This past weekend a former youth in my congregation who since has become a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.
The event put me in a recollecting mood as this month I’ve spent a dozen years as a pastor in 3 different congregations, 2 here in Virginia and 1 in New Jersey. I’ve changed in many ways during those years and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.
Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual.
First up, is my thinking around infant baptism, the 3rd rail of the United Methodist ordination process.
When I was working my way through the United Methodist ordination process, any suggestion that infant baptism was not the biblical norm as verboten as uttering Lord Voldemort’s name. The United Methodist powers-that-be needed to insure I could articulate a traditional theological explication of infant baptism; in truth, they needed to protect the Church from infiltration by too many crypto-baptists.
Now that I’m duly ordained, however, I can say what I couldn’t say during my provisional period: the New Testament and early Church literature offers us no definitive evidence that infant baptism was or wasn’t practiced by the first generations of Christians.
To this point, you could counter by citing what are known as the ‘oikos’ passages in the New Testament.
Oikos, in the Greek, means ‘household.’ In the book of Acts, especially, when the Spirit and ministry of the Church lead to another’s conversion, that individual’s conversion frequently occasioned the conversion and baptism of their entire household.
Obviously this presumes the initial convert was typically a head of household.
It also presumes those included under the rubric ‘household’ were very often servants and slaves who were baptized against their will- hardly an ideal ministry model for us today.
Here’s a quick rundown of the oikos passages in the New Testament:
The household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48; 11:13-18)
The household of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15)
The household of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:30-34)
The household of Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14)
The household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16)
The household of Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14)
While it’s entirely possibly ‘household’ in these passages included infants and children, none of the available texts makes that explicit. It’s also true none of the texts eliminate that possibility.
What I dared not say when I was in the midst of the ordination process is that, fact is, for the first centuries of the Church the record is ambiguous.
Any Church striving to be faithful to the first Church must necessarily struggle with the fact that adult baptism was the norm for the early Church.
While I was jumping through the commissioning and ordination hoops, I articulated the textbook- and expected- Wesleyan response on baptism.
Baptism, like the Eucharist, is, as Wesley described it, an ‘ordinary channel’ by which God gets to us. Baptism reminds us that salvation comes by God’s gracious initiative. Baptism is a means of what John Wesley called prevenient grace, God’s claim of us before we ever even desire God.
Before someone outs me as a heretic to the bishop, it’s important that I’m clear:
I don’t disagree with the traditional Wesleyan theology of infant baptism.
Rather after 12 years of congregational ministry in a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christian, I’m increasingly aware that the Wesleyan emphasis on baptism as a means of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace is a second order mode of reflection on the sacrament- a mode of reflection that was inherited from the Medieval Scholastics and was suitable to Wesley’s own day when the average citizen knew the particulars of the Christian story by virtue of being a participant in the wider culture.
But 21st century America is not Wesley’s Enlightenment-era England and hasn’t been for longer than we’ve wanted to admit.
Instead, after 12 years of serving in a local congregation, I’m increasingly aware that our culture is quickly resembling the context of the first century culture in which the faith began: a culture where Jesus-followers were a witnessing minority in the midst of rival religions and ideologies.
And after these dozen years as a minister, I wonder if it would be more helpful to recover an emphasis on baptism more nearly patterned after the early Church’s primary baptismal message:
Christians are made not born.
To become a Christian you need to be initiated.
No one is born a Christian. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the Church and the Synagogue, save Jesus Christ himself, is the fact that the Church isn’t a community that grows biologically.
The Church only grows by witness and conversion. Presently, the mainline Protestants traditions in the West are all experiencing trying decline in numbers and vitality. In the United Methodist Church today, most congregations do not make a single new disciple in a year and are ‘dying’ churches by most objective metrics.
I can’t help but wonder if such decline is exacerbated by a singular emphasis on infant baptism that has left the Church no longer adept at what was once its primary mission: converting people into a new way of life of which baptism is the visible sign.
We can quibble about baptismal theology but it’s very clear that as the United Methodist Church leans into the future it’s going to have to relearn how to convert adults to the way of following Jesus Christ.
Typically in the ancient Church it took several years for a prospective Christian to be admitted into the Body. During those preparatory years, a period known as the catechumenate, the inquiring student participated only partially in the life of the community.
For example, it was commonplace for catechumens to be dismissed from worship (not unlike our children’s sermons) after the word was read and proclaimed and before the Eucharist was celebrated.
Catechumens would spend these liminal years receiving doctrinal instruction and ethical guidance, submitting to moral scrutiny, disciplining their will, amending past sins, changing their vocation if their work was contrary to the Kingdom and gradually growing accustomed to living the Christian life.
Baptism nearly always came on Easter Eve but not before spending the prior forty days of Lent learning the story of redemption: how once we were all prisoners and slaves in the household of Death, atrophying in ignorance of our true home; and how Christ had come to set the prisoners free, to rescue us from bondage, to make himself our Passover from Death to Life, to unwind the story of Sin and be the Second Adam to a New Creation.
This is the story rehearsed and ingrained in the weeks leading up to baptism because it was into this story that the initiate’s own life was merged when they at last sank down into the life-ending, life-giving waters of baptism.
Precisely because it was a submersion into the death of Jesus, baptism came on Easter Eve, during the midnight vigil, when the Church believes, having rescued souls from Hell, Jesus passes from Death to Life.
At a fixed point in the long, intricate worship service, after the arc of the scripture story had been proclaimed, the catechumens would depart the sanctuary for the baptistery, which usually housed a flowing stream. There, at the bishop’s direction, the initiate would face West, the direction of nightfall and so the direction of spiritual darkness. Facing West, the candidate would submit to an exorcism followed by a forceful renunciation of Sin and Evil; in fact, the initiate, in their renouncing, was instructed literally to ‘spit at’ the devil and the devil’s servants:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.
Having renounced the ways of the world, the candidate would turn East, the direction of the rising sun, and would confess faith in and allegiance to Christ.
Given the early Church’s minority, persecuted status in the empire this act of renunciation and allegiance was hardly a sentimental or purely spiritual experience.
It was a very real transferral of obedience from one master to another and very real consequences were expected to result from it.
In darkness then and to a cacophony of prayers, chants and blessings, the candidate would descend into the water as naked as the day they were born. The bishop would then immerse the initiate three times, in the name of the Trinity.
Rising from the water, the new Christian would be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Spirit, robed like a bride in a new garment of white and led back to the sanctuary where, for the first time, they could see the Eucharist celebrated and share in it.
Considering the dangers and risks involved in becoming a Christian in the early generations; considering the relationships that were likely severed; considering the obligations and sacrifices ahead; considering the strangers to whom one now belonged and the strange way of life to which allegiance had been pledged; nothing less than primal, base language would do to describe the initiating ritual: Death, Birth, Marriage.
After a dozen years pastoring in what is, with each new passing day, a new cultural situation, I wonder if it would be wise to recover the ancient Church’s primal, base, alternative-Kingdom language to speak about baptism.
I wonder if it would behoove us to recover their emphasis on baptism as transferral of citizenship and loyalty. I wonder if it would help us in pursuing our mission to reclaim their understanding that infant baptism is an acceptable subset of which adult baptism is the scriptural norm.