You in Your Small Corner - the elusive dream of evangelical unity

How baptism is a major obstacle to unity - an extract from the book You in Your Small Corner - the elusive dream of evangelical unity

There are few more significant challenges facing the church and churches of our day than that of pursuing meaningful unity.
The fact that Jesus prays for a unity which can be witnessed by a watching world in such a way as to endorse the credibility of the gospel (John 17.20-23) and the fact that Paul uses a verb which can be translated 'spare no effort' to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4.3), both point to a Christian responsibility which too many Christians too easily shirk.
It goes without saying that the quest for this unity is hampered because of the obstacles which arise from within the fellowship of God's people for all kinds of reasons. Church history is full of sad stories of Christians whose fellowship has been disrupted and churches which have ended up being divided both locally and on a wider level. Paul and Barnabas parted company at the start of the second missionary journey in Acts; George Whitefield and John Wesley separated during a time of amazing revival. Denominations have been torn apart by schism; congregations have been divided through internal conflict. The symptoms of the problem are plain to see, our great concern should be to know how to respond and where to find solutions.

Where and how to begin

As we face this painful aspect of Christian experience, we need to be realistic. We need to see our situation as it actually is - not in merely human terms, but in the light of what God has revealed in his Word. The Bible invariably provides us with a healthy dose of Christian realism!
There we are told that we should not be surprised that we experience such struggles in the church. Peter uses deliberately broad language when he says: 'Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering . . .' (1 Peter 4.12). The context of that statement takes us beyond the external trials of persecution the church was facing in Peter's day to the internal struggles which were tearing it apart. It is a simple matter of fact that so long as the church is in the world, there will always be something of the world in the church! As the world around us is fragmented and fragmenting, so those fracture lines intrude all too often into God's new society among his people.
We face the facts, but we do not do so with a spirit of resignation or despair. We may be in the world, but we are no longer of the world! There is a fundamental difference about the life of every true believer that allows him or her to face the struggles of life in a way that is unique. We have been born again of the Spirit of God. We have the God-given ability to not only face these difficulties, but through Jesus Christ to overcome them. Thus Peter urges his hearers to humble themselves before each other within the church and ultimately before God in heaven (1 Peter 5.1-7). That spirit of humility will go a million miles towards resolving many if not all of the disputes which disrupt true Christian fellowship.
There are many issues which have been the cause of division within the church. Some of them are petty and personal (but which have consequences on a much larger scale!). Others are serious and doctrinal. But in the last 350 years of church history, there has been one issue which has loomed larger than any other.

The big issue

Without question, the biggest issue to divide the churches of evangelical Christendom over almost four centuries has been that of baptism. The great debate over who ought to receive the sacrament and how it ought to be administered. Too often it has been the cause of bitter argument and even cruel persecution. The different views of baptism have well been parodied as 'the waters that divide'! It has been true in the past and sadly it continues to be true right down to the present. The church is faced with a major divisive issue which shows no signs of resolving itself.
The seriousness of this problem cannot be underplayed. David Wright has argued that our doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture falls at the first hurdle in the eyes of the watching world over the issue of baptism*. Whatever our personal stance on this question, the issues at stake in terms of the church's mission to the world are too great to allow us to walk by on the other side of the road!
Paul's' comment to the Ephesians that there is 'one baptism' (Ephesians 4.5) almost seems bizarre when we find churches and Christians who will stand almost four-square together on practically every area of biblical doctrine and yet (in some cases) refuse to share the Lord's Supper together because of radically differing interpretations of the sacrament of baptism. Something is wrong somewhere and the answer is not to smile piously and go on as though it didn't really matter.

Is there a way forward?

The route to resolving the problem by which one side sets out to convert the other very quickly proves to be a cul-de-sac, as the harder one side tries to persuade, the more vigorous their counterparts become in defence! Both sides end up more deeply entrenched than ever.
The route that opts for virtual separate existence is equally unsatisfactory because it leads to major constitutional and theological inconsistency when differing parties discover that they can actually have the sweetest of fellowship when they are on neutral turf! Such fellowship can only be sustained so long as no one asks the awkward questions.
It would seem that a more meaningful way forward is to explore an avenue which is currently being explored quite courageously by a growing number of churches from both sides of the baptismal divide. One which maintains the theological integrity of particular denominational groups and individual congregations while giving biblical latitude for Christians who come along to them, but do not necessarily share their views on the sacrament. The same kind of latitude can be shown in relationships with other churches which take a different view of the sacrament.
What this means in practice is that a local church or a church grouping will not fudge their understanding of the sacrament. (The Bible attaches too much importance to this doctrine to do that.) Instead, it will develop a robust and consistent theology of the sacrament which it will uphold and teach in its statement of faith and protect through those it appoints to lead and teach the church.
Surely it is possible to constitute belief and practice in the life of a church in such a way as to declare the church's position on baptism - safeguarding that position with a leadership committed to it by their own conviction - while allowing people to be members of the congregation in a way which acknowledges that a person's view on baptism does not determine their place in the kingdom of God. Following on from that, surely the wider reformed and evangelical theology in which the respective doctrines of baptism are set is strong enough to maintain fellowship within the bounds of what is 'of first importance' (1 Corinthians 15.3) while agreeing to differ on this particular of the faith. Baptismal integrity (of either hue) can be maintained at a congregational and denominational level without its becoming an obstacle to infra- and inter-church relationships.
In days when the massed ranks of unbelief are presenting a formidable threat to true Christianity in many parts of the world, it is time that those who love the truth in sincerity of heart came of age in their ability to handle their theology and look for more meaningful ways to stand together with those to whom we belong and stand against those who are the enemies of the cross.
A few short paragraphs will never solve such a problem, but perhaps they can remind the church as it stands on the threshold of a new millennium that the new challenges which are facing us from without must make us think in fresh ways about old challenges with which we have struggled for too long from within. The body of Christ and the future of his work on earth is bigger than the issue of the theology of baptism.
Some words from David Wright* in closing should help us to see our bearings for the way ahead: 'Just as the conviction that marriage is ordained of God for lifelong permanence fires the tenacity to work through, and even live with, discord and distress in one's marriage, so a belief in Scripture's infallibility never lets us off the hook of grappling not only with the problematic phenomenon of the text, but also with our puzzling failures to agree on what it teaches.'
May we never cease to pray and labour for a unity within the family of God that allows all who are truly members of his invisible church to be members also in its visible expression.

Mark Johnston

Adapted from You in Your Small Corner: The Elusive Dream of Evangelical Unity, recently published by Christian Focus, 1999 and reprinted with permission.

* D.F. Wright, 'Scripture and Evangelical Diversity' in 'A Pathway into Holy Scripture', P.E. Satterthwaite and D.F. Wright (eds), (Eerdmans; Grand Rapids) 1994 p.271.