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.