Baptism - A Peripheral Issue
Paul K. Williams
Eshowe , South Africa
I was on the phone to a Methodist minister seeking information about the inter-denominational "March for Jesus." After he answered my questions he asked me why I asked, as I sounded disapproving. So I told him that the Bible is opposed to denominationalism and that the church of Christ in Eshowe could have nothing to do with the March. He let me know that I sounded proud and judgmental, so I told him that if he would just read what the Bible says about baptism and listen to what those verses say he would see one reason why the Methodist Church is wrong. He gave a mocking laugh and wanted to know why I was talking about such a peripheral issue.
I replied that Paul made it a central issue when he listed the "one baptism" along with "one Lord" and "one God and Father" in Ephesians 4. This the Methodist minister chose to ignore but said, "I have studied and debated this issue for years. If you would study with others you would change." I called his attention to the great pride his statement betrayed, and then said, "If you will debate me publicly on this subject I will be pleased," but he of course refused.
His point was that since people have debated and discussed baptism for many years and cannot seem to agree, it is not something which is important. It is "peripheral" (confined to the external surface of a body, hence not of central importance), hence we may differ on it while maintaining Christian unity. This position implies that there are central, or core, issues upon which we must agree, and peripheral doctrines upon which we may disagree while being pleasing to God.
How Do We Classify Issues?
The problem with this is that each person classifies different issues "central" and "Peripheral." There has been and continues to be debate and disagreement on every Bible doctrine, including whether Jesus is the Son of God and whether he rose from the dead. Who is going to classify these issues? What standard are we to use to classify doctrines as important or unimportant? We are seeing the result in religious circles where "every man does what is right in his own eyes" (Judg. 17:6). This kind of thinking makes every man a judge, judging by his own standard, not God's.
The Methodist minister's proof that baptism is not important was that the Salvation Army does not baptize or observe the Lord's Supper, yet God works great things through them. I think it is significant that his proof is not biblical, but "experience." By testimony and experience one can prove every religion on earth, including ancestor worship and the Muslim religion. Experience is what keeps people in those religions. They are convinced those religions are true because they believe they work - that God works through them.
But when we take the Bible as our authority, a different picture emerges. God's commandments cannot be divided into central and peripheral commandments. "And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me, in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age'" (Matt. 28:18-20). Not only were the apostles to teach all that Jesus commanded, they were to teach the disciples to observe all that he commanded. Jesus did not say that we must obey the central commandments and can obey or not obey the rest!
The psalmist loved the commandments of God. "The sum of Thy word is truth ... .. All. Thy commandments are truth." "From Thy precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way" (Psa. 119:160,151,104). He did not divide the commandments into some to be loved and some to be ignored!
Paul pleaded, "Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,.that you all agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). Paul did not give us the liberty to disagree and divide on the doctrines revealed by Jesus.
The only peripheral issues are those in which we have liberty, where God has neither commanded nor forbidden. According to Romans 14 we must not condemn one another in these things, nor must we force one another into our opinions. In matters of meats and days God has given us liberty. We can choose to eat or not eat, observe or not observe. But in matters of revelation and commandment, we must observe all things Jesus has given.
Baptism is not a peripheral commandment, nor is any other command given by Jesus. When we ignore or despise a single precept of Jesus we are showing our complete lack of respect and love for him.
"How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! From Thy precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way" (Psa. 119:103-104).
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 2, p. 43