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Lent for Baptists

Well said, Mr. Denison.

Why is Lent relevant for Baptists?

Three reasons for observing some form of Lenten practice suggest themselves, in ascending importance.

One: we need to live in community with the larger body of Christ. Since the vast majority of Christians practice some form of Lenten observance, joining them in some way is a good step toward solidarity of faith and ministry. This is also an important witness to others, answering Jesus’ prayer, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me” (John 17:23).

Two: we cannot fully appreciate Jesus’ resurrection unless we have experienced something of his sufferings. A fast of some sort is an appropriate means of spiritual identification with our Lord’s suffering for us.

Three: we need a period each year for intentional spiritual introspection and contemplation. John R. W. Stott said that he required an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year to be alone with his Lord. We need a time every year for spiritual renewal. Just as students need a Spring Break, so do souls. Lent is a wonderful season for such renewal: as the physical world is renewing itself, so should the spiritual.

Can a spiritual discipline practiced for more than 17 centuries by the vast majority of Christians be irrelevant for Baptist souls today?

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A Case for Catechesis

The New Testament, particularly the book of Acts, indicates that the usual procedure in the first century was for recent converts to Christianity to be baptized first and then instructed in the Christian faith. By the second century (i.e., the Didache), the procedure was largely reversed. Teaching came first, and then one was baptized.

Why the change? Alan Kreider suggests four possible reasons. The words are his; the headers are mine:

1. Because Old Habits Die Hard

Contemporaries did not discuss it, at least in writing, but one scholar, Joseph Lynch, has proposed several reasons. Lynch has observed that Christianity’s earliest converts were primarily Jews or god-fearers who already shared in the Jewish heritage of story, morality and world-view; the second-century converts, in contrast, were ex-pagans who needed a far-reaching programme of instruction and resocialisation.

2. Because Bad Theology Must Be Addressed

Lynch has also hypothesised that a longer catechetical process as a precondition for baptism was a result of the theological disputes which were present in the second century.

3. Because the Church Has Enemies

A third reason, which Lynch did not mention, had to do with the need, in an age of persecution, of screening out possible spies and informers.

4. Because Discipleship Costs

A final possible reason is that pastoral experience indicated that the teachings of Jesus, which the movement was committed to incarnating and practising, were sufficiently strenuous as to require a process of resocialisation on the part of all would-be converts, Jew or Gentile.

(Alan Kreider, “Baptism, Catechism, and the Eclipse of Jesus’ Teaching in Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 47/2 [Nov 1996] 318).

What reasons for diligence in instructing new converts seem most convincing to you? Does it make more sense to give these instructions before or after baptism? In what should this instruction consist?

I’m thinking of this schema in light of a couple of things. First, I’m teaching my Sunday school’s Lenten series this year. We’re looking at some of the early catechetical texts Kreider mentions in his paper and how they lay out some of the building blocks of discipleship. I expect that for most members of my class, reason #4 is the most personally relevant. We are mainly folks who have been in church a good long time, and still feeling the need to hear again Jesus’ call to follow him—and to hear some encouragement and guidance on the journey.

Second, somebody told my wife the other day that a young person, formerly a member of my church, had since joined a different Baptist church in town. This second church apparently required their new member to be rebaptized. I can’t think of an interpretation of this requirement that doesn’t sound like a grave insult to the spiritual validity of the church of which I am a member. I can only assume this church’s thinking process included healthy doses of reason #2. (Not that it’s never appropriate to give folks a heads-up about some of the more off-the-wall interpretations of Christianity that are going around—a certain faith community in Kansas springs violently to mind.)

I expect reason #1 may eventually encroach on the post-Christian American church as mainstream cultural mores and the values of Christ drift further away from each other. To be sure, even in my grandparents’ day the church (on its better days) had its hands full confronting racism, materialism, pride, greed, envy, and other besetting sins. Unless I’m mistaken, however, they didn’t have too much trouble with society itself applauding the sexualization of children, drug abuse, or the crippling inability to admit that there ought to be community standards of any kind.

As for reason #3, I expect this is on the minds of many Christians in countries and regions where Christianity is actively opposed. I won’t comment other than to suggest that—perhaps with a few particular and highly localized exceptions—any Christian in the USA who laments that they are being persecuted does a disservice to millions of their fellow believers around the world who know what real persecution looks like.

Points to make? Rocks to throw?

The Biblical Origins of Lent

Admirably explained by Michael Barber at The Sacred Page. I hope Michael understands that a growing number of Baptists thoroughly embrace the Lenten season. Readers may also want to read a brief rant on the subject I wrote about this time last year. Everything I wrote then still applies.

Attention Baptists: It’s Okay to Observe Lent. Really.

Unfamiliar Practices May Bring Unexpected Benefits to Churches

I have to chuckle at that headline, not because I don’t know there are tons of Baptists who won’t get within ten feet of Lent and barely know what to do with Communion, but because I remember when I was also deeply suspicious of anything even vaguely “liturgical.”

Introducing unfamiliar practices to church members can be challenging, but congregations often are far less resistant than expected, according to some pastors who have tried it.

“I think people are hungry for ritual, especially those who don’t come from a Christian tradition which has them,” said Sterling Severns, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. “Communion is the closest many Baptists come to ritual. But there’s something that is inside Scripture, a way that God uses ritual and rhythm to help people understand something about God’s nature.

“I think that instinct is also inside us, and we don’t know it,” said Severns, who introduced his congregation to Lent soon after he was called to the Richmond church. “And sometimes when we start sharing these rituals with individuals unfamiliar with them, it taps into something they didn’t even know they were hungry for. When we bring ritual to the rhythm of worship, it’s one of the things that bring us together.”

Lift up your hearts!

Ash Wednesday Links

Here are some comments from around the blogosphere about the Lenten season that has now arrived:

Ash Wednesday by Joshua Hearne reminds us that

As we prepare to journey with Jesus through the desert that leads to Golgotha, we must take time to prepare for what it will cost both us and our Lord. We know that Easter will follow shortly in the devastation of that fated day because Jesus has come to offer life more abundant and not even death and sin will prevail over him. But, we cannot see that day from here. So, we must take time to prepare for the journey.

Clean Week and the Start of Lent by Mark Olson. This year the Western and Eastern church calendars agree in placing Easter/Pascha on the same day, April 4. Here is a brief glimpse at how my Orthodox brothers and sisters are welcoming the Lenten season.

Lenten Memory by Amy Cannon. Amy observes,

While it’s nice to know that advertisers were not the ones who invented long holidays, it is particularly probable that no marketing agency would ever come up with Lent. For Easter (and Passion Week as a whole), the Church has historically taken a different route of preparation than starting up the celebrations early. Lent is preparatory for the remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection because of its contrast to that fact of utmost joy, rather than its continuity with it. Lent is meant to be privative, the fast before the feast, a reminder of why we need God’s intervention in the world in the person of Jesus.

Ash Wednesday Inspiration from The High Calling by Mark D. Roberts describes a Presbyterian’s pilgrimage toward Lent.

Ashes to Ashes: One Baptist’s Reason for Observing Lent by Michael Westmoreland-White does the same thing from a Baptist perspective.

Gospel in the Dirt by Beth Felker Jones ends with a Lenten challenge:

Dust is a public testimony to who we really are. It strips away our facades. When we leave the church and run into friends and neighbors, they find it hard to look away from the dust on our faces. The problem, though, is that most friends and neighbors don’t know the biblical referents the dust contains and so can’t see the witness to our true human condition that is written on our faces.

So we’ll have to do something to translate.

We’ll have to speak the truth of that dust, not only in the marks on our foreheads, but with our words and our bodies. Perhaps our dirty faces can be a little means of grace. Perhaps they can be a nudge from God, the push we need to live out the truth of repentance in our everyday lives. Perhaps they can prompt in us the courage to go public with the truth that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

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.

Upside-down and Backwards

I’ve safely arrived at the Committee on the Uniform Series meeting in Corpus Christi. Last night Michael Fink did a great presentation about learning and teaching in which he made an interesting point about how people see. The human retina actually perceives objects flipped on both a vertical axis (i.e., like the inverted image one sees in a mirror) and on a horizontal axis. In effect, the picture our eyes send to our brain is upside-down and backwards from the reality that actually exists in nature.

So why don’t we perceive that this is the case? It’s because our brains know how to unscramble the signal and turn everything back to the way it is supposed to be. Unless something goes terribly wrong, this works automatically and we don’t even know we’re doing it.

That is how physical sight works, but I (following Michael’s lead) am wondering about spiritual sight. Our ability to unscramble the data we pick up from the spiritual realm is not nearly as precise as the mechanism of sight that exists in our brains. That is why spiritual truths often still look upside-down and backwards to us. Jesus says the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and we say, “That can’t be.” Or he tells us that those who lose their lives will save them, and those who try to save their lives will lose them. We respond, “That doesn’t make sense.”

Maybe we can look at something like Lent as the equivalent of a spiritual eye exam, or perhaps trying on a pair of corrective lenses, to hone our spiritual sight and bring it into conformity with how things really are, not as we see them to be.