Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Fellowship of All Believers

I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and my friends were mostly Baptists and Methodists. I volunteered with a youth group at a local Methodist Church, and the fact that they so warmly welcomed me into their church was so special. I learned and experienced things in that church that I hadn't found in my own church. Later when I traveled to Ireland in college, I worshiped at Catholic and Presbyterian churches, and those experiences were also very meaningful and beneficial to me. At school I worshiped and prayed with friends from all walks of Christianity. Some were so new to the faith that they hadn't claimed any denomination at all. Every one of them enriched my life and supported me in my faith.

Before I moved to the Midwest and met my husband, I didn't know much about Lutherans, and I knew nothing about WELS—the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. I was completely unprepared by how different their approach to Christianity was from mine.

I got my first lesson when my husband and I were planning our wedding. Everyone in his family was WELS. I only had a vague idea of what a big deal it was that he was marrying me even though I wasn't WELS. It all became clear to me when I suggested that we ask his grandfather—a WELS pastor—to marry us. I suspect my husband already knew what the answer would be, but we did ask. We didn't get very far—when it came out that the friend we had asked to play the organ at our wedding was MLS (Missouri Lutheran Synod) instead of WELS, my husband's grandfather indicated that that would pose a significant impediment to him performing the service. It is WELS policy that all worship leaders (including musicians) must be WELS if a WELS pastor is to lead the service. My organist was the wrong kind of Lutheran. I didn't even bother mentioning that I had a Baptist and two people who went to the Metropolitan Community Church (a gay church) slated to sing at my wedding.

I had known from childhood that I wanted a wedding mass—when my husband asked me why while we were planning the wedding, I told him that I wanted the first act we performed as husband and wife to be taking communion together and sharing the meal with our assembled friends and family. My wish almost came true. Only half of the family participated. My husband's WELS family would not accept communion from the Episcopal priest who married us. They would not celebrate the sacrament with anyone who did not belong to their own church. According to my husband, they aren't even supposed to pray with Christians who aren't WELS. They sat firmly in their seats while we celebrated our unity in Christ with the rest of our family and friends, and later when I visited their churches I was informed that I would not be permitted to receive communion there because I was not a WELS member. I sat through one or two such communion service in which I was excluded, fighting back tears all the time, and then I refused to ever go to their churches on a communion Sunday ever again for fear that I would make a scene by sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of the service. It rent my heart that I wanted so much to worship fully with them and yet was denied, and even more that they were denying themselves the love and friendship of millions of other Christians besides me who could have helped them in their faith and mission.

I was so upset that my husband's family would not participate in my lovely wedding mass that I chose a communion hymn that would drive home my opinions on the matter:

I come with joy to meet my Lord,
forgiven, loved, and free,
in awe and wonder to recall
his life laid down for me.

I come with Christians far and near
to find, as all are fed,
the new community of love
in Christ's communion bread.

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

And thus with joy we meet our Lord.
His presence, always near,
is in such friendship better known:
we see and praise him here.

Together met, together bound,
we'll go our different ways,
and as his people in the world,
we'll live and speak his praise.

This is what I envision as the Fellowship of All Believers, the Body of Christ. I believe that all Christians are united through Christ and that He intends for us to live as brothers and sisters, not divided up into factions that exclude one another. 

I have yet to be satisfied with an explanation that justifies refusing to pray with other Christians or excluding them from communion. The members of WELS claim to follow Martin Luther's teachings, but in his large catechism, even he argues for the need for all Christians to receive communion frequently and for only a very few—who do not desire the forgiveness promised by Christ in the words of institution—to be turned away from the table:

"Those who are shameless and unruly must be told to stay away, for they are not fit to receive the forgiveness of sins since they do not desire it and do not want to be good. The others, who are not so callous and dissolute but would like to be good, should not absent themselves, even though in other respects they are weak and frail. As St. Hilary has said, 'Unless a man has committed such a sin that he has forfeited the name of Christian and has to be expelled from the congregation, he should not exclude himself from the sacrament,' lest he deprive himself of life. No one will make such progress that he does not retain many common infirmities in his flesh and blood. People with such misgivings must learn that it is the highest wisdom to realize that this sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. We are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, nor do we come to confession pure and without sin; on the contrary, we come as poor, miserable men, precisely because we are unworthy. The only exception is the person who desires no grace and absolution and has no intention to amend his life. He who earnestly desires grace and consolation should compel himself to go and allow no one to deter him."

I hardly think that a visiting Christian who desires to receive communion could be automatically assumed to be so unruly and sinful that he/she has utterly turned his/her back on Christianity. Quite to the contrary—anyone who desires to receive the sacrament in remembrance of Christ is worthy, according to Luther. Why then was I turned away? Why then did these people refuse to take the sacrament with me and my family and friends at our church, after the priest had dutifully proclaimed the words of institution which Luther writes is what differentiates Holy communion from a regular meal? Is it because I don't belong to right sect, don't have the correct label: 'Lutheran'? The folly of that idea is laid out in the third chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:

For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?  What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. (1 Corinthians 3:3–7, 21–23)

Why then segregate ourselves based on whose teachings and theological explanations we follow? Are we not all disciples of Christ? Do we not all believe in the salvation he offers through his death and resurrection? If so, why can we not focus on this important commonality and on the two great commandments—to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves—without separating ourselves based on every single detail of our faith? Why do we quarrel and break ranks when we should be supporting and learning from each other? Why do we pretend that the foot can function independently of the hand when we are all meant to be one body in Christ? 

I have used the WELS church as a specific example here because of my own personal experience, but this is not a diatribe against one particular denomination. I believe that to some degree, almost all Christians are guilty of this standoffishness. We are wary of those whose worship practices differ widely from ours—those from liturgical backgrounds want to know why others are clapping and dancing in the aisles, and those with more free-form practices want to know why others are standing in their pews like statues with no sign that their hearts are moved at all. We segregate ourselves based on many things—theological opinions, worship preferences, even race or economic class—and we rarely cross those boundaries. 

I want to feel comfortable worshiping in any church with any group of believers. I want to be able to pray with any Christian anywhere. I want to be able to support any person—even someone I do not know well—in his or her faith whenever I have the opportunity. I do not want to always focus on what I think each person is doing wrong and which opinions I disagree with. I would rather celebrate our common faith in Jesus and build up each believer's hope in the salvation of our Lord and the promise of blessings to come. By working together and supporting each other, we make the entire body of Christ stronger and more effective.

It is important that the Christian Church is not simply a scattered confederation of Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and dozens of other denominations. We must strive to become a Fellowship of All Believers so that we might stand united for Christ.


I have been thinking about baptism lately. My daughter is nearly two months old, and I will be planning her baptism very soon. But not soon enough for some—I was admonished by one of my husband's relatives not to wait too long to baptize her because if she were to die (God forbid) I would want the comfort of her baptism to know she had gone to heaven. The person who expressed that opinion most likely took it out of Martin Luther's large catechism. Luther quotes Mark 16:16 ("He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned."). Then Luther interprets that verse thus: "It is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved."

I think that Luther made a big mistake with this interpretation. Although Jesus pairs belief and baptism in the first part of the sentence, he omits baptism from the second part of the sentence. Therefore, a literal reading suggests that one cannot be condemned for failing to be baptized if one has faith; likewise, baptism cannot save a person who does not believe. It is easy to simply assume that faith and baptism are inseparable, but that is not a logically sound assumption given the grammatical structure of the sentence.

Baptism IS important. Jesus did command his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and nothing Jesus tells us to do is worthless. Our faith is built on the Word, but that means that we must not put words in Christ's mouth (by proclaiming that we cannot be saved without baptism) any more than we should disregard his explicit commands.

Baptism is not a magic spell that grants us entry to heaven whether we believe or not. Baptism is nothing more or less than an outward sign (and a powerful one, at that) of the promise God has made to everyone to save us through his son, Jesus, and our acceptance of that promise. In our willingness to be baptized, we show that we do believe, that we accept the salvation that God has offered, and that we want to be washed clean of our sins. We say, "Yes, Lord! Your will be done!" For it is God's will to save us. When we baptize our children, we show that we want that promise for them, that we will teach them to understand and accept it, and that we welcome God's help in transforming the lives of our children in accordance to His will. When we do it publicly, we also ask others to help support us and our children in our faith. When we are struggling in our faith, we can look back and remember the promise that was affirmed with our baptism and recall that we are marked as Christ's own forever.

The simple fact is that the promise exists for us before we are baptized. Even Luther himself argues that we cannot believe without the help of the Holy Spirit. How then can we say, "Yes, I believe and I want to be baptized," if the Holy Spirit cannot touch our lives before we are baptized? The act of baptism is an invitation to the Holy Spirit to descend on us, but we are fools if we think that the Spirit cannot touch our lives before we are baptized. How then could we ever seek baptism? By that argument, everyone would have to have someone make the choice for them before they could receive the Spirit and by its assistance believe for themselves. The Bible contradicts that idea with many illustrations of adults coming to belief and requesting baptism for themselves.

I do not believe that God condemns people or withholds his Spirit from them for being unbaptized any more than He damns them for being uncircumcised. After all, the Holy Spirit came upon the group gathered in the house of Cornelius BEFORE they were baptized (Acts 10), and Peter used that as a justification for baptizing them even though they were Gentiles. So in the minutes between their receiving the gift of the Spirit and being baptized, were they still damned, even if they had received the promise of salvation with joy?

The reason that baptism is paired with belief is that there is simply no good reason for believers NOT to be baptized. If we believe that Jesus died for us and wish to accept the promise of eternal life, why should we not make an outward sign of it through baptism? Just because we know that the Holy Spirit goes wherever God wills, why should we not actively invite it into our lives? Why should we not cherish the memory of the promise by remembering that our sins are continually being washed away? Why should we not want the cross marked on our foreheads so that the Devil and all his minions can see that we belong to Christ? Jesus had a good reason for instructing that believers be baptized, and that is a good enough reason for us to do it without the threat of damnation hanging over our heads. Must every good deed and act of obedience we perform be about gaining heaven and avoiding hell? Why can we not do it simply out of love for the one who commanded us and out of joy for his incomparable gift to us? Baptism is traditionally the outward sign of an inward conversion to the faith (or a parent's promise to raise a child in the faith), and I think that's a good thing.

Perhaps you may wonder why this is worth quibbling about at all. Others' opinions of the state of my child's soul will not affect her salvation. My trust that God will strive for my daughter's soul and carry her off to Heaven if she were to die before her baptism should be enough. And it is, for me.

But I am very sad that so many Christians believe that God would damn an infant over a technicality. It makes me fear that they don't truly understand God and His boundless grace and love. You see, God WANTS us to be saved. He's not rolling the dice here and letting us decide our children's fate by choosing when and if to baptize them. He loves my daughter, and already He is doing everything He can to draw her to Him, no matter what actions I do or do not take on her behalf.

A booklet on baptism lent to me by my pastor (Let the Children Come: A Baptism Manual for Parents and Sponsors by Daniel Erlander) makes the following point: "[It is a popular misconception] that unbaptized babies who die go somewhere other than into God's loving embrace—places like 'limbo' or 'hell'. If death comes to an unbaptized infant, we trust the mercy and steadfast love of God. We believe that God gives the gift of baptism for our salvation, comfort, and assurance. We do not believe God is limited by our act of baptizing. We commit all who die into God's tender mercy." I agree wholeheartedly.

Some argue that infants need baptism to save them because they cannot believe in Jesus themselves. They make the mistake of assuming that belief in Jesus is an intellectual choice that only a mature mind can make. But children love before they understand what love is. Babies smile at the person holding them because that person is smiling down at them, not because they have an intellectual opinion about that person's goodness. Somehow, my daughter already knows that I am her mother, even if she doesn't understand what a mother is. She knows that being held by me is a good thing.

If my precious daughter were to die today, I believe that she would go straight into the arms of a loving God where she would be content because she would know that His arms are a good place to be, just as she knows that my arms are a good place to be. She has not yet been poisoned by the lies of this world that draw us from God, and even though she was born with the stain of sin, she was also created in the image of her God. Just as her instinct tells her that my arms are a good place to be, I believe that her instinct would lead her straight into the arms of God if she were to die. Why should we over-think this issue like a bunch of pessimists instead of trusting in God's mercy?

After all, sin only entered the world when Adam and Eve refused to be what God made them to be. They believed a lie—that they could be like God instead of what they were—and that's where it all went wrong. They were created to love and trust God, and they only got into trouble when they defied their own nature. We are bombarded with the same lies, the same sin, that draw us away from God. But at our heart, we too are created in God's image to love and serve him. Believing in Jesus and going to God is nothing more than doing what ought to be natural to us, what God designed us to do in the first place. It is our exposure to sin and Satan's lies that makes us deny our true natures and reject God (and in so doing reject our very selves).

Frankly, I think that babies are the last people we should be worrying about when it comes to salvation. We adults are the ones who assert our independence and no longer accept God's love without question.  We are the ones who fear damnation more than we trust the promise of salvation. We are the ones who need our baptism the most. And I fully intend to give my daughter the gift of baptism in due course, because one day she too will have those struggles, and I hope that her baptism will bolster her faith in times of trouble.

I also agree with another point that Erlander makes in his booklet: "Baptism is [not] mainly an insurance policy for life after death. While God promises the hope of eternal life in baptism, baptism is much more—the beginning of a relationship with Christ, a way of life, and a lifelong identity as a Christian in this earthly existence." That's why I want to plan the baptism at a time when as many family members and friends can attend as possible. I want them to witness this milestone in my daughter's life and in so doing pledge to be a continuing part of it, to pray for her and support her in her Christian upbringing. I know she's going to need help along the way, and I hope that all those who witness her baptism will feel moved to give it.

So I am very much looking forward to my daughter's baptism day. I wouldn't cheapen it by talking about it like something I 'must' do, or else. It is something I want to do, and I will do it out of joy, not fear.
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