Like Water Out of a Tub

Recent comments on my blog and conversations in the church hallway have convinced me that there is another line of reasoning in our current debate about baptism and membership, one that I haven’t fully understood.  As these people have explained to me (gently, patiently) our membership requirement doesn’t imply that people from other denominations are not Christian, it only points to the fact that they are not Baptist.  And if they want to be Baptist they must submit to believer’s baptism by immersion. 

So, let me see if I’ve got this right: believer’s baptism by immersion is what makes you Baptist?

Maybe that’s where I’m confused.  I’ve always thought that baptism was a symbol of entering the new life in Christ.  I thought that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 6 that it’s like dying with Jesus, and being buried with him, and then being raised from the dead.  I thought it’s what Jesus was referring to in John 3 when he told Nicodemus that in order to enter the Kingdom he had to be “born again.”

The language of resurrection and re-birth is powerful language.  I sometimes refer to it as “transfer terminology”: it’s about making the move from one way of life to another.  And I can see how, if you have come out of a life of sin and selfishness, you might want to drown the “old man” (as Paul calls him) in a watery grave, and let God raise up the “new man” just as he raised Jesus.  You might want to be “born again,” in the way Jesus described it to Nicodemus, if that really meant you could make a fresh start of your life.  The waters of baptism—to me—have always been a place where people entered the new life in Christ, where they were raised from the dead or born again, but they have never been—to me—a place where you make a Methodist into a Baptist.

Is that what Paul was talking about?  Is that what Jesus meant?  I cannot find any scriptural support for the idea of making Christians from other denominations into Baptists by baptizing them.  To me it empties the meaning of baptism; it drains it out of the baptistry like water out of a tub.  Instead of doing it “to fulfill all righteousness” (the words chiseled in stone above our baptistry) we do it to fulfill a membership requirement. 

That’s not even in the Bible.

I don’t want to empty baptism of its meaning.  I don’t want to use our baptistry to make Methodists (or Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, or Lutherans) into Baptists.  I want to use it to symbolize that moment when someone becomes a Christian, when they rise up from that watery grave or take the first breath of their new life in Christ.  That’s when the angels rejoice in heaven, that’s when the Hallelujah chorus begins.  Transferring your church membership from one denomination to another is not the same thing at all.

And shouldn’t be.

Emily the Episcopalian

I heard a story recently about a woman from another denomination who was visiting a Baptist church in the South.  Let’s call her Emily the Episcopalian.  She loved the church and wanted to join, but then she had a talk with the pastor.  What follows is a close approximation of that conversation. 

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Pastor, thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time.  I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying the church!  I’ve been visiting for about three months now and I’ve gotten such a warm welcome from your congregation.  I love the music and the message of your worship services.  I don’t think I’ve ever left here without feeling blessed by the experience.  I’ve even visited a Sunday school class where people did everything they could to make me feel at home.  So, I think I’m ready to join, and I just want to know how I should go about that.

Well, that’s wonderful, Emily!  And when it comes to joining, nothing could be easier.  If you’ll just come forward at the end of any worship service, when I give the invitation, I can introduce you to the congregation, they’ll lift their hands to “vote you in,” and then, as soon as possible, we can schedule your baptism. 

My baptism?

Right.   

But I’ve already been baptized.

Have you?

Yes.  When I was a baby.

Oh, right.  You grew up Episcopalian.  In the Baptist tradition we don’t really think of that as baptism.  The Greek word for baptize means literally “to dip,” or “immerse.”  That’s the way they did it in the New Testament and that’s the way we do it.  We baptize believers by immersion.  So, (smiling) let’s get that on the schedule as soon as possible.  You are a believer, aren’t you Emily?  

Of course.  I’ve been a believer for…thirty years. 

Great, then I’ll look forward to welcoming you whenever you choose to come down the aisle.

Um, Pastor?

Yes?

Are you telling me my baptism doesn’t count?

No, not at all, Emily!  I’m sure it was very meaningful for your parents and for the church.  But, see, you didn’t choose to be baptized, and in the Baptist tradition we think you need to make up your own mind about Jesus.

But I did make up my own mind about Jesus.  I was confirmed when I was twelve.  I stood before the church and claimed my baptism, professing my faith in Jesus as Lord.  Nobody made me do that.

That’s wonderful, Emily.  It really is.  And you’ll have a chance to profess your faith again when you are baptized.  That’s the way we do it here: you stand in the baptistry and I ask you if you want to follow Jesus.  You say “Yes” and then I dip you down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I don’t mean to argue, Pastor, but that sounds like what you do when you become a Christian, and I’m not becoming a Christian.  I’ve been a Christian for years.  It sounds as if you’re saying that doesn’t count either.

No, no!  That’s not what I’m saying at all!  Of course you’re a Christian.  There’s no question about that.  But if you want to be a member of a Baptist church you need to be baptized in the Baptist way. 

Why?

What do you mean, why?

Why doesn’t my baptism count?  Why doesn’t my Christian experience count?  I’m not moving from one religion to another, just from one church to another.  Why can’t I just transfer my membership?

That’s just not the way we do it, Emily.  We place a high value on believer’s baptism.  It’s the biblical way, and if you’re not willing to be baptized in the biblical way, well….

Wait a minute.  I’m confused.  I became a Christian in the Episcopal church.  Now I want to join a Baptist church.  But it sounds like you’re telling me I have to become a Christian all over again, in the Baptist way.  Not only that, you’re telling me the Baptist way is the “biblical” way, as if the Episcopal way were not.  I came into this meeting eager to join your church, but in the last few minutes you’ve told me my baptism doesn’t count, that I’m not a real Christian, and that my tradition is “unbliblical.”

No, no!  I’m not saying that at all! 

Well, that’s how it sounds to me (she gets up to go).  Thank you for your time, Pastor.  I’ll have to think about this.  But, honestly?  I’m not nearly as excited as I was about joining.  In fact (she pauses), I think I just made up my mind.

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This is what happens when real people encounter a membership requirement that treats their previous Christian experience as if it were no experience at all.  I post this example because it is so similar to some of the conversations I’ve had with people from other denominations when I explain to them the current membership requirement of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  They can’t understand why their Christianity isn’t “good enough,” or why their baptism “doesn’t count.”  Although I assure them that it’s not like that at all, many of them decide not to return. 

I’m still hoping that we can come to that place where we welcome committed Christians from other denominations without asking them to start all over again.  I think there is a way to honor their baptism, honor their previous Christian experience, and then “immerse” them in the Baptist tradition.  Who knows what kind of Baptist Emily might become if we simply welcomed her with open arms, as if she were—in fact—our sister in Christ?

Because—in fact—she is.

Episcophobia?

In his sermon on November 15 Phil Mitchell, our Minister of Christian Worship, said:  “We have added the response, ‘Thanks be to God’ after Scripture readings [at First Baptist Church]. Why, Baptists don’t do that, do they? Some do, and for goodness sake why not? What if as we say, ‘Thanks be to God,’ we remind ourselves that this really is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God for that!”

Since then I’ve heard a little grumbling.

Yes, we thank God for giving us his Word.  We’re grateful that we can read it in public worship and private devotions.  But when we say it like that—“The Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God”—it sounds awfully…Episcopalian.

We’re Baptists, not Episcopalians, but when it comes to worship we might want to ask what that really means (and what it doesn’t mean):

  1. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t liturgical.  Every Baptist church, even the most informal ones, follow some kind of liturgy (by which I mean the order of worship).  The invitation, for example, goes after the sermon and before the closing hymn.  Everybody knows that!
  2. It doesn’t mean that we can’t sing hymns.  One of my seminary professors used to say, “Some theology has to be sung.”  Many of the great, old hymns of the faith strive to do that—express good theology through beautiful music—so that you leave church humming something like, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” or “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
  3. It doesn’t mean that we can’t use written prayers.  Baptists don’t want to read their prayers out of a book; they want them to come from the heart.  But the best prayers often come from the heart when we are alone with God.   A prayer written down in such moments and shared in public worship can be deeply meaningful, and may be preferable to all those “ums” and “ahs” that often plague extemporaneous prayer.
  4. It doesn’t mean that we can’t read Scripture in worship.  Episcopalians and a number of other churches read a good bit of Scripture in worship.  They follow the lectionary, a plan for reading through most of the Bible in public worship over a three year period.  It seems like a good way to get Scripture into the lives of people who may not take the time to read it on their own and as “people of the Book” we Baptists should welcome any plan that does that.
  5. It doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the high, holy days.  Christmas is one of them.  Easter is another.  We’ve been celebrating those for years because they were important events in the life of Jesus: his birth and his resurrection.  Adding to our calendar other significant events in the life of Christ like Good Friday, Palm Sunday, and maybe even the Baptism of Jesus can make worship more meaningful, not less.

But here’s what it does mean to be Baptist and to have a Baptist way of worship, at least in my experience:

  1. It means that we celebrate spontaneity.  We like to believe that the Spirit can move us to do and say things that aren’t printed in the order of worship, and it is part of our cherished Baptist freedom to seize such moments.
  2. It means that we take preaching seriously.  The sermon is typically the highlight of the service, and the other elements of worship—hymns, prayers, and offerings—build toward a time of reverent listening for the Word of God.
  3. It means that we enjoy spirited singing.  We love those hymns and Gospel songs that are familiar and singable, the ones that really let us sing with all our heart.  We don’t much care for the slow, plodding ones.
  4. It means that we value “warmth.”  We like to be in a place where people call each other by name, where there’s a lot of hugging and handshaking, and where both laughter and tears are accepted.
  5. It means that our worship is heartfelt.  We don’t put a lot of stock in ritual or performance.  If you’re going to say something we want it to come from your heart.  If you’re going to do something we want you to do it for the Lord. 

I’m sure that others could add to this list and I hope they will (it would be interesting to compile readers’ comments on Baptist worship).  But what I’m curious about is the combination of this list and the one above.  Is there a way to have both warmth and dignity, to draw from the best and most meaningful practices of the last two thousand years and still mix up a uniquely Baptist blend of warmhearted worship?  I don’t want us to become Episcopalian (no offense to my Episcopal friends); I want us to be Baptist.  But I’d like to think we could be Baptists whose worship is as rich, and deep, and meaningful as possible.  I’d like us to remember that even more important than the way we worship is the One we worship.

And he deserves our very best.

My Way vs. Your Way on the Way to Our Way

Listen to Holy Conversation #1: Baptism (October 22, 2008) (mp3)

 

I started last night’s “Holy Conversation” with a story about a time, early in my marriage, when I decided to surprise Christy by washing the dishes.  I filled one basin with warm, soapy water and the other with clean, scalding water.  And then I washed all the dishes, starting with the cups and saucers, ending with the pots and pans, washing them in the warm, soapy water, rinsing them in clean, scalding water, well on my way to surprising Christy when…she came home early.  She asked me what I was doing.  “I’m washing the dishes,” I said, magnanimously, waiting for her praise.  “That’s not how you wash dishes,” she said, patiently.  “You just turn on the tap, let a little warm water flow, and wash the dishes under the stream.  That way the water is always clean and you’re not washing dishes in (she looked into the murky wash basin) that.”

 

For years I’ve been telling that story to couples as an example of how conflict can crop up in a marriage when you confuse “a” way with “the” way.  I was doing dishes my way, the way my mother had taught me.  And Christy did them her way, the way her mother had taught her.  It didn’t dawn on me until years later that I did dishes the way I did because we didn’t have running water when I was growing up.  Washing them under that warm stream Christy recommended wasn’t an option.  We had to haul water, heat it on the stove, and pour it into basins.  Often there are good reasons for doing things the way we do them, or at least, there were good reasons.  What Christy and I had to figure out for the sake of our marriage was a way of washing dishes that was neither my way nor her way but our way, together.  And we did.  These days we simply load the dishwasher, push the button, and move on to other things.

 

That little parable served as preface to last night’s meeting in which a crowd of some 400 people engaged in conversation about the Baptist way of making disciples (baptizing believers by immersion), and the other way (baptizing infants who are later confirmed as believers).  Former Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others, stood up and talked about their experiences while lifelong Baptists sat and listened.  Some of the experiences were funny, like the woman who remembered that when she finally decided to be immersed a girl who was baptized along with her wore a swim cap, so as not to ruin her gorgeous new hairdo.  Some of them were humbling, like the man who said he resisted being re-baptized, but when he finally submitted out of a sense of obedience found it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of his life.  Some of them were powerful, like the young man who remembered his confirmation in the Methodist Church, and the sure sense that in that moment he had received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Some of them were sad, like the woman who told us her Presbyterian way of being Christian had never been accepted in 25 years of Baptist churchgoing.

 

What I’m hoping for in these holy conversations is that we will talk to, and listen to, each other long enough to come up with a First Baptist way of receiving members that is neither my way nor your way but our way together.  I’d like to think we would continue to make disciples as we always have—baptizing believers by immersion—while opening the door of membership to let in those who have been discipled in other ways. 

 

I’ll have to wait and see how things turn out, because one of our Baptist ways (and one I affirm wholeheartedly) is a congregational form of government that doesn’t permit the pastor to make the church’s big decisions.  Instead, as in a healthy marriage, we talk about these things, listen to each other, and make our decisions together. 

 

That’s just our way.