Ladies and gentlemen, dear sisters and brothers, let me first of all thank you for the privilege to speak to you at this consultation today, coming from a church that has not signed the Magdeburg Declaration in 2007. I understand this invitation as a strong sign of appreciation and of the good ecumenical spirit in our country and specifically in the Council of Christian Churches (ACK)
Does the fact that Anabaptist churches have not signed the declaration have negative effects on the ecumenical fellowship? As I stand here following your invitation to speak to you, the answer is already obvious: it is a short and simple “No”.
Nevertheless, we know that short answers tend to fall short of presenting the whole picture. Therefore, let me add some explanation: I will try to sketch the developments in our church and in the ecumenical context since the Magdeburg Declaration in 2007, regarding the topic of baptism within the larger field of ecclesiology.
Of course, the Magdeburg Declaration did not emerge over night. It was prepared in a longer discussion process, in the beginnings of which the Anabaptist churches were actively involved. And even at and around the ceremony in Magdeburg the churches that did not sign the declaration had the opportunity to publicly declare their positions.
At the official signing ceremony, the chairman of the Conference of Mennonite Churches in Germany, Pastor Werner Funk presented their position as follows:
„As Mennonite churches, like other churches from the Anabaptist tradition of the 16th century, we do not practice infant baptism, but the baptism of believers. For this reason, we cannot join the ranks of the churches who signed this declaration. Nevertheless, we understand your mutual recognition as a significant step of your churches toward unity. For this we express our congratulations and wish you God’s blessing for the practical steps that have to follow this agreement.
We, the Mennonite churches, like the other churches from Anabaptist traditions, will continue the theological discourse with you according to our own convictions about believers‘ baptism and our understanding of congregation and church. Even if in this regard there is no consensus between your and our churches at the moment, we still know ourselves to be connected with you in the fellowship of believers, in our confession of faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord, “and therefore seek to fulfil together our common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (The Basis of the World Council of Churches)
The Leadership (Präsidium) of the Union of Evangelical Free Churches in Germany (BEFG) positioned itself immediately after the Magdeburg ceremony:
6. It has always been one of our principles, to regard those who have experienced repentance and accepted the salvation in Jesus Christ as brothers and sisters in Christ. We do not accept infant baptism, but we accept the faith confessed by those baptized as infants. Therefore we can cooperate with churches from the tradition of infant baptism as well as with those of believers’ baptism.
7. The divisions within Christianity come from different understandings among the churches about baptism as well as about the clerical offices and the Eucharist. We deplore these divisions and at the same time have to live with them for the time being. Just like the other churches we seek ways to overcome these separations and to deepen our ecumenical contacts.”
And now – as I have mentioned in the beginning - the discussion process about the meaning of baptism continues. Just to mention one example: the ACK held a conference on the “Pastoral theology of baptism”, again in Magdeburg, where Anabaptist statements were heard and also documented.
Similar developments can be observed in Switzerland. There the Baptists have written an addition to the mutual recognition document, which could be expressed for the German Baptists in the same words:
“Baptists can agree with the declaration insofar as it concerns the baptism of repentance and faith. They cannot agree with a sacramental interpretation of infant baptism, which they understand to contradict the New Testament teaching on baptism. Infant baptism lacks the constitutive elements of repentance, faith and freedom of responsibility.
Baptists do respect anyone who wants to become a church member while regarding his infant baptism as valid. In the same way they accept anybody who desires believer’s baptism in spite of having experienced infant baptism already. Baptists do not regard that as a “rebaptism”, second baptism or repetition of baptism, because they understand the infant baptism to be lacking essential preconditions of a New Testament baptism.
Regardless of the different understandings of baptism, the shared faith in Jesus Christ binds them together with the other churches, and thus enables them to cooperate in proclamation of faith and ministry in the world. The differences are a healthy incentive to search deeper understanding of the Bible together.”
Let me also mention the document „Voneinander lernen – miteinander glauben“, „Learning from each other – sharing faith with each other“. It is the result of a six-year discussion process between the BEFG (Union of Evangelical Free Churches in Germany) and the Lutheran Church in Bavaria (ELKB). The regional discussion process was incited by the official dialogue between the European Baptist Federation (EBF) and the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) in 2005. It resulted in the Bavarian Document of Convergence which was officially handed to the Leadership of both Churches.
Both parties come to the conclusion that the consensus, for example in the areas of soteriology, ecclesiology and regarding the Holy Communion, are much stronger than the unresolved differences on the issue of baptism. The BALUBAG working group even describes convergence in the theology of baptism, and finds differences mainly in the practices of baptism.
The Leadership (Präsidium) of the BEFG commented this document as follows:
“The document of convergence has caused a broad discussion within our union. In the process we have taken a new look on the importance of the unity of the church of Jesus. We therefore explicitly welcome the talks between representatives of the BEFG and the VELKD (United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany). Even though they might bring forth differences, there is a growing desire to regard dissenting convictions as supplementing each other. And we are brought closer together by the challenges of sharing the Christian witness together in a multicultural and multi-religious society.”
We find a similar conclusion in the statement of the Association of Evangelical Free Churches (VEF), when it commented on the Leuenberg Concord and its baptism theology (EVANGELISCH SEIN – Statement by the VEF, 12/04/2011). The Free Churches state that they can completely agree with the Leuenberg Concord as far as its explicit statements on baptism are concerned.
It must be noted here that the churches within the VEF are not in accordance when it comes to their understandings of baptism. There are free churches like the Methodist Church that practices infant baptism, others like the Union of Free Evangelical Churches, who accept infant baptism, but only practice believers’ baptism, and others like the Mennonites, Baptists or Pentecostals, who refuse to accept any baptism without prior confession of faith. And we have the Salvation Army that practices neither baptism nor the Holy Communion and knows no sacraments in their church life at all.
That means: the fellowship of Free Churches constituted in the VEF does not regard baptism as a basis for its cooperation. Its constitution rather states:
„The members of the Association of Evangelical Free Churches accept each other as parts of the one Church of Jesus Christ and they want to give visible expression to this essential unity through their fellowship. They commit themselves to deepen their fellowship through close cooperation. At the same time they honestly strive to discover and strengthen their common ground with churches from other traditions.”
The Free Churches therefore agree with the main concern of the Leuenberg Concord: the ecumenical fellowship and specifically the close fellowship of Protestant churches rests on the confession of faith in Jesus Christ and on their shared mission to follow him and proclaim him to the world in word and deed.
From our point of view, one must not conclude from the Magdeburg Declaration that a mutual recognition of baptism should become the basis of ecumenical fellowship.
The constitution of the ACK follows the basis of the World Council of Churches in stating the foundation of its work: “They confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
On this basis – which does not mention baptism – we Baptists happily continue to cooperate in ecumenical fellowships. We have signed the Charta Oecumenica and in it commit ourselves: “in the power of the Holy Spirit, to work towards the visible unity of the Church of Jesus Christ in the one faith, expressed in the mutual recognition of baptism and in eucharistic fellowship, as well as in common witness and service.”
This has been and remains our vision for the future – before Magdeburg, in Magdeburg and after Magdeburg.
When it comes to recognition: our ecumenical partners should know that while we may not recognize their practice of infant baptism, we definitely do recognize their practice of believers’ baptism, and very importantly we leave no doubt about recognizing them as Christian churches. Both of that we do irrespective of the differences in theology and practice of baptism.
The VEF statement on the Leuenberg Concord ends with the following thoughts:
„All the member churches of the VEF agree with the wording of the Leuenberg Concord on the understanding of baptism. The dissenting view of the VEF churches of Anabaptist traditions lies in the issue of the practice of baptism to which this understanding of baptism refers. It must be noted that this dissent exists even among member churches of the VEF, but does not hinder their fellowship in the VEF. All member churches of the VEF agree completely on the understanding of the Gospel that is expressed in the LC. That means that they also have consensus with all member churches of the EKD on what it means to be “evangelisch”(Protestant). It is the desire of the member churches of the VEF to see a deeper recognition of this consensus among all Protestant churches in Germany, and that they may succeed in shaping their relationships in the spirit of this consensus.”
Based on this hope and in continuation to the BALUBAG process, exploratory talks have been started with the VELKD. Along this route we hope to find out, whether a certain form of church fellowship can be declared between the BEFG and the Lutheran churches in Germany. Again we will have to explore the appropriate balance of consensus and differences here.
But we also have internal discussions on the issue: „What exactly makes our Baptist understanding different from that of other churches?” And, of course, numerous ecumenical meetings on national and international levels have taken place and documented their different understandings of baptism and ecclesiology.
At the same time, we as Baptists have been challenged to further reflect our theology of baptism. We have to deal with questions like: Is baptism not part of a longer process of becoming and remaining a Christian? The process of initiation is in Baptist terms mostly formed by the elements faith – baptism – receiving the holy spirit – church membership. We discuss the question, whether these elements are still in harmony, when the order of its steps has been rearranged in the individual biography; or when the time-frame of these elements has been stretched extensively. Specifically: what does it mean, when baptism and church membership stand at the beginning and faith and Spirit are only added much later (like it would be the ideal case of a confirmation ceremony)?
In many Baptist churches these kinds of deliberations have led to respecting the individual biographies and accepting the “irregular” order of becoming a Christian, as Baptists see it. About half of our churches are prepared to allow these exceptions to the rule and do not insist on a believer’s baptism when someone has come to affirm his experience of infant baptism.
This membership practice is combined with a high regard for the personal spiritual journey and individual freedom of conscience; but on a theological level it still has to be discussed further among us. The infant baptism practiced in our partner churches is not valued properly, when we simply regard it as “non-baptism”. And we do understand that we hurt our sisters and brothers and our fellowship by speaking in such a way. But we are also irritated by the indiscriminate practice of baptism even for children from families without any closeness to church and faith.
Looking for orientation from the New Testament, we cannot disregard the close connection between faith and baptism. At the same time we want to acknowledge the historically grown situation and do not want to endanger the fellowship with the existing churches in our country and beyond.
So you see: Magdeburg - and not Magdeburg alone – gives us a lot to think and do, because it leaves us with theological questions that need further consideration – among ourselves in the free churches and also together in ecumenical debate.
We are grateful for this dialogue and want to continue engaging in the ecumenical debate. But over and above that we need to face the challenges of our turbulent times, and of a world desperately in need of the common witness of Christians.
Thank you for your attention. May God bless you.