Resisting Harm to the Sacrament of Baptism

Jason Micheli —  January 28, 2020 — Leave a comment

There’s much harm done, I believe, by the United Methodist Church’s punitive, retrograde policy towards LGBTQ Christians. The list of names I’ve acquired over almost twenty years of ministry is depressingly, shamefully long. After General Conference, I received three different anonymous letters narrating the sad aftermath of these people having followed former pastors’ advice long ago to deny who they were, get married, and have children only to have all involved suffer because of the lie. 

But I always think of my friend, Andy, first. He was one of the best youth directors I ever supervised, possessing both a call and gifts for ministry I’ve not seen matched. The fruit of his gifts were affirmed by the congregation he served with me and, later, as a student pastor while he studied at Yale. But because the UMC will not permit the Living God to call whom the Living God elects to call, Andy left the MDiv Program when he exited the closet.  

The Church is impoverished by having lost his ministry— the policy that would preclude Andy from ministry is an odd form of self-harm the Church inflicts upon itself in the name of a God who has chosen to justify us by means other than our right reading of scripture.

How dare the UMC, having baptized Andy into Christ, withold from him the exercise of that baptism through marriage or ministry?

There’s much harm done by the United Methodist Church’s punitive, retrograde policy towards LGBTQ Christians. 

It also harms our theology of baptism. 

Since the Special Sex Conference in St. Louis, many of my fellow clergy have pledged to perform no weddings so long as the rite is available only to some (ie, those who evidently are righteous not by Christ’s gratuity but by virtue of having been born straight). 

While I sympathize with such a gesture of protest— and I think this debate would be more coherent generally if Methodist clergy opted out of the wedding industry and married only active baptized members of their congregations— I wonder if baptism not marriage is the rite the church should withold in order to resist harm.

In the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

There is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

Too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build an alternative polis in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we are all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of sexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize LGBTQ Christians if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

 

Of course, I’m not really suggesting we stop baptizing infants. It’s really more of a wish— a prayer— that we who baptize babies, we United Methodists, might recognize that the only entrypoint that matters to marriage and ministry is not a natural one (gender or sexual identity) but one so unnatural it requires an act of God’s self-revelation, our incorporation by water into Jesus Christ.

Once we have aided and abetted God putting them in Jesus Christ, we’re not really in a position to stand in the way of their baptismal vocation. By water and the Spirit, Christ has already said “I do” to them. Who the hell are we to stop them from telling others about their Beloved?

Worse, to the extent we question the sufficiency of the baptized’s in-Christness (by implying they’re somehow more incompatible than all the rest of us) the Church, as Luther might point out, casts itself in the role of the devil.

Jason Micheli

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