Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Plumbing the depths of baptism

Following April's church conference we are moving ahead on a number of fronts. And the big debate at our elders' gathering yesterday was the link between baptism and church membership.

At the moment only those baptised by immersion can be full members of the church and hence leaders. It means that those initiated in evangelical Anglican or Methodist traditions, for example, can only become associate members and never be leaders. This has led to a feeling that we have first and second class membership, with one or two not taking associate members as seriously as others.

So we talked about two possible alternative models. One is to recognise all forms of Christian initiation where it includes a step taken as a believer - so confirmation as a believing adult following infant baptism would count. The other is to allow anyone to become a member - to decouple membership and baptism - but to insist that leaders can only be selected from among those who have been baptised by immersion.

I am torn between the two options. And would like to find a third...

I am, however, more convinced than ever that baptism is an important marker for us. I have just reread Sean Winter's provocative paper 'Ambiguous Genitives, Pauline Baptism and Roman Insulae: exegetical resources from Romans for Pushing the Boundaries of Unity' written in response to the report produced by a group of Anglicans and Baptists which met over a number of years looking at issues that divide and unite us. Their report was published by Church House in 2005 under the title Pushing at the boundaries of unity.

Sean argues (I think) that the one baptism of Ephesians 4 is Jesus' baptism and that Paul's baptismal theology in Romans 6 is an outworking of his understanding that discipleship is based on the faith of Jesus - articulated most clearly and dramatically in Galatians 2:15-21 (though to see it you do need to note that three times - twice in v16 and again in v19 - Paul speaks not of our faith in Jesus but of Jesus' faith in which we participate by our faith. I've argued this at length in my Crossway Bible Guide on Galatians - this is one of the ambiguous genitives of Sean's title; the other is 'the righteousness of God').

This means that while we might argue that believers' baptism is the best picture of the drama of faith, all baptism is valid theologically because it takes its power from Jesus' baptism - understood not just as his initiation into ministry at the Jordan but his suffering, death and resurrection (the very things pictured in our baptism).

One thing that I am thinking about, in the context of membership as well as baptism, is that baptism marks a key stage in our life of discipleship but that maybe it marks neither the start nor the end of the beginning of it as some of us often emphasise as we prepare candidates for the pool. There is a tendency to see it as the beginning, something you need to do as a first step and then move on from.

Yet, I have been struck forcibly over the past few weeks by how often Paul calls his readers to remember their baptism as a significant picture of what happened to them as they chose to be disciples of Jesus, a picture that continues to shape their lives as disciples, especially within the community of believers.

So, for example, he talks of baptism in 1 Cor 12:13 (where I take him to be talking about baptism in water) ahead of his conversation about how we treat one another in the church. Because each of us has marked our determination to be a disciple by a baptism that is both a sharing of Jesus' and a picture of our desire to live a new life, we should therefore recognise one another in the church as equals - regardless of class, education, race or anything else that in the world would divide us. And hence we need to recognise one another's giftedness.

Or Galatians 3:26-29 where midway through the amazing Bible study that he is using to demonstrate the truth of his gospel against that of his rivals in Galatia, Paul takes his first hearers back to their baptism. Being clothed in Christ (a picture of sharing Jesus' baptism, life, death and resurrection? I think so), we are now one in the community of disciples. And through belonging to Christ in this way, we are heirs of the promise, Abraham's seed (as Jesus is - 3:16 - we can only be seed - singular - if we are 'in Christ' through baptism and living out of his faith) so we do not need to add anything to ensure that we either get in or stay in God's people (works of the Law, for example), neither do we need to impose such things on one another. We are one in Christ through faith and baptism - primarily that of Jesus and secondarily our own.

So, while I am more than ever convinced how important baptism is, I am less bothered about its administration - how wet people get and when. I am more concerned that we see baptism not only as a picture of how our Christian lives start but also of how they continue.

Am I missing something?


Anonymous said...

Brother it is good to hear that some other churches are wrestling with the intracacies of Baptism and local church membership.

We are having dialogue accross our church membership about why it is that a person must be baptised by immersion before they can be admitted into membership with us. We have found over recent years that God has called people to our fellowship from Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic denominations and those who have been christened and confirmed and who refuse to be "believer baptised" as we prescribe it cannot be admitted into membership which to me seems to fly in the face of what God is doing by calling them to be part of us.

Part of our suggested answer is that we shall continue to preach and teach Believer Baptism but perhaps we should be open to receive into membership those who have been baptised by another method - as I recently said to one of our members what does it say of our church that we could never admit the Wesley brothers or John Calvin or Jim Packer into our membership because of a trust deed that was written within a very different ecumenical climate?

graham old said...

You could just reject the whole notion of church membership?

I mean, it just seems a little strange to be so concerned with a biblical understanding of baptism and then link it with something as extra-biblical as membership.

But perhaps I'm the one missing something?

Wulf said...

"I am less bothered about its administration - how wet people get and when..."

I think that is an important point. I can get wet in the the bath but baptism is the symbolic declaration that you have died to your old self and now live only in Christ.

As with marriage, the measure of it is not so much the brief public affirmation but the months and years and lifetime that follows it.