The First Day of Kindergarten
Lately the issue of baptism and the timing of it in the life of the disciple has come up in conversations and debates I watch online. Some people (admittedly, learned people with a good deal of biblical and theological acumen) have been trying to make a point that the reason for growing numbers of people falling away from the Church in recent generations has much to do with our over-eagerness to baptize without first subjecting converts to a thorough season of catechesis (teaching) about doctrine and faith and spiritual disciplines. If we only did a proper job of teaching people what the requirements of baptism were before allowing them in our tank, we would prevent so many people from going through the waters who were not serious about really following Jesus.
First, allow me to say was most of you likely already know about me: I think that baptism is super-important and is indispensable as a part of the journey of Christian discipleship. I have been a vocal proponent of two practices and doctrines that have in some cases set me at odd with some of my colleagues. 1.) That baptism is a rite of initiation, rather than graduation, and that as such it should be done early -- as early as possible in the life of a disciple. And 2.) that baptism is a work of Christ, not of the Church; and that while the Church receives the baptized disciples into itself as fully-qualified members of the Body of Christ, it does so because of what Jesus declares, not because of what she approves.
What this means in practice is that baptism is not something that we take up when we have reached some indeterminate level of Christian maturity, whereby we are "good enough" to walk through the waters. Any insistence that a person must demonstrate virtue, or service, or knowledge as a pre-requisite for baptism comes from an (perhaps wilful) ignorance of the clear pattern of the New Testament. In the NT, we consistently see baptism as the first, and immediate, response to conversion. "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38) is the expressed command of Peter at Pentecost. Baptism is not the culmination of a season of preparation and training (even though, admittedly, this became the pattern very early in the history of Christianity, after the time of the Apostles), but it is the beginning of a journey of discovery and growth. In many ways, it is like the first day of kindergarten: you show up full of excitement or fear, with no experience of what it means to learn or be a student, and after the crisis of the first day you start to grow into your calling. It's not that you are not a student until you finish, you are a student on the first day, but you grow into that identity over the course of many years as you are taught what that means.
It also means that at The Bridge Church and thankfully (as of 2018) in the Christian and Missionary Alliance we recognize all baptisms that were completed according to the traditions that they were administered in. Whether it was a paedo-baptism (infant baptism) done in a Catholic or mainline church, or it was a credo-baptism (believers baptism) performed in an Evangelical or Pentecostal tradition. If the rite was completed according to the doctrine of the tradition who performed it (meaning a rite of confirmation, or subsequent owning of the baptism later in life), and it was performed by a tradition that baptizes in the three-fold name of God, then that baptism is one that is eligible for the requirements set out by our church membership covenant. Because baptism is not something that is done by the Church (as if the church could somehow make a baptism invalid by faulty-theology) but it is done by Christ. It is an appeal to God to do something that we cannot do on our own. It is an act of submission to a higher authority than any ecclesiastical order or power. If the person was baptized in a church that we can have legitimate fellowship with because of the unity of the Holy Spirit, and it was completed according to the instructions and practices laid out by that church, then that baptism is valid.
So to those who would assert that premature baptisms are the cause of the Church's apostasy problem in the current generation, I would counter that there is no such thing as a premature baptism. Moreover, I would contend that if baptism is properly understood, there can be no such thing as a mature Christian who rejects or even delays baptism. Submitting oneself to Jesus is a first day of Kindergarten issue, not a last day of high school event. It's saying a tearful goodbye to mom and dad and entering that new world of school, not crossing the stage and being handed a diploma. We don't make it happen, and we can't make it happen. Only Jesus baptizes, and any effort to control the variables beyond a choice to submit to God is actually denying tat fundamental truth.
If you have been inspired/provoked/confused by this blog post. Please consider starting up a conversation with Pastor Chris or Pastor Jenn about baptism and what you understand it to mean. Or if you haven't been baptized before and you realize that you've been looking at the issue the wrong way, we'd love to help you take that crucial next step in obedience to Jesus. And it just might be the perfect thing to talk about over coffee on Monday afternoons during #ClergyCoffeeHour at The Daily Grind.