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”)

Floating with the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 2 of 3)

elephant floatingFor as the word of God, by the mysteries which it contains, exercises the understanding of the wise, so usually by what presents itself on the outside, it nurses the simple-minded. It presents in open day that wherewith the little ones may be fed; it keeps in secret that whereby men of a loftier range may be held in suspense of admiration. It is, as it were, a kind of river, if I may so liken it, which is both shallow and deep, wherein both the lamb may find a footing, and the elephant float at large. (Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, pref. 4)

These words from the preface of Gregory the Great’s Morals on the Book of Job beautifully describe the depth of meaning associated with sacred Scripture. Novices can understand its straightforward message of what to believe and how to live . . . experts can expend a lifetime of scholarly toil wrestling with its profound depth and complex intricacies. Like a lamb wading in the shallows, new believers can refresh in Scripture’s simplicity. Or like an elephant floating in the depths, mature believers can fill their open minds with awestruck wonder. How can the same Scripture be both shallow and deep? Because of “the mysteries which it contains.”

Like Scripture, God has given to the church sacraments, or “mysteries,” which are also both shallow and deep: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Many Christians have been taught only one or two facets of these mysteries, unwittingly exchanging a deep river for a babbling brook. Yes, those who understand just the basic significance of the sacraments are still experiencing the water like a lamb finding a footing in an ankle-deep stream . . . but how much more rich their experience would be if they delve into the depths of these mysteries, floating at large with the elephant in an ocean of meaning!

The first two facets of water baptism discussed in part 1 of this series emphasized the confessional function of the practice—1) a public proclamation of faith in the Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative and 2) a personal association with the death and resurrection of Christ. The next pair treated in this essay emphasize the practical dimensions of baptism—3) repentance from a life of sin and 4) commitment to a life of sanctification.

In the earliest known record of pre-baptismal teaching for Gentile converts to Christianity, The Didache (c. 50–70), we see two very different lifestyles contrasted as “the way characterized by life” and “the way characterized by death” (Didache 1.1). After describing in some detail the new lifestyle of righteousness expected of believers (1.2–4.14) contrasted with the old lifestyle of wickedness expressed by unbelievers (5.1–6.3), the Didache presents the act of baptism itself as that pivotal point at which a believer makes the official, public, one-time turn from the path of sin and death to the path of righteousness and life. Chapter 7 begins, “Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things [the old lifestyle of death and the new lifestyle of life], baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (7.1–1).

Thus, in the earliest church during the time of the apostles, the single act of baptism simultaneously marked the convert’s official exit from the road of darkness and death and his or her commencement of a journey on the road of light and life (Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8; Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9). In the original practice of Christian baptism, the believer entered the water as the decisive visible act of departing from the broad path that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). He or she then came out of the water having committed to traveling the narrow path that leads to life (Matt. 7:14). At that very moment the believer’s entire trajectory—including values and morality—had changed. The baptized believer had once been walking according to the course of this world (Eph. 2:2), but now they had committed to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

Let’s look briefly at each of these opposite directions of the moral compass—the repentance that turns from a life of sin and a consecration that turns to a life of sanctification.

3. Baptism as Repentance from a Life of Sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11)

Since the ministry of John the Baptist, the act of water baptism was connected to repentance from a life of sin. Mark 1:4–5 says, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (see also Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:3). The Greek word for “forgiveness” here is aphesis, indicating a “release.” It could refer to a release from the guilt and consequences of a person’s sins, but it also relates to a release from the life of sin. This is why along with “water for repentance,” John preached that those who were baptized should “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20).

Though people sometimes attempt to draw a heavy line between John’s baptism of repentance from a life of sin and the Christian baptism of association with Christ in the name of the triune God, Jesus Himself made it clear that repentance, baptism, and a release from a life sin were meant to continue on in the proclamation of the church. In Luke 24:47, the resurrected Jesus said that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This corresponds with the mandate in Matthew 28:18, “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.” Thus, the practice of baptism as the mark of repentance from a life of sin continues from the ministry of John the Baptist into the Christian era. With that turning from a life of sin, the baptized believer experiences a “release” (aphesis) from its enslavement.

In another place, I have shown that the references to “repentance” and being once “enlightened” in Hebrews 6:1, 3, and 6, when read in light of an early Christian catechetical background like that found in the Didache, reveals that “baptism” was often used interchangeably with the words “repentance” and “illumination.” The former, repentance, referred to the turning from sin to righteousness. Illumination referred to the transferal from the domain of darkness to the domain of light. Thus, when Peter cried out to the Jews, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), the baptism itself was their act of repentance, releasing them from a life of sin, just like John’s baptism had marked the same conversion for sinful Jews.

The implication is clear: at baptism, believers were not simply confessing their personal faith in the triune God and associating with the death and resurrection of Christ. They were publicly testifying to their repentance from a life of sin. This is why baptism was often metaphorically described as “washing away sin” (Acts 3:19). Just as the blood of Christ spiritually and invisibly pardoned and cleansed a believer of all sin and guilt before God, the act of baptism publicly and visibly transitioned that believer out of a life characterized by sinfulness. This is why Paul was able to say in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Though the believers in Corinth had once lived lives characterized by sinfulness, they had been washed by baptism: set apart and declared righteous. That Paul most likely had the moment of water baptism in mind as that mark of repentance from a sinful life is suggested by his mention of the triune Persons: “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ [the Son] and in the Spirit [the Holy Spirit] of our God [the Father]” (1 Cor. 6:11; compare Matt. 28:19). Though a believer is spiritually and invisibly forgiven of their sin and guilt and justified before God by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8–9), this spiritual reality is manifested before all through the act of water baptism, by which the regenerated believer visibly washes away his or her former lifestyle of sin by this solemn act of repentance

This rescue (or salvation) from a destructive sinful lifestyle is also in Peter’s mind when he says that “baptism . . . now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Some have taken this to mean that the act of water baptism itself somehow applies saving grace to the individual, so without baptism a person cannot be eternally saved. However, when we understand Peter’s imagery and typology in this passage, such a view doesn’t hold water. Peter said that baptism corresponds typologically with the water of the flood. Note the analogy Peter draws: Noah constructed the ark, “in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that [water], baptism now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:20–21). So, in a way similar to the salvation achieved for Noah and his family through the waters of the flood, the waters of baptism now “save” believers in Christ. How did the waters of the flood save Noah? Peter’s second epistle tells us that the utterly sinful world, which stood under the just condemnation of God, was “destroyed, being flooded with water” (2 Pet. 3:6). Noah and his family were then deposited in a “new” world, washed clean of sinfulness. Similarly, the believer enters the water as a citizen of an old world—their world of sinfulness, darkness, and destruction. They then come out of the water as citizens of the new world—a world of righteousness, light, and life. The waters of baptism, according to Peter’s imagery, “save” a person from a lifestyle of sin, because baptism marks the moment of that person’s official, solemn abandonment and release from the sin that once characterized his or her life: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Yet baptism as repentance from a life of sin is only one end of the compass. It represents the orientation and trajectory of the person prior to entering into the water. Nobody remains buried in the waters that wash them clean of a lifestyle of sin. As the believer died to the former direction of the “sinner,” he or she rises again facing a new direction: the life of a saint. This leads us to the opposite end of the compass to which the believer turns through baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life.

4. Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life (1 Pet. 3:21)

Turning from a life of sin automatically involves turning to a life of righteousness, as does turning to a life of righteousness means forsaking a life of sin. Thus, as I have been saying, the third and fourth facets of baptism are inseparably linked. Paul wrote with the same dip of his pen, “You were washed . . . you were sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:11). Washing indicates the eradication of the dirtiness of a person’s immoral life. Sanctification means the setting apart unto a clean life.

From the beginning of the New Testament church, then, baptism involved not only the outward sign of one’s decision to abandon a life of sin, but also—in the same held breath—the commitment, pledge, or vow to live the Christian life by the power of the Spirit. It’s the pledge to live out “deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). Just as believers turned away from their trespasses and sins in which they “formerly lived” (Eph. 2:1–2), they committed to walk in “good works” (Eph. 2:10). Implied in the act of baptism as a solemn mark of repentance is the idea that the one being baptized was committing to live as a disciple, dedicated to observe all that Christ commanded (Matt. 28:20).

For explicit language related to baptism as a “pledge” or “oath,” however, we turn again to 1 Peter 3:21. After saying that “baptism . . . now saves you,” he clarified the precise nature and power of the rite he had in mind: “not a cleansing of dirt from the flesh”—that is, this wasn’t a bath to scrub the body—“but a pledge to God from a good conscience” (my translation). The second part of this statement has been variously translated as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (NASB), “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (NKJV), and “the pledge of a good conscience to God” (NET). The Greek text itself is not clear whether baptism is meant to be the act that appeals to God for a clean conscience, or that baptism is a response to God with a commitment to holiness because of the conscience that has already been cleansed. It seems to me that the second option best fits the context and the overall teaching of the New Testament. Thus, the emphasis is on baptism itself as a visible pledge of the believer to God before many witnesses to forsake the lifestyle of sinfulness and begin a new way of life—like a wedding ceremony is a pledge of fidelity to one’s new spouse and faithfulness to the married life.

In this view, the language of 1 Peter 3:21 is best understood as indicating a personal “oath,” “vow,” “pledge,” or “promise,” in which the recipient of baptism thereby swears to live the Christian life by the help of the Spirit. In one of the earliest descriptions of how Christians baptized new believers, Justin Martyr said that baptism was administered to those who “are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly” (1 Apology 61). By submitting to water baptism, the new Christian was publically confessing his or her faith and promising to walk “by the Spirit,” the lifestyle associated with “the way of life,” that is, the sanctified life of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Let me make one final clarifying note regarding baptism in order to clarify a common misunderstanding. Although the idea of “baptismal regeneration” is widespread among the early church fathers, it should not be confused with the notion of “baptismal salvation” in the sense of the water itself affecting a person’s eternal position before God. In the early church, the term “regeneration” or the “new birth” originally referred to a practical change in lifestyle—the very act of repentance from a life of sin to a life of righteousness we’ve discussed in this essay. The candidates for baptism had resolved to live new lives, abandoning their lives of unbelief, idolatry, and sin. The early Jewish Christian communities regarded baptism as the conscious decision to abandon the “path of death” characterized by sin and to begin a journey on the “path of life” characterized by righteousness (see Didache 1–6). Even in the New Testament baptism is metaphorically associated with being “made alive” (Col. 2:12–13) and setting a believer on the path of “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

Given this background of instruction that contrasted death and life, the language of “regeneration” in the earliest church fathers likely derived from the notion that baptism was the point of one’s conversion from the lifestyle characterized by death to a lifestyle characterized by life. Similarly, the early church also referred to baptism as “illumination” or “enlightenment,” as baptism marked the new believer’s change of course from the “path of darkness” to the “path of light” (compare Epistle of Barnabas 18.1).

This early Christian idea of baptism “washing” away an old lifestyle of sin and initiating a believer, empowered by the Spirit, into a new lifestyle of righteousness, is expressed well by Irenaeus of Lyons (c. A.D. 180):

When, therefore, did we bear the image of him who is of the earth? Doubtless it was when those actions spoken of as “works of the flesh” used to be wrought in us. And then, again, when [do we bear] the image of the heavenly? Doubtless when he says, “Ye have been washed,” believing in the name of the Lord, and receiving His Spirit. Now we have washed away, not the substance of our body, nor the image of our [primary] formation, but the former vain conversation [or, behavior] (sed pristinam vanitatis conversationem). In these members, therefore, in which we were going to destruction by working the works of corruption, in these very members are we made alive by working the works of the Spirit (in iisdem ipsis vivificamur, operantes ea quae sunt spiritus). (Iren. Against Heresies 5.11.2)

How, then, did the idea develop that says the water of baptism saves a person from eternal damnation, not merely from a sinful lifestyle? While the earliest church used the metaphors of regeneration and illumination to refer to the practical change of lifestyle, later Christians began to interpret these metaphorical terms more literally and metaphysically, resulting in the notion that the water itself supernaturally mediated saving (life-giving) grace to the recipient. From that point on until the Reformation, the idea that water baptism was a gracious means of salvation rather than a gracious means of initial sanctification became common. However, it seems most proper to regard baptism as intended to be the first means of sanctifying grace, the moment when a new believer commits to live the Christian life by God’s grace, to walk in newness of life.

To sum up: besides confession of faith in the triune God and personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection, baptism is an act of repentance from a life of sin and a pledge to live a sanctified life. Yes, those who understand baptism as a confession of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well as a profession of trust in person and work of Christ have genuinely waded in the refreshing waters of this sacred rite like lambs lapping in a cool stream. However, with a greater understanding of its mysteries, those who have repented from sin and pledged a life of holiness through water baptism will find themselves going deeper than the little lambs, entering a sacred river where the elephant floats at large.

(NOTE: This series is continued in Part 3 of 3: “Dealing with the Elephants”)

Embracing the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 1 of 3)

blindmenandelephantIt was six men of Indostan // To learning much inclined, // Who went to see the Elephant // (Though all of them were blind), // That each by observation, // Might satisfy his mind.

In this nineteenth century poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” John Godfrey Saxe recasts an ancient Hindu tale of six blind men who approach an elephant for the first time. The first man examines the elephant’s side and concludes that an elephant is much like a wall. After handling the tusk, a second blind man decides the elephant resembles a sharp spear. The third man imagines an elephant as a snake after feeling the beast’s writhing trunk. The fourth man explores one of the legs of the elephant and pictures a tree. Fiddling with the huge animal’s floppy ear, the fifth man deduces that the elephant is like a fan waving in the air. Finally, the sixth blind man grabs the tail and concludes that the elephant resembles a short rope. Saxe then ends his humorous but profound poem this way:

And so these men of Indostan // Disputed loud and long, // Each in his own opinion // Exceeding stiff and strong, // Though each was partly in the right, // And all were in the wrong!

When it comes to the church’s doctrine and practice of baptism, we encounter a very similar situation as the fictional blind men of Indostan. Whereas both the New Testament and the early church present a multi-faceted doctrine of baptism, various traditions since that time have reduced baptism to one or maybe two of its aspects. Some reduce the purpose of baptism to a public confession of faith in the Triune God (Matt. 28:19). Others may emphasize the individual’s personal association with the saving death and resurrection of Christ pictured in baptism (Rom. 6:3–4). Another group might point to baptism as an act of repentance, by which a convert turns from a life of sin (Eph. 2:1–10; Col. 2:11–14). A fourth contingent might emphasize the public commitment, pledge, or oath a believer makes at baptism to live according to the new life of faith by the power of the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:21). A fifth party may point to baptism as the rite of initiation into the new covenant community, by which believers officially become members of the church (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27). Finally, some traditions focus on baptism as the church’s official extension of community “forgiveness” based on their repentance from sin (Acts 2:38; 26:18). To each of these emphases we can legitimately respond, “Yes, baptism is that, but it’s not only that.” Like the blind men of Indostan, “each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong.”

It’s my contention that most every tradition of baptism has reduced the doctrine and practice of the sacred rite to one or two things when baptism was really intended to be and accomplish many things all at once. Each teacher or tradition has focused variously on the elephant’s tail, ear, side, leg, trunk, or tusk . . . sometimes even pitting one true and legitimate aspect of Christian baptism against another. In this essay I will begin to explore 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 hope to describe the rite in its fullness, suggesting how we might better embrace all of its facets rather than only one or two of them. The six facets of Christian baptism I will explore, starting with the first two in part one of this essay, are the following:

  1. Baptism as public confession of the Trinitarian Faith (Matt. 28:19)
  2. Baptism as personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4)
  3. Baptism as repentance from a life of sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11)
  4. Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life (1 Pet. 3:21)
  5. Baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27)
  6. Baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness (Acts 26:18)

1. Baptism as Public Confession of the Trinitarian Faith (Matt. 28:19)

Jesus Christ commanded that believers be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This Trinitarian baptismal rite became standard in the church from day one. In Antioch between 50 and 70, baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” was clearly prescribed (Didache 7.1), and as we know, Antioch itself became a major hub for Gentile missions. Around A.D. 150, Justin Martyr, describing the church’s general practice of baptism as he knew it, said that “as many as are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true” are then baptized “in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit” (Justin, 1 Apology 61).

Today many traditions treat this triune baptism as a mere formula recited while immersing, pouring, or sprinkling the baptized adult or child. They simply say words such as “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” while applying the water. However, in the descriptions of baptism available to us in the writings of the early church, there is little evidence that Jesus’s command to baptize in the name of the triune God was ever treated as a mere formula. Rather, the evidence suggests that triune baptism actually implied a threefold confession of faith in response to three distinct questions followed by three distinct “immersions” or “pourings.”

The exact language seems to have varied from church to church, but the basic outline remained the same. The one baptizing would say something like, “Do you believe in God the Father and Master of all, who made all things?” The one being baptized would respond, “I believe.” The first immersion (or, in some cases, pouring) followed. Then the baptizer would inquire concerning the second article of the Christian faith: “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God made flesh, who was born of a virgin, crucified for your sins, rose again from the dead, and ascended to heaven, whence He will come again to judge the living and dead?” The baptized would respond, “I do,” followed by the second washing. Finally, the baptizer asked something like, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold the things about Christ and gives new life?” The respondent would reply, “I do.” The third and final immersion was administered.

The fact is that the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” language was not a formula to be recited but a summary of the faith to be confessed. This helps explain why sometimes in the New Testament the baptism is simply referred to as “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48). It’s not that there were two competing forms of baptism going around in the first century: those baptizing in the name of Jesus only and those baptizing in the name of the Triune God. Rather, the exact wording of the confession of faith varied from person to person and from place to place, but the content was always the same: 1) the God and Father who made all things 2) sent His Son to die for sin, rise again, and ascend to heaven until His return, in order to 3) send the same Holy Spirit who had inspired the Scriptures to indwell the church until the second coming.

Therefore, when Jesus instructed His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the implication was that converts were to be instructed concerning basic Christian Trinitarian doctrine—the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their work in creation, revelation, redemption, and consummation. Confession of faith at baptism, therefore, confirmed the believer’s understanding of and belief in the triune faith. Clearly, this meant that some kind of pre-baptismal instruction was necessary so that when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mentioned, the baptismal candidate didn’t just stand dumbfounded in the water, wondering what the baptizer was talking about.

True, the farther away from the Jewish synagogue the gospel reached, the more doctrinal instruction would be necessary prior to baptism. Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who already knew the Old Testament well would have been quite clear on their doctrine of God the Father, maker of heaven and earth. They would have known something of the Holy Spirit who had empowered the prophets of old and predicted the coming of the Messiah. In fact, they would have been anticipating the advent of that promised Savior and King. All they lacked was the understanding that Jesus of Nazareth was that Savior, King, and Son of God . . . that He was to die to pay for sin and rise again from the dead . . . and that He was to have two comings rather than one. In short, for Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, who already believed in the Old Testament faith, it wasn’t necessary to provide instruction for the entire biblical creation and redemption narrative . . . just the pieces that were incomplete prior to the advent of the Messiah. However, as the gospel penetrated the un-trained pagan Gentiles, more instruction would have been necessary regarding the Christian story as opposed to their non-Christian worldviews and myths. In fact, when Paul preached to the Gentiles in Athens, he began with the doctrine of God as Creator and Father of all (Acts 17:22–31).

We aren’t sure just how much instruction was given concerning the nature and works of the Triune God prior to baptism. It probably depended on where the unbelievers started out in their knowledge and belief in the one true God. For some it may have been a matter of a few simple assertions to connect the dots. For others it may have involved intense instruction, answering questions and dealing with objections. But whatever pre-baptismal doctrinal instruction occurred, we can be sure that when the new believer entered the water and responded to the questions, “Do you believe in God the Father . . . ? Do you believe in God the Son . . . ? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit . . . ?” it wasn’t the first time they heard of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In sum, one New Testament and early church facet of baptism is confession of faith in the triune God (Matt. 28:19). A full-bodied doctrine and practice of baptism must include more than this. But it shouldn’t include less.

2. Baptism as Personal Association with Christ’s Death and Resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4)

In its earliest attested form, the person receiving baptism would be fully immersed in the water (Mark 1:10; Acts 8:38–39). This is, in fact, the basic meaning of the Greek term baptizo, “to immerse.” This full immersion pictured the believer’s association with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Romans 6:3–4 draws this analogy succinctly: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Similarly, in Colossians 2:12 Paul says to the believers, “[You have been] buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

In this second aspect of water baptism, the focus narrows from the entire Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative to the specific picture of the work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this way, baptism becomes itself a wordless confession of faith—our personal association with the death and resurrection of Christ on our behalf. The core events of the gospel itself—Christ’s death for sin and His resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1–5)—are played out before all.

As each believer individually participates in this act of confession, baptism is at its most personal. Through the act of baptism, a believer confesses his personal faith in the saving gospel. The young Christian confesses that Christ’s death paid for her sins and that His resurrection promises her own future resurrection from the dead. One cannot imagine a more personal, humiliating, tangible, and meaningful act as an outward sign of one’s inward convictions. One may certainly say “I do” to the question, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead?” But by actually reenacting these saving works before all, the new believer says, “I believe it, but I also apply it personally to myself once and for all.”

To summarize: besides confession of faith in the triune God, a second aspect of New Testament and early church baptism is personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4). Yes, a full-bodied doctrine and practice of baptism must include more than this. But it shouldn’t include less.

(NOTE: This series if continued in Part 2 of 3, “Floating with the Elephant”)

“Use Things the Way They’re Meant to Be Used”: Beyond Regs and Norms

I’m hardly the model parent. I have no special training or expertise. I have no success stories (my oldest is just 13). And when I’m coping with my three kids’ day-to-day, hit-and-miss behavior, the fruit of the Spirit often gets juiced. However, over the years I’ve crafted a few “standing orders” that have helped maintain some modicum of control in my family. One of these is pretty simple but all-important in the Svigel household: “Use things the way they’re meant to be used.”

When followed, this rule can lessen the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Here’s how it works: Imagine your six-year-old grabs a five gallon bucket, turns it over, and tries to use it as a stepping stool to reach a bicycle helmet hanging in the garage. Suddenly the rule kicks in: use things the way they were meant to be used. Tragedy avoided. Or your ten-year-old can’t find his pocket knife to whittle bark from a branch. Instead, he grabs a pair of scissors, opens it up as wide as it will go, and starts shaving the twig with one blade: use things the way they are meant to be used.

Let me suggest that this rule of thumb can be applied when making ministry decisions, too. In fact, taking into consideration the intended purposes expressed in the Bible adds another dimension to the age-old debate between the “regulative principle” and the “normative principle.”


Regulatives vs. Normatives

For a long time Protestants have debated proper worship from two perspectives: those who adhere to the regulative principle (“Regs”) argue that whatever is not expressly commanded in Scripture is to be prohibited in worship and order. Those who hold to the normative principle (“Norms”) argue that whatever is not prohibited by Scripture is permissible in worship and order.

For example, some proponents of the regulative principle reject the use of musical instruments in worship because the New Testament neither prescribes nor mentions their use. On the other hand, followers of the normative principle would use a growing variety of musical instruments for worship because nothing in the New Testament expressly forbids their use. As another example, Regs tend to practice believer’s baptism exclusively, as this is the practice explicitly seen in the New Testament. Norms may practice infant baptism because nothing in the New Testament clearly prohibits it.

Needless to say, many evangelical churches follow a very broad normative principle, feeling the freedom to employ almost anything in their worship and order as long as it doesn’t violate a clear teaching of Scripture. Usually, then, a strong pragmatic principle tends to steer decisions. So, as an extreme example, if the Bible doesn’t clearly forbid driving motorcycles up and down the aisles and around the stage in order to illustrate the power of the Holy Spirit, then a church is free to ride motorcycles throughout the worship center if it will communicate the point in a memorable (read: entertaining) way. Or, to use a less extreme example, because the New Testament doesn’t clearly prohibit the use of artwork in the sanctuary, we are free to use art, images, multi-media presentations, plays, skits, movies, smoke, lightshows, dance, and other artistic expressions to communicate our message in memorable (!) ways.

Now, both the regulative and normative principles address matters that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture (though they might be reasonably deduced from Scripture). Regs forbid anything not clearly affirmed; Norms allows things not clearly rejected. Yet what about the use of practices explicitly mentioned in Scripture in ways that are neither clearly condoned nor explicitly condemned? That is, the intended uses of some things are clearly articulated in Scripture, leaving us with clear direction on how they are to be employed, things like prayer, worship, leadership, money, Scripture, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The question then becomes: if Scripture teaches us clearly that Practice X is to be used for Purpose Y, is it also okay for us to use X for purpose Z? Let me give two examples.


Using the Bible the Way It’s Meant to Be Used

Scripture itself clearly sets forth the Bible’s intended uses. Scriptures point us to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27; John 5:39; Acts 8:35; 18:28; Rom. 1:2; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). It’s to be read publically in church for instruction (1 Tim. 4:13). It also contains the wisdom of God needed to walk in righteousness (Ps. 119:105). In fact, its two main purposes can be summed up by 2 Timothy 3:15–17—“The sacred writings . . . are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” So really the purpose of Scripture is twofold: 1) to point us to a saving knowledge of the person and work of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15); and 2) to teach us how to live as children of God (3:16–17). In other words, the explicit purpose of Scripture is to regulate our faith and practice.

But what about other uses of the Bible beyond these two?

Is it right to use the Bible as a guide for dieting—WWJE (What Would Jesus Eat)? Is it okay to also use the Bible as a science textbook? A management manual? A guide for “biblical economics”? A pocketbook for political science? A source of frameable quotes to hang in our bathrooms? Is it right for us to publish special interest study Bibles that focus on only one particular topic in Scripture (whether end times, animals, or apologetics) . . . or to package the presentation for one particular audience (whether moms, dads, leaders, or specific ethnic groups)? If the Bible was meant to point us to Jesus, how badly do we err when we use it to point to other things . . . or to point to us? If the Bible was written to equip believers for every good work, do we err when we use it to justify political opinions, glean dietary advice, or formulate scientific theories?

In short, do we risk doctrinal and practical accident and injury if we deviate from using the Bible the way it’s meant to be used?


Using the Lord’s Supper the Way It’s Meant to Be Used

Most evangelical churches know they’re supposed to observe the Lord’s Supper (also called “communion,” “the Lord’s Table,” or “the Eucharist”). And most know that the New Testament spells out clear purposes, confirmed by the early church’s practice. The Lord’s Supper is meant to reflect the “one body” of the gathered church (1 Cor. 10:17; 11:20) rather than a family’s normal meal at home (1 Cor. 11:22, 34). Around the Table, Christ’s disciples gather to dine with the Lord, commemorating His saving death and resurrection and anticipating His personal return (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Practiced properly, this community covenant meal provides spiritual blessing and strengthens faith (1 Cor. 10:16). Both the New Testament and early church confirm that the churches observed the Lord’s Supper every Sunday as part of the weekly gathered worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:18–20; see my essay, “Should We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper Every Sunday in Church?”).

Even though we have a sufficient picture of the intended purpose of the Lord’s Supper, what about other uses of the observance of the meal besides these?

Is it right for us to observe the Lord’s Supper at home in our families? On camping trips with friends? Should it be used as an evangelistic tool, presenting the gospel through the meal and asking unbelievers to partake as their first act of faith? Should its intended weekly observance be suspended in favor of an annual feast? What about partaking of the Lord’s Supper as part of our individual, private prayer time and devotion? Or during an “online” service with whatever elements we have at hand—bread and juice, pizza and Coke . . . donuts and coffee? How far from its intended purpose dare we take the Lord’s Supper before we end up out of bounds? If Communion is intended to be an act of covenant renewal among the gathered church as a commemoration of the suffering and death of Christ during corporate worship, do we err when we observe it in ways not intended by the Lord and practiced by His apostles?

In short, do we risk doctrinal and practical accident and injury if we deviate from using the Lord’s Supper the way it’s meant to be used?


Use Things the Way They’re Meant to Be Used

The constant tension and occasional conflict between proponents of the regulative principle and adherents of the normative principle will probably endure until the end of the age. Regs forbid things not clearly affirmed in or reasonably deduced from Scripture. Norms allows things not clearly rejected in Scripture. But in the midst of this legitimate debate, we sometimes fold in things for which the Scriptures are very clear regarding their purpose and function. This raises an important question that neither the Regs nor Norms directly address. If the Bible explicitly tells us the way things are meant to be used, on what basis and by what authority do we use them in ways that were unintended?

Of course, this question, too, deserves a fair-minded debate. What are the limits of liturgical freedom beyond the prescribed functions in the New Testament before we’re guilty of offering strange fire before the Lord (Lev. 10:1)? Are we not, then, better off sticking close to the clearly-articulated purposes and intensions of the Bible rather than cleverly, creatively, and perhaps dangerously and rebelliously making our own uses for them?

Maybe we ought to apply my household rule to better manage the household of faith: use things the way they’re meant to be used. I know in my own family this principle makes sense. It prevents things from being broken. It gets things done more efficiently. And it also keeps people safe. Perhaps some of our churches and believers have suffered unintended damage because we have failed to follow a reasonable rule of thumb: use things the way they’re meant to be used.

Selecting the Seven in Acts 6: Biblical Precedence for Congregational Election of Deacons?

The selection of the seven in Acts 6 is often cited as support for congregational nomination or election of church officers, especially deacons. In churches with a congregational church polity, this passage is often produced as precedence for church governance, as it appears that the apostles themselves transferred electoral power to the hands of the entire congregation. I have occasionally heard defenders of a strongly congregational polity point to Acts 6 to support not only the congregation’s right to elect their own deacons, but also to select their elders, hire their pastors, and generally lead their churches by majority rule.

Others, who are more sensitive to the actual context of the passage, have suggested that the text at least provides the biblical basis for making the office of deacon a point of congregational power: that is, deacons should be selected from and by the congregation. If a particular church’s polity then consists only of deacons and a hired pastor, the deaconate functions in a way similar to leaders in a representative republic.


A Closer Look at Acts 6

Though sometimes exposited as the proof text for congregational autonomy in the selection of its deacons, a close examination of Acts 6, along with other New Testament texts, suggests that we should be very hesitant to treat this passage as a prescription for leadership selection, including deacons, elders, and pastors. Rather than providing a prescriptive method for congregational election of church leaders, the text provides an example of wise problem-solving in the early church that illustrates some general principles of leadership selection. Yet a careful consideration of this passage reveals facts regarding the selection of the deacons that are often conveniently overlooked by those who want this passage to bolster a strong congregational form of local church government.

So, must a congregation choose its own deacons independent of the leadership of the church? Consider the following eight observations.

Is This Descriptive of Prescriptive? We need to always be cautious about turning descriptive passages into prescriptive principles. In the narrative genre, the purpose of any particular account is not necessarily to prescribe how we are to do something in perpetuity. If that were the case, then why don’t we cast lots to select elders (Acts 1:26)? Unless there is something in the text that clearly says this is prescriptive, unless we see other texts in the New Testament that indicate the practice was universally instituted by the apostles and observed everywhere, then we must be very careful about using these to establish “biblical” mandates.

The Seven Are Not Identified as “Deacons.” Acts 6 does not explicitly identify the selected men as “deacons,” and nowhere else are they later identified as such. In fact, Philip, “one of the seven,” was identified later as an “evangelist” (Acts 21:8). Along with many commentators, including several early church fathers, it is my opinion that we see here the first historical instance of what becomes the task or office of deacon, but it is obviously not Luke’s purpose to clearly identify these men as the “first deacons” in order to establish precedence. If the passage were meant to be taken prescriptively, one
would expect some comment by Luke regarding its association with the office of “deacon.”

An Ad Hoc Task Force, not Standing Board of Leaders. In the setting of Acts 6, the need for the seven men was ad hoc, that is, they were selected to address a specific need that arose due to cultural conflict between two groups in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1). This would set an example of appointing deacons on an “as needed” basis for particular functions in the church—either short or long term. It does not constitute a “board” or “body” of deacons for the sake of governance of a local church.

A Group of Representatives, not the Entire Congregation. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem (that is, the apostles, who were then functioning in a way similar to the “elders” of a local church), were the ones who called together what appear to be representatives from the disgruntled party of Hellenistic Jews. (Some may say this was only an apostolic prerogative, that is, since today’s elders are not apostles, then we cannot take this passage as indicating the relationship between elders, the congregation, and deacons. However, if this is maintained, then neither can a congregation today apply this verse as precedence for selecting their deacons, because we have no living apostles today to approve the selection.)

The Greek text does not clearly indicate that all the thousands of church members in Jerusalem were gathered for this meeting, but “the great number of the disciples,” could be a partitive genitive (the great number from among the disciples), or, more likely in this context, the specific category of “disciples” mentioned earlier in verse 1: the “Hellenistic Jews” who had protested the unfair treatment in verse 1. Note that the deacons selected all have Hellenistic names (Acts 6:5), as it was the Hellenistic widows who were being neglected. This indicates that the “great number of the disciples” was not a full “congregational meeting” with a general democratic process to select representative leaders for the whole church, but a representative ad hoc group assembled to select appropriate men for this particular task.

Then, when the text says this found approval with “the whole great number” (6:5), this is the same term for the same representative group, indicating the number of those who were summoned to help solve the problem, not the thousands of church members in Jerusalem. The Greek adjective pas (“whole”) is always governed by the context to determine what set (universal or particular) is intended. In short, this was not a congregational meeting to select church leaders, but an ad hoc assembly of the legitimately disgruntled Hellenistic Jews for the purpose of solving a particular problem.

Church Leadership Initiated and Confirmed the Selection of the Seven. It should be noted that when the problem of the neglected Hellenistic widows was brought to the attention of the apostles, the leaders themselves initiated the process by which the problem would be solved—the gathering of representatives of the Hellenistic Jews, the delegation of selecting the leaders from among that group, and then the approval of the selection indicated by bringing the seven before the leaders for approval. Please note that the group of Hellenistic Jews did not exercise any authority on their own, but only what was given to them by the leaders of the church. The apostles “summoned” the Hellenistic Jews (6:2), ordered them to select seven men (6:3), and gave the “job description” (6:3), but they reserved the authority to officially “appoint” them to the task (6:3). The reason this task was delegated was the Hellenistic Jews knew their group best (all of the apostles were Aramaic-speaking Jews!), and to select these men would have taken them away from the ministry of the Word (6:4).

The Hellenists Task Was Given by the Leaders. The congregational representatives of the Hellenists, hearing the decision of the church leaders, did not vote on the recommendation in some kind of democratic process. The decision of the apostles was final. Here we have the congregation submitting to the decision of the elders, not vice versa. They received the assignment to select leaders from among them, did so faithfully, and then reported back to the leaders when they had accomplished the task (6:5–6). The phrase “what they said pleased the whole gathering” does not indicate official approval, but simply their pleasure in the wise decision of the leaders (6:5).

Selection of Deacons Received Approval by the Leaders. As a final step in selecting the seven representatives of the Hellenistic Jews to see to the neglected widows, the chosen men were “set before the apostles” (6:6). This demonstrates that the apostles had the final say on who would serve in this capacity, as indicated in their instructions (“we will appoint to this duty,” 6:3). Thus, the apostles laid their hands on the seven and appointed them to serve officially. That this was an official appointment is indicated by the laying on of hands and the later reference to these men as “the seven.” They were not merely volunteers, but actual positions of service in the community, even if limited to a particular area of practical ministry among a particular group within the church (that is, seeing to the needs of the Hellenistic Jewish widows).

This May Apply to Deacons, not Elders. This text at least provides an early example of selecting deacon-like ministers in the first local church. However, it does not give any illustration for the selection of elders, who are the ranking leaders of the church. The examples we have for the selection of elders in the local church suggest that already-established leaders were responsible for the selection and appointment of elders. Thus, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church during their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). Timothy himself was appointed by a “council of elders” (1 Tim. 4:14). Titus, who served in a similar pastoral role as Timothy, was instructed to “appoint elders” in every town (Titus 1:5). Although we have no clear pattern for the appointment of deacons, the pattern for the appointment of elders indicates that they were selected and approved by already-established leaders, not by congregational nomination or vote.


Positive Principles from Acts 6

Even though the selection of the seven in Acts 6 cannot be read as a prescription for congregational power to elect its own leaders, we can glean the following positive principles:

Ad Hoc Deacon Selection. The seven were chosen not to serve on a standing board or committee, but to address specific needs of the church as they arose. This would provide a biblical precedence for selecting ministry assistants on an “as needed” basis. We also know that members of the seven later went on to other things (e.g., Philip, who served as leader of the church in Caesarea). This indicates that the particular task of deacons may have a natural life cycle related to the task as well as to the ministry calling of the individual. Deacon service appears to have been “to the task” and “for the moment,” not as a permanent position or office. However, this does not rule out the possibility that a “standing committee” of rotating deacons might be the wise decision of the church leaders to attend to ongoing needs of the church.

Delegation of Authority. The apostles saw the wisdom in delegating the selection of the best men from that sub-group of Hellenistic Jews in the Jerusalem church. They called together the best people to make the best recommendations. This would provide a biblical precedence for choosing deacons that best fits the specific purpose of service. For example, if the need is somebody to minister among the elderly in the church, wise leaders might gather representatives of the older members of the church to make recommendations for leadership, under the oversight of the elders.

Dependence on Congregational Insight and Advice. The apostles clearly depended on the insights and counsel of members of the congregation who had a particular interest in the problem or challenge. They did not simply make arbitrary or heavy-handed decisions until investigating the matter, hearing from a large representative of those affected, and appointing the best people to deal with the matter—people who were well-respected and qualified according to the congregation itself. This is always a good precedence and reflects wise leadership. It is therefore a good idea for elders in a church to select deacons and other assistants based on broader congregational insight rather than simply arbitrarily appointing leaders to serve in various areas of ministry. A common practice today of electing deacons to a board and then assigning each deacon to oversee an area of ministry that he may not have functioned in prior to the appointment does not reflect this very well.


Conclusions from Acts 6

In sum, though Acts 6 does provide an illustration of how the leaders of the Jerusalem church wisely addressed a particular problem through the appointment of the seven, it does not provide a universally-binding prescription for how deacons (and especially elders) were to be selected. Nor is Acts 6 part of any discernible pattern in the New Testament that could contribute to our understanding of the prescribed method of selecting deacons. On the other hand, the selection of elders and other ministers in the New Testament (including missionaries and deacons) seems to have been entrusted to already-established leadership (apostles, other elders, not to the congregation).

Acts 6 does provide one illustration of how the apostles wisely addressed a particular problem, suggesting for us today that specific needs call for a delegation of authority with dependence on the congregation for insight. Any process for selecting deacons in a local church should take this illustration into consideration and strive for the same kind of wise decision-making, avoiding rash appointments.

Acts 6 does not in any way teach or support the idea of congregational church governance as it is commonly practiced today, in which final governing authority rests in the congregation of voting members. All authority in this text begins and ends with the established leadership of the apostles, who were at that time functioning as the elders of the local church in Jerusalem.