For Molly: Reflections on the Water, II
Some groups of Christians think that baptism washes away sins, or original sin. Some, believing in “baptismal regeneration” actually think that baptism makes you a Christian. This is why so many groups of Christians baptize babies, a practice that may have started as early as the 2nd C., but did not become the primary way that baptism was done until after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. (Even then it was common for emperors to postpone baptism until they were near death because they had come to believe that post-baptismal sin could not be forgiven!)
We Baptists, along with some other Christians, believe that one must become a Christian first, by faith, and that baptism follows. Many in our tradition call baptism a “symbol” of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, but the term “symbol” misleads many into thinking that baptism is not important or is an optional add-on, etc. They call it a “mere symbol.” I think this phrasing traces to a 19th C. debate that Baptists had with another group of believers’ baptizing Christians. Molly, this group calls itself the “Stone-Campbell” movement because its earliest leaders were Barton Stone, and the father-son team of Thomas and Alexander Campbell. We Baptists often referred to this group as simply “Campbellites”–and the term was often used as a swear word, unfortunately. Well, we don’t need to get into that, daughter. The point is, that folks in this movement (today divided into the independant Christian Churches, the Churches of Christ, and the more liberal Christian Church/Disciples of Christ) put so much emphasis on faith and baptism together as necessary for salvation that we Baptists thought we were seeing the doctrine of “baptismal regeneration” again and reacted negatively. Whether or not we rightly understood the Stone-Campbell people, it led us to a negative over-reaction where we downplayed baptism with terms like “mere symbol” so much that when asked why we then bothered to baptize, we had no real answer except that Jesus had commanded it.
There is nothing “mere” about symbols, Molly. We understand and shape our world through symbols. A national flag is a symbol, but burn one and see how many people nearby think it just a “mere symbol.” A wedding ring is a symbol of marriage, not the marriage itself, but any husband losing his wedding ring will quickly find out that his wife didn’t think it an unimportant “mere symbol!” Maybe we can get some help from the theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich said, I think rightly, that symbols not only point beyond themselves at realities not easily named or described non-symbolically, but that they “participate in the reality toward which they point.” Thus, baptism participates in the reality of saving faith and by it we are enabled to participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ which baptism symbolizes (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:11-12).
Tillich also distinguished between symbols and signs. The latter could be anything and arbitrarily related to what they signify–like stop signs. Here in the U.S., stop signs are octagonal in shape, but there is nothing about an octagon which makes it a natural symbol for stopping traffic–in most of the world stop signs are circular. A symbol, by contrast, is organically or historically related to what it symbolizes. Without the reality of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, for instance, the symbols of a piece of lamb, salt, unleaved bread, and wine at the Passover seder meal would be unintelligible. The Amish use of hooks and latches in place of buttons on their clothes, similarly, is connected to their pacifism and the history of their persecution in Europe by military and police officers with big brass buttons! Similarly, baptism is not just any “rite of initiation” that could be substituted for some other symbol of faith, but is tied to Gospel story of Jesus–with Jesus’ roots in Judaism–both his connections to and separation from the movement started by John the Baptizer and, even more strongly, his suffering, death, and resurrection–his victory in the cross and empty grave.
We can also get some help from the Baptist theologian, James Wm. McClendon, Jr., whom I knew before you were born and last saw a few months before his death when your younger sister, Miriam, was not yet 2. Using insights from “speech-act theory,” McClendon calls baptism a “performative sign”–not making the symbol/sign distinction made by Tillich. Speech-Act Theory shows us that language doesn’t just describe things or asks questions, it also does things, makes things happen. When a minister says, in certain settings, with proper candidates, witnesses, etc., “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the minister has not described the couple, but married them, creating a new reality, a married couple, where two singles in love stood before.
In the same way, says McClendon, baptism performs such a speech-act. With proper candidates (believers in Christ; repenters from sin), this symbol or sign incorporates the candidate into Jesus’ death, burial,and resurrection. It also incorporates the candidate into the Church, the People of God, both scattered around the world and in a local congregation.
Baptists, like all Christians who practice believers’ baptism rather than infant baptism, do not have junior church membership for babies and small children. Until your baptism, Molly, you were not a member of our church–or any church–just of the Sunday School, children’s ministry, youth group, etc. In our understanding not only of baptism, but of salvation and the Church, one cannot be born a Christian. Nor can the Church be composed of Christians (Christ-followers) and their children. All the members of the church (local and universal) must be Christian–i.e., must have repented, come to saving faith, and decided personally to follow Jesus as Lord. You, my daughter, are now a member of the Church universal, spread throughout time and space and found in many denominations (including those who disagree with us about baptizing babies), the People of God found among those of every nation, race, language-group, culture, etc–and “owned” by none of those divisions of the human family.
You are also now a member of Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, our local congregation. You now have rights and responsibilities you didn’t have before: You can vote in the business meetings. You could (theoretically) be nominated as a representative of the congregation to denominational or other meetings–such as next Spring’s Convocation of the Alliance of Baptists, etc. You could officiate at the Lord’s Supper or, in a pinch, even baptize others–that’s what we mean by “the priesthood of all believers.” Yes, you are now a believer-priest. You have the growing responsibility as you mature in faith to take an active part in the work of the church–not just the fun activities. The WORK of the church–from telling others about Jesus to visiting sick persons or those in jail or prison, folding church bulletins, helping clean up after church meals and much else–to working for justice for the poor.
I realize that all this is a huge amount to take in, Molly. You can see why your mother and I didn’t want you to rush into this. Becoming a Christian is even more serious than marriage–and the New Testament sometimes compares the two. You pledged yourself to Jesus tonight. As you live your life, you will figure out more and more about the meaning of your baptism. Some of what I said here may make more sense later—you could even come to deep insights you could share with me. I am always learning more about the meaning of MY baptism. So, what you don’t grasp fully, put on hold and come back to it later.
I am very, very proud of you and love you very much, daughter. And now, I call you not only daughter, physical child from your mother and myself, but Sister. Now, you are not only a child of God by creation, but by faith–and thus my sister in Christ. What joy!!!
Your mother and I took on responsibilities when we became your parents–with the help of the Holy Spirit and of the whole church, we promised to raise you in a Christian home where, we hoped, you would come to faith for yourself. Now that you have, now that you are a baptized follower of Jesus, our work is not fully done–but this is the beginning of the end. More and more you will become responsible for your own life, your own choices, your own discipleship. This is both joyful and sad. This is a beginning step down a road that, in some senses, will take your from us. But because we are not just your parents but your sister and brother in Christ, because God is OUR Parent as well as your Parent, you will never be entirely parted from us wherever God leads you. But as our sister in faith, we must both be obedient to a different Parent.
Figure this all out in the days and weeks (and months and years) to come, beloved daughter and sister. For now, just enjoy and rejoice–and welcome to a Family where we are all adopted!
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