This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Baptism: Framing The Debate

In a somewhat recent blog post, Jay Guin has argued that when it comes to baptism, we CoCer's have historically been debating the wrong question with other denominations.  We typically argue with Baptists, Methodists, et al over the question: Is baptism essential?  Jay says this question is misguided has left the debates largely unfruitful.  The people in those other denominations believe they've been baptized and do teach others to be baptized.  So whether baptism is essential is really a misleading approach.  Jay suggests that what we ought to be investigating is this question: Will God accept a less-than-perfect baptism?

i think Jay's right that the essentiality question is unhelpful and misleading, but i'd like to suggest that even Jay's question is unhelpful and misleading as well.

(1) The question bears heavy connotation: How dare we expect someone to do something perfectly in order to be acceptable to God!  No, it's not stated in so many words anywhere in the original post.  But the basic line of argument is: If you expect perfection, then everyone's doomed.  Thus, if you expect a "perfect" baptism, then even tons of people you think are okay probably aren't.  And would you appreciate it if someone expected perfection of you?  Or a perfect baptism?  So don't lay that burden on someone else!

i think there's quite a bit of truth to this candor.  The CoC is definitely not in agreement on what's precisely necessary for a baptism to be "valid."  Sometimes we disagree or even change what we think "repentance" requires, or we disagree or even change what we think a person must know or understand about baptism when undergoing it.  People hear this confusion, get doubts about an event they don't remember very well, and then decide to get dunked a few more times just to make sure.  That is crazy; the church clearly should have a dialectic situation where congregants undergo and are confident in only one event (barring obvious exceptions like when someone knows with certainty they got dunked to impress their loved ones or something like that).  And the fact that our current dialectic situation is riddled with themes of ever-more-exacting-standards is partially to blame, no doubt.

Where i think the connotative content of Jay's proposed question is misleading is that, well, frankly, God can expect whatever He fancies.  The connotative force of this question is that you can't possibly say no to it.  "Of course, God will accept a less-than-perfect baptism because He's such a good guy and only someone stern or intolerant would expect it to be perfect--they just need to lighten up."  However imperfect we are, and however nice it may be to let people slide sometimes, that doesn't mean God's a bad guy if He does reject our baptism or whatever else.  The same loving merciful God who gave Hannah a child and the Israelites more 2nd chances than i can count is also the same God who struck dead Uzzah for touching a box and Annanias and Saphira for a wee little lie.  It may be true that God will accept a "less-than-perfect baptism."  All i mean to point out is that God is not somehow obligated to do so, and thus we're not automatically bad guys if we choose not to adopt a "just let everyone slide" mentality.

(2) Asking whether God will accept a less-than-perfect baptism takes for granted one of the central questions that is in debate: What precisely is baptism?  It's not merely that some CoCer's think that Baptists were baptized but not good enough, it's also a matter of whether some people have been baptized at all.  Now, don't get me wrong, maybe they have.  i'm not attempting to answer these questions, just to assess the playing field and see what helps and what doesn't. 

Now traditionally, the CoC has held the following position. 

An event is baptism if and only if:
1. The element used was water.
2. The mode used was immersion.
3. The candidate was a penitent believer
4. The purpose was the forgiveness of sins.

As many have pointed out, there's lots of haze and fog even in that definition.  What counts as "penitent"?  Does every last molecule of your body have to be submerged in water in order for it to count as "immersion"?  What counts as "for the forgiveness of sins"?  Does that have to be the conscious purpose in the mind of the candidate?  Or the administrator?  Or God alone?  Or all three? 

These questions and the wide array of answers have left lots of people in doubt and lots of people multiply-dunked.  And that is sad.  But my point here is this, what we need is a bare minimum definition of baptism, not some spectrum of perfect to imperfect baptism.  Such a spectrum doesn't tell us where the bottom is.  And thus we can always argue for accepting one step lower on the spectrum, and eventually anything at all counts as baptism. 

i'd like to suggest then two questions that i do think are helpful in this historical debate (one i've already stated):

First, what are the bare minimum component necessary for an act to constitute baptism?

Second, how can i know that someone else has been baptized?

Regarding the second question, my point is this: i can know a great deal more about my own baptism because i have first person access to my own motives and intentions.  Poor memory may be my only obstacle.  But in the case of other people, i do not have first person access.  Thus, i think our standards for determining whether another person has been baptized must be more relaxed and we have to extend a great deal of trust.  Whether or not another person has been baptized is largely that person's responsibility to discern.  All we can have is a possible four part definition.  It's either true or false.  But suppose it's true.  If a person says they've met those conditions, then who are we to argue with them?  And if they say they met those conditions, what does it matter to us what building they did it in or what the sign out front said?   


Terry said...

I especially like how you ended this post. The rest of it was good too.

reborn1995 said...


i always appreciate your thoughts and your encouragement. i deeply respect the work you're doing for the Kingdom.

i really should've said more about the ending portion also. Whether we know whether others have been baptized is really the crux of the matter in debates with denominations.

There was a man i deeply admired who died in recent months. His name was Lyle and he preached in Southern Mississipi. He was actually one of the most conservative men i knew doctrinally speaking; yet he happened to be one of the kindest and gentlest and open-minded people i ever met. He once wrote that he typically assumes that people who claim to be Christians really are Christians until he found reason to believe otherwise. In my experience, CoCer's tend to assume people aren't Christians until they prove that they are. An interesting difference, i think.


Unique Users