Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
This is the third and final message of this little series on baptism and church membership. It arose out of a desire to help us forward in resolving the issue of how church membership relates to those whose biblically informed conscience leads to a different conclusion than the one I came to last week.
Baptism and Membership in Tension
Last week I tried to show from Scripture that baptism is the immersion of a believer in water, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, which expresses the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection to newness of life. But there are many godly, Bible-believing, Christ-exalting Christians who come to a different conclusion when they study the Bible, namely, that the children of Christians should receive the sign of covenant membership and then confirm that covenant membership later by their own faith, or be lost.
The week before that I tried to make the case that the local church is also hugely important in God’s eyes, as is the ordinance of baptism. The local church is the visible expression of the universal church. To be excluded from membership in the local church is extremely serious.
These two biblical truths create a tension that, for the last five years or so, the elders have pondered: How can baptism and church membership both be honored in a way that retains the biblical importance of each?
Where We Are As a Church
Practically the question becomes: If the elders interview a person for membership whose understanding of baptism is wrong, and everything else about that person’s life and faith points to their being truly born again, can any exceptions be made to the membership requirement that a person be baptized?
For some of us, that would compromise the New Testament command for baptism and endorse disobedience. For others of us, excluding a genuine born-again believer from membership in the local church compromises the New Testament meaning of the church as an expression of the universal body of Christ.
That’s where we are as a church on this issue. I’ve tried to say the two sides fairly. It might help to see the issue a little more clearly if we say a few more things about how doctrine and practice relate to membership now.
How Doctrine and Practice Relate to Membership Now
One of the assumptions that we have as elders is that requirements for being an elder are doctrinally very high and requirements for membership are not high. The reason they are not high is that membership should happen soon after one is seen to be a believer. When you are born again, you are born into a family, and you should live in that family even though you may be a baby in the doctrines and life of the church. First Corinthians and Hebrews speak about church people still being babes when they ought to be mature (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Hebrews 5:11-14).
So we assume that being a church member means people will have many mistaken ideas about many things. And there are mistaken practices that go with mistaken ideas. For example, we are committed as an eldership to believing and teaching the vision of manhood and womanhood called complementarianism: Men should be loving and strong and caring and protecting and providing and Christ-like leaders in their marriages and families, and men should be the servant-leaders who bear the responsibility of eldership in the local church. But you don’t have to be a complementarian to be a member of this church. And that means there will be members who not only get their beliefs wrong about manhood and womanhood, but also their behavior. We don’t see our job as elders to be to exclude all misunderstandings and misbehaviors from the church, but to teach and lead and pray and work toward growth.
Can You Be Wrong on Baptism?
You don’t have to believe in unconditional election, or total depravity, or irresistible grace, or the definite atonement of Christ, or the perseverance of the saints, or the absolute sovereignty of God in his providence in all the events of the universe, in order to be a member of this church, even though the elders believe all those things are very important and will teach and lead in such a way as to help you see them in the Bible.
So you see where this leads us: As a member of this church, you can be wrong on election, wrong on the power of sin, wrong on the extent of atonement, wrong on the power of grace, wrong on perseverance, and wrong on the sovereignty of God—but you can’t be wrong on baptism. Perhaps that’s the way it should be because of the uniqueness of baptism in its one-time, unrepeatable dramatization of Christian conversion. Or perhaps there should be membership not just for those who don’t fully understand and follow the doctrines of grace, but also for those who don’t fully understand and follow the doctrine of baptism.
Something Much Bigger
So that’s where we are. And I have a few minutes left in this message to speak to that ongoing disagreement among us. What would you say if you could preach the rest of this message? I have sought the Lord very earnestly about this, and the more I have thought about it, the more it has seemed to be part of a much bigger picture, a much bigger challenge for our church.
It seems to me that what leaders should do at a point like this is step back and try to get the big picture of life at Bethlehem, and with God’s help work on this issue not directly but indirectly by cultivating a process of life together out of which, in ways we can’t now imagine, perhaps, wisdom will arise and united conviction will happen. And when I say cultivate a process of life, I don’t mean a small procedure focused simply on this issue of baptism and church membership. I mean something much bigger. I mean the cultivation of a kind of relational culture at Bethlehem, that is more intentionally and radically servant-like, other-oriented, thoughtful, outgoing, humble, thankful, aggressively concerned and caring, moving into the lives of others rather than moving away from them, committed to the hard work and sweet rewards of loving other people in the church.
In other words, discerning the wisdom of how to relate baptism and church membership is part of something larger, namely, being a certain kind of people, having a certain relational culture. The wisdom to live well in moving toward resolution of this issue is part of living well in relation to each other in general. Becoming a wise, insightful, discerning people happens as Christ forms a certain kind of spirit or atmosphere or dynamic or culture among us.
“In All Wisdom”
So let me show you where I get this idea from in the Bible and what that church culture looks like, at least in part, and how we might move toward it more aggressively. I see this in Colossians 3. Let’s start with verse 16 and pinpoint the phrase that drew me first to this passage. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom . . .” It’s the phrase “in all wisdom” that drew my attention. At the immediate level that’s what we need as a church. We have a difficult issue to resolve and we need wisdom.
Solomon Asks for Wisdom
Wisdom is the insight to see through very difficult practical issues to a solution that very few can think of. The most graphic illustration in the Bible is in 1 Kings. When Solomon became king after his father David, God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “Give your servant . . . an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:9).
Then 1 Kings 3:10 says, “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.” And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:11-12).
Immediately two prostitutes arrive with one baby. Both had given birth, but one had rolled over on her baby and smothered it. She took the live baby from the other prostitute and left the dead baby with her. In the morning, the mother of the live baby discovered what had happened. Somehow they got access to the king and said: Solve this dispute.
God Gives Wisdom
At this point, Solomon might have despaired and said, “How in the world do you expect me to know this with any certainty. I wasn’t there. There are no witnesses. I can’t do it.” But he had prayed for divine wisdom. So he said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king. And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other” (1 Kings 3:24-26). But before it could happen, the true mother said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death” (1 Kings 3:26).
Then Solomon said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother” (1 Kings 3:27). That’s wisdom. That’s what we need for this issue and many issues like it in our personal lives. No apparent solution that we can see. But God has one.
Wisdom: Forged in the Fires of Community
Now it would be a wrong conclusion to say that all we need in order to get wisdom is a solitary life of serious prayer. Just us and God and prayer. Wisdom in the New Testament does not ordinarily come like that. Listen to these verses from James 3:13-15:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above.
Wisdom is marked by meekness, and freedom from selfish ambition, and freedom from bitter jealousy, and freedom from boasting. In other words, wisdom rises in relationships of meekness and humility and love and servanthood rather than jealousy and selfishness. Wisdom is not a solitary attainment. It is a community or a corporate or a relational attainment. Loners are not wise. Wisdom is given and found and forged in the fires of committed relationships.
The Relational Culture Where Wisdom Flourishes
So when we turn back to Colossians 3, we just have time to point to what this would look like at Bethlehem. Verse 16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” What is the relational culture where wisdom flourishes? What do the surrounding verses describe?
1. A Culture of Peace
Verse 15 says it will be a relational culture of peace. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” This is a peace rooted in the gospel. You can see that at the end of verse 13: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Christ’s forgiveness because of his death for us is the basis of our ability to forgive and live in peace.
2. A Culture of Thankfulness
At the end of verse 15, Paul says this relational culture will be marked by thankfulness. “And be thankful.” O what a spirit is felt in a family and a church when the predominant note struck is thankfulness. Thankfulness is the opposite of grumbling, and Paul says in Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling.” Wisdom will rise in an atmosphere of pervasive, humble thankfulness.
3. A Culture Rich with the Gospel
Verse 16 says that the relational culture will be rich with the word of Christ. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Everywhere you turn people will be speaking the words of Christ, not just their own words. Wisdom will rise there, because Colossians 2:3 says, “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
4. A Culture of Teaching and Admonishing
In the middle of verse 16, it says that this relational culture will be pervaded by “teaching and admonishing one another.” The people will not just be together in worship services but in small settings where they speak the word of Christ into each other’s lives. They teach and admonish each other.
5. A Happy Culture
At the end of verse 16, it says that this relational culture is marked by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” It is a predominantly happy culture. Singing is not merely a duty done because you are supposed to; it is “with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The songs are coming from the heart. They are coming in grateful response to God’s grace. They are rising to God. The relational culture that gives rise to wisdom is a culture that sings from the heart.
6. A Culture Pervasively Conscious of Jesus
Finally, verse 17 says that this relational culture that gives rise to wisdom is pervasively conscious of Jesus, leaning on him and making much of him. That’s what I think verse 17 means: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Do everything—word or deed—in the name of the Lord Jesus. That’s what I mean by pervasively conscious of the Lord Jesus. Where Jesus pervades our talk and our deeds, his wisdom will rise.
Pray for Us
When I come back from vacation and we launch our small groups, there will be more to say about an aggressive pursuit of this kind of relational culture. For now, I would ask you to pray for me. I mean this with all my heart. I ask myself often: Can I lead the church in this? If we don’t have it as much as we should after twenty-eight years of my leadership, is there any reason to think that we might get some breakthroughs in the last seven or eight years of my leadership?
Would you pray for me and for the pastoral staff and for all the elders? And for the small group leaders and for the hundreds of members that are not in small groups where this kind of relational culture can be nurtured? For the first time, we as a pastoral staff are committed as part of our job to being in small groups with each other. One of the reasons for doing this is to set an example for the flock. We pray that from this higher-level commitment of applying the word of Jesus to each other’s personal lives, the same relational culture will flow out to the church.