Since the postwar 1940’s and 50’s, which saw the rise of the parachurch movement, there has been a great emphasis on Christian unity. Much of this unity, however, has been at the expense of two important Christian doctrines, which are both God’s gift to His church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For example, the late Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ and author of the famous, Four Spiritual Laws, doesn’t mention baptism or the Lord’s Supper until book six of his 10-part series on Christian growth. Even then there is no teaching on baptism, but rather these questions:
“Ordinances of the Church
What do you believe baptism accomplishes? (Matthew 28:19) Who is eligible for baptism? What was the significance of your baptism?
What is the meaning of the communion service? (I Corinthians 11:23-26)
How do you prepare yourself to observe the Lord’s supper?”
He does suggest that one be baptized:
“Take the initiative; call the pastor of a nearby church where Christ is honored and God’s Word is preached. Make plans to start this week and to attend regularly. If you have not already been baptized, plan to be baptized as an outward expression of your identification with Christ.”
As far as I can tell, he never defines baptism as immersion, sprinkling, or pouring; and since much of his audience consisted of lapsed church goers, one who always thought that sprinkling was the way to go would have no reason to think otherwise. In all of his training material and evangelistic writings, I found no theology of baptism or communion, no Biblical teaching on the meaning or significance of these two ordinances. As well, their statement of faith is silent on this subject.
It’s not my purpose to pick on Campus Crusade for Christ (now CRU), or any other particular organisation; I simply want to point out a trend among some of the most influential evangelical leaders in the second half of the twentieth century to discount doctrines that might seem “divisive.” Many, if not most, parachurch organisations sought to be trans-denominational and both baptism and communion are often denominational distinctives, and therefore deemed divisive. In the name of Christian unity, and for the sake of “working together,” it was decided not to discuss them further. This tendency is also evident in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organisation.
Problem is, how do we preach the Gospel together without discussing the human response to the Gospel (baptism), or the means of grace God gives us to fellowship with Himself (the Lord’s Supper)?
Looking back, it seems to me that in the rush to unite Christians, the unity achieved was a pretend one. I would venture that most of the early leaders of parachurch evangelistic associations had strong views on both baptism and the Lord’s supper, but lived in “two worlds,” the church, and the parachurch. The latter has largely won the day among conservative protestants in the West, which might help to explain the weak and individualistic nature of Western Christianity. It also seems that this pragmatic unity came from outside the church, not from within. With the wild success of the parachurch movement in getting things done, doctrinal authority was transferred from the church to the parachurch. If successful parachurch organisations believed that, for the sake of unity, baptism and communion were not to be seriously considered, who could argue? In fact, arguing against such success could easily be seen as reactionary.
But keep in mind that Christ established a church (Matthew 16:18) and not an organisation of the likeminded, it might be good to continue to contend for Biblical truth, expressed within the context of the church of Christ.
Prior to the advent of the parachurch movement, many Christians were sadly divided over doctrine. These debates, however, rather than being ignored or shuffled off to a few obscure journals, need to be brought to light. The parachurch movement created an apparent unity, but this unity has, in the long run, weakened the faith. Many Christians could, earlier in the last century, define and defend their understanding of Christian doctrine. This includes their understanding of baptism and communion. Today, after being taught for decades that these issues are unimportant, the comprehension of these truths has passed. But so has the appetite for Christian teaching, for Bible knowledge as a whole. What we might be left with is a unity to preach a Gospel that we know less and less about, which reduces all Christian truth to “believe God and be nice.” But without Biblical teaching, “believe” “God” and even “nice” make no sense.
I don’t want to see Christians attacking one another, but with the level of Christian knowledge available today (whether that knowledge is apprehended or possessed is another matter), is it not possible to find unity on the Bible’s terms rather than on an organisation’s “best practises”?