Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"There may be blind spots"

Nathan Finn, who teaches Baptist studies and church history at Southeastern Baptist, notes a controversy about whether it is possible for a local Baptist church to be a "true church."
Ever since the Reformation era, it has been common to define a “true church” as a congregation where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments/ordinances are rightly administered. (Some would also include the practice of church discipline as a third mark.) ....

I was alerted this past week to a cyber-kerfuffle between a non-SBC Reformed Baptist scholar and a paedobaptist United Reformed Church pastor and professor. The controversy began when the latter argued that there is no such thing as a “Reformed Baptist” because the Reformed tradition is incompatible with credobaptism, a claim that understandably miffed the Reformed Baptist. ....

At some point during the debate, which spilled over onto at least four blogs and a message board, several of the paedobaptists argued that Baptist churches, whether they are self-confessedly Baptist or simply theologically baptistic (like many nondenominational churches), are not true churches. They claim that the refusal of Baptist congregations to baptize “covenant children” and the requirement of believer’s-only immersion as prerequisite for church membership makes Baptist churches “sects” rather than churches because they do not rightly administer baptism. .... [more]
A day or two later, after soliciting reactions, Finn gave his answer to the question. Some excerpts:
.... What makes a local church a church, rather than a more generic group of like-minded folks, is most fundamentally belief in the good news of all that God has done on behalf of sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So in my classes, I define a true church as followers: a true church is a gathering of believers where the gospel is rightly preached, the ordinances are administered in such a way that they do not reject or redefine the gospel, and the gathered individuals understand themselves to be a local church. ....

...[T]he BF&M [note: the SBC's Baptist Faith and Message] refers to Baptist churches as “New Testament” churches. This is because Baptists believe their churches more closely conform to the New Testament pattern than other types of churches. (And lest you think this is arrogant sectarianism, rest assured that every other group, including non-denominational types, believes this about their churches as well.) I like the “New Testament” language for two reasons. First, it allows me to be appropriately exclusive—I believe Baptist churches are more biblical than paedobaptist churches in several important areas. Second, it allows me to be appropriately catholic—I believe paedobaptist churches that embrace the gospel are still churches, even if some of their practices are inconsistent with the New Testament pattern.

In my thinking, we have to allow for a category of true churches that are defective in some of their practices, like baptism. Some of our Baptist forbearers called such churches “irregular”—they are really churches, but they are also really wrong on the ordinances. Frankly, this seems like a charitable approach to take; after all, even though I think Baptist churches are “New Testament” on baptism, there may be blind spots where we fall short of the New Testament witness. And we need other types of churches to speak prophetically to us in such areas, just as we want to speak prophetically to them about certain ecclesiological convictions. .... [more]
On the Marks of a True Church: A Question « Between The Times, Further Thoughts on the Marks of a True Church « Between The Times

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