Tag Archives: sacraments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferguson arranges most of this chapter under three headings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Human Need (human nature, sin):

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is sin possible?” Ferguson asks:

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

And “why is sin universal?”:

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

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

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

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

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

2. God’s Action (atonement, preaching)

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

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

Ferguson discusses five such images:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Human Response (faith, repentance, baptism)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the relationship of repentance to conversion?

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

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

And which comes first, faith or repentance?

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

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

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

Here are some highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some final quotes on the meaning of baptism:

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

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

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

Ferguson lists three arguments against infant baptism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How might our practice reflect this theology?

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

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

Ferguson resists the call to be more prescriptive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Let us think on these things.


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


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


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

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

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125 Years of Seven Ordinances — Rough Draft

When a baby is born at 10 months, we don’t usually call it premature. When a writer has been promising for that long to release an essay, however, his “baby” may still be scarcely ready for the light of day. But everyone likes babies. (Right?) And everyone handles newborns gently. (Right?) And one can definitely only handle being pregnant for so long. So I’ve decided it’s time to release this overdue, unfinished essay into your hands.

Here it is, then: “that paper on the ‘ordinances.'” Click here to download, or find it on my Essays page.

Oh, isn’t he cute! He looks just like his daddy!

Now that I’ve given birth, I’d like to do two more things in this post: (1) Explain what I mean by “rough draft.” (2) Summarize the essay.

What Do I Mean by “Rough Draft”?

Though I’ve been working intermittently on this essay since the fall of 2011, I am aware of improvements that still should be made. For example:

  • My survey of pre-Reformation history is very brief.
  • I have still more Anabaptist-era primary sources I could peruse, to weigh my current survey for representative accuracy.
  • I could include more discussion of how the Coffman/Kauffman era was a time of transition, institution-building, and doctrinal formulation.
  • I should weigh more carefully whether the concept of ordinances is found in the NT, apart from the question of whether the word ordinance is used there as we use it. (In other words, is ordinance biblical in the same sense that Trinity is?)
  • A more nuanced discussion of sacramental theology would help, assessing it and contrasting it with other options such as a strictly symbolic understanding of the “ordinances.” I really don’t want to get too deep into this heated question (of which whole books are written!), but it is unavoidably related to the central questions of this essay.
  • My tone could be improved in places, better anticipating possible difficulties or challenges of readers and avoiding overstatement.
  • Technical details need help: Cleaning up footnotes, adding a bibliography, perhaps another appendix or two, switching to ESV as the primary translation, including Greek NT words in my exegetical discussions, etc.
  • Most importantly, I need to answer the “So what?” question. For this draft version of my essay I’ve included a list of problems possibly exacerbated by our concept of seven ordinances (see page 28). But I’m saving my discussion of these problems to share later. And should I note some benefits as well as problems?

I have been invited to share this essay at the Forum for Doctrinal Studies, probably in July 2017. After that I hope to post a fuller version here.

Your feedback is most welcome as I continue writing! Post your thoughts in the comments thread here or send me a private message.

Summary of the Essay

First (pp. 1-5) I summarize the pre-Reformation history of ordinances by noting three developments:

  1. The growth of formal ritual instead of simple obedience to NT commands;
  2. The development of the theology and vocabulary of sacraments; and
  3. The formation of a defined list of seven Roman Catholic sacraments.

Next (pp. 5-14) I discuss the early Anabaptist era, including their rejection of ritual and sacramental theology, their failure to fully restore all NT practices related to ordinances, and their various lists of sacraments/ordinances. This section is full of primary source quotes, including this gem from the Martyr’s Mirror, from the trial of an Anabaptist named Jacob de Roore:

Jac. If you want to imitate all the things which the apostles did, and regard them all as sacraments, why do you not also regard your aprons or handkerchiefs as sacraments, and lay them upon the sick, as Paul did? For what greater sacredness was there in the oil of which James writes, than in Paul’s aprons, by which he also healed the sick, as is written in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the apostles?

Fr. Corn. If the devil does not wag your tongue, I do not understand the matter. You accursed Anabaptists may yourselves make a sacrament of your filthy handkerchiefs or aprons; for you people have no sacrament, but we Catholics have seven sacraments; is it not enough, eh?

Jac. Yea, in troth; for since the term sacrament is not once mentioned in the holy Scriptures, you have only seven too many.

The third section (pp. 14-24) finally explains the origin of our own seven ordinances. I survey ordinances among early American Mennonites, then focus on J.S. Coffman and Daniel Kauffman, who appear to be primarily responsible for formulating and codifying the list we have inherited. (Thus the “125 Years” in my title, dating from 1891.) This section ends by asking what Kauffman meant by the term ordinance.

The fourth section (pp. 24-27) continues this linguistic focus by comparing Kauffman’s use of ordinance with biblical vocabulary.

The fifth section (pp. 27-30) proposes some responses to the previous historical and biblical discussion. I ask whether we can redeem the term ordinance and whether our inheritance of a theology and practice of seven ordinances is really anything to be worried about. (In other words, is this essay merely much ado about nothing?)

Finally, I’ve included three appendices (pp. 31-34) with more technical data:

  1. “Words Translated ‘Ordinance” in the King James Version”
  2. “Who Baptizes in the New Testament?”
  3. “Who May Anoint With Oil?

Again, I warmly welcome your help with this project! Those of us who are conservative Anabaptists have inherited these seven ordinances as a shared legacy. Our response to this heritage will also be a shared project.

How can we hold onto the best of the past while also making needed changes? How radical dare we be in our changes? How can we avoid overreacting? How can we let Scripture speak anew in our generation? What understanding and practice of “ordinances” do we want to leave to our children?

Please share your comments here or, if you prefer, in a private message.

For Christ and his Church,
Dwight Gingrich


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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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