Nazarene or “Baptarene”? When traditions collide

Phineas F. Bresee served for 38 years as a Methodist minister before beginning the fledgling “Church of the Nazarene” at the turn of the 20th century. Other non-Methodist groups fused with his in 1907 and 1908.

My dad grew up Nazarene, but my mom was raised independent Baptist. So, if ever there was a “Baptarene,” it was me. But I suspect I’m not the only former Baptarene who has rediscovered what being a Nazarene is, and now, I refuse to look back.

Don’t get me wrong. I harbor no animus against Baptists. I’ve always admired their fervor in evangelism, their giving for world missions and their emphasis upon the importance of Scripture. All three of those characterized John Wesley (1703-91) as well, the 18th century Anglican evangelist  who is the ecclesiastical ancestor of Nazarenes. But Wesley wasn’t a Baptist; he was an Anglican/Methodist, and I’ve come to treasure that heritage as something valuable and worth protecting.

Take the issue of women in ministry. From our official beginning in 1908, Nazarenes have formally acknowledged in our Manual that God calls both men and women to all roles of ordained ministry. Among other passages, we’ve always taken Acts 2:17-18 seriously, that in the “last days” God will pour out the Holy Spirit on everyone. The evidence of this outpouring will be (in part) that “servants” who are “both men and women” will “prophesy.” Prophecy is preaching, the telling forth of the message of salvation through Christ. This message is so important that you just can’t keep half of your team planted on the bench. Everyone – male and female – must get into the game.

Another legacy from our Methodist roots is infant baptism for the children of church-going parents, practiced alongside believer baptism for older converts. In the same message on Pentecost, Peter assured his Jewish listeners – the Covenant people of God – that God has done something new in Jesus Christ. After a scathing message where he accused them of having crucified Jesus, he ended with a word of hope: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). The promise of the Holy Spirit – as symbolized in baptism – was for all, regardless of age: “The promise is for you and your children, for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (v. 39, italics added). And so on that Day of Pentecost, whole families were baptized — dads, moms, and kids. That set a pattern that was repeated at key junctures in the book of Acts, where entire “households” (Gk. oikos) were baptized. It’s inconceivable that this did not include babes in arms. This was a New Covenant, and the sign of the New Covenant people of God was baptism.

A third heritage from our Methodist roots is the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) as a means of grace. John Wesley himself celebrated communion frequently, as a way to fortify his faith. Today in Methodist churches and a growing number of Nazarene congregations, Eucharist is the high moment of worship, following a meaty sermon. It is the culmination of the moments spent together as the adoring community of faith.

But what about the Church of the Nazarene?

Have we kept these strands of our heritage from Methodism, or have we been squeezed into a Baptist mold, becoming “Baptarenes”?

Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent
The Wesleyan Church

On women in ministry - Women in ministry is part of our Nazarene DNA. In the early days of the Church of the Nazarene, as many as 25% of all ordained ministers were women. In a Herald of Holiness from 1912, famed evangelist Uncle Bud Robinson praised the ministry of a female pastor. My own father-in-law was converted in the 1950s under the ministry of a female Nazarene evangelist. Yet by 1973, only 7% of Nazarene clergy were women.  Writing in the Holiness Today in March,2000, Ed Robinson lamented:

Our present hesitance and opposition to women in pastoral and church leadership roles isn’t biblical or theological. It is cultural, pure and simple. It’s time for our culture to live up to our convictions.

I attended Eastern Nazarene College and Nazarene Theological Seminary with “Jane” (not her real name). She is now in another denomination that more openly embraces female pastors, but only reluctantly. She could not find a Nazarene congregation in the United States that would call her as pastor. Jane’s story is repeated again and again, as qualified Nazarene women finds closed doors in our denomination and are forced to look for pastoral ministry assignments with other faith communities. In one Nazarene congregation I know well, a female Nazarene pastor was opposed from the start of her ministry. Her most vocal critics were those Nazarenes who used to be Baptists. They may have bodily left the Baptist fold, but they brought their dismissive attitude toward female pastors with them. I wonder: How often is this story repeated in other Nazarene settings?

Infant baptism – The old story tells of a drought in Texas so severe that the Baptists had gone to baptizing by pouring, the Nazarenes were sprinkling, and the Methodists had resorted to wiping the forehead with a damp cloth! Baptists are known for their insistence on immersion only, while Nazarenes accept immersion, pouring, and sprinkling as valid modes of baptism. Yet if this were the extent of our disagreement, it would be relatively minor. History tells us that Anabaptists in 16th century Europe- the “re-baptizers” who were the forerunners to many of today’s Baptist groups – made infant baptism their special target of derision. Granted, to re-baptize was not only a spiritual but a political statement at that time, since Church and State were not separate in many places and it was State-sponsored churches that baptized all infants in the realm. Yet even today, there is something innately divisive about the act of re-baptizing.

In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Billy Graham tells of his experience growing up in a Methodist home. As a teenager, he was invited to a Youth-for-Christ rally, where he responded to the invitation to receive Christ. Counselors directed him to a Baptist church, where they instructed him that he should be baptized. Knowing he had already been baptized as an infant, Graham asked his mother and father to explain the meaning of his baptism. Unfortunately, they were at a loss to give him a good explanation. (For a defense of infant baptism, see this excellent article. Note that the Church of the Nazarene asks parents to assure an infant’s Christian education, which includes the child at an older age  making a profession of faith, perhaps after a catechism course). To join the Baptist church, per their belief, they baptized Billy by immersion. Later, he left that Baptist congregation and began attending another, eventually seeking ordination. The second Baptist church made it clear that they could not ordain him if he didn’t join their church. And how was membership obtained? By baptism! So with reluctance, Graham was baptized again, a third baptism. His embarrassment  at his thrice-baptized status jumps from the page of his autobiography.

What does baptism mean? It is initiation into the Body of Christ, the New Covenant sign that replaces the Old Covenant marker of circumcision (Col. 2:11-12). By definition, you can only be initiated into something one time. Can you be baptized more than once? The best answer to that question is another: Can you be circumcised more than once? In this sense, “re-baptism” is an impossibility. The first time was baptism; the second time, the individual just got wet. But why stop at twice? By that logic, an individual could theoretically be  “baptized” as often as they felt moved by the Spirit.

Yet looming behind Billy Graham’s abashed testimony about his multiple baptisms is something more ugly. It is the specter of sectarianism. To re-baptize an individual is a de facto declaration that the community of faith performing the initial baptism was not genuinely Christian, that their baptism didn’t count. Yet did not Paul say that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5)? How often have we as Nazarenes been guilty of re-baptizing individuals who had been baptized as infants in another Christian faith community? By so doing, not only are we denying our own infant baptism heritage as those in the Methodist tradition. Worse, we are undermining the witness of the larger Church of Jesus Christ in the eyes of the non-believing community. Surely they must look on and shake their heads. “Look how they love each other!” would hardly be the words on their lips, seeing such a spectacle.

In the Church of the Nazarene, we have three core values. In all corners of the globe, Nazarenes have done well to memorize them. We are:

1) Christian

2) Holiness

3) Missional

When we re-baptize an individual, we are making ourselves exceptional, thereby denying that we are a constituent part of the larger Body of Christ. Paul had a stern warning about that kind of spiritual superiority complex, and cautioned that “though there are many parts, there is one body” (1 Cor. 12:2o).  To re-baptize is to announce: “We are not like them.” It is to deny the first point of the three points cited above. While from our perspective the other group might seem less than Christian, in their eyes, surely we are the ones who appear schismatic by baptizing individuals they long ago initiated into Christ’s indivisible Body!

Frequency and meaning of communion – A third area where sometimes we have been more “Baptarene” than Nazarene is the practice of holy communion. The communion ritual in the Nazarene Manual states that the Lord’s Supper is a “memorial” of the death and passion of our Lord. The language of “memorial,” however, is not the language of means of grace. Rather, it is closer to Ulrich Zwingli’s (1484-1531) low view of Eucharist, a view that is more at-home in Baptist circles than Nazarene.

I had a friend in the workplace who was an independent Baptist. We often talked about the Bible. One day, I asked him how often they took the Lord’s Supper in his church. “We take it once per year,” he said. It was clear from the conversation that – for him – communion was merely remembering that Jesus had died on the Cross. If that’s all that communion is, then who can fault a church for wanting to celebrate communion only annually? Such a service becomes funeral-like in demeanor. But if Eucharist (from the Greek word for thanksgiving) is instead a joyous occasion for us to celebrate not only what Christ did then but the gracious activity of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives now, then can we take it too much?

A colleague pastored a Nazarene church in Texas. Many of the members of his church had been members of another community of faith that practiced weekly communion. When they became Nazarenes, they longed for the weekly celebration of Eucharist. The pastor calculated that some of the long-time Nazarenes in his congregation might balk at taking communion weekly, since that had not been the tradition. He approached the problem creatively:

Do you think God looks down at us and says: “Stop that! You’re taking communion too often!”

Everyone laughed. They got the point. If communion is a means a grace, a biblically prescribed way that we together strengthen our faith, then is it possible to overdo it, to become “too strong”? That day, they decided that being Nazarene meant re-connecting with their Methodist heritage. They made a weekly place for the Lord’s Supper. No one has complained. They had recovered a missing part of their church’s rich sacramental tradition.

Conclusion

Women in ministry, infant baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are three areas where Methodism has made a distinctive contribution to our Nazarene identity. Unfortunately, they are also accents that have been muted by the influence of Baptist ideas, ideas that risk making us at the end of the day not Nazarenes, but “Baptarenes,” fully at home in neither the Nazarene nor the Baptist tradition. It’s time that we as Nazarenes rediscover these key elements of our Methodist heritage, revalidating this rich strain of our ecclesiastical DNA.

—————————————–

Photo credits:

Phineas F. Bresee:  Nazarene.org

Jo Anne Lyon: Wesleyan Church (Kansas District)

Infant baptism: My Friend Ivan

Chalice and bread: Squidoo

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15 thoughts on “Nazarene or “Baptarene”? When traditions collide

  1. Greg, Excellent article.
    Thank you especially for your exploration of baptism/re-baptism. Having pastored for a number of years, I have been asked on several occasions to provide evidence to Roman Catholic churches that an individual who was being wed in one of their churches was baptized as a Christian. All they wanted to know was our baptism was indeed Trinitarian. If I acknowledged our record of baptism, that was sufficient for them to proceed. They accepted our ritual.

    As for women in ministry, I co-pastor with my wife and at the point in our ministry when we felt led to serve as co-pastors, it was the former Baptists who tended to lead the way in trying to sidetrack us serving together. Thankfully, we weathered that and are serving together as the church body as a whole recognized and outnumbered those who were most vocally against. We have demonstrated we are pastors to all the congregation, former Baptists and all.

    God bless your continued ministry.

  2. Dave, thanks for the comment. Your experience seems to be another instance of what I was talking about, but I’m glad that with time, even those who opposed you and your wife came around. As they say, the proof is in the pudding!

    • We hope that by serving together we pave the way for others so they don’t have to face the same kind of opposition. (And, for the record, she’s a pretty good preacher too!)

  3. Regarding infant baptism/re-baptism, I agree that someone should not have to be re-baptized in order to join a church. I do, however, have no qualms about re-baptizing someone who was originally baptized as an infant if that is their desire. I am grateful that my parents did not baptize me as an infant (only dedicated), but had they made that choice, I probably still would have wanted to undergo baptism when I did at the age of 18; long after I made the conscious decision to accept the gift of Salvation and began my walk with the Lord. I feel that being able to remember one’s baptism carries a great deal of value.

    • Thank you, Megan, for a thoughtful reply. In a sense, we all remember our baptism every time someone else is baptized. That’s the exciting thing about seeing new ones incorporated into the Covenant People of God. But by its very nature, initiation is a one-time happening, and even if I was a baby at the time, chances are there are pictures or remembrances from those who were there to baptize me. There is no need to be “baptized” a second time, since it can only happen once.

  4. Greg,

    As a Baptist pastor, I am confused about your lack of mentioning the two NT references to women in leadership. I see your reference to Acts and your extension of those words to include women. But, how do you ignore the Holy Spirit’s demands to Paul to not allow a woman to teach? I suspect your position could undermine the trust in ALL the Bible. How do you see this?

    Your brother,

    David

    • Hello David,

      Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading “Theology in Overalls.”

      For purposes of length, my post didn’t get into a detailed exegesis of the Pauline passages to which you allude. In a word, when you figure out what is going on in passages like 1 Tim. 2:11-15, you quickly discover that Paul is making no timeless, universal rule regarding the role of women in ministry.

      Here’s an earlier post of mine that talks about this. Check out the link from the Messianic rabbi, which contains an excellent article.

      Another source that I would recommend is Rebecca Groothuis’ Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Baker, 1197), available here.

      It is the best careful exegetical work that I’ve found, presenting an egalitarian view. Check it out.

      Grace and peace,
      Greg

  5. Well done, Greg. I especially appreciated the way that you framed the discussion in the larger structure of Christian spirituality and non-sectarian attitudes. I’ll admit that I had not previously interpreted the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” passage in the context of “re-baptism”, but it seems a perfect and natural fit. What I know of the differences between denominations suggests that most of what sends us to different buildings on Sunday is preferential rather than essential, and I have no problem with “separation” on that level. When one group insists that they are more spiritual — or more “right” — than another by virtue of their schedule, hymnal selections, or other superficial criteria (even when they can point to a reference in Scripture to defend their choice), everyone loses. The foot is certainly different from the hand, but neither better nor worse for that difference, and equally essential to the body. We humans have never been good at “agreeing to disagree” so maybe the model of “one body with many parts” can never be more than a vision, an ideal. That shouldn’t stop us from trying, and examining questions like these is a good place to start. Thanks!

  6. Brother Greg, Thank you for this excellent article. I have been in the Cof N for over 50 years now. I was reared in the baptist church: however as I am certain u know that the term baptist is as wide in scope as pentecostal. There are many different kinds of baptist. Mine was Freewill Baptist – a group of arminian folk but through the years I have had to explain that I never adhered to eternal security or opposed women ministers. I still have good memories of women messengers in this denomination. Other points are well taken and edifying.
    In His Great Name,
    Jerry C.

    • Thanks, Jerry, for the excellent clarification. In fact, we’ve had good fellowship across the years with all kinds of Baptists, including Freewill Baptists. I was not aware that you accepted women in ordained ministry, but am glad to discover this.

      God’s best to you,

      Greg

  7. Thank you for this excellent post. It helps me (a United Methodist) understand some of the deep commonalities and differences in our tribes. We get some Baptist impulses among UM folks, too.

    One of your comment writers mentioned the value of remembering the experience of Baptism. I find that to be a more common refrain. Baptism becomes an experience. Even among UM clergy there are some who argue for believer’s Baptism and I know of some who say the would re-baptize if someone wanted it.

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