Denominational leaders like to say that there are essentials and there are non-essentials to the faith. We all seem to agree with that. Where we disagree are about which issues fit into which category. We forget charity is the main essential. A United Methodist colleague recently said in a sermon, “We find ways to argue over about the amount of water in Baptism.” His point is well-taken. But it hit home for me. There was a time when I thought the amount of water in baptism mattered. I knew he was thinking the issue was nonessential. What if he was arguing with someone who thought it was essential? And since I have changed my mind about it, what should I do when I discuss it with someone who does?
Growing up I often heard this quote. “In matters of faith, unity. In matters of indifference, conscience. And in all things, charity.” The idea of all things in charity, like the Beatitudes, is a goal. However, to reach a goal one must practice the virtue. And it was not often done by leaders in the denomination.
The problem was simple. How can a matter of conscience be a matter of indifference? The potential answer is that matters of conscience are personal. Matters of faith, on the other hand, affect the whole body of believers. A person may choose a side on an issue as a matter of conscience. But what if there is something essential about the choice?
The hot button topic while I was involved in my former denomination was often stated as “marriage, divorce, and remarriage.” In other words, who may legitimately remarry following a divorce according to the New Testament teaching? One colleague declared that everyone who did not take the hard line approach should be separated from – essentially excommunicated. Another colleague argued that such actions were not taken over military conscientious object. The reply was “marriage, divorce, and remarriage is a moral issue. As though when we may kill people is not a moral issue.
Going Back to Baptism
Being a pastor in rural eastern Tennessee, I learned baptism was an issue within United Methodist churches. My views have changed. I accept infant baptism. I don’t make a big deal over the amount of water. But baptism is a sacrament. One of those things we don’t mess around with. Many of the lay members of my congregations did not accept infant baptism. I often heard “our children were christened when they were babies but haven’t been baptized yet.” It left me wondering if any of the pastors before me ever taught on the subject.
I try discussing the issue to no avail. Parents and/or grandparents of infants object to baptism. A ceremony of dedication is acceptable to them. But, for them, baptism is a matter of choice. The argument that counters mine are usually personal in nature. “I don’t believe that. It was how I was raised. I want them to be able to choose for themselves. I want them to be able to remember their baptism.” The sacrament of baptism is essential to these members. But it is also a matter of conscience. How should a pastor approach the issue?
Charity is the answer. Because there is nothing else to do. What these lay members believe is more important to them than what the church teaches. They have no desire to leave the church over the issue. And few people will bother examining their beliefs. Like my colleague who only thought of sexual issues as moral issues, these people are prone to break fellowship over what they consider immoral.
Can God Be Angry Over Love?
If God is charity, could God be angry over practicing charity? I use charity here the way we tend to talk about “christian love.” When someone disagrees with me over something I consider nonessential, what should I do? Simply recognize the matter of conscience is involved. If this person wishes to break fellowship, what should be done? Let them go.
The root word for heresy is not error. It is separation. If someone intends to walk away from the fellowship, you can charitably say, “Go in peace.” After all, you think it is a matter of indifference. God may be angry over a separation in the fellowship. But God will not be angry over wishing a person peace. Provoking a break in fellowship though is sin. Repentance for uncharitable actions are required. Oddly enough, it is not sinful to allow someone else to practice baptism according to their conscience. God will not be angry over charity.