“By This Time You Ought to Be Teachers”: A Critique of Typical Adult Sunday School

A couple years ago, as I was reading through the book of Hebrews, I stumbled over a verse that forced me to reevaluate some key assumptions I had unquestionably inherited from my Bible church tradition: both the necessity and validity of adult Sunday school classes. The verse? Hebrews 5:12—“ For though by this time you ought to be teachers…” At that point I stopped. I thought about the audience to whom the author was writing. The book of Hebrews was written sometime around A.D. 65. The Jewish church—the probable audience of the book—was founded at about A.D. 35. So the believers addressed in Hebrews had been part of the faith for a maximum of thirty years (many of them less).

Having been believers for twenty to thirty years, the Hebrews ought to have been teachers, not students; experts, not novices; doers, not hearers; mature, not children (Heb. 5:13–14). The decades-old believers were expected to be training the younger believers in the “basic principles of the oracles of God”—the foundational doctrines of the faith contained in Holy Scripture (Heb. 5:12). They were expected to be skilled “in the word of righteousness,” passing on this skill to those who were yet unskilled (5:13). They were to be examples of discernment, able to lead the younger, less mature believers to “distinguish good from evil” (5:14). In short, they were to be the disciple-makers of the church, primarily engaged in teaching, not in learning.

After meditating on that passage, I thought about many Bible-adoring evangelical churches I had attended or visited over the years. Then it hit me. There are classes at my own church in which some of the members literally double the thirty-year mark of the book of Hebrews. Many more have been learners for fifty years, more for forty, plenty for thirty or twenty years. In such Bible-believing churches the function of those older saints is to show up Sunday mornings, plug into an adult Sunday school class, and build on their thirty years of Bible training. The goal of the adult education program is more Bible study with practical application for the believers’ lives—“The Bible as it is for people as they are.” The goal is not to equip those saints to teach younger believers in the church the elementary principles of the faith.

I wonder what the author of Hebrews would say if he were to critically evaluate the Sunday morning program of many of our churches. I wonder if he would say to half our adult classes, “By this time you ought to be teachers. Most of you have been believers for 25-plus years. What’s wrong with you? Will you ever step out of the role of unskilled novice and into the role of mentoring disciple-maker?” The model of church ministry defined in Ephesians 4 is pretty clear: The pastors and teachers of the church (those engaged in teaching and preaching) are to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Yet in many of our churches the teaching leads to knowledge and practical application—good things, but not quite ministry work specifically designed for “building up of the body of Christ.” Paul’s instructions to the pastor-teacher, Timothy, was to entrust the beliefs and practices of the church “to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Yet in many of our churches the teachers entrust the things of God to men and women who are not always themselves involved in any intentional disciple-making instruction. This isn’t true of everybody, of course. Some believers who grow in the faith do move into disciple-making ministries. But far too many get stuck in the rut of the eternal student, growing fat and sedentary in more and more biblical and doctrinal knowledge used only to enrich their own lives or the lives of their families.

So, what can we do to realign our adult Sunday school classes with a more biblical model of discipleship?

First, consider harmonizing Sunday school classes with the rest of the Sunday morning ministry of the church. Too often adult Sunday school classes become “mini-churches,” mirroring at a smaller scale what goes on in “big church.” They sometimes have mini-worship, mini-offerings, mini-sermons, and mini-prayer time. Then those same mini-church members shuffle on to big church where they get a more generalized version of the same activities. This is called redundancy. We need to rethink the role of the Sunday school in the overall vision and program of the church. If there are things that aren’t being done during Sunday worship, they should be done during Sunday school, and vice versa. The normal Sunday morning worship should include Scripture reading, teaching, and preaching from the pulpit that substantially nourishes the faith of growing believers in the church. This pulpit ministry should be the primary biblical exposition and practical exhortation for all members of the church. If the pulpit is functioning this way, then Sunday school should strive to do something that complements this pulpit ministry, not competes with it.

Second, consider grouping adult Sunday school classes by spiritual maturity, not physical age. The New Testament distinguishes the spiritually mature in Christ from “infants” or “children” in Christ (Eph. 4:14, 15; 1 Cor. 3:1; 13:11; 14:20; Heb. 5:12–14). The young in the faith are to be engaged in “basic training,” learning the fundamentals of the faith, the story of Scripture, and the basics of Christian living. Some of this initial training should occur prior to baptism and admission into membership in a local church; some should occur in the first several years of a believer’s new-found faith. Yet this training should be deliberately geared for the spiritually young, regardless of physical age. After passing through spiritual grade school and graduating from spiritual high school, believers should be headed toward honing their spiritual gifts to engage in a body-building ministry of the church. In other words, after a certain period of time, believers should transition from a mentee role in the church to a mentor role, from student to teacher. Of course, believers will always need intimate fellowship, accountability, and additional training. But at some point early in the Christian life, the maturing believer should be weaned from their dependency on constant instruction, and they should get their spiritual nourishment from the church’s pulpit ministry and from personal Bible reading. In a discipleship model, sixty-year-old Christians have no business being in a “senior adult class” taught by expository teachers unless they are still “children” in the faith who need to learn for the first time Scripture, doctrine, and Christian living.

Third, consider restoring a simple structure of beginners’ classes for new or young believers, ministry training for growing believers, and leadership training for mature believers. Regardless of whether Sunday school classes are divided into age groups, each one should be dedicated to one of these three body-building tasks of the church. 1) Beginners’ classes should be designed for those who have been believers for a short time or who have never formally experienced a “Christianity 101” kind of instruction. The emphasis of such classes should be rudimentary biblical content, essential doctrines of the Christian faith, and basic Christian living. Members of this class should typically be in the process of preparation for baptism or church membership. 2) New believers or newly-initiated members of the church should graduate to ministry training courses, regardless of their physical age. These classes should equip church members for evangelism, discipleship of believers younger than them in the faith (i.e., assisting in the classes under category 1), or participation in outreach or other ministries of the church. This training should involve not only biblical and theological truth, but also practical ministry experience—hearing and doing. 3) After many years of demonstrating faithful service in the ministry of the church, mature believers should be selected for leadership training—first as deacons, then as elders. Such training may involve formal education at an accessible Bible college or seminary, but it can also involve a specialized training program in the local church itself. Such preparation should include broad and deep biblical knowledge, systematic theology, church history, leadership skills, and training in teaching and preaching. Those in the early phases of this process would serve the church in the office of “deacon.” This process may take five to ten years, and only after such leadership training and service should believers submit to an ordination examination and appointment as pastors or “elders” of a local church.

Fourth, consider including short-term “elective” classes to meet special needs in the congregation. The changes suggested above in no way hinder a church from periodically or regularly offering special classes, conferences, or seminars dealing with biblical, doctrinal, historical, or practical issues. In fact, one should expect that such supplementary programs should be part of the normal teaching of the church. Marriage conferences, financial seminars, “refresher” courses on Bible doctrine, a series on church history, parenting classes, divorce recovery groups, a young married class—all of these can be offered on a short-term basis and taught or facilitated by members of the church involved in ministry training described above (category 2).

The author of Hebrews castigated his readers who had been believers for twenty-plus years because by that time they should have been teachers (Heb. 5:12). I’m concerned that many of our Bible-believing churches have failed to graduate their long-time believers from the status of student to that of teacher. Instead, they have institutionalized a model of adult Sunday school designed to perpetuate a nursery of needy spiritual children without transitioning them into responsible, mature, and productive spiritual adults. If we consider the four suggestions above, our churches will begin to reflect the biblical emphasis on discipleship rather than the cultural emphasis on personal enrichment.

[Originally posted at www.retrochristianity.com March 24, 2012.]


Thinking About Leaving Your Local Church? Think Again…

In our fast-food culture of leased cars and changing telephone companies, many local churches have not fared well. Church shopping, hopping, and dropping have become normal—so normal that many people reading this probably haven’t thought very much about it. Certainly, this cavalier attitude toward local church membership is common among evangelicals today. But have we paused to consider whether it’s biblical?

Some get bored and wander off to a more exciting church. Some get angry and stomp off, taking several members with them. Some change their minds about a particular doctrinal issue and realign themselves with a church that seems purer. Some people are just in a rut of discontent, staying for a few months or years then straying on to something, well, new. But when we contrast this modern epidemic of forsaking our membership in a local church with the two positive and two negative biblical examples of leaving church and the long history of church commitment, we probably ought to re-think this issue.

First, on the positive side, Christians in the Bible changed churches because of physical relocation. In Acts 18 Aquila and Priscilla changed from one local church to another when they moved to a new city. Second, people left churches for ministry opportunities. Ministers and missionaries departed local churches to serve elsewhere—always with the blessing of the sending churches (Acts 10:23; 15:40; 2 Cor. 8:16–18). On the negative side, the New Testament presents examples of people leaving the church because of discipline (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 5:11–13), always with the hope that the disciplined believer would repent and return to fellowship. Also, false teachers and heretics left in apostasy, departing in willful rebellion and often taking followers with them (1 John 2:18–19). [Some have pointed to the surprising skirmish between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:37–40 as an example of separation due to differing ministry strategies. But this incident had nothing to do with leaving a local church—both departed from Antioch with the church’s blessing. And besides, this text described an unfortunate event; it did not prescribe how to handle conflict.]

Relocation . . . ministry . . . discipline . . . apostasy.

These four biblical examples—two positive, two negative—are legitimate departures from local congregations and serve not to weaken, but to strengthen, both the local church and the universal body of Christ. And these examples make one thing clear: the common reasons Christians give for forsaking their covenant with a local church just don’t measure up. If believers take the Bible as the guide and love as the rule, they should never simply stomp out of their churches in anger or slip quietly out the back door.

Of course, we can’t assume that the Bible covers every legitimate reason for leaving a church. Sometimes churches become so corrupt or doctrinally impure that the marks of a true or healthy church are lost. Other times God may want certain believers in certain places to accomplish certain things. However, we must always remember that local church commitment is necessary for spiritual growth (Heb. 10:24–25; Eph. 4:4–16). And we must recall that we entered into church membership as a covenant relationship—as serious as marriage. If we keep these facts in mind, we’ll have the right heart for considering a godly decision about whether or not to leave, and how to do it appropriately.

Some practical principles can point us in the right direction as we consider God’s mind about leaving church.

First, communicate and seek counsel. Discuss your options with the church leadership. Ask trusted Christian friends or mentors whether your reasons for leaving are legitimate. The issues leading you out of the church likely can be resolved—to the benefit of everyone. Perhaps your confidants will help you discover that the Lord is, in fact, leading you to another ministry elsewhere. However, simply stomping off in a huff is rude and immature. And keeping your real reasons for leaving a secret is usually a sign that your conscience isn’t clear.

Second, be prudent and discerning. Don’t make an emotional or quick decision. Just as in natural families, people hurt people in churches. You can count on it. But my reaction to a harsh word or other offense reveals as much about my own spiritual immaturity as it does about the immaturity of the offender. Don’t make a decision based on anger, fear, resentment, or pain, but on the principles of God’s Word. And don’t turn everything into a “doctrinal issue.” Everybody disagrees on some interpretations of Scripture, but not every doctrinal disagreement is worth rushing for the door. In fact, I can count the absolutely essential marks of orthodoxy on two hands; if your list of “fundamentals” is much longer, you may have slipped into exaggerated dogmatism. Keep your eye on the center—the gospel of Jesus Christ— and show grace in the dozens of disputable matters.

Finally, seek God’s will. Even though God wants us to be faithful to our local churches and to contribute positively to its ministry, we can’t limit God’s direction in our lives. Though my tone may sound absolute, the truth is that occasionally God may want people elsewhere for his own purposes. However, we must still make transitions cautiously—communicating with leadership, exercising prudence, and seeking counsel. To hop from church to church without earnestly (and honestly) seeking the Lord’s will in the matter shows contempt for the temple he loves and can even result in discipline from God (1 Cor. 3:16–17).

In light of God’s high view of local church commitment and the clear teaching of Scripture (Heb. 10:24–25; Eph. 4:4–16), we should prayerfully consider each decision we make regarding our local churches—from membership and attendance to our level of involvement and decisions regarding departure. If we seek to honor him and demonstrate genuine love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord will guide us in wise, prudent, and godly decisions regarding our involvement in the local church.

So, are you thinking about leaving church? Think again.


[This essay is excerpted from chapter 7 of RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). © Michael J. Svigel, 2012. Originally posted March 18, 2012 at www.retrochristianity.com]

Early Registration Open for The Table Conference April 19-20, 2013

On April 19–20, 2013, I will have the privilege of serving as one of six presenters when The TableDallas Seminary launches The Table conference series. The theme of the conference will be “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” Three major questions will each be addressed by two experts in the respective fields, one from Dallas Seminary and another guest invited to The Table: “Which Jesus?” with Lee Strobel and Darrel Bock . . . “Which Bible?” with Dan Wallace and Craig Blomberg . . . and “Which Christianity?” with Michael Svigel and Charles Hill.

My topic relates directly to my area of Ph.D. dissertation work: the question of original Christian identity. My presentation will revolve around what it meant to be “Christian” in the minds of the earliest Christian communities. Were they a motley crew of squabbling factions held together only by a common name? Or was there something solid, unchangeable, and identifiable that held them together in a common identity despite a diversity of teachers, texts, and traditions? How does our answer to this question affect how we view the boundaries and limits of Christian identity today?

Registration is now open. Consider attending this conference with your pastoral or leadership staff, elders, or anybody interested in learning how to interact with these vital issues in an informed way. It would also be a great conference for skeptics, doubters, or those young believers with a lot of honest questions about the Christian faith. You can find information on the conference at http://www.dts.edu/conferences/presentinggod/.

The conference will be held at Bent Tree Bible Church in Carrollton, Texas. I hope to see you there!



Riding the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 4 of 3)

riding elephantI’ve never ridden an elephant. At least not that I remember. But I’ve seen people ride elephants. And I’ve even considered riding an elephant. To be honest, I’d be a little scared. In case you didn’t notice, elephants are huge. If an elephant fell on me, sat on me, or stepped on me, I’d be irreversibly squished. And I swear I’ve seen an elephant rip a tree right out of the ground with its nose. Just think what it might do to my scrawny neck. And those tusks are like two sabers just waiting to impale me. Riding an elephant may be just a little too exotic for me.

However, my knowledge of elephants is purely theoretical and objective. Unlike the six blind men of Indostan (see Part 1 of this series), I’m actually able to draw a complete picture of an elephant—you know, the essential parts that make an elephant what it is: big, grey, floppy ears, sharp tusks, massive torso, tree-like legs and flat feet, a long, powerful trunk. When it comes to abstract “elephantness,” I’ve had that covered since I was a kid. But I’m not sure I actually touched one. Or fed one. I know I haven’t climbed one or ridden one.

In the first three parts of this series exploring a fuller doctrine and practice of water baptism, I argued that many of our churches have reduced the sacred rite to one or two things, when baptism was actually intended to be and accomplish many things at once. To return again to the series’ “mascot,” each teacher or tradition has focused variously on the elephant’s tail, ear, side, leg, trunk, or tusk while simultaneously neglecting (or sometimes even rejecting) other parts of the whole. In this series of essays I explored six facets of the doctrine and practice of baptism as reflected in the New Testament and read in light of the early church’s actual beliefs and practices. Through this study I tried to describe the rite of water baptism in its fullness. To remind us, the six facets of Christian baptism I explored were:

Part 1 (The Confessional Nature of Baptism)

1) Baptism as public confession of the Trinitarian faith

2) Baptism as personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection

Part 2 (The Practical Nature of Baptism)

3) Baptism as repentance from a life of sin

4) Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life

Part 3 (The Community Nature of Baptism)

5) Baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community

6) Baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness

In this fourth part of a three-part series (!), I’d like to move from the theoretical to the practical, from the objective to the subjective, from the descriptive to the prescriptive . . . okay, from studying the elephant to riding the elephant.

1. Responding to baptism as public confession of the Trinitarian faith

In light of the fact that baptism was meant to be a confession of personal faith in the Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative, we ought never to baptize anybody who has not received basic training in our Trinitarian confession. This means we must actually introduce the new believer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s works of creation, revelation, and redemption, telling the Christian story of Who God is, what He has done . . . and what He has accomplished for us. This can be done in several venues: a pre-baptismal class . . . a church’s catechesis . . . during the normal educational program of the church . . . or in one-on-one discipleship. However, the essential elements of the Triune faith should be fully intact prior to baptism or we will be treating the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as a mere formula devoid of meaning for the one being baptized.

This also means that at the baptism itself, we need to rethink what we say and do. The fact is, the earliest accounts we have that describe how baptism was actually conducted in the early church suggest that the most common practice (if not the universal practice) was a threefold immersion. That is, believers were “thrice dipped.” Each immersion was conducted in response to the believer’s Trinitarian confession. We might even have a suggestion of this threefold immersion and its association with the three Persons of the Godhead in Hebrews 6:2, where the author urges his readers to grow up and move on from the basic “instruction about washings.” The obscure Greek text simply says, “instruction (didache) of baptisms.” If, in fact, the early church was engaged in rudimentary Trinitarian instruction prior to baptism, and the climax of this instruction was the threefold Trinitarian confession and threefold immersion, then the phrase “instruction of baptisms” would fit perfectly well as a reference to the teaching (didache) that accompanied the meaning of the threefold immersion. In any case, the fact that Christ instructed us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit demands that we take seriously the Trinitarian confession associated with baptism. Never let a new believer hear about the Triune God for the first time as he or she is being plunged into the waters. That’s not responsible Trinitarian baptism.

When I baptize a believer, I always ask three questions related to the Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative: “Do you believe in God the Father, Maker of all things, who loves you and chose you to be His child? . . . Do you believe in God the Son, both God and Man, born of a Virgin, who suffered and died for your sin, and who rose again to save you? . . . Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, who lives in you and gives you new life? . . . Because of your confession of faith in the one true God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

What do you do in either preparation for—or during the act of—baptism to maintain water baptism as a public confession of the Trinitarian faith?

2) Responding to baptism as personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection

Because baptism is a visible and tangible personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection, this aspect should also be emphasized. Some traditions, in fact, utter words something like this at the moment of immersion: “Buried with him in the likeness of His death, risen with Him to walk in newness of life.” Such a statement emphasizes for all that what a person is doing in baptism is fully associating with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Not just abstractly . . . but personally.

This baptismal re-enactment of the saving work of Christ is an excellent opportunity to reiterate the core redemptive events of the gospel as summed up in 1 Corinthians 15, the things which are “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3): “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The person conducting baptism should probably point out the visible confessional nature of the act, reminding both the one being baptized as well as any observers (whether believers or unbelievers) that baptism confesses that God the Son became truly human, bore our sins on the cross, died in our place, and rose again from the dead to secure our own future resurrection.

No baptism should forego this opportunity to proclaim the gospel through both word and rite. If time permits, it would be a great addition to a baptismal ceremony for the baptismal candidate to relay his or her conversion story—how the believer came to understand and embrace the person and work of Christ for him or her. What a powerful way to preach the gospel in a manner others will comprehend!

What do you do in the practice of baptism to point to its confessional nature as a believer’s personal association with the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?

3) Responding to baptism as repentance from a life of sin

Many of the very first recipients of baptism had been raised in the synagogue or had committed to living as a righteous Gentile according to the beliefs and morals of the Old Testament revelation (Acts 1–9). For such people, only a few major points of doctrine regarding Jesus Christ needed to be preached and believed: His fulfillment as the promised Messiah, His atoning death and resurrection, and His status as Lord, Savior, and coming Judge and King. No real instruction concerning the righteous lifestyle of God’s covenant people needed to be taught to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles because they were already living according to those standards.

However, as the church broke new ground and the mission to the Gentiles took root, the men and women who were converting to Christ didn’t have this fertile background in the basic biblical theology and ethics. They needed instruction concerning monotheism, a biblical worldview, a divinely-revealed morality, and what it meant to live in God’s covenant community. This is why we see a period of pre-baptismal instruction develop by the middle of the first century to bring the large number of Gentile converts up to speed. Though unbelieving sinners could believe the gospel and be saved from the guilt and penalty of their sins, it was expected of such genuine believers that they commit to a life of repentance and holiness—the life of a disciple of Jesus. This required some instruction in what was acceptable and unacceptable, right and wrong, moral and immoral, righteous and wicked. To repent of a lifestyle of sin through baptism, the sinner needed to know what it was they were leaving behind.

Today different candidates for baptism have different backgrounds. Like the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, many raised in the church or in a highly church-influenced culture already have a basic understanding of a biblical worldview and biblical morality. They may not necessarily believe it or live by it, but they often have some familiarity with it. For such people, perhaps a shorter period of pre-baptismal instruction is necessary. However, in our increasingly post-Christian world, we can no longer assume that our believers in Jesus have a well-developed Christian view of God, the world, of truth, of righteousness, and of sin. The time has come for us to reconsider an intentional program of pre-baptismal instruction that covers not only basic Christian orthodoxy but also Christian orthopraxy—not only essential doctrines, but basic morality. Baptismal candidates should know that in baptism they are forsaking a lifestyle of sinfulness. To forsake this sin, they must know what actual practices are being abandoned.

If professed believers aren’t willing to forsake their sexual immorality, adultery, criminal behavior, thievery, sinful occupations, or other lifestyles that are unacceptable by biblical norms, we shouldn’t administer the rite of baptism. A baptism of repentance cannot be received by those who aren’t repentant. If a believer is not ready to wash away his or her sinful lifestyle or to turn his or her back on the pleasures of this world, that believer is not ready to begin a life of discipleship and repentance that follows baptism.

What do you do in the practice of baptism to emphasize its function as a mark of repentance from sins and a sinful lifestyle that was once embraced by the new believer?

4) Responding to baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life

A believer submitting to baptism is not simply turning from a life of sin. He or she is also committing to live a life devoted to discipleship. First Peter 3:21 describes baptism as “a pledge to God from a good conscience” (see discussion in Part 2 of this series). A pledge to what? Living the life of a disciple, obeying whatsoever Christ has commanded, walking by the Spirit . . . the kind of lifestyle expected of a child of God empowered by His Spirit and motivated by His love for God and others.

It isn’t necessary to “front-end-load” baptism with a detailed, point-by-point list of everything mature believers are expected to do. Growing as a disciple means we continue, throughout our lives, to learn at the feet of Jesus, to come to terms with what His teachings demand in various situations, and to overcome our sinful reluctance to embrace His teachings and live by them consistently. However, some basic instructions concerning Christ’s most elementary teachings should be included in a time of pre-baptismal instruction.

Does the baptismal candidate know that Christians are not to engage in pre-marital sex, pornography, and drunkenness? Does he know that cheating on taxes, cheating on his wife, and cheating on an exam are not the fruits of a Spirit-filled life? Does she understand that life in the Spirit means loving our brothers and sisters in Christ as we love ourselves, looking out for the interests of others, and submitting to the leaders God has placed in our lives? Do the new believers know that the Christian worldview is incompatible with certain cultural, political, moral, spiritual, and philosophical norms that most people in this world think are perfectly healthy? Do they realize that they have responsibilities for supporting their local church through prayer, ministry involvement, financial giving, and healthy relationships?

In short, new believers should know something about what it is they are committing to before they commit to it. Nobody would sign a contract, agreement, or covenant without first becoming familiar with its contents. Neither should we rush people to baptism who have had no instruction regarding what kind of life they are pledging to live through this rite of repentance and commitment.

What do you do in the practice of baptism to introduce believers to the God-ordained (Eph. 2:10), Spirit-empowered (Gal. 5:16), Christ-like (1 Pet. 2:21), sanctified life to which they are pledging?

5) Responding to baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community

In many Protestant churches, baptism is clearly viewed as a mark of initiation into the new covenant community, the church. This is especially the case in the Covenant Reformed tradition, in which the water of baptism is extended not only to new converts of Christianity but also to the infants of church members. That tradition strongly emphasizes the rite of baptism as the mark of the individual’s initiation into a covenant community. Yes, the function of baptism as a personal confession of faith in the Triune God and personal association with Christ’s saving death and resurrection are often pushed to the background. And yes, an infant can’t repent from sin and pledge to live a holy life. However, the practice of infant baptism does stress an entirely legitimate aspect of baptism that is often neglected in churches that practice only believer’s baptism: the rite of initiation into the covenanted church community.

I’m sure it has become quite obvious that I’m an advocate of believer’s baptism. Not only do I see this as the clearest and most defensible apostolic practice in the New Testament, but I also see it as the earliest practice of the church from the first to the second centuries. Furthermore, in the practice of believer’s baptism, it is much easier to maintain a fuller doctrine and practice of the sacred rite in all of its facets: personal Trinitarian and christological confession, repentance from sin and commitment to holiness, and covenant initiation and reception of community “forgiveness.” However, when infant baptism is coupled with and completed by catechesis and confirmation, it does accomplish all of these things over a longer period of time. In some ways, the end result of this process more fully covers all elements of baptism than some practices of believer’s baptism that emphasize personal faith in Jesus to the exclusion of repentance, a call to discipleship, Trinitarian instruction, and community initiation and forgiveness. Yes, my description of a multi-faceted ideal baptismal practice is different from those who cover the same territory through a longer process of baptism, catechesis, and confirmation. However, it would be quite inconsistent for me to let the practitioners of believer’s baptism get away with emphasizing only the personal association with Christ without ever officially addressing the other aspects. In short, until we who prefer believer’s baptism remove the log in our own eye, we’d better refrain from pointing out the mote in our brothers’.

Probably the worst infraction among we who practice believer’s baptism is a failure to embrace baptism as the mark of initiation into the covenant community, the church. We have already pointed out in Part 3 of this series that a person is not to be baptized into “Christianity” in general, nor into some merely spiritual and invisible reality. Christ didn’t start a philosophy or worldview. He founded a church and a community. So a new believer is to be baptized by and into a visible, physical manifestation of the “church universal,” that is, into the local church. As such, baptism should be closely associated with initial church membership. There should be no members of a local church who have not been baptized. Nor should there be baptized believers who are not united as members to a local church. The only exception to this is in the case of converts in a church-planting situation where no local church yet exists. But even in that case the believers ought to be baptized with a view toward eventually establishing them as a new local church.

Those traditions, like mine, that practice believer’s baptism, need to take seriously the connection between the rite of baptism and initiation into the covenanted community of church members. If the new member was not already baptized in a previous church, he or she must be held to this biblical mark of discipleship. If a new believer wants to take steps toward church membership, he or she must be baptized as an initiation into the local church and thereby also into the church universal. And if a new believer wants to be baptized, this should be done only in connection with admission into local church membership or—in the case of mission situations—at least as a “member” of a proto-church community in an embryonic state that is working toward the establishment of a local church.

What can you do in your own ministry context and capacity to strengthen baptism as a mark of a new believer’s initiation into the new covenant community?

6) Responding to baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness

The local church must reassert her God-given disciplinary authority to “bind and loose,” “forgive and unforgive” in relation to its responsibility to maintain the holiness of the community. Only then will baptism be restored to its proper place as the point at which the church officially reckons a new disciple as “a member in good standing.” A believer is fully accountable to the leadership and membership of the local church only when he or she has confessed his or her faith in the Triune God and the death and resurrection of Christ, has repented from a lifestyle of sin and committed to a lifestyle of sanctification, and has been initiated as a member of the new covenant community—that is, when he or she has been baptized.

A weak concept of baptism as the rite of initiation and official community “forgiveness” will result in a church’s inability to properly avail its biblical authority and responsibility to exercise discipline in a congregation. The opposite is also true. When a church places a low priority on its responsibility to exercise proper biblical accountability and discipline, baptism will never be appropriately regarded as the moment when a believer is admitted as a member in good standing, free from the guilt of temporal sin against his or her brothers and sisters in the covenant community, and therefore invited to participate in the full life of the church, including the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Church leaders must think hard and long about the concept of church discipline. They must return to an understanding that believers within a covenanted community are to first and foremost hold one another accountable (Luke 17:3; 1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 10:24), confessing their sins to one another (Jas. 5:16), confronting one another (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1), and forgiving one another (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). Yes, church member, you are your brother’s and sister’s keeper! However, if this mutual accountability fails to turn a wayward brother or sister from his or her destructive sin, disciplinary intervention by leadership and eventually the whole church will be necessary (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Thess. 5:11). Yet the church only has disciplinary authority over those who have been officially admitted as covenanted members—those who have agreed by a pledge to live a godly life. The church has no authority to exercise this discipline over those who are still outside the community (1 Cor. 5:9–13). Baptism, the rite of initiation, act of repentance, pledge of godliness, and sign of community forgiveness, is therefore the biblical “watershed” that marks a believer as either “in” or “out” of the church family.

In order to maintain the sanctifying function of church discipline in the community, members should be aware of the biblical standards to which they will be held and the biblical process by which discipline will be administered. It won’t make the disciplinary process any easier or less controversial when it must happen. However, we must make it clear to all members of our congregation that with baptism comes repentance from sin and a commitment to sanctification. Baptism is therefore also the community’s official extension of temporal “forgiveness”—not before God unto eternal life, but in the sense of the church officially recognizing the baptized believer as a member in good standing. When baptism functions this way, the church will come to understand her biblical right and responsibility to “bind and loose” in the name and authority of Jesus Christ for the sake of the purity of His body. A statement in every local church’s constitution or by-laws will help make this clear. But actually teaching this to new and existing members and leaders will make it work.

What can you do to reestablish the local church’s official God-given authority to maintain discipline in the church, correcting and rebuking those members who had pledged to live one way and instead live another?

Conclusion: Your Turn to Ride

A public confession of the Trinitarian faith . . . personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection . . . repentance from a life of sin . . . a pledge to live a sanctified life . . . a rite of initiation into the covenant community . . . and a mark of official community forgiveness. A biblically, historically, and theologically faithful practice of water baptism doesn’t emphasize only one of these things. It strives to embrace all of them.

I know that some denominations and traditions, governed by strict and unalterable confessions or constitutions, have institutionalized a doctrine and practice of baptism that emphasizes only one or two of these aspects. However, many churches and less stringent denominations or traditions have freedom to revisit and reform their practices of the sacraments. I challenge leaders and teachers in such churches to use your freedom not as an opportunity to do what’s right in your own eyes . . . or to do what’s typical or convenient . . . or to simply retain a less-than-robust doctrine and practice because that’s the way you’ve always done it. Instead, why not commit to exploring ways of implementing a fuller doctrine and practice of water baptism?

Let’s make a deal. If you will commit to patiently nudge your church in the direction of a more biblically, historically, and theologically informed practice of baptism, I promise to ride an elephant the next chance I get.

I might even post pictures.


[NOTE: This essay is intentionally numbered “Part 4 of 3.” Here’s why: By the time I decided to add a fourth part to the series, the first two parts had already been posted. Going back and changing the titles to anticipate four parts instead of three would have broken links to the pages.]

Dealing with the Elephants—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 3 of 3)

Elephant in Room“The elephant in the room” is an English idiom that refers to a problem obvious to everybody . . . but avoided by most because addressing it would cause discomfort or embarrassment. In a marriage relationship, the elephant in the room might be intrusive in-laws . . . or a husband’s perpetual under-employment. In a business it might be an unprofitable  product line . . . or a problem employee the boss can’t seem bring herself to fire. In a church the elephant might be a certain ineffective ministry program that drains money and time . . . or a doctrinal issue that could cause major upheaval if brought up at the next elder’s meeting.

When it comes to the doctrine and practice of water baptism, there are a couple “elephants in the room.” The first relates to whether baptism replaces circumcision as the rite of initiation into the community of God’s covenant people. The second regards the relationship between baptism and the forgiveness of sins. Because of the interdependence of the six facets of baptism explored in this series of essays, we have already lightly touched on these issues as we discussed other topics. However, knowing that I would eventually be dealing with these themes head-on, I intentionally avoided those two “elephants in the room.”

The first essay in this series looked at the twofold confessional nature of baptism: 1) confession of faith in the creation-redemption narrative of the triune God and 2) personal association with the atoning death and saving resurrection of Jesus Christ. The second essay examined two practical dimensions of baptism: 3) turning away from a life of sin and 4) pledging a life of holiness in following Christ. This third essay in the series will explore a final category of pairs that will fill out our doctrine and practice of water baptism from a biblical, theological, and historical perspective: the community nature and function of baptism. This category includes 5) baptism as a rite of initiation into the new covenant community and 6) baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness of sin.

Though we have danced around them in the previous essays, I’m now prepared to deal with the elephants directly in this third (though not quite final) installment.

5. Baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27)

The place: Jerusalem. The time: Pentecost, ten days after Christ’s ascension. The Holy Spirit has been poured out in a new and powerful way, and the church has been founded. As droves of new converts to the Christian faith pour in, they are initiated into the church. Acts 2:41–42 says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The order closely follows Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The apostles preached the gospel. Many who heard believed and received the word in faith. In response, they were “added” by means of baptism. Added to what? To that community in which the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers took place. That is, they were added to the church. Acts 6:7 says that as new converts came in, “the number of disciples continued to increase,” and 9:31 says that in the same way “the church . . . continued to increase” throughout Judea and Samaria.

In keeping with the words of Jesus and the practice of the apostles, the New Testament presents water baptism as the means by which the church admitted new disciples into its membership, thus “adding to” and “increasing” its number. In fact, after examination and instruction in basic beliefs and the expected new lifestyle of Christians (see part 1 and part 2 of this series), new believers in Christ were baptized as a mark of covenant initiation into a local church community . . . and thereby also into the visible universal church, of which each particular church is a microcosm. Simply put, believers in Christ who had not received the seal of baptism were not admitted into church membership. This is why the first century manual of church order, The Didache (c. A.D. 50–70), not only instructs baptismal candidates on how to live according to Christ’s teachings, but it also includes specific instructions on how to live in the new covenant community as a faithful member: “My child, night and day remember the one who preaches God’s word to you, and honor him…. Moreover, you shall seek out daily the presence of the saints, that you may find support in their words. . . . In church you shall confess your transgressions, and you shall not approach your prayer with an evil conscience” (Didache 4.1, 2, 12). Thus, in the early church, water baptism was not only a confession of faith and a mark of repentance from sin . . . it was also the rite of initiation into the new covenant community.

In this way, Christian baptism is similar to Hebrew circumcision as the sign of entrance into membership in the covenant community. Just as circumcision was the rite of initiation into the Old Covenant community (Israel), baptism is the rite of initiation into the New Covenant community (the Church). As circumcision meant that the member of the Old Covenant community was obligated to keep the stipulations of the Old Covenant Law (Gal. 5:3), believers in Christ who submit to water baptism are obligating themselves to keep the stipulations of the teachings of Christ and the apostles (Matt. 28:19). It is an altogether different question whether the circumcision of infants in the Old Covenant was intended to transfer to the New in the form of infant baptism. The answer to this question depends on how much continuity exists between the Old and the New. Regardless of where one lands on the issue of infant baptism, the parallel between the two marks of initiation can still be maintained: circumcision for the Old and baptism for the New. Both are to be regarded as rites of initiation into the covenant community.

Both the Bible and the church throughout the centuries have viewed baptism as the outward, visible sign of initiation into the church. Church historian J. N. D. Kelly writes, “From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission to the Church” (Early Christian Doctrines, 192). The idea of an “unbaptized Christian” is completely foreign to the Bible and the early church. I know of no credentialed scholar of early Christianity who would suggest that the early church had room for an unbaptized Christian. In fact, our accounts of conversion in the New Testament include baptism. This isn’t a matter of being legalistic. It’s a matter of obedience to the command of Christ (Matt. 28:18) and the teachings of the apostles (2 Tim. 2:2). The burden of proof is therefore on anybody who would admit an unbaptized believer into membership in the new covenant community, the church.

In the same way that a wedding ceremony functions as a public demonstration and pledge of an engaged couple to lifelong marriage, water baptism is the public celebration of our genuine devotion and commitment to Christ and His church. It’s the rite of initiation into the community of other baptized believers, the Body of Christ, and therefore it must precede church membership, observance of the Lord’s Supper, discipleship, and leadership. Baptism is a mark of covenant commitment, rendering us accountable to the church community. Just as Spirit baptism unites us spiritually to Christ and makes us members of his mystical body (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 2:6), so water baptism unites us physically to the visible body of Christ, the church, making us members of his covenant community. Yes, I believe Christians are mystically, spiritually, and permanently united to Christ by the Spirit at the moment they are saved by grace through faith. But this is only recognized, authenticated, and sealed by that saved believer’s entrance into visible membership with a local church.

One final word on this. Often times believers confuse the relationship between the local church and the church universal or “catholic.” They believe that the church universal is invisible, that one is a member of that church apart from any relationship with a local church. However, this is a misunderstanding of the relationship between local and universal. The church universal (“catholic” or “global”) is comprised of all local churches worldwide. It is not an invisible entity that exists apart from local manifestations of the church. So, under ideal circumstances, a new believer should be baptized under the authority of and into membership in a local church. By this act—becoming a member of a local church—he or she also is a member of the church universal, or “catholic.” When a baptized Christian transfers local church membership, he or she doesn’t need to be re-baptized for the new local church any more than a citizen of a country needs reapply for citizenship when he or she moves to another city or state.

In sum, baptism is not only a confession of our Christ-centered, Trinitarian faith and an official turning from sin to a life of holiness. It is also a rite of initiation into the new covenant community, granting the new initiate full rights and privileges of membership in the local and global body of Christ.

6. Baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness (Acts 26:18)

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of A.D. 381 states, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Although the Greek text of this article of confession is identical to biblical language (with the exclusion of the prepositional phrase “of repentance”), many Protestants balk at any connection between forgiveness of sins and the practice of water baptism. Passages like Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38 become “problem passages” that must be explained . . . or they are regarded as texts that no longer apply to Christians for some reason. However, let me suggest that real forgiveness of sins is granted at the moment of water baptismbut a forgiveness that relates not to the individual’s eternal and invisible relationship with God, but to the saved believer’s relationship to the Christian community. This forgiveness extended by the authority of the Christian church affects a person’s standing with the community, allows him or her to participate in the blessings of the community, and protects the forgiven person from spiritual dangers that lay outside the protection of the community.

To understand the kind of official community forgiveness marked by the rite of baptism, let me come at this from the angle of church discipline. It’s no wonder that in a church culture that has all but abandoned a biblical practice of church membership and discipline, the idea of the church’s authority and responsibility to grant initial covenant community forgiveness through baptism has also fallen out of favor. Let me begin, then, by showing that the gathered local church does, in fact, have authority to grant and withhold official forgiveness to and from its members. Furthermore, God Himself confirms this binding and loosing by withdrawing or extending temporal forgiveness, that is, properly-administered church discipline is accompanied by divine discipline.

In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul instructed the church in Corinth to respond graciously to the repentant sinner who had suffered under the punishment of church discipline. I understand this as a reference to the person who had been officially put out of the church for sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:1–13. Since that proper exercise of church discipline, the sinner had repented. Now the church was instructed to show grace and mercy toward him as a brother. He had suffered sufficient “punishment by the majority” (2 Cor. 2:6). How? They had removed him from among their membership (1 Cor. 5:2). In an official assembly of the church, in the name of Jesus Christ and with His authority, the church handed that man over to the domain of Satan “for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:4–5). With this authority and responsibility to exercise discipline, they judged the sinner “inside the church” by putting him outside the church, obeying the principle of Deuteronomy 13:5 to “purge the evil person from among you.”

In other words, the church had not only the responsibility and authority, but also the obligation, to hold the unrepentant sinner’s stubborn immorality against him, removing him from the church’s membership and fellowship, withholding official community forgiveness from him, and placing him once again in the dangerous realm of Satan, where he would literally stand in mortal danger. What we see happening in the process of church discipline is a suspension of the rights and privileges entered into through baptismal initiation—a reversal, so to speak, of the blessing of the baptized believer in good standing with the church.

The local church, therefore, has the authority, in the name of Jesus and by His power, to withhold temporal forgiveness from the unrepentant sinner. By this official act of righteous “unforgiveness,” the church treats the guilty sinner like “a Gentile and a tax collector,” exercising its authority to hold a person’s sin against him or her. In the context of this authority of church discipline, Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (see Matt. 18:18 and its context). Some suggest this authority for binding and loosing was limited only to the apostles. After all, Jesus breathed on the apostles themselves and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). However, as an apostle, Paul himself indicated that the officially gathered church, including its ordained leadership, has this same authority of disciplinary binding and loosing, unforgiving and forgiving: “Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive” (2 Cor. 2:10). They didn’t need to wait for Paul to give the apostolic “okay” to exercise discipline and re-extend forgiveness. In fact, Paul was upset that they hadn’t taken these initiatives on their own . . . demonstrating that the authority to extend and withhold covenant community forgiveness was not merely the prerogative of the apostles, but that of the gathered local church itself.

In light of the whole teaching of the New Testament on this matter, it seems likely that the “keys of the kingdom” mentioned in Matthew 16:19 refer metaphorically to the church’s authority to guard its own gates, explaining why the same language of “binding and loosing” is found there as well. Each duly-led and constituted local church has therefore inherited the apostolic authority of binding and loosing, forgiving and withholding forgiveness—that is, the duty and responsibility for: 1) refusing admission to unbelievers or unrepentant sinners into church membership, 2) admitting believing and repentant sinners into membership, and 3) suspending membership for unrepentant believers. These metaphorical keys for guarding the gateway to the kingdom were not passed from Peter to the Popes, but equally shared by all the apostles who received the Holy Spirit (John 20:23). Nor were they limited merely to a succession of bishops or an ecclesiastical magisterium. Rather, this authority to bind and loose, forgive and withhold forgiveness, is shared today in the post-apostolic age by each local church in union with its ordained leaders, the elders, as Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth indicate (2 Cor. 2:10). In fact, Jesus’s instruction ultimately to take matters of church discipline before the church indicates that the church itself, under its leaders (that is, gathered in an official capacity) had the authority of binding and loosing.

If church discipline, then, is the church withholding official covenant community forgiveness from a believing church member who refuses to repent, and if the church has the authority to subsequently grant forgiveness to him or her when he or she does repent by readmitting him to full fellowship, then water baptism should be seen as the church’s original mark of granting official community forgiveness to the believing, repentant sinner. Yes, it’s the believer’s individual act of repentance from a life of sin, but it’s also the church’s act of forgiveness and admission into the community. With this act of official community forgiveness through the sign of water baptism, the believer is visibly transferred from the world to the church, from the way of death to the way of life, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. In baptism, the repentant believer turns “from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sin and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in” Jesus Christ (Acts 26:18). In this way we can say with Peter that water baptism “saves” us, not from hell, damnation, and divine wrath—the spiritual salvation which is by grace through faith alone—but from a destructive lifestyle of sin and from the powers of Satan and the spirits of darkness. No wonder the early church quickly associated exorcism and the breaking of the oppression of demons with the act of water baptism! By repenting from a pagan lifestyle and entering into the protection of the church, believers were being really and truly saved from the satanic realm.

Let me be clear. Though water baptism does not bring about God’s eternal forgiveness nor the baptism of the Holy Spirit, water baptism does mark—really and truly and not just metaphorically—the temporal redemption of the sinner from a lifestyle of sin and the spiritual oppression of the devil and his demons. The baptized believer, then, enjoys “a place among those who are sanctified by faith,” that is, among the church, the communion of saints (Acts 26:18).

Therefore, through official church discipline, whereby the same officially gathered church exercises its binding and loosing authority to “unforgive” or “withhold forgiveness” from a baptized believer who refuses to repent, that person is put out of the protection of the community they had entered by baptism. What was accomplished in baptism—official forgiveness—is undone by excommunication. They are now exposed to physical sickness and destruction . . . even death. Any charitable support in the form of food, drink, or financial assistance is no longer received by the stubborn transgressor. And having been cast out from under the umbrella of spiritual protection provided by the church, the unrepentant believer is again exposed to the deceptions and destruction of Satan (see, 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20; and perhaps Jas. 5:14–15; 1 John 5:16–17). And as God honors what has been bound or loosed on earth by also binding and loosing in heaven, He will discipline those true believers whom He loves (Heb. 12:5–11). Upon repentance, the once-for-all baptized believer does not get re-baptized any more than a prodigal son who has been kicked out of his parent’s house needs to be adopted when he repents and comes home. Rather, he or she is to be officially “forgiven” by the church and welcomed back into fellowship and communion (2 Cor. 2:10).

There. I have dealt with the elephants in the room: baptism as initiation into the covenant community and baptism as the mark of official community forgiveness. These are probably the two most controversial and difficult teachings regarding water baptism. Most likely they will receive the closest study and scrutiny. But like the idiomatic “elephants in the room,” they can’t be ignored forever. Yes, baptism should function as the rite of initiation into the the new covenant community, just like circumcision marked the initiation into the Old Covenant communtiy. And yes, baptism should function as the church’s mark of official community forgiveness of sins for the newly-initiated member, rendering him or her a “member in good standing” with the community and access to the blessings of God that come only through the ministries of the church.

(NOTE: This series will be concluded in Part 4 of 3: “Riding the Elephant”)