In recognition of the strength and popularity of the Baptist church, I arranged an interview with Reverend Elwin Pelletier, a Baptist missionary for over thirty-five years and now a hospital chaplain.
Reverend Pelletier is a kindly man of medium height with gray hair and glasses. In his gray suit, he could easily have been taken for a family doctor or a successful businessman, but he exuded kindness, attentiveness, and concern. Everything about him emphasized he was a spiritual man, a servant of God.
Now in his sixties, he looks well and healthy despite having won a miraculous battle with near-fatal meningitis.
Reverend Pelletier’s wife Lois, a dedicated Christian who served many years as a nurse and teacher in the Belgian Congo, welcomed my assistant and me and served our favorite kind of herb tea.
Reverend Pelletier explained that while he was sure we had many different views about a number of subjects, he was very happy and pleased to take part in an interview. Further, he said he was definitely not a theologian and would do the best he could — with my understanding of his theological limitations.
I replied that a man who had been a missionary for thirty-five years certainly qualified to be in my website — that I was striving to speak with people who had lived their spiritual values, and that I wanted the interviews to be a personal sharing of their years of religion in practice.
RA: Reverend, I want to explore the way Baptists think and feel about God, life, and the world. I want to note the characteristics of higher consciousness found in the way of a Baptist Protestant Christian. If you would, kindly tell me first something of your background.
He nodded, “I went first to Europe to study French in 1946. I arrived in the old Belgian Congo in 1947 as a missionary of the conservative Baptist Mission Society. I spent twenty-five years involved in preparing pastors for field ministry in what is now Zaire — the name has changed — and my wife and I both taught in that school. My wife, Lois, is a nurse.” He glanced at her, eyes shining, “I was in pastoral training and she was, too.
“As time went on, I became a professor in an inter-mission seminary for a year and then ended my career in the work of field administration for five years in the city of Goma in eastern Zaire. So that was a total of thirty-five years in Africa.
“Then my wife and I came back to America for health reasons. I was treated at University of California-Irvine Medical Center. That’s how I became a chaplain at UCI Medical Center.”
Somehow it seemed ironic that the Reverend had spent twenty-five years preparing pastors for the field ministry and yet modestly felt himself unqualified for our interview.
As we sipped tea, I told Reverend Pelletier and his wife a little of my background and also the nature of the book on higher consciousness. I encouraged him to speak out on any issue and to feel free to share the particular or distinctive views of the Baptist church. I plunged into the interview, asking, “What is Christianity?”
“I think,” he replied, “the simplest way to say it is that Christianity is Jesus Christ. We don’t really view Christianity as a religion. We view Christianity as the person and the ministry of the one to whom we refer as the Lord Jesus Christ. This involves, of course, that we have a historical personage who was supernatural, who brought to us the final, complete revelation of God, which is inscribed in The Holy Bible. We accept him as the redeemer (of mankind) and there are theological implications as well, but I believe I’ve answered your question.”
RA: What is the goal of Christianity?
“I think the goal of Christianity is to make Jesus Christ known. The word of God as we see it, in the Bible, in the Book of Acts, says there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby you must be saved. So, therefore, upon the basis of the word of God, we feel that we should go into all the world and make disciples, as Jesus commanded us to do in the twenty-eighth chapter of Matthew, the great commission.
RA: What do you mean by the term “saved,” so that we might be clear about his definition.
He explained there are two main considerations: death and life. Death, by Biblical interpretation, is a state of separation from God. The Bible says that man is born as a mortal, as a sinner, and that the consequence of this condition of man is death, or separation from God. However, through Christ, God gives man the gift of life — an abiding in the presence of God, in the nearness of God. This state of life is eternal, beyond time, bestowed on man through Lord Jesus Christ.
“I don’t think there could be anything worse than to be eternally separated from God,” Reverend Pelletier said. “To be saved, then, is to be born again, to believe in Jesus. The Bible says, ‘He came unto His own and His own received Him not. But to those who received Him,‘ — invited him, accepted him into their heart — ’He gave the power to become the sons of God’ (from John 1:11-13), to those who were born not of the flesh but of the spirit of God. So this being saved is the reality of being saved from judgment upon our sin and entering into a new and eternal life in the knowledge and in the fellowship of God through Jesus Christ.”
RA: Could you describe the nature or characteristics of a son of God?
“Well, the ian of the word Christian is the diminutive of the word Christ, so a Christian is a photocopy, a carbon copy, of the Christ. That is, he, the new son of God, must have the qualities of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“The Christian receives these qualities not because of his human ability to recreate himself but the Bible says that if anyone be in Christ, or a believer, a saved individual, ‘all things are become new.’ Old things are passed away and the individual has become a new creature.
“Now, the qualities of a Christian should be progressively more similar to the qualities of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was full of compassion, love, purity, holiness, righteousness, and other virtues. Each book in the New Testament, which is written as a theological treatise is always — at least twenty-five to thirty and sometimes forty percent — an explanation of how to apply the theology, or doctrine, into the life of the Christian. So, if you want it in detail, you can read any of the four Pauline epistles and you’ll get that. Paul summed it up in Romans 12, though: ‘I beseech thee, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present yourselves a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God,… and be not conformed to this present world but be transformed to the image of Christ.’”
RA: I explained to Reverend Pelletier that I was going to be including in my chapter on Christianity an interview with two Roman Catholic priests and that I would like to have a clarification about the nature and definition of the Protestant church in general.
“Well,” he replied, “Protestantism was a label given to us by those with whom we differed because in the early days the so-called Protestants conflicted with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in emphasizing, ‘for by grace are you saved through faith.’ Salvation is a ‘gift of God, not of works, lest any man shall boast, for we are created by God unto good works.’ (Ephesians 2:8,9)
“So, salvation by faith was one of the great doctrines that impressed Luther, that it wasn’t a matter of storing up benefits, and other things, before a holy God, but rather that initially there is this inner state and grace — because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — that we (Protestants), accepting his sacrifice in our behalf, may be presented to God as righteous. Dressed in his righteousness, not our own. That is the inner state and grace. We differed with the Roman Catholic hierarchy on this point.”
“You’re saying then that the first Protestants emphasized God’s grace through Christ’s death and resurrection as the way of man’s salvation — rather than through our own efforts, charity, and good works,” I added.
“We also speak of the outer serving grace which has to do, for example, with Matthew 7:16 and the Book of James. As Jesus said, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ If one is truly born again, his life, his walk, his characteristics, his manner of life and deportment, will give evidence of that rebirth, of God’s life within him.” Salvation by grace and the outer serving graces are the essential bases of what came to be known as Protestantism, according to Reverend Pelletier.”
The goal of Protestantism, I would say first of all, is to make Jesus Christ known. This is evangelism. Secondly, our goal is to present God’s Word, which we feel is the true Word, wherever man is found. Thirdly, we must establish churches or groups of Christians, organized bodies of Jesus Christ. Then, good works are necessary — wherever man is in need, to minister to those needs whatever they may be, whether it is hunger, illness, lack of education — whatever. We strive to minister to the whole man.”
RA: What is the Baptist faith as different from other Protestant denominations, and what are the goals of a Baptist?
“We are evangelicals: we are Bible-oriented; we are conservatives. We’re not radical Fundamentalists. We are conservatives, and we are Biblically-oriented in our teachings. We accept the Bible from Genesis to Revelation as, in fact, God’s holy Word — the revealed Word of God — and that’s where it all begins. We believe in the Virgin birth; we believe in the miraculous conception; and we believe in the Trinity. By Trinity I mean that we believe God exists in three persons — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“Secondly, we are called Baptists because we are members of a Protestant denomination which holds that baptism should be given only to believers after their confession of faith. And that baptism should be given by immersion, not sprinkling.” Reverend Pelletier smiled and paused. “Well, there’s more to it than that, but we got the name ‘Baptists’ because we considered ourselves Biblical Christians, baptizing by the method of immersion as in the Bible. Actually, the word baptism originally meant immersion.”
RA: Could you tell me what the significance of the baptism itself is?
Reverend Pelletier nodded. “Certainly. First of all, the individual has passed from death unto life. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. Now we are, through baptism, alive unto God because we’ve received Jesus into our hearts. In the immersion we become one with Christ in his death. Christ died on the cross for our sins (our sins put him there) and in the act of immersion we are one with him. This is called our union with Christ. So, in baptism, we are united with Christ in death. And, we are united with Christ in the power of his resurrection unto newness of life! This is the meaning of baptism and this is why we feel our being immersed into the water is a better symbol of the death and the resurrection of Christ — the Christian dies to sin and is then born alive unto the newness of life.
“But we do not believe in baptismal regeneration,” Reverend Pelletier emphasized. “We believe baptism is a symbol. We have many friends (in other denominations) who are sprinkled. We don’t make an issue of this. In fact, our group of hospital chaplains is affiliated with sixty different denominations, many of whom do not baptize as we do. We do not feel baptism is a saving action. We are saved by grace, unmerited favor, not something we worked for but something we receive as a gift from God. Baptism, then, is a form of public confession. The person who is baptized is publicly confessing before all that Christ is his or her saviour and will walk in the newness of the Christian life.”
I was surprised at Reverend Pelletier’s wide acceptance of different methods of baptism as I recalled the many times in history when Baptists were martyred for emphasizing the importance of immersion or were so often run out of the towns and cities of Europe. I recalled how Baptist forefathers in America were often abused in the New England colonies and how on one occasion the doors of their worship hall were nailed shut by people of the majority denomination.
RA: Are you saying that what may have been life-threatening and dangerous differences regarding baptism way back which have been changed in the perceptions of religious people generally? Or are you saying that there was just a lot of hysteria at times in Christian history and there isn’t now?
Reverend Pelletier leaned forward. “Of course, when you have religion which is made into a state religion or religion which is involved in politics you will always have extremes. We saw this in the early days of the Catholic church and we saw it in the early period of the Protestant church as well. When you have a politicized church, then you have extremes.”
“I think that Protestants and Catholics, for example, now are both reading God’s Word, The Holy Bible. We find Catholics bringing a Bible into the hospital; we find Protestants bringing a Bible into the hospital. If I read God’s Word, and if another individual reads God’s Word, then there’s bound to be some blessing, some harvesting of special help and comprehension from that Bible which will be similar. And we find Catholics talking about being born again and so forth. We find we’re coming together, not in affiliation, but in relationship to Jesus Christ — as fellow believers. So, I don’t think that baptism at this point is an issue about which we would quarrel.
“Now, if I were a pastor and one became a member of the church where I was pastor, I would insist upon their entrance into that body of Christians via baptism — if they hadn’t been baptized — in order to become a member. But in my cooperation and affiliation with other Christians, I cannot require the Baptist form of immersion of a Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Catholic, or someone else. If a person’s relationship and faith in Jesus Christ is real, then he’s a brother in the Lord and we cooperate.”
RA: So the problem is politicism, not zealous bigotry. Politicism is not of Christ, is it?
“No,” Reverend Pelletier said very seriously. “We have lived in Africa during the period of eighteen years — almost nineteen years — when we had dissident Christians (around us). You have to live near such Christians to experience what they really are. They have a politicized church in which a ‘Christian brother’ will say to you that if you don’t do what they want you to do, your head will roll down the bank. That isn’t a very lovely Christian solution. You have to understand the extremes and perversions of ‘politicized Christians.’
“You know,” he continued, “if you have a politicized church, you can have a crusade or religious war. I talked to an Irish person in the hospital the other day. She said, ‘Chaplain, don’t you believe for a minute that this war in Ireland is a religious war. People have used the terms, taken the terms, Catholic and Protestant, and voluntarily imposed these terms on groups of people. But it is not a Christian war in Ireland. It’s a political war.’”
RA: What a tragedy, I reflected. I wanted to get back to the Baptist’s walk with God and asked, What is the goal of the Baptist? Is it different from other Protestant Christian denominations?
He shook his head. “The goal of the Baptist is similar or parallel to the goal of the Christian in general. We seek to make Christ known wherever man is found and to establish the body of Christ wherever Christians are, through an organized worship. In other words, we believe that we should win souls to Jesus Christ.”
RA: How do you do this?
“We present to people what we call the simple facts of the Bible truths: man is estranged from God by sin. Though man is estranged from God, he may be brought into fellowship by receiving the gift of salvation, by putting his faith in Christ. So we present God’s Word to individuals, where they are, whenever we find them, just as we find them, and try to bring them into realization and acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal saviour.
“Sometimes people have read the Bible for years but have no sense of the reality of God in their lives. A lady I visit had given her father a vow that she would follow in his religion but she never did keep that vow. I said to her, ‘Did you ever read the Bible?’ She said, ‘No, I’ve tried many times but it doesn’t mean anything to me.’ I asked her, ‘Have you ever in your life either come to the point where you had the assurance that Jesus was your saviour, or was there a point where you made a definite commitment to Jesus Christ or accepted him and invited him into your heart?’
“She said, ‘Neither of these have been a part of my experience.’
RA: I said to her, Would you like to pray what we call the Sinner’s Prayer? I told her what the prayer was: ‘I confess that I am a sinner. I believe that Jesus died for my sins and I accept him. I invite him into my heart as my own personal saviour.’
“The lady did say the Sinner’s Prayer. She’s had cancer for twenty-three years. She’s still alive. And it’s almost nine months now since she said the Sinner’s Prayer. And for the last nine months something has been happening. The prayer seems so simple, and yet we believe that Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, entered her life and heart and became a resident in her life. Although she is emaciated and very distraught physically, her heart is filled with peace. And her mind — you can see — is filled with serenity from trusting in Jesus Christ. She reestablished fellowship with God by receiving Christ on the basis of his word. It’s not a matter of philosophical or intellectual ascent. It is a matter of a definite act — confession, and admission, and acceptance of Jesus Christ into the heart.”
RA: After a serene pause in our conversation, I said, Please explain sin. What is your definition of this condition that keeps people from the Lord and keeps them from sensing the presence of God?
“The Bible says that one definition of sin is ‘missing the mark.’ Another way the Bible expresses sin is that it is falling short of the glory of God. To fall short of the glory of God is to be found wanting or short of the demand which God places upon men: and sin is enmity with God,” he said.
RA: Then, how does a Baptist Christian become fulfilled, or realized? Use whatever term you’d like to use.
“I think the best term of all is that a Christian is fulfilled in fellowship with God. Now, fellowship with God, to me, is consistent reading of God’s holy Word, the quiet time, meditation, and prayer. Fellowship is the daily contact with God. I know no other way than the daily reading of God’s holy Word in prayer and meditation. This is a necessary part — fellowship with God.
“Secondly, obedience to the revealed will of God as we find it in the scriptures. We must witness, giving of our resources (some call it tithing, some say giving), demonstrating the love of God to others, helping others, participating with other believers in worship, assembling ourselves together.”
Reverend Pelletier explained, “We believe that the Bible is the living Word of God and that it isn’t by error or mistake that it was called The Holy Bible. We believe it is God’s revelation to us. So, when we read God’s Word, wait and pray, and meditate and listen, God speaks to us through His holy Word. He warms our hearts. We know that he is there, that he is with us. This is called fellowship, fellowship with God.”
RA: When you say fellowship with God, I should ask you what you specifically mean by God.
“Well, the Bible describes God as the Creator, the ruler, the builder of the universe, the One to whom all men, every living soul, is responsible.”
“What do you mean by responsible?” I asked. “Are you referring to the levels or states involved in the process of responsible, maturing fellowship with God?”
He shook his head again. “I don’t think we would use those terms: levels or states. I know what you’re talking about. I think we would put it this way: As the Bible indicates, a new Christian, as a newborn babe, desires the sincere milk of the Word. So, the Bible says there are different strata of growth. First there is the new Christian and he understands to a certain degree. There is also a teenage Christian and he understands a little bit more. And in the Bible it says that the mature Christian eats the meat of the Word. He gets into the deep understanding. This, of course, is parallel with the growth of the Christian. We call it the process of sanctification: being cleansed and forgiven of sin and growing to be more like Christ. It’s a growth process. Christian life is a way of walking in fellowship with God, the knowledge of God, and being continually made over in Christ.
“I have a prayer,” he added, “which is, ‘May we grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, to know His power in our lives, to be in the process of being transformed, becoming more like Christ.’
“Of course, conversion is the initial step. Conversion is when a man turns from his sin to Jesus Christ and accepts Him as his own personal saviour, and Jesus Christ takes up residence in that heart. Now, growing in Christ is a way of living. It is keeping in contact with God through the quiet time each day, through the reading of His Word, through meditation and obedience to His Word. There is a growing consciousness and a growing comprehension of what life is all about.
“Then, there comes a time when the Christian has, comparatively speaking, a mature understanding of what the Bible teaches, or what God expects of us as followers or disciples.
“It’s important to add that we never become perfected on earth,” the Reverend emphasized. “The Bible says that when we see him in heaven, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is — in his beauty, in his complete, divine holiness and perfection. But you and I will never attain that in this life. We do not believe in sinless perfection. We don’t believe the Bible teaches it. As long as I am in this mortal body — in the flesh, as we say — every day I ask God to forgive me for the sins I have committed, and rejoice that the love of Jesus Christ continually cleanses me from all sins.
“The Christian has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s the main point. And if you can get God into your picture, then God will help you, the individual. What you can’t change in your own heart — alcoholism, for example — God will change in your heart. God will remove the desire for alcohol. And God, within your life, will enable you to become an overcomer. A Christian has invited Jesus Christ to live within him.”
I asked Reverend Pelletier if he’d like to comment further on any of the points we had covered so far. He declined.
RA: What is the view of Baptists regarding other Christian denominations, and also the other faiths outside Christianity?
“When it comes to the various shades of Christian religion — Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc.— we feel that if people believe the call of the Gospel, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Son of Man, that he is deity, that he was born of a virgin, that he’s a member of the Trinity, and that he died for us on the cross and we can know him personally by accepting him, that puts us together in a unity. As it says in Romans 8:17, ‘Those who would properly relate to God vertically through Jesus Christ can also find fellowship horizontally.’ This is referring to other Christians.
“Now, as we come to the other, the pantheistic view of God, for example, that I may build a temple on a hill with ten or twelve — or whatever — entrances and that we can all come in through any door to be with God because there is only one God; we do not subscribe to that view. We do not feel that Christ is one religious leader among other religious leaders or that Christianity is one among other religions. We feel the Bible teaches that Jesus is the only way. That’s why there are some Christian groups who hold the index finger up to signify the one way and that Christ is the one and only way.
“Christianity is exclusive in this sense. We say that only by the Gospel of Jesus Christ can a person be saved: ‘There is no other name unto heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.’ The Bible doesn’t say that we can choose to be saved. Christ is the saviour and the redeemer.”
RA: In other words, Christ chooses us?
Reverend Pelletier nodded. “So, this means that whether we are with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or any other religions, we feel we have a message to present to them — that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and as he said: ‘No man cometh unto God but by Me.’ Jesus is not just a prophet, as Mohammed was a prophet, for example. Jesus came, as a historical person, to proclaim a message. History proves that Jesus died on a cross and on the third day he rose again from the dead. For this reason we believe that eternal life may be known only in his name.
“Now, as far as having friends and loving those who disagree with me, that’s the least I can do! I have many Muslim friends in Africa who came to our house. And we went to their houses. We have many Hindu friends. We have many friends of other faiths.”
RA: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this question?
“Well, this is the impetus and the dynamic of the Christian mission, or missions, per se. We don’t really agree with the viewpoint that God is at work in every religion to bring man to Himself. We believe that God is at work through Christianity and through Jesus Christ, his son, whom he sent to die for us on the cross. We believe that Christ is at work to save man and to bring men under the knowledge of Himself through his son. But I don’t have to go to war about it.”
His remarks formulated my final question, “How do you see a more peaceful world coming about?”
He frowned. “I have a problem with this question because on the one hand, humanly, my heart says that if people would just determine and make up their minds to get along, they could get along. But, the fact of the matter is, the Bible says the heart of man is desperately wicked.
“And then it says in Matthew 24 and 25, there would be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and all the rest. It’s what the Bible says. And I don’t think there ever will be, that we will ever achieve, real peace on this earth. Look at Belgium. You have the Walloons and the Flemish people who for a thousand years have been feuding. They’re international award winners in science and so forth but they are still feuding. And look at the Africans, they are feuding. Look at Mexico and Central America. Still you have the differences of the various groups. And you have it throughout the entire world. You have the Arabs and you have the Jews. Look at Northern Ireland. I do not look for utopia on this earth. But in the Bible it says Jesus will come and set up his kingdom of a thousand years and that it will continue on through eternity, with Jesus Christ as our ruler. Then I would expect peace.”
RA: Please say more about this.
“Well, the Bible says for the first thousand years Christ will set up his kingdom on this world. And after that the Bible says, in Revelations, a new heaven and a new earth will be established, whatever that means. I don’t like to be totally fatalistic and totally pessimistic. I’m glad for all the coming together — of our President and the Russians — and I still live on this earth and I still enjoy it here. I have children and I would covet for them peace on earth, but I’m afraid Armageddon is out there somewhere.”
Then, in words that seemed a summation of Reverend Pelletier’s whole life, he said, “I prayed that God would make me a blessing to you people, and an inspiration, because that’s the only purpose we have for being here.” He stood and we shook hands. I left the Pelletier home feeling grateful to have such a clear, succinct explanation of the Baptist faith.
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