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Lent is for All Christians

The February edition of Baptists Today contained a letter to the editor expressing one Baptist’s opinion of ecumenical catholicity. In his words, BT “really opened a serious can of worms” in its December issue by running an article suggesting that Baptists could stand to be a bit less legalistic when it comes to receiving new members who were first discipled in other Christian denominations that practiced infant baptism. In the words of this letter-writer,

It is quite ironic that on the 400th anniversary of Baptists, one of their major publications should give space to attacks on believer’s baptism. With the December issue, the traditional definition of a Baptist church, “a body of baptized believers,” goes out the window.

It is also quite ironic that, in making this charge, this brother is found to accuse (among others) John Bunyan, one of the biggest names in Baptist history, of betraying the “traditional definition of a Baptist church”—for Bunyan was an advocate of the same policy of “open membership” that the offending article proposed nearly 400 years ago! In fact, if the letter-writer had acquainted himself with George R. Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament—an exegetical tour de force by a Baptist scholar of impeccable academic and ecclesiastical credentials—he would have known that receiving Methodist, Catholic, etc. members without requiring re-baptism has in fact long been the majority opinion among British Baptists. That doesn’t mean that “open membership” is the correct policy for Baptist churches to embrace (although I think it is), but it does mean that some Baptists have thought so since the 1600s, and in some parts of the world the majority of Baptists still do today.

On this Shrove Tuesday, however, I mostly want to discuss the second part of the letter. After some rather condescending remarks about Christians in other denominations, the writer continues:

Also, not content to wreak so much havoc in one area, this same issue of Baptists Today tries to justify the liturgical ceremonialism and the papist trappings that our predecessors in the faith rejected and condemned.

The writer has a problem with liturgical ceremonialism. So do I when it gets in the way of an authentic relationship with God. The thing is: everybody has a liturgy and a ceremony! Growing up, there were certain phrases that I knew were going to be a part of any prayer that certain people prayed—even though they were all ostensibly praying extemporaneously! “Father we just want to….” “Lead, guide, and direct….” “Bless the giver and the gift….” You get the idea. We all get into ruts. That’s as true for the preacher or deacon in the sport coat as it is the one in the Geneva gown or the alb. Perhaps a new pastor at this writer’s church will some day suggest fiddling around the the order of service they’ve used for the past fifty years and we’ll see how much ceremonialism he’s willing to justify.

As to the “papist trappings” (do people still use the word “papist”?), I have pointed out in my old series on Ancient Christian Worship that many of the specific customs that apparently offend the writer go back to pre-Constantinian times. So do many customs that I have never seen or even heard of being practiced in any Baptist church—the sign of the cross, remembrances of departed saints, daily Communion, etc. (Okay, I make the sign of the cross when I receive Communion, but I don’t think anybody else does.)

The writer is of course correct that historically Baptists have rejected or even condemned these practices. But where do you draw the line? The Charleston tradition of Baptist worship featured clerical gowns, a structured order of service, responsive readings, and so forth. It was far more “liturgical” or “ceremonial” than the evangelical fervor of the Sandy Creek tradition. The New Testament itself indicates the first Christians continued to follow certain liturgical ceremonies they learned from their Jewish heritage: chanting the psalms, set hours of prayer, set prayer forms (such as the Lord’s Prayer), etc. Once you concede that God might in fact be honored by people putting some forethought into worshiping well, you open the door to at least considering the possibility that some customs of the greater church might be worth reclaiming. Just because some people might do them emptily doesn’t mean we can’t try to do them right.

It seems that some Baptists no longer identify Lent as the useless self-mortification and works (autosoterism) that it is. Most Baptists have stood for “faith alone” and rejected such ascetic practices as fasting, meatless Fridays, cutting tonsures in the hair, clerical garb, flagellations, and acts of penance as being the outward show of Pharisees.

When I was young, I did in fact identify Lent as “useless self-mortification and works.” Of course, that was before I knew anything about it! Since then, I have had the opportunity to read the Bible, where I learned that fasting was a common practice in both Testaments, and that it happened sometimes privately and individually and sometimes corporately as part of a group. (The members of the leadership group at Antioch were fasting together when God instructed them to set aside Paul and Barnabas for missionary work.) I also learned—and I admit I learned this as much from personal experience as from biblical study—that I’m not especially good at being holy or resisting temptation, so it would probably be a good idea for me to give special attention to these areas from time to time.

Like all Baptists (at least all the ones I know), I believe that a person’s standing before God is a matter of grace. I categorically reject the idea that anything I can do can make God love or accept me any more or less than he already does. But I also have a theology that is bigger than the “plan of salvation.” God loves me just the way I am, but he loves me too much to let me stay this way. Therefore, it is appropriate for me to search both Scripture and the witness of Christians who came before me for wisdom that will help me grow in my discipleship. Since I am firmly rooted in the “Free Church” tradition, I consider myself free to embrace whatever helps me keep my focus on Jesus, be it fasting (Mt 6:16-18; Acts 13:3), meatless Fridays (a subset of fasting), meaningful haircuts (Acts 18:18), symbolic clothing (Rev 4:4), or appropriate acts of restitution or penance (Mt 5:23-26; Jas 5:16). (I can’t find a biblical justification for flagellation, nor do I want to go looking for one. But seriously, has this person ever observed Baptist Christians literally whipping themselves in their religious fervor?)

He concludes,

I am Baptist. If I needed ritualism or if I thought God enjoyed seeing people lighting candles (magical vehicles for sending up prayers through sacrificial flames), I would join some faith tradition that features such religious frippery.

I am also a Baptist. I don’t need ritualism in the sense that I need more than the grace of God, but as a card-carrying member of the human race, I do need religious forms of some kind—that is a fact of anthropology and sociology.  I can’t get away from them, so I had better admit that fact and get on with choosing good ones. I doubt God cares one way or another about whether people light candles, but I know he likes the prayers that accompany them. And I do know (because I’ve read Exodus and Revelation) that God loves symbolic acts of worship.

Therefore, tomorrow night I’ll join with the other members of my Baptist church in receiving ashes on my forehead as a reminder of my humanity, my mortality, and my desperate need for more of Christ, his teachings, and his grace.


4 Comments

  1. SingingOwl says:

    That second to last paragraph was EXCELLENT! Maybe I think that because (except for the “I am a Baptist” part, which only works if once-a-Baptist-always-a-Baptist is true) I feel just the same. I wish I could celebrate Ash Wednesday at your church. I’m thinking of finding someplace around here to visit tomorrow night. Maybe the Lutherans…

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  2. “Once a Baptist always a Baptist”? I wouldn’t wish that on anybody!

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  3. [...] observing the 40 days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, today.  Here is one such article by Darrell Pursiful, and another by Beth Felker Jones.  But I wanted to explain my own journey to the common Western [...]

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  4. It’s not true that open communion is the dominant British Baptist tradition–at least, not until recently. It has, however, been a larger minority than in North America, dating, as you say, back to Bunyan. Remember, though, that, at the time, Bunyan’s fellow Baptists, especially the Calvinistic Particular Baptists (of which Bunyan was one), were furious at him for this. He was denounced so often that he wrote his tract, “Water Baptism, No Bar to Communion” in response. It was more than a century, however, before Bunyan’s views on this began to spread very far among British Baptists–and they spread first among the Arminian General Baptists.

    Otherwise, I think you’re spot-on.

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