I Started Out Baptist…

November 21, 2010 — 2 Comments
“This has always been the main task of theology: to reflect on and makes sense of what is happening in Christian churches.”
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Introduction to Ecclesiology (Kindle Location 52)

Recently I’ve been getting some kind-natured ribbing from my DMINGML colleagues suggesting that I am, or should be on a path toward converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. While I think it is meant in jest (except perhaps for Tom who might run there with me) it highlights some very real tension that I’ve felt as I’ve navigated my own mixed-theological and ecclesiological journey.
This post is intended to be an interaction with the first two parts of Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s Introduction to Ecclesiology (I’m reading the Kindle edition, so citations will refer to locations, not pages). However, instead of trying to recap all seven streams of ecclesiology and their representative theologians, I am going to contrast the two that have been most significantly at play in my journey thus far: Free Church and, more recently, Eastern Orthodox. For an excellent overview of the book I commend to you Andrew Bloemker’s “What is the Church? the Flavor of Christ Followers”.

(Note: due to my inability to concisely relay that which I desire to share with you, I’ve decided to split this post into two.)

 

Free Church and James McClendon, Jr.
I’ll start with tradition with which I am most familiar. I was born and bred, as they say, a Baptist. As a Baptist, our understanding of the nature of the church was as a local gathering of Christians who practiced conversionism, believers’ baptism, and prized the autonomy and independence of the local congregation. Taken together, this puts Baptists squarely in the middle of the Free Church stream of ecclesiology.

The mission of the church, as I witnessed every Sunday morning (and Sunday evening and Wednesday night) was to convert and save the lost. All men are separated from God by sin. They can do nothing to save themselves. Left to their own devices and in their sinful state they are doomed to spend an eternity in Hell. However, Christ suffered and died for sin he did not commit. He appeased the anger of God and satisfied the requirements for justice. Therefore anyone can be saved from sin. All he needs to do is confess that he is a sinner in need of being saved, proclaim that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified and resurrected in order that men might not be condemned to eternal damnation, but have everlasting life in the presence of God. Such salvation when received is immutable and eternal. Just as there was no way to earn grace – it can only be received – there is no way one can completely fall from grace either.

Every Sunday morning the trajectory of the worship serviced ended in an opportunity to pray to receive Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior. With every head bowed and every eye closed the preacher would encourage the penitent to pray (sometimes silently, but often aloud):
Dear God, I know that I am a sinner. I have broken Your laws and I am separated from you. I am truly sorry. Please forgive me and help me to turn from my sinful ways and live a life dedicated to You. I believe that Your Son, Jesus Christ, died for my sins and was resurrected so that I might spend eternity in Heaven with You. I invite Him into my heart to be my personal Lord and Savior. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

After this prayer had been prayed the congregation would stand and sing a hymn (usually “Just As I Am” or “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus“) while the preacher and other pastoral staff would stand at the front of the sanctuary to receive anyone who had received Christ that day. If anyone came forward, they would tell the preacher the decision they had made, pray with him, and then be presented to the congregation at the end of the service.

The next step for a convert was believers’ baptism. This ordinance was celebrated as a step of obedience in one’s decision to follow Christ. In the churches I grew up attending, baptism was celebrated once a quarter at a special baptism service, usually on a Sunday evening. Baptism was often likened to a soldier’s dress uniform. It was a way of publicly proclaiming one’s identity. In the same way that a solider is a soldier regardless of the clothing he has on, so Baptism was just a symbol of the individual’s decision to follow Christ. As such, no special grace was imparted. Baptism also served as the means of entering into church membership.

There were two ways to join a Baptist church. One was by conversion and baptism. The other was by transferring your membership from another Baptist church (there were provisions made on the rare occasion that someone from another theological tradition desired to join the church). Transferring one’s “letter of membership” was essentially saying that one’s previous church was commending this person or family as members (believers) in good standing. Baptist churches are quintessentially believers’ churches. Kärkkäinen sees the believers’ church as “undoubtedly the most distinctive feature of [the Free Church] ecclesiological tradition” (loc. 635). He goes on to enumerate six characteristics of believers’ churches (see locs. 667-674):
  1. “Though constituted by volunteers, it is Christ’s church, not theirs”
  2. “Membership… is in fact voluntary and witting”
  3. “The principle of separation from the world is emphasized”
  4. “Mission and witness are key concepts… [which] involve all members”
  5. “Church discipline and internal discipline are stressed”
  6. “[They] have opposed the identification between the church and the secular”
Also stressed is the concept of a priesthood of all believers. While ordination to vocational ministry does exist, in most Baptist churches it is the local congregation that exercises the authority to ordain. Oftentimes this is a way of formally recognizing an already active divine call (loc. 690). Just as one’s membership in a Baptist church is voluntary and witting so also is a church’s membership in any larger network of churches voluntary. Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention by a church is one of free association. The authority of the SBC is limited only to the activities that it performs on behalf of its members – namely missionary work. For more see http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/legal/constitution.asp and note that the SBC, while the largest Protestant body in the US, “will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention.”

This was the backdrop against which my faith was formed. I prayed the sinner’s prayer kneeling beside my parents’ bed when I was seven. I was baptized several weeks later. I was so short that I had to stand on an upturned milk crate for my head to be out of the water. When the pastor immersed me by laying be backwards into the water (“buried with Christ in baptism”) my feet kicked up and splashed him. When he brought me up again (“raised to walk in newness of life”) I had trouble finding purchase and flailed around until I could find the steps out of the baptismal pool.

The next thirteen years of my faith formation were an outgrowth of this conversion and baptism experience (with numerous subsequent “rededications” which I will not go into here). Kärkkäinen explores James McClendon Jr. as Baptist theologian par excellence. He notes McClendon’s profound definition of the purpose of Baptist doctrine as “‘a church teaching as she must teach if she is to be the church here and now” (loc. 1,572). For McClendon, doctrine isn’t something that exists about the church, rather it is an activity of the church.

Church itself is the local gathering of believers. Therefore doctrine begins with gathering. Yet it is not gathering for any purpose. No, for McClendon it is the gathering of believers for the purpose of Christian discipleship – Kärkkäinen denotes McClendon’s use of the word “revolution” to describe the radical nature of these believers’ gatherings (loc. 1,594). They gather together as those saved from “the world” in order to be equipped and empowered to live lives in opposition to the world. Why? So that through word and deed they might witness to those who are not saved and invite them into a personal relationship with Jesus.

For reasons that I’m not sure I can quite articulate, the rhythm of conviction and conversion so prevalent within my Baptist upbringing grew increasingly grating. Weekly I was assaulted with the depth of my sinfulness, a feeling of how disgusting this made me to God, my need for Christ’s atonement, and God’s  forgiveness (in the form of a contractual obligation) predicated on my confession of my powerlessness. By the time I was twenty I’d walked away from Christianity altogether.

Anderson Campbell

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  • Clifford Berger

    #dmingml Eddie, I grew up Baptist myself, and recognize so much of your description in my own background. You’re a lot younger than I am, and I’m astonished to see that so little had changed between your experience and that of my own when I was young. Of the six characteristics identified by Kärkkäinen, the one I think may have diminished the most is Church discipline

  • Anderson Campbell

    I think you’re right. In my experience church discipline is almost non-existent in the Free Church movement today. The possible exception is within Anabaptist churches. I was part of a Mennonite church for a time and it humbly and gently disciplined two of its members who were found to be having an affair with one another. The restorative process was a portrait of grace in action. Far from being “disciplinary” in the power-tripping sense, it was instead an example of corrective love.