From the Worldwide Faith News archives

General Conference will confront baptism, membership issues

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 18 Apr 2000 15:39:56

April 18,  2000 News media contact: Linda Green·(615)742-5470·Nashville,
Tenn.     10-71B{206}

NOTE: Editors may want to use a General Conference logo with this story.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - United Methodists will once again address issues
about baptism at their top legislative meeting, hoping to clear up the
embarrassing dilemma of having official materials on church membership that
contradict each other.

The denomination has engaged in the study of baptism and related issues for
at least two decades. In 1988, official study began to help United
Methodists understand baptism, resulting in a document entitled "By Water
and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism" being brought
before the 1992 General Conference. The document was approved as a study for
the church, and a revised version was adopted by the 1996 General Conference
as "an official interpretive document" for the denomination. 

The problem or contradictions arose after the document was passed as a
"guiding theology," according to the Rev. Gayle Felton, author of the final
version of "By Water and the Spirit" and a consultant to the United
Methodist Board of Discipleship. The issue focuses on the fact that in both
"By Water and the Spirit" and the baptism rituals in the United Methodist
Hymnal, "there is the indication that there are two categories of membership
in the United Methodist Church," she said. 

Action is required by the 2000 General Conference to bring the Book of
Discipline into agreement with "By Water and the Spirit" and the church's
official baptism rituals. General Conference, which meets every four years,
will gather May 2-12 in Cleveland.

The interpretive document says that baptism signifies initiation into church
membership regardless of age, and the rituals clearly state the same, Felton
said. "But as United Methodists, we don't believe that all you have to do to
be right with God is to be baptized."

The document also uses the term "professing member," and the terms
"baptized" and "professing" in effect replace the current categories of
preparatory and full members. When a child is now baptized, the name goes on
a preparatory roll, and that person would be considered a full member only
after confirmation, Felton said. "By Water and the Spirit" moves away from
those terms, since "they are not theologically accurate," and speaks of
baptized and professing members, she said. 

"When a person is baptized, they become a baptized member, which is what
baptism is, initiation. When a person professes the faith and is confirmed,
that person becomes a professing member," she said. If never confirmed, the
person remains a baptized member, she said.

After baptism, a person should be raised in the faith and taught what it
means to be a Christian, Felton said. After confirmation training, faith in
Christ is professed and the person becomes a professing member of the
Legislation in the 1996 Book of Discipline is based on "By Water and the
Spirit." After the document was adopted, the Minnesota Annual Conference
asked the Judicial Council, the church's supreme court, for a declaratory
decision on 15 questions related to baptism and membership legislation. The
conference argued that saying baptism made a person a member of the church
was a violation of Article 4 of the church's constitution, Felton said.

The constitution says all people can be admitted into membership when they
take appropriate vows, she said. The Judicial Council ruled that saying
baptism made a person a member violated that part of the constitution
because membership is linked to taking vows, she said. "They were saying
that you cannot have baptized members because those infants will not have
taken vows."

The ruling changed several things, but it did not change "By Water and the
Spirit" nor its status as the church's interpretive statement, Felton said.
"It created a situation where we have a baptismal ritual and an official
document that say one thing about baptism and church membership, and because
of the ruling, we have a Discipline that says something else."

The dilemma was created when the Judicial Council said the church could not
use the categories of baptized and professing members, according to Felton.
The ruling took the church back to being governed by the categories listed
in the 1992 Book of Discipline, using the provisions there for preparatory
and full membership, and invalidated legislation in the 1996 book. "These
categories don't make clear the relation between baptism and church
membership," she noted.

The issue is problematic because the church is saying two contradictory
things, she said. "By Water and the Spirit" and the rituals say one thing,
but the Book of Discipline and the legislation about membership are "not
congruent with what 'By Water and the Spirit' says because the Judicial
Council invalidated 1996 legislation."

"The General Conference has repeatedly affirmed the theology and practice of
baptism as presented in our rituals and in 'By Water and the Spirit,'"
Felton said. "United Methodists need for the church to speak with a clear
voice in order to enhance appreciation of the significance of the privileges
and responsibilities of church membership."

The significance of baptism is found in its relationship to the entire
process of salvation and the life of Christian discipleship, she said. "I am
convinced that much of the ineffectiveness of United Methodism today is the
result of our failure to realize who we are and what it is that we should be
doing. Baptism is the source of our Christian identity and mission; it marks
us as the people of God and impels us into ministry."

A constitutional amendment is necessary in order for the United Methodist
Church to move toward bringing the Book of Discipline in line with "By Water
and the Spirit" and the baptismal rituals. "Just like in U.S government when
something is declared unconstitutional, the only way to change it is to
change the constitution," Felton said.

The Board of Discipleship is proposing to the 2000 General Conference an
amendment to Article 4 of the constitution, making clear that people can
become baptized members through baptism but still must profess their faith
when old enough to do so in order to become professing members.  

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the more conservative and
evangelical side of the church fears that if baptism is emphasized, not
enough attention would be put on the necessity of professing faith in
Christ, according to Felton.

The Rev. Jim Heidinger, president and publisher of the Good News evangelical
caucus, said evangelicals are concerned that "By Water and the Spirit" is
not in the historic tradition of the church.  

The Board of Discipleship is promoting legislation that would make any
baptized infant a member of the church, he said. "We believe that is not in
the historic tradition of American Methodism or the current Book of

Evangelicals are asking that the church continue to call for a person to
take membership vows before becoming a full member of the United Methodist
Church, he said.

Most evangelicals want the church to be governed by the provisions in the
1992 Book of Discipline so that infants, when baptized, are placed on the
preparatory roll and become full members when the vows are taken, Heidinger
said. "We think it is more consistent to put baptized members on the
preparatory roll, and then they will take membership vows at the time of
confirmation or adult membership vows before becoming full members."

The evangelicals' issue is based in part on a misunderstanding, Felton said.

"It is not that we are in disagreement," she said. "What the Board of
Discipleship is trying to do does not violate what the more conservative
group wants. We want that too. We want to be sure that people profess their
faith in Christ, but it does not mean that people don't become members
through baptism."

Felton said she "doesn't see any contradiction in 'By Water and the Spirit'
because baptism is God's action that makes us a part of God's community in
the church." 

"Even though God does this for us, we have to respond to that grace of God,"
she said. "When we are able to profess our own faith in Christ, we have to
do that if we are going to continue on the journey to salvation." 

The Board of Discipleship is not asking the General Conference for
legislation about baptized members, she said. "The proposed legislation
defines professing members." If the constitutional amendment passes, it
would go to the annual conference gatherings in 2001 to be ratified.
Additional legislation about baptized membership would be proposed to the
2004 General Conference.

Of primary significance to the 2000 General Conference "is the amendment to
Article 4, which will make clear that vows are not essential to becoming a
baptized member," Felton said. Legislation also will include a change to
paragraph 215 of the Book of Discipline to define professing membership. 

"The amendment would make clear that being baptized makes one a baptized
member of the church and taking vows makes one a professing member," Felton
said. The emphasis in this General Conference is to get "professing member"
defined and to get a constitutional amendment passed that would allow for
the spelling out of what it means to be a baptized member, she said. "It
sounds complicated, but it should not be."

It is "almost as if we don't know what we believe and we cannot decide how
to talk about it," she said. "It is a matter of our system working in such a
way as to become consistent and to get a clear theological statement put
into effect."

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