Fifty- five years ago the Lord gave this message to the Battle Creek church through Ellen G. White: "The test of discipleship is not brought to bear as closely as it should be upon those who present themselves for baptism."—Testimonies to Ministers, p. 128. In the intervening years of developing evangelism and large-scale additions to our church membership, this warning is quite as much needed as when it was first written.
Those who heed the great commission must "preach the gospel," bringing to men the good news of salvation. "Teach all nations" is the way Matthew expresses the work of the gospel herald, the work that must precede baptism. This course of instruction is more than the mastery of a system of religion. It is also an appeal to the hearts and consciences of men that impels them to cry, "What must I do to be saved?"
A formal study of the facts concerning the plan of salvation is essential, but this alone may leave the individual well instructed but soul famished. It can well be true that a brilliant student in Bible doctrines may earn an A grade, yet of all in the class he may be the one least prepared spiritually for baptism. It is possible, on the other hand, that only a few who respond to evangelistic appeals for renunciation of sin are immediately ready for baptism. Genuine Christianity is a religion of the heart, the head, and the hand. The heart must yield to God, the head must learn the principles of divine truth, and the hand must be consecrated to God's service.
The course of instruction must be adequate to afford a fair understanding of the fundamental beliefs and practices of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For some this will be longer than for others. The Ethiopian eunuch needed but a short period of instruction, for he was already an earnest worshiper of the true God and was acquainted with the Jewish religion. He needed only to learn the truth of Messianic prophecy and its fulfillment, to accept Jesus Christ.
To a careful study of doctrines the minister should add a discussion of the privileges, duties, and responsibilities of membership in the body of Christ. This should include an explanation of the principles and obligations involved in organization.
It is not enough that candidates give assent and lip service to the beliefs of the denomination. A radical change in the life must be evident. "The things they once hated, they now love; and the things they once loved, they hate." —Steps to Christ, p. 63. They not only accept the Sabbath but begin to keep it; they not only admit they believe in tithe paying but begin to pay tithe; they not only give assent to health reform but begin its practice; they not only receive the Holy Scriptures and the Spirit of prophecy but begin the systematic study of each. All this must precede baptism. How long it should continue before it is safe and wise to baptize, is a question which varies with individuals.
A few years ago an apostate Adventist presented himself to me, asking for rebaptism and church membership. I asked him the usual questions, and he answered in the affirmative. When we reached the question of tithe, however, he said he believed in it, but was not paying tithe and could not pay it because he could not afford it.
One with such an attitude is surely not ready for acceptance into the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in the kingdom of God. As before stated, the candidate should give clear indication of his conformity to the faith and practice of the denomination and should show evidence of true conversion before being baptized. A reasonable length of time should elapse to demonstrate his victory over evil habits. In heathen lands our missionaries often put their candidates on a two-year probation, to make sure of their victory over the sins of the flesh. Some may have wondered at this, yet we have in some instances gone far in the opposite direction, even baptizing persons immediately on their simple promise to abandon the use of tobacco!
When the minister is convinced that the candidates are ready, it is wise to bring their names before the church board. Thus the board will share in the responsibility of presenting them before the church for baptism. Sometimes a board member will bring up a matter that should receive attention at once; such as "John has been a very disobedient child. He has been disrespectful to his mother." Or, "Mrs. S. [a candidate] and Mrs. B. [a church member] have been enemies for years. Are they at peace with each other now?" Or, "Mr. Blank is a stranger to us all here. We do not know his past."
These statements are an aid to the minister. He has a serious talk with John about the importance of observing the fifth commandment. This is followed by a conference with John and his mother together. They have a season of prayer, and John purposes to overcome where he has failed. Inquiry is made of Mrs. S. concerning her attitude toward Mrs. B. The former admits that their relations are strained, but gives a score of reasons why she cannot get along with Mrs. B. It is evident that reconciliation must be made between these women before baptism. Mr. Blank is so eager to be baptized and appears so determined to be an overcomer that it seems quite unnecessary to probe into his past. Yet, upon special inquiry, it may be found that he has deserted his wife and children and that he is doing nothing for their support. Of course, that would all have to be set right before baptism.
These examples are not the product of a lively imagination. They are cases taken from real experience.
Dealing With Various Problems That Arise
In conclusion, I will propose and briefly dis cuss ten questions that sometimes arise.
1. If a moron or a person subject to spells of insanity desires baptism, what should be the minister's attitude?
This question calls for a great deal of consideration. In the first place, one should consider definition of terms. Just what is meant by a moron? There are different grades. Some may be simple-minded in some respects, but good artisans, tender in conscience, faithful workers for God in so far as their capacities permit. Wisdom is required in judging. Of course it is not wise to confuse a moron with an imbecile. One conference president, upon being asked for counsel in this matter, gave as his considered opinion that he would not refuse a moron baptism i£ he gave evidence of con version, if he had enough intelligence to grasp the first principles of the gospel, and if his environment was such as to help keep him from slipping into sin. He said also that if a person were insane only by spells, it should be regarded proper to baptize him during a sane period, if other conditions were equal.
2. If apostates are converted and wish to regain their membership, should they be taken into the church on profession of faith without rebaptism?
No. If the church was justified in severing their connection, they should re-enter on the same ground as new converts. (See Church Manual, p. 68, 1951 ed.)
3. Is tithe paying a test of fellowship?
Tithing, like any other fundamental belief of the church, is necessary in faith and practice as a test of discipleship; namely, a condition of joining the church. It is not a test of fellow ship in the sense that it would mean disfellowshiping a member who failed to keep this part of his baptismal vows. This question, apparently involving a double standard, seems at first thought an inconsistency. An inexperienced worker may ask, "If a standard is set for joining the church, why is not the same standard proper to determine who shall remain in the church?" The act of joining the church is a union with Christ, comparable to a marriage. In an earthly marriage certain vows are taken as necessary to the pact. Afterward the bond may not be broken or dissolved without certain overt acts which violate the laws of human society. It is often true that the spirit of the vows is not kept. Certain things are done which destroy the happiness and true value of the marriage, yet upon these no legislation can be taken without an intolerable interference in private lives. These deeds may destroy a marriage internally while maintaining its outward status.
Similarly, failure to pay an honest tithe will destroy the inner spiritual life of a church member, even while his name remains on the church books. Yet the church cannot legislate upon the defaulting tithepayer without exercising offensive interest in his private business. Therefore it must be an affair of conscience. In Testimonies, volume 3, a full discussion of the gravity of the matter is given. We read on page 394: "This is left to the conscience and benevolence of men, whose judgment in this tithing system should have free play. . . . No compulsion is required." Thus, while retaining membership, a man may lose eternal life from unfaithfulness in stewardship. (See Matt. 25: 14-30.)
4. Would you baptize a person who insisted on wearing the wedding ring?
I might do so under certain conditions. I would, however, stipulate that the ring must be removed before the ceremony, in token of the fact that the relationship with Jesus Christ, entered upon at baptism, is closer and more sacred than the relation of husband and wife. Sometimes a wife has an unconverted husband who would be greatly offended if she were to refuse to wear his wedding ring. I would teach her to educate him slowly and carefully to the change in her views, using much tact and patience. If this is not possible, I then advise her to make it a habit to remove her ring while in attendance at church, lest her example be a detriment to others in the church. [While this counsel does not apply in countries where the wedding ring is recognized as a required social custom, yet the principle here enunciated is sound.—EDITORS.]
5. To what extent should a minister go in insisting upon simplicity in the dress of those desiring to join the church?
In volume 4 of the Testimonies, page 647, we read: "I have been shown that our church rules are very deficient. All exhibitions of pride in dress, which is forbidden in the word of God, should be sufficient reason for church discipline." Presumably the same standard would be properly observed for those desiring baptism.
6. What would you do when a candidate says, "If I cannot be baptized by Elder ————, I'll never be baptized"?
Such a statement raises grave doubt regarding the fitness of the candidate for baptism. It be trays a greater devotion to a particular minister than regard for the importance of baptism. Nevertheless, if the candidate is truly prepared, his preference should be honored.
7. Would you baptize a Free Mason?
In the Spirit of prophecy we are admonished "not to unite with secret societies." A Free Mason seeking union with the remnant people of God should drop connection with the secret society, in preparation for joining the body of Christ. (See Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 84.)
8. Is the giving of the right hand of fellow ship after baptism an important matter?
Paul mentions this custom in Galatians 2:9, and though it does not seem to have been commonly practiced in the early days of the Seventh- day Adventist Church, it has since become an established custom with us. It is a most fitting form of welcome, and should never be over looked.
9. Are there any circumstances under which a person might be received into the church without baptism?
Jesus Himself made baptism one of the conditions of salvation (Mark 16:16), and yet He promised salvation to the repentant thief without baptism. It is evident that when the thief accepted Christ as his Saviour, he did all that was possible for him. The righteousness of Christ was then imputed to him, and that included baptism.
Not many years ago the husband of one of our church members lay dying. All his lifetime he had neglected the offer of salvation. The pastor visited him, and he begged to know whether it was too late for him to accept Christ and join the church. He was assured the door was still open. He made the surrender, and the church voted to receive him, without baptism, of course. Peace and joy settled on his face as the pastor gave him the right hand of fellowship.
10. Is it wise to baptize young children?
Without attempting to discuss this question, I will quote from Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists, pages 318, 319, a paragraph that relates an experience Elder James White had in 1844:
"There were people in the church who had serious doubts about the propriety of baptizing children, and some had even tried to intimidate these lambs of the flock. 'What kind of experience does Mr. White suppose these babies can tell?' asked a rigid Baptist minister. The large schoolhouse was crowded at the appointed time, and these un friendly ministers were there to watch the proceedings. Elder White had a few seats vacated in front, and in response to his call twelve boys and girls of ages running from seven to fifteen years came forward. He took for his text the words, 'Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.' The children were cheered and comforted by the discourse, and at its close they rose one by one, and by the aid of judicious questions each of them gave evidence of a clear, intelligent experience. When the call was made for any who were opposed to the baptism to rise, no one rose. The children were accordingly led down into the watery grave, and duly presented to their parents with smiles of joy on their young faces."
When is a person prepared for baptism? Only God knows the hearts of men. It seems that some errors in human judgment are inevitable, but if our ministry will do faithful work, with much prayer, and refuse to be swayed in judgment by such considerations as high goals, quotas, and enviable records, these errors may be minimized, and the fruitage of evangelism may he more enduring.