Category Archives: Church Chat [Ecclesiology]

This category includes all posts that are mostly about ecclesiology–the theology and practice of the Church.

Why Should You Care about Cities? (3/3)

Who you are depends largely on who you have been with. And most of what you know you have learned from other people. If these statements are true, then it must be vitally important to be intentional about our relationships.

A Christian’s most vital relationship is with Christ. If your relationship with him is all it should be, then he can help you survive even the worst set of human companions. The normal way that Christ strengthens and trains us, however, is through human relationships.

What kinds of relationships will help you grow? Diversity helps. Let me suggest a sample:

  • People who have known you well for a long time.
  • People who are wiser than you—mentors.
  • People who are eager to learn from you—disciples.
  • People who are like you, who help you feel at home.
  • People who are different from you, who make you feel not-at-home.
  • People who don’t know you well.

The last couple categories might be less obvious, or at least less comfortable. If you are surrounded only by people who don’t know you well, it can be hard to develop a secure or accurate self-identity. (See my poetic musings on that possibility.)

On the other hand, if you are surrounded only by people like youself, then your picture of yourself might be rather two-dimensional, lacking depth and perspective. Spending all your time with people just like you won’t teach you much about the rest of life, either. This is why youth need adults, men need women, and you need the city.

Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:

  1. God cares about cities.
  2. The city needs you.
  3. You need the city.

This post will discuss the third reason. Why should you care about cities?

You Need the City!

This might be the least expected reason why you should care about cities, but it might also be the most important. If you would be a wise and effective Christian, then you must first be a learner.  And Christians, including rural Anabaptists, have much to learn from the city.

Cities can help you learn about yourself. When I was in Thunder Bay, I was one of a team of five Mennonite adults surrounded by First Nations youth. When went to college, I was the only Mennonite in my city. When I taught school in the Bronx, I lived in a neighborhood that was about 80% Hispanic. When we lived in Queens, there were at least seven ethnic groups on our immediate block—Chinese, Puerto Rican, Guyanese, Sri Lankan, African American, and, including us, two white households.

Each of those contexts taught me things about myself. Now we plan to move to a neighborhood in Atlanta that is over 95% African American, also within reach of multi-ethnic college populations. I anticipate many new learning opportunities.

I think it would do most people good to live for at least a year as an ethnic or cultural minority. When you live as a minority, you learn that you are not normal—most people are not like you. You learn that your heritage has some unique strengths. You also learn that your culture has some besetting sins (perhaps selfishness with time and possessions, thanklessness, or impatience). And you probably even learn that you have some unexpected racist tendencies (I did).

Cities can remind us that we really don’t understand “the lost” as well as we think we do. Here I begin with a point I made in my last post—that too often conservative Anabaptists think of missions in terms of caring for the poor, tending to overlook other kinds of people. But a happily married (gay or otherwise) university professor or plastic surgeon with a six-figure income needs the gospel just as much as the whino on the curb.

A friend and I were recently discussing the idea of Anabaptists doing missions in Toronto. This friend has lived in Toronto for eight years and continues to work there. Here is some of what she had to say:

It irks me to no end to hear about “mission trips” to Toronto that consist simply of people standing on street corners handing out tracts—likely to tourists because that’s who hangs out around the Eaton’s Centre. How exactly is that addressing the needs of the hipster in Liberty Village, the professor in the Annex, the young family in Riverdale, the public servant at High Park, the gay couple on Church, the young graduates in the Beaches, the writer in the Junction. Those are my friends and colleagues. And they have spiritual lives and needs too…

I am puzzled by the notion that our life in in city is different than life in Elmira or Parry Sound or Newton or Harrisonburg or Shipshewana or Walnut Creek. Urban people do the same things—go grocery shopping, volunteer at school, walk their dog, visit the library, help out with neighbourhood events, go out to eat, see plays and hear concerts, enroll their kids in swimming lessons. If we as Anabaptists believe in lifestyle evangelists—just go. But check out the demographics of more than the poor and needy. If God is truly no respecter of person, then the urbane, literate, middle class professionals are in as much need of Christ’s love as anyone. But if you are going to live in their neighbourhoods (because let’s face it—the best way to get to know someone is through their kid or dog), you need to be able to afford it. This means having a profession that is transferable to a urban centre and being socially fluid.

We like to talk about how Jesus hung out to the poor and marginalized. But Matthew was a tax collector and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. Imagine being friends with the policy wonks, decision-makers, financial investors and cultural creators of our times!

Then, in a final reply to the idea that the poor are often more open to the gospel (which I would argue is almost certainly true, on average), she added this:

…People who are not in desperate socio-economic straits are not open to the gospel? Using that logic, most of Mennonite-land should be impervious.

Ouch. And probably truer than we like to think.

Street-corner evangelism certainly has its place. Many have come to Christ through such efforts. But I would suggest that most are unlikely to respond to Christ unless they experience a meaningful, ongoing sharing of life with Christian friends. Why should we limit our city mission efforts to “hit-and-run” approaches?

And most of us are somewhat poorly prepared to win people to Christ. We may understand the gospel well enough (see my next point, however). But to be an effective “gospel-er” we also need to understand our audience. Consider how Paul adjusted his message to his audiences.

I still do not consider myself an effective evangelist. But I do know that I have a better grasp today than I did in my youth of how a secular, post-Christian mind can tend to think. How did I grow in understanding? By spending time around secular minds. When I was in university (or college, as they say here in the U.S.), it took me about three years before I felt that I understood my classmates and professors well enough to start writing a Christian opinion column in the student paper.

Some are faster learners than me. And even after three years I’m not sure how effective I was. But my basic point remains: Growth in my understanding took time—long, daily time spent with unbelievers.  (Ask any cross-cultural missionary.) And if I had never moved to the city for school, I would never have debated Freud, traced Islamic history, analyzed Milton, read Genesis, tiptoed through feminist assumptions, debated homosexuality, and laughed in the hall with my new postmodern friends.

Such educational cross-cultural relationships can be formed almost anywhere, if you try hard enough. But they are almost unavoidable in most cities. What an opportunity!

Cities can help you understand the gospel better and experience it more fully. Nothing makes you appreciate a homegrown tomato like eating the cardboard imitation found in your local supermarket! Similarly, meeting people from other world religions can help you see the unique vitality of the Christian gospel. Wrestling with heresy helped the early church identify orthodox belief more precisely. Engaging thoughtful non-Christians today can help us do the same.

Being surrounded by undeniable, unavoidable needs can help you focus on the core message of the gospel, with its power to save. Well-manicured hands are nice, but when a patient arrives with a heart attack, you aren’t going to reach for your nail clippers. And when you are helping youth escape the sensual tentacles of mass youth media, you might not worry too much about whether they become skilled at singing four-part choral music.

Both Christians and unbelievers from other cultures can push us to do a better job of distinguishing between our cultural traditions and gospel traditions. (“I don’t see that in the Bible!”) Diversity within the church can give us a sense of proportion about the little things that sometimes divide us. (Fact: Most Christians have never given a moment’s thought to questions about how big your beard should be or whether you should wear covering strings.) As we ponder together how we can best meet the needs of our communities, the differences that otherwise might divide are sometimes revealed to be assets, turning the local church into a veritable Swiss Army knife of multifaceted strengths.

Diversity in the church gives all sorts of opportunity for growth in character. For example, some Caribbean cultures might think Germanic Mennonites are too quiet. Why don’t we show more zeal in worship? How can they tell what we are really thinking about them and their ideas when we hide our disagreement behind so much polite silence? And they might find us disrespectful. Why don’t we wear ties to their funerals? Why do we walk right past our elders at church without greeting them (even if they are in the middle of a conversation)?

So, who is right—Germanic Mennonites or Dominican Christians? Both! Or neither! But seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes is informative, and learning to love each other is a challenge that can cause us to lean harder on the gospel. And if you lean hard enough, your shame of the gospel will evaporate when you discover, like Paul, that the gospel has the power to bring people of all cultures together as one in Christ (Rom. 1:16-17; Eph. 2-3).

Consider the counsel of Christena Cleveland, from her book Disunity in Christ:

Culturally homogenous churches [churches where everyone shares the same culture] are adept at targeting and attracting a certain type of person and creating a strong group identity. However, attendees at such churches are at a higher risk for creating the overly simplistic and divisive Right Christian and Wrong Christian labels that dangerously lead to inaccurate perceptions of other Christians as well as hostility and conflict. What often begins as an effective and culturally specific way to reach people for Christ ends up stifling their growth as disciples. Perhaps this is because we often fail to make a distinction between evangelism and discipleship. People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.

For this reason, I believe that churches and Christian organizations should strive for cultural diversity. Regardless of ethnic demographics, every community is multicultural when one considers the various cultures of age, gender, economic status, education level, political orientation and so on. Further, every church should fully utilize the multifaceted cultural diversity within itself, express the diversity of its local community, expertly welcome the other, embrace all who are members of the body of Christ and intentionally collaborate with different churches or organizations in order to impact the kingdom. And churches situated in multiethnic communities… should absolutely be ethnically diverse. (pp. 21-22, bold added)

Let me share an hypothesis: I suggest that conservative Anabaptists risk becoming increasingly ingrown, divisive, and ineffective in missions unless more of us experience the sort of cross-cultural challenges that urban living offers.

In closing, let me repeat some advice to myself: When you do move to an urban setting, bear the gospel, yes, but go as a listener and a humble learner. 

Let’s face it: All this rightfully-urgent talk about urban missions can be perverted by our pride. Among some of us, urban ministry has given us not only a sense of urgency but also a sense of superiority. For many who have cut their rural umbilical cords, urban ministry is cool (substitute the latest relevant slang). We may forget that rural and small-town living are also honorable.

We may also overestimate our preparedness for urban living and ministry. For some hard-hitting warnings to white wanna-be urban missionaries, read Christena Cleveland’s article “Urban Church Planting Plantations.” Here is the burden of her words:

So much of the urban church planting I’ve seen simply replicates and extends the power inequities between whites and people of color that were cemented years ago on plantations… I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job… This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped.

Ouch. Read her whole article. Be humbled. But don’t give up on the city. Just go with a renewed determination to be a learner—a disciple-maker who is first a disciple.

I know I will have a lot to learn when we move to Atlanta. One thing I hope to learn is how Anabaptists can better participate in Christ-centered racial reconciliation. Though our heritage has unique gifts to bring to this work, most of us are either pretty ignorant or pretty ineffective. Too many of us are still happily colorblind, which is a problem, as my friend Lowell Herschberger explains. We have much to learn.

I need the city, so do other conservative Anabaptists, and so do you.


This is the end of my series called “Why Should You Care about Cities?” Much more could—and should—be said. And I’m aware that some of what I said could be misunderstood. I have spoken strongly, and I have made some generalizations. But what will it take to engage God’s people to respond to one of the greatest challenges of our time—the rise of global cities with their multi-ethnic, multi-need populations?

Rest assured: If you don’t go to the city, the city will come to you. It is already coming. It is coming in the form of your news media, the designs of your consumer products, your college-trained bankers and doctors, the teachers and curricula in your local public school, your construction products, your farm commodity prices, government regulations, the election of your next president, your Amazon orders, your cell phone apps, your Internet signal, and, hopefully soon, Dwight Gingrich Online.

Will we run to meet this Goliath? Or will we merely try to dodge his spear? Better, will we see the city as not only a giant to be slaughtered, but also a fertile field? Will we take a proactive approach to global urbanization? Or will we retreat behind ever-less-effective geographical and cultural walls?

It was in the world’s third-largest city (population c. 500,000) that Christ’s followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). And it was to the largest city in the world (population c. 1,000,000) that Christ specifically sent his apostle to the Gentiles: “Take courage… you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). The big city just might be the most ideal habitat one could possibly imagine for a Christian.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations in your nearest city!


Do you agree that more Anabaptists could benefit from urban living? What do you think we need to learn from the city? What should we learn about ourselves, our neighbors, and the gospel itself? Share your observations in the comments below. And thanks for reading!


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Why Should You Care about Cities? (2/3)

Where can you serve God most strategically? This is not always an easy question to answer. There are needs everywhere, and diligent laborers are in short supply all over.

One answer is to simply say that I am most needed right here, right wherever I am. This is certainly true on one level. If I’m not useful “here,” I’m unlikely to be useful “there.” Discipleship begins here and now, not there and later.

This is one popular application of Jesus’ final words to his apostles. He told them “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Therefore, we often hear, we should imitate the apostles by starting at home, in our “Jerusalem” hometown, then expanding outward to Samaria (nearby regions) and eventually to the end of the earth.

But Collier Berkshire of IGo (Institute for Global Opportunities) once corrected my thinking on this. He pointed out that Jerusalem was not the apostles’ hometown! Most of them were from Galilee, after all. Then why did Jesus instruct them to begin witnessing for him at Jerusalem? The answer is a strategic one—Pentecost was coming. Jesus wanted his apostles to be in Jerusalem during Pentecost, because he knew that this annual Jewish feast would attract “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). New disciples from among this pool of feast-goers would then return to “every nation under heaven” (slight biblical hyperbole there, but we’ll skip that valuable exegetical lesson), carrying the gospel with them.

So I ask you again: Where can you serve God most strategically? For some of you, I suggest, the answer will be “in a city.”

Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:

  1. God cares about cities.
  2. The city needs you.
  3. You need the city.

This post will discuss the second reason. Why should you care about cities?

The City Needs You!

Two facts: Cities are growing, and globally they are growing faster than their Christian populations. An article by Al Mohler summarizes the first fact well:

In 1800, only 3 percent of the human population lived in cities. By 1900, cities held 14 percent of the population. By 2000, fully half of all human beings lived in urban areas. We are fast becoming an urban species…

As Stewart Brand argues, we are becoming a “city planet.”… “At the current rate,” Brand writes, “humanity may well be 80 percent urban by mid-century. Every week there are 1.3 million new people in cities. That’s 70 million a year, decade after decade.” (bold added)

Are Christians keeping up? Timothy Keller (see his book Center Church) doesn’t think so:

The people of the world are now moving into the great cities of the world many times faster than the church is… The Christian church is not responding fast enough to keep up with the rapid population growth in cities.

There are five million new people moving into the cities of the developing world every month—roughly the size of the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia or San Francisco. Think of that—how many churches ought there to be in a city the size of Philadelphia? Even if there were one church for every five thousand people—which is five times fewer than the United States average—this means we should be planting a thousand urban churches in the world every month. (p. 158, bold added)

Let’s add some Anabaptist context here. Not only are Anabaptists moving into cities at a rate far below Christians of many other denominations. More importantly, we also have a long heritage that values and often prioritizes rural living. But the data above shouts what should already have been evident from the pages of Scripture: The idea that people should leave the city so that they can experience optimal spiritual growth in rural environments is simply unreasonable. There simply isn’t enough farm land available for all urban converts to come join rural Mennonites. Mennonites are even running out of farm land for their own children!

Unless Anabaptists learn how to be faithful disciples of Christ within cities, several trends will become increasingly true:

  • Children of Anabaptists who find their needed living space in towns and cities will tend to join other denominations.
  • Anabaptism will remain a primarily rural phenomenon, with little direct impact on most of humanity.

I think there are theological repercussions, too, but we’ll stick with those sociological ones for the moment.

So, the city needs you, because you have the gospel that the city needs. What kinds of people in the city need you and the gospel?

Keller identifies “four important groups of people who must be reached to fulfill the mission of the church”:

1. The younger generation… In the United States and Europe, the young disproportionately want to live in cities… If the church in the West remains, for the most part, in the suburbs of Middle America and neglects the great cities, it risks losing an entire generation of American society’s leaders…

2. The “cultural elites.” The second group is made up of those who have a disproportionate influence on how human life is lived in a society because they exert power in business, publishing, the media, the academy, and the arts… Since cities now influence the culture and values of the world more than ever, the single most effective way for Christians to influence the culture of a nation is to have large numbers of them stay in cities and simply “be the church” there…

3. Accessible “unreached” people groups… The currents of history are now sweeping many of these formerly unreachable people into cities as rural economies fail to sustain old ways of life. Millions of these newcomers in the burgeoning cities of the world are more open to the Christian faith than they were in their original context…

4. The poor… Some have estimated that one-third of the people representing the new growth in cities in the developing world will live in shantytowns… An urban church does not choose between ministry to the poor and ministry to the professional classes. We need the economic and cultural resources of the elites to help the poor, and our commitment to the poor is a testimony to the cultural elites, supporting the validity of our message. (p. 160-62)

Of these four groups, which have American Anabaptists been most comfortable and successful in reaching? I think most of us would point to the fourth group—the poor. Organizations like Christian Aid Ministries have helped Anabaptists provide rapid response services after natural disasters, including in urban centers. Additionally, my unscientific observation would be that many of our few long-term urban efforts have focused on poor neighborhoods.

There are good reasons for this (we have a heritage of skilled manual service and material generosity). I suspect there are also sometimes bad reasons (scorn of the professional class, fear of education, inability to meet non-material kinds of needs). Consider the pointed questions raised by Allen Roth, in an article1 urging mission efforts in the materially-wealthy Canadian province of Quebec:

Might our neglect be due to a defect in us as a people… a lack of clarity about the Gospel itself and the need of all people for salvation, yes, even the prosperous ones who consider themselves superior to us? Are we unable and unwilling to share the Gospel unless we can hand some material benefits downward to those who “need us” and toward whom we feel superior? If… if indeed this might be the case, then God have mercy on us! (bold added)

I think we should continue our efforts to the poor, learning not only to hand out relief but also to live among the poor in long-term relationships. And I think we Anabaptists should also expand our vision to include the other three groups of urban dwellers that Keller identified.

One way to reach all three of these groups (youth, cultural leaders, unreached peoples) is to share the gospel with international college students. For example, consider a Foreign Policy article published earlier this month: “Leave China, Study in America, Find Jesus.” The article is part of a special series called China U. The description of China U. underscores the significance of Christian engagement with international students:

China U. is an FB series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?

Indeed, how might a new generation, fluent in China and in America and newly won to Christ’s kingdom, shape the future of both China and America?

According to the article, the number of Chinese college and university students in America has multiplied more than four-fold in just the past 10 years. The article is full of fascinating personal stories of converts. Here are some excerpts with other data:

While firm statistics do not exist on the number of Chinese converts in the United States, it’s clear that a rapidly increasing number of Chinese students, including Cai, have come Stateside to pursue higher education; more than 304,000 Chinese studied in American colleges and universities in 2015 alone, many hailing from large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. China is the largest secular country in the world; young Chinese people often identify as atheists, although many may have visited a Buddhist temple to pray for good luck before an exam, or celebrated traditional festivals with roots in Chinese folklore. Public preaching is forbidden there, and the Communist Party-state oversees all religious matters, often with a heavy hand. Meanwhile, the state-controlled educational curriculum emphasizes patriotism and socialism, promoting a purely materialistic and scientific worldview…

As a result, U.S. universities are the first places that hundreds of thousands of educated young Chinese are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely…

Some predict that the future of Christianity lies in China. After all, they argue, the popularity of the faith is declining in the United States, the largest Christian country in the world. Meanwhile, in China, even government figures acknowledge a growing number of followers, from 14 million in 1997 to 23 million in 2010. (This number is generally considered a low estimate.) (bold added)

Such reports are a reminder that we don’t always have to leave our nation to reach the world. Often “the world” can be found right here in the cities of North America. For example, consider this sample of statistics about where immigrant populations live:2

  • Los Angeles: 80,000 Thai
  • Minneapolis–Saint Paul: 25,000 Somalis
  • Chicago: 100,000 Indians and Pakistanis
  • Detroit: 130,000 Arabs
  • Indianapolis: 14,000 Burmese
  • Philadelphia: 60,000 Chinese
  • New York City: 100,000 Bangladeshis

You might be surprised at who lives in your nearest city. Iowa is reportedly the sixth-least diverse state in America. (In contrast, Georgia, where we plan to move, is the fourth least white.) Yet even here in Iowa you will find immigrants. For example, here is some data on my nearest city, Des Moines:

Total Population: 207,510
Foreign-born residents: 15,713 (7.9% of Des Moines’ total pop.)
Nations of birth: 71 different countries!

Here are the top fifteen nations of birth for Des Moines’ foreign-born population. To help you see some significance in this list, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):

Mexico: 8,164
Vietnam: 1,865
Laos: 1,480
Bosnia and Herzegovina: 1,023
El Salvador: 934
Sudan: 934
Liberia: 735
Thailand: 711
Burma (Myanmar): 622
Guatemala: 527
Iraq: 462
India: 427
Korea: 313
Canada: 293
Germany: 281

(Yes, you could reach nearly 300 Canadians right here in Des Moines, without needing to head north to the border and the nearest dog sled!)

It’s hard for me to imagine, but apparently 32,658 Des Moines residents speak a language other than English at home. And 17,225 of those speak English “less than very well.” All that is right here in Des Moines, Iowa—in one of the least diverse states in the nation!

I say it’s time to make Des Moines a little more diverse. Maybe it’s time some Anabaptists move there and help love the world for Christ.

And what about Toronto? Here I’d like to challenge my Ontario Anabaptist friends. What would it look like for the conservative Anabaptists of Ontario to put aside some of their differences and band together with a vision for the Toronto harvest field?

The opportunities in Toronto are immense! Here’s the big picture, from a good little article called “Understanding Toronto”:

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and North America’s fourth largest city, with a population of 2.8 million people (5.5 million in the Greater Toronto Area, commonly called the GTA). It’s a center for business, finance, and education. It’s one of the most multicultural cities in the world… It’s one of the largest cities in North America, and it’s one of the least churched. (bold added)

Just how multicultural is Toronto? Well, 47.9% of its population is foreign-born! Nearly half! And growing! In hard numbers, that’s about 2,642,910 immigrants in the GTA.

(By comparison, over 37% of New York City residents are foreign-born—totaling 3.07 million immigrants, more than any other city in the world. On a national level, 20.6% of the Canadian population is foreign-born—the highest percentage among all G8 countries—as are 12.9% of those living in the United States.)

Here is an interactive map where you can learn more:

Where do these Toronto immigrants come from—and visit on return trips, carrying the ideas they’ve found in Canada? Here are the top birth nations (data from Statistics Canada). Again, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):

India: 279,425
China
: 237,025
Philippines: 185,085
United Kingdom: 116,655
Italy: 116,240
Sri Lanka: 105,565
Pakistan: 99,295
Hong Kong: 99,285
Jamaica: 97,660
Portugal: 73,740
Guyana: 72,090
Poland: 64,095
Iran: 60,785
Vietnam: 60,555
United States: 55,630
South Korea: 48,785
Trinidad and Tobago: 46,915
Russian Federation: 35,200
Ukraine: 31,795
Greece: 31,185
Germany: 27,635
Bangladesh: 25,560
Romania: 24,515
Iraq: 22,145
Afghanistan: 21,185

All told, there are over half a million people living in Toronto who come from countries where you may have to risk extreme or severe persecution to reach their families overseas! And the religious needs are immense. For example, Toronto has Canada’s largest population of Muslims, at just over 424,900. Equally significantly, more than 1,165,000 Torontonians claim no religious affiliation at all. Ontario Anabaptists, will you rise to the challenge?

What about your own city? To find immigrant data for your nearest city, visit City-Data.com or Statistics Canada. And remember, behind every data point is a person who needs Christ.

The city needs you, so you should care about the city. And, who knows? Perhaps you will conclude that the city is the most strategic place for you to serve God!


Come back here soon for one more reason why you should care about the city. And, as always, I welcome your responses in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Allen Roth, “What About Neighbors Who Aren’t ‘Needy’?” The Alliance Newsletter (Vol. 16, No. 6), Nov./Dec. 2013, p. 1.
  2. Compiled by Destinations International, shared with me by Ian Miller.

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The Church of Christ — Ferguson (4): Salvation and Church Membership

The third chapter of Everett Ferguson’s book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today is perhaps my favorite chapter yet. This chapter is entitled “The Church and Her Savior: Salvation and Church Membership.” It is a rich read!

See also my series Introduction and my discussions of Chapter 1 (“Covenant, Kingdom, Christ”) and Chapter 2 (“What Is the Church?”).

Do you wonder what salvation and church membership have to do with each other? Hopefully this post will help you see that the two are very closely linked. Indeed, if you really grasp what salvation means, then you will think about church membership in a whole new way! Or, here is how Ferguson says the same thing, using theological categories: “Soteriology determines ecclesiology” (p. 136).

One thing I’m really enjoying about this book is that Ferguson does an exceptional job at letting the Bible shape the way he talks and thinks about the church. Some books on the church leave you feeling like the author had a predetermined concept of church—perhaps Baptist or Anabaptist—and then came to the Scripture to find evidence to support his ideas. Even if the author (say, a Baptist) lets the Scriptures challenge some parts of his ecclesiology (theology of church), it might feel that, despite some tweaking, it is still a predictable Baptist ecclesiology that he ends up with.

Perhaps this is because Baptists have the perfect ecclesiology! Or perhaps it is because our preconceptions always shape the questions we bring to the Bible. For example, a Roman Catholic might ask this question of the Bible: “In what spirit should a pope exercise his authority?” The question itself assumes something not found in Scripture: the office of the pope. Similarly, a Baptist might this question of Scripture: “How should the pastor administer the ordinances?” This question also assumes several ideas not taught in Scripture: that a church normally has only one pastor, and that there is a category of actions called “ordinances.”

Ferguson, though he is shaped by his Church of Christ heritage, does a better job than most theologians at hearing what Scripture actually says—letting the Bible shape the questions he asks and the truths he teaches. This means some of his ideas challenge our inherited theological categories. Wonderful! Disorientation enables learning.

Ferguson arranges most of this chapter under three headings:

  1. Human Need (human nature, sin)
  2. God’s Action (atonement, preaching)
  3. Human Response (faith, repentance, baptism)

Church membership might seem to be missing, but you will find it woven throughout, especially at the beginning and also near the end (such as here and here). Also included are fascinating discussions about baptism and about the spiritual condition of children. Dig in, and chew carefully!

Ferguson’s chapter introduction is worth quoting at length, and worth reading slowly:

The question of the membership or composition of the church is answered by the study of the nature of the church in the preceding chapter… One becomes a part of the church by being in the people of God, being incorporated into the body of Christ, and receiving the Holy Spirit… If, as studied in the preceding chapter, the nature of the church is that of Christ, then becoming a part of Christ, identification with his people, incorporation into him, answers the question of church membership

Another way of describing the nature of the church… is to say that the church is those persons who are saved from their sins. The church, therefore, may be defined as the community of the saved. In other words, soteriology determines ecclesiology…

Those who are saved from their sins are added by God to the number of his people (Acts 2:47)…

A negative way of saying the same thing about the church is suggested by 1 Peter 4:17-18. There the church is contrasted with those who are lost…

Such passages suggest the right way to describe the relationship between the church and salvation. The church does not save (Christ is the Savior), but neither does it have no connection with salvation. The church is the people who are saved. Some depend on the church to save them. Others make only the most minimal connection between salvation and church membership, saying that one is saved by one means and becomes a church member in another way. Both positions misunderstand the biblical teaching. God places the saved in the church, which is his people. The church is the community of the saved. (pp. 135-37, bold added)

This is a most unusual way to begin a discussion of church membership! Most discussions begin with the questionable assumption that we all already know what church membership is. If a definition is deemed necessary, usually the assumed or argued definition is something about entering into a covenantal relationship with a local congregation. Sometimes (and rightly so) there is a focus on the few NT passages that explicitly use the language of “member” (though these passages are often pasted onto preconceived modern concepts of membership).

Ferguson, in contrast, (a) doesn’t assume we know what church membership is, (b) shows that the concept is first rooted in the nature of the universal church, not the local congregation, and (c) defines church membership as “part of a broad doctrinal perspective” rather than based on existing church polity (government structures) or a narrow examination of NT passages about “members.”

1. Human Need (human nature, sin):

Ferguson begins this section by discussing “the paradox of human nature: greatness and wretchedness, majesty and misery” (p. 137).

Of all the competing worldviews, only the biblical doctrines of creation and fall account for the dual nature of humanity: aspirations, ideals, and moments of greatness; yet falling short, filled with frustrations and failures. (p. 138)

Ferguson discusses “four great realities of human nature” that he finds in Genesis 3: temptation, sin, punishment, and redemption. Under “redemption”:

Jesus Christ is the real, true man—what a human being was meant to be. He is the typical, representative person, the leader of the new humanity conformed to the Creator’s plan. (p. 143).

Ferguson adds some “further theological reflections on sin,” of which the following especially caught my eye:

Two opposing views have been maintained about the relation of humanity to sin: depraved in all his being versus inherently good. In spite of isolated texts that might be cited, neither view presents the overall biblical teaching. An alternative theological position will be set forth in the following sections… (p. 143)

“How is sin possible?” Ferguson asks:

God is good; he is not evil. He is not the author of evil… He does not want sin in the world, and he does not directly product it. Nevertheless, God maintains the conditions which make sin possible, and he has a purpose which appears to make it inevitable. In biblical language, when God sends or allows the influences that result in sin, he can be said to cause it (cf. Exod. 7:3 and 8:32; 1Sam. 16:14). (p. 144, bold added)

And “why is sin universal?”:

Christian theology has related this universality of sin to the doctrine of original sin. Although often reinterpreted, it refers historically to the teaching popularized by Augustine (5th century) that humanity shares the guilt of Adam’s transgression. This results from everyone inheriting a nature that is polluted. The transmission of sin occurs in the same way as the transmission of human nature, sexual generation. An alternative explanation current in Puritan theology is that Adam was the “federal head” of the human race; in that capacity he involved all his descendants in his transgression. Both of these views are theological explanations; neither has a direct biblical base, even if derived from selected texts. As far as express biblical texts go,the fall altered the human condition; it did not alter human nature. Human beings no longer live in Paradise and now struggle in surroundings where the influence of sin is great. Their nature is weakened by the generations who have sinned. On the other hand, the universality of sin cannot be simply blamed on human finiteness, ignorance, and environment.

The story of the first parents is also the story of everyone’s temptations and fall. Why everyone chooses to love self rather than God is left unexplained in scripture. It remains a fact… The effects of a weakened human nature inclining us to sin are intensified by the examples of sin about us. (p. 145, bold added)

I am heartened by Ferguson’s boldness in questioning, based on Scripture, a couple theological ideas that have become nearly sacrosanct. I have written before on the question of whether the idea of a sinful nature is truly biblical (see here, here, and here). Biblical or not, I am convinced that it has become so dominant in our thinking that we tend to miss other ways that the Bible talks about sin.

On the other hand, I am not ready yet to definitely assert with Ferguson that the fall “did not alter human nature.” So much depends on how we define terms. Even Ferguson, I note, is not entirely clear in how he talks about “human nature.” In the excerpt above, for example, he also says that our “nature is weakened by the generations who have sinned”; thus we have “a weakened human nature inclining us to sin.” I think I agree with Ferguson here, and I would want to add one more thing to the picture he paints: Paul says that when Adam sinned, “sin came into the world” (Rom. 5:12), thereafter ruling over us. I think this image of “King Sin” ruling from without pairs well with (and helps explain) the concept of a “weakened” human nature, such as Ferguson describes.

Ferguson ends his discussion of sin with an unattributed quote: “My pessimism about man is exceeded only by my optimism about God” (p. 148). Amen!

2. God’s Action (atonement, preaching)

Here, again, Ferguson’s effort to be biblical and not merely parrot denominational orthodoxies is clearly evident. I really enjoyed his approach to theories of the atonement:

Through Christian history thinkers have advanced various theories of the atonement—the ransom, satisfaction, and moral-exemplary having been the most prominent. The Bible, however, does not present a “theory of the atonement.” In many of its teachings, the Bible reveals a fact or declares a truth, but does not offer an explanation of why or how this is so. The saving significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus is one of these subjects. The Bible does not offer a systematic explanation of how the atonement works or why God accepts the death of Jesus as providing forgiveness of sins. The writers of the New Testament do describe the meaning of what God has done in terms familiar to the people of the time. They employ various images drawn from familiar experiences to convey a truth. These images describe a reality, but they do not actually explain how the reality works. (p. 149, bold added)

Ferguson discusses five such images:

Sacrifice—The Language of Worship…
Reconciliation—The Language of Personal Relations…
Redemption—The Language of the Marketplace…
Justification—The Language of the Law Court…
Victory—The Language of Warfare (pp. 150-59)

It seems to me that this approach of discussing varied biblical images is more faithful and fruitful than trying to defend one theory of the atonement as primary or even singularly sufficient. Jesus didn’t hand his apostles an outlined systematic theology, but he did present an example of using multiple images from common life to depict eternal truths about the kingdom of God.

Here are a few highlights from this section. First, regarding redemption and ransom: Ferguson notes that the Bible speaks of “the blood of Christ as the price of the purchase (Rev. 5:9)” (p. 154). But he argues regarding “the ‘ransom’ family of words” that “the emphasis in the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament is more on the resultant deliverance and freedom than on the price paid” (p. 155). Thus Ferguson notes “the difficulty with some expressions of the ‘ransom theory’ of the atonement”:

One must be careful not to extend the analogy beyond what the New Testament does. The biblical authors declare the fact or truth of the atonement under the imagery of a ransom. They do not go further to explain how this worked. That is what the ransom theory in some of its expressions sought to do. If God paid a price for human redemption, it was asked, to whom did he make the payment? It must have been the devil. If so, what is the claim of the devil over human life, and is it a just claim? And so the speculation goes. One finds it hard to give biblical answers to unbiblical questions. It is better to leave this description where the other imagery is, as a use of language familiar to people of the time to reveal the significance of what God did in Christ. To make any of these descriptions into a theory, or to extend them beyond the biblical usage, is, at best, to say more than can be confirmed, and, at worst, to say something the Bible does not say. (p. 155, bold added)

Influenced by E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn, Ferguson affirms some “new perspective” thinking on justification in Paul. (If that sentence was gobbledygook to you, just breath deeply and move on.) Here I would like to agree with what Ferguson affirms, but perhaps qualify what he denies:

Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith occurs primarily in Romans and Galatians, that is, in a context of defending the reception of the Gentiles into the church without requiring them to submit to circumcision and other requirements of the law of Moses. Justification… is contrasted with the law as a system or principle of justification. Justification by faith, in the sense of human faith, is not absolutized in the way it often has been in Protestant theology. Rather it is a way of universalizing the gospel, for the response of faith is open to all, Gentiles as well as Jews. (p. 157)

I could quote much more, but will end this section with Ferguson’s last paragraph on atonement:

Military victory overcomes the evil powers, justification overcomes law and guilt, redemption overcomes slavery to sin, reconciliation overcomes hostility and chaos, and sacrifice overcomes the need for appeasement… Each image of the atonement emphasizes what God did: he makes the atoning sacrifice, he reconciles, he redeems, he justifies, he wins the victory. In all aspects God is triumphant. (p. 159, bold added)

After “further theological reflections on the atonement,” Ferguson ends this section by discussing “the preaching of the cross”:

The preaching of the gospel provide the connection between the once for all action of God at the cross [and empty tomb] and the continuing human appropriation of salvation.. Calvary had to be followed by Pentecost. The victory in the Christ-event must be communicated…

The word “gospel” means “good news”… Preaching the good news about Jesus is preaching what accomplishes the atonement…

The preaching of the gospel calls forth the human response, but even this human side of salvation is God-initiated. God instituted not only the salvation but also the proclamation of the salvation… So, preaching is a part of God’s plan of salvation…

Both medieval sacramentalism and modern revivalism’s doctrine of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit tend to blur the distinctive place of preaching in God’s plan. (pp. 161-63, bold added)

3. Human Response (faith, repentance, baptism)

This section contains many rich theological discussions, but I’ll only share highlights.

First, Ferguson discusses faith. After stressing the importance of faith, he asks how a person comes to believe:

One explanation, derived from the church father Augustine and passed on to Protestants by Martin Luther and John Calvin, is that God predestines those who will be saved and gives to them faith. The direct opposite of this teaching is the secular view that faith is an arbitrary attitude arising from a person’s own irrational, perhaps superstitious, decision. The biblical explanation falls between these extremes. (p. 163, bold added)

Ferguson’s explanation is based on his theology of preaching: “Saving faith comes by hearing the word about Christ” (p. 163). While this answer begs more questions (Why doesn’t everyone hear? Why doesn’t everyone who hears develop faith?), it remains true:

The consistent order of conversion is summarized in Acts 18:8, “Many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.”

Since faith comes from hearing the word, there is a sense in which one may say that faith is given by God… Faith is not human generated… Only the word that sets forth the mighty, loving, salvific action of God can do this… Since God supplies the content of faith and the means by which it is created, he is the one who gives faith… On the other hand, God does not directly create the response. He does not give faith to some and withhold it from others… The preached word produces faith. (p. 164, bold added)

Ferguson helpfully discusses of “the elements of faith”—intellectual assent, trust, and obedience. He also explains that faith is not “meritorious,” but simply a “grateful acceptance” of God’s gift of salvation, which is received “in the only way any gift is received” (p.167).

He then turns to the “relation of faith to its expressions,” beginning with baptism. Here we will slow down again, and I recommend slow reading:

Faith saves, but when? At the point of believing, or when the divine condition attached to the promise is met?

Baptism is act of faith, not a work in the sense of Romans 4… As a condition attached to God’s promise of salvation it is not opposed to faith… Faith is the reason why a person is a child of God; baptism is the time at which one is incorporated into Christ and so becomes a child of God…

One cannot define work in such a way as to include baptism and exclude faith. There is a sense in which faith itself is a work… “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29)… So, if “work” is taken to mean something done by human beings, then faith no less than baptism is a “work”…

The teaching of baptism for the remission of sins… is not a contradiction to justification by faith. Indeed, baptism for the remission of sins is an expression of justification by faith. Baptism is an act of faith, dependent on the promise of God and a submission to him as the appointed way of claiming the promise. The death and resurrection of Christ are the basis of salvation on the divine side. Faith is the basis of salvation on the human side. Baptism represents the “when,” not the “how” (God’s action), nor the “why” (faith) of salvation. It is the appointed time at which that salvation offered to faith is applied and becomes effective in the person’s life. (p. 169-70, bold added)

This is difficult teaching for most of us, and we will be tempted to react, indeed, overreact, since we have likely been warned of the fallacy of “baptismal regeneration.” But before we react, let’s listen and try to understand.

First, we must note that Ferguson specifies that baptism is not the “basis” of salvation, just the “appointed time” when it becomes effective. Second, consider what we often hear regarding baptism—that it is “only” a sign or symbol of some prior spiritual reality. Is that really how Scripture talks about baptism? Can you find any verse that expressly talks about baptism in that way?

I think we should listen to Ferguson here. At minimum, we should let him push us closer to Scripture, which ties baptism and saving faith much more closely together than we often acknowledge.

If you would find it easier to read a Baptist’s take on this topic, I urge you to read an essay by Robert H. Stein: “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament.” Here is Stein’s thesis:

In the New Testament, conversion involves five integrally related components or aspects, all of which took place at the same time, usually on the same day. These five components are repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration, or the giving of the Holy Spirit by God, and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.

Stein argues that when Scripture mentions any one of these five, it normally assumes the presence of the other four. Thus “all five components described in my thesis (repentance, faith, confession, regeneration, baptism) are mentioned in the New Testament as bringing about salvation.” This includes baptism, which Peter famously asserts “saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Stein admits his own Baptist tradition is weak on this point:

Baptist theology also deviates from the New Testament pattern. Although repentance, faith, confession, and regeneration are associated with baptism, baptism is separated in time from these four components. Thus baptism is an act which witnesses to a prior experience of repentance, faith, confession, and regeneration. As a result such passages as Romans 6:4, 1 Peter 3:21, Titus 3:5, John 3:3ff., and others, which associate baptism with the experience of conversion, are embarrassing to many Baptists and often receive a strained exegesis at their hands.

Again, I urge us to be sure we understand Ferguson and have compared him carefully with Scripture before we judge his perspective. Perhaps he isn’t perfectly right; but I’m certain that the popular Mennonite understanding isn’t, either.

Ferguson next discusses the relationship of faith and works (synthesizing the apparent contradiction between Romans and James). He ends this subsection with some mature observations:

Faith is no more meritorious than works. It is the acceptance of a gracious gift. The importance of accepting a great gift does not detract from the significance of the gift, unless one glories in the acceptance… Some forms of the doctrine of salvation by “faith only” end in the very thing the doctrine was meant to oppose, namely trusting in what one does (in this case in one’s faith), which is the same as trusting in oneself…

A person can be assured of salvation. There is nothing more certain than the promises of God… “Do I have the right kind of faith?” “Do I have enough faith?”… God has given an objective assurance in the condition of water baptism… the outward, objective expression of faith in Christ… If one has enough faith to be baptized, one has enough faith to be saved. If one’s faith is in Christ as Savior, one will follow him in baptism. It is trusting God and his word to be baptized. (p. 173, bold added)

There is much more to faith and assurance than baptism, and we all know of those who were baptized without possessing saving faith. But it is interesting to note that Paul, like Ferguson, was not above pointing people back to their baptism to remind them of their salvation (Romans 6:3-4, etc.).

The confession of faith, Ferguson notes, “will involve the whole self”:

There may be many occasions when one is called upon to confess faith in Jesus in addition to the initial acknowledgment of him. (p. 175)

But since the focus of this chapter is “how one is brought into this relationship” with Christ and his church (p. 135), Ferguson focuses on a convert’s initial confession of faith. So he soon pivots again to baptism, providing another definition:

The confession that “Jesus is Lord and Christ” is made by act as well as by word. The action of baptism is a confession of faith in the resurrection… One submits to immersion only if he or she has faith in the resurrection… Baptism acknowledges Jesus as Lord of one’s life and king of the universe… Baptism is a confession that Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Son of God. Submitting to baptism is identical to the faith that is confessed. (pp. 174-75, bold added)

Ferguson’s last paragraph on faith ends by showing its relationship to church membership:

Faith in the God who raises the dead, specifically Jesus Christ, is the heart of the Christian faith… This is the faith by which one becomes identified with Christ and so a part of his spiritual body, his people, who wear his name. (p. 175, bold added)

Ferguson next discusses repentance. He is brief here, so I will be too! Repentance, he suggests, broadly involves three elements: (1) godly grief, (2) change of will, and (3) reformation of life. Repentance also has a narrower meaning, focusing on the second element:

The inward change that results from godly grief and issues in a reformation of life is what constitutes repentance in the strict sense. (p. 177)

What is the relationship of repentance to conversion?

If a distinction is to be observed, “repent” refers more to the inward turning and “convert” to the outward acts of turning.

The literal meaning of turning suggests an illustration of the place of repentance in conversion. A person is walking in one direction, stops (the conviction of sin; godly sorrow), decides to turn around (repentance), turns around (conversion), and walks in the opposite direction (reformation of life). (p. 178, bold added)

And which comes first, faith or repentance?

In the two passages where faith and repentance are mentioned together, repentance precedes faith… (Mark 1:15… Acts 20:21)… Some would argue theologically and insist on the priority of faith as the root of all human response to God… Probably we should not think in terms of sequence at all but in terms of describing a total response to God… (pp. 178-79, bold added)

With that, Ferguson turns to systematically discuss one of his favorite topics, baptism. After discussing the historical background of Christian baptism, he considers the meaning of baptism.

“Baptism is associated with many key ideas involved in conversion” (p. 180). Ferguson’s discussion here reminds me of Stein’s article, though his list of related components is not identical: confession of faith, act of repentance, forgiveness of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit, new birth, death and resurrection, and membership in the church.

Here are some highlights:

Baptism is a “calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16)… After baptism into Christ one wears the name of Christ. One now lives a Christian life because of becoming a Christian at baptism. (pp. 180-81, bold added)

Baptism is involved in the turning associated with repentance… According to the illustration offered [in the discussion of repentance and conversion] above, repentance is the decision to turn, and baptism is the turning around. Repentance is the inward turning, and baptism is the outward turning, which is followed by the new life of walking in the opposite direction. (pp. 182-83, bold added)

Baptism is the appointed time at which God pronounces forgiveness. Faith takes away the love of sin, repentance takes away the practice of sin, and baptism takes away the guilt of sin. (p. 183, bold added)

Here Ferguson notes the parallel construction between Acts 2:38 (“Repent, and be baptized… so that your sins may be forgiven”) and Matthew 26:28 (“This is my blood…, which is poured out… for the forgiveness of sins”). “Exactly the same construction and wording occurs” in Greek in the two passages, Ferguson asserts.

No one would suggest that Jesus’ blood was poured out “because of the forgiveness of sins.” He did not die because sins were already forgiven, nor was his blood poured out as a symbol of the forgiveness of sins. There was no doubt that the blood was shed “in order to effect the forgiveness of sins.” The same translation must be given to Acts 2:38… The blood provides forgiveness by the divine action; baptism appropriates that forgiveness for the penitent believer. (p. 183, bold added)

There is no magical power in the water nor merit in the act itself, for the value comes not from the water but from the intention with which the act is performed. The statement is not to be absolutized, but when placed in the total context of the gospel, it remains true: “Baptism saves.” [Citing 1 Peter 3:21.]… There must be an objective necessity about baptism, nor the New Testament writers could not speak of baptism in the way they do. (pp. 184-85, bold added)

Again, comments like this might make some of us uncomfortable, and they raise all sorts of questions. (What about the thief on the cross?) But I urge us to ask: Compared to Ferguson, is the way we often talk about baptism closer to the language of the Bible, or further? As we add nuance, let us be humble learners.

I find Ferguson’s reflections on the historical theology of baptism helpful, too:

The perspective outlined here makes problematic the designation of baptism as a sacrament… Roman Catholics have traditionally emphasized the inward grace, so much so that the benefits are applied in the rite if no resistance is offered (hence, an infant receives forgiveness of original sin in baptism)… Protestants, on the other hand, have emphasized the sign aspect, so baptism is a sign of God’s forgiveness that is given to a faith that has already happened (in the case of adult baptism) or will happen (in the case of infant baptism) and does not require the sign for it to happen (hence, the baptism is actually unnecessary). Against these ideas, the New Testament teaches that baptism has real value but draws that value only from the command of God and from an active faith. It is both necessary to the accomplishment of forgiveness under ordinary circumstances and the symbol of what is accomplished. (pp. 185-86, bold added)

I got excited when I read the next paragraph, for it confirmed something I concluded in my essay “125 Years of Seven Ordinances”:

This book has consciously avoided a separate category of “sacraments” in its organization of the material. Such a category is a later theological construct for which there is no explicit New Testament authorization. Moreover, it seems preferable to treat the actions sometimes called sacraments in the living context of their place in the church rather than to pull them out of that context and put them in a separate category. (p. 186, bold added)

Discussing John 3:3-5 and similar passages, Ferguson quips that “there are two elements of the new birth [water and Spirit], despite the efforts of some to dehydrate the new birth” (p. 188).

Is baptism a symbol? Ferguson addresses this while discussing death and resurrection:

The convert participates in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. There is a sharing in his experience. That makes baptism a richly meaningful act. More is involved than an imitation or repetition of what Christ did; what he did becomes operative in the life of the believer…

Baptism may be described as an act of dynamic symbolism, a symbol that partakes of the reality symbolized… Baptism began with John as an eschatological sign of cleansing; it was given deeper symbolism in Christianity by the death and resurrection of Christ. Anything but immersion destroys the symbolism of the act. (p. 191, bold added)

Ferguson’s language of “dynamic symbolism” reminds me of Bobby Jamieson’s term “effective sign” (see my review of his book Going Public):

The thesis of this book, then, is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effective signs of church membership: they create the social, ecclesial realities to which they point. (p. 2, bold added)

How does baptism relate to church membership? I find Ferguson’s discussion refreshing for its biblical integrity:

Baptism places one in the church. “For in [or by] the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13)… The Spirit places the person in the one body. Having the one Spirit is the means of sharing in the one body. (pp. 191-92, bold added)

The New Testament places no significance on the person who performs the baptism. The emphasis is always on the person’s response of faith and the divine action… The person doing the baptizing was not the important matter; what was important was the fact that it was done and the purpose that motivated it. (p. 194, bold added)

Since Christ is the body (1 Cor. 12:12), to be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into the body, that is, into the church as the people of God… Baptism serves as the act of initiation into the church. Any group or organization has to have some act which marks off its members from others, however informal this may be… Not only does the church need something to identify its members, but people need something they can look back on and say, “At that time I became a Christian, a member of the church.” God has designated something as the decisive act that only the truly converted will do. Baptism is the line between the church and the world. (p. 194, bold added)

Ferguson is certainly an idealist when he says baptism is something “that only the truly converted will do.” We all know this is not always true, and it would be wise for Ferguson to discuss what should happen when exceptions are discovered. (Perhaps he does later.) Nevertheless, I want to say here that it is important to properly recognize biblical ideals and use them as the foundation of our understanding of practices like church membership. Exceptions must be handled, but we must not use them as excuses to develop ideals and norms that are not biblical.

In my estimation it is not helpful, for example, to say that since not all who are baptized are Christians, therefore we will divorce baptism from either conversion, church membership, or both. Scripture ties all three together; it would be better to revise our membership paradigms to match Scripture more closely than to separate the three in order to preserve extra-biblical membership practices designed to ensure our members are truly Christians. Let’s hold to (or return to) the biblical ideal of a united conversion/baptism/membership experience and then invest the effort to actively disciple and discipline the “exceptions.”

Some final quotes on the meaning of baptism:

Membership in the church is more a result than the purpose of baptism. One is baptized not so much in order to join the church as to accept Christ and receive his salvation… God adds the person to the church, the community of the saved. The church is created by God. (pp. 194-95, bold added)

There can be a “subtle temptation to trust in baptism for salvation,” Ferguson notes. However, “there are [also] other things that can become misplaced objects of trust,” such as faith, experience, or doctrinal correctness. Thus this temptation is no reason to water down (pardon the pun) the Bible’s teaching on baptism. After all, “truly to trust in God includes responding to him in the appointed way,” which includes baptism (p. 195).

Who should be baptized? Baptism “is not a work by those already saved,” Ferguson notes. “Hence, the proper persons to receive baptism are penitent believers, or believing penitents.”

Ferguson lists three arguments against infant baptism:

(1) There is not mention of the baptism of infants in the New Testament. (2) Every account of baptism in the New Testament shows it to be a response by believers… (3) The evidence of church history places the beginning of infant baptism at the end of the second century. (pp. 195-96)

He then devotes three pages to refute four arguments often presented in favor of infant baptism:

The examples of household baptism…
[Giving] baptism the place of circumcision…
Jewish proselyte baptism…
The doctrine of original sin… (pp. 196-98)

I was impressed with the evidence Ferguson mounted to show that the accounts of household baptism do not reasonably describe infants. Regarding original sin, he argues that “infant baptism arose first on other grounds, and the idea that infants needed purification developed (at least in part) as a consequence of the practice.” Thus “original sin was not the basis of the practice [of infant baptism], but the practice was the basis of the doctrine” (p. 198). This historical sequence, if true, considerably weakens a key theological argument for infant baptism. (Some church traditions use other theological arguments, usually also redefining the purpose of baptism from forgiveness of sins to something less crucial.)

I really enjoyed Ferguson’s thoughts about the “condition of the child”:

The theology of the child is little developed in churches that practice believers’ baptism. Yet the status of the child is urgently in need of clarification as a foundation for religious education and as an explanation of the relation of the young person to the Christian community.

Sometimes there has been a tendency to come out where the old revivalism did: one must be lost in order to be saved, so the child is painted as a little sinner. Perhaps related is the tendency to baptize at a younger and younger age. (p. 199, bold added)

What, then, is a better theology and practice? Ferguson looks to creation and to the positive New Testament assessment of children, both by Jesus and by Paul.

The doctrine of inherited guilt from Adam was rejected above as lacking biblical support…

According to Matthew 19:13-15 the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as the little children…

Paul argues against a believer divorcing an unbelieving mate on the grounds that the believer sanctifies the unbeliever, a conclusion justified by this consideration: “Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14)… Salvation is not under consideration… The question is the legitimacy of the marriage relationship so that it is proper to remain in the marriage. A corollary is the condition of the children; are they in a state of purity as it relates to the Christian community? Paul indicates that the answer is “Yes.” Nothing is said here about baptism; the state of holiness comes from the believing parent not from baptism and no impurity requires the cleansing of baptism. If all children are born innocent, then the child of a Christian parent has an added advantage, for that child grows up… under Christian influence and in some contact with the Christian community… The child of Christian parents sustains a special relationship to the Lord that the child of non-Christians would not. [Citing Ephesians 6:1-4.] (pp. 199-200, bold added)

How might our practice reflect this theology?

There must be some way in which the religious experience of the child is not denied and treated as non-Christian but the real meaning of believer’s baptism maintained… It is proper to teach the child to pray, to study the Bible, and to practice Christian morality…

What then does baptism mean for the child who has grown up in a Christian home? It must still retain the positive significance that it has for the adult convert from the world, but it would not have the same sense of a radical break with the past… The baptism of a child of Christian parents should be seen in continuity with the childhood religious experience… At this time, one makes a profession of faith as his or her own… [Footnote: “One may compare the Jewish bar mitzvah, when the child becomes a ‘son of the commandment’ with responsibility to assume the duties of the law.] Baptism is the person’s acceptance of Christ and of responsibility for public involvement in the life of the church. (p. 200, bold added)

Ferguson resists the call to be more prescriptive:

At what time does baptism become appropriate? When can a decision for a life of faith be responsibly made? How long is a child in a state of “holiness”?… The Bible does not give an age. The person must face the consciousness of sin (which to some degree may come quite early) and the necessity of assuming responsibility for actions (that may be very much later). (p. 201, bold added)

As a parent of young children, I appreciate Ferguson’s biblical assurance that I need not call them quickly to a crisis faith decision. I want them to be conscious of the presence of the Lord from an early age, but do not feel an urgency to overwhelm them with a sense of responsibility for their own sins before they are developmentally equipped to handle it well.

Ferguson presents five lines of evidence for “immersion” or “dipping” as the proper mode of baptism:

The etymology of the word baptizó
Jewish practice in New Testament times for ritual washing…
The New Testament descriptions of baptism…
The symbolism of burial and resurrection…
The evidence of early church history… (pp. 201-203)

I already agreed with Ferguson that immersion is the biblical norm, and that other practices are post-biblical “exceptions.”

Ferguson winds down this chapter by discussing “three tenses of salvation” (p. 203). He notes that “if one loses faith and a penitent attitude, baptism loses its saving significance” (p. 204).

I get excited when I read the following sentences from the end of this chapter. Ferguson’s understanding of church membership is very different from the way we have been trained to think about church membership in our recent conservative Anabaptist tradition. But it matches so well what I have been concluding in my own reading of the New Testament! What would it look like if our churches understood membership in the following way?

Properly understood, “to be in the church is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the church.”1 One is not “in Christ” because of being “in the church,” but one is “in the church” because of being “in Christ.” Membership in the church is not a matter of separate choice by the one joined to Christ (as if one could belong to Christ and not belong to his people). To be saved is to be in Christ, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the church. God by the same action that saves places the person in the redeemed community. (p. 205, bold added)

Ah, but Ferguson must be talking about the universal church, right? This would be quite impractical for a local church!

Not so fast. Here are the very next sentences, part of the same paragraph:

Nor is the church in the Bible an invisible body. It is always treated in the New Testament as a visible community of people, identifiable and distinct from the surrounding world… Not only is a visible fellowship part of God’s saving action, but it is also the context in which the salvation is lived out and the new life actualized. (p. 205, bold added)


And thus we return to where we began: soteriology determines ecclesiology.

If we are honest, I think we will admit what history shows only too clearly: we have some problems with our ecclesiology. Does this suggest that we also have problems with our soteriology? Might we not have a clear enough understanding of salvation? If we knew more clearly what it really means to belong to Christ, could we better recognize who actually belongs to him? And would we feel more deeply our spiritual bond with all who do, so that we would not dare to deny that bond by defining church membership in other ways (Eph. 4:3-4)?

Let us think on these things.


If you want to read more of Ferguson’s thoughts about baptism, check out his massive volume Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Meanwhile, it’s your turn: Share your responses in the comments below!


Ferguson’s fourth chapter (our post 5) is about worship and assembly. Subtopics will include things like attitudes toward worship, the day of assembly, and activities such as the Lord’s Supper and giving. I see in advance that I’ll disagree with Ferguson’s position on instrumental music, but I’ll do my best to learn as I disagree!


Note: I participate in an Amazon affiliates program, so if you buy a book using the link above, I will earn pennies. Thanks!

  1. Claude Welch, The Reality of the Church (New York: Scribner’s, 1958), p. 165.

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