Monday, August 13, 2007

Recently, I embedded myself in a discussion (once again) as to whether baptism effects the forgiveness of sins, or rather testifies to it. The Scripture verse in question (as always) is Acts 2:38. I’ll start you with verse 36 just for fun.

It reads, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Verse 37 says, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And here’s verse 38: “And Peter said to them, ‘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 2:36-38, ESV) Generally, Protestants deny that baptism regenerates the person (with Lutherans as notable exception), but the Churches of Christ say to varying degrees that baptism does forgive sins. For the record, I capitalized ‘Churches’ back there to specifically indicate a group of Christians who refer to themselves as such. It seems necessary since I would use that phrase normally to refer to the whole collectivity of confessing Christians, rather than a distinct group with its own beliefs and practices. I actually find myself discussing this matter of baptism’s meaning over a period of years with a member of the CoC. It always seemed to me that confessing Protestant hostility to the idea of baptismal regeneration arises from systematic theology; one has a carefully crafted theological worldview that answers most of the fascinating secondary issues of Christianity (baptism, Lord’s Supper, use of creeds, as opposed to the primary, such as Christ’s deity and humanity, his virgin birth, his resurrection, and his certain return at the end of all things). And indeed, the reasons for, say, denying baptismal regeneration appear to be because affirming it has a negative effect on people’s ability to affirm and practice all aspects of Christianity, that the particular distinctive attains too much importance. (And the distinctives vary with each group of Christians.) It seems very difficult to ‘prove’ with Scripture’s plain teaching itself, that a group or person is objectively wrong about whatever it is. Which is the reason these issues are still debated, and—praise God—why they are secondary issues.
Anyway, the distinctive mark of the CoC is baptism, and the insistence that baptism indeed forgives sins. I don’t want to necessarily consider the question of whether that is correct; I’d rather understand why that’s the distinctive, why it’s the deal-breaker, so to speak, which prevents friendly communion between members of the CoC and frankly, everyone else. For example, I consider myself Reformed Presbyterian. The Reformed have distinctives and points of disagreement with other Christians, but among evangelicals, it would take a major shift in thinking for Reformed believers to regard an evangelical Methodist for example, as anything other than a fellow believer. This explains the widespread practice of open communion (allowing all confessing Christians to partake of the Lord’s Supper regardless of affiliation). But generally, members of Churches of Christ regard other groups with outright hostility, believing the lack of conformity on baptism doctrine to be an inexcusable lapse in faithfulness to the biblical text, rendering the one who holds a contrary view outside the household of faith. Which makes unity and friendly theological discussion impossible, I’d say. I freely acknowledge the possibility that the Bible teaches baptismal regeneration. (I’m not entirely certain on the issue myself) But I would not consider it a scandal if someone held a contrary view. I might not even mind variance within my own denomination. (Heck, how could I hold it against someone if we’re still debating it in my head? Perhaps it’s a split personality; there’s Catholic Jason, and Puritan Jason. By the way, they commune together! Wait, they argue about everthing. Catholic Jason likes to call Puritan Jason a Gnostic dualist, while Puritan Jason calls Catholic Jason a Mary-worshipping papist. CJ then reminds PJ that they mutually agreed not to honor Mary that way, to which PJ replies, “Thank you, you bread-worshipping sentimentalist.” PJ struggles with anger issues.) In any case, this appalling lack of charity makes me angry, especially since I’m pretty open-minded about the issue. I’ve been thinking now for several weeks that if I were forced to only choose between being Church of Christ or Roman Catholic, I’d be Catholic. I’m thinking of telling my friend this. He’d be mad. There’s no one worse than Catholics to him. Which is ironic, since they agree with him on baptism.
As Ron White would say, I told you that story to tell you this story. Maybe the hostility comes from the fact that there are no ‘minor’ issues in this schema. Every possible theological or practical question must be definitively settled. Once settled, it is not altered. Most Christians have some kind of rank-order for doctrine. An internal voice (the Holy Spirit?) which reminds them to sweat the big stuff, and let the little things go. I detect no such governor here. Too bad. I really want to understand, and to be united to all the bretheren.