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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.”

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

 


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A Fellowship of Differents — McKnight (Review)

McKnight, Scot. A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014). 265 pp. Publisher’s description. (Amazon new price: $15.92 hardcover, $7.99 Kindle, cheaper used.) A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God's Design for Life Together

This idea, that Paul’s mission was a mixed assembly of differents, lies at the core of my beliefs about how the whole Bible works… Are we willing to embrace the diversity of the church as the very thing God most wants? (pp. 89, 91, italics in original, bold added)

The need for the the Church to become more unified is, thankfully, receiving some long-overdue attention. This book is NT scholar Scot McKnight’s contribution to the topic.

A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God's Design for Life Together

McKnight is widely-known in at least three ways: As a blogger, as an author of biblical commentaries, and as an author of popular-level books on the Christian life, the atonement, and Bible interpretation. This book falls into the third category: books written for the church rather than the academy. Prior to this book, I had only read McKnight via his other two categories: his blog and his commentaries.

My impression of McKnight prior to this book was mixed, and so is my impression of this book. (I have enjoyed McKnights’s emphasis on the kingdom of God, some of his challenges to Calvinist thinking, and his emphasis on the social and ethical aspects of Christian transformation. I am less than happy with things like his adoption of gender role egalitarianism or his promotion of evolutionary creationism.)

So, what do I think about A Fellowship of Differents?

Some things I like:

  • The emphasis that church life shapes our understanding of the the Christian life. Examples: Highly emotional revival meetings that call people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer might teach us to think of salvation as only a one-time event. Congregations where everyone looks the same (class, ethnicity) might lead us to overlook what the NT says about the radical social composition of Jesus’ Church. What I experience in church shapes what I think Christianity is all about.
  • The challenge to consider who is invisible both in the Church and in our congregations. McKnight mentions the Hampton Ministers’ Conference, “the longest running pastors’ conference in the USA, attended by seven thousand” (p. 18). I’d never heard of it. Neither had McKnight until recently. Why? Certainly, in part (there are also theological reasons), because McKnight and I are white while this 101-year-old conference focuses on the needs of the African-American church. Closer to home: Who might be invisible in my own congregation? Widows and widowers? Children? Races? Women? The poor? Urban? Suburban? Rural? (Win!) Those with higher education? Those with less? Those battling sexual temptation or confusion? Introverts? The abused? The depressed?
  • The challenge to get our of our just-like-me comfort zones. McKnight quotes a confession from Christena Cleveland from her recent book Disunity in Christ (which is also on my wish list): “I chose to build community with people with whom I could pretty much agree on everything” (p. 32). Ouch. Or this: “Genuine friendships, which are two-way, are always transformative. One reason, then, we don’t love those unlike us in the church is because we don’t want their presence rubbing off on us” (p. 59).
  • Helpful insights on the Lord’s Supper. I enjoyed the extended quotation of Justin Martyr’s record of a second-century Christian gathering. First came the Word, then came the Table, and then came Offerings. Woven through the whole account are clauses displaying Christian unity: “We always keep together… All who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place… We all rise together and pray… There is a distribution to each… and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons… we all hold our common assembly” (pp. 102-103). “The Eucharist—as an action, as symbols, as an event—gospels to all those who observe and to all those who participate” (p. 101). The gospel binds us together, and the Supper is to be eaten together (1 Cor. 11:33).
  • Some good exegesis and pastoral advice about same-sex attraction. McKnight includes a whole chapter on sexual matters, much of it devoted to the sub-topic of same-sex matters. I didn’t think the chapter was perfect, but it does reflect a clear stance both that same-sex acts are sinful and that the Church must grow in loving and supporting repentant same-sex Christians. I am glad to see McKnight speak clearly on this topic.
  • A powerful story from Greg Boyd about transformation by grace. The words “there is now no condemnation for them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) were the key that led to Boyd’s gradual freedom from pornography (pp. 152-53).
  • A reminder that “the best way to be political is to be the church” (p. 187). Both “kingdom” and “church” were political terms, after all.
  • Some good quoteables. Such as: “Joy… is a church-shaped disposition. Only folks in the church can experience what Paul means by joy” (p. 234).

Some things I didn’t like:

  • Careless or inconsistent editing. Examples: The first line on the back cover is an endorsement that begins, “This is [sic] most important book…” (Missing “the.”) On pages 40 and 72 Bible references are unhelpfully buried in endnotes, though often included elsewhere in the main text. On page 52 McKnight says, “Take Paul at his word. Love is the ‘only thing that counts.'” Paul actually said “faith working through love” is the only thing that counts (Gal. 5:6). On page 70 we read, “Some elements of our covenant love commitment of presence include spending our evenings together…” The wording suggests a list, which never comes. On page 98 a story begins in present tense but switches mid-sentence to past tense. On page 141 we are promised some italicized words in a Bible quote, but none are included. More examples of awkward syntax are found on pages 227 and 228.
  • Exaggeration. Examples: “God has designed the church—and this is the heart of Paul’s mission—to be a fellowship of difference and difference” (p. 16). Was church diversity really the very heart of Paul’s mission? Is “the diversity of the church” really “the very thing God most wants” (see above)? Might we be missing a deeper goal that makes diversity meaningful and necessary? And is inclusion of differents really “the church’s biggest challenge” (p. 25)? Don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board that church diversity is a crucial implication of the core gospel message. But these kinds of overstatements put me on the defensive, making me weigh more carefully everything else the author writes.
  • A bit of self-promotion. McKnight describes a book written by a friend, called The Gospel of Yes. “It’s the best title of a book I’ve ever seen (except for The Blue Parakeet).” Which happens to be McKnight’s book.
  • Casual tone. I’m probably just the wrong reader for this book (on page 38 McKnight says “maybe you’ve not read Paul’s story enough to know the details”), but I confess some of these kind of try-to-make-you-laugh comments fall flat with me. Another example: On page 148 McKnight introduces the “circumcision party,” “which ought to be self-explanatory (#ouch).” After describing the circumcision party, he includes this “(#intimidating).” McKnight seemed concerned not to be too formal, so sometimes this book feels like a series of extended blog posts.
  • Uninformative chapter titles. A chapter called “Teacher with the Big Fancy Hat” turns out to be about suffering. Another called “On a Walk with Kris” turns out to be about joy. This might make you curious, but doesn’t help you trace the book’s big idea, nor review content later.
  • Unclear statements about God’s love. On page 34 McKnight quotes Romans 8:31 (“If God is for us, who can be against us?”). In context, Paul writes this to those who have been justified by faith and are walking in the Spirit. But McKnight’s application sounds more general: “God loves everyone.” On the following page he elaborates (in center-justified, bold text as follows) with words that sound more like Joel Osteen than Paul the apostle:

No matter what you have done,
not because you go to church,
not because you read your Bible,
not because folks think you are spiritual,

and

no matter what sins you have committed,
no matter how vicious or mean or vile they were,
no matter how calloused your heart and soul have become,

God loves you.

Not because you are good,
not because you do good things,
not because you are famous or have served others,
but because you are you.

To you, God has said Yes,
God is saying Yes,
and God will eternally say Yes.

God is for the You that is You.

  • Missing balance about church boundaries. McKnight says he originally planned to include a chapter on obedience (see here). I think this book would be much more balanced if it included such a chapter, along with a discussion of the role of church discipline when the diverse people who join our churches don’t faithfully follow the words and way of Jesus. I felt there were too many unqualified statements like this: “As long as one was on the journey toward sexual redemption, Paul was encouraging. At the house churches they didn’t put up a sign that said ‘For the Morally Kosher Only'” (p. 129). Or this: “What Jesus and the apostles taught was that you were welcomed because the church welcomed all to the table” (p. 17). In contrast, buried in a footnote are these words about the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) from Justin Martyr: “No one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that  the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined” (p. 252). If only McKnight had included and discussed such things in his main text! To be fair, McKnight clarifies that love does not mean “toleration” (p. 130); it means helping another experience positive change. But I didn’t notice that McKnight anywhere said what to do if a person in the church resists or seems indifferent to any such growth in holiness.
  • Lack of discussion of the universal church. At one point McKnight writes, “I hope you agree with me that the hope for the world is the local church, and that the heart of God’s plan is found in creating a whole new society in a local church” (p. 188). Interestingly, Ben Witherington, a NT scholar and friend of McKnight, pushed back on this point: “At one point in the book, you say that the local church is the hope of the world. For a minute I thought that was a slip up, and you meant to say Christ is. Talk to us a bit about the interface between Christ and his body, between Christology and your vision of ecclesiology. For my part I would prefer to say that the local church at its best is simply the local expression of ‘the one true church apostolic and universal’. In other words I would not want to talk about church with a little c without talking about church with a big C, though I would agree that, like politics, in one sense all churches are local.” In a subsequent online conversation I had with Witherington, he agreed with me that part of the problem is our tendency to read the “membership” and “body of Christ” language in the NT as referring to the local church, when really such language strongly implies the universal church. There is only one Head of the Church, right? And a head can only have one body?
  • Strong (and poorly defended) assertions about gender equality. McKnight seems to feel that any distinction in gender roles is a denial of gender equality in Christ—a position that, barring hermeneutical gymnastics, leaves Paul contradicting himself. The following quote even suggests that God’s creation order falls short of his plan for us in Christ (this despite the fact that Paul repeatedly cites creation as the basis for his statements about gender roles!): “In creation God ‘gendered’ us into male and female, but in the new creation, God makes us one” (p. 90). You’d be hard pressed to find those two ideas connected with a “but” in the Bible, except perhaps by implication in Christ’s discussion of life after death. “Sexual differences” have “been transcended,” writes McKnight (p. 91). But I’m left without help to know how to such statements to what McKnight writes later: “One in Christ does not mean Paul ceases being male, nor does Junia cease being a female” (95). True, identity, gender or otherwise, is not eradicated in Christ. But, for McKnight, unlike Paul, identity apparently has nothing to do with roles. As has often been pointed out, such a re-reading of Paul also means that one has little hermeneutical basis for denying that Paul’s words affirm homosexual role relationships when he says that “there is no male and female” in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Enough on this for now.
  • Salad-bowl feel. Mcknight rightly wants us to adopt a vision of the church as a salad bowl full of diversity. Unfortunately his book felt like a bit of a salad bowl to me, as if he was pulling together a handful of semi-related topics for publication. (Is this true of McKnights earlier books? Or is this the symptom of a popular author who feels pressured to keep the books coming?) The title of the book suggests the book is about diversity and unity in the church. But the back cover suggests other themes: “McKnight shares his personal experience of church and offers to the church a thorough study of what the Apostle Paul writes about the Christian life… Ultimately, McKnight raises two significant questions: What is the church supposed to be? and If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like?” Wow. with those questions, you can include about anything you want. I think this book would be more compelling if it focused more narrowly on unity and diversity in the church. For example: More hands-on stories of churches wrestling with diversity would help. I think the survey of Paul’s writings could have been more focused on this topic, as well. And sometimes when wide-ranging topics were included (love, grace, suffering, joy–all main themes of either chapters or whole parts of the book), a stronger and clearer connection should have been made with the theme of church diversity. On page 43, I scribbled in the margin, “What does this powerful story have to do with the book’s thesis?” The book could also be improved by a concluding chapter that ties the disparate themes together.

This book has good sections, but is not great.
I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Have you read this book? Do you want to comment on the book or the ideas in this review? Share your insights here.


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Which Came First–Original Sin or Infant Baptism?

I read something this morning that got me thinking again about the question of original sin. (See here and here for my previous thoughts.) The “question of original sin,” in my case, is the question of whether that phrase is a good and biblical way to talk about what went wrong when Adam sinned. I don’t doubt that Adam’s sin was the first or “original” human sin, but the term usually means more than that. It usually refers to “humanity’s state of sin resulting from the fall of man,” and it often includes the idea that humans are born with a “sinful nature.” It is these latter concepts with which I am wrestling. The biblical data on such topics has been shrouded in encrusted layers of theological language for so long (to use rather negative language) that it is difficult for us to hear what Scripture itself has to say.

What I read this morning was something Louis McBride posted today over on the Baker Book House Church Connection blog, something about Augustine, infant baptism, and original sin. (A blog worth following for biblical interpreters and theologians.) His post summarizes an essay by Peter Sanlon entitled “Original Sin in Patristic Theology.”

Here is part of McBride’s summary:

[Sanlon] demonstrates that it was vitally important to Augustine to show that his views [about the doctrine of original sin] were not original with him but reflected the historic position of the church. Augustine offered “citations from Scripture, church fathers, and councils” in his defense and he “coined an epithet for the Pelagians who denied original sin. They were the novi hereticic, ‘new heretics.’” (91) An important doctrine tied to this was infant baptism. Augustine agreed with the Pelagians that babies had committed no actual sin. “Unable to commit any actual sins, the sin babies needed rescuing from had to be original sin.” (93) The antiquity of infant baptism was evidence, Augustine claimed, that the church had long accepted original sin.

Now, I have not read Sanlon’s full essay, nor have I read Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, so I can’t weigh all Augustine’s evidence well. But what caught my attention was how Augustine (AD 354-430) relied on infant baptism as strong evidence for the correctness of his views on original sin. His thinking went something like this: (1) Infant baptism has been practiced from ancient times, (2) therefore infant baptism is legitimate, (3) there must be some reason why babies need to be baptized, (4) therefore original sin must be true.

Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries Buy on Amazon McBride’s summary of Sanlon’s summary of Augustine reminded me of something else I’ve read. The following is from Everett Ferguson, in his magisterial volume entitled Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (see here):

There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century. This fact does not mean that it did not occur, but it does mean that supporters of the practice [such as Augustine?] have a considerable chronological gap to account for. Many replace the historical silence by appeal to theological or sociological considerations.

Arguments against the originality of baby baptism, in addition to its lack of early attestation, include: the essential nature ascribed to verbal confession and repentance; the liturgy designed for persons of responsible age; size of baptistries; and the lack of an agreed theology to support it (Chrysostom and the eastern churches vs. Augustine).

The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. There was a slow extension of the practice of baptizing babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about its propriety into the fifth century. It because the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries. (856-57)

Okay, that was all background to prepare for this quote:

In the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy infant baptism was a principle support for the doctrine of original sin, rather than the other way around, since baptism was universally recognized as for forgiveness of sins. With the victory of Augustine’s arguments original sin became the reason for infant baptism in the western church. (857)

With Ferguson’s input, we can now update our flow chart of the logic of original sin and infant baptism: (1) Infant baptism has been practiced from ancient times, (2) therefore infant baptism is legitimate, (3) there must be some reason why babies need to be baptized, (4) therefore original sin must be true, (5) therefore infant baptism is necessary.

Does anyone else see any problems with this logic? I see at least two:

  1. The last point introduces circular logic. To believe infant baptism for the reasons given is about as logical as saying “We need a good speaker for our fall meetings, and we’ve asked Dwight to be our speaker, therefore Dwight must be a good speaker.” Sorry, you just might be disappointed.
  2. The premise is faulty. As Ferguson shows, there is “no firm evidence” that infant baptism was a practice with any “antiquity” (to use Sanlon’s term) older than about AD 150 or later. Since infant baptism is shaky, it is also shaky evidence for original sin.

Neither of these logical flaws proves that original sin is not a biblical doctrine. But our historical survey does show that the doctrine of original sin has been defended from early days in questionable ways. If original sin is a valid doctrine, it certainly is not valid because of infant baptism, contra Augustine.

So, to answer the title of this post, which came first–the doctrine of original sin or the practice of infant baptism? I still don’t know, but I’m still waiting for evidence that clearly shows that either belonged to the New Testament church.

Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine: A Companion to Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology Buy on Amazon One good place to look for such evidence is in Gregg R. Allison’s book Historical Theology (see here). His chapter on “Sin” summarizes the development of the church’s beliefs about, among other things, original sin. Perhaps I can do a follow-up post summarizing Allison’s evidence. For now, let this summary of Justin Martyr, one of the very earliest Christian writers (c. AD 100–165) whet your curiosity:

Justin Martyr focused on individual responsibility for sin, affirming that people “become subject to punishment by their own fault.” Although Justin linked humanity to Adam, the relationship is one of ancestor to descendants, each of whom sins individually. Thus, sinful people become “like Adam and Eve,” but they do so when they “work out death for themselves.” (343)

And in Justin’s own words:

The human race… from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile [deceit] of the serpent, and each one had committed personal transgression. — Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, 88, in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Schaff/Hendrickson, 1994), 1:243

Does this sound like original sin to you? Share your thoughts below.


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