Over the years the theology and practice of Christian Baptism has been furiously debated. It has even been the cause of much division within the church. As a consequence, over time, as the church has changed and developed to meet more contemporary demands, it has needed to revisit old ground. It has needed to see whether the church remains true to its mission.
As a consequence, with so many different opinions and practices evident today, I believe that now is the time to revisit the subject once again. Because we need to ask ourselves. ‘Is what we are doing right? Does our theology and practice still meet the demands that Jesus imposed upon his disciples?’
FOUR LAYERS TO CHRISTIAN BAPTISM
To begin this review, I believe that we need to look back at the beginnings of Christian Baptism. And to simplify things I am going to suggest that Christian Baptism is the result of four distinct layers of theology.
Firstly, it has its origins in the Old Testament acts of purification, i.e. the need to be ritually clean before God. Therefore the idea of being clean before God is an important aspect of the practice of baptism. Secondly, by New Testament times, the Jewish practice of proselyte baptism, as a way to initiate non-Jews into the Jewish faith, had become common practice. Therefore the idea of someone being initiated into the membership of the church is also an important issue. Thirdly, the baptism of John (the baptiser) was primarily an ethical act. It asked people to prepare themselves for the coming of the kingdom of God. It involved a commitment to turn away from sinful worldly ways, and a determination to follow God’s ways. As a consequence the turning away from sin is also an important element. And fourthly, and the element that makes it ‘Christian’ Baptism, is the need for a commitment to Christ and his church. To acknowledge that Jesus sacrificed himself, in order that we might be saved from eternal death, with all the repercussions that go with it.
A TEST TO PROVE ‘GENUINE’
In other words, for Baptism to be ‘genuine’ it needs to include all four elements. Likewise, I believe, that any candidate for baptism needs to show that they are ‘genuine’ too.
After all, it is no secret that in the Old Testament God took a dim view of people who mouthed the right words, but whose heart wasn’t in it. Further, both Jewish proselyte baptism and John’s baptism of repentance demanded a genuine response. So when Jesus commanded his disciples to go and baptise, we shouldn’t be surprised that he his command was based on people becoming disciples first. Indeed Christian Baptism was intended as the natural response to discipleship. As a consequence, it should not be unrealistic, even today, to expect to see proof of discipleship before baptism takes place. Because only in the context of discipleship is baptism given its proper meaning. It should be a response to a change that has already occurred, spiritually, within a person’s life.
THE PRACTISE OF BAPTISM
Now since New Testament times, the way baptism has been practised has varied. Most notable are the two extremes: the first, because of persecution; and the second, through neglect of history.
Because during a time of great persecution, the church faced destruction from people who tried to infiltrate the church, and destroy it from within. So the church instituted a rigorous period of preparation to sort out those who were genuine, from those who weren’t. This involved a lengthy period of teaching, fasting, and examination. And only those who at the end of the examination had proven themselves to be sincere were baptised.
In contrast is the practice that churches, like the Anglican Church, have inherited today. Because whilst the church may have begun on good solid theological grounds, over time the practice, at least, has been watered down to the point where little proof of discipleship is required. Indeed it can seem to many that is has become little more than a superstitious practice – an insurance against a baby dying and missing out on heaven – which includes a “christening” or naming ceremony.
THE PRACTICE OF INFANT BAPTISM
Now it has to be said, that although there are no direct references to the baptism of children in the bible, there are references to whole families being baptised (which would have included servants and children). In addition, Jesus’ instruction were clear; he wanted children to have free access to him (Luke 18:16). It is no coincidence, then, that the practice of the early church quickly recognised the need to baptise whole families (including the babies of new disciples). What the New testament doesn’t do, however, is provide any detail of what happened next – when new children came along.
Now obviously, young children (or even babies), are not necessarily able to understand the meaning or the commitments made at baptism. As a consequence, in many churches it became the practice that parents and sponsors (godparents) were required to make the commitments on the child’s behalf. It was also the expectation that when the child was able to make a commitment for themselves, they would make their own public confession of faith.
The practice of infant baptism, then, should reflect the important spiritual truth, that faith begins with what God does for us, not with what we do for God. Nevertheless it should still occur within the context of discipleship. It should only be carried out once the parents have shown that they are genuine disciples of Christ, and active members of his church.
Of course, when we don’t get it right, when we lose or add elements to its meaning, we demean the sacrament of baptism. And that is particularly so when we make discipleship no longer a requirement. And that to me demeans our own baptism, as well as being a slap in the face for God.
After all there was a reason why God wanted people to be ‘genuine’ in their practices in the Old Testament. And that was because being less than genuine reflected badly upon him. And the advent of the New Testament, and the post-New Testament era has done nothing to change that.
As a consequence we need to get it right. We need to look at our theology and practices, and restore the meaning back into Christian Baptism. We owe that to our God, and we need to be consistent in our beliefs and practices.
© 2015, Brian A Curtis