food offered to them. Paul does not go into any particular limits to this, but the general principle, that we should be as generous as possible with our unbelieving neighbors, is in view here. But might there be other contexts whereby eating such food would be permissible?

The Apostle Paul apparently thought so, according to 1 Corinthians 8. Nevertheless, Paul sets out a principle, that has a caution embedded with it. While it is difficult to ascertain what every context might fit into the “permissible” category, Paul does declare that pagan idols are really no gods at all. Therefore, outside of an actual pagan ritual, there is no harm done by eating such food.

Nevertheless, some might be bothered by eating such food, whereas others might think rather indifferently about it. This gets at the heart as to why the Apostle Paul, in writing to the Romans, sought to untangled this knot regarding matters of conscience:

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God (Romans 14:5-6 NIV).

As biblical scholar D. A. Carson notes, cultural matters are typically at the forefront of matters of conscience. Several generations ago, many evangelical Christians saw no need to judge one another regarding the matter of tobacco smoking. The health implications of smoking were not well known. However, today, I know of very few evangelical Christians who regard tobacco smoking as a “disputable matter.” Tobacco smoking is just plain wrong, for many people today, including the vast majority of evangelical Christians. We are called to take care of our body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, smoking tobacco violates the principle invoked by this command. I would tend to agree. But is this still yet merely a cultural matter, where the principle of conscience applies?

That is a good question.

The authors of Conscience contend that a Christian conscience must be informed by Scripture, trained to reflect that which brings glory to God. In other words, a conscience can be badly misguided, or through unrepentant sin, a conscience can become seared, thereby disregarding the teachings of God’s Word. In other words, the conscience of a Christian must be properly calibrated, being educated by the truth of Scripture.

They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Timothy 3:9 ESV).

This does not mean that a Christian can read the Bible any way they want, and then say that they hold a particular view or behavior to be morally acceptable, and then pull out the “conscience card.” Appealing to so-called “conscience” is not an acceptable reason for disregarding Scriptural norms. We severely risk the judgment of God when we make an excuse for license. Likewise, one should not impose a purely cultural standard on others, treating it is a Scriptural norm, when no such norm exists within the Bible. Such persons on both sides of this approach to conscience need to be able to adequately defend their view from a cogent and thorough understanding of Scripture.

So, when matters of conscience are raised, it is crucial that believers come together to study the Scriptures, and seek a common understanding of what they teach the believer. Believers should not condemn others, where there exists genuine Scriptural freedom. But neither should believers ignore the commands of God, set forth in Scripture, that would cause them to disobey God, if they were to disregard their conscience.

Dealing With An Overly Sensitive Conscience

Andrew Naselli illustrates the embarrassing absurdity of an overly sensitive conscience, by relaying an anecdote regarding the famous 20th century British preacher, Martyn-Lloyd Jones. When the good doctor was a young, 24 years old, long before he became a seasoned, mature pastor, he shared some convictions in 1924, that the well-regarded preacher most probably regretted years later:

  • I cannot possibly understand a man who wears silk stockings or even gaudily coloured socks; rings, wrist-watches, spats, shoes instead of boots, or who carries a cane in his hand.
  • The modern method of installing a bath in each house is not only a tragedy but it has been a real curse to humanity. . . . If I had to spend a life-time with a companion who had one bath a day or with one who had one bath a year, I should unhesitatingly choose the latter, because a man’s soul is more important than his skin. 
  • When I enter a house and find that they have a wireless apparatus [a radio] I know at once that there is something wrong. . . . Your five-valve sets may do wonders, they may enable you to hear the voice of America, but believe me, they will never transmit the only Voice that is worth listening to.

What??!! Christians listening to the radio, in order to hear God’s Word being taught? What a horror!!!

Methinks that the fastidious, young, future preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, would be quite a bit scandalized by young pastors today, who put Bible verse tattoos on their body!

Nevertheless, the authors of Conscience contend, that if a Christian is bothered by an overly sensitive conscience, then disobeying one’s conscience, in this situation, is still sin, even if what is done is technically not morally or theologically wrong. This highlights what the Apostle Paul calls a “weak conscience.” An overly sensitive conscience can condemn us, burdening us with a man-made guilt, as opposed to truly experiencing the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, which exposes our real sin. Bottom line: We should never sin against our conscience. Nor should we encourage others to do so.

Having A Well-Calibrated Conscience, And Encouraging Others to Have One as Well

On the flip side, a well-calibrated conscience can bring about a genuine sense of sorrow, for having disobeyed God. To ignore the signals that a well-calibrated conscience would rightly give can reap spiritual disaster! The good news, the very essence of the Gospel itself, is that the work of Christ, upon the Cross, demonstrates that God can and indeed does forgive us, when we disobey Him. Our conscience can then be wiped clean, knowing that the God of the Universe has cleansed us from our real guilt and shame. We are forgiven!! Amen!!

Those who are “strong” in matters of conscience; presumably that is, those whose consciences are properly calibrated, by the standard of God’s Word, should bear with those who are “weak” in matters of conscience.

Scholars are unsure of the exact details, but it is possible then that the Apostle Paul had in mind the following situation: Consider food that was prepared in a pagan temple, but that was NOT used in a pagan ritual. Instead, such food was brought home by a Christian for dinner. Presumably, Paul would have no problem with a believer eating such food, in the privacy of one’s home.

But what if another believer came over for dinner, and that believing guest is disturbed by their conscience, regarding the presence of such meat in the home, that came from a pagan temple kitchen?

In such a case, the “strong” minded believer should not cause the “weak” minded believer to stumble. Therefore, the strong should refrain from eating such meat, when around a weak believer, for whom eating such meat reminds them too much of pagan worship. Surely, the “strong” minded believer should not serve such meat to their “weak” minded guest. But if a “weak” minded believer is not around, as a guest at one’s home, the “strong” minded believer is free to eat such meat.

Likewise, someone who is a legalist, might be prone to lecture a fellow believer, who has such freedom in their conscience. In other words, for the legalist, eating such food would be condemned, in all cases, thus making this an indisputable matter for them. But to condone such moral lecturing would go against Paul’s wisdom and exhortation. Some believers can become overly dogmatic, imposing one’s own personal convictions upon other believers, burdening them with unnecessary guilt. This is why training the conscience, and having it calibrated against the Word of God, is so important.

The difficulty here is that it is not always obvious that we have interpreted Scripture correctly, when it comes to areas that tend to shift back and forth between the “indisputable” and “disputable” columns. There are many areas in the Bible that are clear. Thankfully, such matters that are essential also line up with that which is clear. But there are also areas for where the Scriptural witness is up for thoughtful discussion, for where a clear, consistent witness, on a particular topic remains elusive. Reading one passage of Scripture might suggest one approach, whereas another passage might indicate that the topic is much more complex, resisting an easy solution.

It is with these matters that Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ so effectively addresses.

Hip-hop artist Lacrae was “rebaptized” in the River Jordan, in September, 2019, at the same exact location I was “rebaptized” in 1994. I question whether Lecrae’s (or my own) “rebaptism”) was biblically sound. The Christian church has consistently taught, throughout its history, that there is but one baptism, not two or three. My view now is that my original baptism as an infant was that “one baptism.” But in the end, the issue of baptism has been so contentious within the history of the church, that it is perhaps better off placed within the category of conscience, a topic where Christians can be free to “agree to disagree.”

Issues of Conscience: Baptism, and Women in Ministry

Now for a bit of personal application: In my previous post along these lines, I brought up the topic of baptism. Historically, the nature of baptism, specifically whether infant baptism is appropriate, alongside adult believer’s baptism, has been hotly debated during the past 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. You can surely find plenty of denominational churches that “take a stand” on this issue, landing in different places.

But my own personal journey regarding “baptism” has led me to believe that the solution to this theological dilemma is not so clear cut. Thankfully, we do not kill one anymore over such issues of biblical interpretation, but nevertheless, the discussion remains unresolved throughout the global church.

With all but a few exceptions, there is a general agreement that the mode and timing of baptism are not essential matters. It is not a first order issue, within the category where something like the doctrine of the deity of Christ resides. It is a disputable matter, but does it belong in Al Mohler’s second order or third order category? For Baptists and Presbyterians, it is a second order issue, in that Baptists do not practice infant baptism, whereas Presbyterians do. For if either denominational body were to shift in their practice, it would effectively disrupt the established order of that body of believers.

It is my conviction that baptism belongs in the third order category. A truly interdenominational church would allow for all baptized persons to join as members, whether such baptism be by adult immersion, or by infant sprinkling or pouring. Where it gets tricky is how such a church operates when a family inquires about baptism for their infant child.

In this case, a truly interdenominational church would normally only practice believer’s baptism, as such practice is accepted by both believer’s baptism and infant baptism advocates. But if a parent wishes to have their child baptized as an infant, that should be done in a more private setting, so as not to disturb the consciences of those others in the church, who do not believe infant baptism to be taught within the Scriptures. Perhaps, such an infant baptism should be performed in one’s home, with a gathering of supportive friends and family, as opposed to being done more publicly, in a full congregational worship setting.

Still, this is a conversation that must happen between a parent and their pastor. The pastor may not be led to perform an infant baptism, out of their Scriptural conviction. In such a case, the parent should respect the conscience of their pastor, and not press the matter.

Have a discussion? Yes! Seek to persuade the other believer to accept a more biblically faithful perspective? Absolutely! But one should refrain from being too forceful when expressing one’s views. I have much to personally learn in this area, as a general principle, even outside of baptism, as I tend to be quite adamant when sharing my views on sensitive topics. At the same time, I need to better learn how to boldly stand my ground, when fundamental truths that impact the Gospel are at stake. We must learn to “speak the truth in love,” reproving others of spiritual error with great gentleness and patience.

The tension created by these matters of conscience regarding baptism explains the popular rise in “baby dedications,” a uniquely modern practice within the past 50 to 100 years, in otherwise interdenominational churches. The practice of “baby dedications,” have a short history in the church, but they do offer a type of moderating solution that keeps the peace between those who favor infant baptism, and those who do not. There are at least some churches that are able to live within the midst of this theological tension, and thrive in an environment where the focus is on the “majors” of core Scriptural truths, including the importance of evangelism and discipleship, as opposed to getting needlessly distracted by the “minors.”

Likewise, the same should, in my mind, apply to the question of whether or not a local church should have women serving as elders/pastors. A denominational church, or otherwise a “non-denominational” church (whatever that means), that takes a particular approach to this issue, would most probably consider this to be within the second order category of theological controversies. Either the local church will have women as elders/pastors, or they will not. It is not a salvation issue, in the first order category. But neither is it in the third order category.

But in a truly interdenominational church, this issue would be in the third order category…. if that is even possible. I have seen this interdenominational principle work, but only rarely. It is exceedingly rare. For when this “third order” principle works, it requires great forbearance on behalf of all involved. As New Testament theologian N. T. Wright puts it, we can make great demands on the charity of another believer, but we can not make demands on their conscience.

In principle, such a truly interdenominational church would not strictly prohibit, in principle, a woman from serving as an elder/pastor of a church. This would accommodate the conscience of those egalitarians, who believe that Scripture allows for women to serve in such church offices. Yet in practice, the matter would be different. Such principled egalitarians would defer to the more restrictive conscience of the complementarians, who do not believe that women should serve as elders/pastors in a church. Such complementarians would allow their egalitarian brothers and sisters to maintain the integrity of their conscience. But since the actual act of submitting to a woman in such a position of spiritual authority would violate the conscience of such a complementarian, thereby encouraging the complementarian to sin against the dictates of their conscience, the egalitarian should refrain from pressing the matter, in an effort to keep the peace within that body of believers, and not encourage sin. Instead, other ways of empowering women to serve and use their gifts, within that local church should be cultivated and actively supported, so as not to condemn the consciences of such women who are surely gifted for ministry within the church body, who feel led by the Holy Spirit to exercise such gifts. For example, a more generous understanding could be made for deacons, to allow women to serve in that capacity, so as not to discriminate against, and bless the church in that way.

This would require both the complementarian and the egalitarian to extend a great amount of charity towards the other, while still allowing their consciences to remain intact and not violated.

Functionally, this makes such a local church complementarian in practice. Yet it remains egalitarian in principle. Egalitarians and complementarians can still be in dialogue with one another, seeking to persuade the other that their position is the better one theologically. Such a local church can thereby stay in tune to the Holy Spirit, as it seeks to have the consciences of her members properly calibrated to the Word of God. Can such a tension be kept in a local church, that is committed to a truly interdenominational vision?

I am not sure. That is why I am not sure that such truly interdenominational churches really exist. Though I hope so.

Ironically, the topic of baptism, that signifies the public profession of one’s faith in Christ, has for many centuries been an issue of contention that has divided believers, and harmed the reputation of the Christian church. In more recent times, the baptism controversy has settled towards a more tolerable situation. But just as the baptism controversy set Protestant believers at odds with one another, in centuries past, so it is that any theological topic having to deal with gender or sexuality identity generates the greatest amount of friction in today’s evangelical church.

As I have written about extensively before, it is my contention that the controversy regarding having women serve as elders/pastors within a local church is pretty much at a gridlocked stalemate. I see no effective progress in resolving these concerns. But we have much more pressing issues to face in today’s culture. For example, the whole LGBTQ conversation is several orders of magnitude greater in importance and consequences, than what the “women as elders” dispute affords us.

If there was one particular convicting lesson to be learned from reading Conscience, it would be that I should be less judgmental when dealing with another Christian who has an overly sensitive conscience. I have never really had problems with dressing up for Halloween, trick-or-treating, etc. But I know plenty of people who freak out over the prospect of honoring a particular day that some think is Satanic in origin (though it really is not). Yet perhaps I should be more forbearing towards those who do freak out, and suggest some positive alternative, whereby believers can use the time of Halloween to actually go out and meet their unbelieving neighbors, and get to know them better, and share the love of Jesus with them.

If there is one criticism I have of Conscience, it would be that it does not completely answer the question as to what is exactly a disputable matter versus an indisputable matter. Christian missionaries, dealing with cross-cultural settings, know about this dilemma, all too well. But this situation is more indicative of an inherent problem existing within Protestant evangelicalism, where people are prone to interpret the Bible as they jolly well please, as opposed to any fault of the authors of the book. On the one hand, it can be particularly frustrating when I run into instances of a hardened legalism, that easily triggers an overly sensitive conscience.

It simply would not occur to me to wear silk stockings. The young Martyn-Lloyd Jones would surely have driven me crazy!! But the problem also emerges on the other extreme, whereby the conscience of a believer does not effectively inform them when a limit to some moral behavior is being crossed.

I find that being burdened with issues of conscience can be relieved when I reflect upon larger, more substantial issues, and when I make it a habit of going to the Bible, in order to gain God’s perspective on something. How much is such an issue of conscience helping me to better love, and reach out to my non-believing neighbor? Is such an issue of conscience helping to drive me to God’s Word, to look for His guidance, and submit to Scripture’s authority?

The subject of conscience can be a real thorny issue, which is probably why the Apostle Paul gave it so much attention with his letter to the Romans, and in 1 Corinthians. In this respect, I found Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ to be a very helpful guide to walk through the theological principles involved, holding a close view as to what is the authoritative teaching of Scripture, in these matters.

It also helps to know that Conscience is a short book, with only 142 pages of text. I listened to it as an audiobook, over several days, listening to a chapter or so at a time, and I was greatly edified by what I read. If you struggle with matters of conscience, particularly when your own conscience conflicts with consciences of other believers, you will greatly benefit from this book.

See these other reviews, as well: Mitch Chase’s review at the Gospel Coalition. Tim Challies review. Kenneth Berding’s review at BIOLA.


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.

.     .     .

For more on baptism, see these other blog posts.


Should a Christian Have a Dream Catcher in Their Car?

 

A number of years ago, my parents took a cruise ship to Alaska. On that trip, my mother found an attractive dream catcher, and she gave it to me as a birthday gift. I hung it up in my car, around the rear view window mirror, just as a way to remember her, and her thoughtful gift to me.

So, I was really caught off-guard a few years later, when a Christian friend of mine was offended that I had that dream catcher hanging in my car. Some Native American cultures historically revere dream catchers as religious symbols, intended to protect children from bad dreams and evil spirits. But the larger Pan-Indian movement in the 20th century, in an effort to raise awareness of Native American cultures among the majority population, adopted the dream catcher as a cultural symbol. Not all Native Americans share the exact same spiritual beliefs as the Ojibwe tribe, from where the dream catcher most probably originated years ago. My mother looked at it as a memorabilia keepsake, something she wanted to give to her son.

Christian apologist John Oakes, at the apologetics blog Evidence for Christianity, that I highly respect, has an article explaining why he personally would not have a dream catcher in his car. We both agree that having a dream catcher is a gray area, in the “disputable matter” category, as found in Romans 14.  Oakes does not think a dream catcher is sinful, but he personally would not have a dream catcher, as it might offend someone else, just as eating food sacrificed to idols might personally offend another Christian, in the first century church.

I support most of what Oakes is saying, but I take a different personal position. It is important to remember the context for Romans 14. There were Christians in the first century, who came out of pagan backgrounds, where eating food sacrificed to idols was readily practiced. Such practices would offend the conscience of those believers from those backgrounds, so this is why the Apostle Paul urged other believers, from different backgrounds, to carefully avoid insulting the conscience of the more sensitive believers, by avoiding such practices.

In the case of my Christian friend who objected to my mom’s dream catcher, this friend had no Native American background. Much less did this friend have any association with the Ojibwe tribe. Neither was this true of my mom, nor myself. Therefore, it was not anyone’s conscience that was being “offended,” but rather it was the rumored idea my friend had in their mind, of a dark power, that possibly someone, somewhere might be troubled by the presence of a dream catcher.

Though I appreciate my friend’s concern, that followers of Christ should reject idols, my response is this:

Good grief.

The effort that we could expend in trying to remove all  things in our lives that might possibly offend someone, somewhere in the world, is a fool’s errand. To apply Romans 14 in this manner, takes the text out of its appropriate, New Testament context. It would be a form a perverse legalism to constantly police our lives, searching for those practices or artifacts that might trouble someone, somewhere. The meaning of symbols constantly changes across various cultures today, being appropriated and re-appropriated with different meanings, quite frequently.

For example, the radical Islamic State (ISIS) has destroyed countless precious cultural artifacts of ancient Syrian culture, all in the name of stamping out idolatry. Technically, those Muslims were right in declaring various statues as polytheistic idols, from a past era. But would someone be tempted to worship these idols today? Possibly, but this is highly, highly unlikely. Most moderns view these artifacts as testimonies to history, and we therefore grieve their loss. As such destructive ideological extremism spreads, the preservation of valuable cultural heritages becomes more important than ever.

Just think about the evolution of the swastika, discovered by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, and more recently, the Confederate flag. At one time, these were symbols with positive meanings, but not anymore.

A popular, American Coca-Cola pendant, before the Nazi’s adopted the swastika as their symbol, and ruined it for everyone.

As Christians, we regularly use terms like “Sunday,” “Monday,” “Tuesday,” “Wednesday,” etc., to describe the days of the week. The Quakers of the 17th and 18th centuries refused to use that terminology for weekdays, as those names correspond to pagan gods, which were worshipped hundreds of years ago, during the pre-Christian era of Europe (the same logic applied to the first eight months of the Roman calendar). So those early Quakers would use terms like “first day,” “second day,” “third day,” etc., all very biblical terminology, to faithfully describe the days of the week. But to my knowledge, there are no people today, nor in the 17th century, who come or came from such pagan backgrounds, who might have or had such sensitive consciences. I do not see Christians today clamoring for altering the names of weekdays, who wish to rid our minds of such supposedly pagan mindsets, who might be tempted to worship the sun (Sunday), or the moon (Monday), or Thor, the god of war (Thursday).

Now, suppose I actually know someone, who would ride in my car, who really came from a background, where a dream catcher did possess some religious or spiritual meaning. They might see my dream catcher as an implicit endorsement, tempting them towards a spiritually harmful practice.

This would be an area where Romans 14, with respect to “disputable matters,” would be applicable. I would hope that in this case, I would discreetly take down my dream catcher, and slip it into my glovebox. I would not want something I have to become a stumbling block in their journey towards Christ.

But until then, I like having that dream catcher visible, as a way of remembering how much my mother cared for me. If there are any other Christians, who continue to object, I would say this: They probably have too much time on their hands, and they would be better off putting their efforts to rid our lives of “idols” to better use.


On Disputable Matters

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.(Romans 14:1 NIV, photo credit: Anglicans Ablaze)

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.(Romans 14:1 NIV, photo credit: Anglicans Ablaze)

In Romans 14 through the first half of Romans 15, the Apostle Paul is encouraging the church in Roman not to quarrel over “disputable matters.” The church in Rome was divided between the Jewish Christians, who emphasized adherence to the Law of Moses, and the Gentile Christians, who emphasized greater liberty. Here, Paul gives us an excellent model of how to work through differences that come up in the Christian community, seeking to love one another, even when we do not agree.

However, the “elephant in the room” about this concerns defining what is a “disputable matter.” It seems that everyone has a different list of what they think is disputable and what is indisputable. So how is this fundamental question resolved?

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