If the instruction of new believers produces isolationism or feelings of superiority, it has failed in its objective. Although knowing the truth will set you free, none can ever be saved only by the information they possess.
Nevertheless, instruction is necessary. In fact, it is vital and foundational. Jesus’ commission commands His followers to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach all things that He has commanded (Matt. 28:19, 20). The obvious question is when and where that teaching occurs.
Ellen White stated, “After the first efforts have been made in a place by giving a course of lectures, there is really greater necessity for a second course than for the first. The truth is new and startling, and the people need to have the same presented the second time, to get the points distinct and the ideas fixed in the mind.”1
Michael Green’s research points out that in the early days of Christianity, baptism was administered straight away on profession of faith and repentance and that this practice continued at least throughout the first century. “However, the Didache suggests that very soon a period of instruction in the Christian faith, particularly its ethical side, preceded baptism.” “It would not be surprising if the early missionaries did soon evolve a stylized form of Christian instruction just as they seem to have done, at least to some extent, with their gospel preaching.”2
Green’s additional comment on this indoctrination process of the early church comes directly to the crux of the issue for Adventists. He says, “Whether it [this indoctrination instruction] preceded baptism or followed it is more problematical.”3
Adventist evangelism has followed a similar process of providing baptismal preparation instruction simultaneously with gospel proclamation. For example, a new member in my congregation once observed, “Your evangelistic series is, in reality, an inquirer’s class.”
In fact, the very issue of how much of that instruction should precede baptism and how much should be provided as the newly baptized believer grows has been a vigorously debated topic among Adventists for more than a generation. Sometimes we have invested more energy in the debate than we have in the actual process of grounding new believers.
Long-term church members essentially want all instruction to precede baptism. But this has brought problems to the process of assimilating new members. The greatest of these problems may be the inability of the new believer to grasp everything in a relatively short period of indoctrination. Consider the necessity of repetition as a learning process for infants.
However, the most dangerous of these problems may well be the erroneous conclusion that since converts are so thoroughly indoctrinated prior to baptism, they need no additional or further post-baptismal instruction or that we might consider it safe to leave new believers on their own. Of course, the more we shorten the pre-baptism proclamation phase, the more essential becomes the post-baptism indoctrination and assimilation phase.
Our responsibility is dual: we must proclaim the truth, and we must assimilate the new believers into the culture—the culture of the church versus the world, the culture of discipleship versus nominalism, the culture of the experience and expression of faith within the fellowship of the local congregation as well as within the wider body of all Christians.
The essential and the additional
The content of instruction is important as well. It should be geared both to the level of comprehension and to the level of commitment of the new believer.
Further, there should be a core understanding and consensus by the body as to what is essential and what is additional. Herb Miller says, “Trying to get people to ‘have the mind of Christ’ on moral matters is admirable. But we must always be wary that we are not really trying to get them to ‘have our mind’ on the matter instead of His. Many who think they are witnessing to God’s word are really trying to speak God’s word for Him. That subtle form of idol worship tries to take over God’s job of being God. ‘Accept among you the man who is weak in the faith, but do not argue with him about his personal opinions’ (Rom. 14:1) is still excellent advice. Pride in our own righteousness has no place in word communication.”4
However, Jesus’ own words (Matt. 28:19, 20) anticipate an instruction that comes after baptism as well as that necessary to baptize the convert. The words “teaching them to observe all things” (KJV) do not precede the experience of baptism in the gospel commission and, for all practical purposes, cannot precede new birth in the actual life of the believer.
To me, this becomes theologically persuasive with a definite practical application. If baptism brings a spiritual rebirth (John 3), and if spiritual things are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14), then some portion of the “all things” that Jesus has commanded cannot be discerned until the individual experiences that spiritual rebirth.
To attempt to do otherwise ignores the process envisioned by the gospel commission.
1 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publ. Assoc., 1970), 334.
2 Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 154.
4 Herb Miller, Evangelism’s Open Secrets (St. Louis, MO: CBP Press, 1977), 40. Bible text from CEV.