September 24, 2013

Church Planters and Baptism: Alright!

You are young, you run green, with your teeth nice and clean, see your friends, see the sights, feel alright (Supergrass)

So you have decided to plant a church. And guess what? It feels alright!  It’s gonna be fun, right?  It’s gonna be with a bunch of your friends who would die on the hill with you, right?  You’re gonna be on a mission together, that much is taken for granted.  You are gonna start meeting as a Missional Community church, but you’re no ideologue. If in the future you need to start meeting in a building as a weekly gathering you have no problem with that.  And neither does your core team. You’ve decided to go on mission together and build that boat as you sail it.  And so what if a few planks are missing in the hull, it’s still sea-worthy right? After all you’ve got the upper decks looking fantastic, the website is a great shop-front-window to your ministry and you’re pretty much going in the right direction.  Feel’s alright, doesn’t it?

What’s more, you’re sailing in the direction of mission.  Away with all of the minor issues such as what time we meet, what day to meet, whether it’s a stage, rows of chairs or semi-circle.  Don’t get too hung up on the peripherals, because it is actually all about mission. And forget about the denominational tags. In the post-Christendom, post-institutional milieu will the people you are trying to reach even care?  You’re a Baptist, your other main couple are Anglican (he’s gonna make a great Associate one day), and there is a smattering of independents, young restless reformed etc etc.  It’s amazing to all be on the same page theologically isn’t it? Yeah? Alright!

You are on the same page theologically, right?  You know what I mean, the big stuff! It’s usually the stuff that the mainline churches are dumping at a rate of knots – the Trinity, the deity of Christ, real actual resurrection, sexuality and ethics, sovereignty of God, authority of the Bible, necessity of salvation by Christ alone – all the sola stuff and the stuff that it touches on.   All the reasons your plant will experience gospel growth whilst that lot continues to wither on the vine. You know that if your core group doesn’t have that stuff locked away you aren’t even getting out of the harbour.  It does, so now to get on with mission! Alright!

For your first Bible talk to your core group you preach on the classic mission text – Jesus’ announcement of his authority and his sending of his disciples, Matthew 28:18ff:

 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 And there, in that first talk, are the seeds of your first serious theological disagreement – perhaps even a parting of ways. Surely not! No?  Well, you may not see it at first.  You may not have to see it – at first.  But if you take your theology as seriously as you do, it will have to be something that you address early on. And it centres on that little word “baptising”.

Now, I will confess that the situation as far as the gospel is concerned in Australia is so dire, that baptism, and who does it and to who, is not front and centre in any church planter’s mind.  But when we realise just how front and centre it is in Jesus’ mind when he makes that statement, it should at least make us stop and think.  Jesus put baptism right up there with making disciples, in fact he conflates the two matters.  And if it is important to Jesus it has to be important to us.

Now why did I have to go and spoil the church planters’ party by bringing up the issue of baptism?  Well in recent weeks, the matter has raised its head a number of times in a number of settings, and it has set me thinking.  It also springs out of my own experience almost 20 years ago.  At that time I was being considered for a pastoral role in a church that practiced a different theology of baptism than the one I held – and still hold (which is the right one eh? – Ed). The role would not have entailed me having to baptise anyone, and it would have linked me up with a well-regarded church planter in a well-resourced church.  Things were looking good. Things were looking like I might have a chance of getting the gig.  And then….and then.  At the time the “and then” seemed devastating and pernickety, but in hindsight I am so glad it came, and even more glad that it came when it did.  So what was the “and then?”  It was a member of the denomination’s leadership team quizzing me hard on the issue of baptism.  It ended up being a requirement that I sign up to their position.  I struggled with it for weeks. A month.  But in the end, after quite a rollercoaster ride, and a few tears, I said “no” to the position on the basis that to sign up would go against my conscience – even though I would never have to baptise anyone ever in that church’s setting in the role on offer. I was a bit dark on it for a while, but gradually came around to see the wisdom of the person who called me on it.

Later a wise older friend reminded me that it wasn’t the abstract theological issue that was at stake, but rather the on-the-ground practical matter when someone came to me about baptism, and presented me with not just a theological question, but a practical request.  In other words, what seems unlikely and completely remote at the start of my role, would become more and more likely as I – quite possibly – took on a greater role over time, and moved into a position where my conviction could clash with my practice (not a good place to be).

It is difficult, impossible even, to back-engineer something like baptism in a church plant without ruffling serious feathers and causing a deal of angst.  Look at the core team in the church plant I described.  Baptists, Anglicans, big “R” Reformed, small “r” reformed.  If you are young enough and desperate enough to want the gospel to get some traction in your neck of the woods you are going to be a band of brothers and sisters to get the gospel out there – regardless of the so-called adiaphora – the stuff that doesn’t matter.  But should you grow by both conversion and transfer growth then the question of baptism will come up. It has to come up if you take your theology seriously – and your ecclesiology seriously, which I assume you do.  In fact, you have to take baptism seriously if you take the Bible seriously.  In fact, in the greatest of ironies, it is those who take the Bible seriously who are most likely to be confronted with the problem of being unable to work together at a local church level. If you are a Baptist and you believe that your view of baptism is biblical then you will be a great friend of a Presbyterian who believes that their view of baptism is biblical.  A great friend, but not a great work colleague in a church (or at least at a leadership/eldership level where the decisions on such matters are made).

It’s obvious that the Presbyterian view of baptism and the Baptist view of baptism are incompatible with each other isn’t it?  I mean, surely a Pressie has determined that the Bible teaches that baptism is the new circumcision for the covenant people. And surely a Baptist is convinced that the Bible  teaches that the new circumcision is circumcision of the heart and that credo baptism is the legitimate baptism? And surely the Anglicans believe…(no, really, please tell me, I’d love to know! – cheeky Ed).  I say “surely” because as a church planting team on mission you are going to have to do baptism because it is an integral part of that mission.   And a leadership team that is not consistent on baptism will end up being either pragmatic without principle, simply baptising anyone any which way depending on who turns up and asks, or so scared of baptismal differences that it will fall off the radar altogether, which, given what Jesus says in Matthew 28, isn’t an option.

I know I sound like the party-pooper. I mean, why can’t we just go out and plant churches, right?  Well, you can.  And you can plant churches and join networks of church planters who all hold the central truths of the gospel in common.  But, if your theological convictions are to mean anything at all, you need to think long and hard about who you team up with on the ecclesiological issues that, when you are young and green, seem so minor and so irritating, but could ( if your ship really gets sailing) see your leadership and pastoral team crash on the rocks. In other words, it won’t be an important issue until it is. Alright?

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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