While walking to church at RISE United Methodist Church this morning, I thought about yesterday’s events. Walking often provides a good opportunity to reflect and I strongly encourage you to do so as well. However, sometimes these walks can be unplanned, such as when you accidentally lock yourself out. Anyway, as I thought about my visit to a Baptist church last night in Broadway, Virginia, to hear a gospel/bluegrass group, I realized that it had been quite a while since I last visited a Baptist church. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time that I had done so.
I thought back to my time in the church of my youth, which, at least for the moment, is part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Specifically, I remembered the Book of Confessions, which, along with the Book of Order, governs the major theological and organizational structure of the denomination. Many of you might think it odd that a rank and file member would read such a book, but I believe that knowledge is valuable and one should strive to learn something new everyday. Anyway, as I recalled from reading that book a few years ago, the PCUSA didn’t have anything good to say about believer baptism and the Anabaptists. Although scholars debate the extent of the influence, Baptists churches share some views and history with the Anabaptist movement. And, there are direct successors to the Anabaptist movement, such as the Mennonites and the Amish.
Once I got home, I found the Book of Confessions and looked up what was written about the Anabaptists. You could hardly call the answer conciliatory. For example, it includes the Second Helvetic Confession, which reads, “ANABAPTISTS. We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that new-born infants of the faithful are to be baptized.” It goes on to add, “…we condemn also the Anabaptists in the rest of their peculiar doctrines which they hold contrary to the Word of God. We therefore are not Anabaptists and have nothing in common with them.”
Think about that idea for a moment. “We condemn…the Anabaptists…and have nothing in common with them.” Aren’t both Presbyterians and Anabaptists part of the larger Christian community? Don’t they both desire to promote the message and teachings of Jesus to the world? And yet here we have the Presbyterians openly denouncing the Anabaptists, declaring that they have nothing in common.
However, you shouldn’t think that this one mention is some outlier of the disdain the Presbyterians have for the Anabaptists. Similar thoughts also show up elsewhere in the Second Helvetic Confession as well as in The Scots Confession.
Now, to be fair, although I grew up in a Presbyterian Church, I agree with the Baptists and the Mennonites on the issue of infant baptism. I think that each person should be allowed to make the decision for him or herself whether or not to be baptized. Baptism, in my mind, is an outward demonstration to the community of a believer’s faith in Jesus Christ. I admit that I am disappointed that I was baptized when I was a child and thus was not given the opportunity to make this decision for myself freely.
Yes, there are a wide variety of Christian denominations, each with varying beliefs on issues of baptism, communion, structure and leadership of the church, and a whole host of other theological and organizational issues. On many matters the Bible is either silent or has been interpreted in different ways by a variety of church leaders. That’s one reason why there are so many denominations in Christianity today.
However, the Anabaptists aren’t alone in earning the Presbyterians’ condemnation in the Book of Confessions. Included as well are: The Roman Catholic Church, Epicureans, Manichaeans, Marcionites, Pelagians, Jovinians, Stoics, Navatianos, Catharists, not to mention both the Jews and the Muslims.
It should be noted that in the preface of the Book of Confessions, the PCUSA adds, “Specific statements in 16th and 17th century confessions and catechisms in the Book of Confessions contain condemnations or derogatory characterizations of the Roman Catholic Church.” However, these “condemnations and characterizations of the Catholic Church are not the position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and are not applicable to current relationships between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Catholic Church.” Nevertheless, I can find no mention of any retraction of the harsh language against the Anabaptists, others who oppose infant baptism, or any of the other listed groups.
Through my studies I have come to reject most of the Reformed Tradition that underpins Presbyterian doctrine. However, is it useful to wholesale condemn those “peculiar” Anabaptists, those incorrect Presbyterians, or any other denomination? Although I attend a Methodist church, I disagree with them on the issue of baptism. Nevertheless, aren’t we all brothers and sisters in the larger body of Christ even when our theology divides us? How is it helpful to the larger ideals of Christianity to have Christians displaying such rancor toward each other? Should we be teaching hate over issues that the average Christian probably doesn’t think much about? And what purpose does it serve to condemn the Jewish or the Muslims? Is it possible to engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue using such language? Or is it the desire of some church leaders to keep us in open hostility with each other? Couldn’t we instead simply state that we have major theological disagreements without all of the condemnation? One of my best friends growing up was a Mennonite. Should I have had nothing to do with him or those who share his beliefs as the doctrines of my former church taught?
I don’t know. Maybe I feel this way just because I don’t neatly fit into a mold; my own beliefs are a rather curious amalgamation of the churches I’ve attended and explored including: Brethren, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, and now Methodist, but I’d rather speak with and learn from others, including my Mennonite and Baptist friends, rather than condemn them and declare that I “have nothing in common with them”. After all, none of us is perfect nor should any of us declare that we alone hold absolute knowledge. People learn, grow, and change, but that process is much more difficult in an environment of condemnation as opposed to one of communication. Are we following Christ’s example when we either literally or figuratively burn each other at the stake?
Let me close with a few thoughts from the Apostle Paul.
I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.”
Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not!
1 Corinthians 1:10-13 NLT