The last two days, I have posted about the issue of conscience. First, I wrote here about what conscience actually is and why it matters. Then, yesterday, I wrote about how those questions and issues around conscience relate to the question of baptism. You can read that second post here.
Inevitably, when you have these discussions, all sorts of scenarios begin to come out. ‘What would you do if X, Y and Z…’ and ‘but what about A, B and C… what then?’ The old maxim that hard cases make bad laws seems apt here. It is never a good idea to take extreme cases, or unusual examples, and then seek to create whole positions around those outliers. We are better to work out the principles first, and what is right in the overwhelming majority of cases, and then seek to address the trickier cases once we have that in place. How I address the hard cases, in the end, depends on what I think should happen in the ordinary run of things, whether they are really all that different in the final analysis and, if they are, what might be reasonably done about them.
What I have noticed in these discussions – with some noble exceptions – is that rarely does anyone take the Bible as the grounds for disagreement. Instead, it is the hard cases. The whataboutery. Aha! If it doesn’t work in this case, then it doesn’t work in any case! Well, not only is that faulty logic of its own, but it doesn’t always follow that I wouldn’t do in that case what I would have done in any case. In the end, I don’t take people not doing what Jesus appears to clearly teach very lightly. It takes an awful lot to convince me that what Jesus says can be set aside.
Which brings me back around to the question of conscience again. It is my deeply held conviction – a conscience issue, if you like – that when Jesus says something, he means it. I cannot just waive what Jesus demand because you think he means something different. I would like to believe that if you believe Jesus really says something, you wouldn’t want me to just ignore it with a wave of my hand either. If we take the Bible seriously, we are going to call people to what it says.
Long time followers of this blog will know, I have long made a case for Christian freedom. I think we have something of a problem with it in the Christian world. We’re not very good at allowing people – when Jesus hasn’t specifically said something – to do differently to us. Which is interesting when it comes to the question of baptism because most of us – regardless of the specific position we take – believe Jesus has commanded something quite specific of all his followers. So it surprises me that on things the Bible doesn’t mention at all many of us become militant about what it doesn’t say whilst on those things where it does speak quite clearly, we are happy to allow dissenting practice and begin falling over ourselves to accommodate. I find it extremely odd.
So, there are those of us who will make a hard case for living within walking distance of your church – a great thing to do in some contexts, it just isn’t demanded in the scriptures – whilst simultaneously having a soft stance on the question of baptismal practice, on which the Bible speaks pretty clearly. We’ll place an awful lot of store on having a quiet time, making sure people feel the pressure to do so even though the Bible itself never actually says to do that, while saying very little about church membership, which the Bible does speak to quite clearly. We will make sure we are quite tight about all sorts of things the Bible just doesn’t mention or demand at all, whilst taking a soft stand on things that the Bible really is quite clear on, sometimes forcefully so.
A friend recently said something similar to me. He had noticed a trend. Those people who were quite hard and fast about things the Bible didn’t say were among the most likely to play fast and loose with what the Bible actually does say. They will take hard line views on cultural matters, or preference issues, the Bible doesn’t address while riding roughshod over the explicit things the Bible does say and clearly tackles. I am inclined to recognise that tendency.
If we are inclined toward Reformed principles – if we believe they are, in fact, biblical principles – then we have to work hard to be biblical. That means reading the Bible carefully and ensuring, so far as we’re able, we hold with a loose hand those things the Bible doesn’t address and we hold with a firmer hand those things that it does. If we think the Bible teaches baptistic practice, for example, then we ought to stand by baptistic practice and not soft-peddle it because we don’t want to upset others or we want to recognise as baptism something that we don’t really think is baptism at all. If we think the Bible teaches paedobaptistic practice, we shouldn’t soft-peddle what we believe is right in regard to ‘covenant children’. In the end, we have to do what we believe is biblical.
This matters because the church exists to glorify Christ. It fails in its God-given role if it is actively leading people away from what he demands. It neither honours Christ to bind people where he doesn’t nor to encourage people to ignore what he commands. We may well want to appear magnanimous and charitable towards brothers and sisters with whom we disagree on (what we perceive to be) clearer things. But in the end, they are not our commands with which to grant leeway. They are the Lord’s. And we don’t do anybody any favours when we comfort them in doing what we believe the Lord clearly says they ought not to do.