counsel to the church II

In the last few days of discussion over the words of counsel to the church, I’ve heard several views against the counsel that I believe are mistaken. There are many people seeking the floor at conference, so it is difficult to respond to individual statements or offer alternative perspectives. The restraint on debate to two minutes per person and slow speech required for translations within those two minutes also make it difficult to express or explain ideas. I understand why these constraints are in place and would not want to endure meetings in which these time limits were lifted or non-English speakers were excluded. So, perhaps blogging is a more removed but alternative way to speak on some of the issues expressed in quorum meetings and on the conference floor. Perhaps my thoughts can offer a broader or alternative understanding for church members to choose from or prayerfully consider with their own.

One thing I’d like to respond to is the way scripture is being used against the current counsel, particularly around the issue of baptism.

Some voices have expressed how previous scriptures on baptism, either D&C 20’s treatment of the question of rebaptism or general lack of scriptural support for any other authoritative form of baptism other than immersion, are reason to vote down or doubt the document’s divine counsel. In both cases, prescriptive scriptures about the practice of baptism are being used as if they are the proper or only scriptures to use for comparison or to test continuity. Some have also said that the current question being asked about rebaptism is the same one answered by D&C 20, as if the context is no different. While I think these are tenable comparisons to make and important for consideration, D&C 20 and other scriptural prescriptions for the mode or proper form of baptism are not the most important scriptures in which to look for precedents or comparative references. These kind of references are important only for a literalistic or legalistic view of scripture. Such an approach forgets or relegates other forms of scripture as less important or irrelevant for consideration. It is easy to forget scripture is much more than theologically prescriptive or ritual instruction (like Leviticus). Scripture also expresses divine revelation in the form of proverb, poem, narrative (like the Gospels), parable, and analogy – which are arguably more indirect forms of revelation that require nuanced and more responsible interpretation. The change in the practice of baptism prescribed by the inspired counsel provides just the opportunity to explore how there are previous precedents for just the kind of change in baptismal practice we are facing today.

A more appropriate comparison for the kind of change in the practice of baptism proposed in the inspired counsel is in the New Testament, specifically Paul’s struggle over circumcision with Jerusalem in Acts 15. Consider context. D&C 20 was given in a context in which there was not yet a people developed in a unique tradition. The church was new. There was no multi-national context cutting across the distance of difference in culture as Paul faced similarly in Acts 15 and we face today.

Like baptism in the early Restoration church, circumcision was a peculiar sign of select membership for Israel. It was a sign that conferred Israel’s special place with God. It signed Israel’s election. The sign of circumcision marked Jews as a peculiar people shaped in an exclusive covenant between God and them in the same way baptism in the early Restoration church marked a special and unique relationship between God and the Restoration. It was a sign of the return of the full Gospel and its authority in the world. When Paul crossed cultural boundaries and went forth among the Gentiles making disciples of Christ, he did not requiring this sign. This created a fundamental tension with the Jerusalem church, which was shaped by centuries of practicing circumcision. In the end, the Jerusalem church reasoned that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose no further burden” (Acts 15:28). The exclusive sign of election gave way to a more relevant prescription for what it meant to be a disciple of Christ in other cultures. Viewing the inspired counsel this way, it does not come out of the blue but follows one of the most important and decisive scriptural precedents in the New Testament. It follows a period in the life of the earliest Christian church, which the Restoration looks to for its example and modern-day expression.

I lift this up simply to provide another foundational scriptural reference that supports rather than dissents from the inspired counsel given today. Of course, Acts 15 should not be considered an exact parallel to the situation of the current church. Rather, I offer what I believe to be a responsible interpretation and application of scripture that demonstrates the same kind of shift in tradition or former understanding of “Law” that Christ required as God’s people encountered the Gospel across cultures.

This reading of Acts and its application to our current situation also informs how latter parts of the inspired counsel also reflect the kind of shift from Law to Gospel and the meaning of the Gospel across cultures that Paul faced in his day. But, that’s another post.

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10 responses to “counsel to the church II

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and incisive view, Matt. I appreciate the sharing of your depth of knowledge and faith. I also appreciate getting insight from the thoughts and discussion beyond the conference chamber.

  2. I’m so glad you’re blogging your thoughts about conference and the issues before us!! And thank you especially for this bit of insight … I hadn’t as yet made the connection between open baptism and circumcision in the early church … this helps to settle the few doubts I had regarding this issue. 🙂

  3. The problem, I’m sure you’ll agree, is not so much the use of the wrong scripture, but the basic understanding of scripture itself. Those who use scripture to demonstrate “non-inspiration” through inconsistencies will not be swayed by your analysis, in my opinion.

    If you view scripture as the inerrent (or close to inerrant) word of God, then one must use painful tools to squeeze and push the words to be consistent with your understanding. If you view scripture as inspired stories of individual/group faith journeys – then it’s not surprising (and rather understandable) that it grows and changes and contradicts over time – just as we grow and change and contradict.

    While I appreciate your alternate scriptural view – by trying to make an argument based on some type of “authority” of scripture, you are walking up the down escalator.

    Thanks for blogging about Conference. Being unable to attend full-time, it’s good to hear what’s going on.

  4. Very interesting way of looking at it.
    My only concern with the legislation is that the effect in a lot of places may be further de-emphasis of baptism’s importance as a sacrament.
    Personally, I would like to see congregations all over the church do more to emphasise both baptism and the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.
    It’s not something the world church can really do itself (though some sort of World Church effort wouldn’t hurt) – probably something that we priesthood members need to do.

  5. Thanks Matt for this insightful post. I particularly appreciate how you brought Jewish circumcision into the discussion of Christian baptism. It recalls your previous comments on how the change to Community of Christ represents sort of a “New Testament” for the RLDS Church.

    Maybe this new counsel will help us sort out the difference between cause and effect in the church. In the first-century church (especially in Corinth, which offers many parallels to the 21st-century church) believers were moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues, prophesy, and exhibit other spiritual gifts. Before long, however, believers had turned things around to the point where people were more or less required to exhibit those kinds of spiritual gifts to show they belonged in the faith community. Thus, the effects (of the Spirit) had become the cause or at least a prerequisite of church membership.

    Now, in our own day, have we considered that baptism “causes” church membership and/or a cleansing of our transgressions (sins), or is baptism (1) our outward response to the Spirit leading us to “participate in Christ’s death and resurrection” and (2) a sign or marker showing that we are now “in Christ” and part of the body of Christ? The second point in particular makes baptism (and perhaps other sacraments) a close equivalent for Christians to circumcision and Torah observance for Jews, signifying active membership in “God’s family.”

    If nothing else, this now-approved counsel opens yet another new door to the future. It may eventually prove to be an incredible watershed moment for us and for others.

  6. As a former skeptic, of the FP’s ability to pass legislation to set up regional conferences to handle the issue of sexual orientation as well as the membership issue, I have to agree with your analysis of the Conference action.

    After sitting through the sessions and hearing the various testimonies of folks from Africa and Haiti, I have changed my opinion. I don’t believe the FP is being fearful of lost membership near as much as they are fearful for our third world members being in danger of their lives.

    Instead, we are moving ahead with caution. I applaud the FP.

  7. Matt:

    I see from the minutes that you are now charged with being on the Standing High Council. That was a good choice.

  8. What gives me pause concerning the new Section 164 is that we are setting ourselves up to eventually change the mode of baptism. If we do that in the future we will lose something important. Immersion was practiced by John the Baptist and Jesus we can surmise. If it was good enough for them then it’s good enough for me. This church is extremely liberal and makes many people silently squirm in their seats. Many are disheartened by decades of continual change. The older we get the more tired we become in trying to adapt to the endless changes that just keep coming. I am wondering how the organization can grow in numbers when the body is continually upset. Then again maybe that’s just the way I feel and nobody else does. ??

    • There are clearly a great many people who do feel the way you do, Gary.

      164 is now canon, and many people in the church who did not follow the debate on the web or through official church channels since the previous World Conference in 2007 — for whatever reason — have discovered for the first time as reports filter back to local areas how profoundly Section 164 effects the church.

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