Belonging and believing: Baptism and the People of God

978-1-426-71137-4Helen came 15 minutes early to Sunday night service. “Pastor,” she said, “I have to get saved!”

What was up with Helen?

This seventy-something Missourian certainly hadn’t stopped by my office on the spur of the moment. Her coming to Christ was like a pot on slow boil, and the “flame” had been two years of friendship from others in the women’s ministry group. In short, women in our church loved Helen to Jesus.

I thought about Helen when reading George Hunter III’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again (Kindle edition; Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2000, 2010). Hunter reports on John Finney’s 1992 study, examining how people come to faith in Christ. Finney discovered that most people today come to faith gradually, as they are folded into the life of the Christian community. Hunter calls this the “ongoing contagious life of the congregation” (location 795) in contrast to “special event preaching.” Summing up this philosophy, Finney uses just four words:

Belonging comes before believing.

Yet Finney’s and Hunter’s insight has implications not just for adult conversion but for how we bring up our children in Christian faith. The Anabaptist view dominates in North America, reversing the “belonging/believing” order to “believing/belonging.”  It reserves the waters of baptism (the sign of belonging) for children old enough to make a conscious decision about their faith. Practically, this means most children aren’t baptized until at least ten or older. It is an essentially individualistic view, where the person is seen as prior and superior to the group. (Contrast this with the dominant African ethos, which says: “I am because we are.”) Whether intentionally or not, does this give the message to our children: “You don’t really belong to the church until you believe”?

Surprisingly, many Nazarenes coming from a Baptist background do not realize that our DNA includes a strong strand of the Finney/Hunter “belonging before believing” idea. This is passed down to us from our Methodist heritage and the covenant theology espoused by John Wesley. A newborn child (as symbolized by infant baptism) is early folded into the loving community of faith. Later in childhood, he or she through careful Christian education, including catechism, comes to a personal understanding of saving faith. Just like circumcision “marked off ” the Jewish male as part of the faith community, so baptism “marks off” the male and female infant of Christian parents as belonging to the covenant New Testament People of God (Colossians 2:11-12). It announces to one and all:  “This child, through prevenient grace, belongs to the church, even before he or she believes.”

Hunter and Finney (location 797) contend that the postmodern mindset is much more receptive to the belonging/believing pattern than the dominant evangelical opposite. As Wesleyan people, are we not well-positioned to appropriate the best from both Evangelical and covenant traditions? We must continue to invite unbelieving adults to a place of personal conversion followed by baptism. Likewise, we encourage those bringing up their children in the Nazarene community of faith to present their infants for baptism. Baptism (like circumcision) is a one-time sign of initiation. Whether later as an adult or earlier as a little child, it’s an amazing thing to belong to the People of God. Let’s joyfully celebrate it!

UPDATE: There has been some excellent feedback to this piece over on Naznet.com. The “nub” of the debate is this: Does a Baptist -like ecclesiology really reverse the order from belonging/believing to believing/belonging? Not everyone accepts this premise.  Is it simplistic for me to call this ecclesiology “individualistic” and that represented by baptizing young children “corporate”? What do you think?

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Image credit: The Good Book Stall

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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”?

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