Personal Statements on Authority, Membership, and Baptism from Theology Volume 2

The following are a selection of essays from the 1994 book “Theology Volume 2”.

Colloquy participants were asked to bring with them a personal statement on authority, membership, and baptism. The following essays represent a random selection of the ideas presented of course, it is impossible to publish all the statements that were submitted or even to make sure that every possible viewpoint is represented. Individuals and groups using this journal as a resource text may find the writing of similar statements a useful exercise.

Howard J. Booth | Lamoni, Iowa

For the sake of analysis and simplicity, let’s say there are two ways of talking about authority. One kind of authority refers to something one possesses or is granted. For example, a religious body might declare that authority, given to the Christian Church long ago but lost somewhere along the way, has been restored and that that religious body now possesses such authority. A second kind of authority has to do with what one expresses. For example, the actions of a religious body may be so explicitly reflect its stated reasons for being that persons will see and respond to such expressions as authoritative. In the past, we assumed and proclaimed predominantly the former kind of authority. In the present, we are struggling to understand and employ the latter kind of authority. I am glad we are struggling.

For me, baptism primarily symbolizes the beginning of a process of becoming a Christian disciple. One’s commitment is made in the context of a particular historical community of church. Such a community is only one part of the larger body of Christ, however. Since the body of Christ is fragmented, one is granted membership in a particular part of the whole body. One’s becoming Christian will be uniquely shaped by that part, but one’s essential commitment is to Christ, or the whole body. Recommitment makes sense. Celebration of the Eucharist is such a rite of reaffirmation. Even the question, however, of intercommunion or rebaptism tends to signal a repudiation of one’s original baptism and fundamental commitment to Christ. Hence, I am opposed to the church’s present practices of exclusion.

Marabeth Ford | Wauwatosa, Wisconsin

Church Membership should be a person’s most rewarding and treasured affiliation, made so by the quality of the fellowship into which they are inducted, the goals and objectives, and the opportunity they are afforded within the group for a continuing expansion of their relationship with God and a development of their Christ-centered personhood. This link to the “good life” would be a precious concern to all members. Proselyting would diminish the face of a demonstrated living faith in the Creator’s presence and purposes.

Baptism is a symbolic act of accepting membership into church fellowship and should be a celebration and joyous occasion. I would raise the age of membership from eight to twelve years with a junior status to cover those youthful years. A great deal of creativity could be used to add importance to this junior affiliation in preparation for adult baptism. Adult baptism would offer the candidate a choice of method: the present immersion or a limited application of water, which met their personal needs. It should be beautiful and comfortable to be baptized. The prospect of a new path of Christ-centered life would be the emphasis with less, if any, concern for washing away past sins. Creativity used to make this symbol beautiful, dramatic, and memorable is unlimited, including a public loyalty commitment statement from the candidate.

Authority is earned or demonstrated by the individual and acknowledged by the group through vote and testimonial. Authority restored or handed down from antiquity strikes me as spooky. The Aaronic and Melchisedec orders would disappear as they belong to a long-gone past. I do not see the present tied to the past by supernatural powers. The constant God, ever creating, creates his purposes and means today out of existing things. Individual skills, as demonstrated, would be the determining factors in allocation of responsibilities.

Sue Gorker | Blue Springs, Missouri

Authority (Concept: having official power, proof, expert). To be effective in a potentially powerful way, one must act with what others perceive to be authority. And this authority must be genuinely earned, whether consciously or unconsciously. People react positively to those whom they believe to be receiveing their “reason for doing” from the “one and only Official Omnipotent Expert for all things – God.” An important way they can discern whether or not this authority has been given is by their communication and familiarity with, as well as understanding of, the Holy Spirit.

(Analogy: As a math resource teacher is my school, I am tremendously limited in my effectiveness without authority specifically given from my administration, with guidelines, duties, and outcomes.)

Membership (Concept: component, part of, belonging). To be able to participate and communicate meaningfully with a group, one must feel that they “belong” to that group. This feeling of belonging, or being a part of, comes from one or more of the following: common experiences, ritualistic habit and/or heritage, common beliefs, common goals, feeling needed by others in the group and wanting to fill that need, and feeling a need for others in the group and wanting to fill that need. It is important to distinguish membership from the concept of total sameness, total agreement, and total acceptance. Only one commonality must exist for membership to be a tangible force.

(Analogy: The number systems – natural, whole, integer, rational, irrational, real imaginary, and complex – illustrate well the interrelationships between members of groups.)

Baptism (Concept: Initiation, beginning, sacred touch, water). To be able to recognize your membership in a group as having authority, and then to feel empowered within the group, official touching by the Spirit through the act of baptism is essential. This dimension does not occur with quite the same impact in any other way because of the joint communion of many different members with the one being baptized, as well as with the One who truly baptizes – God.

(Analogy: In my study of literature, I found the initiation theme to be very prevalent, and whereas the situations that caused the initiation to occur varied greatly, a common awakening, newness, wisdom, and spirit of change prevailed in all (I view each of these experiences as unofficial baptisms.)

Carol Henson (Member of Church of the Brethren) | Independence, Kansas

Christ instructed us to make disciples and baptize them as we go about our work here on earth (Mathew 28:19). Baptism is not necessary to obtain the salvation of the soul The Jews attempted to require circumcision for salvation. But to make anything else necessary other than the sacrifice and shedding of the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, is to make his death of less effect – it is not sufficient unto salvation (see Galatians 3: 1-5). Salvation is by grace alone – a gift from God to man. Baptism is the outward confession of the inward work of grace and depicts a following into Christ;s death and resurrection and the new life he offers. It is an act of obedience. There was nothing magical in the physical water into which he was immersed, nor is there in the baptismal waters of today.

All believers of every denomination become a member of the body of Christ when he is accepted as their Savior. Local membership ina body of bleivers serves only two purposes:

  1. It provides a place in which to share the gifts of the Spirit, thus helping to hold accountable those who are learning to walk by the Spirit.
  2. It is a witness to fellow believers that you are willing to commit yourself to them and the work in that community, much like the marriage ceremony shows commitment to a spouse.

Throughout the Bible, we see God appointing men to assume leadership of his people. Therefore, I believe he calls out those to pastor and lead today. It is our responsibility to test all that is taught according to our study of the Bible.

Barbara Howard | Independence, Missouri

Authority is the power to help another author his or her life. Authority is relational or it becomes coercive power (authority over) and impedes justice and true community.

In 1982 the World Council of Churches developed a resource, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. It states, “The inability of the churches mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism as sharing in the one baptism and their actual dividedness in spite of mutual baptismal recognition have given dramatic visibility to the broken witnesses of the church.” The report calls for a recovery of baptismal unity. Today, when our church is emphasizing its “pursuit of peace,” to fail to acknowledge the validity of any baptism would be contradictory to our purpose as peacemakers. Baptism is viewed universally as the symbol of new life in Christ; therefore, it transcends membership into any single community. Instead, it represents union with all those who profess Christ.

Thus, the table of Christ – the Eucharist – should be open to all who wish to partake. Communion is a faith experience. The use of common elements of bread and wine suggests a willingness to participate in the mystery of union with God through earthly substances. A Christian assertion is that Christ presides at the Eucharist. It seems arrogant to suggest that any human being can assume that role. We participate, take the bread and wine which become physically part of us. We truly become the body of Christ. The role of the ordained ministry in this service is to be for the community, just as Christ was for the world, and to recognize the table as God’s gift to God’s world and open to all.

Mary Jowett | Independence, Missouri

Authority denotes power – power over or power shared. Power over is like the old gospel ladder – each rung designates added authority. Power is seldom delegated. Authority is self-contained. In religious settings this may be seen as a vertical model. Shared power is authority which, by nature, is horizontal. Decisions are reached by consensus, arising out of the community. Although the community may not totally agree, each person is respected and valued. Authority can bind people and institutions to laws and tenets, or authority may arise out of the intuitive and disciplined study of the collective group. The basis for authority is to love neighbor as self. Authority implies responsibility to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. Without possession of these qualities, power/authority is diminished.

Baptism is a sacramental act symbolically expressing one’s dying to old forms or ways and coming forth into new life. The act implies commitment and is a time of covenanting. This rite validates the value of an individual – a necessary element for the sustaining of human life. It catches up the cycles or rhythms of life – crises, failures, rejections, betrayals, unfulfillment – and in turn restores hope, renewing life and creating a time for new beginnings. In the Christian faith baptism is a paradox. One fixes one’s gaze on the Cross, symbol of death and resurrection. One seeks to follow the incarnational life of Christ Jesus. It is a call to fulfill our human potential within the framework of our earthly existence.

Membership implies joining – saying yes to the principles and tenets of a specific organization. For me, it implies a community with a defined structure. It brings people of like persuasion together. At its best, membership in community sustains and upholds the dreams, desires, and needs of every individual and the total community. Membership within a body can provide a connectedness to cultures, races, and sexes, which ahs the means to bond humankind together. Individuals are participants, but collectively energy is generated, which enriches the total community. Membership becomes a negative force when it denies others access to the community or uses its influence to control or get gain over others.

Shandra K. Newcom | Denver, Colorado

I’m not going to play by the rules. Authority, membership, and baptism are fine topics, and worthy of discussion. I choose, however, to look at some more systemic issues that touch on these topics, rather than addressing them directly and exclusively. My education and background are rooted in the study and praxis with issues of peace and justice. These, then, are the lenses through which I view all of life: How does this affect a person living on the street or a child who has been sexually abused by every member of her family? It is a tough and uncomfortable way of seeing because when I am honest with myself, the world we live in, including this church, is not very compassionate to the dispossessed. So I am here, asking the question, how can this conference speak to me so that I may bring hope to the people I work with in Denver?

A hierarchical, patriarchal, racist, oppressive culture is the reality we live in. Oppression cannot be rated. An African American or Latino woman must not be forced to choose which is the greater evil – racism or sexism – because the oppression affects us all in holistic ways. The systemic domination, particularly in this culture, is perpetuated through many avenues. I believe that one of those avenues is language, and that by insisting that we focus on authority issues we, as a church, are participating in that oppression. Authority, to too many people, means abuse and pain.

Even if we see “God-dess” as a figure of authority, we are forcing a lack of choice on people. For example, I was raised to believe that the hierarchy ran in this way: God (never Goddess), president(s), twelve, appointees, priesthood, pastor, men, women, children, animals, earth. The higher up on the ladder of hierarchy one went, the more authority one got. God was the ultimate authority – not the presence of the Divine, but the androcentric God who was an individual working in the world. Whatever God said was law – to whomever God said it, whether that was David Koresh or Joseph Smith. I was told to rely on authority, and that meant I was not encouraged to work in community. My potential for self-realization was limited. This was true for all RLDS members – instead of working in community to change our ordination policy to include women, we waited for the Authoritative God to talk to the Authoritative President Smith and then raised our hands to support their authority. The community was not truly empowered by this act but was divided in painful ways. Our choices were limited and our responses had to come in black and white. How much more different things could be if we were to understand that community is the way to combat the oppression we encounter and participate in daily.

But if we ever even had it, we have not lost the sense of community that we need to reach out to each other and our world. This society is based on a model of individualism and held together by those who claim authority over us, not with us. Individualism is the desired way of being; we are encouraged to make it on our own, whatever the cost, even if it kills us. And the cause is not just worldly; we can see it within our own church. Every day the church decides against participating in the worldwide Christian community. We are “the one true church,” we serve only closed Communion, rebaptize those who want to join in fellowship with us, and refuse to become a part of the World Council of Churches. If we are so into our individualism as a church, how can we expect our own attempts at community within the church to succeed? We learn by modeling, and we have not been handed an appropriate model.

The truth is that if we must accept the word “authority” as part of our vernacular, then we must understand it in a new light. We need “authority with,” not “authority over.” Our communities work in community. We long to be a part of community. I am connection between people, just as congregations are. By breaking down the hierarchy of authority we are addressing issues of oppression and systemic evil while acting on issues of membership and baptism. Our society is crying out for communion with the divine prescience within all that is this earth.

Many gifts, one spirit. Do we believe it? If we do, we must eradicate the oppression that keeps us from living in community together. We must redefine membership and priesthood – and God. Then we can reach out to other communities of faith and join in their efforts in reaching out to the needs of this world. But we must to it in community together. Alone, we cannot reach our life potential. In community, we can change the world.

B. Mildred Smith | Lamoni, Iowa

For a number of years, I was a bonded employee of the United States government. I rented out its property, collected its rent, disbursed its funds, and determined who was permitted to use its facilities and receive its grant monies. To get the job, I had to be approved by qualified representatives of that government and perform certain acts that legitimized my position. To make certain that my decisions were legitimate, I had to be able to validate them by the voluminous rules and regulations that prescribed my authority.

Today I no longer hold that authority. Much as I would like to assist the homeless, if I were to provide government housing for them, collect rents on the government property, or write grant checks for needy people from government funds, I would be prosecuted along with the persons to whom I gave accomodations.

God has described the nature of his kingdom. he has determined the rules by which citizens of this world enter that kingdom and has reserved the right to himself to designate who shall have the authority to carry out the acts by which such citizenship is validated. By his act of atonement he has made it possible for all persons to obtain membership by following the rules he has set up.

By Christ’s example and pronouncement, as recorded in the books of scripture he has provided for us, we learn that baptism by immersion, performed by one to whom he has given authority to represent him, is one of those rules.

Because I no longer have authority to act for the United States government does not mean that I cannot reach out to help the homeless in as many ways as I have the capacity and means to assist them. Similarly, one to whom Christ has not given authority to perform the ordinances that admit one to the kingdom can still reach out in loving ministry to those about them and do much good on their behalf.

Mike Wiley | Indianapolis, Indiana

One of the criteria for membersip in the RLDS Church (or any institution) should be an overt personal commitment to the church and its mission. Furthermore, applicants for membership in the RLDS church should profess to have committed their lives to Christ, because Christianity is the cornerstone of the church and members have the power to affect institutional policy through voice and vote. Although one could imagine numerous other requirements for induction into the church, there is an inverse relationship between the number of requirements and number of individuals who will be acceptable. So the establishment of membership requirements beyond a commitment to God and the church probably would be counterproductive, particularly if the church values diversity.

The sacraments of the RLDS church are rites that have been established to bring individuals into a closer relationship with God at specific times and for specific purposes. In the case of baptism, the time is chosen by the individual (after the prescribed age of accountability) and the purpose is for the individual to repent of his or her sins and make a life commitment to God. Thus when individuals participate in the sacrament of baptism, they clearly meet one of the two criteria for church membership outlined above. In theory, another purpose for baptism also could be defined as personal commitment to the church. However, the commitment of an individual’s life to God is so profound in nature that a sacrament needs to be uniquely devoted to that purpose. Thus, baptism should be clearly defined by the church as the commitment of a person’s life to God, and individuals should be strongly encouraged to take advantage of the powerful ministry baptism brings. Furthermore, the distinction between commitment to God and commitment to the church should be clearly delineated. New procedures could be developed to allow individuals to make a personal commitment to the church. In the final analysis, an individual’s application for membership should be acceptable after compliance with two membership should be acceptable after compliance with two membership requirements: an overt commitment of their life to God, and an overt personal commitment to the church.

The logic falls down if one believes that commitment to God and the RLDS church are not distinguishable, and some church members would undoubtedly take this position as a corollary to their concept of an exclusively divine RLDS priesthood. If baptism by RLDS priesthood is required as a criterion for membership, the church must take one of two positions: One is that the institutional commitment is a part of the sacrament of baptism (discussed above), and the other is that a person’s ability to commit his or her life to God depends on the availability and sustainability of a third party. To judge the validity of an individual’s commitment to God, the church would be required to judge the validity of the third party’s ability to serve as an agent for God. There is no way we can really know the depth or breadth of another person’s commitment to God, and trying to do so is a futile exercise. So perhaps we should invest our energy where it is most productive – in developing our own personal relationship with God, and in sharing the fruits of that investment with others.

Ruth Ann Wood | Kansas City, Missouri

I have had the opportunity recently to survey the church’s educational and proselyting material regarding baptism, confirmation, and the serving of the Lord’s Supper. No direct link is ever made between baptism and conferring membership in these informational materials. it is only in discussion related to who is eligible to partake of the Lord’s Supper that the contention is made that because Communion is a remembrance of baptism in the ELDS church, only RLDS-baptized members are permitted to take the emblems. Such discussion is quickly followed by the non-sequitur that unbaptized persons not be treated with violence. But exclusion from this basic Christian rite is violence. Some congregations still either announce from the pulpit or include a notation in the bulletin that the RLDS Church follows the practice of “close Communion.” They try to wrap exclusion in the linen of “closeness.”

If we are to be a “plumb line of Christ,” as asserted by the Basic Beliefs Committee, then we need to follow Jesus’ example of totally accepting others. We must accept the sincerity of a person’s heart, not check their baptismal number. We need to respect the commitment, repentance, surrender, and covenant to the ministry of Jesus through baptism regardless of the church in which that baptism took place. There are too many factors that already divide people – racism, sexism, ageism – in our society. The Christian community must stand together as a bulwark against the forces of evil, not fight about whose baptism is more authoritative. Thus it seems critical that the RLDS church not erect barriers between people wishing to participate in this Christian sacrament. If individuals are sincere in their hearts and want to declare a “remembrance of Jesus Christ,” how can any Christian community in good conscience declare that a rite that has been practiced by Christians through the ages is limited to those baptized by RLDS priesthood?

I conclude that we teach that baptism is a symbol of genuine repentance and is an expression of a desire to covenant with God. Confirmation is a rite of conferring church membership. Therefore, it seems to be a great leap to insist that participation in the Lord’s Supper is contingent on a person being baptized by our church. It appears that this wall of separation needs to be torn down in favor of a more open and accepting policy that includes people who come to the church seeking love, nurture, and acceptance. This is the “plumb line of Christ.” Can we perpetuate an RLDS tradition that does violence to the model of Jesus, who accepted all individuals – unbaptized tax collectors, fishermen, women of the streets, and Gentiles?