Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Top Five Tuesday -- Top Five Things I Don't Really Believe (Or Say) Anymore In Ministry

Both in my seminary preparation for ministry and then again in my early years of parish work, I heard certain voices of authorities offer specific morsels of wisdom that I took to be gospel truth. 

So I internalized them, repeated them, and practiced them in church work.

But some of that early wisdom I simply don't believe anymore.  Sometimes, experience changed my views.  Other times, fresh readings of Scripture did the same.  And more often, fresh readings of Scripture confirmed what I was already learning through experience.

So here they are: five things I just don't believe anymore.

5.  Home Visitation Is The Key To Effective Ministry.  In my first conversation I ever had with my first District Superintendent in Methodism, he said, "Here's my three point sermon for being a good pastor.  1.  Visit your people.  2.  Visit your people.  3.  Visit your people."  It was evidently a good sermon because I still remember it 23 years later and because I followed the advice with diligence.  And I still love home visitation and suspect I do a good deal more of it than many pastors who get to serve a church of Good Shepherd's size and style.  But: it's still not the most important thing that I do.  What's is?  Clear, consistent proclamation of the gospel which we preachers have received and on which our congregations take their stand.

4.  You Have To Be Ordained To Give A BenedictionA seminary professor of mine -- whom in all other respects I revere and admire -- told a class I attended:  "until you have that sign of ordination given to you, you don't have the authority to offer a benediction."  And I actually believed it! For awhile.  Now?  Please.  The church life of the New Testament is all about demolishing walls between types of people, including the professional and the volunteer in ministry.  The sad fact of Christian history is that generations of early and medieval church leaders quickly put walls back up that their New Testament forbears had gone to such lengths to tear down.  Come to think of it, there is very little in Scripture that connects ordination with baptism or communion, either (see #1, below).

3.  Don't Preach About Money.  I got this advice from otherwise loving people within my first month at the first church I ever served.  If you've been part of Home, you know that not only do I preach about money, but I love doing it.  More people need to know -- and need to know urgently -- that in giving to God they will never miss what wasn't theirs to begin with.

2.  Don't Change Anything Your First Year At A New Church.  I believed this one so much that I have repeated it more than once to colleagues.  Now I realize that such defensiveness wastes some of the built in goodwill that comes from in a new ministry assignment. 

1.  God Does The Baptizing.  In seminary and beyond, I heard teaching on the subject of infant baptism that grounded the practice in the confidence that "God does the baptizing."  The logic goes  something like this:  "The reason we Methodists can baptize babies is because we put the emphasis on God in the sacraments.  The reason Baptists don't is because they think sacraments are more about people."  Sounds good, doesn't it?  Makes our tribe a bit more erudite and theological than our immersion-happy brethren.  You can baptize an infant because even though the baby doesn't know what's happening, he or she now has a divine, moist seal of approval. I was taught it, I believed it, I spoke it, and that settled it.  My own children (now 23 & 20) were even baptized as infants.

Here's the problem:  God doesn't baptizeGod saves.  We respond by getting baptized. 

Nowhere in the New Testament do we read the words or even intuit the concept that God baptizes.

Whether it's Peter's emphatic "Repent and be baptized" in Acts 2:38 or the wandering Ephesians who get re-baptized in Acts 19:1-7 or even Paul's subtle yet unmistakable picture of baptism-by-immersion in Romans 6:3-5, the New Testament is consistent and clear: people choose their own baptism.  They come to faith and then to make that faith public, they get wet.

It's not complicated, it's not a spiritual birthmark, it's not a naming ceremony, it's not even the New Testament equivalent of circumcision.  It's death to the old life and resurrection to the new.  And babies don't have old lives to die to. 

And . . . best of all the practices I've learned from some of our non-denominational friends . . . in the context of a church gathering parents can baptize their own children and friends can do the same for folks they have led to faith. 

That may not be very Methodist but it sure is contagious.


Jessica Faulk said...

Regarding #3: I told Abby after service, "Every time T said, 'It's not a have-to, it's a get-to!' it was evident how thrilled he was by the whole idea." :)

Selah said...

I remember asking you 5+ years ago if my baptism "counted" since my dad baptized me in our bathtub instead of a pastor doing it in a church. I remember the surprised look on your face and how you had never heard of or thought about my situation. After some thought you told me that since my dad was in spiritual authority over me at the time (I was 7 or 8 when I was baptized) then it seemed legitimate to you. I think about that conversation every time you have parents baptize their children at GSUMC. I look forward to the day when Bert & I have the privilege of baptizing our own children!

John Bryant said...

The Bible also has little to say about needing to be ordained to preach, something you clearly take very seriously. So from your perspective, what is the purpose of ordination? Why is it important?

Georgine said...

In Acts there are two times when whole households were baptized at once. Once it was Lydia's household and the other time it was the jailer's entire family. It doesn't say there were but there very easily could have been children in both those households.

Talbot Davis said...

Great question, John! We have several folks here who speak on Sundays without being ordained, so I could have added preaching to the list with communion.

I suppose I believe the most important purpose of ordination has to do with guarding the faith that has been entrusted to the church. Paul's words to a young ordinand in I Timothy 4:14 focus much more on the content of his teaching than the celebration of church rituals.

So in light of those words, ordination has a great deal to do with the privilege of being a resident theologian in a particular community.

Scott Kingsolver said...

This is a refreshing article to hear from a UM pastor as well as your faithful ministry. I grew up and served in the UM as a youth pastor and had a really bad experience and have since left. However, I'm glad they still have voices such as yours to call them back to the Gospel.

acrf7a said...

Methodist tradition teaches that God does the baptizing. This is because that is what is taught in the Bible and follows tradition. That is why we accept baptisms from other denominations and many other circumstances. The reason that some denominations do not have infant baptism is because the Bible doesn't specifically mention a babies baptism. However there are scriptures that mention entire towns being baptized (which would include infants unless you interpret the scripture as using hyperbole). We also have to look at tradition. The people that assembled the books of the Bible together practiced infant baptism. We know this, not from writings, but from mosaics in Christian towns that depict this.

Todd Stepp said...

Aside from simply disagreeing with your statements concerning #1, is it not true that what you have stated could be considered teaching something that is contrary to United Methodist doctrine?

Steve said...

I don't quite agree with your take on baptism. While you're right that there is nothing in scripture that says God does the baptising; saying that God does the baptism isn't an accurate asessment of the biblical (yes it is biblical) defense of infant baptism. What I have always been taught is that God is the actor in baptism, ie it is God who makes the baptism efficacious by pouring out God's promises. That's quite different. You can dance around it all you want but as long as you say baptism is contingent upon a conscious decision then you make God's action dependent upon us; as if God is upon His throne saying "You know I really want to save that person. I just hope they decide to get baptised." And I don't really see how saying that babies don't have an old life to die to can be interpeted as anything but a rejection of Original Sin. If babies are not born with a old life to die to then at one point do they get one?

Anonymous said...

God does the baptizing but with the liturgy/baptismal covenant, are there not promises we make in community as people of faith? God does it but we as the community & the parents play a role in nurturing the child in the faith.

JonAltman said...

You conflate four likely outdated pieces of "conventional wisdom" about church administration with a core part of United Methodist doctrine. If you reject the threefold "Way of Salvation"-Prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace-why would you choose to continue being a United Methodist pastor?

Dalton said...

Rev. Davis:
First, thank you for your honesty. As I am sure you have seen, your post today has created some level of controversy. I appreciate honesty in all its forms, even (and perhaps especially) when I disagree.

That said, I have an honest question that I hope you will address. Here is my question:

Suppose I posted, on my personal blog, that in my capacity as a United Methodist clergyperson, I regularly perform same-sex marriages. How would you respond to that statement? Would you think I deserve to be brought up on charges? Would you give me latitude to act upon my interpretation of the Discipline, or of Scripture?

And, if as I suspect based upon some of your other writings, you would argue that I deserve to have my credentials revoked as a United Methodist pastor, how would the scenario I have described be different than what you've argued for here as it relates to your theology (and practice) of baptism?

I hope you do not discern ill-will in my question. I am legitimately interested in your response. Again, thanks for your honesty.

Talbot Davis said...

1. Celebrating or dedicating a baby in a corporate worship service is just as compelling a portrait of prevenient grace as is infant baptism. Mary and Joseph would probably agree.

2. If mode of baptism (either age of the baptized or amount of water used) is a core doctrine on the order of eternal salvation, authority of Scipture, and the ultimate resurrection of the dead, we've got other issues to discuss. That we baptize is core; its mode, I suggest, is not.

Talbot Davis said...

Dalton - Fair question, and one I have been asked before. Thank you for the tone as well.

I would answer that infant dedication and believer baptism are part of the UMC's EUB heritage. I would also answer that infant dedication and believer baptism have long been part of UMC practice in the Midwest and South, whether acknowledged or not. And finally, I do believe with great confidence that the practice of believer baptism is firmly grounded in the story of Scripture while the practice of same-sex marriage is not.

Perhaps, in the spirit of things, it's time for a group of us like minded fans of immersion fans to petition General Conference that we as a denomination change the Discipline's wording so that it will embrace the kind of baptismal diversity that already exists.

Dalton said...

Thanks for the response. Tone matters, and I appreciate the engagement. I don't mean to get into an] drawn-out argument--but I do want to respond once (and then I'll stop holding your blog hostage!).

I am wondering two things. First, as to my original question, why should you not be brought up on charges for this teaching and practice?

And second, perhaps there is an argument to be made for preferring adult baptism (not an argument I am partial to, but I will acknowledge its legitimacy)--but I am having real trouble with the idea of laypeople baptizing other laypeople in a non-emergency situation. I have trouble with most of the baptismal theology you've laid out here, but none more than this issue. Would you say a word about how you feel this practice is keeping with United Methodist theology as presently laid out in the Book of Discipline? If it isn't, and you are appealing to scripture above the Discipline, what is it that makes your understanding of scripture (as it relates to your view baptism) stand above my view of scripture (as it relates to my understanding of divine covenant,
love, and same-sex marriage)? In other words, what privileges your reading of scripture over mine?

Thanks for the dialog. It is helpful in our polarized church.

Gavin Lance Presley said...

Whether you believe it with great confidence, that has not been the determination of the United Methodist Church. There are plenty who believe with the same level of confidence that same sex marriage is acceptable. As someone who has made vows to uphold the Discipline, your personal confidence is not at issue, especially for someone who seems be willing to stand against those who break the parts of the Discipline, or Methodist tradition, with which you agree.

RevNeal said...

The official teaching of the General Conference of the UMC on Baptism, entitled: "By Water and the Spirit," does NOT say that "God baptizes". It is not that simple. Rather, it says (I am paraphrasing) that baptism is an act of God through the agency of the church. Also, the "...and the Spirit" part of Baptism should cause you pause in your assertion that God doesn't baptize; while humans apply water, only God can baptize someone in the spirit. To reference the classical definition of a sacrament, applying it specifically here: "Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." That inward and spiritual grace is "Jesus saving us." The outward sign, water baptism, is the visible means of grace that externally actualizes that internal reality. Sadly, you have jettisoned sacramentality in favor of the Zwinglianism. Put another way, he has denied means-of-grace theology in favor of ordinance theology.

I cannot help but wonder if you have done the same thing relative to Holy Communion?

Robert C said...

Why I believe in infant baptism
1. Baptism is not an optional extra for Christians. Despite the exegetical wrigglings of some, this seems to me to be obvious. Jesus commissioned his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (Matt 28:20); and the practice of baptism accompanying conversion to Christian faith is taken for granted throughout the New Testament (e.g. Acts 8:37), and used as the basis of theological reflection (e.g. Rom 6:4). The argument that when Paul refers to Christians being buried with Christ in baptism (e.g. Col 2:12) he means Christ’s death—his “baptism” (Mark 10:38)—seems to me inadequate: it doesn’t account for Jesus command, and it ignores straightforward evidence like John 4:1–2, Acts 10:47, and 1 Corinthians 1:13–17. Baptism with water was normal for Christians from day one. It came from Jesus. We should keep doing it.
2. Baptism is a sign, a visible word, of new life in Christ. However, it is not identical with this reality. A sign is not the thing it signifies. It is connected to it; but they are distinct. Emphatically, therefore, baptism does not equal conversion, it signifies it; it proclaims it, but it does not achieve it. People are not saved by being baptized; they are saved, and this is depicted and announced in baptism.
3. A sign, then, is not the same thing as the reality it signifies. It seems to me that one interesting implication of this is that there is nothing essentially wrong about baptizing someone at a time quite removed from the moment they confess Christian faith. Someone who has been a follower of Jesus for years can still be meaningfully baptized; and a baptism is not rendered meaningless because the child does not responsibly own their faith for some years to come — indeed, does any baptism actually coincide with the event of conversion?
4. But correspondingly, infant baptism is also not ruled in by the argument that people can be Christian their whole lives long! Why not let everyone, then, be baptized as an adult? Yet we shouldn’t confuse what is logically legitimate with what is best practice. It makes sense for the sign of baptism to relate temporally to the reality of coming to faith. That’s why new converts are normally baptized soonish, and it’s why, I think, the New Testament so often speaks of people’s baptism as the moment they were saved (e.g. Galatians 3:27). But it’s for precisely this reason that it makes sense for many people who grow up as Christians to be baptized as infants; or do we want to reject the possibility that someone can grow up as a believer even from their earliest days?
5. But, someone may protest, what good is a sign that I can’t remember! I think three things need to be said here. First, baptism is not just a sign for the candidate; it is also for the congregation, including Christian parents. Why should they be denied the assurance and comfort that comes from baptism? Yes, there are those who grow up to repudiate their infant baptism; but there are also those who don’t, and the former case should not tarnish the later. This is especially relevant for parents of a child who dies early. What are we saying by refusing to baptize such a child. Again, do we not think God can save children? Second: that said, however, the sign is, centrally, for the benefit of the person being baptized. This must, therefore, be taken into account in infant baptism, where the candidate cannot normally remember the event. So the parents have the obligation of assuring the child of her baptism and explaining its significance — baptism certificates are very valuable here. Also, if you are going to baptize infants, you’ve got to have something like confirmation, a moment when the person claims their baptism as his own.

Chuck Layton said...

I would suggest that all United Methodists, and all Christians! read both John Wesley's "A Treatise on Baptism" (Works, vol. X); and "By Water and the Spirit."
Wesley gives the most lucid, spiritual and doctrinal answer to why we do what we do that I can imagine.

Robert C said...

6. So what is baptism then? Baptism is, very basically, a sign, a symbolic act, a ritual that signifies something, or as theology has typically called it, a sacrament. What does baptism signify? Most fundamentally, baptism signifies what happens when a person’s life is transformed by Jesus. Baptism is a sign of new birth with Christ. There are two aspects to this. First, baptism signifies the washing, or cleansing from sin, that comes through union with Christ (e.g. 1 Cor 6:11). Second, baptism symbolizes burial and resurrection, going down and coming up. This is a bit less obvious; and especially when you don’t have some kind of full immersion in water going on it’s not very clear. But it’s still there, as it should be, as Paul draws heavily on this image: “we were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom 6:4). Baptism symbolically enacts how a person’s life is transformed by Christ: they are cleansed of their sins, they die and rise again, there is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).
7. There is a sense, therefore, in which baptism is a word. Baptism says something; it proclaims a reality: “this woman’s life has been recreated in Christ”. Sacraments have thus been understood in Christian history as “visible words”, but whose word? Not the minister’s, nor the candidate’s, GOD’s. Baptism is a visible word from God, a divinely given announcement of the definitive reality of a particular life.

Morgan Guyton said...

What you're missing here is the sacramental component of baptism. As an ordinance of obedience, baptism affirms the individualist paradigm for understanding discipleship that is ubiquitous to American evangelicalism. As a sacramental, God-initiated act, baptism involves being incorporated into a body that is greater than the sum of its parts. When you de-sacramentalize faith, then Christian "faith" has nothing to do with being a body. Faith basically becomes a word for following all the rules in the Bible, one of which is to deny emphatically that that's what you're doing since we're not justified by works (except for the work of "believing" the Bible). Having grown up Baptist and converted to Methodism, I'm very concerned about the way that Baptists have fallen into what I would call the Pelagianism of "justification by correct doctrine." I don't have any problem with believer's baptism; let's just not belittle infant baptism.

Robert C said...

8. Infant baptism has a few other significant pluses.
First, infant baptism detaches the sign of baptism from any particular response made by the individual (though it emphatically does not detach it from response per se). This can be appropriate and, indeed, helpful for people who grow into faith and along the way make many responses, perhaps of increasing maturity and comprehension, none of which can be identified as “the moment” they became a Christian without some arbitrariness and doubt. Indeed, all types of baptism can play this role, of bringing a clarity and unity to what was a complex and sometimes drawn out process in someone’s life by declaring, “this is what has happened here, in this person’s journey, they have been saved”. Infant baptism does the same thing, just at a different moment.
Second, infant baptism makes it plain that salvation is more about God’s work than our response. It is only God’s sovereign, powerful grace that saves anyone; and God can save even helpless, dependent children — indeed only helpless, dependent children (cf. Mark 10:13–16).
Third, infant baptism reminds us that God can and does save people who cannot make an intelligent response, whether they be children, or the mentally ill or severely disabled, or perhaps the senile. To say that only those who make an intelligent response can be baptized is to shut God’s mercy off from those we know receive it.

Talbot Davis said...

Robert, thank you for the thoroughness of your response. I appreciate it even if I prefer the brevity of this paragraph from the post itself:

Whether it's Peter's emphatic "Repent and be baptized" in Acts 2:38 or the wandering Ephesians who get re-baptized in Acts 19:1-7 or even Paul's subtle yet unmistakable picture of baptism-by-immersion in Romans 6:3-5, the New Testament is consistent and clear: people choose their own baptism. They come to faith and then to make that faith public, they get wet.

Chris Thayer said...

What’s interesting is seeing how much of these comments against what Talbot has said relate to sacraments, church doctrine, and conjecture – and how little of them grapple with the actual text of Scripture. That alone should make us stop and say “huh?”

Bob d said...

Baptism is being obedient to God's following,nothing more nothing less. Phillip and the eunich. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say be baptized then saved. As far as same sex marriage,if this is permitted in the church you attend,this is telling me the Bible is not taken as being the whole truth. As Jesus said, do not be conformed to this world, the church(not the building, but the people) should be different and accept the Bible as the total truth of every word written in the Book.

Robert C said...

Jesus is God and Man.
Baptism is about solidarity to GOD and one another.
Baptism affirms our belief in the Gospel.
What links us together is our visible solidarity manifested by Baptism.
Why did Jesus volunteer for Baptism, for Solidarity w/humanity.

Don Lail said...

I agree with Morgan Guyton. "I don't have any problem with believer's baptism; let's just not belittle infant baptism." Melanie and I had all three of our daughters baptized at Good Shepherd as infants. My parents had all of their children baptized as infants in the Methodist church. To suggest that my parents and I baptized our children "the wrong way" is offensive.

Sean said...

Robert C, I agree with much of what you said, except with your conclusion about infant baptism. You said clearly that baptism is a symbolic act, a sign, a "visible word." You said that they are not saved by being baptized, but baptism proclaims this inner reality. all good. However, this indicates that as a symbolic act, or sign, or outward proclamation, baptism MUST follow a conscious and willful conversion. If the reality has not yet been experienced, then the act of baptism is devoid of any and all meaning. this clearly must reflect the usefulness of infant baptism. it is one of the reasons I appreciate so dearly infant dedication within the church community. It keeps in mind and heart the need for the body to function together spiritually, as well as the need for the parents to take full responsibility for their children's spiritual foundation.

Scott said...

I've long said that a UMC pastor would find himself at odds with his colleagues if he disagreed about infant baptism more than if he disagreed over condoning homosexuality...I might be right given the response here.

Talbot Davis said...


Tinman said...

Rev. Davis,

This was an interesting read, while I find myself a bit more progressive than you, especially in terms of sexuality and soteriology, I find that I agree with you a bit more than I thought I would. I especially like your comment: "the bible is not a book; it's a library."
In your comments,it appears your aim was not to offer solutions but to simply defend your own positions. You do that well in a very small space. I would welcome an expansion of this piece. Perhaps an "unpacking" of each section? (Perhaps this is something you've done in earlier posts; this is my first visit.)
You make an important contribution by helping to "name" the issues. To that end, I am not sure it is helpful to name our disagreement as one over textual authority. For me, that seems to set up a divisive dynamic of right vs. wrong. Perhaps framing it as a problem of interpretation would allow us, in spite of our theological disputes, to figure out how to bridge divides, or bypass completely, arguments over specific theological issues so we can work on the larger effort of "Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World."

I earnestly pray that we find a way to resolve, or at least set aside our differences to work for the greater Glory of God.

Peace and Good,
Jay Elliott

Talbot Davis said...

Thank you, Jay.

I hope I didn't use just "textual" authority ... I did mean a different perspective on Scripture and history.

But thank you for your contribution here. I don't know if or when I'll be able to unpack much of the above; I'm better at short form these days.

Where are you in ministry?