Editor’s note: See Brian Kaylor’s story, “Ken Starr Joins Baptist Church – Without Attending“
Jana and I recently joined First Baptist Church of Desdemona, our small ranching community about 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth, Texas.
We accepted the invitation of the fellowship to join our individual faith to the corporate (from the Latin meaning “body”) witness of the congregation.
We presented ourselves for membership by getting up out of our seats and standing before that Body of Christ, as every other member of that church has done for 130 years. We were fellow believers whose bodies have been immersed in baptism – buried with Christ in a crucified death and raised with Christ in a resurrected life. That is, we submitted our individual bodies to a corporate Body of Jesus’ disciples placed under the waters of baptism and raised up out of those waters to witness bodily to his rule of love, justice, forgiveness and grace.
Indeed, though I was the visiting preacher in that pulpit, I was not exempt from the accountability of standing before the community in radical egalitarian fashion. I climbed down out of the pulpit and stood on the level of the people.
We did not – could not – do this in absentia.
Just as we are not absent from our individual bodies, so we could not be absent from the Body of believers that the Spirit led us to join. Indeed, we are part of St. Paul’s stunning vision of community outlined in his epistle to the Romans: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another” (Romans 12:12).
This embodied witness is not an irrelevant distinction, according to the kind of faith described in the New Testament. It is at the core: “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I will be also.”
I regret that the new president of Baylor University, our largest Baptist institution, missed an opportunity recently to celebrate this distinction. It is reported that he joined a Baptist church in Waco but was not present on the Sunday of this union.
I cannot imagine such a thing happening in a Baptist church without remarkably extenuating circumstances that have not been publicly disclosed. A university president is a very busy person. No doubt demanding duties prevent perfect Sabbath attendance. Furthermore, I recognize that it is quite possible that procedures unique to that particular, autonomous Waco church may have been scrupulously followed.
For sure, there are myriad creative ways for a Christian believer to affirm and celebrate his or her identification with the community of Christ. The ritual of our rural Baptist church described above, while traditional and time-honored, is not the only, or necessarily the best, way. Local churches, like all families, are curiously intimate and personal entities. It is not my intention unduly to criticize any local fellowship’s manner of receiving new members.
But the organization called the “church” in the New Testament cannot be joined or united in idea or intention or thought or spirit. Only bodily action can accomplish this.
How does one join himself or herself to a Body without being present? That kind of Gnosticism may reflect our isolated, detached and disembodied postmodern sensibility, but it is meaningless to Jesus and Paul.
This core biblical teaching is clearly attested by the host of fine pastors and theologians on the Baylor faculty, and I hope their new president, who is new to the Baptist tradition, will take the opportunity to learn from these teachers the values of communal, incarnational and congregational theology.
After the benediction last Sunday, the congregation of First Baptist Church of Desdemona stood in line for a long time to greet us, to extend physically their right hand of fellowship to us. No one was in a hurry to leave. They needed to attach themselves to us, to engage in sensate, tactile, real, embodied presence.
They knew instinctively that such communal touch would mediate another Presence, too.
Charlie Johnson is interim pastor of the First Baptist Church of Desdemona, Texas.
Charles Foster Johnson is pastor of Bread in Fort Worth, Texas, and founder and executive director of Pastors for Children, a nationwide network of faith leaders mobilized for public education ministry and advocacy.