Going Dotty (Part 5)

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Figure 1: The Great Big Blue Dot. Click here to link to Part 1.

So I’ve started to think seriously about what it means to me being a Baptist. While I was unpacking some concepts in my mind I came across this article by Christo Beetge*. If you’re coming in late I’d suggest you back up to the first post and start at the beginning.

Parenthood is a shocking revelation of self – especially when it comes to being the parent of a “teenager”! Every honest adult can recall that season in life when you “needed to find yourself”, when you needed to see just where you fit in. So you experimented for a while with your hairstyle (on your head and on your face, if you’re male!) and your dress-code, until you felt comfortable with your “image”. Parents of children in their teens can be patient then, knowing that self-understanding, being able to describe yourself and appreciate how you arrived at where you are, is certainly an important component of settledness and contentment. The same is true of your doctrinal identity. Part of Christian maturity is knowing what you believe, why you believe it and how you came to those convictions.

So far in the previous [articles] in this series we have sought to appreciate Baptist identity in terms of certain convictions that are held in common with other believers. To this point we have concluded that most Christians generally are committed to notions such as: salvation being a direct relationship with God through the person of the Lord Jesus Christ; the priesthood of all believers; congregational involvement in the life of the local church; the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; and, the vital necessity of the verbal proclamation of truth (in the form of preaching, personal evangelism and discipleship) in the expansion of Christ’s Kingdom.

We have been at pains to point out that the word ‘Baptist’ is not primarily a denominational word, nor a sectarian label, but rather a theological and historical designation given to those believers who uniquely hold to all of these convictions mentioned thus far. How easy it is to lose sight of the tragic reality that each of these convictions have been hammered out on the anvil of persecution and ecclesiastical debate, and that many of those who wore the name ‘Baptist’ before us, or who preferred some other designation whilst holding to these ‘baptistic’ convictions, did so at great cost to themselves, even to the point of shedding their own blood! How helpful the reading of Church history is in reminding us that, outwardly, from a human vantage point, the visible Church is not a homogenous group! We need to know where we fit and how we came to be there, so that we can appreciate true unity when we experience it.

In addition to the five issues mentioned thus far, let’s add three more: the importance of a regenerate church; the relationship between the Church and the State; and, the ordinances. When the question is asked, “Who ought rightly to belong to the church?”, not all believers will give the same answer. Roman Catholics will say, “All those who are baptised as infants belong to the church”. Those from a Lutheran or other Episcopal tradition will argue that the issue is essentially geographical – “All people who live in a certain area belong to a certain local church.” But to this question, Baptists shy away from an institutional view of the church, favouring an understanding of the local church as an organic body or a family.

Baptists are persuaded that the Bible forces us to view the church from God’s perspective, saying that the local church consists only of those who have a relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptists appreciate the biblical image of a vine in which the sap nourishes all the individual branches. Someone is part of the visible church because he or she has been translated miraculously by God from being in the kingdom of darkness into being part of the kingdom of light.

Baptists are realistic enough though, to realise that for now, despite our best efforts at discernment of spiritual identity, the flock of God will consist of both sheep and goats; or to change the metaphor, the field of God will contain both wheat and tares. But precisely because of the practical outworking of convictions mentioned in parts 1 and 2 of this series of articles, Baptists are Christians who are persuaded that when it comes to membership of the local church, humble spiritual discernment is called for. Not everyone who applies may rightly be admitted to membership of the local church. The issue must be decided upon from God’s perspective, as far as that is humanly possible. To put it simply: Baptists are willing to ask applicants for church membership, “Are you converted? Have you been born again? Are you a new creation in Christ?” Spiritual business must be conducted only by spiritual people.

Regarding our second issue, we can say that Baptists are people who acknowledge that God has ordained the exercise of His delegated authority in three distinct spheres in the world: the family, the local church and the State. Clearly, these three spheres of authority must all be appreciated with a view towards God’s glory.

The family involves marriage, parenthood and the rearing of children, all to the glory of God. The church involves the formal worship of God and the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry. The State is responsible for the ordered management of society according to the dictates of civil law. Baptists are Christians who believe that these three spheres of authority should not interfere with each other. Whilst the first two, the family unit (or the home) and the local church, obviously have a large degree of overlap and inter-dependence, they have unique areas of responsibility.

Historically, Baptists have wanted to defend the local church from interference in her affairs from the civil government, precisely because we do not see a similar degree of overlap or inter-dependence between the local church and the State. We give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and we give to God what belongs to God. It is simply not the prerogative of the State, therefore to regulate and organise matters that clearly lie within the realm of the local church. So, for instance, some Baptists ministers have refused to be marriage officers, precisely because they do not want, simultaneously, to be operating in the realm of the church and that of the State at a wedding ceremony.

Historically, Baptists have reacted against Lutherans and Roman Catholics who have apparently been happy to belong to a “state-sponsored church”.

Thirdly, Baptists have wanted to distance themselves from the Roman Catholic position regarding the ceremonies that Christ has instituted. Roman Catholics, and Anglicans and others, believe that Christ instituted as many as seven ‘sacraments’, or ceremonial transactions.

Whilst not all Baptists are necessarily opposed to the word ‘sacrament’, all Baptists are certainly (and even passionately) clear on the notion that Christ only commanded two specific ceremonies within general worship activity, namely the immersion of believers (or those confessing that they are believers) in water (known as ‘baptism’), and the Lord’s Supper (also referred to as ‘Communion’ or ‘the breaking of bread’ in some circles). Baptists often prefer to refer to these two ceremonies as ‘ordinances’, highlighting their institution by direct and explicit command of Christ.

It is not surprising that in the minds of almost all people calling themselves Christians, this issue of baptism (often erroneously referred to with the adjective ‘adult baptism’) has been the distinctive Baptistic conviction. Interestingly though, the point must be made that many believers who choose not to use the label ‘Baptist’ do none the less perform this ceremony of immersing confessing believers, whatever their age, in a pool of water. Here again the central point behind this series of articles must be re-iterated, namely that ‘Baptists’ are passionate and convinced about far more than simply the amount of water to be used in the baptism ceremony!

So, in summary, Baptists participate in only two prescribed ceremonies (Communion and Baptism); Baptists call for a credible profession of faith (and even water baptism) before admitting an applicant to membership; and, Baptists insist that the local church is not the realm where the State ought to exercise any direct authority.

Having raised these issues of conviction then, again the question must be asked: “Are you a Baptist? Or do you just happen to worship at a church with that name?”

Christo Beetge Brackenhurst Baptist Church

* An article, written by Christo Beetge, and published in 5 parts in the Brackenhurst Baptist Church’s monthly in-house publication entitled Pastors’ Pen. This publication is produced by the Elders, with a view to stimulate congregational discussion and debate and to promote rigorous Christian discipline in reading and thinking.

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