aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

All wet

At a recent leadership retreat where most of the participants would have described themselves as “evangelicals,” I had a conversation with a couple of clergy about baptism. My view is that many evangelical Methodists are basically crypto-Baptists, and I find it hard to get excited about some of their interpretations and practices. They were boggled by this; in their subculture, nobody objects to their interpretations and practices. Which is one reason I always make a distinction between evangelical theology and the evangelical subculture. In any case, I thought it would be helpful to put down my thoughts in a more organized fashion. All cards on the table.

The situation

I have always been assiduous in gathering youth together in confirmation classes. In southern Indiana, you find a lot of communities where Baptist and Methodist families have intermarried; these families have sometimes tried to be faithful and respectful to both religious traditions by having their children baptized (“sprinkled”) as babies, then presenting them for baptism again when they reach confirmation age. They have frequently been abetted in this by pastors who have been indiscriminate in their baptismal practice and loosey-goosey in their theology.

What’s the harm in this? Well, put yourself in the place of that 12-year-old who was sprinkled as a baby, and whose family (probably more than himself) now expects him to be re-done, preferably by immersion. The youth may be disappointed when told that his or her expectations cannot be fulfilled. What’s more, the family may be angry, and view the pastor’s scruples as a violation of what they thought our Church taught. A happy occasion can be turned into a tense and unhappy one very easily.

One reason we do confirmation in classes is because youth of that age like to do things in their peer group. They don’t like to stand out. So imagine how they feel when the occasion of their profession of faith in Christ turns into a situation where all the important people in their life – parents, grandparents, pastor – are all arguing about them. They just want to do things right, but they are being made responsible for validating the acts of their parents. Being made responsible for the irresponsible acts of others is the very definition of dysfunction. This is theological child abuse.

What can you do? If you dunk this person to keep the peace, or just because you can’t bear to disappoint a kid – even if you say you are only “remembering” his or her baptism – you are giving in to a practice that just keeps the dysfunction going. You are also endorsing a theology that will lead you astray. A theology that sees baptism as primarily our action toward God rather than God’s action toward us, or which in practice treats baptism as a boutique-ish personal choice becomes all about us, not Christ; but then, believers’ baptism theologies always risk becoming anthropocentric rather than theocentric.

In addition, repeating a baptism puts pressure on all the other members of the class to be done the same way. Those baptized as infants might feel they’re missing out on something. And those who don’t want to be dunked can feel pressured to do what everyone else is doing. All this contradicts the teaching we have been giving them re: baptism as an unrepeatable act.

My response

I believe that everybody will be happier in the long run if we stick to a single policy on baptism. That policy must be what we teach, and what we teach we must also practice.

So: if you were baptized previously – at whatever age, by whatever method – we will not repeat that. If you were not baptized previously, then, since we believe that all three modes of baptism are equally acceptable (sprinkling, pouring, immersion), it is our duty to make all three modes available to you. We must not prefer one over any other.

Not preferring one mode over any other does not imply that all three modes are equally easy to arrange. If you don’t have a baptistery in your building, then dunking people requires some extra effort. Nevertheless, if the choice is properly yours, we will honor your choice. When I have not had a baptistery in my church, I have preferred doing immersions outdoors. This is partly for aesthetic reasons, but partly because I am very reluctant to ask for the use of a baptistery in another church – particularly if that church is not United Methodist. (I don’t want anyone to be able to say that we are not able to provide anything necessary for our members and have to beg the loan of facilities in order to do something properly.) That said, I have done immersions in another church, and also in a swimming pool, when it was easier than finding a convenient body of water. Nor have I let the temperature of the water affect the decision to immerse outdoors: a lot of baptisms take place during Holy Week, and it can get nippy in ponds in April, but that’s as may be; I mean it when I say we will make all three modes equally available to those who properly have the choice before them.

A few years ago, I had three siblings from a blended family in a confirmation class. The elder sister had been baptized as a baby and was initially disappointed that she couldn’t be baptized, but as we continued to describe and rehearse the ceremony of confirmation and joining the church she realized that, other than getting wet, she wasn’t being left out of anything that anyone else was doing or experiencing. The younger sister wanted to be immersed, so on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday (I forget which), we went out to a local lake and I baptized her there. She then was presented for confirmation in church on Easter Sunday morning. Their brother in the middle needed to be baptized, too, but when given the choice preferred being baptized up front in church. (I am an enthusiastic user of water, so even though he was baptized out of our font’s bowl, he got plenty wet – I believe in the importance of sign value.) These three youth illustrate the approach I take. I affirm everyone’s personal history, teach teach teach the meaning of baptism and confirmation, emphasize that it’s the same vows we take every time we take a new step in faith, and then catch everyone up to the same place in their relation to Christ and the Church.

In our day, people are being raised every which way and no particular way. Whether in confirmation classes or in dealing with adult new members, there is no “expected” or “given” anything. Some new members have never been involved in church before. Some were raised in a different church. Some started out one way, but their parents switched traditions or dropped out for a while. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the professions of faith I have received have required baptism, so I have done a lot of baptisms. In one little church I pastored many years ago – which had been a United Brethren church, so it had a history of baptizing at profession of faith – I did twenty-five baptisms in one year. There were babies to baptize (and yes, I asked if they wanted to do that and taught them what that meant), there were youth to baptize (who had not been baptized previously), and there were adult new members who needed baptism. One Sunday morning, as I was preparing to baptize a little girl, her grandfather (who had attended the church for years but never joined and had not been baptized – we’d had that conversation) simply stepped forward to be baptized with her.

So, yes, I have done a lot of baptisms. And what I have noticed is this: unless you were raised with a definite expectation of the right way to be baptized, you probably don’t care which way it’s done. I had a baptistery in one church I pastored; that church also had several families who had made a conscious choice not to have their children baptized. I asked every one of them when the time came, and nobody wanted to be dunked (quite to my surprise). I was there eight years, and I didn’t use the baptistery even once. It just wasn’t a big deal to them. Sometimes, even growing up in a certain tradition is no guarantee of one’s preference. In one church, I had a young woman who had married into the church who wanted to join. She had grown up Baptist and had never made a profession of her faith, so she needed to be baptized. I asked if she wanted to be immersed, and she said No. The bottom line is, if you don’t care how it’s to be done, then my pushing you one way or another simply means I’m trying to get you to confirm my prejudices. And that’s poor pastoral practice.

In talking with new parents about baptism, I tell them this: when the time comes to talk to your child – at whatever age – you want to be able to say, “I gave you the best gift I had to give, because I love you.” If that means that you didn’t have them baptized because you wanted them to have those choices when they grew up, fine. That’s the best thing you think you can give them, and you did it because you love them. That also means that if you present your children at the font to be baptized, you’re doing that because this is the best gift you know how to give them, and you’re doing it because you love them. And if you do that, then you need to affirm that gift, and take them to church, and follow through on their spiritual upbringing, because if you give them the gift and then drop it in the dust you are setting them up for conflict and disappointment down the road. True, neither approach guarantees that the children will appreciate the choice you made for them, but that’s their problem. You want to be able to say, “I gave you the best gift I had to give, because I love you.” And that’s all you can do.

My complaint

When I see how certain evangelical pastors act, I get chagrined. Some of them, when they refer to their own baptism, always mention that they were immersed, as if that’s more special. I’m sure it was special to them, and I don’t want to minimize that, but it comes across as a kind of spiritual pride. (For the record, I can remember my baptism, too. I was five years old. The pastor used a champagne glass. At least, that’s what I thought it was; how I knew what a champagne glass was, I have no clue. Also, he had fat fingers.) I notice also that some pastors show more enthusiasm when they are talking about dunking people than about other baptisms they do. Their eyes light up, their voice changes. If all baptisms are equal, this shouldn’t make a difference.

I also note that the rules on re-baptism seem to get suspended when we are on a trip to the Holy Land. Lots of people want to be (re-)baptized in the River Jordan. That’s probably been part of the standard package since St. Helena founded the Holy Land tour industry in the Fourth Century. Give the customers what they want, as they say. The fact that so many customers want it – or are encouraged to want it – simply replays the conflicts from confirmation class. And it has the same deleterious effects down the line. I have a couple in my church who bring this up every time we discuss baptism. Some of the people in my church with backgrounds in the Church of Christ have been baptized, one way or another, two or three times; it’s not unusual around here. This couple has always been Methodist; but they, too, were dunked in the Jordan by my predecessor on a trip there some years ago. Now, I do not criticize people who have stories of multiple baptisms to tell. No, “you did that wrong” from me. But when asked directly, I have always said that I wouldn’t do that. This couple keeps picking at the sore. They keep bringing it up. They feel a need for me to endorse their decision, even if I’m not criticizing it. And so the game goes on.

One clergyperson told me at our recent retreat how cool it was that all the confirmands in their church were immersed. Those who needed to be baptized could count it as baptism, while those who had been baptized could call it remembering their baptism. Wink, wink. I’m sorry, but this simply lacks all integrity. If you want to practice a believer’s baptism model of discipleship, you should belong to a church that requires it. If you intend to be a minister or leader in a church that practices infant baptism (whether or not any particular person you’re dealing with was baptized in that way) you are obligated, I think, to equally celebrate and affirm every orthodox baptism. Preferring one over another is poor pastoral practice. Using words in a glib manner to paper over the obviously unbalanced approach of your actions is poor teaching.

We clergy are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Baptism is a public act that concerns the whole church, not just the people getting wet or their sponsors. We need to consider how our words and actions will be perceived across the entire Church, and act in such a way as to respect everybody's baptism, make all new members appreciate the gifts they have been given, and glorify God by how we celebrate the sacraments. That sometimes constrains us in our personal preferences, but then, we gave up a lot of our personal preferences in order to be used by God. I’d be more comfortable with some of my evangelical colleagues if I didn’t see them subverting the good order of the Church through the way they put their thumb on the scales when it comes to the practice of baptism.

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