I’ve now had two readers independently ask me about a recent posting over at Disciples Today regarding baptism. This website serves the International Churches of Christ, formerly known as the Boston Movement (and the Crossroads Movement, before that) within the Churches of Christ.
Not too long ago, most churches within the ICOC formally rejected their extreme legalism, repenting, and seeking a stronger relationship with the “mainstream” Churches of Christ. Since then, the ICOC churches have gone in different directions, some becoming indistinguishable from a non-ICOC Church of Christ and others reverting back to the very behaviors that led to their repentance. And there are former ICOC Churches all in between.
The posting on baptism appears to be an attempt to find a position on baptism that’s less narrow than the ICOC’s traditional position, without rejecting the necessity of baptism.
One, in our leadership apology letters of 2003, we apologized for being too judgmental toward people in other churches, but we did not define what we meant by being too judgmental. That failure proved to be a serious one, allowing many of our members to assume that almost any sincere believer in Christ was likely acceptable to God, regardless of conversion experience or church affiliation. We went from one extreme to another. The old extreme was to teach or leave the impression that no person outside our ICOC boundaries of fellowship could have been converted correctly. The new extreme is to assume almost the opposite. Both are extremes and both are wrong.
What I think we meant by saying that we had been too judgmental was that we had stepped outside our responsibility to teach exactly what the Bible says about conversion and had stepped into the Judgment Day role that belongs to God alone. In other words, we were teaching in a way that didn’t leave room for God to be God in determining who would ultimately be saved and lost. While we must avoid that posture in the future, we cannot go to the other extreme and pronounce final judgment in favor of sincere religious people whose conversion doesn’t square with what the Bible teaches about entering a saved relationship with Christ. Extremism, however popular, is dangerous territory for all of us.
I think it’s fair to summarize this position as: we aren’t saying those baptized improperly are damned; but neither are we saying they’re saved.
Two, several brothers (not many, and most are not currently in our fellowship) have written papers on the subject, and tended toward the extreme of a broader acceptance of conversion experiences. The impact of such writing has exerted influence on some people, but probably not that many. These papers have led to more discussions among leaders, but the average member is likely unaware of most of these discussions or the source of them.
Someone asked me whether my ebook Born of Water is one of the papers they refer to here. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the ICOC, and so I it.
Three, because of the undefined leadership apologies and the unsettled state of churches, particularly in the few years immediately after 2003, singles started dating or wanting to date outside our fellowship. We as leaders should accept our responsibility of having helped cause this reaction, but we must now also accept our responsibility of clarifying what the issues in this realm are – both biblically and practically.
You know, when I was growing up, we were taught only to marry within the Churches of Christ, that is, “the Lord’s church,” as we used to say. It sounds like the ICOC took the same position, defining the Lord’s church as the ICOC. And it sounds like there is movement back in that direction — “fellowship” meaning faithful ICOC congregations.
Saying that someone has been baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” is not nearly all of the issue in the first place. Did they biblically repent and are they open to biblical discipleship – vertically (with Christ) and horizontally (with fellow Christians)? The lordship issue and the discipling issue are more significant than the baptism issue for those with a Restoration background.
“Discipleship” can be righteous and holy or it can be legalistic and even cultic. As I work carefully through the article, I find myself dissatisfied — dissatisfied with a baptismal doctrine that damns those insufficiently committed to the lordship of Jesus and to the discipleship efforts of other Christians. It’s an awfully subjective standard that is indistinguishable, to me, from the former errors of the ICOC. I can’t find submission to the discipleship of other Christians to be a requirement of salvation.
Of course, we in the “mainstream” Churches of Christ have our own failings to answer for. I’m not saying the ICOC needs to be converted to mainstream Church of Christ-ism. Rather, we all need to be converted to Jesus, the Jesus who fills us with his Spirit and forgives us by his grace. It’s mission and it’s grace; it’s lordship and it’s freedom.
And it’s not about balancing the apparent opposites. It’s letting God open our eyes to see how they are all utterly true all at once. We are freed and forgiven so that we’ll be on mission in honor of our Lord. We don’t do mission to find freedom. We don’t work for grace. Rather, grace works in us. We are freed to do mission.
This understanding takes us toward a better, deeper understanding of baptism — as a gift received, not a condition met. I quote Martin Luther, because he says it so well —
Thus you see plainly that there is here no work done by us, but a treasure which He gives us, and which faith apprehends; just as the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is not a work, but a treasure comprehended in the Word, and offered to us and received by faith. Therefore they do us violence by exclaiming against us as though we preach against faith; while we alone insist upon it as being of such necessity that without it nothing can be received nor enjoyed.
The remaining question is whether baptism received for a reason other than “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38) or accomplished by means other than immersion will deny us the gift of God. Does the failure of the preacher to get the elements and instructions exactly right void God’s gift? And here we come to a deeply essential question: just what kind of God do we worship? A God who damns over every mistake or a God who so wants us saved that he’ll even die on a Roman cross so it can happen?
I make the argument in much greater detail in Born of Water, but I lay out an abbreviated argument in the next post.
(It’s rather like asking whether someone born without benefit of an accredited hospital and licensed physician is truly born. I don’t recommend it, and I wouldn’t want my children born that way. But, yes, it’s still a birth.)