Acts of Baptism

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

As anyone even somewhat familiar with Christianity knows, various Christian denominations have different, specific approaches to baptism—that all important rite involving water and the Holy Spirit.

Depending on its theological commitments, a church may expect the person being baptized to be an adult (or, at least old enough to make a conscious decision to be baptized), to be fully immersed in water (rather than sprinkled or poured upon), to be triple immersed (rather than once), to have undergone rigorous catechesis prior to baptism, to manifest miraculous spiritual gifts (before or after), or to fulfill any number of other practices. It really depends on the church. I once spoke to someone who seemed to believe that the only true way to be baptized was to be triple immersed while wearing a white gown in the cool running water of the river near their church.

In principle, Christians taking Jesus’ command to baptize seriously should be celebrated; in practice, however, our obsession with making sure that everyone is baptized our way—the right way—poses some problems.

Some Problems with Right Way Obsession

In the first place, there is the problem of rebaptism. Many people enter a new church having already been baptized. Or at least, under the impression that they were already baptized. That is, until someone convinces them their previous baptism was invalid and they should be baptized the right way. While there are probably some circumstances where a serious discussion about rebaptism may be permissible, making rebaptism commonplace seems to oppose the very unity that the Apostle Paul calls the Church to in Ephesians 4:1-6.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. [Emphasis added]

Second, a focus on making sure that everyone has been baptized the right way potentially corrupts what baptism is. Romans 6:1-4 closely identifies the effects of baptism with the salvific work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Orthodox Christians of all denominations confess that salvation comes through this work of Jesus and is granted to humanity by God’s grace. To then turn around and assume, as certain denominations do, that baptism must be undertaken in a highly specific manner undercuts that message of grace. It’s like saying, “Yes, Jesus graciously offers you life, but only if you do the right (baptismal) works to get there.”

Finally, a focus on making sure everyone has been baptized the right way tends to be utterly confusing for congregants. This is particularly true for those who are new to faith, on the fringes of belief, or in the process of changing churches. In some contexts, the emphasis on being baptized the right way can even lead people to question their relationship with God—or to doubt someone else’s relationship with God. Beyond the differences in how different denominations baptize, such confusion can lead people to question the value of baptism itself.

Right Way versus Big Tent

Although nothing apart from the Second Coming is likely to get Christians on the same page when it comes to baptismal practice, I think there is an approach to baptism that is scriptural and can help cut through some of the problems fostered by a right way approach to baptism. I call this perspective the big tent approach to Christian baptism.

The big tent approach to baptism recognizes the internal diversity of baptismal practices recorded within scripture and recognizes as valid differing contemporary baptismal practices when they conform to the diversity of these scriptural models. This approach fits best in a big tent approach to Christianity more generally; but it is also tenable in ecclesiastical contexts that work with the diversity of contemporary Christian instruction and practice.1 Indeed, many denominations already practice this kind of big tent thinking when it comes to baptism.

Acts of Baptism

The book of Acts serves as the best example of the big tent approach. Luke records about ten distinct narratives of baptism in Acts2 and, although there are clear theological parameters governing these baptisms, no two are precisely alike. Consider that:

  • Some baptisms occur “in the name of Jesus Christ” (8.5-13; 10.44-48; 19.1-5), others appear to be “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (8.36-38), and still others are silent on the matter of “in whom” people are baptized.
  • At least one baptism narrative is preceded by repentance of sin (2.37-41), another seems to make confession of faith central (8.36-38), another baptismal narrative is preceded by speaking tongues (10.44-48), and still others focus on the importance of belief (8.5-13; 16.13-15; 16.27-34).
  • Some water baptisms precede the baptism of the Holy Spirit (19.1-5), other times the Holy Spirit is poured out before water (9.17-19; 10.44-48), and many times water baptism is not explicitly connected to the baptism of the Spirit.
  • Finally, some passages record individual baptisms (8.36-38) while others use household language (10.44-48; 16.13-15; 16.27-34; 18.5-8) that, if nothing else, set the stage for infant baptism.

Clearly Acts records significant diversity of baptismal practice in the early church. Why then are contemporary Christians so committed to picking-and-choosing a handful of these examples (or other New Testament references to baptism) and interpreting them as the right way to baptize? A big tent approach better reflects the diversity of practice within the New Testament itself—as well as Christ’s prayer for unity among His followers.

Conclusion

The New Testament consistently portrays baptism as an essential3 part of what it means to follow Jesus—as a matter of obedience to the command of Jesus (Matt. 28.18-20), as a sign of entrance into God’s new covenantal family (Gal. 3.27; Col. 2.12; 1 Cor. 12.13), and as a seemingly salvific act of God’s grace (1 Pet. 3.21; see also Mark 16.16). What the New Testament does not portray as essential is the precise method of baptism; to the contrary, a variety of specific practices seem to be affirmed. Accordingly, Christians should baptize new believers in a manner consistent with New Testament models and recognize as valid baptisms by other Christians that fit these big tent parameters.

God’s work through baptism is a gracious gift, one we should continue to celebrate, practice, and reflect upon. In the spirit of Christian unity, however, we should adopt a big tent approach to recognizing the validity of baptism at the hands of others. For scripture itself suggests that we make our acts of baptism a little less about us and a little more about the God who is at work in His people.


Notes

1 For instance, the increasingly common practice by many denominations to recognize the seminary degrees, communion practices, or theological perspectives of other denominations.

2 Depending on how you subdivide narratives.

3 Here, of course, we must draw the distinction between essential and required. If we take Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross seriously, then we cannot expect that no one who has not been baptized belongs to the family of God. Still, exceptional theology should not undermine normative theology. Accordingly, it’s appropriate to confirm the long-standing practice that every person who is able who follows Jesus should be baptized.

O God Our Refuge

Some more prayers for this morning:

“O God, who has been the refuge of my fathers through many generations, be my refuge today in every time and circumstance of need. Be my guide through all that is dark and doubtful. Be my guard against all that threatens my spirit’s welfare. Be my strength in time of testing. Gladden my heart with your peace, through Jesus Christ my Lord.”

–Originally by John Baillie

 

“Blessed Lord, who was tempted in all things as we are, have mercy upon our frailty. Out of weakness give us strength. Grant to us your fear, that we may only fear you. Support us in our time of temptation. Embolden us in the time of danger. Help us to do your work with good courage, and to continue as your faithful soldiers and servants until our life’s end. We ask all these things in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

–Originally by Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott

Book Review: Irresistible (Stanley)

Once upon a time, there existed a version of Christianity that was irresistible. Over the years, however, errors and accretions have piled up, reducing to a shadow what was once a robust proclamation of the Good News of Jesus. But now, there’s a way that the Church can return to its roots and make the gospel great again.

No, this isn’t another book about the corruptions of Catholicism that the Protestant Reformation overcame; it’s the story of American Protestantism, which has sadly lost its way in the wilderness of the Old Testament and a “Bible-before-Jesus” approach to sharing Jesus. Continue reading

Orthodoxy and Relevance

Christians have long talked about life as a journey, whether as runners or pilgrims or travelers or something else. Journeys tend to involve forks in the road, decisions to make, and obstacles to overcome. Sometimes, the decisions of this journey are between light and darkness, holiness and sin, redemption and backsliding. In these instances, the follower of Christ is called to choose the path of faithfulness. Other times, however, the decisions we make along the way do not seem to be inherently good or bad—it’s not immediately clear whether one path is better than the other.

Such an image of journey has been on my mind lately as I’ve wrestled with what seems to be an increasingly common trope for contemporary Christians: the ongoing debate between orthodoxy and relevance.

Per Merriam-Webster, orthodoxy means “right belief, sound doctrine” and relevance means “the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.” Based on those definitions, you wouldn’t expect contemporary Christians to believe that orthodoxy and relevance are at odds with one another. But if you talk to many Christians, you’d be wrong. Let me explain. Continue reading

The Worrier’s Prayer

I came across this prayer several weeks back, and while the emphasis is clearly humorous, don’t miss the larger point: how often do we pray in these ways to our Lord?


Dear Lord,

Help me to relax about insignificant details, beginning tomorrow at 7:41:23 a.m. EST.

Help me to consider people’s feelings, even if most of them are hypersensitive.

Help me to take responsibility for the consequences of my actions, even though they’re usually not my fault.

Help me to not try to run everything – but, if you need some help, please feel free to ask me.

Help me to be more laid back, and help me to do it exactly right.

Help me to take things more seriously, especially laughter, parties, and dancing.

Give me patience, and I mean right now!

Help me not be a perfectionist. (Did I spell that correctly?)

Help me to finish everything I sta…

Help me to keep my mind on one thing … oh, look, a bird … at a time.

Help me to do only what I can, and trust you for the rest. And would you mind putting that in writing?

Keep me open to others’ ideas, misguided though they may be.

Help me follow established procedures. Hey, wait … this is wrong …

Help me slow down andnotrushthroughwhatido.

Thank you, Lord.

Amen

The Non-Denominational Reformation

Every 500 years or so in the history of the Christian church, a significant restructuring seems to take place.

Around the year 500, a church council at Chalcedon published what most of Christendom calls the clearest explanation of orthodox Christology: Christ is one person with two natures. However, large swaths of Christians—the Oriental Orthodox (such as the Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches) and the Church of the East—found the Chalcedon Definition lacking. And so the first major division in Christianity occurred.

About 500 years later, a hot-headed Bishop of Rome (or at least his hot-headed legates) and an angry Bishop of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other,1 leading to nearly 1000 years of division between the western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Some 500 years after that, a tempermental Augustinian monk in Germany posted some theses for academic disputation that started a firestorm of theological controversy, reformation, and church divisions—resulting in the proliferation of thousands of Protestant denominations.2

Historically Speaking

Now, the historian in me is obligated to note that using a clean, round number (500 years) to delineate these dates is somewhat artificial. There’s nothing inherently special about the passage of 500 years that leads Christians to say to one another, “I don’t like how you do church anymore.” But humans enjoy describing the past in easy-to-remember terms that serve as useful baselines for historical knowledge, whether or not they encompass the totality of historical truth (476, 1492, or July 4th, anyone?). Even so, given Christianity’s track record so far, you might expect another monumental moment to occur any year now, since it’s been about 500 years since the last major shakeup in Christendom.

The argument I wish to make in this article, is that we’ve already begun to see the next great restructuring of Christianity: the rise of non-denominational Christianity. Continue reading

Sermon-less Church: A Thought Experiment

“If you took away the sermon from your worship service, what sort of theology could you construct from what remains?”

Sometime back, a Facebook friend shared this quote from Pastor Mark Jones and it got me thinking. What would a sermon-less church service look like? What messages and theology would it convey? Would we attend? Just how central is the sermon to Christian worship? Continue reading

The Lord’s Prayer Rewritten

Papa God,

Your reign above all of creation, you are beyond our capacity to approach.

Let your power and reign come into our world, into our lives; let you plan and desire become our plans and desires; let our world become good, true, and beautiful like your paradise.

Bless us beyond our wildest imagination, Papa God; give us all that we need and more.

Hold not our wrongs against us; don’t punish us where we go astray, but empower us to live out your mercy, love, compassion, and forgiveness in every aspect of our lives.

Papa God, protect and preserve us—save us from sin, death, and the power of the devil; let evil and wickedness have no place or power in our lives.

For yours, Papa God, are all good things—all power, all goodness, all praise, all majesty, all glory, and all beauty—your truly are all these things, now and forevermore.

Let it be so.

A Proposal: When the Rubber Meets the Road

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

When the Rubber Meets the Road

The final step of this process brings the historical insights of what the Shepherd of Hermas indicates about the teaching authority of woman into conversation with contemporary conversations about women in the church. Here, several factors play out. First, we must recognize that the Shepherd is not canonical, but it was extremely popular for large swaths of early Christians. That is, this was not some one-off work of a heretic that stands merely as something for Christians to reject; many Christians have found this work insightful and (in some sense) useful for their own lives. Second, the Shepherd comes from Rome, where we know Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were well known, indicating that Hermas’s community (at least) held the call for Grapte to teach and Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in conjunction. Continue reading

A Proposal: Application

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

Women in the Apostolic Fathers

As an application of this approach, I want to quickly examine conceptions of women which appear in the early Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. To keep this example as brief as possible, consider one instance where a female character appears in the apocalyptic account known as the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 100-150 CE).4 In Vision 2.4.3, Hermas records being told by an angel the following: “And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.” Continue reading