Baptism

A couple of weeks ago Central held a baptism worship for two folks who wanted to become members of the congregation.  They had been baptized as infants, raised in the Church, and had been living out their faith for years – but Central practices membership for only people who have been baptized as adults, and then only by immersion.  I feel uncomfortable with that part of the by-laws at Central, as it invalidates the journey of faith which people who come from other Christian traditions have have taken.  I have no problem celebrating believers’ baptism as a high ideal, I think practiced well it can be a wonderful thing – but I’ve also heard baptists who joke about how their infant baptism “didn’t count.”  All I can think is, “Didn’t count for what?”  I hate it when Christian sects pat themselves on the back for being on the right end of things – it’s ugly.  I’ve brought this issue up before, but it would take a massive structural over-haul to change anything, and many of the older members still think that to move from denomination to denomination you need to be baptized as a Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, etc.   One woman put it, “That’s just what you do.”  I like neither the non-chalance of the latter, nor the absolutism of the former.

Yet, we had two adults, both believers, who had been baptized and confirmed that baptism in both passage through Ecclesiastical rites and in their lives.  Frankly, it would have been utterly callous and wrong to say, “Yah, all that was just jumping through hoops.”  Obviously, it wasn’t – they each have a growing relationship with the living Lord, are eager to be counted among his people, and raise their children to embrace the faith – and they really wanted to be members of Central Baptist.  What to do?

Thankfully, both Scripture and Tradition give some guidance there.

First, in Acts 16:1-3, we have a wonderful story of Paul doing something that wasn’t necessary but was proper to soothe the consciences of less-mature believers.  Timothy was a believe who’s mother was Jewish but who had a Greek father.  Since, by Jewish reckoning, the mother determined if someone was Jewish or not – Timothy was kinda caught in no-man’s land.  He hadn’t been circumcised, and yet he was technically Jewish – this would have caused all sorts of problems for the people Paul was trying to minister among.  So, Timothy properly submitted to an unnecessary procedure for the sake of others.  Actually, this passage was the only reason I myself submitted to immersion.  I was baptized as a believer in a Presbyterian setting, and was sprinkled – a practice that hard-core baptists reject as a valid baptism.  So, for the sake of people’s conscience I submitted to immersion – bluntly stating that it was an unnecessary step as I’d already been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but I was willing to do it to ease the immature sense of propriety that others in our area shared.

The illustration from tradition dawned on me only much later, but to me is as thought-provoking as that little story in Acts 16.  There is a liturgical practice in which people reaffirm their baptismal vows and, lo and behold, water (in a liturgical setting this would be consecrated water) is actually used for the reaffirmation.  Over my vacation I actually saw this done at an Episcopal Church in Hershey, PA – where a young woman who had grown up in the church had been brought to a new awareness of her need to be close to Jesus and so called home from Africa (where she was studying public health) and wondered if there was any way she could mark her wonderful new awareness of the Living Christ.  The Sunday I worshipped with them she came forward with her family, as well as her new husband, and she publicly reaffirmed her baptism.  I actually got goosebumps during that portion of the worship!

Those two things, coupled together, are what give me my path forward.  It is a wonderful Christian calling to look out for the consciences of others, and reaffirming baptism is part of the worship tradition of Christ’s Church.  In this way, we can look out for folks who wrongly assume that infant baptism and confirmation is never anything more than jumping through a hoop (to be honest, it frequently is, but frankly I’ve seen the same mentality in believers’ baptism churches and dare anyone to prove me wrong) – while at the same time being immersed without forcing people to declare what came before as null and void.  Rather, we can actually reconnect with what came before in a beautiful display of God’s covenant faithfulness.  It’s something I’d like to see codified in the language of the congregation.

Thus, we immersed two new members of Central Baptist Church last month and welcomed them into the fold – but their certificate says clearly that it was a reaffirmation of commitments made, and practiced faithfully, years before they met us.  The gathering to do so was deeply moving, and we have the video to prove it.