The free church tradition, not just the EFCA, has had a strong emphasis on the doctrine of salvation and a generally weak understanding of the doctrine of the church.
This has generally led to a weak understanding of the ordinances and how they function within the church.
This is one of the reasons we focused on the topic we did at last year’s Theology Conference: The Doctrine of the Church: The Embodiment of the Gospel
One of the messages focused on the church and the understanding and practice of the ordinances. Michael Lawrence, in the second lecture, addressed “The Church: A Visible Community – Boundary Markers of the Community.” (For a recent treatment of this, cf. the book he referenced by Bobby Jamieson, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership.) Lawrence delivered this message as a Baptist (with a capital “B”) to a group that is baptist (with a small “b”).
In the Free Church we primarily affirm believer baptism by immersion, but we will not divide over the time and mode of baptism. This means what matters for church membership is that one be born again, regenerate, converted, a believer. That is to say, if one was baptized as an infant and they are truly born again today, and they do not consider their baptism to be their salvation, it is not required that they be baptized by immersion prior to becoming a member. It is here we will not divide. So time (infant or older) and mode (immersion or sprinkling) are matters in which we will have a view and hold it strongly and we will discuss/debate it, but we will not divide over it. For a brief explanation of this, read Baptism: Infant and Believer.
It is vital to note the importance of baptism. Requiring baptism is a mandate. However, providing charity on time and mode, a unique Free Church perspective, adds an important theological and ecclesiological aspect to the understanding and practice of baptism. This is different than not requiring baptism at all for membership (to say nothing of the intimate and organic relationship it has to the Lord’s Supper). Requiring no baptism at all has no New Testament support and has no historical precedent in the church.
In the lecture delivered by Lawrence, he helped us to realize the importance of the ordinances for the church. Because it was from a Baptist perspective, it raised important questions for those baptists in the Free Church. Agree or disagree, no one gets a pass, and all must understand what the Scriptures teach and how that ought to be applied in the church today.
The lecture generated a great deal of discussion. I was grateful since it enabled us to have this discussion about the ordinances in the Free Church, that are often treated more as adiaphora, matters of indifference, rather than critical to the life and ministry of the church.
Because Lawrence had to deliver his lecture virtually, I prepared questions for discussion. I include them below as questions to ponder as we seek to reflect in our understanding and practice the teaching and truth of the Scriptures.
Questions for Thought and Discussion
A Couple of Statements/Sentiments Regarding the Free Church and Ordinances (real statements made but not necessarily true or accurate)
- “What is required to be a member in the local church is nothing more than what is required to be a member in the true church.”
- “It is contrary to Free Church history and polity to require baptism for membership.”
Soteriology and Ecclesiology
- What is the connection between the gospel and the church?
- What is the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology?
- Is the church the plural of Christian? Or is it an authorized community with delegated authority of the king to show what the kingdom of God is like?
Ecclesiology: Ordinances, Membership and Discipline
- What is the connection between salvation and baptism?
- Should baptism be a requirement for church membership, in any mode?
- What is the role of church membership?
- Should baptism be a prerequisite for communion?
- What is the role of discipline in the life of the church?
- What authority does the local church have?
Michael argues that the gospel creates the church and the church embodies the gospel, and the means by which this corporate covenant community is manifest is in the ordinances, membership and discipline, which are three ways to talk about the same truth.
- With what do you agree/disagree?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses in the Free Church?
- What about your own understanding of the gospel and practice of the ordinances?