A.J. from New Hampshire writes in with today’s question: “Hello Pastor John! While the disunity of the church in terms of its denominations is — in my mind — one of the most tragic and devastating developments in church history, the fact is that a plethora of denominations now exist in the world in general, and in the U.S. in particular, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. In light of this reality, would you please share how and why you decided to be baptist?”
Before I say a word about why I am a baptist, let me go ahead and respond to a little bit of what he said about the divisions in the church, because that is painful and it is real, and we all need to have a way to think about it — and they do relate to each other.
“The Bible teaches that disagreements and their resulting divisions are lamentable and inevitable in this world.”
Divisions, some behavioral, some doctrinal, have been there in the church from the beginning. Paul addresses this most explicitly, it seems, in 1 Corinthians. He says, “I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:18–19). What we hear in that sentence, it seems to me — and in the whole New Testament for that matter — is that disagreements and their resulting divisions are lamentable and inevitable in this world owing, as best as I can see, to sin, finiteness, cultural diversity, personality differences, and so on.
You can hear the lament in 1 Corinthians 1:10 where Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” And you hear the inevitability of it in the text that I already mentioned, namely, 1 Corinthians 11:19, “There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
So, it seems to me that all of us who are Christians need to decide how we will do our part to minimize the lamentable divisions and not be paralyzed or utopian in our view of the inevitability of divisions until Jesus comes back. It seems to me that top-down efforts at global unity inevitably lay claim to powers that belong only to Jesus. And I think you can see that in the Roman Catholic Church.
When I look for guidance in the New Testament about how to minimize lamentable divisions, what I find is not an emphasis on institutional structures claiming to give a unified public front to hundreds of subgroups like macro-ecumenical organizations. Rather, what I find is a repeated effort to overcome pride and selfishness and vainglory, and to work for a common mindset of doing good to others, even when you are at odds with each other for some reason. And the best example I know of this is found in Philippians 2:2–4. Watch, now, how Paul moves from a call to one-mindedness to a call for humility and service. Here is the way it goes:
“Christians need to decide how to minimize lamentable divisions and not be paralyzed by or utopian about them.”
Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
We can’t control unity of belief. But we can give ourselves to serve each other in love. You can’t force unity of belief because beliefs are not mere actions of the will, but deep delights of the heart. So, the only way ultimately to pursue unity of belief is to speak the truth in love. Unity that’s not based on truth is just not biblical unity. And speaking that truth must happen in love, if we hope to make any progress in unity.
What I think all that means for each of us is that we search the Scriptures, try to discern what we see to be true, and give ourselves to the communities of faith that share that truth. Then we seek in love and service to maintain the unity of those communities in lowliness and humility and kindness and meekness and gentleness and forbearance and forgiveness, and we do our best to love those in other communities so that the world will see our love, not just our disagreements.
Now, the reason I am a baptist is, first, very simply, because I grew up in a baptist home. But then, with every stage of my education — first Wheaton, then Fuller Seminary, then the University of Munich in Germany, where I was the only baptist that I knew of in the entire theological faculty there — at every stage, the challenges to my baptist commitments became more and more intense.
So, I had to test my inherited convictions by Scriptures over and over again during those ten years especially of higher education. And to this day, I have not been able to be persuaded that baptizing infants is warranted by the New Testament. That is the main reason that I am a baptist. I don’t believe in infant baptism. Now, this is probably not the place to go into any exegetical defense of that, but I am willing to if we want to do it in another podcast.
The point here should probably simply be that, for me, to be a gospel-believing, Bible-guided Christian is foremost. Second in priority is to embrace the gospel-embodying, gospel-protecting, Bible-rooted, joy-sustaining, God-glorifying doctrines of grace. And only third I would say are my baptist convictions. That enables me, then, to have a good bit of fellowship outside my own denominational connections. And I hope that, through my writings and speaking, the truth of Scripture is being promulgated in the world in such a way that more and more people are brought closer and closer to the central truths and, therefore, to each other.