Monday, May 7, 2007

When I see a Methodist, what do I see?

I am a Baptist. I believe that the 1689 London Baptist Confession and the 1858 Abstract of Principles are faithful summations of Biblical teaching.

However, I am also arrogant about being a Baptist. For this, I apologize.

When I see a Methodist (or a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Pentecostal, etc.), what do I see? Instead of seeing a brother or sister in Christ, I tend to first see a person whose doctrinal beliefs are not as Biblical as what I consider mine to be. I focus on what makes us different instead of on what should bring us together: our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I know as well as you do that some people who claim to be Methodists are not saved. However, the same is true for Baptists. In fact, the misapplied belief in "once saved, always saved" may even lead more Baptists than Methodists to falsely believe they are going to heaven even if their lives are bearing no fruit.

I know many people who are godly saints who also attend Methodist churches. So why do I first look to what separates instead of what unites? My only conclusion is that it makes me feel good to be right, and have others be wrong. This certainly does not please Christ.

So if I focus on unity, in what areas (practically speaking) can I be united with folks of other denominations (assuming they believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior)? The answer is simple: in almost every area. I can unite with them in missions and evangelism. I can unite with them in ministry work in the community. I can unite with them in prayer for revival in our community, state, and country. I can unite with them on taking a stand for Biblical authority on social issues. I can unite with them on apologetics-related issues. I can unite with them while participating in in-home Bible studies.

The one place I cannot unite with Methodists, Lutherans, etc. is in membership in a local church. This is mostly because of the key issue of believer's baptism. A church simply cannot have different definitions of what this ordinance means within one body.

However, division should not be my first thought when I see a person from another denomination. My first thought should be, "Hey, there is another follower of Jesus Christ. I'm going to go see how they are doing, and how I can serve them in the Lord."

14 comments:

Maël said...

Can I play devil's advocate ... I love to do that for some reason ...

Aren't they part of the Church? So why can't they be part of the church? (Universal vs. local that is).

What is our responsibility towards them and why does it change from the church to the Church?

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I appreciate this post and your desire to maintain unity in the body of Christ. I think we should all take a serious look at what Scripture says about separating from brothers and sisters in Christ. We separate for many reasons, but are all of these reasons scriptural? Thanks again for the reminder and challenge.

-Alan

Eric said...

Mael,

All brothers and sisters in Christ are certainly part of the Church Universal. No doubt there.

All believers can be part of a local church. The difficulty occurs when a significant issue arises (of which I think there are few within the larger Universal Church) that prevents Christians from being part of the same fellowship.

One of those few reasons is baptism. Isn't this why our Baptist forefathers have been killed off for so many years before us?

If baptism is a public profession of faith that occurs after salvation, and this precedes membership in a church, then how can those who hold to infant baptism possibly be a part of the same local body? I see no realistic way around this.

That said, I believe Christians should be united in any way possible, and look for unity before looking for division.

Thanks for the questions. I like being stretched.

Eric said...

Alan,

Thanks for the comment. I believe, as I'm sure you do too, that the vast majority of the reasons churches use for separation are unscriptural.

The difficulty arises when there is an issue, let's say baptism, that seems impossible to overcome. Should unity be the primary focus, and a local body embrace various forms of baptism? This seems to cheapen the ordinance. However, is it worth separating over? These are tough issues.

I would hope that Christians would first look to unity, and would reduce the number of issues that we would sacrifice unity for.

Lew A said...

Eric,

A few months ago I came to realize that there are saved Catholics out there too. Believe it or not!

I guess the way I see the whole baptism thing is like meat offered to idols. I know it does not really matter and you are still a Christian regardless of what you believe about it.

God's Glory,
Lew

P.S. I define Christian as one who has been saved by Christ.

Eric said...

Lew,

I agree that there are saved Catholics. I have met a few of them. I have found, however, that saved Catholics rarely follow strictly the teachings of the Catholic Church.

As far as baptism is concerned, I agree that it has no impact on whether or not a particular person is saved. If it did, we would then be saying that salvation is due to grace plus our work of salvation.

However, because baptism is an ordinance instituted by Christ, I do think it is very important to the church. Frankly, I find infant baptism to be completely unbiblical and nonsensical. How can an infant possibly be testifying to his faith in the Lord? Also, it is nowhere to be found in the biblical text.

I just don't see how infant baptism and believer's baptism can be reconciled and held to within one local church. If a church did that, what would they be saying baptism means?

By the way, I agree with your definition of "Christian."

Thanks for your comment.

Maël said...

If I believe that scriptural baptism is through immersion only, and I do, then what is my responsibility to my Methodist brother? Should I try to convince him/her that s/he is wrong? Should there be church discipline?

I once heard one of my professors say that the pastor of his "favorite reformed elder led church in Washington DC" stated that if someone like R. C. Sproul joined their church, that they would put him under church discipline on the spot. My question is, if that is an offence worthy of church discipline, and I'm not saying it is not, then what is our responsibility to R. C. Sproul while he is not in our "local" church fellowship?

I don’t believe in infant baptism; that is just a bath.
I do appreciate the many Baptist forefathers who were willing to die for their beliefs about baptism.
I’m just trying to reconcile this local / universal dichotomy we see in practice, but which I do not see in Scripture. Are the one another’s in Scripture only valid for the “local” church? Any thoughts?

Eric said...

These are definitely difficult issues. I know that I don't have all the answers.

As far as church discipline is concerned, I do not think it would ever come to that because someone who holds to infant baptism would not (I hope) join a baptist church, and vice-versa. I highly doubt that R C Sproul will any time soon give up his belief in infant baptism.

I do think we have a responsibility to at least discuss with other believers what we believe to be biblical. Of course, we must be loving and Christ-like in this, and choose our timing wisely. Winning debates serves no real purpose.

I also do not see a Universal/local church division within the NT. That is what makes this so difficult. It would be wonderful if we had no denominations, and could all be united. However, I do not see how this is possible when something like baptism is defined in such different ways.

I certainly do not think that someone like Sproul is a false teacher, so those biblical passages do not apply. I suppose the best passages for this issue would be those that deal with teaching the truth and contradicting false doctrine. I think the pastoral epistles have a lot to say about this.

This is a long, round-about answer. Sorry about that. Although the Universal/local difference cannot be found in the Bible, I suppose it is a consequence of faulty teaching. We are almost forced into this current situation because of some poor teaching along the way.

So do we water down our teaching and just all be in one big church that holds to the confession of "Jesus is Lord" and nothing else? Or do we try to be as biblical as possible and, therefore, have separate local bodies? Neither option is great, but I'll go with the second.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I appreciate this discussion. As you know, I agree with you on the issue of baptism - in other words, I interpret Scripture much like you interpret Scripture. Admittedly, though, there are many godly believers who interpret the passages about baptism differently that you and I. I can't remember a passage that states, "You must baptize by immersion after confession of faith preceding membership in a locala church." Even if someone interprets Scripture this way, we must be honest in admitting that this is an interpretation.

There are other commands that are stated matter-of-factly: i.e. "Make disciples". Why do you think we don't separate from people who refuse to carry out this straightforward command, or submit them to church discipline, but we do separate from those who disagree with us on baptist - which, I admit, is not straightforward?

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

I agree that there are many godly believers who interpret the issue of baptism differently. Could we as baptists be incorrect about baptism? I suppose so. However, I honestly believe that a fair, straightforward reading of scripture shows that salvation precedes baptism. I've tried to look at it from other angles, but I just cannot get past the utter absence of anyone being baptized prior to salvation.

I'm not so dogmatic about either the immersion issue, or the tie-in with the local church.

As to the issue of separation, I think we separate over baptism because it is such a public, black-and-white thing. Either you baptize infants or you do not. I still do not see how a local church could have two (or more) different definitions of what baptism means.

We don't separate over the issue of making disciples because it is much murkier. It would get awfully tricky, after defining what making disciples is, to then say who was, and who was not making them.

I'm not saying that this is a good reason, but it is probably a reality. Church discipline over this issue would be doubly difficult. What parameters would be used for who was and who was not making disciples? Most folks will say they are for making disciples, but some will just not be doing it.

Let me finish with a question or two on baptism again. If a local church accepted both infant baptism and believer's baptism as valid, how would this all work? Would they both be referred to as ordinances? If so, are they the same ordinance or separate ones? Would people who had been baptized as infants be encouraged to be baptized again after conversion?

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I would suggest that the local church does accept both views on baptism - and even more views on baptism. That is, if you see the local church as Scripture describes the local church: all the believers in a general location. What do we do? We separate into little groups because of it.

Funny thing is, I can't find any instance in Scripture where believers are encouraged to separate over baptism. However, they are instructed to separate from a divisive brother. Maybe we have it backwards?

-Alan

Eric said...

I think we are stuck in this mess because of years of 1) poor teaching on baptism, and 2) a lack of any teaching on church discipline.

Therefore, we now have a tension between baptism and unity, which is a shame. And we have little to no church discipline of any kind in our churches.

I'm not sure what the answer is as far as baptism is concerned. However, I keep coming back to the same thing. If a church accepts both infant and believer's baptism, how do they even define what baptism is?

The answer for church discipline is much simpler: just do it (scripturally, of course).

Maël said...

Eric,

Thanks for the discussion ... I think you are right when you state that we are in this mess because of years of poor teaching. I think we are in a lot of messes because of years of poor teaching.

On a larger scale: how do we apply Matt 18 in today's “messy” Christendom? v. 15 states that "if your brother sins against you." This seems very general so as to include people that are not in our “local” church. So how do we do church discipline scripturally in that kind of setting? This is what I am struggling with more than with the whole issue of baptism.

BTW - still waiting for an answer to a question on my blog ...

Eric said...

The splintering of the church ever since the Reformation really has put us in some awkward situations.

As far as church discipline is concerned, we could encourage churches across denominations to work together based on Matt. 18. With things as they currently are, church discipline between members of different local bodies is almost impossible unless the pastors are in agreement on how to handle it. However, because this is not an ordinance that is "set in stone," it may be possible to work together.

On the large scale, I would love to see churches from different denominations come together to see if any of their differences could be ironed out. I think many could. However, I still do not know what we do about "sticking points," baptism being one of the biggest. The two answers I hear are either A) accept both forms of baptism because how you go about it doesn't really matter as long as you do it, or B) just stay separate at the local level. Is there any other answer for reconciliation between denominations on this issue? I simply don't know.