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Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership — Jamieson (Review)

Jamieson, Bobby. Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015). 243 pp. Publisher’s description and PDF of first chapter. Author interview and book quotes. (Amazon new price: $18.86 paperback, $11.99 Kindle, cheaper used.) Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership

For Anabaptists, baptism was and often remains a hot topic. And for a rite that has been central to the entire Church since its first moments, there is a surprising diversity of thought within Christianity at large. Basically everyone besides Quakers and the Salvation Army agrees that water baptism is important, but there is disagreement on nearly every other point.

In conservative Anabaptist circles, there are at least several points of dispute: Which mode of baptism is best? How closely should baptism be tied to conversion? And how closely should it be tied to church membership?

Given our disagreements about church membership, this last question seems to be an especially active point of discussion. I’ve heard quite a few young people suggest that baptism is too closely tied to membership in our churches. Some say this feeds into the perception that “joining the church” is the essence of salvation, with true repentance and regeneration apparently being secondary. Some don’t like all the extra-biblical church rules that are thus tied to baptism. On the other hand, most church leaders I’ve heard seem to value the connection between baptism and membership. Usually this means they don’t think it is wise to practice baptism without membership.

Bobby Jamieson’s new book, Going Public, affirms the connection between baptism and church membership. But his main concern is one we don’t usually wrestle with in our conservative Anabaptist churches. He doesn’t think it’s wise to practice membership without baptism. His primary goal is to show that “baptism is in fact required for membership in a local church” (p. 2).

Going Public Cover

Going Public is aimed primarily at credobaptists (those who affirm believer’s baptism) who are divided over whether to include as members those who have been baptized as infants. Baptists have been debating this “for nearly 350 years” (p. 11), and John Piper helped renew the debate in 2005 when he argued for what Jamieson calls “open membership”—the inclusion of those baptized as infants. (Read and hear more from Piper and his church on this debate; his church ultimately retained “closed membership.”)

Jamieson thinks infant baptism (paedobaptism) is not baptism at all, but because he assumes “virtually everyone who will read this book is a credobaptist,” he doesn’t spend much time defending that point. Rather, his goal is more focused:

In one sentence: in this book I argue that according to Scripture baptism is required for church membership and for participation in the Lord’s Supper, membership’s recurring effective sign. (p. 8)

Or, in more detail:

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… Therefore, what this book offers is not merely an answer to the question of whether baptism should be required for church membership. Instead it offers an integrated account of how baptism and the Lord’s Supper transform a scattered group of Christians into a gathered local church… It lays theological foundations for understanding what the local church is from the ground up. (p. 2)

Going Public is a product of 9Marks, a multi-faceted ministry founded by Calvinist Baptist pastor Mark Dever that aims “to help pastors, future pastors, and church members see what a biblical church looks like, and to take practical steps for becoming one.” Jamieson is a Ph.D. student in New Testament at the University of Cambridge and a former assistant editor for 9Marks.

Summary of Book

Part 1 is called “Getting Our Bearings.” After explaining and justifying his goals in Chapter 1, Jamieson critiques “six reasons open membership feels just right” (p. 21) in Chapter 2. “This chapter… is an exercise in critically analyzing aspects of the prevailing evangelical worldview, the broader culture which informs it, and the unique pressures baptists feel because of both. It’s an attempt to help the fish notice the temperature and currents of the water he lives in and therefore takes for granted” (pp. 21-22).

Part 2 is called “Building a Case.” Chapter 3 presents a short theology of baptism, arguing primarily that baptism is “where faith goes public,” a phrase repeated many times throughout the book. “Becoming a Christian is not a private act… The New Testament speaks of baptism as an integral part of what it normally means to become a Christian. As such, it often uses baptism as shorthand—specifically, a synecdoche—for conversion… Two implications… First, all who profess faith in Christ are obligated to be baptized. Second, infant baptism is not baptism and should not be counted as baptism” (p. 52).

Chapter 4 argues that baptism is “the initiating oath-sign of the new covenant” (p. 55)—that is, baptism is a sign (a symbolic act) that functions as an oath, an oath that initiates a person into the new covenant. “If someone believes but has not yet been baptized, he has not yet fully entered the new covenant… You might say that an as-yet-unbaptized believer belongs to the new covenant privately but not yet publicly, and God intends the two to be inseparable” (p. 78).

Chapter 5 presents a similar argument using kingdom imagery rather than covenant imagery. “Jesus… has authorized local churches to serve as embassies of his kingdom… Baptism is the swearing-in ceremony for citizens of the kingdom” (p. 96). “Because baptism is the passport of the kingdom, baptism is a necessary though not sufficient criterion by which the church is to recognize someone as a Christian” (p. 99). “Baptism is an effective sign of church membership: it creates the ecclesial reality to which it points” (p. 100).

Chapter 6 turns to the related topic of the Lord’s Supper, calling it the “renewing oath-sign of the new covenant,” the event where we “repeatedly ratify the new covenant” (p. 135). “Baptism binds one to many, and the Lord’s Supper binds many into one” (p. 122). “Baptism must precede the Lord’s Supper. You must perform the initiating oath-sign of the covenant before you may participate in its renewing oath-sign” (p. 134). “The Lord’s Supper should only be celebrated by local churches as churches. It normally entails membership in a local church. And a gathering which regularly celebrates the Lord’s Supper is a church. Why? Because the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is an effective sign of church membership” (p. 135).

Chapter 7 addresses church membership more directly. “Yes, God creates his people through the gospel. But if faith stayed invisible, there would be no church on earth, only individual Christians, or at best vague, indistinct associations of believers… Baptism and the Lord’s Supper make the church visible. They are the hinge between the ‘invisible’ universal church and the ‘visible’ local church. They draw a line around the church by drawing the church together” (p. 142). “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper give the church visible, institutional form and order… ‘Church membership’ names the relation which the ordinances create. The ordinances mold the church into a shape called ‘membership.’ …Therefore, we can’t remove baptism from membership because without baptism, membership doesn’t exist” (p. 157).

Part 3 is called “The Case Stated, Defended, Applied.” Chapter 8 mercifully summaries Part 2 in less than eight pages. Chapter 9 responds to seven arguments against requiring baptism for membership. Here Jamieson engages opponent-friends as prominent as John Bunyan and John Piper. “Baptism draws the line between the church and the world. We are not at liberty to draw it elsewhere… Paedobaptists are denied membership because they lack not the substance of a credible profession but its form” (p. 191). Chapter 10 presents seven final arguments in Jamieson’s favor—arguments against “open membership” (membership that is open to those not baptized).  “You can’t put error regarding baptism into the structure of the church. Why? Because baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper is what structures the church… If an individual’s conviction trumps the church’s confession, it’s not the church that has the authority but the individual” (p. 207). Chapter 11 gives practical advice for practicing baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership, including “a transition plan” for churches who wish to newly adopt Jamieson’s position of requiring baptism for membership (pp. 210-11). Finally, an appendix is provided for “explaining why baptism is required for membership in three minutes” (pp. 227-28).

Assessment of Book

The subtitle of this book is “Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership.” I came to this book already convinced of this basic idea. It seems very clear to me that the New Testament portrays baptism as an initiation into both Christ and his body, and that you can’t experience one without the other.

Jamieson added some theological richness to my prior understandings, such as in his discussion of covenant. Modern Anabaptists usually don’t spend as much time thinking about the Bible in terms of covenants as Reformed thinkers do, which is a shame given our historic clarity about the significance of at least the new covenant. “Is the new covenant inaugurated by an oath?” (p. 65). “Is baptism an oath?” (p. 67). I’m not sure I’ve ever considered such questions before. Good questions can lead to richer understandings.

I also liked Jamieson’s irenic (peaceful despite disagreements) tone. While he is certainly capable of absolute statements, he also evidently loves those with whom he disagrees, even counting them as fellow Christians despite theological statements that might suggest otherwise.

Yet, despite agreeing with so much in this book, I found it a somewhat frustrating read. The book could be shorter if trimmed of redundant repetitions. On the one hand it is structured carefully, with a logical progression of chapters, a summary chart of “headlines” at the end of each chapter, a summary chapter and appendix, and lots of “this is where we’ve been and this is where I’m going” material. But I also felt at times as if the author thought we readers might be convinced if he simply repeated his assertions (“baptism is where faith goes public,” etc.) often enough.

I also found the end of the book a bit of a let-down. After so many strong assertions throughout the book, when it came time for practical suggestions about church life, qualifiers and compromises appeared. For example, Jamieson strongly asserts that “infant baptism simply isn’t baptism” (p. 53) and that “without baptism, membership doesn’t exist” (p. 157). Yet in his “transition plan” he suggests that “if you currently have unbaptized paedobaptist members, I’d suggest they should be ‘grandfathered in’—that is, remain members… I don’t think their refusal to be baptized necessarily amounts to grounds for excommunication” (p. 211). I’m not saying I disagree with Jamieson’s advice. But it feels to me like this belated retreat from idealism to realism suggests that Jamieson’s position is not as absolute as he first made it appear. Maybe it would have been more honest to have acknowledged this earlier.

Update: Here is another example of how Jamieson’s strong idealistic assertions clash with later compromises.

Jamieson asserts for about 200 pages that infant baptism is no baptism at all. He argues even more strongly that true (that is, believer’s) baptism is essential for church membership. Then he suggests that paedobaptists who are within baptist churches should go start their own churches… Do you feel the tension? Now read this explanation buried in a footnote:

Some readers may wonder how I can recognize a paedobaptist church as a true church since, in principle, all its members could be unbaptized persons and therefore unfit ‘matter’ for a church. I would suggest that because a paedobaptist church preaches the gospel and practices the ordinances together [HT Martin Luther], they are in fact a church. (Remember, it’s not that paedobaptists don’t baptize believers; it’s just that they ‘baptize’ infancts, too, thus preventing them from being baptized if they come to faith.) Not being baptized, did these individuals have authority to form a church? Perhaps not. But once they’re a church, they’re a church. The situation is analogous to a couple who were each unbiblically divorced before marrying each other. They lacked the authorization to marry, but once they’re married, they’re married. (p. 203)

If your head stops spinning after that, add another dance number to the mix:

If you’re the only church in your city, and you’ve got convinced paedobaptists coming to your church, and they remain so despite your best efforts to convince them otherwise, I’d suggest that your long-term goal should be to help them start a new church… You and your other elders can help raise up church leaders from within their number or connect them to other believers who might be able to find them a pastor. When they’re ready to being meeting as a church, you can pray for them and send them off with your blessing… (p. 187)

So, to go back to the marriage analogy: If you have a couple that are each unbiblically divorced, and thus without the right to remarry (I’m assuming Jamieson’s understandings of divorce and remarriage for the moment), but who nevertheless share the conviction and desire to marry each other, what should you do? Sounds like your “long-term goal should be to help them start a new” marriage. You could even “pray for them and send them off with your blessing.”

My, theology can be confusing.

This retreat from idealism also opens the door for arguing in favor of other compromise positions. There is no direct biblical basis for Jamieson’s compromise position. Thus I’m not sure there is any clear biblical or logical line between Jamieson’s compromise (grandfather in current members baptized as infants) and Piper’s compromise (accept as members those baptized as infants). Jamieson is compromising more on the Bible’s teaching on welcoming all Christians, and Piper is compromising more on the Bible’s teaching on believer’s baptism. Both are seeking compromise in a difficult situation where not all Christians agree. Neither are managing to follow the NT example perfectly. (Nor are we.)

But what really made this book a wrestling match for me was Jamieson’s “local church membership” lens. It seems to me that Jamieson’s perspective on church membership (a perspective shared by 9Marks and many other evangelicals and by many Anabaptists too) is only loosely biblical. I began critiquing this aspect of the book in a previous post and will reflect more here, but this topic really deserves more attention than can be given in a book review.

What is Jamieson missing? Briefly: The language of church membership comes from the NT’s language about members. And member language in the Scriptures is associated with body language. (Today we are more likely to say a body has “parts” than to say it has “members,” but we still might say a body has been “dismembered.” The ESV mirrors this by switching randomly between “members” and “parts” in its translation of the Greek word μέλη in 1 Corinthians 12.) And—here is the crucial point—when the Scriptures talk about the body of Christ and its members, they are almost always emphasizing the universal church, not the local church. (I hope to write a post or essay sometime to defend this claim.) Yet we are so used to extra-biblical phrases like “local church membership” and “the local church body” that we tend to read these NT references to member and body as referring to local churches. Of course the realities of the universal church must also be lived out locally. But not at the expense of the universal realities upon which the local ones rest!

Jamieson briefly acknowledges the importance of the universal church:

What if someone were to argue that baptism initiates one into the universal church, not a local church? I agree that there is a sense in which baptism initiates one into the universal church as it is visibly, publicly expressed on earth. Just as Christians all share one faith and one Lord, so also there is one and only one baptism (Eph. 4:5). And as I said, when a Christian converted in Chicago moves to Detroit, he need not be baptized again; he brings his baptism with him. Baptism is an affirmation of kingdom citizenship. And local churches, as embassies of the kingdom, are bound to affirm all the kingdom citizens they are presented with. Thus, insofar as baptism is an affirmation of kingdom citizenship, it confers a status which transcends the local church that grants it. (p. 102)

There is much good in this paragraph! (Ponder the second-last sentence again, and wrestle both with Jamieson’s thoughts about paedobaptists and the membership requirements of many of our own churches; here is an ideal we should reach towards, whether or not we can perfectly reach it.) But there are also fascinating shortcomings. Jamieson writes “there is a sense in which baptism initiates one into the universal church.” Why such hesitancy to affirm what the Bible so clearly teaches? And how did he manage to quote Ephesians 4:5 without quoting the verse right before it, which begins, “There is one body…” There is one body! The index indicates that Jamieson never quotes this verse. This is a significant lapse in a such a weighty book on membership. And after this paragraph he soon retreats again to focus narrowly on “local” church membership.

The following statement about the local church is more typical of Jamieson’s thought patterns:

It’s the body—I’d argue the only body—that has the authority to declare to the world who does and does not belong to the kingdom of Christ (Matt 16:18-19; 18:17-20).

This statement not only assumes a strongly congregationalist form of church government, a perspective which may be correct but which will not be shared by many such as Presbyterians and conference Mennonites and Catholics who are beyond his ideal readership. It also stretches the evidence provided by its proof texts. In Matthew 16 and 18 Jesus was granting authority first of all to his disciples. After Pentecost these same disciples would often exercise this kingdom-defining authority outside of local church contexts. They did this, for example, through writing letters, through traveling from church to church, and in the Jerusalem conference, which affirmed the inclusion of Gentiles everywhere and gave conditions for that inclusion.

This confusion about membership expresses itself repeatedly throughout Going Public. A few more examples:

If you’re only at a church one Sunday, there’s no time to be a member, so the theological category of ‘membership’ doesn’t obtain. (p. 130)

This may be true of Jamieson’s theological categories, but surely not Paul’s.

In lots of places Jamieson moves without warning or distinction between phrases that properly describe the universal church and phrases that describe local churches. For example:

You should not baptize anyone who is not intending to join your church. With only one exception (addressed below), no one should be baptized who is not intending to come under Jesus’ authority by submitting to his church… (p. 213, emphasis added)

In once sentence he says you shouldn’t baptize anyone who is not intending to join your church. In the next sentence he says you shouldn’t baptize anyone who is not intending to submit to his (Jesus’) church. Of course, on one level it is both. But our sphere of authority is much smaller (both absolutely and geographically) than Christ’s, so the two cannot be identical. I suggest we need to remember more clearly that the church is Christ’s, not ours. So I see no theological problem in baptizing someone who is planning to fellowship primarily with another group of believers elsewhere, whether across town or across the country or globe. Despite the need to remind all baptismal candidates of the importance of bonding with other believers, I do not think we have a biblical basis for limiting such baptisms to cases that mirror the Ethiopian eunuch, as Jamieson believes (p. 214).

Here he apparently equates the universal and local church:

Baptism… is necessary for entry into the new covenant community on earth—the membership of a local church. (p. 79, emphasis added)

Here he uses a text that deals with universal realities and seems to see only local ones:

The reality of membership—that some people are in the church and others are out—is everywhere present in the New Testament. For example, Paul writes, ‘For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside’ (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Provisionally, we can define church membership as a relation between a local church and a Christian in which the Christian belongs and submits to the church and the church affirms and oversees the Christian’s profession of faith in Christ. (p. 145, emphasis added)

Clearly, when Paul said that “God judges those outside,” “outside” did not mean simply outside a particular local church. In context, those outside were ones who were to be strictly avoided as false brothers, even delivered over to Satan. This means that the phrase “those inside the church” extends beyond any local church, too. We are to judge traveling false teachers just as surely as local ones. The membership Paul was discussing included local realities, but went far beyond it.

Jamieson’s theological categories cause him to affirm divisions (or at least withholding of communion) within Christ’s church. Here he describes the Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference:

One of the goals of the conference is to showcase the unity such brothers can enjoy in the gospel. Yet many have argued that such unity remains a sham as long as those men cannot sit together at the Lord’s Table. (p. 26)

Later he writes this:

My primary response to the ‘If T4G, then church membership’ argument is that church membership isn’t the only kind of fellowship Christians can have. By definition Christians who are geographically distant can’t be members of the same church…

Is it inconsistent to invite a minister to break the bread of life to us and not allow him to break bread at the Lord’s Table with us? I’d suggest not. First, we see in 2 Corinthians 8:18 and 3 John 5-6a that the earliest Christians would occasionally hear trusted preachers from other churches. This means the New Testament doesn’t require someone to be a member of a certain church in order to preach to that church. And if someone isn’t required to be a member, I can’t see why he would need to fulfill all of a church’s requirements for membership… Unity between churches is made of different stuff than unity within churches. (pp. 189-90)

When I read such paragraphs, my pencil gets busy in the margins. “Proof??” is what I wrote after that last sentence. And try telling Paul that “by definition Christians who are geographically distant can’t be members of the same church”! Whose definition, pray tell? Certainly not Paul’s. And can you really imagine that the Paul who rebuked Peter for refusing to eat with the Gentile believers would affirm Christians today refusing to share the Lord’s Supper together?

And consider the Scriptural examples cited. Can you imagine the Paul who rebuked the Corinthian church for failing to share the Lord’s Supper in a loving manner with all the believers present (1 Cor. 11:17-34) being happy if the Corinthian church failed to offer the Lord’s Supper to Titus and “the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” when they arrived in Corinth (2 Cor. 8:16-18)? And it seems to me that the John who rebuked Diotrephes because “he refuses to welcome the brothers” would not be content if his readers failed to welcome godly traveling teachers to the Lord’s Table (3 John 5-10).

Jamieson’s narrow focus on the local church leads him to a strange conclusion that is at odds with historic church practice:

Because the Lord’s Supper effectively signifies a church’s existence as a body, it shouldn’t be celebrated by individuals or families or any other group… And it shouldn’t be ‘taken’ to those who are homebound or in the hospital, despite the commendable compassion that evidences. To make the Lord’s Supper something other than a communal, ecclesial meal is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper. (p. 131, emphasis added)

In contrast, when Justin Martyr records how the Lord’s Supper was observed around the year 150 A.D., he specifies that “to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” (See Chapter 67 of The First Apology of Justin Martyr.)

I could provide dozens more examples from Jamieson’s book of the tension that is caused by what I feel is his imbalanced understanding of church membership, but this is long enough. Jamieson says several times that “simple proof texting won’t settle the issue either way” (p. 18; cf p. 185). This may be true. But I wish Jamieson built his theological house more directly on a more careful reading of the full biblical foundation.

Conclusion

Jamieson quotes the early Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier to good effect several times. I wish he had taken to heart this description that Hubmaier provides of church membership. Hubmaier describes baptism as being “a sacramental oath before the Christian church and all her members, assembled partly in body and completely in spirit” (p. 144, fn 13). May we regain this grand vision of belonging to Christ’s one true, universal church!

We often (and rightly) critique the individualism that keeps too many Christians from ever meaningfully bonding with a local gathering of believers. But I submit that this same individualism is at work in those who focus on the local church without grasping the grandeur of the church universal. America is full not only with individuals who love Jesus but not the church. It is also full of people who love their local church but not the rest of Christ’s body.

If we understand church “membership” in a true NT manner–as describing a belonging to Christ and to his one universal body rather than merely to a local congregation–and if we also agree that Jamieson is right in asserting that baptism and communion are the normal markers of membership in Christ’s church, then we still face difficult questions.

To return to Jamieson’s main question: What about someone who has only been baptized as an infant? If we say that infant baptism is no baptism at all, and if we say that baptism is always essential for church membership, then we must deny such people membership. But if membership is not merely a local matter but a universal one, by denying membership we are saying not merely that those baptized as infants cannot be part of our congregation, but that we have no assurance that they belong to Christ at all!

Jamieson takes pains to clarify that he is not saying this. One way he attempts to escape this trap is by saying that withholding membership is not denying someone’s faith, only refraining from affirming it. More precisely, it seems that Jamieson believes that there are cases where Tom as an individual can believe that Brother P (paedobaptist) is a Christian, and Dick can believe this too, and so can Harry, but that Tom, Dick and Harry together as a church must not affirm this by granting Brother P membership (pp. 166-67). Brother P may indeed be a Christian, and the church is not saying he isn’t. It’s just that they can’t say his is. Thus Jamieson disagrees with Piper’s claim that refusing membership is “preemptive excommunication” (p. 171). I’m not so sure. And the only way Jamieson’s argument works, as I see it, is if there is a local “membership” that is different from how the Bible uses such language.

How to move forward? While I strongly affirm believer’s baptism as the biblical pattern, I think I might be more comfortable acknowledging that we sometimes fall short of the biblical ideal in our understanding and practice of baptism than I am with trying to clone Christ’s body into thousands of separate “bodies.” How many bodies does Christ have?

Or is there a middle path that can avoid compromise on both baptism and membership? I am still pondering and listening.


This book is a valiant effort with a significant flaw.
I give it 3-1/2 out of 5 stars.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Jamieson and me that baptism and membership are integrally connected? Do you think Jamieson is hearing the heartbeat of the NT about “membership”? Am I? Are we conservative Anabaptists? Share your insights in the comments below.


Disclosures: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (7): Conclusions and Questions

How should we live today, as children of the Reformation? Should we celebrate the Reformation, looking to its heroes as a foundation for our churches? Should we continue debating and dividing among ourselves in our search for truth, emphasizing our post-Reformation denominational distinctives? Should Anabaptists read the Christian world primarily through an “Anabaptists are not X (especially Protestant)” lens?

Should we see the Reformation primarily as a tragedy, dividing the seamless robe of Christ, cutting his Bride in two? Should we focus our efforts on reuniting the broken Church, looking for common ground? Should we set aside secondary theological matters as we join arms with all who name Christ’s name, trying to undo the damage triggered by Luther?

Should we—as some today seem to be doing—try to do church as if the Reformation never happened? Is it ancient history that we are wisest to ignore, acting instead as if our parents or grandparents lived among the apostles? It has been almost 500 years since the Reformation; may we safely forget it as most of us have forgotten other momentous events in church history (such as the division of Eastern and Western churches, the decline of Christianity in the Middle East, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, or the tragedy and glory of European colonization)? After all, we who are Anabaptists are just biased in thinking that the historical period of our birth was exceptionally important, right?

While some of these questions are deliberately off-balance, I don’t think a simple yes or no answer will suffice for any of them. History abounds with reactionary responses to history.

This post is a (very belated) final installment in our series surveying the ecclesiology of the reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See the introduction to this series and posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , Calvin, Simons, and Tyndale.)

In this post I want to do two things: (1) Quote some of George’s summary reflections on Reformation ecclesiology and (2) add a random and non-representative sample of some of my own questions and conclusions.

Summary Reflections from Timothy George

The abiding validity of Reformation theology is that, despite the many varied emphases it contains within itself, it challenges the church to listen reverently and obediently to what God has once and for all said (Deus dixit) and once and for all done in Jesus Christ. How the church will respond to this challenge is not a matter of academic speculation or ecclesiastical gamesmanship. It is a question of life or death. It is the decision of whether the church will serve the true and living God of Jesus Christ, the God of the Old and the New Testaments, or else succumb to the worship of Baal. (Kindle Locations 8173-8177, emphasis added)

I agree: The Reformation helped to refocus the church of Christ upon Christ himself, not only in its soteriology (theology of salvation) but also in its understandings of the definition of the true church. This lesson must not be forgotten. This next quote underscores the same theme:

The different Christological nuances among the reformers were substantial and significant, but Menno’s favorite text (1 Cor 3:11) could serve as the basic theme for each of them: the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the only foundation, the only compelling and exclusive criterion, for Christian life and Christian theology. (Kindle Locations 8253-8255)

A second essential lesson of the Reformation is that Scripture—the Scripture that in its entirety gives witness to Christ—must be given primacy over both church tradition and personal experience:

In the sixteenth century the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture was not a matter of dispute between Catholics and Protestants. All of the reformers, including the radicals, accepted the divine origin and infallible character of the Bible. The issue which emerged at the Reformation was how the divinely attested authority of Holy Scripture was related to the authority of the church and ecclesiastical tradition (Roman Catholics) on the one hand and the power of personal experience (Spiritualists) on the other. The sola in sola scriptura was not intended to discount completely the value of church tradition but rather to subordinate it to the primacy of Holy Scripture. Whereas the Roman Church appealed to the witness of the church to validate the authority of the canonical Scriptures, the Protestant reformers insisted that the Bible was self-authenticating, that is, deemed trustworthy on the basis of its own perspicuity [clarity]… evidenced by the internal testimony [i.e., witness in our hearts] of the Holy Spirit. (Kindle Locations 8278-8286, emphasis added)

This emphasis on Scripture carried practical results for church life, resulting in a biblicism that has been both incredibly freeing but also—given (a) human interpretive fallibility and (b) pragmatic retreats to other sources of authority—a trigger point for much unfortunate division:

The reformers… were convinced that the proclamation of the Christian church could not be derived from any philosophy or any self-wrought worldview. It could be nothing less than an interpretation of the Scriptures. No other proclamation has either right or promise in the church. (Kindle Locations 8300-8302, emphasis added)

The second of the “Ten Conclusions of Berne” (1528) [Reformed] expresses this positive biblicism that governed, albeit with different results, both Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiology: “The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God.” (Kindle Locations 8292-8294, emphasis added)

To the above I say a hearty “Amen,” while affirming with Paul and others (Acts 16:6-10, etc.) that the belief in the still-speaking Spirit is also “grounded upon… the Word of God.” (The Bible provides guidance for the church of all time; the Spirit continues to give more specific, limited guidance that is in full agreement with the new covenant gospel Word found in the Scriptures.) Let us press on to ever more faithful biblical interpretation and living, while also extending gracious patience toward those who disagree on what should be identified as “human traditions.”

The following excerpt gives George’s summary of the Reformation definition of the church, followed by a lesson he draws for us today:

In the perspective of the Reformation, then, the church of Jesus Christ is that communion of saints and congregation of the faithful that has heard the Word of God in Holy Scripture and that, through obedient service to its Lord, bears witness to that Word in the world. We should remember that the church did not begin with the Reformation. The reformers intended to return to the New Testament conception of the church, to purge and purify the church of their day in accordance with the norm of Holy Scripture. Even the Anabaptists, who felt that an absolutely new beginning was called for, retained–even as they transmuted–more of the tradition and theology of the church of the Fathers and the creeds than they imagined. While we must not forfeit the hard-won victories of the reformers in the interest of a facile ecumenism, we celebrate and participate in the quest for Christian unity precisely because we take seriously the Reformation concept of the church–ecclesia semper reformanda, not merely a church once and for all reformed but rather a church always to be reformed, a church ever in need of further reformation on the basis of the Word of God. (Kindle Locations 8294-8300, emphasis added)

George also summarizes some Reformation church practices—changes, especially in worship practices, that resulted from changes in their theology:

As a part of their protest against clerical domination of the church, the reformers aimed at full participation in worship. Their reintroduction of the vernacular was itself revolutionary because it required that divine worship be offered to almighty God in the language used by businessmen in the marketplace and by husbands and wives in the privacy of their bedchambers. The intent of the reformers was not so much to secularize worship as to sanctify common life. (Kindle Locations 8315-8318, emphasis added)

In discussing these worship practices, George acknowledges differences among the reformers but seeks common ground:

We have seen how the reformers pared down the medieval sacraments from seven to two. We have also noted how, with regard to these two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, differences among the reformers became a major obstacle to unity among them. The Anabaptists insisted that baptism be consequent to faith and further denied that infants could be the proper recipients of faith whether presumed (Luther), parental (Zwingli), or partial (Calvin). Thus they returned to the early church practices of baptism as an adult rite of initiation signifying a committed participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ecumenical significance of the Anabaptist doctrine of baptism is recognized in the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry statement of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. While admitting the validity of both infant and believer’s baptism, it is stated that “baptism upon personal confession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.”1 (Kindle Locations 8320-8327, emphasis added)

George discusses lessons we can learn about baptism from the reformers:

As a corrective to the casual role assigned to baptism in much of contemporary church life, we can appropriate two central concerns from the Reformation doctrines of baptism: From the Anabaptists we can learn the intrinsic connection between baptism and repentance and faith; from the mainline reformers (though more from Luther than from the others) we can learn that in baptism not only do we say something to God and to the Christian community but God also says and does something for us, for baptism is both God’s gift and our human response to that gift. (Kindle Locations 8330-8335, emphasis added)

…and laments that baptismal differences still divide the church:

Even for many churches that are able mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism, full participation in the Eucharist can only be hoped for as a goal not yet achieved. There is no easy side-stepping of this serious ecumenical problem, nor is it possible to ignore the scars that remain from the sixteenth-century disputes over the meaning of “hoc est corpus meum [this is my body].” (Kindle Locations 8340-8343, emphasis added)

George also draws lessons from the Reformation about the Lord’s Supper. Again, a desire for unity helps shape George’s discussion:

What can we learn from the Reformation debates on the Lord’s Supper? First, we need to reclaim a theology of presence The Lord’s Supper is not “merely” a symbol. To be sure, it is a symbol, but it is a symbol that conveys that which it signifies…
Second, we need to return to the practice of more frequent Communion. The earliest Christians may have celebrated the Lord’s Supper daily (Acts 2:42, 46), and they certainly did so weekly… If the Lord’s supper is given to us for “daily food and sustenance to refresh and strengthen us” (Luther); if it “supports and augments faith” (Zwingli); if it is a “spiritual banquet” (Calvin); the “Christian marriage feast at which Jesus Christ is present with his grace, Spirit and promise” (Menno); and if it is the “spiritual food and meat of our souls” (Tyndale), then to neglect its frequent sharing in the context of worship is to spurn the external sign of God’s grace to our spiritual impoverishment.
Third, we need to restore the balance between Word and sacrament in Christian worship. The reformers did not invent the sermon, but they elevated preaching to a central role in the divine service… [Since] Vatican Council II (1963)… many Roman Catholic congregations have emphasized the decisive importance of the Liturgy of the Word in Christian worship. At the same time many Protestant congregations have regained a new appreciation for the central role of the Eucharist in Christian worship. Each of these trends is an encouraging sign. (Kindle Locations 8345-8375, emphasis added)

I find myself agreeing with most of George’s comments here about church worship practices. For example, I wish our churches weren’t so lackadaisical (or fearful?) about observing the Lord’s Supper more often.

George’s reflections about the ethics of the reformers are also relevant:

There is a kind of adulation of the reformers of the sixteenth century that divorces their theology from their ethics. This perspective rightly recognizes the reformers as great heroes of the faith but fails to discern their prophetic role and their revolutionary impact on society.  However, Reformation faith was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with the religious or spiritual sphere. (Kindle Locations 8388-8391)

I am tempted to launch a very Anabaptist-style critique of George at this point. I notice that in his subsequent discussion of Reformation ethics (four lengthy paragraphs, one each for Luther, Zwingli/Calvin, Menno, and Tyndale) he focuses to a large extent on what each man said about ethics, not what he actually did. This is natural in a book about theology, yet it is also a potential weakness, one we Anabaptists are keen to point out as we contrast the Luther of the Peasants’ Revolt with the Anabaptists who refused to bear the sword. In fact, George’s paragraph on Anabaptist ethics does indeed focus on deeds as much as on words, and he observes that “the Anabaptist vision is a corrective to the ethics of the mainline reformers. It reminds us that to sanctify the secular must never mean simply to sprinkle holy water on the status quo but always to confront the culture with the radical demands of Jesus Christ” (Kindle Locations 8417-8419, emphasis added). So I’ll end my brief critique and acknowledge that George shares my concern.

After summarizing the ethical emphases of various reformers, George continues:

Which of these ethical directions is right for the church today? No one of them is sufficient alone, for each is susceptible to its own distortion. The Lutheran emphasis on the priority of faith to works can degenerate into mere formalism because pure doctrine without holy living always results in dead orthodoxy. The Reformed emphasis on involvement in the world can turn the church into little more than a political action committee or a social service organization, while the Anabaptist critique of culture can lapse into a sterile separatism that has forgotten its sense of mission. We have much to learn from each of these traditions, but we are bound to none of them. We are bound only to Jesus Christ. The church is communio sanctorum, a communion of saved sinners, founded on the gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, sent into the world for which Christ died, ever to confront that world in witness and service with the absolute demands of Christ. (Kindle Locations 8427-8433, emphasis added)

Several things are noteworthy to me in the above excerpt. First, we see again George’s admirable desire to learn from everyone and to seek common ground in Christ. George’s ecumenical friendliness, though rooted strongly in devotion to Christ, probably makes some of us at least slightly uncomfortable at times. (George not only “chairs the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance,” but he also “is active in Evangelical-Roman Catholic Church dialogue.” See here.) But I think George’s keen sense of the unity of all true believers is sorely needed in our conservative Anabaptist churches. His account of the Reformation provides healthy balance to the narrower Anabaptists-focused story we usually hear.

Second, the above excerpt provides George’s own definition of the church. It is a remarkably good definition. I might quibble with his use of the word “sinners” to describe Christians (it depends in part on what you mean by “sinner”). But I like how George’s definition (a) is structured around repeated references to Christ, (b) is rooted in the gospel of grace while also affirming good works, (c) distinguishes the church from the world based on the “absolute demands” of Christ, and (d) emphasizes both word and deed as part of the church’s responsibility to the world.

Random Conclusions and Questions

One reason why it took me so long to write this final post in this series is because I feel utterly unqualified to properly “wrap up” this subject. I am only a student, and a very part-time and forgetful one! So, at the risk of repeating a redundant redundancy, let me remind you that what follows is only random thoughts that have popped into my head that I managed to write down before they flew.

First, some of my own conclusions:

  • It is inaccurate and unfair to describe American evangelicals today by quoting Luther. Some conservative Anabaptists regularly lament that we are so different from the first Anabaptists. Yet some of these same people regularly summarize Luther on church-state relationships or Calvin on predestination and imply that evangelicals today believe essentially the same thing, unchanged across 500 years. The truth is, some do and most don’t. One example: most American evangelicals today are roughly half way between Luther and the early Swiss Brethren (Grebel and Mantz, etc.) on the relationship between church and state. They have inherited ideas on this topic indirectly from both and also from a host of other sources. In fact, Luther might not even consider most evangelicals today to actually be true Christians! (Calvin would have his concerns about many American Christians, too.)
  • Our assumptions about church are powerfully shaped by our historical and ecclesiological contexts. The obvious lesson here is that we should be humble. We should intentionally allow our assumptions to be tested by others from different times and church traditions. This means that I, as a 21st-century Anabaptist living in the microcosm that is my local church—a very tiny slice of Christ’s church across time and space—this means that I must hold onto Christ and the Scriptures tightly but hold onto my particular ways of doing church lightly. It also means that I would be wise to listen regularly to voices from outside my own church heritage.
  • I am thankful for my Anabaptist heritage. Everyone grows up somewhere, and denying our roots does not make them disappear.  I think my various Anabaptist predecessors were wrong on multiple points: Conrad Grebel should not have forbade singing in church, Melchior Hoffman was wrong to predict the date of Christ’s return, Dirk Philips was too rigid in his application of the ban, and Menno Simons was confused about the incarnation. Anabaptists since have added other errors, some of which remain entrenched to this day. But I am deeply grateful to have been born into a stream of Christ’s church that clearly teaches believer’s baptism and a believers’ church, suffering love and nonviolence, and brotherly love and accountability. I want to humbly rejoice in such blessings while identifying with all of the people of Christ.
  • Christ must be central in everything, including all efforts to unify the church. Any true unity, any true theology, any true understandings of the church, any true brothers and sisters—all will be found in increasing measure only as we draw ever nearer to Christ. Ephesians 4:1-16 is so helpful here, with its description of two aspects of church unity: First, we must eagerly “maintain the unity” that the Spirit has already created between all who are in Christ, nurturing the bond of peace between us (v. 3). It is already an established fact that there is only “one body” (v. 4); we don’t have to create that reality! Second, we must also harness all the Spirit-given gifts (vv. 11-12), each member working properly (v. 16) and speaking theological truth in love (v. 15), all with the goal of “building up” the one “body of Christ” (v. 12) until we all “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Maintain unity… attain unity. Both tasks are essential. And both truth and love are essential for both tasks. And both tasks occur with Christ as initiator and Christ as goal (vv. 5, 7, 13, 15).

 Finally, here are some questions that I think we should be asking—some rhetorical, some open-ended:

  • What can I do to imitate the reformers in testing all my received understandings and practices by Scripture? (I have heard that the first self-identity of the Swiss Brethren was “Bible students.” That is an Anabaptist identity that I eagerly embrace.)
  • What intentional steps can I take to both “maintain” and “attain” unity among all of Christ’s disciples who live in my local town or community, regardless of denominational affiliation?
  • How can I help other people groups worldwide enjoy the biggest single blessing of the Reformation–the Bible in their own language?
  • Am I wise and bold enough to know the right times to confront error within my own church, ready to “stand alone on the… B-I-B-L-E” when necessary?
  • Am I wise and humble enough to learn from my brothers and sisters, expecting Christ to teach me through them?
  • How can we restore greater room for the priesthood of all believers, giving more trust and voice to individual members during times of gathered worship and decision-making?
  • Given our Anabaptist emphasis on believer’s baptism, how can we do a better job of teaching our children to believe and welcoming them into our churches? Does our theology equip us to understand the needs of children, or only of adult converts?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, then should we change our baptismal practices so that not only all who are baptized believe, but also all who believe are baptized? Do we have a biblical basis for withholding baptism from those who believe? If the church is the school of Christ (to borrow Calvin’s term), is baptism the entrance ticket or the graduation certificate?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, replacing infant baptism as the entrance into the true church, then should we change our church membership practices so that not only all who are members are baptized, but also all who are baptized are members? Or is baptism not that significant after all?
  • How can we capitalize on the blessings of freedom of religion that the early Anabaptists lacked (open doors for evangelism and extended biblical study, to name only two) while also regaining the fiery zeal that marked the words and deeds of the martyrs?

My last question is more complicated, so I’ll present it in paragraphs:

Is it possible to divide Christ’s church by treating “marks of a healthy church” as if they are essential “marks of the true church”? The magisterial reformers identified a handful of key marks of the true church; typically correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments are cited, although Luther mentioned as many as seven. Calvin’s heirs added church discipline, which the Anabaptist also affirmed. Menno Simons listed “six marks by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word” (George, Kindle Locations 6431-6436).

More recently the 9Marks ministry has identified “nine marks of a healthy church,” citing preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, discipline, discipleship, and leadership. On the website these nine marks are called “the nine marks,” but I know I’ve heard founder Mark Dever explain that he actually prefers to leave the “the” off, for this list was not intended to be exclusive. In other words, there are additional things that a healthy church will also focus on, besides these nine marks. And I am certain Dever does not intend for this list to be marks of the true church; rather, he knows that many churches are weak in some of these areas. They may be weak churches, but they are still expressions of Christ’s church. (See here and here for more on marks of the church, past and present.)

I’m saying all this to return to my initial question. Clearly, there is a difference between a list of marks of the true church and a list of marks of a healthy church. After all, in Revelation we see a list of churches that were still part of the true church, but not currently healthy! This means, therefore, that any list of marks of the true church should be shorter than any list of marks of a healthy church. Thus, some questions: Which kind of list was Menno’s list? How “unadulterated” and “pure” must a church’s “doctrine” be for that church to be part of the true church? How full an “obedience” must her members demonstrate? How much “oppression and tribulation” must they endure? And what about our lists, written or unwritten, of the true church today? Are we confusing the two kinds of lists? And does our confusion ever cause us to reject as “untrue” any part of Christ’s church that might be merely “unhealthy” and in need of nurture rather than isolation?

I think I’ve written enough to tip my hand: I’m a child of the reformers, and I pray that we will be continually reforming our churches to better follow Christ and honor his written Word.

I’d love to hear from some of you. What questions do you think we should be asking ourselves, in light of our Reformation heritage? Maybe we could compile a longer list! What conclusions for today do you draw from your reflection on our history, Anabaptist or otherwise? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


PS: If you have enjoyed this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I shared here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. Leith, John H., Creeds of the Churches, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 610.

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