Baptism, conscience and catholicity

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This is part 2/3 engaging with Steve Kneale on conscience, baptism and membership

If you check back my original article, I was addressing a very specific point from  a previous article of Steve’s. In that article he’d argued that:

For many, the church ought to bend to the conscience of the individual. But that seems to mistake that the church is made up of individuals who also have a conscience on this issue. Why should it be that the Baptist conscience must bend to accommodate the paedobaptist one?

My previous article was focused specifically on this point that when we make membership decisions where someone has come from another church, then it isn’t just about the conscience of an individual versus the conscience of a local congregation. It’s the conscience of that congregation in the context of the mind of the wider church.

This means that whilst there are unique and specific issues about baptism which require a conversation in their own right, that the conversation also overlaps with a wider conversation about how we handle primary and secondary issues.  How do we decide what is primary v secondary and how do we regard to and relate to churches that disagree on such matters? 

We are talking about catholicity here -not about being members of the Roman Catholic Church or being Anglo-Catholics but as per the creeds, a belief that The Church is “catholic” -that there is an essential unity between believers everywhere. What that means is that before I’m a member of the local church, I’m a member of the worldwide and historical church.  The question then is “do I recognise someone as being a member of “The Church”? If so, then on what basis can I/should I refuse membership of the local church.   That’s the point of church discipline. It’s not that we disagree with someone so want to get rid of them from our church but don’t mind if another church picks them up. It’s that we want other churches to respect and participate in that discipline.

There are of course wisdom questions about whether it makes sense for someone to be a member of a specific local church or whether that will be unhelpful and disruptive both for them and for others but that’s a different question.

This brings us back to our question of sin. For example, some Christians believe strongly that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased. On Steve’s view of sin, presumably they would consider it sinful to speak in tongues or prophesy whilst Pentecostals and charismatics would consider it disobedient to hinder such things. An other example would be creationism. I believe in a literal 6 day creation. I know other people who believe God used the process of evolution over time.

In those cases, would we be compelled to remove someone from membership who disagrees with the church position? I suspect in most churches the answer would be no. It would be different if a person was willfully going about trying to win the church over to their position or interrupting a service to speak in tongues. The issue would be that they were seeking to disrupt and cause division.

I’m not convinced by Steve’s argument on what sin is which to my mind misses a category, that of simple disagreement on interpretation.

Now, in the examples above I suspect that we are likely to have lengthy conversations with someone about whether our church will be a place where they can happily serve and worship. I suspect they are going to find it hard and so will the rest of the church. They may find that they can serve more fruitfully elsewhere.

However, that is different to sending out a signal that we believe they are in some way not legitimately part of Christ’s church and that churches which disagree with us on those things are also not properly part of the body.

Once again, the question is “what am I signalling”?

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