Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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!

October 2, 2007 - Posted by | baptism


  1. Michael,

    I greatly appreciate your meditation on baptism. I think I can say as a Disciples pastor you reflected much of what we also believe. Baptism is that true beginning of the journey of faith. It is an owning of what has been learned and passed on.

    Just one quibble — I don’t know many if any Disciples (the liberal side of the Stone-Campbell movement) that would own a regenerationist theology of baptism. In fact a key point of our departure from the Independent Christian Churches is the practice of Open Membership, by which we recognize the baptisms of other traditions — even if they occured as infants.

    You raise an interesting question, and that has to do with children. They’re not yet members, and yet are they outside the kingdom? For us, as Disciples, the key point of the struggle has been the Lord’s Table. Many churches require baptism prior to reception of Communion, but since we practice Open Membership, that makes things dicey. Our congretation has an open table, so that’s not an issue.

    Still the question remains — for children raised in the church are they part of the family or not?

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | October 2, 2007

  2. This is a beautiful reflection. Thanks for sharing it. I rejoice with you and Molly.

    Comment by Melissa Rogers | October 2, 2007

  3. It’s a dicey question for us, too, Bob. My congregation doesn’t practice open membership, but we do have an open table. (Some Baptist congregations, especially in the U.K., do have open membership.)

    The children of believers are welcomed into most everything, but since they are not members, they could not vote at business meetings or officiate at the Lord’s Table, etc.

    I tried to phrase the fight between Baptists and “Campbellites” over baptism as I think most Baptists understand/understood things. I deliberately left open the possibility that we were misunderstanding the “faith + baptism” Campbellite position. Disciples arose after the Stone-Campbell movement split (and after the Baptist heresy, “Landmarkism,” arose in direct overreaction to the challenge of Stone and Campbell) and so probably have more nuanced position. To the extent the fight still happens, it is seldom between liberal or centrist Baptists and Disciples but between conservative or fundamentalist Baptists and independent Christian Churches or Churches of Christ.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 2, 2007

  4. These are great reflections on baptism, written from your Baptist (baptist) perspective. I sometimes refer to your tradition with a lower case b for baptist – ala McClendon – hope that’s ok with you; tell me if it’s not.

    I acknowledge that the baptist theology of baptism has many stregths, as I have learned from Yoder and even my Methodist theology professor Geoffrey Wainwright (as I have mentioned before). If there is a weakness it might be that it may draw on Enlightenment notions of individual autonomy and free choice. (As a Hauerwasian, you might expect me to say that).

    But rather than go round and round rehearsing tired, old, worn-out arguments on believer’s vs. infant baptism, let’s approach it from a different angle. What do you make of Paul’s rather obscure comment in 1 Corinthians 15 about baptism on behalf of the dead?

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | October 3, 2007

  5. Jonathan, thanks for stopping by. I am happy to speak of baptists when talking about the entire Believers Church tradition, but use Baptists when only speaking about my branch of that tradition.

    Geoff Wainwright and I had conversations once on what kind of steps the whole church might take to acknowledge the primacy of believers’ baptism without requiring that all current believers christened as infants undergo what they would consider “rebaptism.” But the church universal doesn’t seem to be at such a place yet.

    Since believers’ baptism preceded the Enlightenment by centuries (and even its recovery by 100 years), we might be seeing Enlightenment notions everywhere, no? I think Stanley and his students are so afraid of even the merest hint of Enlightenment notions that the Methodists among them might be in danger of losing their Arminianism, no?

    Some of my fellow Baptists explain baptism in hyper-Zwinglian terms. I tried to avoid that, going back to the early Baptist confessions–which predate the Enlightenment, too.

    As for 1 Cor. 15, wow! What a can of worms! As far as I know, only Mormons have taken that practice as normative and have people baptized on behalf of the dead! Paul doesn’t express approval or disapproval of this practice (mentioned only here), but merely uses its existence to argue for the reality of the resurrection.

    My suspicion is that this was done on behalf of those who made death-bed confessions of faith–but had no chance to be baptized. A baptist would still say that the proxy baptism didn’t save the dead person, but gave public recognition of the salvation that already happened. (Isn’t an old definition of sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace?”)

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 3, 2007

  6. In danger of losing my Arminianism? No way. But Dale Martin believes it is entirely consistent with Paul’s theology of the body to do baptisms on behalf of the dead. Whatever the origins of believer’s baptism, its continuing appeal makes sense in an environment of individualism and free (autonomous) choice. Wesley (who said he was within a hair’s breadth of Calvin) did not stand primarily for free choice, but for free grace, and that is why he rejected the Calvinist interpretation of predestination, as I explain in the link above.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | October 4, 2007

  7. […] Michael Westmoreland-White wrote a fantastic post today on “For Molly: Reflections on the Water, II”Here’s ONLY a quick extractA 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 … […]

    Pingback by www.topweddingadvice.info » For Molly: Reflections on the Water, II | October 9, 2007

  8. […] Christ and was baptized last year). [For my reflections at the time of her baptism, read here and here.] The delight and exasperation of her parents.  The friend and bane of her younger sister, […]

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