Thursday, February 25, 2010

Punitive Church Discipline

In what should be hoped would be only rare cases there are instances when the church should move to exclude a wayward member from the congregation. Jesus talks about this in Matthew 18, which was referenced yesterday, and Paul discusses it in 1 Corinthians 5. If a case of corrective discipline advances to the point where it must be brought before the whole church, then it is has become a very serious matter indeed. This is reserved only for those are remain unrepentant or in situations that private intervention cannot resolve. It is to be hoped, once the church hears all the facts and gives admonition to the parties involved, that a reconciliation will be achieved. However, if one or both parties fail to follow the instruction of the church, then Jesus said that such persons were to be treated as unbelievers-outside the fellowship and privileges of church membership.

Similarly, in the case of the incestuous marriage discussed yesterday, there are situations where the integrity of the church, the honor of Christ, and glory of the gospel compel swift and decisive action. It is not unloving or unkind to take such action. In fact, it is unloving to leave such persons in their sins and in the church, for it engenders a false assurance of spiritual well-being where none exists.

Even at this point the goal of church discipline is the eventual restoration of the one who comes under the church's rebuke. That a person is excluded from membership does not mean he or she should be told to "go away." Rather, they should be loved as any other unconverted person and encouraged to attend to the teaching and preaching of the word in the hopes that it will have its desired effect upon their lives.

I knew a young man once, a deacon's son, who took up a life of sin. His father moved to have him excluded from the church, and the church complied. Some years later I saw that same young man come before the church, confess his sin, acknowledge that he had been an unconverted church member but that through the ordeal of church discipline he had come to see his lost condition. God saved him, the church restored him, and he himself went on to become a deacon in the community. Done right church discipline works. It is another way we are commanded in Scripture to take a stand for Christ.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Corrective Church Discipline

Formative church discipline focuses on positive instruction in both right belief (orthodoxy) and right living (orthopraxy). It happens in relationships, sometimes formal (such as with a mentor) and sometimes less formal (discussions and observations between friends). It should be intentional. It should move each of us closer to Christlike living, for that is what it means to be a "Christian", to live like Christ.

What happens when formative discipline fails? What do you do when a fellow believer strays from the path of truth (doctrinal error) or falls into sinful conduct? This is where corrective discipline comes into play. If the problem is a private one-not publicly or widely known-Jesus said to handle it privately if at all possible. The detailed instructions are given in Matthew 18:15-20. Go privately first to the one who has offended you and attempt to be reconciled without the matter going any further. If that fails, then take one or two as witnesses of your efforts and help in persuasion, and attempt again to be reconciled. Only if that fails should the matter then be taken to the whole congregation for help. All should be done in a spirit of love and humility and with the goal of restoration and reconciliation (Gal 6: 1).

What do you do, though, if there is a case of open, flagrant sin or doctrinal error? What do you do if everybody already knows about it? Paul encountered such a case in the city of Corinth. A young man had taken up cohabitation with his step-mother in a clear case of incest. Rather than dealing with the young man the church at Corinth had taken pride in how "loving" they were in accepting this relationship which Paul said would not even have been tolerated by the pagans in the city. Paul instructed the church, in 1 Corinthians 5, to move quickly and decisively to put this young man out of the church-to exclude him from the rights of membership until he repented (that he did repent is indicated in 2 Cor 2: 6-8).

Corrective church discipline serves the function of believers aiding one another in progress toward greater sanctification and perseverance. It serves as a check on our residual sinful tendencies that continue to war against the spirit. It also reminds us that, as a church is supposed to be a company of redeemed souls, so there should be evidence in each life that redemption has come to each member through a life-changing experience with Christ.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Formative Church Discipline

In most of today's Baptist churches the weakness in the cord of regenerate church membership is the strand of church discipline. Once Baptists succumbed completely to the combined pressures of (1) Jacksonian individualism, (2) revivalistic piety, and (3) urban prosperity, church discipline became an apparent problem rather than a potential solution. Numbers began to matter more than purity, and efficiency became the watchword of Baptist life in the early twentieth century. Nothing is less efficient than church discipline. And so the practice of opening each church conference with the examination of the spiritual health and unity of the church was discarded. Southern Baptists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have reaped a bitter harvest from this careless discarding of church discipline.

Today the Southern Baptist Convention claims some 17 million adherents in the United States, but at least sixty percent are unaccounted for on any given Sunday. Why? What happened? Well, in part there was a change in evangelistic methodology that followed the revivalistic approach of Charles G. Finney, and a mere outward response in the form of "walking the aisle" or reciting a "sinner's prayer" was made to "seal the deal" between God and the sinner without further examination for proof of a genuine conversion experience. Secondly, discipline in its various forms was lost on an entire generation in the name of the right of individual soul competency and the right of private interpretation.

In recent years Southern Baptists have taken a step in the right direction and begun to focus on what is often called "formative" church discipline-discipleship training. But the nagging problem of shallow evangelism still persists in many places, and serious discipleship remains an option and not an expectation for most church members.

Formative church discipline involves the careful instruction of the new believer in both the teachings of the church and the expected life-patterns of a Christian. It is not a matter of indifference how church members live their lives. It is not merely a matter of learning what the Bible says. Christians must learn to live their lives patterned after biblical obedience to the commands of Christ as an evidence of their life-changing relationship with him. This is formative church discipline, and it requires mature Christians modeling and teaching the less mature how to live the Christian life while equipping them to pass their knowledge to the next generation of believers.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Cord of Three Strands

Last week was spent dealing with the very touchy issue of believer's baptism vs. infant baptism. Baptists practice "credo-baptism" because we believe that a church, ideally, should be composed of those who have experienced God's grace and have been born again by the Holy Spirit. We do not believe that any rite or act of man can cause this to happen but that it is a work of grace in the heart resulting in repentance and faith (Baptist Faith & Message, IV, A). But a number of problems have arisen in Baptist church life in the last 100 years. Believer's baptism serves as an entry point into a regenerate church, an initial check against unconverted members, but alone it cannot ensure a believer's church.

Baptists, historically, have held that two other lines of defense are both biblical and necessary to maintain regenerate church membership. One of these is church control of the Lord's Table. Communion is a church ordinance to be observed in accordance with the biblical pattern under the authority of the church. It is not just for anyone who wants to have it. According to the Apostle Paul the Lord's Supper not only represents our union with Christ but our union with one another in a church relationship through shared doctrine and practice, a practice that includes holy living (1 Corinthians 10). That is the second cord.

Church discipline is the third cord that is necessary to make the rope of the believer's church a living possibility. Christ himself enjoined the practice of church discipline (Matthew 18) and Paul tied it to the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 5). Without church discipline it is near to impossible to practice the identification of false believers who slip past the baptismal waters unawares and work with them redemptively to bring them to Christ, or failing that, punitively to purify the congregation. This week's blog will deal with the even more touchy issue of church discipline, its decline, and its needed restoration in our churches.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

From Immersion to Sprinkling

So how did the practice of the Church go from immersion to sprinkling or pouring? Or, more properly, how did the practice in the Western Church go to sprinkling and pouring? The rite of immersion persists in the Eastern Tradition, even of infants.

Basil the Great, according to Apostolic Canons, I, enjoins trine immersion, stating "if any bishop or presbyter shall administer baptism not by three dippings but by one, let him be punished with deprivation" (cited in Robinson, History of Baptism, 74). That immersion was the common practice in the fourth century can be seen by the design of the baptistry of St. Sophia, built by the Emperor Constantine. In Rome itself the baptistry of St. John Lateran had a depth of up to thirty-seven inches and was obviously suited to immersion. A. H. Strong cites Dean Stanley (March 1879), as stating that immersion remained the mode of baptism until at least the thirteenth century (1200s) in the West (Systematic Theology, 936). Some writers maintain that the immersion of infants (at least of Edward VI and Elizabeth I) continued in England into the sixteenth century (Robinson, 124). Even today the Catholic Catechism admits that the original and full sign of baptism was complete immersion (

According to Robinson sprinkling began as a pagan ritual that can be traced to Roman antiquity and was introduced into Christian practice as part of the act of exorcism in conjunction with the practice of baptism (in the Catholic tradition, Eastern and Western, an exorcism is performed prior to any baptism). From this beginning point the act of sprinkling eventually was confounded with the act of baptism and sprinkling supplanted immersion as the mode (Robinson, 137). As was shown in a previous blog, sprinkling or pouring was allowed as a substitute in extreme cases as early as the early second century (see the Didache cited in a previous blog). In 1311 the Synod of Ravenna set sprinkling and pouring on equal footing with immersion, and so from that point onward sprinkling or pouring became the dominant mode practiced on the European continent.

That immersion was not the practiced mode on the European Continent at the time of the Reformation is clearly evident by the fact that Martin Luther argued for its restoration in his 1519 Treatise on Baptism (Works of Luther, vol.1, 56), and by the fact that Calvin admitted that immersion was the primitive mode but in his opinion the mode was a matter of indifference and ought to be left ot local preference (Institutes, IV. xv. 19). I find it odd, given Calvin's emphasis on strictly biblical worship based on the Second Commandment, that he should so lightly set aside the explicit practice of the ancient Church for what was undoubtedly a human innovation of late origin. Furthermore, his detailed treatment of the significance of baptism as a Christian rite can only properly be answered by the baptism of adult believers. His defense of infant baptism at this point is most inconsistent with his theology of baptism.

Moving from immersion to sprinkling was a long, winding path for the Church. The first step involved extreme cases. Eventually infant baptism rose to prominence, and many other factors also came into play which resulted in the acceptance of infant sprinkling as a recognized form of "baptism". In all of this both the form and the true significance of baptism as an individual's profession of faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ for salvation was lost and the gospel perverted. Scholars of all Christian denominations have been forced to admit that the Baptist claim to believer's immersion was the practice of the New Testament Christians. So why would someone who professes to follow Christ not follow him in the waters of baptism?

Friday, February 19, 2010

How We Got Infant Baptism

The question must be asked and answered, "Where did infant baptism come from?" We know from the writings of Tertullian, who lived in North Africa, that infant baptism began to be practiced in the second century (A. D. 100s), because he wrote a challenge to this practice. New Testament scholar and Lutheran Kurt Aland wrote an excellent short study of the subject in the early 1960s entitled Did the Early Church Baptize Infants?

Aland carefully examines all the New Testament evidence and writings of the apostolic fathers. He concludes that the New Testament church only baptized professing believers and that the practice of infant baptism developed along side the church's growing understanding of original sin, the concept of baptismal regeneration, and the issue of infant mortality. The earliest instances of infant baptism involved children who were sickly or ill, and the Christian parents feared that these children, if they died, would end up in hell.

The practice of the Church in the Patristic period down to about the fifth century, was to delay baptism. The Cappadocian Fathers, considered some of the greatest theologians fourth century (A. D. 300s), were all from the homes of Christian bishops, and yet they were not baptized until they were grown and in their 20s and 30s. It was St. Augustine who, more than any other, pushed infant baptism into the norm in his anti-Pelagian writings and his defense of the doctrine of original sin.

What can be concluded from this is quite clear. Infant baptism was an innovation of the late second century that gradually grew in acceptance until it became the norm in the late fourth or early fifth century. It was not a biblical practice. It substituted baptism for faith in Christ as the basis for salvation as baptism took on a sacramental meaning, becoming the primary means by which grace was dispensed by the Church through the priesthood.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Can the Church Alter Christ's Command?

It has long been argued, especially by the Catholic Church, that the magisterium has power vested in it by Christ to alter Church practice. And so baptism in the Western Church gradually ceased to be by immersion and became routinely a matter of sprinkling or pouring. But two questions come to mind. First, does the Church really have this authority? Secondly, does sprinkling/pouring answer to the intended representation given in baptism?

First of all, the Bible is explicitly clear on the place of human innovation in matters of worship. In the Old Testament God made it very plain that his precepts were not to be altered at all. Paul made it very plain that the message of the gospel was not to be altered (Gal 1: 7-8), and baptism is a presentation of the gospel message in dramatic form. In baptism several things are represented at once: (1) the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (the essence of the gospel), (2) the death of the old man, his burial, and the resurrection to walk in a new life (repentance, remission of sins, and faith in Christ), and (3) the hope of our own future bodily resurrection when Christ comes again (eschatological hope). Altering the mode and/or the recipient of the rite fundamentally alters its message and meaning, and so it is forbidden by Scripture.

This leads naturally to the second question. Does pouring or sprinkling adequately communicate the message of baptism? The answer is a resounding "no". Baptism is intended to represent cleansing from sin, death to the old life, and resurrection to new life. Simply sprinkling or pouring some water over someone cannot possible represent those things. Furthermore, baptism in the New Testament was the public profession of faith and is essential to one's owning Christ publicly. Performing a rite, even immersion, on an infant, subverts this essential quality of baptism because the infant cannot have faith in Christ. That must come as an intelligent response of the heart to the moving of the Holy Spirit through the gospel.

When looked upon from this perspective it becomes very clear that Christian baptism is and can only be the immersion of a believer in the name of the Trinity as a profession of faith in Christ if it is to answer to the New Testament meaning of the rite. Anything less is a sham, and infant baptism has been the source of more mischief throughout Church History than nearly anything else because it deliberately fills churches with people who are not saved but believe themselves to be Christian because of something that was done to them in infancy. It undermines the doctrine of the new birth and tends to vaccinate the soul against the gospel as surely as any other false gospel does.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Taking a Stand for New Testament Baptism

What is baptism, and why is it important to the Christian faith? Two rites define the Christian faith more than any other: baptism and communion. From the beginning of the Christian church baptism has been seen as essential to all other church privileges, including participation in communion. But the practice of baptism has changed through the centuries.
Jesus commanded baptism for his followers when he said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28: 19 NASB). The word order here is significant. The primary verb in this text is "make disciples," and what follows explains, in part, how to do that. The first step in becoming a disciple is baptism. Verse twenty adds that the church is to teach "them to observe all that I commanded you."
So, back to the original question, what is baptism? Baptism, by definition, is immersion. The Greek word, baptizo, signifies dipping, plunging, or immersing something in a liquid (Friberg's Lexicon, 4491). Christ commanded his followers to be baptized in accordance with a particular pattern, "in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit." Regardless of what you call it, any other ritual substituted for this is simply not New Testament Christian baptism.
But, it is often argued that the Church, through the magisterium, has the authority to alter the commands of Christ. Is this true? Can this be supported biblically?
If the Church does not have the authority to alter the practice of baptism, then is baptism a "first order" practice? Is it something on which our fellowship with other professing Christians should be based, especially as it relates to communion? These are the questions that will be explored in tomorrow's blog.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Taking a Stand in Water

Christians are called by Christ to take a stand, and that stand must begin somewhere. According to the New Testament it begins in water, the waters of baptism. I want to take some time this week to explore the relationship of water baptism to taking a stand for Christ and why believer's baptism by immersion is both the biblical model and the only model that answers to the theological, kerygmatic, and didactic roles of this foundational Christian rite.

This week I will look at baptism from its New Testament basis, its corruption and restoration, and its theological, kerygmatic and didactic purposes. I will also look at the question of whether or not those claiming to be God's people have the right and authority to alter what Christ himself commanded and the early church practiced in the New Testament.

Check in each day for a short lesson on how to take a stand in the water and why it is important.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Reflections on the New Birth

How is it that a sinner comes to faith in Christ? How is it that a person is "born again"? And how does one's view of the new birth effect how one prays for sinners in need of salvation? Several recent conversations have prompted me to think on these questions anew.

In our day the prevailing notion of the new birth has been that which was espoused by Charles G. Finney, the great revivalist of the nineteenth century, who said, "The Spirit's agency is not needed to give him power, but to overcome his voluntary obstinacy" ("Sinners bound to change their own hearts," 1834 from Finney's view was that the new birth, or change of heart, was not a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit but simply the work of moral persuasion to convince the sinner voluntarily to change his/her governing principles of action. In Finney's view the Spirit works by moral persuasion through the "living voice" of the preacher to induce the sinner to change his own heart, but there is no supernatural power exerted by the Spirit to effect a change of heart. If there were, according to Finney, the change of heart would have no moral virtue to it. But does God save in light of some moral virtue in the creature? Is this the key that unlocks God's treasure room of mercy? "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3: 5 NASB).

Evangelical Christianity in the twentieth century was virtually swallowed up in this notion of salvation as ultimately resting, not on the graciousness of God, but on the decision of the sinner (referred to as "decisional regeneration). This, in effect, puts the power of salvation in the hands of the sinner and not in the hands of God. It ignores the true nature of human depravity and reduces sin to merely sinful actions and not a sinful disposition inherited from our fallen first parents. Finney's arguments are sophistry of the worst sort, for he failed to understand the position against which he argued or deliberately misrepresented it for rhetorical purposes.

But my question here is, "How does one's view of the new birth effect how one prays for a lost sinner?" If I believe that the sinner ultimately is responsible for causing the new birth by his/her own choice to believe or not believe in Christ, then what motive is there to pray to God to convert that sinner? God cannot do it. God can only lay before the sinner certain inducements designed to encourage the sinner to believe in Christ. In Finney's view God is not Lord of the conscience. The sinner is. God cannot intrude into the heart of the sinner and effect the new birth. He can only seek to persuade the sinner to do it himself. So what is the point of praying for God to save someone if, in fact, the person's salvation is finally dependent upon his/her choice and not the gracious purpose of God? Has this spirit of a man-centered view of the new birth undermined our sense of duty to pray for the lost? Could this way of thinking about salvation be the very reason so many of our churches are flat-lining and dying today? Is this why we shed no tears in prayer for unconverted friends and family members? "Well, it's really up to her whether she wants to follow Christ or not." Preserving an inviolate free will becomes more important than the salvation of the soul and the individual is made into his/her own savior in the process. Is God really honored by such a view of salvation?