Groundbreaking Consultation Explores the Meaning and Practice of ‘Believers Baptism’ for the Future Unity of the Church

The Believers Baptism Consultation in Jamaica, January 2015

A three-day consultation took place in early January involving representatives from six different “believers baptism” church traditions to share their understandings and practices of baptism and to explore how their thinking has changed in light of the emerging theological convergence on baptism and growing ecumenical encounter over the past 30 years. This was the first time such a gathering has taken place, and thus represents an historic moment in the life of these traditions.

The traditions who gathered for the event in Kingston, Jamaica, included the Baptists, Brethren, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Mennonites, and Pentecostals. The 18 participants came from Jamaica, Kenya, Germany, Paraguay, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Church of the Brethren participants were Bethany Theological Seminary president Jeff Carter and Denise Kettering-Lane, assistant professor of Brethren Studies at the Church of the Brethren seminary, sponsored by the General Secretary’s Office. Kettering-Lane presented a paper on behalf of the Church of the Brethren, and Carter co-authored the conference report.

Open and honest reflection

The initiative for the consultation grew out of the annual meeting of the Secretaries of Christian World Communions in 2012, which noted fresh thinking and official agreements around the mutual recognition of baptism between churches who practice “infant baptism” and those who practice “believers baptism.”

The agenda of the consultation included presentations from each of the traditions on their past and current teaching and practice of baptism, with attention to how their understandings have changed or developed, along with the opportunity to discuss the presentations. A representative of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) also was present to provide input from the perspective of the wider global discussion on baptism within the ecumenical movement.

The highlights of the consultation, as stated in a report on the meeting, included:

— gratitude for the opportunity to have an open and honest reflection on the meaning, practice and shared understandings of baptism among the participants;

— naming the potential found in the image of “being on a journey” for the Christian life, with different forms and expressions of initiation and confession, while sharing a similar call to discipleship;

— the significance of understanding the Holy Spirit as a source both of our diversity as well as our unity in Christ;

— the need for a re-examination of the language of “sacrament,” “ordinance,” “sign,” and “symbol” as ways to acknowledge that God is the primary actor in baptism;

— the need to recognize the continuity between ecumenical reception of other traditions as church, and the practices that marks each tradition as a unique expression of the body of Christ.

The full text of the report on the meeting will be shared with both the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions and the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC with the hope that it will move the discussion and work on the mutual recognition of baptism and Christian unity forward.

Participants in the consultation

Baptist World Alliance:
Rev. Neville Callam, General Secretary, Baptist World Alliance (Washington, D.C.)
Rev. Dr. Glenroy Lalor, Lecturer, United Theological College of the West Indies (Kingston, Jamaica)
Rev. Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church (Richmond, Va.)

Church of the Brethren:
Rev. Dr. Jeff Carter, President, Bethany Theological Seminary (Richmond, Ind.)
Dr. Denise Kettering-Lane, Assistant Professor of Brethren Studies, Bethany Theological Seminary (Richmond, Ind.)

World Convention of the Churches of Christ:
Dr. John Mark Hicks, Professor of Theology, Lipscomb University (Nashville, Tenn.)
Dr. Gary Holloway, Executive Director, World Convention of Churches of Christ (Nashville, Tenn.)
Dr. Mark Weedman, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, Johnson University, (Knoxville, Tenn.)

Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council:
Rev. Dr. Marjorie Lewis, President, United Theological College of the West Indies (Kingston, Jamaica)
Rev. Dr. David M. Thompson, United Reformed Church and Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History, University of Cambridge (England)
Rev. Dr. Robert K. Welsh, General Secretary, Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council (Indianapolis, Ind.)

Mennonite World Conference:
Rev. Dr. Fernando Enns, Professor of (Peace-)Theology and Ethics, Free University Amsterdam (Netherlands) and University of Hamburg (Germany), member of Central Committee of World Council of Churches
Dr. Alfred Neufeld, Rector, Protestant University of Paraguay (Ascension, Paraguay)
Rev. Rebecca Osiro, Mennonite World Conference Eastern Africa Representative, and pastor of Mennonite Church in Nairobi, Kenya

Dr. Cecil M. Robeck, Professor of Church History and Ecumenics, Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, Calif.)
Rev. Dr. Tony Richie, Pastor, New Harvest Church of God (Knoxville, Tenn.) and Adjunct Professor of Pentecostal Theology (Cleveland, Tenn.)
Rev. Dr. Daniel Tomberlin, Pastor, Vidalia Church of God (Vidalia, Ga.)

Faith and Order Commission of WCC:
Rev. Dr. Dagmar Heller, Academic Dean of the Ecumenical Institute (Bossey, Switzerland) and Executive Secretary for Faith and Order, WCC (Geneva, Switzerland)

— This report is from a release provided by Robert K. Welsh.

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