23 Apr 2013
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld" (John 20:22-23, ESV).
These verses link together the gift of the Spirit to the church with the authority of the church to pronounce on whether someone's sins are forgiven.
What on earth is this about?
Some might take these words to mean that, when a Christian commits a sufficiently serious sin, they absolutely must make confession of that sin to a minister of the church, otherwise that sin will not be forgiven. However, these words of Jesus (and similar words elsewhere) are certainly not sufficient to establish such a practice, nor do we read of such a thing happening anywhere in the New Testament. Now, it may well be valuable for us to confess our sins to one another, and to assure one other of Christ's forgiveness. But it is difficult to see that as the primary meaning of these words.
Others might take them to mean this, and nothing more than this: that the disciples were commissioned to proclaim that whoever believes in Jesus will be forgiven, and whoever does not believe will not be forgiven. But, if this was all that Jesus intended to convey here, it is difficult to see why he didn't express it more clearly. His words seem much more specific, and seem to give the disciples the role of saying of particular people, that their sins are forgiven, and of other particular people, that their sins are not forgiven.
So what do these words mean?
Jesus' words are a promise. Jesus promises that there will be a correspondence between what the disciples say is the case (in terms of forgiveness) and what is actually the case (in terms of forgiveness). It seems to me that what Jesus is promising here is precisely what we find happening in the book of Acts. On the day of Pentecost, Peter said, "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 2:38, ESV), and then we read of 3000 who were added to their number that day. Presumably, given Peter's words, those 3000 were baptised, and their baptism was taken to be a sign that their sins had been forgiven. So Jesus' promise would mean that this sign of forgiveness was not an empty sign, but that the sins of those 3000 people really had been forgiven.
It seems to be the case that, in Acts, people responded very clearly and powerfully to the proclaimed word. People heard the word, responded with faith, received the Holy Spirit, and showed undeniable evidence of that. It was abundantly clear that some people had received forgiveness, and that other people had not received forgiveness. (Take Cornelius and his companions for an example of the former.) Jesus' words, therefore, I take to be a promise that the initial preaching of his word would be accompanied with a powerful work of his Spirit, such that the disciples would be able to declare accurately and with conviction that the sins of certain people had been forgiven, and that the sins of certain other people had not been forgiven.
What about today?
It should be clear that things are not always so clear! There are many in the church, who have received the sign of forgiveness in baptism, who show no evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and who therefore show no evidence that they really have been forgiven. We still administer the sign of baptism, on a credible profession of faith, but it can be many years after receiving someone into the church that it becomes undeniable that the outward sign has been accompanied by an inner transformation (or not!). So might it be the case that, in building his church, there are times when Jesus makes his true church abundantly visible, and times when he allows his true church to be somewhat hidden from view? Certainly in the apostolic age the true church was made powerfully visible. And I'm sure that is also the case today in other situations of persecution or of mission or of revival. But that is not necessarily the case in every time and place.
Perhaps we should be laying hold of Jesus' promise, and praying that, by a work of his Spirit, his true church may become more visible in our own day? The whole creation is longing for such a day, and shouldn't we? "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19, ESV).
16 Apr 2013
I couldn't resist a few more quotes from James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, this time on the theme of worship:
One of the first things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is. To engage in worship requires a body—with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell, tongues to taste, ears to hear, hands to hold and raise. Christian worship is not the sort of thing that ethereal, disembodied spirits could engage in (p.139).
This down-to-earth practice of Christian worship has within it an implicit understanding of the material world and its connection with God:
Implicit in the materiality of Christian worship is this sense that God meets us in materiality, and that the natural world is always more than just nature—it is charged with the presence and glory of God. Thus the very performance of Christian worship cuts against both dualistic gnosticism, which would construe matter and bodies as inherently evil, and reductionistic naturalism, which would construe the world as "merely" natural (p.143).
It is this infusing of the material stuff of creation with the grace of God its Creator that Smith describes as "sacramental". In this sense, the whole world is "sacramental", but in Christian worship, "[t]he sacraments, we might say, are particular intensifications of a general sacramental presence of God in and with his creation" (p.141).
And it is because the whole world is sacramental that God takes up nitty-gritty things like bread and water and wine to function as sacraments, special means of grace (p.141).
I long for a recovery of this sense of the whole created order being "charged with the grandeur of God" (Hopkins), and particularly a sense of Christian worship being that part of the created order in which God most powerfully and tangibly reaches down to us, in word and sacrament.
4 Apr 2013
I finished reading Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith last week. It's a superb book, with a broad theme and a narrow theme.
The broad theme is the question of what drives us as human beings. In many Christian circles, the assumption is that we are most fundamentally thinking-and-believing creatures. We have a worldview, which is a set of our basic beliefs and convictions, and our lives derive their direction from this worldview. We are shaped by our exposure to ideas. So, in order to grow as Christians, we need to tackle false ideas and have our minds informed by solid Christian thinking, to help us to formulate in our minds a coherent Christian view of everything. Smith challenges this, arguing (persuasively) that we are more fundamentally desiring-and-loving creatures. We all have a vision for the good life (or the "kingdom"), and it is our love for that vision that drives us and shapes our lives. We are most deeply shaped, not so much by the ideas we encounter, but by participating in powerful embodied practices ("cultural liturgies"). So, in order to grow as Christians, we need to recognise the cultural liturgies of the world around us (such as the consumerist liturgies that train us, mind and body, to love shopping) and we need to engage in the embodied practices of Christian worship, so that our minds and bodies can be formed in such a way that we grow to love the kingdom of God with all of our being.
It's a powerful and important message with implications for all sorts of things. For more, see my post from September, which contains a video of Smith speaking about this broad theme from his book.
But it's the narrow theme of the book to which I should like to call your attention in this post (despite appearances to the contrary!). This is the theme of Christian education.
What is a Christian education?
Following the "thinking-thing" model for anthropology, a "Christian education" would be an education characterised by Christian ideas and Christian perspectives. Smith's concern is that this may be woefully inadequate:
Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn't actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market? (p.218)
But what might a Christian education look like, if we recognise that people are primarily lovers, rather than (primarily) thinkers?
It will be an educational experience in which Christian formation is central, rather than merely Christian information.
Its goal, I'm suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God's image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation—but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus's cruciform cultural labor (p.220).
Smith provides three examples of what this could mean in practice.
- An important role for the university chapel as "a kind of 'mediating institution' between the university and the church" (p.225). "[T]he role of the chapel is not to stir our emotions or merely fuel our 'spiritual' needs; rather, it is the space in which the ecclesial university community gathers to practice (for) the kingdom by engaging in the liturgical practices that form the imagination" (p.224).
- A whole-life rhythm of communal Christian living. This provides an alternative to participating in the powerful and formative secular liturgies of consumerism or of typical undergraduate life. "What if we saw the wider environment of the university as also a space for fostering Christian practices, including liturgical practices? The unique nature of residential higher education provides an opportunity to create intentional communities within the dorms that not only gather for Bible study and prayer but also engage in a range of full-bodied Christian practices, including liturgical practices such as prayerful observance of the Daily Office or 'Divine Hours'. Such intentional community could also include commitments to common meals; Sabbath observance; works of mercy in the neighborhood, weekly acts of hospitality for students, faculty, or those outside the university community; fasting together once a week; worship together at a local parish; a yearly service project; and more. Together these practices would constitute a rich fabric of formation that would nourish the imagination and prime the community for thinking Christianly in their learning and scholarship" (p.226-7).
- Embodied learning. The first two examples haven't touched on the actual teaching that goes on within the university. How might that be affected? Learning needs to move beyond "read and talk" courses to include some embodied practices. For example, while reading philosophical texts discussing hospitality, students could also be given assignments requiring them to engage with the poor, homeless and needy to extend (and receive) hospitality. This kind of learning would be formative as well as informative.
Smith is writing within a North American context, where there are plenty of explicitly Christian universities and colleges. Such things are not so common in the UK, and most Christian undergraduates study at "secular" universities. However, having read Smith's book, I'd like to pose a question: Is it possible to get a 99% Christian education at a secular university? I suspect the answer might be "yes". If a fully Christian education is, say, 95% about formative practices and 5% about Christian ideas and perspectives, then it seems to me that a "secular" university in the UK leaves plenty of space for Christian students to fill their lives with Christian practices (1 and 2 above), to find creative ways of supplementing their "read and talk" studies with embodied learning (3 above), and also to do some "Christian perspective" private study on the side. And maybe this kind of Christian education within the secular university is a better model for Christian engagement in the world than having separate institutions for Christian higher education?
If we really grasp this vision for embodied and formative Christian university education, this could have all sorts of exciting implications not only for Christian faculty, but also for churches, chaplaincies and organisations working with Christian students... Comments welcome!
Finally, I can't resist quoting from the final paragraph of the book, in which Smith touches on the issue of Christian scholarship, linking it with the role of worship in shaping the imagination:
If our theorizing and scholarship are going to be informed by Christian accounts of the world, our imaginations must first be fueled by a vision of the kingdom, and such formation of the imagination takes place in the practices of Christian worship, which carry a unique understanding of the world ("I worship in order to understand") (p.230).
20 Mar 2013
Last year I wrote a post entitled Spiritual reductionism, about a view of reality in which the only things that ultimately matter are God and human souls. I think this spiritual reductionism has a very powerful influence among Christians.
Today I want to ask, If we adopt this spiritual reductionism, then what happens to our understanding of the church? Let me describe what I think happens when this view is taken consistently. (Fortunately, people are not always consistent!)
- The universal church becomes invisible. It no longer matters whether or not there is an identifiable group of people living out God's new creation life on the earth. Our bodies don't matter, and the earth doesn't matter. The only things that matter are God and human souls, and these things are invisible and spiritual. So the universal church is thought of in entirely invisible and spiritual terms. Membership of the universal church is entirely invisible, personal and spiritual. If you are a member of the universal church, you can personally be confident of that. But it is impossible to really know someone else's heart. So it is impossible to know whether or not someone else belongs to the universal church.
- The local church becomes disconnected from the universal church. The universal church on earth is not visible, so "the local church" (as it is called), being a visible institution, is in no sense part of the universal church. It is a category mistake to ask whether a local church is part of the universal church. They are different kinds of things.
- The local church becomes pragmatic. The local church now exists simply to facilitate the growth of believers in their spiritual relationship with God and with each other. A local church is a local community that provides heart-felt worship, good teaching and mutual encouragement so that Christians can grow in their faith. Any connections between local churches exist only to support that goal. For example, they might pool resources, support each other, and plant new local churches. There is no longer any sense that God's ultimate purpose is to have a visible and global community of his disciples on the earth. Local churches are a means to an end, not part of the end in themselves.
- The local church becomes a community of people who may or may not be in the universal church. Since there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not someone is a member of the universal church, it is not possible to structure local church life around the assumption that a certain group of people belong to the universal church and other people do not. (Or, if you do so, it becomes a very select and inward-looking group.) So local churches are ordered such that it is possible to participate in most areas of the life of the local church without giving decisive evidence of belonging to the universal church. And there is no problem with this: if the local church is a pragmatic tool, serving the goal of growing disciples, it will tend to appeal to people who belong to the universal church anyway, and unbelievers may well be drawn to membership of the universal church through their active participation in the life of the local church.
- The beliefs of the local church become the beliefs of the church leaders only. The local church, being a mixed community, cannot profess a shared faith. But the teaching of the local church must be the kind of teaching that helps individual believers to grow. So it is important that the leaders in the local church profess to believe the essentials of the Christian faith (articulated however the local church chooses). This is partly so that individual believers can exercise discernment when they join a local church, and so that local churches can partner together, particularly through joint events and church-planting initiatives.
- The local church ceases to be a professing community. Only the leaders profess to believe what "the church believes". The rest of the people in the local church may or may not believe what the leaders profess to believe, and it would not be a good idea to put pressure on them to make false professions of faith. So it is no longer seen as important for local churches to express their beliefs corporately by reciting creedal statements. And, pragmatically speaking, very few people find that reciting creeds helps them in their personal, spiritual relationship with God, so it is no great loss if they are no longer used.
- Baptism ceases to have any connection with local church membership. Baptism becomes a profession made by the individual believer that they are confident that they belong to the universal church. It is no longer a visible sign that the person belongs to the universal church, because the universal church is entirely invisible, and it certainly doesn't, in any sense, make someone part of the church! The local church has a separate thing called "membership", which is, to be honest, largely a formality about voting in church business meetings. The two are entirely disconnected. Baptism doesn't make you a member of the local church, and not being baptised doesn't disqualify you from membership of the local church.
- The Lord's Supper ceases to have any corporate role. The Lord's Supper (along with everything in the life of the local church) is about supporting our spiritual relationship with God. It no longer has a role in forming and marking out a visible community of God's people on earth. Anyone can partake, if they would like to, whether or not they have been baptised and whether or not they are a member of a local church, and there is little sense that if you take the Lord's Supper and I take the Lord's Supper, then we are expressing any kind of solidarity with each other (unless I know you personally and have some confidence that you belong to the universal church). It is no more a corporate act than eating in a crowded restaurant is a corporate act.
Now, I've deliberately taken this to an extreme, but does it sound familiar?
Is spiritual reductionism causing us to miss out on God's purposes for the church on earth?
(Further reading: The Body of Christ is the Body of Christ, by Peter Leithart.)
16 Mar 2013
In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith describes the mall (shopping centre) in religious terms (see here for a previous post and video). He sees the mall as inviting us to participate in certain "liturgies", which instil in us a certain "understanding of what it means to be really human" (p.94).
The mall has its own strategy for outreach and evangelism, as do many other religions. Through the massive advertising industry we are surrounded with images of the good life, which reinforce in us the belief that if we visit the mall and "worship" by purchasing the products on offer, then we too can have perfect bodies and happy and fulfilling lives.
This is particularly striking when we consider the way women's bodies are portrayed in advertisements and the media in general. Smith mentions the Killing Us Softly documentaries by Jean Kilbourne in connection with this. Here's the trailer for her 2010 documentary, Killing Us Softly 4:
14 Mar 2013
At this time of change for the Roman part of the Catholic Church, it seems appropriate to pray for the whole church on earth: the "church militant" (as opposed to the "church triumphant" consisting of those who have died and are awaiting the resurrection of their bodies at the return of Christ to the earth).
So, in powerful (if somewhat archaic) words from the Book of Common Prayer (1662)...
Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth.
Almighty and everliving God, who by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers and supplications, and to give thanks, for all men: We humbly beseech thee most mercifully to receive these our prayers, which we offer unto thy Divine Majesty; beseeching thee to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant, that all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity, and godly love.
We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors; and specially thy servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.
Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and Curates, that they may both by their life and doctrine set forth thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy Sacraments: And to all thy people give thy heavenly grace; and specially to this congregation here present; that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear, and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.
And we most humbly beseech thee of thy goodness, O Lord, to comfort and succour all them, who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.
And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom:
Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ's sake, our only Mediator and Advocate.
18 Feb 2013
I gave a brief children's talk at our church yesterday. It went something like this...
What is this a photo of? (A rubbish dump.) Would you like to go there later? (No. Or yes!) Why not? (It smells. Seagulls are like dogs and they will eat you alive.)
Near where we live there used to be a rubbish dump. But now it looks like this:
It's a nature reserve with a play area. Would you like to go there? (Yes.) Why? (Fun, nature.)
Here's a verse from the end of the Bible:
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5, NIV)
One day Jesus will come back to the world, and through him God will make everything new. Just like that rubbish dump that is now a nature reserve, it will be like that with the whole world when Jesus comes back!
(Produce a globe with PostIt notes on.)
What is this? (The world.) What's wrong with this world? (It's got stickers on!)
(Ask volunteers to take stickers off and read what is written on the back: "death", "sickness", "famines", "wars", "selfishness", "sadness", "pain".)
For each sticker: In the world now ... But when Jesus comes back to the earth and when God makes everything new, there won't be any more X.
(Produce a separate sticker, "you and me".)
What about you and me? Sometimes we are selfish, we fight with other people, we hurt other people, and we make the world a bad place. We need someone to make us new if we will live here when God makes everything new.
There's good news in our second verse:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV-2011)
If Jesus takes away all the bad things we've done, and makes us new, then when he comes back we'll be here for ever with him, when God makes everything new. (Put sticker on the world.)
Sing a version of the Lord's Prayer by Ian Smale: when we sing "may your kingdom come, may your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven" we are asking God to make make everything new.
23 Jan 2013
Stephen Neill (1900-1984), Anglican missionary, bishop and scholar, presents an appealing picture of Anglicanism in his 1958(*) book, simply titled, Anglicanism.
One of the things I've been trying to un-learn while reading it has been the idea that it is perfectly normal for there to be numerous churches and denominations, all formally independent of each other.
At the time of the Reformation, there was but one church—one Catholic church—in the Western world. This church was in desperate need of reform, and so great was the need for reformation that some parts of the one church took it upon themselves to enact various reforms on a local level. Other parts of the one church weren't happy about this, and made that clear. So the consequence was, not multiple churches, but still one Catholic church, albeit with impaired fellowship between the different parts of that one Catholic church (for example, the Roman part of the one Catholic church, and the English part of the one Catholic church).
It's not a familiar way of thinking, but Neill presents the history of the Church of England in that light (and charts the subsequent spread of this English style of Christianity around the world, in the global Anglican Communion).
This view of the (capital-C) Catholicity of the Church of England runs through to the final chapter, "What then is Anglicanism?". It's a pleasure to read, but whether it is as believable in 2013 as it was in 1958 is perhaps not easy to say.
What are the special theological doctrines of the Church of England and of the Anglican Churches in fellowship with it?
The answer is that there are no special Anglican theological doctrines, there is no particular Anglican theology. The Church of England is the Catholic Church in England. It teaches all the doctrines of the Catholic Faith, as these are to be found in Holy Scripture, as they are summarised in the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds, and as they are set forth in the decisions of the first four General Councils of the undivided Church. Firmly based on the Scriptures as containing all things necessary to salvation, it still throws out the challenges: 'Show us that there is anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach and we will teach it. Show us that anything in our teaching or practice is clearly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it.' … [T]he faith of the Church is to be found in the Bible and in the Prayer Book; and on that faith the Anglican Churches have, in the four centuries since the Reformation, never compromised (pp.417-8).
(Was that really believable in 1958? Is it very different today? Still, it's a good ideal to aspire towards.)
Anglicanism is therefore very hard to define. However, Neill identifies various elements "on which Anglicans throughout the world would probably agree as characteristic of their own faith and experience" (p.418). I counted ten:
- "the biblical quality by which the whole warp and woof of Anglican life is penetrated",
- that "Anglican churches are liturgical churches",
- an "intense sense of continuity" with the church throughout history,
- "the Anglican insistence on episcopacy and the episcopal ministry" (but note that "Good Presbyterians who fear prelacy would be much consoled, if they could realize how little it is within the power of the English bishop to be prelatical", p.440),
- "the Anglican tradition of theological learning",
- "a general Anglican willingness to tolerate for the time being what appears to be error", recognising that "heresy trials" generally cause even greater harm,
- a "confidence in the truth that makes the Anglican Churches demand so much of the faithful",
- an appeal "particularly to the conscience", expecting people "to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God",
- "the unbroken tradition of saintliness in the Anglican Churches", which nurture people of "diligence, humility, humour, and a transcendent holiness", and
- that "From the beginning the Church of England has tried to be comprehensive", seeking to hold together "those who are agreed on the fundamentals of the Christian faith", while leaving room for "a measure of latitude in interpretation" (pp.418-426, emphases in original).
On that last point, it is worth quoting (as Neill does) from the Report of the Committee on Unity of the Church of the Lambeth Conference of 1948:
The co-existence of these divergent views within the Anglican Communion sets up certain tensions; but these are tensions within a wide range of agreement in faith in practice. We recognize the inconvenience caused by these tensions, but we acknowledge them to be part of the will of God for us, since we believe that it is only through a comprehensiveness which makes it possible to hold together in the Anglican Communion understandings of truth which are held in separation in other Churches, that the Anglican Communion is able to reach out in different directions, and so to fulfil its special vocation as one of God's instruments for the restoration of the visible unity of His whole Church. If at the present time one view were to prevail to the exclusion of others, we should be delivered from our tensions, but only at the price of missing our opportunity and our vocation (p.427).
This goal—of the visible unity of the whole Church in agreement on the fundamentals of the Christian faith—is one to which we should all aspire. But to me it is an open question whether Anglicanism (or English Anglicanism, to be more specific) is journeying in that direction. I think it might be, but it's hard to say, and it could well be said that "the Church of England is no longer defined by its confessional and doctrinal basis, but is defined much more by that caricature that Neill abhors—perpetual compromise and an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable", as Jake Belder expressed it in a recent post discussing this same book.
(*) I have the second edition, 1960, in which "No extensive rewriting has been possible" (p.8). I believe there were subsequent editions in 1965 and 1977, but I don't know whether they were significantly revised, and I can't persuade Google Books to show me…
21 Jan 2013
Great video from the Christian conservation charity A Rocha. It's a few years old (2006), but still has an excellent set of questions and an excellent line-up of contributors (two of whom are sadly no longer with us). See below for the video itself, or here's a summary:
First, John Stott (evangelical leader extraordinaire) commends the work of A Rocha. Then some questions are addressed...
Why should Christians care for creation?
- Alister McGrath (theologian extraordinaire): The world belongs to God, and has been entrusted to us by him, for us to care for it and to pass it on to those who follow us. "If God made the world, then it's something he cares for. ... If we love God, we must love what God has made. And that means other people, but it also means this environment in which we live right now."
- James Jones (Bishop of Liverpool): "Anybody who ever prays the Lord's Prayer and says to God, 'Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,' has to be concerned about their environment. That prayer is about the 'earthing' of heaven. ... We should be as concerned as God is for his creation."
- John Stott: "Dominion" does not mean a licence to destroy: it is absurd to think that God first created the earth and then gave us an instruction to destroy it. We should care for creation as God does, exercising responsible stewardship. "Christians should be in the vanguard of those who are seeking to arrest climate change, and seeking also to protect habitats where wildlife lives." We share in God's care for the environment.
Isn't "Mission" all about evangelism and saving souls, rather than saving the earth?
- Alister McGrath: (1) The gospel is about conversion of us as people, but that means a changed lifestyle, and a changed attitude towards God and towards the world in which we live. Part of our discipleship as Christians is right behaviour towards the environment. (2) Caring for creation is an act of witness. "Every time we care for the creation we are proclaiming the Creator to the world."
- Rob Frost (Christian evangelist): "To be a true Christian in this day and age you need to be committed to saving the planet." God has made us stewards of all that he has made. When people see the transformation Christian organisations such as A Rocha are bringing about, they ask why, and begin to discover that "our ecology is based in our gospel". The link between ecology and mission is very strong.
With so many pressing needs such as poverty and AIDS, isn't creation care a luxury?
- Vinoth Ramachandra (Christian lecturer and author): War, poverty and ecological degradation often go hand in hand. We have to deal with them together.
- Stella Simiyu (conservationist): The rural poor depend directly on natural resources. We must invest in the environment, for the sake of the poor.
How serious is the environmental crisis?
- Ghillean Prance (ecologist extraordinaire): Really serious. As well as changes in patterns of migration of birds and flowering of plants, there are huge extinctions of animals and all over the world, and exceptional climate conditions are happening, just as predicted by the climate change modellers.
- Simon Stuart (conservationist): "The world is certainly facing the worst environmental crisis there ever has been." Huge numbers of species are facing extinction. There is increased pollution. We are moving into uncharted territory. It's an experiment that we should never have been conducting.
Isn't the world going to be 'destroyed' anyway? Why bother?
- Vinoth Ramachandra: The whole Bible is one story, from creation to new creation. "The new creation is the old creation renewed, restored, transformed, so that every part of this creation is now filled with the presence of God. And that's the goal to which God is taking human history. So he calls us as his redeemed people to live today as if the future is already present, to live as signs of that future kingdom, which is the restoration of all things. And because that restoration includes the non-human creation as well as the human creation, our care for the non-human creation is a sign of God's coming kingdom, and in that way we are witnessing to the Lord of all creation."
How does this theology shape the work of A Rocha?
- Ghillean Prance: Christians who practise conservation do so because they believe there is a Creator, and that they should combine their faith with positive action.
- Simon Stuart: "Christian theology is based on the premise that Jesus Christ reconciles all ... things to God. ... Human beings, cooperating with Christ, can be agents in the restoration of nature—of that nature that we humans have messed up."
15 Jan 2013
Heart-warming stuff from Michael Green, presenting the good news of Jesus Christ in its rich fullness (in 18 minutes!) to a group of Christian leaders exploring the question, What is the Gospel? Enjoy!
13 Jan 2013
A bit of audience participation for the churchgoers out there...
What are the main reasons you go to church?
- To hear good teaching? (But why not stay at home and listen to sermons online or read books?)
- Because I really like the music?
- To chat with friends after the service? (But why not have an extra hour in bed and show up just in time for post-service refreshments? Or why not just arrange regular informal times of fellowship?)
- Because my church is small, and the services are like small group meetings in which everyone contributes (groups discussions, etc.), and I find that participating in them is the best way for me to grow in my faith?
- Not for my own benefit, but to welcome unbelievers who may show up, and to share the gospel with them?
- For the food?
- Reluctant and grudging obedience?
- Some other reason?
- I'm really glad I do, but I can't explain why!
Answers in the comments below!
3 Jan 2013
"I believe in ... the holy catholic church," we say in the Apostles' Creed.
So where is this "holy catholic church"?
One answer: the holy catholic church is nowhere. There is no church which is perfectly holy. And there is no church that functions perfectly as a coherent whole (cat-whole-ic).
Or perhaps better: the holy catholic church is not yet. When Christ returns, the church on that day will be perfectly holy, and perfectly catholic.
But what do we do now? Where is the church in the meantime?
The church today is becoming holy and catholic. It is tempting to choose one or the other: to look either for a holy church, or for a catholic church:
- First approach: the church should be as holy as possible. This leads naturally to a separatist kind of independency. I seek personally to be holy, and I join the holiest local congregation that I can (within reasonable practical limits). And that local congregation will associate loosely with other like-minded congregations. And as far as I'm concerned, that is the church. I am at liberty to ignore all other so-called "churches". I have no need of them. Holiness is the overriding consideration.
- Second approach: the church should be as catholic as possible. This leads naturally to the ecumenical movement. I want to identify with as many other Christians as I possibly can. So I will join a congregation of a large denomination. And within that denomination, I will seek to immerse myself in ecumenical activities. The goal is to have all people who call themselves Christians closely connected together within one "church". Doctrinal and ethical considerations are secondary; what matters is the unity of the church, and nothing should be allowed to threaten that. Catholicity is the overriding consideration.
I hope it's clear from those descriptions that I don't particularly like either approach. One's approach to church should show commitment both to holiness and to catholicity. What does this mean in practice?
- Catholicity should not be neglected. There should be some tangible efforts to love the unlovely. Perfect (or near-perfect) holiness should not be a prerequisite for Christian fellowship. Within a congregation, those who are immature in their faith should be welcomed and loved into maturity. The same is true between congregations and between denominations. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you'" (1 Corinthians 12:21, ESV).
- Holiness should not be neglected. There should be some tangible efforts to maintain the purity of the church. It should not be the case that every kind of error and vice is embraced and affirmed as being good. "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one" (1 Corinthians 5:11, ESV).
My own context is England, and the conservative evangelical part of the church. What might be the implications for me? I think the main danger within the conservative evangelical part of the church is to neglect catholicity. Conservative evangelicals tend to be strong on holiness, both of doctrine and of life, but most of these congregations seem to associate as little as they possibly can with congregations that wouldn't fit the conservative evangelical mould. And that seems to be true both outside and inside the Church of England. (Maybe I'm wrong, but that's the impression I get.) Efforts surely need to be made to express some kind of interdependence with congregations that are not (yet!) conservative evangelical congregations. This presumably means associating in a non-trivial way (more than the bare minimum possible) with congregations that wouldn't belong to the FIEC or a Gospel Partnership or Affinity or Church Society or Reform. Unless "conservative evangelical" and "Christian" are taken to be synonymous (and I don't think anyone claims they are), then a commitment to the catholicity of the church must surely be demonstrated by some kind of recognition of Christians outside of the conservative evangelical camp.
Speaking personally, I find myself somewhat drawn towards the Church of England as a result of this. It is (currently!) possible to be a conservative evangelical within the Church of England—in fact, most of the major conservative evangelical congregations in England belong to the Church of England. And being in the Church of England forces you to associate at least a tiny bit with the wider body of Christ. So if a conservative evangelical wanted to express some kind of commitment to a wider catholicity, it seems that being in the Church of England would provide a good starting point for that (better than being in an independent congregation).
Perhaps in a sense I'm saying that a greater commitment to catholicity will lead to a growth in holiness. Holiness comes as a consequence of the (catholic) church building itself up, and without some measure of catholicity, there will be very little growth in holiness. Individual Christians grow in holiness not primarily in isolation, but primarily through belonging to a local congregation. And as congregations recognise that they belong to each other, there will be a similar growth in holiness and maturity.
Comments very welcome...!
7 Dec 2012
Jesus Christ has one body with many members. The one body is the global church throughout space and time, and the many members are the individual believers who comprise that body. In addition, there are what we call "churches", or "congregations", which are local gatherings of that one global church.
No one congregation can say to the others, "I have no need of you" (1 Corinthians 12:21). No congregation should act as though it were truly independent. Instead, each congregation needs to express its interdependence with the other congregations in some way. It needs to forego its autonomy and allow itself—in some ways—to be directed by the wider church (much as an individual believer would allow him/herself—in some ways—to be directed by the local church to which he/she belongs).
Thinking aloud (i.e., what follows could be very inaccurate!), three models of interdependence spring to mind, each of which seems to emphasise a different source of authority over the local congregation. Those three sources of authority are:
- the consensual authority of the church today,
- the written authority of the church of the past (expressed in creeds and confessions), and
- the authority of individual leaders of the church today.
Three models of interdependence within the body of Christ:
- Congregationalism (with strong and active associations), for example, FIEC, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. No congregation in the association wants to leave the association, because the association is extremely valuable (although they are free to leave if they wish to). But the bounds of the association, and its aims, are clearly defined, decided by the congregations collectively. Thus the primary source of authority over the individual congregations is the consensual authority of the church today. That is not to say it is the only source of authority. The members of the association value the past, and see themselves as following in the orthodox Christian tradition, clearly articulated in the Protestant Reformation. And the association has individual leaders who are highly respected. These may be elders (pastors) of prominent congregations who often speak at conferences, and whose voice is greatly respected within the association for setting its strategic direction. Or some elders (or "presbyters") may be set aside (or "consecrated") to an itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in the congregations of the association, and to supporting the elders of those congregations. But the dominant authority is the consensual authority.
- Presbyterianism. One difference compared with the first model is that the individual congregations are seen to be part of the wider denomination, rather than the denomination being an association of congregations. This would generally mean that individual congregations are not free to leave the denomination, in the way that self-governing congregations are free to leave an association. Presbyterian denominations also tend to have a much more detailed written standards, to which the elders (presbyters) subscribe. This tends to make the dominant source of authority the written authority of the church of the past (expressed in creeds and confessions). There is consensual authority among the various congregations, but the purpose of the various presbyteries and synods is largely to interpret the authority of the written standards of the denomination. And there may well be individual elders who are set apart (or "consecrated") to a more itinerant ministry within the wider denomination, but these people would not usually have a very prominent role.
- Episcopalianism. The name comes from the Greek word, episkopos, meaning "overseer", which is typically rendered in English as "bishop". In this model, a bishop is a presbyter (or "priest") who is set apart (or "consecrated") to an itinerant teaching ministry within a particular geographical area. Given the prominence of the bishops, it tends to be that the dominant source of authority over local congregations in this model is the authority of individual leaders of the church today. There is also the consensual authority; for example, the Church of England has a multitude of synods and councils, with considerable power. And there is also the written authority of the church of the past, for example, in the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles, although this authority may be disregarded to a greater or lesser extent.
What can we conclude from this? (Or what am I trying to encourage you to conclude by this very biased and simplistic presentation?!) It seems that there are great similarities between these three models of interdependence, but that they tend to emphasise different (legitimate) ways of expressing that interdependence. Maybe a balanced approach is needed? And maybe it's not too dissimilar to the operation of a local congregation, which would tend to have those three sources of authority: the consensual authority of the church meeting (commonly emphasised in congregational churches), the written authority of the congregation's constitution (commonly emphasised in presbyterian churches), and the personal authority of its leaders (commonly emphasised in episcopal churches)?
Of course, all of these sources of authority can be used to a greater or lesser extent. A congregational association might be very controlling, or it might be very broad and basically nonexistent. Or a presbyterian church could be extremely narrow (and prone to schism) or extremely broad. Or a bishop in an episcopal church might seek to exert too much control, or might not actually exercise very much authority at all.
In addition, there is the complexity that congregations within any one of these structures have to recognise the existence of congregations outside of those structures. An Anglican congregation cannot say, "I have no need of you," to the congregational or presbyterian congregation down the road, or vice versa (or the three-way equivalent!). So, while these structures are valuable, they are not the whole story.
3 Dec 2012
Regular readers will (both) be aware that I've been trying to get a better understanding and appreciation of baptism, that wonderful sign of cleansing and new life that Jesus Christ gave to his church.
I haven't read all of it yet, but one article I have read is by FIEC National Director John Stevens: Infant Baptism: Putting Old Wine into New Wineskins? He argues compellingly (in my view!) that baptism ought to be administered only to people who profess faith in Christ. God gave Abraham a promise, and this promise was physically enacted in the sign of circumcision, which served as a reminder of that promise (much as the rainbow served as a reminder of the promise given to Noah). The promise given to Abraham has now been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the blessings promised to Abraham are now a present reality in those who have faith in Christ. Baptism is a sign that the promise has been fulfilled, and is therefore appropriate only for those in whom the promise to Abraham has already found its fulfilment through the receiving of the Spirit. Hence baptism should be given only to believers, preferably as soon as possible after conversion. In contrast, attempts to justify the baptism of infants lead to all sorts of inconsistencies, and these are highlighted with great clarity. I was hinting towards this sort of argument in my post on Should infants be baptised?
However, there are some points later in the article that I find very difficult. Stevens' view of baptism is that it is entirely for the benefit of the new believer; it is purely a means whereby God assures the new believer of his love towards them personally. Rebaptism is perfectly acceptable, if someone is converted after they have been baptised. Even non-baptism is condoned (as long as it doesn't cause problems for the believer's conscience), since "It seems to me that there comes a point at which baptism ceases to serve any useful purpose because the appropriate time for baptism has long passed." Given this radically individualistic understanding of baptism, and its significance only for the individual believer personally, baptism consequently has no real place in the life of the church, and shouldn't be a requirement for church membership or any other aspect of Christian fellowship. Instead, the baptism that is of relevance is the baptism of the Spirit, which is entirely distinct from baptism itself. (This last distinction seems to follow from Stevens' apparent memorialist understanding of the sacraments.)
But does such a low view of baptism within the life of the church follow necessarily from the credobaptist position that Stevens has presented so convincingly? It does seem to be an inevitable consequence of attempting to hold, first, that infants not only should not be baptised but also cannot be baptised, and, second, that those countless believers who (on that reckoning) have not been baptised should nonetheless be welcomed wholeheartedly as genuine believers. But the mistake seems to be to confuse the question of whether infants should be baptised with the question of whether infants can be baptised. And this confusion seems to stem from a failure to distinguish between the outward sign and the inner reality. If we are careful to distinguish between the two, it seems perfectly possible to say that infants ought not be baptised, but that if they are baptised, then they really and truly have been baptised, and ought to be treated as members of the visible church—as long as their past baptism is accompanied by a present faith in Christ. I've tried to argue this point at more length in my post on Can infants be baptised?
26 Nov 2012
There's a purely cultural case for an "equal" (i.e., identical) role for men and women in the church. It goes something like this: For crying out loud, it's the 21st century!!!! However, I've been wondering if there might be a biblical case for female pastors (or elders, bishops, presbyters). It's obvious that some people think there is—even some people who would not be too keen on the aforementioned cultural argument (NT Wright, for example). What might such a biblical case look like?
This isn't something to which I've given too much attention so far. I've heard, considered, and accepted the arguments against female pastors that are used within my (conservative evangelical) "wing" of Christ's body. (In fact, it's pretty much a defining feature of that "wing" to take such a position.) But I want to give a hearing to the other side of the argument.
If there is a biblical case for female pastors, it might look something like the following. I'd need to do some more reading to figure out whether it's a good case (comments welcome!), but here goes…
- Those texts that seem to say that women should not preach (for example) have either been misunderstood, or are tied to the original cultural context in such a way that they do not apply today. (NT Wright makes that case, and it's not entirely fanciful.)
- The nature of the "headship" that a husband has towards his wife, and the created difference between men and women, are such that it would be perfectly appropriate, at least in some cultural contexts, for a woman to exercise the kind of authority that an elder has.
Then I think there are two possible routes…
- The New Testament pattern of church government is normative and unchanging.
- The New Testament gives evidence for a specific office of "widow", or "older woman", or "female elder", or "presbyteress", with responsibility for teaching the younger women, and this is reflected in the practices of the early church. (See this article by Robert A Morey.)
- We should at least recover that biblical office, even if we maintain a distinction between "presbyter" and "presbyteress".
- Society in New Testament times was largely segregated on gender lines. In our society, that is much less the case, so that the roles of "elder" (i.e., male elder) and "female elder" now overlap to the point that they are largely indistinguishable.
- The New Testament pattern of church government is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, and records what the church, in its Spirit-led wisdom, instituted for the context in which it arose. For example, a need arose for some people to be given responsibility for the distribution of food to the widows, and hence the church, in its wisdom, instituted a new office, which seems to be the office of "deacon" (though that term isn't used in Acts 6 itself).
- There were cultural reasons that explain why the church, in its Spirit-led wisdom, had only male elders (and similarly there were cultural reasons why Christ chose only men as his twelve disciples).
- The needs of the church in today's culture are such that there is no longer any reason to restrict the office of "elder" to men.
The argument would need a lot of fleshing out to make it compelling. Provisionally, I could probably go along with most of the points there, but I think the clincher would be the second point, regarding the difference between men and women, and the nature of the authority that a pastor exercises. What does "headship" mean? And what kind of authority does an elder have? These are questions of principle, rather than appeals to proof texts. And they are big questions...
17 Nov 2012
The Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel took place recently in Jamaica. The outcome was an urgent Call to Action. Here are some extracts:
Our discussion, study and prayer together led us to two primary conclusions:
- Creation Care is indeed a “gospel issue within the lordship of Christ”. ...
- We are faced with a crisis that is pressing, urgent, and that must be resolved in our generation. Many of the world’s poorest people, ecosystems, and species of flora and fauna are being devastated by violence against the environment in multiple ways, of which global climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water stress, and pollution are but a part. We can no longer afford complacency and endless debate. Love for God, our neighbors and the wider creation, as well as our passion for justice, compel us to “urgent and prophetic ecological responsibility”. ...
Based on these two convictions, we therefore call the whole church, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, to respond radically and faithfully to care for God’s creation, demonstrating our belief and hope in the transforming power of Christ. ...
Specifically, we call for:
- A new commitment to a simple lifestyle. ...
- New and robust theological work. ...
- Leadership from the church in the Global South. ...
- Mobilization of the whole church and engagement of all of society. ...
- Environmental missions among unreached people groups. ...
- Radical action to confront climate change. ...
- Sustainable principles in food production. ...
- An economy that works in harmony with God’s creation. ...
- Local expressions of creation care. ...
- Prophetic advocacy and healing reconciliation. ...
Each of our calls to action rest on an even more urgent call to prayer, intentional and fervent, soberly aware that this is a spiritual struggle. Many of us must begin our praying with lamentation and repentance for our failure to care for creation, and for our failure to lead in transformation at a personal and corporate level. And then, having tasted of the grace and mercies of God in Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, and with hope in the fullness of our redemption, we pray with confidence that the Triune God can and will heal our land and all who dwell in it, for the glory of his matchless name.
The full thing is here.
13 Nov 2012
I used to be ambivalent about the church "service", preferring a less "religious" word, such as "meeting" or "gathering". But now I think "service" is spot on.
However, the meaning of "service" can be completely misunderstood.
"Service" is related to the word "serve" (I had to look that up). Christians are those who have "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9, ESV). So far so good.
Now, to serve someone is normally a matter of giving things to that person. So it's no particular surprise that we take that idea into our church "services". These are (apparently) the times when we "serve" God by giving things to him. (That's what God wants from us, right?)
So we serve God by giving him our hearts:
Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.
And we serve God by giving him our best:
We are here to praise you, lift our hearts and sing.
We are here to give you the best that we can bring.
And we serve God by giving him our time.
And we serve God by giving him our money.
And then we go home.
And that's why it's called a church "service", right?
No. Not at all.
A clue comes from the Book of Common Prayer, which contains "The Order for the Administration of the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion". What is "administered", or served, during the Communion service? The bread and wine. So if it is the case that someone is serving someone else in the Communion service, who, ultimately, is doing the serving, and who is being served? Hold that thought...
A second clue comes from the book of Acts, where the apostles said, "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (6:4, ESV). Rather than serving hungry people with food, they were going to serve hungry people with the word of God. Again we can ask, when the church gathers together for the ministry of the word, who, ultimately, is serving whom?
The shocking answer is that, when the church gathers for worship, it is not a time when we serve God by giving things to him, but a time when God serves us!
Jesus himself said that he "came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45, ESV). Jesus didn't come to take from us—even "the best that we can bring"—but to give to us. He did that because God isn't the self-centred greedy God, but the generous, self-giving Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit, bound together in self-giving, overflowing love.
In fact, what God wants from us most of all as we come to a church service is for us to bring our emptiness, brokenness and helplessness and to offer those up to him, as empty vessels longing to be filled with his fullness and love. And then it is God's joy and delight to serve us, through the word and sacrament, for our encouragement and joy. That's a church service, the divine service: God serving us.
(I wonder how our "times of worship" would be different if we really took that on board?)
But when we've received those gifts of love in the church service, we will want to give back to God, out of thankful hearts. What can we give to God to express our gratitude?
"With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6–8, ESV)
A church service is not the time when we bring our good works to offer to God. That's what happens in the rest of the week, when in response to his mercy and empowered by his Spirit we offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices. And the way we serve God through the week is by reflecting God's love by humbly serving others. As Luther apparently said, "God does not need your good works, but your neighbour does."
8 Nov 2012
It's wonderful stuff—God is breaking down the walls of division between different groups of people and making one new humanity in Christ.
But personally I'm challenged. The talk was given at a conference of the FIEC: the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. Now, I self-identify (as one does these days) as an FIEC kind of person. And, like many FIEC-type people, I am prepared to travel a fair distance each week in order to be in a Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming church with other like-minded people. In other words, in order to get to a church where the message is clearly proclaimed that, because of God's grace, all the barriers have been brought down and we are all one in Christ, I am prepared to make my way past plenty of churches made up predominantly of people who are different from me—and those differences, by and large, are most noticeably differences in social background (the middle-aged and younger people in my church are mostly university graduates and their families, who have moved to York from elsewhere, with very few proper local people).
So how can I express my commitment to this gospel of God's new humanity, both in wanting to be part of a church that proclaims that gospel clearly, and in wanting to identify with those members of God's new humanity who live in my local area?
One solution, obviously, is to make sure I live very close to a church that proclaims the gospel clearly. But when that's not the case, I'm genuinely not sure what the "right" approach is. Should I support the verbal proclamation of this gospel by travelling a long distance to a church (a "commuter church") made up of people just like me, or should I support the visible proclamation of this gospel by identifying myself with a community of God's people in my local area (a "community church"), even if that church doesn't (verbally) proclaim the gospel so clearly?
Of course, I'm not the first person to feel this tension. I think the recent spurt of "church planting" initiatives aims to deal with this issue. A thriving "commuter church" in the centre of a town or city establishes a congregation in one of the suburbs or surrounding villages, either by starting something new, or by a bulk transfer of people from the central church to an existing church, typically one that is small and struggling. In that way, the "commuter church" becomes something of a "hub" for the surrounding "community churches", providing support, training, resources and teaching in a way that a smaller church is unable to do on its own. There's a lot to be said for this approach, and there are various ways it could work out in practice, either within existing denominational structures or apart from them.
6 Nov 2012
Still pondering the issue of baptism. Previous I asked, Should infants be baptised? I thought not. But there's another question, which is also important: Can infants be baptised?
There are plenty of things that should not be done but can be done. I don't think a Christian should marry a non-Christian. But a Christian can marry a non-Christian, in that if they go through a marriage ceremony, at the end of the ceremony they are actually married. There is nothing intrinsic to the definition of marriage that means that a Christian and a non-Christian cannot be married to each other, even if (in the view of many) they should not get married to each other.
But there are also plenty of things that should not be done and also cannot be done. I should not marry my laptop. It would be inappropriate for many reasons. But it is not only inappropriate: even if I went through a marriage ceremony, and voluntarily exchanged vows with my laptop before witnesses, I cannot marry my laptop. Why not? Because it is intrinsic to the nature of marriage itself that (at least) it is between two human beings. (There are further qualifications that could be added, but I'm using marriage as an illustration and want to steer clear of unnecessary controversy!)
So what of infant baptism? Is it something that should not be done, but can be done, or is it intrinsic to the nature of baptism itself that an infant, by definition, cannot be baptised?
But there is a further question may have entered your mind, if you are still reading: Who cares? Fair question.
First, all Christians agree that baptism can take place only once. Suppose someone comes to you and says they want you to baptise them, but they have been "baptised" already in infancy. What do you do? If you believe that infants should not be baptised, and cannot (by definition) be baptised, then the person has not been baptised, and it's safe to proceed. But if you believe that infants should not be baptised, but can be baptised, then the person has, in fact, already been baptised (however much you might wish it had been otherwise), and hence it would not be appropriate to "baptise" them again.
Second, your baptism (along with your faith) is supposed to be a sign to me that you are a Christian. Unless I treat baptism as having no real importance, I must form an opinion about whether you have actually been baptised, and it must, at least in some circumstances, make some difference to how I relate to you. Maybe I wouldn't want to belong to a church which was led by an unbaptised pastor? Or to be given communion—or to be baptised!—by someone who hasn't been baptised? Maybe I wouldn't want to share membership of a church with someone who hasn't been baptised? If I believe that infants should not be baptised, but that they can be baptised, then that makes things easier: I can happily share fellowship with people who were baptised as infants. But if not—if I think that infants, by definition, cannot be baptised—then it would (or it should) be difficult to share full Christian fellowship with many professing believers.
So I think it's an important question. And one that has significant implications. "Should-not-but-can" credo-baptists should refuse to "baptise" believers who have already been baptised as infants. And "should-not-and-cannot" credo-baptists should be prepared to set at least some limits to how much fellowship they are prepared to share with "unbaptised" believers. In practice I think most credo-baptists attempt to do neither. I've never heard of a credo-baptist church refusing baptism to someone because they have already been baptised as an infant, and most credo-baptist Christians are very uncomfortable with making someone's infant "baptism" a relevant consideration under any circumstances.
So what is the answer: can infants be baptised?
The Baptist Union of Great Britain would say, No:
Christian Baptism is the immersion in water into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of those who have professed repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who 'died for our sins according to the Scriptures; was buried, and rose again the third day'.
In their definition of (Christian) baptism, not only is the mode prescribed (so that those who were "baptised" as adults but not by immersion have not actually been baptised), but it is also explicitly stated that a prior profession of faith is intrinsic to baptism itself. You may be immersed in water, and the right words may be pronounced, but that immersion of water is not baptism unless you have already professed faith. Infants cannot be baptised.
I'm not so sure. I think that confuses the sign itself with the conditions required for the sign to be meaningful at the time the sign is administered. The sign is the washing of the body with water, in the Triune Name. The thing signified is the inward washing of the Holy Spirit. Without the inward reality, the sign is an empty sign. But it is still a sign. A signpost may point to a town that doesn't exist. But that doesn't stop it from being a signpost. Similarly, a person's baptism may be an empty sign, if it is not accompanied by the inner reality. But it is still, it seems to me, genuinely the sign of baptism that the person has received.
(Similarly, baptism following a false profession of faith is also an empty sign, and there doesn't seem to be any material difference between a false profession and no profession at all.)
That empty sign may in later years become a meaningful sign, when the inner work of the Spirit becomes a reality in the person's life. If the non-existent town is later built, the previously misleading signpost will become a perfectly good signpost. It doesn't need to be replaced on the grounds that the town didn't exist at the time that the signpost was erected. So with baptism: that person who comes to faith after receiving the sign of baptism will find that the sign of baptism becomes a meaningful sign and not an empty sign. He or she will then be able to do what all baptised believers can do: look back to the sign of baptism, and look at the faith he or she has now, and take assurance from the sign of baptism that he or she has been washed by the Spirit and the new life has begun. It is the past baptism and the present faith that are important. Whether, at the moment of baptism itself, faith was already a present reality, seems largely irrelevant.
Comments will be very much appreciated!
1 Nov 2012
A sermon I preached last week (21 October) at Calvary Evangelical Church, Brighton:
What is a Christian?
A Christian is someone who…
- is part of God’s big story: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing
- is an elect stranger, 1–2
- has been born again, through God’s mercy, 3
- has a hope, through God’s power, 3–5
- has faith, tested through trials, 6–7
- has love and joy, by faith not by sight, 8–9