Category: Anabaptism

Body life #1 : Baptism is entry into a new people

This is the first in a series of six articles first published in Oikos. They are a simplification of John Yoder’s Body Politics Simplified – this time with a specifically house church audience in mind.

Our life together as a church is an important part of the good news we announce to people. This good news is much easier to find in a house-church structure than an institutional church. In each issue of Oikos, I will be discussing one of five important practices we find in the New Testament which mark the church as God’s people, living in the kingdom now.  Baptism is the obvious starting point, because it is the practice which brings us together into one body. To follow are the Lord’s Supper, the giftedness of every believer, the open meeting and discipling /discerning.

Baptism brings together different types of people

In house churches, we are well set up to make baptism what God meant it to be! 

For the early church, baptism had a social meaning. It meant entry into a new people – the church. Belonging to this new people gave the believers a new identity stronger than race or family. Different types of people who were once hostile to each other were brought into the same family. In Galatians 3:27-28, Paul puts it like this:

Baptized in Christ, you are clothed in Christ, and there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul says similar things in Ephesians 2:14-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. The point is that Christ has broken down the divisions between people. There is a new creation and we enter it through baptism. The ritual of baptism highlights the contrast between a believer’s old identity as part of an ethnic group and his or her new identity in Christ as part of the body of believers. Before baptism, we might have thought of ourselves as foremost ‘Australians’; afterwards, we start thinking of ourselves foremost as ‘Christians’. Our first loyalty is no longer to our country or race but to Christ.

Mono-cultural churches

The idea didn’t start with Paul. John the Baptist was challenged by Jewish authorities for baptising everyone who came to him in repentance – unclean Jews, tax collectors, perhaps even Gentiles. He responded by saying that God makes daughters and sons of Abraham by faith (Matthew 3:5-10). Jesus said the same thing in John 8, and Paul in Galatians 3. You no longer have to be born a Jew to be a descendent of Abraham. Now, anyone can become a descendent of Abraham by believing in Christ.  The old divisions are overcome in a new people.

But many Christians lose sight of the way the church is meant to overcome divisions between people. Too often Christians encourage mono-cultural churches, designed to appeal to particular type of people. ‘It’s easier this way’, we think. ‘It’s more effective. It’s too difficult to bring together old and young or rich and poor or Lebanese immigrants and white Australians.’ And yet one of Paul’s missionary policies was to make Jews and Gentiles members of the same church, eating and worshipping together. Both sides criticised this policy. Many thought it was too hard; why go to the trouble? But Paul stands firm; it is part of the gospel!

We need to encourage diversity in our house churches by welcoming people from different backgrounds. It isn’t easy. It’s something the early church was always fighting about, this bringing together of Jews and Greeks. Sometimes it means giving up our precious customs, our sacred cows, our traditions; everything that is a stumbling block and a cause of division with our brothers and sisters. We might have to let people eat with their fingers at lunch. We might have to struggle to understand our brothers and sisters who don’t speak English very well. We might have to sing (with a smile) a hymn or chorus we can’t stand. We might find ourselves being friends with someone twice our age or half our age.

Sometimes we might feel like it’s not worth it – but it is; God tells us so! It is testimony to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It shows the kingdom breaking into a world divided along so many different lines.

Baptism is a commitment

Entry into the new people also means a commitment to the body, to its new way of life. This can be hard to see in an institutional church. Not so in a house church! When we are baptised, we should be committing ourselves to being accountable to each other. We are saying we want to follow Jesus and we want others in the church help us to do this. This can take a form of a baptismal pledge, something that dates back to the very early church.

Some practical steps

1. Encourage diversity in your house church. Be brave and invite along someone who doesn’t fit the mould. Celebrate difference in the church.

2. Explore baptism with your house church. This article is an adaptation of a longer chapter in Body Politics Simplified (from the book by John Yoder). You might want to read the full chapter for some more ideas about the social meanings of baptism.

3. Having talked about its meaning, you should look for an opportunity to put it into practice! Baptise anyone in the house church who hasn’t been baptised. Depending on how you want to do it, you might want to use the beach or a swimming pool or a tub. Conduct the baptism in terms of the social meaning of the believer’s new identity.

4. Be praying that this year a non-believer from a very different background joins your house-church family and that you have the chance to celebrate this with a baptism.

The baptist vision blog / meetings for a house church

James McClendon’s work is so important, and I feel ignorant for only having read some of it years ago summarily. I think his idea of a ‘baptist vision’ is good for Anabaptists, as it puts us in touch with our brothers and sisters in similar traditions like the Baptists (capital B!) and the Churches of Christ.

Recently, I got a great email from James Airey who wrote the baptist vision blog with his wife Lindsay.  Like the defunct Perth Anabaptist Fellowship, they were trying to live out (Ana)baptist theology in a house church context. They’ve written a series of discussions for small groups or house churches to use which introduce the baptist vision and ask what it might mean in people’s lives, including this great paragraph:

The best setting to read the Bible is in a small community that interprets and performs the story together in its own specific context of kingdom work, witness and worship. These diverse communities each believe that the risen Jesus is present with them [see Matthew 1:23; 18:20; 28:18-20]. This is the vital ‘link,’ what McClendon calls ‘this is that’—the Christ we know in worship is the very same Christ that lived, died and rose in the Story that we read in Scripture. Our community today is linked with this same Jesus and the original band of disciples back then! We find ourselves in a continuing narrative of an active living Lord who guides, convicts and comforts our community as we read together and make practical decisions for our unique life [this is called ‘discernment’…more on this key component of community later].

I hope people around the world can pick up these thirteen meeting plans and use them as a template for being one such small community.

Radio National program on Anabaptism and its expression in Australia

Back in June, Radio National featured a program on Anabaptism and interviewed several Anabaptists from Australia and New Zealand: 

 Encounter transcript

I think the speakers were eloquent and the presentation was good. I liked the emphasis on radical discipleship and that Jarrod got a chance to mention Peace Tree. I was disappointed, though, that the program didn’t emphasise the Anabaptist vision of church – which is the most important part for me.

I also note Chris Marshall’s comments on scripture, which sound a lot like what Ray Gingerich was saying on his visit – indeed, I wonder if this position is becoming ‘anbaptist orthodoxy’:

As well as the kind of ethical Christocentrism, a feeling that Jesus teaches us how to live, and we must take literally what he says, also there is the kind of hermeneutical Christocentrism which is that when we read the Bible, and we try to work out what in the Bible is still God’s word for today, because the Bible’s a very diverse document and has lots of violent bits in it, how do we decide how the Bible is relevant for today, that one of the key tests is it must be consistent with the way of Christ. So what we read in Scripture that is not consistent with the way of Christ, no longer has authority for today. What we read in any part of Scripture that is consistent with the way of Christ, continues to be God’s word for today.

What Chris says here is not going to win many friends for Anabaptism among Evangelicals. I’m ambivalent. I think he puts the case too strongly.  All scripture should function authoritatively in some way for Christians.  I think we have to wrestle with the parts that don’t seem consistent with Christ; God may still speak to us through them.

The Radical Middle

In two weeks time, Anabaptist speaker Ray Gingerich will be speaking at Network Vineyard Church. It’s in Swanbourne, quite close to where Nicole and I are living, and so this morning we visited it.

Reading on their website, a recent Vineyard book on the history of the movement is called The Radical Middle. It talks about how Vineyard is a ‘radical middle’ between evangelicals and pentecostals. They do this by having the sound biblical foundation of evangelicals and the empowerment of the Spirt often found in the pentecostals.

In the same way, some Anabaptists see themselves as a ‘radical middle’ between protestants and catholics. Anabaptists have a high view of the Bible and lay participation (taking it further than the protestant reformers) as well as a high view of the authority of the church (taking it in a different direction than catholics).

So perhaps Network Vineyard is an appropriate home for an Anabaptist speaker.

We were impressed by the church’s commitment to community, Bible and Spirit. Indeed, perhaps God is doing something with ex-PAFers and the Vineyard church. Brad and Marina have been reading Vineyard writer John Wimber’s work and are visiting the Canning Vale church today. Teresa and Jarrod visited Network last week.

We are seeking the Spirit; perhaps they are seeking something we can offer too.