Baptism

At this point, a lot of my childhood memory is indistinguishable from my childhood artifacts. What I think I remember in many cases is nothing more than knowledge of a Polaroid or scrap of paper. One thing stands out clearly, however: October 9, 1980, the day my father baptized me.

I remember nine-year old me nervously sitting in a grown up chair on the other side of my Dad’s pastor desk and answering his serious questions about the authenticity of my faith. I remember coming down to the front altar of Trinity United Methodist Church in Muskogee, Oklahoma, wearing my navy blue church sport coat with the gold buttons. I remember my Dad in his preacher robe having me kneel at the altar and the feeling of his wet hand dripping water down my neck as he baptized me in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

My family was a mixed breed. My father was a Methodist who became an ordained pastor after attending a Southern Baptist seminary in Kentucky. My mother was raised General Baptist, then Southern Baptist. I don’t know if it was her influence or by mutual agreement, but I wasn’t baptized as an infant. Methodists, as is their usual way, accept all the traditions, so I could have gone either way. They chose to wait, and by age nine I was ready to take the plunge (although as we will see that’s really the problem). October 9, 1980 was a good day for my family and me. My memory of it is clear. It began a life of followership that has directed me over paths of varying terrain.

Fourteen years later I was married to my Baptist-raised wife and attending a United Methodist seminary in Dayton, Ohio. (Don’t tell me that people don’t live out their parents’ lives.) We were trying various churches in town and had enjoyed the worship creativity at Far Hills Baptist Church. We decided to join, and met with an associate pastor. I knew that the Southern Baptist way is to require immersion, a “Believer’s Baptism”, as a requisite to membership, so I scheduled a meeting to discuss my theological position on baptism. I told the pastor with the strident assurance of a 24-year old seminary student that I liked his church and that I wanted to join, but that I couldn’t be baptized a second time. I quoted Ephesians 4 at him. I said that I had already been baptized, by my father no less, and that it was offensive to be asked to do it again. I told him that I was already a Christian. None of this mattered. The pastor got angry with me. We ended up leaving the church in frustration, and a few months later I accepted a church job at an innovative, large United Methodist Church up the road called Ginghamsburg.

Things have changed in the seventeen years since then. I have four kids now. We have held off on their baptisms because we want them to have an immersion experience. After many theological discussions with my wife we have a mutual understanding and agreement that immersion is the best way, not just because it’s “biblical” but because it most fully captures the meaning of death to life that baptism symbolizes. We agree that a person can also be baptized in another tradition and that it’s okay, too.

I put biblical in quotes because to say that immersion is the only biblical form of baptism is to confuse theology and tradition and a proper understanding of the Bible’s position as the voice of and not the object of our faith. Consider the other ordinance of the Baptist tradition, the Lord’s Supper. Is it taken as literally as baptism? Do Baptists drink wine in worship? Some traditions emphasize the sacred act of the Eucharist with a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, and others treat it with the metaphor of grape juice. Likewise, baptism is literal for some and symbolic for others. In either case it is the heart’s acceptance and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, not the method, that matters.

It has been helpful for me to look backward. As far as I understand it, the need for immersion in the Anabaptist tradition is part of a post-Reformation movement of believers who created an alternative means to distinguish expressed belief and faith from the institutional association of those born and baptized into the state religion as a matter of civic course. Adult immersion was a way for reformers of that era to lay claim to an authentic faith that was separate, or set apart. Baptist to this day are considered a sect, or a separatist tradition, as opposed to the Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian/Anglican “mainline” traditions, which are all descendants of the state religions of European nations.

The Methodist tradition is an entirely different animal. Many within and from a distance consider it mainline. Yet it shares similar origins to the Anabaptists, as it was built on a reform movement against the Anglican Church. Its populist roots changed with money and societal position, however, and by the mid 20th century Methodism, through association or strategic decision, had become part of the mainline Protestant tradition in America.

I realize now that I was baptized into a community of faith, that of John Wesley, that had drifted into the institutionalism it initially rejected. Talk about prodigal. But this is a topic for another day.

Here is what I believe: The Methodist tradition ascribes to two sacraments – the Lord’s Supper and baptism. (This is opposed to the full seven sacraments of our Catholic forbearer faith.) I believe in these. The Baptist tradition calls them ordinances. They are both important but have less sacramental authority than in the Methodist tradition.

My wife and I agree that baptism is an important part of the life of a believer, a rite of passage, or confession, which every believer needs to undergo.

The Scriptures tell us that it was at Jesus’ own baptism that the Holy Spirit came into him. Ephesians 4:5 (“There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism”) can be understood as either a reference to water or Spirit baptism. In either case, it is the transformation and not the methodology that matters. It is symbolic, an ordinance as the Baptists call it, but it is more. It contains elements of mystery, which give it a sacramental quality. On the ritual mystery scale, if Catholics are at one end and Baptists at the other, I’m about halfway in between.

Yet the issue of my own baptism won’t ever go away.

As a part of moving to middle Tennessee, I told my long-suffering wife that we’d go to a Baptist church. We’d been attending United Methodist churches since we got married, with mixed personal connection and success. She was sorely missing the faith expression of her childhood, and my early married attempts to get rid of the Baptist in her had evolved into a loving realization that her spirit needed to go someplace where she could find affinity for her faith. While I have devoted my career to bringing life to The United Methodist Church, I also have serious reservations at this point about the ability of my faith tradition to disciple its young, and think the Baptists do a better job of it. (A person’s lofty positions often fall apart in the face of the pragmatic decisions of parenting.)

We’ve found a couple of good Baptist churches in Hendersonville. We’re ready to join, we think. We want Kaylyn and Christian, our first two children who have expressed faith in Christ, to have an opportunity to be baptized.

But what to do about me? Should I meet with the pastor and tell him, as I did before, that I’m already a Christian? That might not go over well, and I am no longer driven to persuade anyone to my position. Should I not join? This wouldn’t be good for our family. Should I just suck it up and get immersed for my kids’ sake? This seems like the easy solution, but it still bothers me on principle, and worse, if I do this, am I saying to my children’s future selves that all of a person’s theological positions are just so much semantics? This contradicts the nature of the Reformation itself, which teaches the priesthood of all believers and the ability of every Christ follower to come to God through the Scriptures and not by following the traditions of the established church.

What do you think I should do?