Being God's Child: Event or Process?

Much of the division among Christians is over key events of Christian experience. For example, some churches practice what is called “closed communion.” They restrict participation in the Lord’s Supper to those most like themselves. They invite to the communion (i.e., fellowship) meal of bread and wine only those who hold membership in their own denomination or only those who have already received baptism or only those who subscribe to certain articles of faith. At certain times and places in Christian history, one had to submit to an examination of his or her faith by a person or panel of church officials prior to a time of communion. Those judged worthy to participate were then given a token that would be presented at the communion table.

There is also a great deal of division over baptism. Because of certain New Testament texts about the relationship of baptism to Christ or spiritual rebirth or remission of sins, baptism has typically been associated with membership in the Christian community and/or salvation. Depending on the mode (i.e., sprinkling, pouring, immersion) involved or one’s age (i.e., infant, young child, adult) at baptism, a given believer or group might not honor a person’s baptism. She might be excluded from membership in a given church. Or she might be judged to be unsaved.

This sort of thing – identifying a single event or ceremony as the badge of Christian identity and spiritual kinship – is fully consistent with modernity. It provides a formula for including some and excluding others. It draws a clear line between those deemed worthy of acceptance and those to be left out of the community. I’m not at all sure this is how things worked in the earliest days of the church.

In a postmodern world, lines of demarcation are a bit more blurred than they were in the period of modernity. And in its most extreme forms, that blurriness is a bad thing. No action is really good or bad; everything is relative to a culture or circumstance. There is no ultimate distinction between truth and error; you have your truth, and I have mine. In these extreme forms of postmodern relativism, Christianity is neither better nor worse than Islam or Buddhism, agnosticism or atheism. One should remember, however, that moral and epistemological relativism was embraced by modernity as well.

The healthier side of postmodernity’s rejection of rigid formulas in favor of blurred lines of distinction is not difficult to see and appreciate. Blacks and whites, rich and poor, scholars and illiterates, citizens and refugees – all can have a seat at the same table of opportunity. There will be less class consciousness. There will be fewer acts of unjust discrimination and intolerance.

Within the context of Christian discussion, I am encouraged rather than frightened by what I have called the “healthier side of postmodernity’s rejection of rigid formulas.” It could very well move believers in Christ away from institutional models of church to an organic model. Christians might think less about institutional religion and more about the body of Christ, less about denominational distinctions and more about organic ties to one another. If that should happen, we might learn to think, speak, and live more as the church did in its early history than it has of late. If it should happen, we just might be more like Christ’s original vision for his church.

In particular, what if – in good biblical and postmodern fashion – we thought of salvation more as a process than an event? What if we understood spiritual transformation as something that takes place over time rather than instantly? What if we used biblical figures of speech like “pilgrimage” and “birth” rather than “church member” and “getting saved”? In other words, what if we retrained ourselves so that we no longer looked to a single event like the sinner’s prayer, immersion, or a church vote to validate someone’s status as a Christian but to the direction and tone of his life over time? What if we looked for direction rather than perfection in one another’s spiritual life?

After all, I’ve known some people who have been baptized but who use God’s name in profane ways or abuse their children or mouth and model racism. Is the event of their baptism enough to offset their way of life? Is church membership sufficient to compensate for moral and spiritual failure? On the other hand, I know people whose baptism is defective on my understanding of the Bible but whose passion for God and uprightness of character left no doubt that they were light-years more spiritual than I am. Should I judge them to be lost? Doubt that God’s grace is sufficient to cover any defect in their theology while praising it to offset my pride or selfishness?

Note: Only summaries of the lessons in this series will appear online in text format. The full content of each sermon will be available in audio format.

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