Baptists with a capital B

What a fascinating day I had on Friday! Carey Baptist College and its RJ Thompson Centre for Theological Research joined forces with the NZ Baptist Research & Historical Society to offer a day seminar "Exploring Baptist Ecclesiology." Attenders, 100+ people, of a wide variety of ages, were treated to thoughtful observation and searching critique from a range of academics as well as pastoral leaders at various stages in their ministry journey. I found it enormously helpful, being just one year into my ministry term with a local Baptist church, but with 59 years of experience of the Presbyterian tradition in my backpack. I came away with some niggles, but feeling quite enthusiastic about Kiwi Baptists in general.

Ecclesiology, for anyone who has not come across the term before, is the study of the church, and in the theological milieu means attending to such questions as 'What is the church?' 'Who is in the church?' 'Who leads the church?' and 'Why does the church exist?' This particular seminar offered to address issues like:
* Are there Baptist distinctives?
* What is a Baptist Church?
* What is the Baptist Gospel?
and * What is Baptist Mission?

Dr Martin Sutherland, Vice-Principal at Laidlaw College, historian, and committed Kiwi Baptist, kicked off the series of presentations with an insightful series of questions about Big Ideas. Asking the right questions, he suggested, is important in exploring ecclesiology. Baptist Churches are not just one version of Protestantism (the product of the sixteenth-century Reformation) and ask quite different questions about 'the church' than other Protestant churches which practise Infant Baptism. Those churches - Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and the later Methodist - saw the church as a mixed community, where children and adults could could explore and then experience for themselves the faith into which (usually) their parents had baptised them. They shared this concept with the historic traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and saw the church's task as one of drawing people to Christ within the faith community. The Baptist view is in sharp contrast to this. In the gathered churches of the Anabaptists and the English Baptists (two streams which mutually informed one another, rather than being organically related), baptism is the powerful symbol and entry point of the mature (in Sutherland's opinion, adult) believer, who undergoes immersion baptism to testify to the inward change that has occurred as he has received Christ as Saviour and Lord. This means Baptist churches ask quite different questions. They see their role, he says, as that of 'Being (?offering) the Saviour' to those outside the visible church, rather than sharing Christ with those inside its embrace. Evangelistic fervour, missionary endeavour, believers' baptism, a 'fenced' communion table, and an utter confidence that the Church Meeting can make spiritual decisions without contamination, all derive from this one bold idea.
Martin went on to mention 'Separation of Church and State', and 'Freedom of Conscience' as other distinctives - what he calls Big Ideas - worthy of note. But for this post let's stick with the 'mixed' and 'gathered' notion, as that is one with which I have some familiarity. In fact in my debates with Presbyterian colleagues, from Systematic Theology lectures in 1974, through Assembly Doctrine Committee in the 90's, to a more recent encounter with a minister who described a newly-baptised baby as my brother in Christ, I have been taking a somewhat Baptistic position for decades. I am an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament, but along with many other evangelical Presbyterians, I do not think that baptism makes anyone - adult or child - my brother in Christ; rather it is a testimony to faith, either of parents committed to providing a Christian upbringing, or in the person's own spiritual life, where that faith may still be very much in process. The difference is that I have what I think is a more robust 'theology of children' and a less-bounded approach to participation in the faith community. And I'm not alone in that.

The last speaker of the day, Dr George Wieland (Lecturer in New Testament, Carey Baptist College) shared some observations of Baptist practice in three contexts - England in the fifties, Brazil in the eighties and New Zealand today. He noted what I, too, have seen in our own and other Baptist churches, and here I expand his salient points:

  1. Membership by Believer's Baptism is a historic distinctive (Big Idea) that is no longer rigidly held in Kiwi Baptist churches (and some Open Brethren communities). The main reason for this is ecclesiological; there are committed Christians, contributing gifts and money, and participating in weekly worship and community ministries. But for some reason - perhaps because they received infant baptism, later followed by personal profession of faith, in another tradition - they are not Credo-baptised. These people are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ, and are welcome to participate in congregational decision-making and hold leadership roles. (Many local churches do ask them to make a public statement of faith, but not all.) Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota has engaged in a very thorough debate over this matter. The model, known colloquially as 'open membership' is the paradigm followed by, I'm told, about half the Baptist Churches of New Zealand. The church is still 'gathered' but not using the traditional Baptism question to set the bounds.

  2. Congregational Governance, that is, the Non-Conformist ecclesiology and practice that Christ is present in the gathering, so decisions affecting the worship and mission of the local church are made by the gathered community, meeting in council several times a year. Again, many local churches are no longer holding to this. Some hold forums to discuss particular issues, but delegate everyday governance to a group of deacons or elders, two Scriptural leadership categories made much use of by the Presbyterian tradition. Others use technology to gather input digitally. For some the AGM is the only congregational meeting and can be a 'rubber stamp' and 'thank you' more than a 'meeting in council.' Another trend is that these meetings, when they do happen, are becoming smaller and smaller, and ours would not be the only church that has had to postpone a meeting because of the lack of quorum (which can be 25 - 50% of membership). Part of this is the diaspora of members, attending only one of perhaps three Sunday services, and not willing or able to attend at another time. The other part is that membership has become separated in time from Profession of Faith (usually by Baptism). In the Presbyterian tradition, these are inseparable, since aligning with Gods' Invisible Worldwide Church carries with it the membership a local expression of the Body of Christ, the Visible Church. And Martin Sutherland advocates that Kiwi Baptists return to this synchronicity. But at present, membership of, and participation in, church meetings is seen by many as something you do later, when you have more money and time to offer the community. The church is still 'gathered' but not using the traditional Meeting as its corporate expression.

  3. The practices surrounding the Lord's Table are testimony to both these changes. In a paper distributed before the conference, and accessible here, Sutherland noted that "It was not so long ago that Communion was very clearly restricted to the members of the local church only. Others would be given an opportunity to leave and then “communion” would commence. Today, it receives scant attention in some places but is the focus of arguments over who can take it and who can serve it in others. You might be forgiven for thinking that Baptists are just plain confused over the matter!" George Wieland also spoke of services in the fifties and sixties, where the last hymn would be sung and the blessing offered, and half the congregation would go home. The rest - the members - would stay for communion. Well, this is exactly what happened in Presbyterian churches in that era. I vividly remember as a child, seeing the front pews decorated with white linen, to show how the Lord's Table extended among the people. Children, as well as adults we would today call Seekers, and the occasional Roman Catholic spouse, would all depart, leaving the confirmed members to share the bread and wine, symbol of their relationship with Christ. Being able to take communion myself, after I had come to faith and confirmed my baptism, was very special. Today, the practice is less clear. Most Presbyterians, and Baptists, keep an open table to which "all who love and serve the Lord" are invited. Some even extend the invitation to children and others for whom faith formation is at a very early stage, reasoning that this mystical rite may well be the conduit of an experience of the Real Christ. The church is still 'gathered' but not specifically around the Lord's Table.

Martin Sutherland's contribution to the colloquium ended with a bold statement about Sacrament - a notion usually eschewed by Baptists, who call Baptism and the Lord's Supper 'ordinances.' To call something “sacramental” is to say that God works there in a particular way, a special way. Perhaps he said, for Baptists, the sacrament is the (local) church. There, in the gathering of disciples committed to the Way of Christ, God is present in a real and special way.

I love exploring Baptist ecclesiology!

To Chew Over: What answers would you give to these questions about the nature and bounds of the church? Does it matter?

O Father God, Thy name we praise, To Thee our hymns addressing,

And joyfully our voices raise, Thy faithfulness confessing.

Thy hand has gathered us, O Lord ; We seek new guidance from Thy Word ;

Now grant to us Thy blessing.

Touch, Lord, the lips that speak for Thee; Set words of truth before us,

That we may grow in constancy, The light of wisdom o er us.

Give us this day our daily bread ; May hungry souls once more be fed;

May heavenly food restore us.

Lord, make Thy pilgrim people wise, The gospel message knowing,

That we may walk with lightened eyes In grace and goodness growing.

The righteous must Thy precepts heed ; Thy Word alone supplies their need,

From heaven their succour flowing.

As with our brethren here we meet, Thy grace alone can feed us;

As here we gather at Thy feet, We pray that Thou wilt heed us.

The power is Thine, O Lord Divine, The Kingdom and the rule are Thine.

May Jesus Christ still lead us.

The Anabaptist Ausbund, C16.