Issue #679 -------
October 16, 2015
Disciples and devotees...what are
most of them doing? Worshipping
the teapot instead of drinking the tea.
Wei Wu Wei (1895-1986)
Francis Chan (b. 1967), an inspirational Christian speaker who was born just three months after I graduated from high school, said, "If you really want to experience God, go and make disciples." This is quite an insightful observation! It clearly links the depth of our relationship with our Father to our responsibility as His children to invite others to that same intimate, loving, gracious relationship. The more we experience that blessed union, the more we should desire to evidence it in our lives, which is truly the very basis for evangelism (i.e., sharing the Good News with those about us). In this light we can appreciate more fully the commission of Jesus to "go and make disciples" (Matt. 28:19). But, what is meant by the phrase "make disciples"? We hear it used a lot, but I wonder how many actually understand the Lord's intent underlying this instruction.
As we examine the various interpretations of the Lord's "Great Commission," we find rather quickly that there is an abundance of confused theology surrounding men's perceptions of this passage, with the primary point of confusion being the purpose and place of baptism. I have done an in-depth study of this passage (Matthew 28:18-20) in Reflections #500 ("Contemplating Our Commission"), and I would urge the reader to carefully review that study in conjunction with the thoughts presented here in this current issue of my weekly Reflections, for that previous study will more fully address some of the points I'll be making below. One of the most glaring misunderstandings of this text is the view that Jesus was "laying down law" with respect to the salvific sacrament of the new covenant church. In other words, the primary focus of His great commission is for His devoted followers to get people to the water, and the sooner the better, for it is at that precise point in time that the penitent believer is saved, justified and united with deity. The idea that we have to pinpoint the precise split-second of salvation is ludicrous, and it completely misses the point of the commission, as well as the purpose of baptism. I have dealt with this fallacy in Reflections #348 ("The Split-Second of Salvation"), and I would urge the reader to review that study as well in preparation for my following thoughts.
Throughout the years I have never ceased to be amazed by how the legalistic patternists will shamelessly twist biblical texts to promote a sectarian perception and/or practice. About the time I think I've "heard everything," along comes yet another "text twister." Let me tell you about the most recent one (and I need to provide a bit of background information on this). Several weeks ago, in the religion section of our local newspaper, a brief statement appeared in which the public was informed that a new Church of Christ congregation was going to be established in our city. Several members of the congregation here told me they had seen this notice in the paper, and they indicated they were confused by it. They had the same question I did: What would this person bring to our community that isn't already here? I wrote this man an email (dated Monday, Oct. 5) in which I asked him that very question. I pointed out that sectarian and denominational walls of isolation and exclusion are rapidly coming down here, and there is a growing sense of unity among Christians here that transcends the differing traditions of the various Christian groups. If people would move here to help promote this unity, that would truly be a blessing, but we would all hate to see someone move here and try to further divide the Family of God. Several days after I wrote this individual he responded with a brief email (dated Saturday, Oct. 10) which had a five page MS Word document attached. In his email he simply stated, "Al, please see the attached letter. This will be my only communication. I have no time for bickering." This kind of surprised me, as my letter to him was very positive and polite (I simply told him about some of the wonderful things happening here, the spirit of unity that is being evidenced, and wondered if he would be willing to help further that unity; I closed by saying, "May God bless you, and may you have a safe trip here").
When I opened the attachment and read the letter, I was stunned by both the tone and the content. For one who had no desire to "bicker," he went on the attack immediately! He wrote, "We live in an age of confusion, an age of such ignorance and uncertainty that men are drawn to seek their own way for lack of moral certitude in our institutions, including the Church. By your teaching and personal desire to join with the denominations you have become part of this confusion and chaos, for so long drifting, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error. It would be my hope that you retire soon and slow the progress of this confusion in the church." He further wrote, "You have sought to compromise so long with the denominations that it has corrupted your thinking and your faith. So much of what you write adds to the confusion, nothing certain, nothing solid, little that edifies, little that uplifts, little that one can hold on to for life." He closed this document (several pages later) by declaring I have "strayed from the faith." He wrote, "I am not your brother in Christ, but neither am I your enemy. ... I consider you an apostate brother, once useful to the kingdom, but no longer." His final statement in the email was: "Personally, I do not intend to write you again. If there be any way that a person can return, who has drifted away from the truth as far as you have, I wish that for you."
I receive such "words of condemnation" quite often, so I haven't lost any sleep over his assessment of me. However, it does sadden me that such people feel "called by the Lord" to enter a community with such an attitude while purporting to be His representatives. Our efforts to bring about greater unity, harmony and oneness in the Lord will continue here, but apparently with one more person standing on the sidelines hurling sticks and stones. What concerned me more about his five page letter (I've grown used to the attacks) was his view on disciples and baptism in water. It is a common theme among legalists, but he made some statements that would probably trouble even some of those within his own camp. He declared several times, and in several ways, that baptism was the very point in time when a person became a disciple. In other words, before baptism one is NOT a disciple of Christ; one only becomes a disciple of Christ AT baptism in water. I had heard of this false doctrine before (and even dealt with it to some extent in my study on the "Great Commission" referenced above), but I had never heard anyone declare it as boldly as this fellow. Notice some of his statements:
He quoted the words of Jesus in Matt. 28:19, then he wrote that when Jesus said this "He defined precisely how and when disciples are made. At baptism we enter the kingdom as it is manifested on earth. ... Indeed, after baptism, we are saved by faith. But baptism is the precise moment in time when God translates us into the kingdom."
"We need only know and obey the Lord's command for making disciples. It is obvious that when a person of faith obeys this simple command, he or she is a disciple, and a Christian. This is the precise point of becoming a disciple, which is equivalent to saying that it is the precise moment in time when we become a Christian."
"Baptism is the precise point of our entrance into the kingdom and the precise moment in time when we are saved."
He quoted Acts 2:41, then wrote, "Here we learn that after baptism the three thousand were added to the number of disciples already in the early church. Logically, if they were added as disciples after baptism, then before baptism they were not disciples. I think many would agree that their becoming disciples occurred at the point of their baptism and not when they believed. The Scripture is not written in a technical, scientific style, but it is nevertheless precise where precision is needed. Here we have precision. Before baptism God had not added them to the number of existing disciples; after baptism they were added to that number. This is precision if ever I have read it."
There were many other such statements, but I think you get the idea. I won't even deal with his statement in #1 above where he spoke of being saved by faith after baptism -- that is too absurd to even address here (although a very similar statement was made by Hugh Fulford some years ago, and I refuted that absurdity in Reflections #503: "The Belief After Baptism Doctrine"). Nor will I take the time to deal with his sacramental view of the act of baptism in water (that it is the precise point of being saved), for I have dealt with that extensively over the years in my writings as well. What I want to focus on in this current Reflections is his view that one is made/created (becomes) a disciple at baptism, and not before. He makes it very clear in his letter to me "that their becoming disciples occurred at the point of their baptism and not when they believed." "Before baptism they were not disciples," he stated emphatically. I find this odd on a number of levels. First, notice the words of Jesus in Matt. 28:19, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them..." The antecedent of "them" in this construction is "disciples." So, who are we to baptize? That's right: disciples. Note the following excerpt from my above referenced Reflections on this text:
In Matthew 28:19 Jesus Christ commands, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations" (NIV). There is only one Greek imperative in the Great Commission. The other three statements are each participial clauses. The phrase "make disciples" in the above statement by Jesus Christ is the single imperative. Thus, it is the only part of the commission that is stated as a direct command. Although many translations render this Greek verb (matheteuo) as "make disciples," some choose a different wording. The KJV, for example, has: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations." The Message has: "Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near." Young's Literal Translation has, "Having gone, then, disciple all the nations." The charge of our Lord Jesus in this passage is quite literally: "While going, be ye disciplers." Thus, as we go about our journey through life, we are to be instructing, training and discipling those with whom we come into contact. That first participle is from the Greek verb poreuomai, which simply means "to go, to pass from one place to another, to journey, travel about." So, while we journey through life we are to be about the business of discipling. In other words, we should take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way to encourage others to become pupils of Jesus Christ; learners of our Lord; students of the Savior. Our commission, then, is to disciple the people with whom we come into contact; instruct them in the truths of God's kingdom, that they may come to the point of personal conviction and acceptance of these saving truths, and thus be brought into a saving relationship with the Lord through faith.
Those students of Christ who reach that point of conviction, and who desire to accept the free gift of God's grace offered through the atoning blood of Christ Jesus, are to be immersed, an action evidencing their saving faith. Who do we baptize? That's right -- disciples, or more accurately: those who were being instructed or discipled by us. Notice what H. Leo Boles wrote on this passage from Matthew's gospel account: "Those who are 'discipled' are to be baptized; they were not to baptize 'all the nations,' but those of 'all nations' who were 'discipled.' ... Only those of the nations who are made disciples by preaching the gospel are to be baptized" [A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 564]. Indeed, what possible benefit is there to immersing one who has not been discipled in the teachings of Jesus Christ?
In Acts 19 we find the apostle Paul coming to Ephesus, and he "found some disciples" there (vs. 1). These were students of the glorious good news about Jesus, but they also lacked a fuller understanding of some things. After Paul increased the understanding of these students/disciples of the Lord, and they came to a better perception of these teachings, they submitted to baptism. However, please note that these believers in the Lord Jesus were characterized as "disciples" prior to that baptism. This only makes sense, for a "disciple" is merely one who is learning at the feet of a teacher; he/she is a pupil. They begin with little information, but in time grow in their understanding, arriving at a heart-felt conviction (belief, faith). Yet, even then they continue learning from their teacher, just as we are told to make disciples, baptize disciples, and then continue to teach disciples. Some suggest that this passage merely implies that they were disciples of John, but that doesn't hold up given the focus of the passage. "In Acts 19:1, 'disciples' does not mean disciples of John, as is shown by 'when ye believed,' that is 'when ye became Christians'" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the New Testament: The Apostolic Church, vol. 1, p. 303]. Our lives are spent learning from our Master; sitting at His feet gaining more and more understanding as we journey with Him. We invite others to come and learn of Him and from Him, and when that study bears the fruit of a deep inner conviction, we take these believing, penitent disciples and baptize them as a visible demonstration of that new-found faith. And then we keep on helping them grow in understanding, just as we ourselves do. Not all disciples, however, reach that point of conviction and commitment, as is noted in John 6:66 where we find that "many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore." This was prior to Pentecost, of course, but it reflects that not all students remain so until "graduation." Yet, they are no less students at the time. To suggest one is NOT a student of Jesus prior to baptism in water is just plain idiotic, and also completely inconsistent with the meaning and usage of the term.
So why do otherwise seemingly intelligent people promote such foolish and fallacious dogmas? The answer is found in the fact that they have embraced a position and practice that they must now defend against those who challenge them, so they must twist and manipulate Scripture in such a way as to justify and validate their views. They have been so blinded by their false teaching that they are not even capable of discerning the depth of their own delusion. They firmly believe that baptism is THE act that brings one into a state of divine acceptance and salvation. This causes some to actually teach that saving faith follows baptism, for they simply can't bring themselves to say one is "saved by faith," since this would imply that a believer is regarded as redeemed before getting to the water. This is one reason the account of Cornelius drives them nuts (Reflections #472: "Cornelius and Balaam's Ass: Was this Godly Centurion as Damned as a Donkey prior to his Baptism?" and also Reflections #587: "Simon's Sect Silencing Speech: Reflective Study of Peter's Proclamation to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:7-11"). "For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false" (2 Thess. 2:11), since their love of tradition trumps their love of Truth. So, please keep our community, as well as countless other communities like ours, in your prayers, for ambassadors of absurdity and disciples of delusion are being sent forth daily to deceive and divide the Family of God.
From a Minister in Alabama:
Dear Al, There is no question in my mind: we are brothers in Christ, even though our views on baptism are different. I am sure you are a little uncomfortable with mine, and I am a little uncomfortable with yours. Neither of us will get to heaven because we were "right" on baptism. Our salvation is in Him. Jesus has to be the focus: we have faith in Him, we confess Him, we repent to Him, we are baptized into Him, and we are faithful unto Him. A preacher friend says, "In the Greek text you will find that Jesus is in the exact center of Acts 2:38. And what does that prove? Nothing, but it certainly suggests that Jesus needs to be the focus of our teaching." Signed -- Your brother in Alabama.
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, I just read your article titled "The Open Door of Faith" (Reflections #678). It is a wonderful reflection on the grace of God!
From a Reader in Georgia:
"The Open Door of Faith" was Powerful!! I can only wonder how many accused Paul of being a "false teacher" as he elevated faith over circumcision! Probably as many as accuse you when they hear faith elevated over good works, baptism, or any other human effort. Keep holding the door open, brother, and watch out for false bell hops!
From an Author in Texas:
"We are not saved by any works we have done." It doesn't get any plainer than that. Some think they need to help God with His plan of salvation, as if He needed their help. I'm catching a few rocks myself because I forwarded your article "The Open Door of Faith" to a number of people, but it's comforting to know that we are suffering with Jesus. If we are not suffering with Him we have no part with Him. Hang in there! This article of yours is the best one yet! I'm sure some are hurling rocks at you because of it. Keep up the good work.
From a Minister in Washington:
Al, first of all I want to thank you for sharing the fruit of your study, and for the courage you show in challenging accepted Church of Christ doctrine. Your arguments make so much sense, but WOW -- you are challenging my core beliefs!! I can see that water baptism is a direct command; that it is symbolic and not the very thing that saves a person; that salvation is accomplished through faith and not immersion. But it also seems obvious that there is a connection between baptism and salvation; after all, it is a part of the Great Commission. So, you are not suggesting that a person can be saved if they ignore this commandment are you?! Recently I have gone against the grain of accepted Church of Christ doctrine by saying that baptism is not what saves us, but it's rather our response to God's gift of salvation. Even though I made it clear that God commanded baptism in water, yet because I said baptism is not what saves us, I have been accused of teaching Baptist doctrine and not the Gospel. Sorry for being long-winded, but I wanted to ask: you are not saying baptism in water is optional are you? God bless you, Al. Your brother-in-Christ in Washington.
I too have often been accused of teaching Baptist doctrine. I hear it all the time. What I tell such people, though, is that I do not seek to be Baptist Church in my teaching and preaching, nor do I seek to be Methodist Church, nor Christian Church, nor even Church of Christ Church. I merely seek to be biblical. No, baptism in water is not optional; it is commanded, thus we must obey this command. I have baptized a good many people in almost 40 years as a minister and elder, and will certainly baptize more. Those who say I don't believe in baptizing people are wrong. Rather, it is the purpose of baptism that I believe many have misunderstood, and it is their misunderstandings I teach against, not baptism itself. This act is reflective, not redemptive; it is a symbol, not a sacrament. The legalists, however, seem to believe that anyone who raises any questions regarding one's understanding (or misunderstanding) of the purpose of baptism in water are thereby denying the practice of baptism in water. That is not the case, of course, but they can't seem to grasp the distinction. Yes, I believe if one willfully and knowingly REFUSES to obey this command, then that person will have to answer to God for that act of rebellion against His will, just as they will also be called to give an account for their willful and knowing refusal to obey any other aspects of His will for His children. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Toronto, Canada:
One of my brothers-in-law preached in Kentucky. He told of the preacher from the next county who proclaimed on the radio that the only ones who did not need to be baptized were "infants and I dots!"
From a Reader in West Virginia:
Brother Maxey, Let me begin by saying that I recently began a deep and critical evaluation of the beliefs I hold; beliefs I hold based mostly on my upbringing within the Churches of Christ. I was a typical "Church of Christer" -- I had "Behold the Pattern" and "Muscle and a Shovel" right next to the Bible on my shelf (sad, but true!). There are many good and loving people within the church I was associated with. Sadly, amongst those roses there are many thorns too. There are questions that legalism can't answer and problems with patternism that I can't quite rationalize. Because of this, I sometimes feel alone (save for my wonderful wife). I feel like I've loosed the shackles of legalism over the past few years, but I still stand over the chains too scared to walk out into the unknown world. I've been reading a great many of your Reflections and debates, and have been considering your thoughts -- and my courage is building as a result. Thank You!!
From a Reader in Texas:
My great-granddaughter, who is a student at Abilene Christian University, wanted to be baptized in a certain place on campus while her parents came to visit her, but that visit was a couple of weeks off. She wanted this to be a very happy and important event, and she wanted to share it with her family present. I discussed this with one of the elders at the church I attend and he recommended that she go ahead with the baptism and not wait, but rather have pictures taken that she could share with her family later. My opinion was that she had already made her commitment in her heart to the Lord, and if something should take her life before she "made it to the baptistery," she would still be saved. She waited, and luckily nothing happened to her, and the weekend was a very special occasion. Al, what is your opinion about this kind of situation? I think I know, but I just need to hear it from you!! Thanks so much!
I have absolutely no problem with her decision. In fact, I feel her thinking is far more in tune with our Lord's actual intent for this act than those who "rush to the river" in order to "get saved." Baptism is a public witness to one's faith; a visible testimony; so why wouldn't she wait until others were there to whom she could show her depth of faith in the Lord. It is a symbol, not a sacrament; it shows something, it doesn't secure something! The problem with too many in our movement's past (and many have that same view today, sadly) is that they were led to believe the act itself is what saves a person, thus a believer "runs the risk" of being sent straight to hell if he or she dies prior to getting to the water. Scripture teaches we are saved by grace through faith; it is a gift of God, and it is the heart God examines, not how much water covers one's body, or when it gets covered. Putting off this visible display of faith for a good purpose (as was done by your great-granddaughter) is perfectly acceptable, and in no way jeopardizes her acceptance by God. I dealt with this intentional delay somewhat in my study of Paul's interaction with the Philippian jailer, who delayed his own baptism (Reflections #641: "Who Got Washed First? Reflecting on a Question Raised by the Account of the Philippian Jailer"). I'm glad the event was uplifting for your great-granddaughter and those who were blessed to be there to witness her demonstration of faith in the One who had saved her! -- Al Maxey
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