I was moved to write a brief post on baptism after reading a series of articles on Harvard’s Fish Tank where I noted that the “baptism wars” were alive still in the next generation! On the one hand, I tend to glaze over when I read, once again, the same old arguments with no side convincing the other. On the other hand, I reckon that each generation fighting for its own convictions, even if that means perpetuating the same old, tired debates, is probably a good thing. Wasn’t it Jacques Ellul (or was it Barth?) who said that the church must be reborn every generation? It can’t really be handed down.
I don’t want to pontificate or be condescending towards anyone for whom this “doctrinal” issue looms large. And while my title is tongue-in-cheek, I’m not really demeaning the sometimes healthy (sometimes pathetically divisive and hateful) practice of discussing, even debating, hot topics… so long as it is done as brothers (I really think N.T. Wright’s perspective is correct there, see “What Saint Paul Really Said” where he notes that doctrine can and should be debated, but as brothers). But I notice, that like most ideological “wars”, people tend to land along a continuum from militant to phobic, hence the title.
What I mean by “baptism-phobic” is that a certain group of Christians seem, to me, so afraid that we will put undue emphasis on our role in salvation, on our behavior, on our “work” that they go to an extreme. They deny any real importance of baptism. In doing so, I feel they not only miss out on a great Christian practice which ties us to our deepest roots all the way back to Israel and to Adam, but they also are out of sync with the vast majority of Christians for the last 2,000 years.
Honestly, I struggle (I admit it, it’s a struggle, not a point of boasting) with being patient with this group. I tend to want to shrug my shoulders and walk away perplexed. In truth, I sincerely question whether one can be intellectually honest if after reading the many passages in the NT that touch on baptism, one relegates baptism to some superfluous, ineffectual, optional practice. One thing I am pretty sure about, though, is that getting into debates about baptism is not particularly helpful or unifying.
I have a dear, Christian friend (yes, he’s a Christ-follower, full of love and devotion to our Lord) who believes that water baptism is unimportant, non-essential and human in origin. He reasons that baptism in the NT is used metaphorically (in the same way Jesus spoke of persecution as a “baptism”, Mk 10:25ff) and almost always refers to baptism of the Holy Spirit. The problem with that logic is that metaphors only work if there exists a logical connection. For early Christians, the baptism word-family could indeed be used metaphorically (e.g., baptism of the Holy Spirit) precisely because they understood the well-established sacramental practice of immersion in water.
Happily, it appears to me from reading a broad range of contemporary Christian authors, baptism has become, once again, a positive topic among evangelicals, who were the largest (voir the only group to minimize baptism, when compared to most Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Anabaptist and Restoration Movement Christians). It seems that a large number of folks have been convinced, by (a) a renewed appreciation for ancient traditions which seems more characteristic of the post-modern mind than the modern thinker, and by (b) the sheer volume of scriptural references to baptism, that baptism just might be a valuable symbol and a downright cool ritual! Alhough they still have an overall take-it or leave-it approach to its practice.
I tend to believe that the fear is that by overly affirming baptism, we might be “tying God’s hands” and reducing HIS salutory work at the cross to a contractual agreement which leaves Him “unfree” to save whom He wills, as He wills, when He wills. Moreover, we might actually start believing we can, in some sense, save ourselves. I’m sympathetic to this concern. In my own tradition, where believers not only affirm the importance of baptism, but the exact manner of the baptism (including form, age, understanding and prerequisite repentance) is of such primordial importance that any deviation from the correct practice of baptism jeopardizes one’s salvation and standing with God. Seeing how poorly Christians agree on baptism, that does seem to put a bit too much focus on our part with the corollary effect of minimizing the effectiveness of Christ’s work.
Going beyond the previous (artificial) categories, it seems to me a more robust theology of baptism is warranted. Rather than debate the moment of “salvation”, drawing lines of fellowship based on the exact way we practice baptism, or going to extremes of dismissing the practice altogether or neurotically wondering if one was baptized “correctly”, I believe we should reclaim the richness of baptism as a sacrament that ties the church to its historical and theological roots.
- Theologically, we should celebrate baptism, richly and enthusiastically, as a reminder of God’s ongoing salvific work throughout the ages. From the parting of the waters in the Genesis account of Creation, to the waters of the flood which divided between the wicked and the righteous Noah and his family, to the salutory parting of the Red Sea AND the Jordan River in order to both free Israel from slavery and lead them into the promised land, to the prophetically symbolic purification and salvation of Jonah through a watery burial and resurrection, to John’s baptism of repentance, to Jesus’ own entering into his ministry by submitting to immersion in the Jordan, to the Apostles’ practice and teaching of the believer’s own burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6), God has repeatedly used water to “save” his people.
- Historically, we should understand baptism a concrete way in which we express solidarity with Adam, Noah, Moses, Joshua, Jonah, the apostles and Jesus himself (not to mention the thousands upon thousands of Christians who have gone before us). And yet, we are not only expressing solidarity, but we are participating in their story, which is ultimately the story of our God, the one and only true Savior.
- Sociologically or politically, we should recapture the deeply subversive character of baptism as a very public, visible moment when each Christian proclaims his/her emancipation from all other kingdoms, all other allegiances, all other masters, when we say “I am no longer yours” to any lord that would rival our Lord & King. At that same moment, we are “born again” into a new family where gender, race, nationality, status no longer divide us because we have become “brothers” and “sisters”, God’s own household. In baptism, we renounce (we die to and are buried to) our old politics of exclusion, our economy of scarcity, our prideful individuality, and we embrace (we are raised to a new life characterized by) a new ethic, a kingdom way of living.
Baptism is simply TOO RICH to be either ignored and sidelined, or, reduced to a divisive, superstitious ritual. It is an identity giving, salutory sacrament overflowing with rich theology and history.
I’ve spent my entire life in Restoration Movement churches. It seems to me that what started as a simple, brotherly, Spirit-led call to restore biblical practices somehow became a rather sectarian group of believers whose reputation became “Oh, you guys are the ones who think you’re the only ones that are saved.” Sadly, that’s pretty much what most of us believed. And to this day, for this family of churches, the issue of baptism looms large. Sometimes, it’s cause for anxiety over one’s salvation (“was my baptism valid?”); other times, it’s really THE bottom line test of orthodoxy and fellowship (“that’s all great, but what do you guys teach about baptism? do you say it’s essential for salvation”).
So, to set the record straight for my “baptism militant” brothers, I affirm baptism (see above). I teach and practice the immersion of adult believers for the forgiveness of sins. I am moved to tears every time someone is baptized. I love feeling connected to our rich salvation history. Moreover, I think it does us good to know, to remember that there was a day, a specific moment when we buried our old way of life and embraced God’s proclamation that “Now is the day of salvation”. And, even though our salvation is ongoing (sanctification) and future (eschaton), there indeed came a time when we were “made alive in Christ” and “by grace we were saved” (Ephesians 2:5).
But, I simply cannot be dogmatic and sectarian. I have about as little patience for the “baptism-militant” as for the “baptism-phobic” believers. Several friends from the International Churches of Christ have recently told me that the issue of “cognizance” and baptism is a hot topic in that fellowship these days. What that means is that the question is whether a baptism “counts” as a valid baptism if at the time of the baptism the person is not convinced that baptism is essential for salvation. In other words, if you were baptized out of obedience or to become a member of the church but believed your sins were forgiven at some other time than baptism (for instance, when you prayed for forgiveness), then the idea is that your baptism is invalid so that you are not forgiven, not saved, not a Christian and most likely going to Hell. Of course, that issue and all the attendant arguments have been around in the churches of Christ since long before I was born.
Needless to say, I couldn’t feel more detached from that kind of argument. I feel like rolling my eyes and sighing. Why?
- I just can’t relate to the vision of God that is necessary to get lost in such debates. God is no longer a Father who Judges (because he hates injustice and how it hurts his people). He is a Lawyer and Judge who has forgotten how to be a Father. He is more concerned with Law than people. He writes in terms obscure enough to confuse (like all lawyers) then condemns those who missed the fine print.
- I can’t shake the Old Testament and New Testament images where God shocks the so-called orthodox believers who honestly think they are the ones who are “right” with God. He shocks them by his generosity, by his love of sinners (including apostate Israelites), by his freedom to save whom He wills. Think of Rahab, the Ninevites, Zacchaeus, the sinful woman, Levi…. Remember that the Pharisees were devoutly holding to the Torah and remaining loyal to Yaweh. Imagine their stupefaction and scandal to see Jesus, this supposed prophet, hang out with obvious sinners; not Gentile sinners (that could be understood), but apostate Jews, Jewish tax collectors, Jewish prostitutes, Jewish fall-aways. Yet, Jesus said they were entering the kingdom ahead of the law-keepers. Talk about disorienting.
- And then there’s Jesus himself. He did not set aside the Law (nor should we set aside baptism, the Eucharist….). BUT, he always landed on the heart! His harshest words were for those who were lost in the fine points of the Law (or, for us, “doctrine”) and forgot about mercy. In fact, in a verse that is often misused to create doubt in believers who have differing doctrine (e.g., baptism), Jesus tells people who drove out demons and performed miracles in his name, “I never knew you, depart from me you evil doers” (Matt 7). I heard it used (and used it myself) to tell other believers who did not practice baptism “sure you do many good things in the name of Jesus and are very devoted, but since you were not baptized, HE DOES NOT KNOW YOU.” I now cringe, because this passage, coming at the end of the sermon on the Mount is not at all about doctrine but about heart. Jesus is saying the exact opposite of what we’ve made the verse say. He’s saying that doing all the right religious things (like being baptized) is NOT what he’s after (though these might be good, just like casting out demons and performing miracles were good). If the kind of heart that he has been talking about–the heart that refuses to call a brother a fool, or to lust after another man’s wife, or to boast in prayer and fasting, or to judge a brother, or to live selfishly–is absent, then the right behaviors are meaningless.
- Finally, there is the inescapable reality that many serious Bible students who are devout believers who not only call Jesus Lord but have quite evidently made Jesus Lord of their lives don’t understand baptism as I do. As one example, N.T. Wright is perhaps today’s greatest NT scholar and a man who deeply loves both Christ and his Church. His writings have benefited believers throughout the world. Is such a man really to be understood as a false-brother, as worse than an unbeliever because he affirms infant baptism (he is Anglican)? Or is a humble woman like mother Teresa who has served orphans and loved the poor more than any other, devoting her entire life to the service of Christ really to be pitied as one whose life, service to man, faith in Christ, hope in Christ were all in vain? as one who in the end fell short of the goal because she believed in original sin and infant baptism? After all, Jesus himself taught that a tree is know by its fruit. Paul believed that the Spirit could be discerned in the lives of others. Neither ever said that baptismal orthodoxy was the sign of a true believer.
So, for myself, in the end, I still teach and understand baptism the way I was taught. I have a very high view of its place in the life of the Christian community. It is a beautiful, meaningful, profound sacrament. But, heeding Jesus’ words to “beware of the yeast of the pharisees”, I cannot give in to politics of exclusion, to confident self-satisfaction, to a spirit of judgment. I simply cannot refuse to embrace as brothers fellow believers who’ve submitted to the Lordship of Christ because they might think differently. Instead, we can have brotherly, honest and passionate, but brotherly dialogue on any point where we disagree. I think we should all be “baptism-affirming” without falling into a misplaced militancy on that count. There are many things we probably should be more militant about (pursuing peace, eradicating poverty, radical love of our brothers, radical love of our enemies, …); I don’t think baptism is one of them.