Church In The Power of the Spirit (2022)
In this paper I will examine Moltmann’s understanding of church as it was 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 views in order to show that he largely agrees with those Baptist views. Wright considered ‘The Church in the Power of the Spirit’ to be the best ‘baptist’ book on church available, despite it not being written by a Baptist.
I will look at believer’s baptism, (not just adult baptism) free church, (not state church) Reformation, the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the Christ, and priesthood 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 the believer’s feelings, but that it is rather an act of obedience for adults and young people 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 thought that way, too: ‘The order of the New Testament churches is: first faith, then baptism.’ Indeed, Moltmann declared clearly that ‘Baptism cannot be without faith.’ He spoke of proclamation and faith preceding baptism, and declared that infant baptism ‘cannot be justified.’
For Moltmann, baptism was ‘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 many Baptist churches think about baptism today. Many Baptist churches practise baptism after education and as a consequence of understanding that education, rather than baptism being a response of obedience. That is not Moltmann’s way, and his way was 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 completely separate, and Baptists reject totalitarianism; instead they emphasize freedom of conscience and religious liberty. Wright said 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 always a compromised church, and they look for church and state to be separate, though knowing that church will certainly have an impact on the state. 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 one-person-one-vote democracy.) Church for Baptists is therefore not about imposed rule from denominational leadership outside the church. Weaver declared that ‘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 work and walk together, giving themselves to both 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 congregations, but autonomy is not independence; for Baptist churches practice interdependence and are associated with other 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 has historically been 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 effectively 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 recounted what happens when Christian community and civil community coincide and the church becomes the state church. He detailed 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.
CHURCH IN REFORMATION
According to Haymes, Baptist life is not fixed and Baptists remain open to new things that God will show by his Spirit. Now there is a thought to meditate on for quite some time, because it is all too common for Baptist churches to lay down a foundation that will never be shaken or moved. Cook recorded that Helwys, who was the founder of the first Baptist church in England and the first Baptist minister to give his life for his faith, ‘was convinced that the Church of God as a whole has departed from its fundamental conception, and even the Reformation needed to be reformed.’
Thus the Reformation should, according to Baptists, be seen not so much as one event of past history, but rather as the beginning of a reformation process in which we are still intimately involved. The church evolved differently in different ties and cultures, and no one type of church should ever see itself as the finished or complete product. As Webbers said, ‘The church throughout history has unfolded in many cultures and therefore no one expression of the church stands alone as the true visible body of Christ.’
All that church is and does is always open to change according to Baptists. Once again this is the theory, but it would be very easy to believe otherwise when looking at the Baptist churches across our nation. A ‘holy discontent’ with remaining the same has often long been replaced by a holy distrust of anything new or different. Nevertheless, this ‘holy discontent’ with the status quo is an important principle of church life. According to Vos, ‘The church’s doctrine, worship, government, discipline, missionary activities, educational institutions, publications, and practical life – all these are to be progressively reformed according to Scripture.’ Yet, many Baptist churches see the Reformation as an event in history and not as a process that they are currently involved in and part of.
Fiddes declared: ‘Those who have hope refuse to regard any structures as final or sacrosanct, in church or society. They have a holy discontent that is always breaking open old structures and institutions to find new life.’ Oh, that Baptist churches were indeed always longing for more of Christ, and longing to discover new things and new ways of being in Christ! The constantly reforming congregation that involves everyone in the church is what McClendon was looking for: ‘Here, then, is the challenge of radical reformation in ministry: not a set-apart ministry of those who work for God while others work for themselves, and not a flock of secular “callings” (doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief) tended by a shepherd with a religious calling (priest or preacher, pope or pastor), but a people set apart, earning their daily bread in honest toil, to be sure, but living to become for others the bread of life.’
What of Moltmann? Speaking of an ongoing reformation in church, he observed that the current situation in his day meant that ‘the theological doctrine of the church cannot simply be expressed in abstract terms about the church’s timeless nature. It will have to provide points of departure for reforming the church, for giving it a more authentic form.’ As Moltmann observed only too well, ‘not every church is a “Reformation” church in the sense that it expresses its vitality through continual reforms.’ But he declared that every church needed constant reformation. How far have Baptist churches moved away from that kind of thinking and being?
When Moltmann wrote “The Church in the Power of the Spirit”, his practical concern was indeed continuing church reform, and he added these concerns to the postscript of the 1989 edition of his book. His concern grew ever larger in the years after the book was originally published, and he wanted the religious institution of church to be constantly being reformed into a congregational or community church in the midst of the people and with the people. He said that ‘it is a path which we can take only if we are prepared to break away from passive church membership and to start out on a new journey, entering into the active participation in the life of the congregation.’ Moltmann was not a Baptist, but he held a truly Baptist view of the need for ongoing reformation in church.
THE LORD’S SUPPER
The Lord’s Supper is, according to Jones, the focal point for Baptist believers to ‘gather and share together in thanksgiving and fellowship with each other and with the Lord Jesus, who summons us to the feast.’ The meal is not a mere remembrance service, for remembrance services remember and honour the dead; but the Lord’s Supper has the joy and celebration of the foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come, as well as revisiting the cost that Jesus paid to make our salvation possible. Baptists remember not only the agony that Jesus endured, but also the resurrection on the third day; in this way the Lord’s Supper looks backwards and forwards, for this same Jesus will return. As Beasley-Murray said, ‘To celebrate the Lord’s Supper is to receive yet another opportunity to encounter the risen Lord.’
Moltmann spoke of the Lord’s Supper as the ‘feat of his presence surrounded by the remembrance of his death and the expectation of his coming,’ which is expected in a ‘universal, all-embracing and openly manifest form.’ Moltmann expected to encounter the Lord in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper for him was ‘the sign of the actualizing remembrance of the liberating suffering of Christ’ and, as such, ‘it is the prefiguration of Christ’s redeeming future and glory.’ Moltmann said that ‘In this meal [Christ’s] past and his future are simultaneously made present.’ Therefore, to speak of remembrance is to speak of presence, so that Moltann said, ‘It is not the historical remembrance as such which provides the foundation for the Lord’s Supper, but the presence of the crucified one in the Spirit of the resurrection.’ Such a Lord’s Supper is far removed from my own experience of Baptist churches, where it was usually merely a remembrance service.
AUTHORITY OF THE CHRIST
The written authority for believing and acting as Baptists do are the Scriptures, which is their written guide in matters of belief and behaviour. Nevertheless, the Baptist Union of Great Britain declare that the Lord Jesus Christ ‘is the sole and absolute authority in all matters retaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.’ Speaking of Baptists, McClendon said that ‘The foundation of the church is not democracy but theocracy, not the rule of spiritual commoners or of spiritual aristocrats, but only the “devouring fire” from the throne of the God of peace.’ In McClendon’s words, Jesus ‘is the center of the community, its stylist and living authority.’
Jesus is the personal sole authority of all matters of faith, and Deweese said that ‘Baptists view the entire Bible as the sole written authority for their faith.’ Therefore, as Wright said, the Bible should be read ‘through Christ who is the clearest revelation of the Father and from this core a theology of the Triune God emerges in the light of which the individual texts of Scripture may be understood in true perspective.’ In other words, the Bible is the message that testifies to Jesus who is Lord. The Bible has authority, but its authority is that its writings reveal and testify to God’s Christ and show him to be the focal point of history. In so doing the Bible makes plain that it, too, is the servant of Christ and not his master. The center of the message is the person and work of Jesus Christ. ‘The Bible is the authoritative interpretation of this event,’ said Webber.
The Baptist Union of Scotland recognises that ‘even Reformed and other conservative Christian theologians have allowed that while Jesus is the one mediator between God and humans, we cannot rule out Messiah’s freedom to express mercy through unusual means in the world at large.’ (Such as dreams, visions, insights, general revelation, and common grace, etc.) Jesus is the Christ is Lord; the Bible is not God.
Moltmann saw the traditional church as declining and said that ‘when traditions are imperilled by insecurity, the church is thrown back to its roots. It will take its bearings even more emphatically than before from Jesus, his history, his presence and his future. As the church of Jesus Christ is fundamentally dependent on him, and on him alone.’ Even more strongly he proclaimed that ‘it is only where Christ alone rules, and the church listens to his voice only, that the church arrives at its truth and becomes a free and liberating power in the world.’ The authority of Christ who is Lord has a direct bearing on the form of church that is manifest at any time. ‘As Christian theology, theology has to remind the church of the lordship of Christ and has to insist that the church’s form be an authentic one.’ Moltmann was firmly centred on Jesus who is the Christ who is Lord.
PRIESTHOOD AND MINISTRY OF ALL BELIEVERS
According to Haymes, Baptists believe that ‘every Christian is commissioned to share in the work of God.’ Central to this is the need of people for conversion to Christ and in this way for them to become Christ’s disciples. Every Baptist Christian ministers to others with the gifts given to them by God, and every Baptist, as a part of the church, has the authority to operate on God’s behalf. This means for Beasley-Murray that no mediator priest is needed for we are all priests; ‘in spiritual terms we are all equal before God.’
Baptists are to be witnesses under God so that the gospel that is about Jesus might reach to the furthest corners of the earth, and the name of Jesus be glorified. But the work of God in the world can only be done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in her power. Baptists recognise that only the Holy Spirit by her power can change a person on the inside – doctrine, theology, and good intention, cannot achieve it. Thus Baptists must make disciples, not merely converts, and discipleship involves the whole person, and therefore the whole person’s lifestyle; this in turn impacts the world as Christian community demonstrates social justice and true love for one another. ‘Making disciples involves the church,’ as Beasley-Murray pointed out, and ‘Jesus calls his followers not to make converts, but to make disciples – disciples baptised into the body.’
Moltmann certainly believed in the priesthood and ministry of all believers. ‘Basically, all Christians participate in the kingly service of the Son of man and are witnesses of his liberating rule in their ecclesiastical life, as well as in their social one.’ That equality in the Son crossed every human barrier and prejudice for Moltmann, who made no distinction between any human beings. As well declaring equality in gifts, callings and function, Moltmann also made clear his position that women have an equal belonging in the church and its leadership, when he declareds that ‘inhumane barriers dividing men and women from one another can be broken down, and the power of male domination in the church, and the powerlessness of women, will be made plain.’ In this he is far more Baptist than many Baptists.
What, then, shall we say in response to Moltmann? He may ask why the Baptist Churches are not as he described. He may ask why the idea of democracy has so infected Baptist Churches that it has reduced the church leaders to ‘yes men’. He may also ask how Baptist Churches can marginalise women to such a massive extent as they still do. He may well ask why so many Baptist churches aren’t Baptist at all. I ask these and many other questions too.
Balfour, I L S, The Baptists in Scotland, (Glasgow, The Baptist Union of Scotland, 1988)
Baptist Union of Scotland, Heart, Mind and Mission, (Glasgow, Baptist Union of Scotland, 2001)
Beasley-Murray, P, Believers’ Baptism, Baptist Basics
Beasley-Murray, P, Dynamic Leadership, (Eastbourne, MARC, 1990)
Beasley-Murray, P, Radical Believers, (Oxfordshire, Baptist Union of Great Britain, 1992)
Clement, A S (Editor), Baptists Who Made History, (London, Carey Kingsgate Press, 1955)
Deweese, C W (Editor), Defining Baptist Convictions, (Tennessee, Providence House Publishers, 1996)
Fiddes, P S, Past Event and Present Salvation, (London, Darton Longman and Todd, 1989)
Greenshields, J, Presidential Address to Baptist Union of Scotland Assembly 2001, ‘The Scottish Baptist Year Book’, (Glasgow, Baptist Union of Scotland, 2001)
Grenz, S J, Theology for the Community of God, (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1994)
Haymes, B, Why Be A Baptist?, Baptist Basics
Hromádka, J L, ‘The Church Of The Reformation Faces Today’s Challenges’, Theology Today, Vol VI No 4, January 1950, pages 446-464
Jones, K G, The Lord’s Supper, Baptist Basics
Lotz, D, ‘Baptist Identity In Changing Times!’, Baptist World, Vol 49, No 3, July/September 2002, page 17
McClendon, J W, Doctrine, Systematic Theology Vol 2, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994) page 369
Moltmann, J, The Church In The Power Of The Spirit, Second Edition, (London, SCM Press, 1992)
Vos, J G, ‘A Call To Reformation’, The Banner Of Truth, No XVI, August 1959, pages 10-14
Weaver, J, The Church Meeting, Baptist Basics
Webber, R E, Ancient-Future Faith, (Michigan, Baker Books, 1999)
Wright, N G, New Baptists, New Agenda, (Carlisle, Cumbria, 2002)
Wright, N G, Radical Dissent, Baptist Basics