Church In The Power of the Spirit (1)
In this paper I will examine Moltmann’s understanding of church as revealed in his book ‘The Church in the Power of the Spirit’. To do this, I will outline six of the most important characteristics of a Baptist understanding of church as defined by a number of Baptists (and others), and then look at Moltmann’s view in order to show that he agrees with the Baptist views. Wright considered it the best ‘baptist’ book on church available, despite not being written by a Baptist.
I will look at believer’s baptism (not adult baptism), free church (not state church), Reformation, the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the Christ, the priesthood of all believers and the ministry of all believers.
BELIEVER’S (WATER) BAPTISM
The Baptist view is that baptism is for believers only (not just adult believers only) and that baptism is not dependent upon feelings, but that it is rather an act of obedience for adults and young believers alike. ‘A theology of conversion is at the heart of the Baptist understanding of baptism,’ says Beasley-Murray, for ‘part of the process of becoming a Christian is being baptised.’
Baptism is not regarded by Baptists as an optional extra, but as a necessary part of the discipleship process by virtue of the command of Christ, the example of Christ, and the practice of the early church. The early church certainly practised believer’s baptism and, for Beasley-Murray, a look through the book of Acts makes it ‘quite clear that baptism was an integral part of church life.’
Moltann certainly thinks this way, too: ‘The order of the New Testament churches is: first faith, then baptism.’ Indeed, Moltmann declares clearly that ‘Baptism cannot be without faith.’ He speaks of proclamation and faith preceding baptism, and proclaims that infant baptism ‘cannot be justified.’ For Moltmann, baptism is ‘a call in faith,’ which ‘demonstrates the believer’s new identity in the fellowship of Christ and proves him to be an heir of the divine future.’
What Moltmann says strikes at the heart of the common way that Baptist churches think about baptism today. Many practise baptism after education about baptism and as a consequence of understanding the education rather than obedience to the Christ into whom they are baptised. This is not Moltmann’s way, and his way is much closer to true Baptist practice than many Baptist churches today.
FREE (NOT STATE) CHURCH
The Baptist view is that church and the state should be separate, and Baptists reject totalitarianism; instead they emphasize freedom of conscience and religious liberty. Wright says that ‘Because of their history and in faithfulness to Christ, Baptists resist attempts to impose beliefs and ideologies upon people and are opposed to any discrimination against people on the basis of what they believe.’
Hromádka says that ‘The real Church does not live by a religious and moral cultural tradition, but by the Word of the living God, which proclaims judgment over kings and priests, over the rulers and the governed, over the ecclesiastical and social institutions.’
Baptists, then, while treasuring religious freedom, see that their faith has a major impact upon the world in which they live. They understand that a state church is a compromised church, and look for church and state to be separate, though knowing that church will have an impact on the state, just as the state will have an impact on the church.
The church is the community of the covenant people of God and, for Grenz, it is ‘the sign of the eschatological kingdom.’ The church has a now and then aspect to it – what it is now and what it will be in the new heaven and the new earth.
Baptists practise congregational government by Theocracy – the rule of God through his people (at least in theory – though in reality many Baptists think they operate a holy democracy). Church for Baptists is therefore not about imposed rule from denominational leadership outside the church. As Weaver declared, ‘in a Baptist church it is not the minister, leaders or deacons who make all the decisions but the whole church, that is, all its members, meeting together.’ For Baptists, then, church is supremely about a gathered community of believers who walk together, giving themselves to the Lord and to one another.
Weaver again: ‘The church is seen as the assembly of those who truly believe, the gathering of the committed, a community of disciples covenanted to walk together in mutual correction and discipline with Christ as the head.’ Such a church could not accept an imposed leadership from outside the church, but whether they could and should accept guidance and voluntary leadership from outside the church is another matter entirely.
Baptists recognise the autonomy of the local congregation, but autonomy is not independence; for Baptist churches practice interdependence and are associated with Baptist and other churches in the area. That is the theory, at least. Therefore, Balfour declared that ‘the (Scottish Baptist) churches continue to be bound together as a denomination by the Baptist Union of Scotland.’ The Baptist Union of Scotland is an advisory body, and not an external leadership body.
Lotz speaks of ‘a strong historical understanding that the local church is not alone but stands in community with other local churches … on a voluntary basis with no connectional authority of one church over another!’ Like Wright, I do, however, recognise that ‘it is an enduring and continually repeated flaw (in the Baptist way) of being church that autonomy becomes independency.’ In like manner, Theocracy becomes democracy and leadership is paralysed.
As John Greenshields said, ‘the autonomy of the local church is a firmly held Baptist principle. All too easily it can spill over into sinful independence which keeps us apart from real sharing with fellow Baptist churches, to say nothing of other churches around us.’ Nevertheless, that autonomy is fundamental to the Baptist way of being church.
Moltmann recounts what happens when Christian community and civil community coincide and the church becomes the state church. He details that part of what happens is that ‘church fellowship becomes not so much fellowship in the church as fellowship with the church. The sacraments of … baptism and the Lord’s Supper recede behind the clerical ministrations of infant baptism, confirmation, the marriage ceremony, and burial.’
For Moltmann, this ‘establishment Christianity can only be lived by making a compromise with family, professional, social and political laws and duties.’ Instead Moltmann speaks about the unity of freedom of the gathered congregation, which is not to be confused with unanimity or uniformity. Everyone has a place to belong and is given the room that they need to grow and develop; it is what Moltmann called ‘unity in diversity and freedom.’ This is Moltmann’s way, and it is the Baptist way.