Week 2 of the ABC’s of Faith is going to be an exciting conversation. Here is a preview of the lesson and PDF is posted below.
B is for Baptism
Baptism, like atonement last week, is one of those topics that is vitally important to the Christian tradition but which has developed and evolved over time to have a multiplicity of perspectives, expressions, applications, and implications.
Let’s talk about the mode and method first.
Sprinkling, pouring, and immersing in water are the 3 main methods. There are churches that have fonts built in to the facility, others have a basin they pull out when needed. Some have baptismal tanks at the back of the platform. My favorite are the tanks built below the stage that have a trap-door which can be uncovered when needed.
For groups that don’t do baptisms during the worship service, they may go to a member’s house and gather around the swimming pool. Other groups go to the nearest lake, river, or ocean.
Here are four aspects of baptism that continue to intrigue:
- Infant or Adult Baptism: I grew up in an evangelical-charismatic tradition that did ‘believer’s baptism’ and so for infants, we dedicated them to the Lord. I now work in a mainline tradition that baptizes babies and then has confirmation for teens. I see the strength of both … and the weakness. I wish that we could combine these two and that churches who do both! It would baptize/dedicate babies until they could go through confirmation class and profess the faith for themselves. The church would also take adult converts through a confirmands class and discipleship process before an immersion baptism. I’m sure somebody out there does this but I have not found them.
- Sacrament or Ordinance: My evangelical background doesn’t do ‘sacraments’ as much as ‘ordinances’. Baptism and communion were ordinances because Jesus A) did them and B) commanded them. My current mainline context – with its liturgy, hymnody, lectionary, and seasonal permanents – seems nearly ‘catholic’ by my evangelical sensibilities. It is not just sacramental but functionally sacerdotal.*
What intrigues me is that for the nearly unanimous conviction that people should be baptized – and this is true in the Eastern and Western, Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox, ancient and current churches – there is no unity or uniformity about how it should be practiced.
In fact, historically, people have argued, fought, and died over their view of baptism. Christians have killed other types of Christians over this issue! Even today, there are groups which will not recognize (or transfer) members of another group who practice baptism differently. There are conflicts and disagreements over not only issues like immersion-sprinkling but the very words that are spoken when one is baptized. Some prefer the tripartite formulation of ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ (from the Gospel of Matthew 28:19) while other insist on only the name of Jesus (from the Book of Acts 2:28).
For something so central to the Christian tradition you would think there would be more continuity about the practice.
- Universal or Local: Baptism is a great example of a major difference between Christianity and other religions like Islam. It is truely illustrative. There is nothing geographic about the Christian practice of baptism.
- We don’t have to go to the Jordan River (like Jesus did)
- We don’t even have to baptize in a river.
- We don’t have to face East to Jerusalem when baptized.
- We don’t have a specific time of year when we baptize.
It is fascinating how little geography is involved in Christianity. While the Christian gospel is one of incarnation, ironically, Christianity has become something that is not place-based and especially not land-based. This is easily illustrated by looking at some Muslim practices and noticing their absence or contrast in Christianity.
- Prayer Direction:When Muslim pray, they face Mecca. This is a directional earth-relative orientation. Christianity lacks this orientation.
- Pilgrimage:Once in their lives Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This is an intentional journey to a specific location on the surface of the earth that holds special meaning. Christianity has no such thing.
- Sunset:Certain holy days are marked as beginning at “sundown” or when a specific phase of the moon first appears as observed in a set location. This shows an awareness of the seasons, the sun, and the moon. Christian holy days and holidays are based on a calendar and clock.
- Language: If you want to read the Quran you need to learn Arabic. The Christian gospel is not only translatable into any language – Christians believe that it should be translated into every language. The Gospel is equally valid in any and every language.
In his book Whose Religion is Christianity?: the Gospel beyond the West, Lamin Sanneh puts it this way:
“Being that the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are translated versions of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scriptures well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark … Christianity seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder (p. 97-98)”
Sometimes people use the word ‘universal’ when they talk about some aspect of Christianity. It is universal so much as it is not earthly (or earthy).
This is very concerning.
- Ceremonial or Prophetic: The New Testament stories of baptism do not happen in a vacuum. Many people have no idea that part of the Temple worship of Jesus’ time involved frequent baptism – or ceremonial washing. There were actual permanent pools with two sets of steps – in and out – for purification.
For as important as this tradition is, it is shocking how many bible-believing people don’t know the biblical scholarship or background.
John the Baptizer operated
- outside of Jerusalem, the religious capitol
- in a river, not a man-made pool
These truths are a massive critique and protest against the corrupt religious-political-financial systems of the Temple religion.
What John and (later) Jesus’ followers were doing was not original to them nor was it the sentimental ceremony it is often portrayed as. What a fascinating way to begin a ministry. The reality of Jesus’ baptism impacts the whole rest of the gospel … and most people who really care about the mode and method of baptism are passionate about their tradition without this context or knowledge.
What remains important about the ceremony of baptism is central to both its imagery and its meaning: the way that we used to be (the old) is washed away and the new (the way of Christ) has come. Let no regret or residue of the former way of being in the world remain attached to you ~ arise to a new day, a new life, a new way of being that makes God’s love known in the world.
* Sacerdotal Theology:
relating to or denoting a doctrine that ascribes sacrificial functions and spiritual or supernatural powers to ordained priests.
Whereas sacrament is concerned with elements (like bread or water), sacerdotal is concerned with the ones who has performed the sacred ceremonies. ‘Priests only’ is the elevation of certain commissioned individuals being the only ones allowed to do so.