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Debating Baptism and Ecclesiology

I wrote an essay recently posted at Reformed Forum, called “Ecclesiology and Redemptive History . . . Oh and Baptism.” As I explain in the introduction to that piece, my principle interest is ecclesiology. My approach in the essay is to ‘get at’ ecclesiology from two directions: from its roots in redemptive history and biblical theology, and from its fruits in the sacrament of baptism.

As I think about these topics and discuss them with friends, I find it remarkable that they appear at once crucial to our understanding of church and worship, but also rather conspicuously non-essential. I am less comfortable with the latter observation, admittedly, but I think it holds true. Here is what I mean.

Notice that within the world of conservative, English-speaking evangelicalism, there is clear division and unceasing debate on ecclesiology and baptism, some two thousand years into the New Testament era. At its best the debate betrays diligence and reverence for the subject matter. It betrays this in its specificity and in its intensity. These are intense and involved, in-house debates. And the importance of the issues in question is beyond dispute. As a friend put it recently, one’s ecclesiology, implicitly or explicitly, constitutes one’s answer to such practical and fundamental questions as: to whom do we preach on Sunday mornings? and can a Christian lose his salvation?

Such questions can and should be and often are treated with tremendous care and solemnity. As noted, the great significance of ecclesiology and one’s view of baptism is unmistakable. But theologians, I think, see so immediately the depth and complexity of these matters that they are perhaps prone to bypass the plain and simple practicality in view.

I think of unbelievers and the unchurched, and how it must appear from their point of view that evangelical baptists and presbyterians, indistinguishable on his socio-cultural atlas, cannot come to terms even on something as mundane as ‘what the church is’ and ‘who can really be a member.’ I would have to think that to the unchurched this borders on the absurd. The confusion and civil disarray must appear to him as a kind of jejune and shameful idiosyncrasy of small-minded Bible-thumpers.

Now I am not suggesting that we take this demography as normative, but I think it is useful in the following way. The distinction between the ‘normal’ and the Bible-thumper, so clear on the unbeliever’s map, is perhaps neither more nor less ‘important’, whatever that might mean, than distinctions drawn in the theological laboratory (paedo v credo, for example), but it bears a unique brand of urgency that should not be forgotten. What I mean is that we have two pairs of classes in view: baptist and presby, churched and unchurched. The former distinction is theologically complex and comparatively in-house (where the house is the church universal). The latter is also theologically complex, but since it is not in-house (or it’s a different, far larger house), the theological focus shifts accordingly. Ecclesiology and baptism, generally speaking, are relevant in either context, but the context is different and I think this is significant.

The unbeliever’s ‘me vs them,’ to my mind, stands as a helpful reminder that, for all the diligence and seriousness rightly devoted to ecclesiology and baptism and such things, precision and clarity are at a premium: what exactly are we doing? It ought to be clear and precisely understood that the principle undertaking here is the grateful and obedient searching of the Scriptures and the stewardship of the oracles of God. Various alternatives vie for prominence: literary eloquence, theological sophistication, argumentative force, professional or social distinction, the thrill of the polemical hunt, or self-glorification in some other form. But what ought to be foremost in the mind and most evident to the observer—to the unchurched, the weaker brother, or the seasoned interlocutor—is merely the proper orientation of the people of God to the Word and the proper method of seeking God while he may be found. A fine example of this has been clear to me in the preaching of the senior minister at my church in Philadelphia. He preaches warning, he preaches encouragement, he preaches the gospel and the love of Christ, even in these various ways addressing directly at times the unbeliever, all with the force and richness of the full canonical witness. So that’s what I mean.

Not that anyone was mistaken about this, but in my own learning I have barely scratched the surface of the biblical teaching and the historical writing on ecclesiology and baptism. And my point here is that the importance of these issues cannot be overstated, but it can be rather imprecisely stated, or anyway implicitly misconstrued. I’ll just add that in all likelihood I’m talking to myself here.


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