Monday, September 15, 2008

Why did you leave the Baptist Church? (Part Two, B: Theological Differences)

In the last post I explained that the Baptists don't really have a system of doctrine that keeps them from holding to contradictory doctrines and leaves them at greater risk of doctrinal error. Their view of the church is the first example of this. In this post we will consider the doctrines of grace, their view of worship, and their doctrine of children. These two posts together sum up the primary doctrinal differences.

The Doctrines of Grace
This is often called Calvinism. It is also often explained using the five points, or TULIP. This is adequate, but is not sufficient, quite frankly. The Doctrines of Grace are really an acknowledgment that God reveals himself in Scripture to be about the business of glorifying himself, and that he is doing so, among other works, primarily through the work of redemption. In this work, God is sovereign. We, the objects of his wrath or mercy, are subject to his will, and as clay on the wheel are in no position to question his will as though he might make a mistake. This in no way calls into question the doctrine of God's love. For those who are objects of his mercy, no greater love is known than the love of God for his children. This is the uniformly held and confessed conviction of the leadership of the PCA and much of its membership.

These doctrines are warmly embraced in some corners of the SBC. But generally speaking they have been tolerated at best, and rejected for the most part. In fact, debate over these doctrines is the coming storm in the SBC. Leaders such as Ergun Caner at Liberty are calling Calvinism a cancer on the SBC that must be excised. Calvinists in the SBC, even under the best of circumstances, are suspect and typically not welcome. As a Calvinist, it was hard to miss the fact that they didn't want me. And frankly, having to argue over such basic and fundamental doctrinal truth took its toll on me as well. I began to long for a church that took these doctrines for their own and embraced them as biblical truth without suspicion. The PCA was one such denomination.

What a mess the evangelical church is in over the issue of worship. This should be much grieved by all of us. There are two basic approaches to worship. One is that we should worship according to the means taught in Scripture. The other is that we can worship however we want as long as Scripture doesn't forbid it.

Presbyterians hold to the first (or at least they have historically). Baptists hold to the second. The result is that a historically rooted Presbyterian worship service has a form and structure that unites it with the church throughout history. There is a call to worship, hymn of praise, confession of faith, preaching and reading of the Word, communion and baptism, confession of sin both corporate and private, hymn of thanksgiving, and benediction among other things.

Baptists have typically abandoned this form of worship in favor of a form of worship developed by itinerant revivalists in the 19th century such as Charles Finney. These revivalists came into town with a big top circus tent, started each service with a hymn sing designed to put the people into an emotionally vulnerable state, then proceeded with a sermon calling them to repentance, which they then accomplished by walking an aisle and praying the sinner's prayer (a prayer devised by the revivalists, but found nowhere in Scripture). The Baptists embraced this form of worship because they could not compete with it. In this form it is disconnected from historic worship and the church in history generally.

Baptists don't have to worship this way to be good Baptists. Gunny, my token Baptist pastor friend ( know I love you Gun), follows a form of worship that is much more regulative (connected to historic worship). I hope more pastors will follow his lead on this.

In evaluating each form: its biblical basis, historical basis, intended purpose, and understanding of the church, I found the Presbyterian form (often called the regulative principle) to be more persuasive.

The Doctrine of Children
Because we understand the people of God to be continuous throughout the Scriptures (as also the commands and promises of God to his people), we take seriously the membership of our children in the covenant community. They are members by birth, just as the children born into Israel were in the OT. This doesn't mean they are regenerated or that they necessarily will be. But they are members of the covenant nonetheless. We assume they are elect until they prove otherwise. We teach them faithfulness to the revealed law of God with the expectation that they will remain faithful throughout their lives.

God has given a sign to his people of their membership in the covenant. In the Old Testament this sign was circumcision. It was given to adults converting to Judaism. But it was given to children born into Judaism. In neither case did it depend upon regeneration. The adults came into the community by confession. The children by birth. The same sign was given to both. God commanded the sign of covenant membership FOREVER. Therefore, because the substance of the sign, that is Christ, came and fulfilled the prophecies concerning the messiah, the sign changed. It's substance (the thing it represented) did not. It still represents membership in the covenant community. However, instead of circumcision, the sign itself is now baptism. Baptists recognize this implicitly by refusing membership in their churches until one has been baptized. So what is the disagreement? The difference is in our answers to the question: Who is a covenant member? Baptists agree with everything I said above about the Old Testament. But they say that a change occurred with Christ and that the covenant community no longer includes our children. It now only includes those that have been regenerated. So if you want to know which is right, the best course is to study the Scripture and see if the Bible teaches that children are no longer a part of the covenant. If they aren't, the Baptists are right and the sign should be withheld. If they are, the Presbyterians are right and the sign should be administered. It's really as simple as that.

In my own study I came to the latter conclusion. I'll post a separate series explaining the argument in detail in the coming weeks, God willing.

But the doctrine of children is deeper than baptism. I came to believe that the Baptist view of their children's relationship to God is often confused or inconsistent. I don't think they give it much thought, really. Their doctrine treats their children as enemies of God, without hope or promise, until they make a confession. This is how gentiles were treated (and actually were according to Paul in Eph 2:11-22!) in the OT. But this is not how the children of Israel were treated. Baptists recognize this in their practical application. They instinctively "dedicate" their children (an act neither commanded nor encouraged in the Scripture) and then raise them up in the faith as though they were set apart from children of unbelievers. Such behavior (while I wholeheartedly encourage and support these loving acts) is not consistent with their doctrine of children.

So to conclude the theological section, let me sum up. My experience in the SBC demonstrated that the lack of a system of doctrine leads to doctrinal...sloppiness (I can't think of a better word...anyone?). Their view of the church did not resonate with my reading of Scripture. I mourned their rejection of the doctrines of grace. Their worship comes from a place that I believe is foreign to Scripture and the historical worship of the church. Their view of children is confusing at best (though it works out well enough in practice, except for their failure to give their children the sign of membership). These are the primary doctrinal issues that led me away from the SBC and into the PCA.

Addendum: This is a good place to say that I have not and don't plan on discussing all the other denominational options out there. This series isn't assuming that the PCA is the only acceptable church and the SBC is the only alternative. I came from one and went to the other. Please keep in mind that this series is autobiographical. I write not because I think my transition is special and noteworthy. Quite the contrary. I am one of hundreds and what is becoming thousands of people making the same transition from the SBC to the PCA. This has been a source of great curiosity to some (in both denominations). My objective in writing is to shed some light on why many of us are doing it.

Next, more on how the study of church history moved me out of one and into the other.