Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Church Doctrinal Statement Change Proposed

I am a member of Cherrydale Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia. The church has a Constitution and a Doctrinal Statement.

The church is led by pastors and deacons. These men have proposed changes to both core documents that go before the church February 10, 2013.

Cherrydale was founded in 1913, so this year, Lord willing, Cherrydale will be 100 years old. I have been attending since 2004 and a member since 2007, soon after I joined the staff. I resigned from the staff of the church at the end of 2010. I don't know the full history of its core documents, and I do not know of any changes to the doctrinal statement since I have been there, and I was not aware of the Constitutional change in 2005 and am not aware of what that change entailed.

Both of those core documents currently require believer baptism specifically by immersion for church membership. (Believer baptism is distinct from infant baptism where the person has not yet trusted Christ as their personal savior.) Other forms of believer baptism (sprinkling, pouring, etc.) are not recognized at Cherrydale for purposes of membership. In addition to any non-immersion form of baptism as a believer prior to attending Cherrydale, a believer must be baptized by immersion in order to join Cherrydale. Some consider this rebaptism.

Some have pointed to Acts 19 and the disciples of John who were baptized into "John's baptism" (Acts 19:3) as precedent for rebaptism "in the name of the Lord Jesus " (Acts 19:5). Were the disciples of John believers in Jesus? (They likely had gone out from John before Jesus came to John to be baptized.) Are there any other examples in Scripture of rebaptism?

Anyone who has had a non-immersion believer baptism generally considers Cherrydale's immersion baptism policy to be a requirement for rebaptism for church membership. (Re-baptism creates other theological problems for some who believe baptism is a sacrament, meaning it's not just a symbol, but that something spiritual actually happens at the baptism itself with consecrated water. My understanding is that for Catholics the sacraments are requirements for salvation.) Immersion baptisms after non-immersion baptisms are herein referred to as rebaptisms, not intending to stake a position on this, but simply for rhetorical convenience.

Many people have come through Cherrydale over the years, and their theologies and beliefs on and prior experiences with baptism have covered the full range of possibilities. Many, like myself, had prior experience in a Baptist church and were already baptized by immersion. In a new member interview with a deacon, if the immersion question is answered satisfactorily, it can easily go unnoticed to a new member candidate at Cherrydale that if they had not been baptized by immersion, there would have been steps encouraged toward rebaptism.

For other believers with a prior non-immersion baptism experience, the rebaptism requirement frequently creates roadblocks for those believers joining Cherrydale. Some apply their doctrine against rebaptism and ultimately end up leaving and going to another church. Some stay, decline membership and cannot get as involved as they could with membership.

The rest join the church submitting to rebaptism. This makes for a lot of baptisms at Cherrydale that are not actually new believers getting baptized, but people complying with a church membership policy. (Or, for immersion-only advocates, becoming technically correct or complete about their baptism according to Baptist doctrine.) Either way, the impression from these baptisms is that the Body of Christ is growing and adding to its number, when it's really just Cherrydale adding to its numbers.

All people at Cherrydale getting baptized are asked to publicly give their testimony of how they came to Christ just before being baptized. Some simply and quietly submit to rebaptism, making no public mention of any prior believer baptism. No one who didn't know already know it was a rebaptism would realize that is happening. Sometimes you can read between the lines and hear mention of a non-immersion form of baptism in their past, though it's not pointed out that the baptism at Cherrydale is a rebaptism.

And then there are the times where it's explicitly stated by the member candidate at their baptism that this is a rebaptism. When I first started working at Cherrydale, even before we began the construction project, in the old sanctuary, standing in the baptistery, one woman spent nine minutes giving her testimony and included in it how offended she was that Cherrydale was requiring her to be rebaptized to join the church. "Did they not think she was a believer when she got baptized before?" I don't think Cherrydale would question that, but whatever non-immersion baptism she chose before was not recognized then or now at Cherrydale.

When I joined Cherrydale, I asked a lot of questions during the new member class. (That's because I ask a lot of questions about anything.) One of them was, from where did baptism come? Upon reading the Bible, it can easily seem like John starts the river ministry with people out of nowhere. There wasn't an answer from Cherrydale.

The Jerusalem Connection once published an article that talked about the old testament equivalent of baptism occurring in the doorway of the temple. (It seems to me full immersion would be hard to do in a doorway. A friend of mine said it more referred to the pools outside of and near the door of the temple.)

My thinking on baptism frequently returns to a message by a pastor I visited one Sunday in Yakima, Washington, years ago who explained that baptism comes from an untranslated Greek word that means or was used the way we use the word washing. (The King James translators did not want to offend the king over something, so they just brought the Greek word into English. Had they not, we theoretically could be Cherrydale Washing Church today--an interesting name for a church near Washington, D.C.) As I've thought about it, using the term that way answers a lot of questions for me about baptism and divisions over baptism we see in the Church today. It is not my purpose here to expound on baptism, its origin, purpose, mode, or any of that, a worthy pursuit though that is. I simply raise these points to present my thinking on baptism.

In my discussions with others at the church who disagree with the proposed changes, I was intentional about making sure I was clear on what I think about baptism, where I leave room for differences, and where I'm simply still undecided, before reviewing the proposals. My conclusion is whether it's the Old Testament origins or the New Testament words, while I prefer immersion baptism, I am also comfortable leaving room for differences about baptism.

Therefore, based on Scripture and based on practical implications caused by our current doctrinal statement, I can understand the motivation for pursuing a change in how this Baptist church leaves room for how others have already practiced baptism elsewhere. (At the other end of the spectrum, some don't recognize believer baptism by immersion if the church didn't believe in eternal security.)

Knowing what I do of Cherrydale's history, I was not surprised this involved a change to the Constitution. I was surprised this involved a change to the Doctrinal Statement.

Proposed changes documents
The church has produced a document for the congregation that introduces the proposed changes, and then on a second page shows the current and proposed versions of those changes.

The key statements that stand out to me in that introduction are, "Our motivation for proposing the change is driven by our desire to be better aligned with the first of our seven core values, Biblical Authority. This means that we seek to accurately interpret the Bible and align our beliefs and practices with its truths." Yes, being close to and correct with God's Word are good objectives.

The only red flag I had in the introduction was in the concluding statement when they say, "In light of this, we are making the following proposed changes..." While that may be a typo, it may also reflect a bit of presumptive thinking about the result before the congregation had even seen the proposal. That kind of statement can undermine the thinking of people in the congregation who should be giving this a full evaluation, and not just approval.

The original document as prepared by the church lists the changes in this order:
  1. Doctrinal Statement (original)
  2. Constitution (original)
  3. Doctrinal Statement (proposed)
  4. Constitution (proposed)
The original also employs two different strategies for showing the changes. For the Constitutional change, it shows subtractions and additions. For the doctrinal change, it does not show any subtractions and does not give careful attention to show what is added and what is staying the same.

Admittedly, using that strategy on the Doctrinal Statement change to parse out the nuances of everything that is removed and everything that is added would make it harder to read. Also, these changes have already been through several revisions among the church leadership, a process which that revision method would have complicated.

Nonetheless, I have drafted a version of this document that changes no content, but does give my best attempt at giving a more thorough look at what is changing in the doctrinal statement by specifically showing subtractions, additions, and what would stay the same in the doctrinal statement after the proposed change.

I also change the order to more provide clearer contrast of the before and after of each change, and to put the bigger change at the end. Thus, my order is:
  1. Constitution (original)
  2. Constitution (proposed)
  3. Doctrinal Statement (original)
  4. Doctrinal Statement (proposed)

Constitution Change
This change is fairly simple. It simply drops the immersion requirement for clarifying the mode of baptism, and then adds a requirement that first-time believer baptisms that happen at Cherrydale be by immersion for membership.

The proposed changes do not completely eliminate immersion as a requirement for baptism. It is now just a requirement for new believer first-time baptisms at Cherrydale. This allows us to recognize other forms of believer baptism in a person's past for purposes of church membership, and I find that acceptable.

Doctrinal Statement
While the Constitutional change aims for a simple qualified dropping of the reference to immersion, the Doctrinal Statement change takes a completely different and more complicated approach. What follows here is not a comprehensive review of every change (that can be seen in the full modified version), but just some thoughts on questions these changes raise as I have them.

Proposed change: "Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water" is replaced with "Jesus Christ has instituted and established two ordinances for His Church."

At the risk of oversimplifying things, ordinances are the Baptist alternative to sacraments. For Baptists, nothing special happens at baptism, and sacraments are not required for salvation; they are simply symbols and matters of obedience. Yet it may be time to give second thought to this choice of term ordinance.

Outside a theological context, an ordinance is typically something that a local county or city passes—it's a law. Has Christ established two laws for His Church?

"Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4). Granted, righteousness here refers to salvation and Baptists are not saying ordinances are required for salvation. Yet, to call them ordinances is still the language of the law. Christ "abolished in his flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Ephesians 2:15).

Just because there are things for us to do as described in Scripture, opportunities to do things, that does not mean that every one of those constitutes a command. "Commands" is language of the law. We are "not under law but under grace " (Romans 6:14). Did Jesus call them commands? Yes, and they are a different kind of commands. They are "new commandments" (John 13:34). These are the kind that are "not burdensome " (1 John 5:3).

If we approach his new commandments as laws we must follow, then I think we will miss the point. Communion wasn't something Jesus had to do; communion, that final Passover, was something Jesus ate with them after having been craving it "with fervent desire " (Luke 22:15). Laws push from behind; desire pulls one ahead. Commands from the law bring death (Romans 7:10); grace brings life (Romans 5:17).

Proposed change: "to show forth in a solemn and beautiful emblem" becomes "the initiatory rite of baptism and the ongoing rite of the Lord's Supper..."

Rite? That has the same root as "ritual." To me, that is the very opposite of a relationship. A ritual is repetitive; a relationship is unpredictable. That word rite seems foreign to Baptists and the New Testament. It's not defined here either, and initial reviews of dictionary definitions tie it to sacraments.

Even within the original proposed change as drafted now, rite is now competing with ordinance for describing what we're talking about here and is used twice vs. ordinance which is used once.

Proposed change: Baptism shows "our faith in the crucified, buried and risen Savior" becomes "Baptism is an act of obedience that proclaims the believer's faith in and union with Christ..."

This is the first of three times the "union with Christ" phrase is introduced into the Doctrinal Statement with these proposed changes. (The modified version actually obscures the first instance more than the original draft.)

"Union with Christ" is an awkward and potentially confusing blend of pictures of our relationship with Christ, and of baptism. "We have been united together in the likeness of His death" and will be "in the likeness of his resurrection " (Romans 6:5). Uniting, an active and non-permanent verb, is used in this verse of two things: baptism and resurrection. (KJV says "planted together." This is the only time the Greek word sumphutos used in the New Testament.) Union, while from the same root word, implies a more permanent and fixed change, and not an event. Wouldn't "union" be appropriate for comparisons with marriage? Baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection (being united) more than it does marriage (a union).

Given that the proposed changes also use this phrase later with reference to communion, or the Lord's Supper, it begs the question, How many unions with Christ are there? I can see several times for uniting and coming together (baptism, communion, resurrection), but several unions?

Proposed addition: "Baptism also symbolizes the believer’s baptism of the Holy Spirit..."

Two questions:
  1. What is meant by "baptism of the Holy Spirit"?
  2. How does baptism symbolize that?
To say that baptism symbolizes baptism seems to be a very awkward phrase to be putting into a core statement of faith document.

I agree with the stated purpose and intent of making changes based on both Scripture and the practical reasons described earlier. The Constitutional proposal cleanly and simply accomplishes this objective.

The Doctrinal Statement proposal is neither clean nor simple. It adds several layers of complications and is raising more questions than it is answering for me.

Unintended Consequences
The unanswered questions that arise from these proposed changes, raise questions about the effect of these changes. That is, would these changes only increase who joins Cherrydale, or could they also drive current and other new members away?

At the very least, the ambiguities created by these changes could drive existing and new members to create their own private interpretations of unclear phrases so they can accept the statement. The purpose of a doctrinal statement is to centralize key points of theological agreement. These proposed changes could have the opposite effect of that.

Alternative Approach
Wouldn't a simpler way to modify the doctrinal statement be to take the same simple approach as used in the Constitutional change?

For instance, "We believe that the Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water to show forth in a solemn and beautiful emblem our faith in the crucified, buried and risen Savior..." could simply become, "We believe that Christian baptism with water shows forth in a solemn and beautiful emblem our faith in the crucified, buried and risen Savior..."

Or with the alternate formatting: "We believe that the Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in with water to shows forth in a solemn and beautiful emblem our faith in the crucified, buried and risen Savior..."

Contrasting this alternative approach to the current proposal also highlights a subtle shift in focus from "our faith in the crucified, buried and risen Savior," to "an act of obedience that proclaims the believer's faith in and union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection..." Both mention the believer and both mention Christ, yet the grammar of one focuses on the Savior while the grammar of the other focuses on the believer. Yes, that difference is important.

Church Vote
As best I can tell, the plan is for a single vote on both changes at once.

I suggest this could be improved upon by (1) splitting the vote into separate votes on the Constitutional change and on the Doctrinal Statement change, and (2) simplifying the proposal for the Doctrinal Statement change to match the approach of the Constitutional change.

What do you think of any or all of this? Please feel free to chime in on questions or statements here.


David VT said...

Have you ever read the Didache (pronounced Did-A-Kay)? It is a historical document, dated between A.D. 40 and 100. It is a historical document. They detail how Christian worship is to be practiced. Here is link to the text: http://www.scrollpublishing.com/store/Didache-text.html

They make very clear that running water is preferred but immersion is not necessary. "If you do not have running water, baptize in other water. If you are not able to use cold water, use warm. And if you have neither, pour water on the head three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

I know you said your issue is not so much with they types of Baptism but rather with the procedure, etc of this change but it begs the question ... Can the REQUIREMENT of immersion be biblical if it was not required by the Apostles of the first Christians.

My prayers are with you in addressing these questions.

Gary said...

Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ,

I ask you to consider these points:

1. When God said that he would preserve his Word, what did he mean? Did he mean that he would preserve the original papyrus and parchment upon which his Word was written? If so, then his Word has disappeared as none of the original manuscripts remain.

Did he mean that he would preserve his word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek only? He would not preserve his Word when it was translated into all the other languages of the world?

Or did God mean that he would preserve his Word…the message/the words…the Gospel: the free gift of salvation, and the true doctrines of the Christian Faith? Would God allow his Word/his message to mankind to be so polluted by translation errors that no translation, into any other language from the three original languages, continues to convey his true words?

2. There is NO translation of the Bible, from the original ancient languages, into ANY language, ANYWHERE on earth, that translates the Bible as the Baptists/evangelicals believe it should be translated.

No Bible translation on earth translates Acts 2:38 as, “Repent and believe in Jesus Christ every one of you and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Then be baptized as a public profession of your faith.”

Why would God allow EVERY English translation of the Bible throughout history to be mistranslated or use such confusing language as to suggest that God forgives sins in Baptism? And not only all English translations, ALL translations of the Bible have retained these “mistranslations or confusing wording”.

Do you honestly believe that God would allow his Word to be so polluted with translation errors that EVERY Bible in the world, if read in its simple, plain interpretation, would tell the people of the world that God forgives sins in water baptism??

3. Why is there not one single piece of evidence from the early Christians that indicates that ANYONE in the 800-1,000 years after Christ believed that: Water baptism is ONLY a public profession of faith/act of obedience; sins are NOT forgiven in water baptism? Yes, you will find statements by these early Christians that salvation is by faith, but do Baptists and evangelicals really understand how a sinner obtains saving faith? THAT IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION, MY FRIENDS! Does the sinner produce faith by his own free will or does God provide faith and belief as a gift, and if God does provide faith and belief as a free gift, with no strings attached, WHEN exactly does God give it?

4. Is it possible that: Baptist-like believers, at some point near or after 1,000 AD, were reading the Bible and came across verses that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” and “Call upon the name of the Lord and you will be saved” and established their doctrine of Salvation/Justification first, based on these and similar verses alone, and then, looked at the issue of water baptism, and since the idea that God forgives sins in water baptism didn’t seem to fit with the verses just mentioned, these early Baptists re-interpreted these verses to fit with their already established doctrine, instead of believing the “baptism verses” literally?

Is it possible that BOTH groups of verses are literally correct?? If we believe God’s Word literally, he says that he saves/forgives sins when sinners believe/call AND when they are baptized? Why not believe that God can give the free gift of salvation in both situations: when a sinner hears the Gospel and believes and when a sinner is baptized?

Should we re-interpret God’s plain, simple words just because they don’t seem to make sense to us?

God bless you and keep you!

Tim McGhee said...

That Luther post includes this quote:

"'There is no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the water and received the remission of our former sins.' Hermas (circa 150)"

The write of Hebrews says otherwise:

"And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission."
Hebrews 9:22 (NKJV)

Salvation is a spiritual renewal. Physical renewal comes from glorification in the resurrection.

13,153 days

Gary said...

There is no evidence that there was any controversy in the early Church regarding the belief that God saves and forgives sins in water baptism.

There is no evidence of any controversy regarding baptizing the infant children of converts nor the infants of Christian parents for the purpose of remission of sins/salvation. The only controversy found is that of Tertullian, who believed that not only children, but widows and single adults should not be baptized: Why? Because Tertullian believed that baptism only forgives sins committed prior to baptism, not sins committed after baptism. Tertullian was denounced as a heretic by the other early Christian leaders. I will bet that Baptists and evangelicals do not subscribe to his false belief either.

Nor is there any evidence of any controversy in the early Church regarding the True Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

There is no evidence that Baptistic believers hid out in caves for 1,000-1,500 years since the days of the Apostles, as some Baptists teach.

So how did the Baptistic beliefs of: 1. Adult-only baptism as a public profession of one’s decision to believe (it has nothing to do with salvation or the forgiveness of sins), 2. The Lord’s Supper is simply a symbolic memorial service. Christ is not really present in the elements, and 3. Sinners must have the maturity and intelligence to make an informed decision to believe, before God will save them…develop?

I have absolutely no proof, but I will bet that this is what occurred:

Devout Christians living sometime between 800-1,000 AD in Europe, who loved the Lord and followed his commands, looked around and saw all these people who had been baptized as infants living in absolute depravity, sinning worse than pagans, but still expecting that they would get into heaven based on their infant baptism. These devout, God-fearing Christians asked themselves, “Can these people really be Christians? Is this really how God intended the Christian Faith to be?”

So they started reading the Bible and came across verses that said “the just will live by faith”, “he that believes on the name of Jesus Christ will be saved”, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” These devout believers also did not find any verses in the Bible, during their studies, which specifically mention infant baptism.

So these devout Christians read these verses and said to themselves, “Ah hah! The Church has been wrong all this time! The Apostles could not have taught that God saves people in infant baptism because these verses say very clearly that one must believe, confess, repent, call…and infants cannot do those things! Therefore, infant baptism is unscriptural! All these infant-baptized people are not really saved. That is why they live lives of willful sin! In order to be a true Christian, a sinner must make an informed, adult decision to believe and then be baptized."

"Sinners are saved when they make a decision to believe, not when they make a decision to be baptized!” they proclaimed.

And over the generations this belief system grew among Baptistic believers until after a few generations, these believers were saying things like: “There have always been true believers with baptistic beliefs.” "The Apostles themselves taught baptistic doctrine.” “The “Catholics” have completely distorted the true Faith and have destroyed all evidence that there have always been baptistic believers since the days of the Apostles.” “Baptistic believers have been hiding in caves for 1,000 years”, and on and on it grew, until today, many Baptists/evangelicals believe, as fact, that there have been Baptists/evangelicals ever since the earliest Christians!

The problem is…there is not ONE shred of evidence, found anywhere on planet earth, to back up this very well-intentioned belief system as having been the doctrines/teachings of Jesus Christ, as taught by his Apostles.

Tim McGhee said...

Hi Gary,

I am not going to get drawn into a debate about Church history. It really doesn't matter to me whether all of our record of church history or none of it backs up what Scripture says.

I find the best part of your message to be, "So they started reading the Bible and came across verses that said “the just will live by faith”, “he that believes on the name of Jesus Christ will be saved”, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”"

"The just shall live by faith" comes from Habakkuk 2:4. Paul found that and we find "live by faith" in Romans 1:17, Galatians 2:20 and 3:11. The writer of Hebrews also mentions that in Hebrews 10:38.

In that sense, then, living by faith pre-dates the Church. That idea goes all the way back to the beginning. One of the earliest clear statements on that in Scripture is Genesis 15:6.

I have collected some Scripture related to the Good News. I have since found more I could add to this list.

13,155 days