Dear Bill: Baptism and Secondary Things

Dear Bill,

You’ve asked to me and asked me why I called “baptism” a “secondary matter.” I’d like to try and explain myself a little better than I did the first time we talked, so that’s why I’m taking time to write out my thoughts in the form of a letter.

First of all, “secondary matters” for Christians do not mean unimportant matters. Rather, they refer to things over which Christians may and do often disagree but which do not rise to the level of primary issues of orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy doesn’t mean beards and incense, by the way. It is what defines a Christian. Secondary matters are what distinguish Christians from one another.

I used to teach Biology; secondary matters are what makes a species. Primary matters are what make a genus. In Christianity, primary matters refer to the vital heart and center of the Gospel.

For example, did Jesus really rise from the Dead? Was He really fully man and fully God? Was he born of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Will we stand before God in judgment?

Secondary matters are not at the vital heart and center of the Gospel, but they are still convictions about what is “biblical” and “unbiblical.” The difference is that, at the end of the day, we can agree to disagree over these biblical convictions.

Some examples of such secondary matters include:

  • the time and exact manner of Christ’s return.
  • The use of so-called “freedoms” such as drinking and smoking and some other definitions of “worldliness.”
  • The manner of schooling children (homeschooling, Christian schooling, or public schooling ).
  • The continuation of certain spiritual gifts and their use in the church.
  • The role of women in the church in the serving offices (not the office of elder or pastor but rather deacon or deaconess or diaconal assistants).

As a confessional church we have (as elders) biblically defended and scripturally articulated positions on all of these items. However our views on these matters do not define the boundaries of our fellowship.

This brings us to the matter of debate between us, Bill—the matter of baptism.

(And to be clear, actually defending my view of Baptism goes beyond the scope of this letter. I’m focusing on this aspect of whether or not it is a secondary matter among Christians.)

So, to be specific, while I believe your position on baptism is unbiblical (who you believe ought to be baptized and in what mode) that doesn’t mean I do not believe you are faithful, believing Christian; I hope and trust that you are a Christian.

Likewise, I assume and hope that you feel the same about my view.

On this basis I believe such persons who hold differing views on secondary matters such as we do can and in fact ought to pursue fellowship together.

In fact, I believe while the test for leadership should be more rigorous, more specific; membership and ordinary participation in the local church biblically must only hinge upon *primary* matters of doctrine, things which one must hold in order to be saved.

Historically this has been the case because the local church is and should be an imperfect and visible picture of heaven. (I know we may have some differences on how we define the church, but for now, I leave those aside.)

Therefore the doors of the church are to be as wide open as the doors of heaven.

If you believe that my views are not only unbiblical but also fail the test of orthodoxy (ie, that my views are heterodox), then you are questioning my salvation. I disagree, of course; but you certainly have the right to do so. In such a case, you couldn’t in good conscience participate in our church community.

If however you believe my “unbiblical views” (not that I think they are unbiblical but that you do) are important but only of secondary significance, you are not calling my salvation into question. In this case, were you to make a determination about whether you would have or pursue Christian fellowship in community with us in this local congregation solely on that basis suggests either a misunderstanding or perhaps another, deeper problem.

If it is a misunderstanding, I am glad if this letter contributes to the clarity. If it is a deeper problem, I would ask whether or not you may have knowingly or unknowingly slipped out of the mindset of a disciple into the mindset of a consumer.

This consumer mindset has, alas, made the American church a sick and largely impotent creature. What we need is a resurgence and revival of that rugged, manly, cross-bearing disciple that Jesus spoke of among us. We need men and women to rise up and call us back to faithful obedience in following our master to our own deaths, both figuratively/spiritually and, should the need arise, in truth, in fact; physically.

To return to a theme I’ve mentioned already: a Christian family is made up of many diverse parts and therefore, the teachings which are imposed upon the family, upon the “community membership” must be limited only to those few essentials for salvation: faith in Christ alone by faith alone according to the Scriptures alone to the glory of God alone.

Of course there are always secondary matters. When I go to Jim’s house, for example, he asks me to take off my shoes at the door, and I defer. We’re good friends even though when he comes to my house, I ask that he leave his shoes on.

Likewise, there are always secondary matters in a local church, but with this point of view, that family, that community, that membership tries to focus “on the majors” and defer to its leaders on matters of secondary significance.

While this matter of deference to leadership merits another letter or essay, for now let me simply suggest that deference would look like one of two things: a) either by conformity, if their consciences permit, or b) by humble and submissive non-conformity, if their consciences do not permit.

Think of it like your marriage to your wife, Susan.

While she doesn’t agree with you that the corn should be salted when you eat it on the cob, preferring as she does to eat it in its “state of perfection” right out of the ear, she doesn’t argue when you salt all the cobs for the family reunion. She has expressed her disagreement, and humbly and submissively supports your leadership on this matter, but still refuses to change her mind. (And for what its worth, I’m with Susan on this one!)

Bill, you mentioned that you’re encouraged by what you see in our congregation. Thank you for that compliment—it is of course all of God that there is anything good among us!

But, while I’m glad you have been encouraged by some of our emphases and practices–gifts of Gods grace, as I have said–I am confused that you seem to be taking the position you are taking, that you cannot join us in any way solely on the basis that we believe baptizing babies is biblical, faithful, and commanded by God. I would ask, then, to you, Bill, is this a secondary matter? Have you studied our biblical and doctrinal foundations for this practice?

Can you, for example, distinguish between an Anabaptist, a reformed, a Lutheran, and a Catholic view of the Sacraments? This is important, and a critical area of study and biblical learning for a family. It is important that we not simply follow the tradition of our parents, or what we’re “comfortable” with, but that we go to the Scriptures and see what God’s Word says. To quote the prophet, “to the law and to the testimony.”

And, such an exercise will certainly strengthen all of our faith(s), even if our position on a secondary matter like baptism remains unchanged. His Word is sanctifying, and we must continually bring ourselves back to it that we might be changed, that we might be shaped, that we might find life.

I learned early on: You can conform your life to this book (good) or this book to your life (bad). But you must choose one or the other.

Bill, as I think about the matter, I have many other thoughts. But one springs to the top of my mind: I wonder how you’d answer this question. “Did Jesus make the mode of baptism central to his mission? do the writers of Sacred Scripture?” (By “mode” I mean the particular manner of baptism, either effusion—ie, pouring, sprinkling, or immersion.)

If the mode of baptism was central to them, then we should also make it central. If it was not, we should be very careful. While we shouldn’t fail to have a position or conviction about “mode,” we should not allow that conviction to define our lives as missionaries for the Gospel.

In a day and in an age when the cross seems on every side to be “emptied of its power” I think the cause of the Gospel must be engaged with an equal if not greater energy than that with which our opponents (enemies of the cross of Christ) attack the Gospel.

Opponents, I would say, who are both inside and outside the formal, visible church.

How do we give ourselves with great energy to the Gospel? At least this: we must do the hard work of examining our traditions and retooling our posture so that we display Christ with as much crystal clarity as we can. If mission-oriented ministry means anything, it simply must mean that lost people ought to be able to make sense of the way Christians work out “family disagreements.”

I believe this at the minimum would require us to demonstrate our capacity to make distinctions between primary and secondary matters; things without which you may not be saved, and things over which faithful and conscientious Christians may and do disagree, but do so in a way that proves that there is, at the end of the day, “one faith, one God, one Father, and one baptism…”

I hope we can do so in person soon, but until then, I hope this letter will help further clarify our conversation and encourage you that I am eager that you join us in our “contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

Until we can speak again, I remain your loyal friend and am

Sincerely yours,

Under Christ’s blood,

Pastor Phil Henry.