All Wet...

Henderson Hills Baptist Church is notorious for many reasons, the most notable being that two years ago on Monday they served as the hosts to a pretty infamous wedding party: mine.

But more recently, the church is entrenched in a controversy regarding baptism and church membership. Several weeks ago, the elders of the church put a proposal before the congregation requesting a bylaws change. If approved, water baptism will no longer be a requirement for membership at Henderson Hills.

Although the elders presented the proposal, senior pastor Dennis Newkirk is taking the brunt of the criticism from local and national Southern Baptists. And if the old boxing rule "he who loses his cool first loses" holds true, the critics of Henderson Hills lost this debate in the first round. They're mad. In fact, the Baptist Messenger (The Oklahoma Southern Baptist's periodical) has dedicated an entire issue to a campaign against Henderson Hills' proposed bylaw change. Add that to some search-and-destroy missiles from the blogosphere and about all that's left is vulture food.

Both arguments are arguments from silence. The Scripture doesn't explicitly link or separate water baptism and local church membership. The Southern Baptists argue that church history has linked baptism and membership from the days of the Church Fathers. True, but the church has linked a lot of other things throughout history that we're not so proud of. In fact, if we want to go there, for a good part of church history, a person was baptized in a corner room of the church so that they could be baptized completely nude. They weren't dunked backwards, but went straight down into the water with the pastor's hands on their head. If we want to point to church history to validate our arguments, let's go whole hog.

History - even hundreds of years of history is not a source of Truth. Yes, we should tread softly when it comes to rethinking ideas that have been held for hundreds of years, but the argument "we've always done it this way," does not carry water. We have to deal with the Text, and if we can't prove a belief from the Text, we must tread even more softly.

Where Scripture is silent, we have the freedom to act wisely. When we encounter an issue for which there is not an explicit principle or command in Scripture, it is perfectly acceptable to make decisions using the wisdom God gave us. That's why we have wisdom in the first place.

But when we make wise decisions about issues not covered by a principle or command in Scripture and then apply those decisions as laws for others to follow, we start to opperate in sketchy territory. In fact, over the years we've developed a term for that kind of behavior: legalism. Remember the Pharisees? They were well-meaning guys who wanted to be so Scripturally accurate that they started making their applications of the Law into laws themselves.

Now, don't miss my point... the Pharisees of Jesus' day missed God altogether. I'm not saying the critics of Henderson Hills are the same way. What I am saying is that it's entirely possible to become so convinced of our extra-biblical decisions that we impose them on everyone else. Although we don't have Jesus' words on baptism and local church membership, we do have His words on making our own decisions into laws for others, and it isn't pretty.

Should local churches require new believers to be baptized by immersion prior to being accepted as members of the local church? Scripture doesn't say.

I, for one, find it hard to believe that we should require more to be a member of the local church than God requires for membership in the Universal Church. I find it hard to believe that the physically handicapped or gravely ill should not be allowed to be members of the local church. I find it hard to believe that we would refuse membership to an immature Christian who believes that his "sprinkling" identified him with the death and resurrection of Christ just as my immersion did, although we'll let immature believers with other nasty habits and beliefs in... so long as they've been baptized. That doesn't make sense to me.

But, if your local church wants to make water baptism a membership requirement, I think Scripture gives you that freedom. If your church wants to make the completion of a membership training class a requirement for membership, go for it. If you want to catechize new believers before you admit them to membership, more power to you. But don't throw rocks at the first church who disagrees with you.

I grew up Southern Baptist, and served on the staff of a Southern Baptist Church for several years. I'm proud of my heritage as a Southern Baptist - a denomination who has been on the right side of theological issues more often than it's been wrong. But it has been wrong before. And if the SBC, on the local, state, or national level, decides to remove Henderson Hills from its fellowship for making a decision on an issue not explicitly covered in Scripture, it will be the wrong decision.

There are many theological issues and interpretations worth dividing over. An issue that has no basis in Scripture, either positively or negatively is not one of them.