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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Christadelphian baptismal examination (interview): purpose and content

In this post I discuss one of the most distinctive religious practices of the Christadelphian community, namely the baptismal examination (or baptismal interview).1 This article will be largely descriptive; in a subsequent post I hope to evaluate the practice theologically.


1. What is a baptismal examination?

In the Christadelphian community, the baptismal examination is a vetting procedure for people who have expressed a desire for baptism. Typically, two or more mature male members of the local congregation (ecclesia) meet with the candidate and conduct an interview to ascertain whether he or she is ready for baptism, based on the criteria of motive, doctrinal understanding, and moral standards.

There is a widespread Christian tradition, past and present, of pre-baptismal instruction (catechesis). Moreover, Christadelphians are by no means the only religious group that conducts baptismal interviews.2 What makes the Christadelphian pre-baptismal procedure unique is the examination of candidates on a broad range of topics and the notion that doing so safeguards the validity of the baptism.3 Christadelphians have no standardized procedure for conducting examinations;4 various sets of guidelines exist. Perhaps the oldest and most well-known guidelines are those in The Ecclesial Guide, written by Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts. Numerous schedules or scripts of interview questions have been produced in the Christadelphian community; a few will be analysed below.5

The rigour of the baptismal examination differs markedly from one ecclesia to another. For instance, this writer underwent two baptismal examinations: a preliminary interview with a relative followed by the 'official' interview with three brothers from the ecclesia's Examining Committee. There was even a running joke that depending which of three senior brothers led the examination, you could expect it to run one, two or three hours, respectively. At the other extreme, the writer also has personal experience with an ecclesia which did not conduct baptismal examinations at all and appeared to disapprove of the practice.6 Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that the baptismal examination is an established tradition that continues to be observed fairly rigorously by the majority of Christadelphian ecclesias. (It would be interesting if Christadelphian readers could share in the comments section about practices followed in their own ecclesia).

The need to 'pass'7 an examination may be daunting or even intimidating to a person contemplating baptism. However, many Christadelphians look back on the experience with fond memories. The interviewers often try to make the candidate feel at ease by keeping the conversation slightly informal and providing encouragement. In the vast majority of cases, the examination ends with a 'pass' decision from the panel, hugs, smiles all around, and perhaps a slice of cake. There are, of course, rare cases where a person 'fails' the examination and is advised that more study or spiritual maturity is needed before he or she is ready for baptism.

2. The purpose of the baptismal examination

Two doctrines form the primary basis for the Christadelphian baptismal examination. The first is that of baptismal regeneration, i.e. that the way to 'take on the Name... of Christ' is 'by being...immersed in water.'8 Baptism is what it signifies, and is therefore 'necessary to salvation.'9 The second is that 'a knowledge of the Truth is... necessary to make baptism valid.'10 In Christadelphian parlance, 'the Truth' refers specifically to the fundamental tenets of the gospel as spelled out in the BASF,11 and hence 'as distinguished from [the beliefs of] all other professing Christians.'12

If baptism regenerates, but only when the baptizand knows and believes 'the Truth', then a crucial question that arises each time a person requests baptism is, 'does this person understand and believe the Truth'? The basic purpose of the baptismal examination is to answer this question. As Roberts wrote in The Ecclesial Guide under the heading Examination of Applicants for Immersion:
There is, of course, a need for ascertaining whether an applicant for immersion understands and believes the truth. The validity of immersion depends upon believing the truth... We must find out the truth of a man's profession when he claims fellowship with us; and the genuineness of his faith when he asks to be immersed; and this now-a-days cannot be done without crucial test; for words have become so flexible, and mere phrases so current, that a form of words may be used without any conception of the idea which it originally and apostolically represented.
More recently, the Australian Christadelphian Bible Mission approved a set of baptism guidelines at a national conference which explained:
The purpose of the interview is to make sure that candidates fully understand what they are taking on and have sufficient knowledge of the Truth to make baptism valid.
A more recent edition of The Ecclesial Guide describes three prerequisites for baptism to be 'valid and effective':
1) a serious disposition to follow God and a heartfelt repentance for the errors, misdeeds and ignorance of the past
2) a sound knowledge of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) commensurate with the age and intelligence of the candidate.
3) “fruits meet for repentance” that is, a clear indication that the candidate intends to rise to newness of life, a life based upon the life and example of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The document then stresses 'the duty of the ecclesia to ensure by means of a careful interview of each candidate that these requirements are met'. Roberts, in The Good Confession, also expresses the matter negatively: if no examination were held, there would be baptisms of people who did not understand and believe the Truth. Due to its negligence, the ecclesia would be morally responsible for the invalidity of such baptisms:
We are under the law of Christ: that law requires of us not to baptize or receive into fellowship those who do not believe the truth, on pain of being held responsible for their unbelief. (p. 2)
An additional function of the baptismal examination is that it helps maintain doctrinal homogeneity within an ecclesia. Lamenting the prevalence of heresies and disturbances within the Christadelphian community in 1889, Roberts declared examining brethren to be 'largely responsible' due to their 'accommodative' examining practices, and urged examining brethren to 'deal with all the points of doctrine', 'In the gentlest manner, but with the firmness which the importance of the occasion requires'.13 One recent, pastoral document about preparing for baptism suggested that doctrinal homogeneity was the purpose of the interview (or 'confession', as the writer preferred to call it).14

3. The content of the baptismal examination

Christadelphian baptismal examinations usually follow a schedule of questions to ensure that all necessary topics are covered. There is no official or standard schedule of questions used throughout the community. Thus, to get a better idea of the content of examinations I located nine relevant documents online. Eight include a schedule of baptismal interview questions while the ninth is a guide that lists topics to be covered with less specificity.15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

The number of questions per interview schedule ranges from 79 to 270, with a mean of 153 and a median of 133. Three of the schedules provide answers to the questions while the others do not. Below I have attempted to categorize content according to how many of the nine documents cover a certain topic or issue. This is not an exact science because of differences in wording, and it's possible I've overlooked things. However, it gives an idea of the Christadelphian consensus on the core topics to be addressed in the interview. It also highlights certain topics that seem obscure or peripheral but are nonetheless considered important enough by some Christadelphians to cover in the interview.

It should be noted that the inclusion of a topic within a baptismal interview schedule does not necessarily indicate that knowledge of it is believed to be essential for a valid baptism. Some topics may be included for other reasons, for example to ensure that all members of the community meet desired standards of morality and general Bible knowledge.24 There may also be a tendency to lengthen the interview to err on the side of caution, since the potential negative consequences of omitting an essential topic are dire;25 the potential negative consequences of including a non-essential topic seem trifling by comparison.

3.1. Topics/Issues covered in all nine documents
  • Promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David
  • Future kingdom of God on earth
  • Regathering of Jews into land of Israel
  • God's nature and character
  • Rejection of Trinity
  • Holy Spirit is God's power, not a person
  • Jesus is Christ, Son of God
  • Jesus shared our human nature
  • Jesus did not personally pre-exist and is not co-equal with God
  • Jesus died, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven
  • The Fall; sin
  • Satan; devil
  • State of the dead; no immortal soul
  • Return of Christ
  • Resurrection of the dead and judgment
  • Personal motive for wanting baptism
  • Meaning and function of baptism
  • Necessity of obedience after baptism
3.2. Topics/Issues covered in majority of documents but not all
  • Nature and inspiration of Bible
  • Infallibility, inerrancy and/or sufficiency of Scripture
  • Kingdom of God existed in the past
  • History / purpose of Law of Moses / old covenant
  • General knowledge of Old Testament narrative / Israelite history
  • Holy Spirit power/possession/gifts unavailable today
  • Angels
  • Evolution is false
  • Jesus born of a virgin
  • Jesus' present function as high priest and mediator
  • Nature of atonement (representative, not substitutionary)
  • Symbolic meaning of breaking of bread
  • Breaking of bread is on first day of week
  • Salvation is impossible outside of Christ
  • Meaning of hell
  • Demons / evil spirits
  • Resurrectional responsibility (based on knowledge)26
  • Literal millennial reign
  • Infant baptism / sprinkling is invalid
  • Knowledge of gospel is prerequisite for valid baptism
  • Separation from other churches
  • No politics, military service, police work, jury duty, litigation, etc.
  • Marriage outside community forbidden
  • Divorce
  • Remarriage after divorce
3.3. Topics/issues covered in three or four of the documents
  • Christ had condemned nature / sinful flesh
  • Nature of serpent in Garden of Eden
  • Kingdom of God not a present reality
  • Earth will not be destroyed
  • Mortality to continue during millennium
  • No 'immortal emergence' / instant immortality after resurrection
  • Salvation is by grace
  • Gambling is sinful
  • Tobacco use is sinful
  • Extramarital sex is sinful
  • Homosexual behaviour is sinful
  • Doctrine of fellowship
  • Sisters must wear head coverings
  • Complementarianism (men and women have different roles; women in subjection to men)
  • Need for preaching and witness
3.4. Topics/issues covered in one or two of the documents
  • Candidate must show evidence of repentant behaviour prior to baptism
  • Name original languages in which Bible was written
  • God has shape, form, eyes, ears, face
  • God manifestation
  • God's Spirit not needed to understand Bible
  • When creation took place
  • Jesus benefited from his own death
  • Jesus had to offer sacrifice for his own 'sin in the flesh'
  • Jesus could have sinned (not impeccable)
  • Mary not immaculate
  • Jesus not immortal when he emerged from the tomb
  • Only baptized believers may may partake of memorial bread and wine
  • Twofold definition of sin
  • Serpent of Eden was not sentient and did not intend to deceive Eve
  • Doctrinal significance of Genesis 3:15
  • Animal sacrifice will recommence during millennium
  • Knowledge is to be tested by means of interview prior to baptism
  • Act of baptism has no intrinsic virtue
  • Prayer and Bible reading necessary for eternal life
  • Orthodox churches do not believe gospel
  • Any other religious body besides Christadelphians teaches true Gospel?27
  • Belonging to clubs, lodges, secret societies is forbidden
  • It is forbidden to take oaths
  • Duties of employees to employers
  • Witchcraft is forbidden
  • Theatres, dance halls, baseball games, other forms of entertainment28
  • No clergy
  • Sabbath observance no longer required
  • Meaning of the word 'Christadelphian'
  • Dress and makeup
  • Familiar with and accept Christadelphian Statement of Faith
3.5. Noteworthy omissions from all documents

Having discussed what we do find in these Christadelphian baptismal interview schedules, I will also mention a few noteworthy topics that we do not find in any of them.

a.  The present work of the Holy Spirit

As we saw above, most of the interview schedules solicit the candidate's denial of the present availability of the Holy Spirit gifts or power, or the very possession of the Holy Spirit today. Not one of the schedules balances this denial by soliciting any affirmation of Holy Spirit activity in the believer's heart or in the Ecclesia today. This is consistent with the idea of Christadelphian hyper-cessationism which I've discussed previously.

b. The present reality of the kingdom of God

All of the interview schedules explore the doctrine of the kingdom of God in considerable detail, placing emphasis on its future consummation. Most also discuss the kingdom of God as a past reality during the Israelite monarchy. When it comes to the kingdom of God as a present reality, some of the schedules solicit denial of specific teachings about a present kingdom of God, but not one prods the candidate to affirm that the kingdom of God presently exists in any sense. This is suggestive of a radically futuristic eschatology.

c. Ecclesiology

While some of the interview schedules touch on issues related to ecclesiology such as fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the requirements for entry into the Ecclesia, none of them deals with the doctrine of the Ecclesia/Church as such. The candidate is not prompted to discuss the nature, purpose, authority/privileges, 'catholicity', or symbolism of the Ecclesia/Church. Indeed, the longest of the interview schedules does not use the word 'ecclesia' or 'church' in any of its 270 questions! This omission is consistent with Christadelphian ecclesial deism which I've discussed previously.

d. Book of Revelation and Antichrist

None of the interview schedules ask the candidate to identify the correct method for interpreting the Apocalypse of John. Similarly, none of the interview schedules discuss the identity or significance of the antichrist. Thus, although there is an identifiable traditional Christadelphian position on both of these issues, there appears to be a strong consensus that freedom of conscience is permitted in these areas.

4. Conclusion

The Christadelphian baptismal examination practice distinguishes them from virtually all other Christian movements. An analysis of the purpose and content of these examinations provides insight into their theological basis. In a subsequent post I plan to discuss some theological problems with this practice. For now, I leave the reader with two hypotheses about the sociological effects of this practice upon the movement.
  1. The baptismal examination has resulted in a high standard of biblical literacy and a high degree of theological uniformity among baptized members of Christadelphian ecclesias where the practice is implemented rigorously.
  2. The baptismal examination practice has been a significant check on the growth rate of the Christadelphian community, indeed a major reason reason why the movement's growth did not keep pace with other restorationist and adventist movements that arose within the same historical milieu (mid-19th century English speaking world), e.g. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Stone-Campbell movement (Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ), etc.

Footnotes

  • 1 'Interview' seems to be the more common term in contemporary Christadelphian usage. I have made 'examination' the primary term here for two reasons. First, some ecclesias give the candidate the option of an oral or written examination (see e.g., the Procedure for Baptism of the Simi Hills ecclesia). Second, 'examination' brings out the distinctive purpose and function of the Christadelphian practice as compared to other groups that practice baptismal interviews.
  • 2 For example, Mormons conduct a baptismal interview according to a standard six-question script. However, a Mormon source stresses that the purpose is to make the candidate feel more comfortable and that it is 'a test of your heart, not a test of your knowledge.' Similarly, Ada Bible Church (nondenominational) conducts a 'brief' pre-baptismal interview which it describes as a 'very casual, relaxed conversation'. Athens Church (nondenominational) provides a list of eight questions for baptismal interviews. Its constitution gives no explanation of the practice. Bethlehem Baptist Church describes its baptismal interview process as follows: 'After both the candidate and sponsor have indicated the candidate’s readiness to move ahead with baptism, the candidate will be interviewed in order to confirm a credible profession of faith and clear understanding of the meaning and significance of baptism. The interview team will include an elder, an adult leader (i.e. Sunday School teacher, small group leader) and, when available, an older youth who is a member. During this interview the candidate gives his or her testimony and responds to informal questions concerning faith and church membership.' Catholic parishes generally conduct interviews with parents' prior to the baptism of their infant.
  • 3 Not that the examination is thought to literally validate the baptism or be essential to its validity, but that knowledge validates baptism and the examination assesses whether the candidate has the necessary knowledge.
  • 4 The Christadelphian Bible Mission of the Americas notes in its Field Worker Guidelines that 'Baptismal interview procedures vary greatly.'
  • 5 The original version of The Ecclesial Guide refers to a fictional conversation, separately published under the title The Good Confessionwhich Roberts thought might serve as a pattern to follow.
  • 6 There may have been an informal conversation consisting of one or two questions like 'Why do you want to be baptized?' and 'Do you believe in Jesus?'; my memory is fuzzy on this point. I do recall mentioning that some people might question the validity of the baptism; this concern was dismissed as laughable.
  • 7 I put this word in inverted commas to acknowledge that some Christadelphians are uncomfortable with using pass/fail language to describe the outcome. Certainly euphemistic language would be adopted in cases where a candidate 'failed'. I retain the 'pass/fail' language here because it concisely captures the two possible outcomes of an examination, and because this language is used informally among Christadelphians pertaining to these outcomes.
  • 8 BASF, article 16
  • 9 Expressed negatively, in BASF, Doctrines to be Rejected, article 30: 'We reject the doctrine - that baptism is not necessary to salvation.'
  • 10 Expressed negatively, in BASF, Doctrines to be Rejected, article 31: 'We reject the doctrine - that a knowledge of the Truth is not necessary to make baptism valid.' The principle is also implicit in article 16 of the main statement: 'That the way to obtain this salvation is to believe the Gospel they preached, and to take on the Name and service of Christ, by being thereupon immersed in water.'
  • 11 As the Baptismal Review Book of Berean Christadelphians Australia states, 'Examination before immersion ascertains whether an applicant understands and believes the truth. The validity of immersion depends upon believing the truth. Examination implies a recognized basis of fellowship; that is, a definition of the doctrines set forth by the teachings of Christ and his apostles referred to in the New Testament as "the truth"... This Truth is defined in A Statement of the Faith forming our Basis of fellowship...' (p. 1)
  • 12 This expression is taken from the subtitle of the 1877 Birmingham Statement of Faith.
  • 13 Roberts, Robert (presumed author). (1889). The Good Confession. The Christadelphian, Vol. 26, pp. 444-445. Reprinted in The Berean Christadelphian, Vol. 52, No. 9 (September 1964), pp. 30-32.
  • 14 'The purpose of the interview to ensure that there is some commonality between brethren and sisters that fellowship together. You can imagine the chaos that would ensue if in fact there were no necessary common shared beliefs amongst brethren. We would either water down the truth to nothing, or we would tear each other apart. Probably there would be a bit of both. So it’s in everyone’s best interest to have this discussion before baptism.' The document makes no reference to the interview's traditional purpose of ensuring sufficient knowledge for a valid baptism. However, the writer does state, 'To say that you do not know enough about the Bible to be baptized could be a very valid (though hopefully temporary) reason not to be baptized.'
  • 15 Growcott, Rene. Christadelphian Baptismal Interview. Antipas Christadelphians.
  • 16 Roberts, Robert. The Good Confession
  • 17 Christadelphian Books Online. Baptismal Questions.
  • 18 Christadelphian Bible Mission Handbook (UK). (2009). Suggested Interview Questions. pp. 69-74.
  • 19 Carelinks Ministries. Questions for Interviewing Candidates for Baptism.
  • 20 Sale Christadelphians. Baptismal Interview Questions.
  • 21 Australasian Christadelphian Bible Mission - Baptismal Guidelines. Topics for Consideration in the Interview. (phrased as propositions, not questions)
  • 22 Berean Christadelphians Australia. Baptismal Review Book.
  • 23 Shelburne Christadelphians. Baptismal Interview Guide. (a point-form checklist of topics to be covered, not a schedule of questions or propositions)
  • 24 Otherwise it is difficult to account for the inclusion in some of the schedules of moral questions (e.g. 'What is the duty of employees to their employer?') and biblical minutiae (e.g. 'How many sons did Jacob have? Name 6') that seem to have no bearing on even the broadest definition of 'the Truth.'
  • 25 If an essential topic were omitted, and the baptizand 'passed' the interview despite ignorance or error in that area, the result would be an invalid baptism which both the baptizand and the ecclesia mistakenly believed to be verifiably valid. Unless the oversight were noticed at some later stage and a re-baptism performed, the individual would pass his or her worldly probation ignorant of the awful fact that he or she had never actually taken on the name of Christ.
  • 26 None of the interview schedules analysed were from the Unamended community, but it is quite certain that this idea would not be asked in Unamended baptismal interviews since the Unamended fellowship does not make the doctrine of 'resurrectional responsibility through knowledge' a test of fellowship.
  • 27 Presumably expects a negative answer
  • 28 Presumably disapproved of

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I regularly conduct such interviews. You missed one positive aspect of them - they serve as a witness to those present, which we encourage to be friends and peers of the focus. I work from a list of 20 questions - it's a discussion, so those are only an overall structure. The process does encourage Biblical literacy - that's good. Done well - asking a good balance of questions - it also is a useful process for the person who wants to get baptised too - yes, I'm serious about this, and I've thought about what it means. I'm well aware of the how the process has been abused, but I've not experienced such myself.

Will said...

Hi Tom, this is an interesting and helpful survey of a variety of approaches. Where I come from, we prefer the term "conversation" instead of "interview" and it is very relaxed and informal as the term conversation would apply. It is not viewed as an exercise in control or protection from doctrinal misgivings. Rather, it is an opportunity to have a deep and intimate spiritual conversation to see how we can better help this individual grow in their relationship with Christ. I have never seen us use or reference any of the publications that you cited in your article - many of which, as you rightly point out, do not place the emphasis where it should be.

Tom said...

Thank you to you both for your comments. They do indeed show that a variety of approaches to the baptismal interview exist within the Christadelphian community. This is my first time hearing of third parties being present for witnessing purposes.

In progressively minded Christadelphian ecclesias, there does seem to be a movement away from the 'examination' connotation of the interview toward a more informal approach.

Anonymous said...

I don't know that it's particularly progressive related. No one would have described the deeply racist, elderly, conservative, white, risk-averse ecclesia I was baptised into as progressive in any fashion, but I still had an informal discussion.