There’s been a lot of talk in my denomination the last few years about baptism. One of the sparks that got the conversation going arose from the experience of church leaders in places like Africa, India, and South America. Time and again individuals expressed interest in joining the church but reluctance to being baptized because they’d already been baptized in another Christian church (it’s probably worth noting that we practice full immersion in the Community of Christ, which might be a factor in this all on its own).
This issue has been a challenge because, historically, our church has insisted new members had to be baptized by our own ministers. It relates to a view of the authority of priesthood to officiate in this sacrament and, to a considerable extent, it arose from a belief in being the “one, true church of Jesus Christ.” And so discussion of this matter often tended to center on the authority of properly ordained priesthood ministers to “wash away sins” in baptism.
It’s a short hop to the belief that only those [our] ministers possess the appropriate spiritual power as well. Take another hop and people start worrying about slippery slopes: deemphasizing exclusive priesthood authority inevitably will lead to complete absorption into some larger part of Christianity, they say. I recognize how and why some folks follow a path to get to that destination, but I strongly believe we should be looking in a different direction when it comes to a rationale for the existence of the denomination as a separate entity. There is a difference between distinctives and exclusivity.
Of course, there is certainly biblical precedent in promoting the idea of baptism washing away sins. That’s exactly what John the Baptizer was preaching and practicing in the River Jordan, long before Jesus of Nazareth showed up one day. It’s also not too surprising that John didn’t want to baptize Jesus–it should be the other way around, he protested.
Jesus’ answer to him, oddly enough, had nothing to do with washing away sins. He came to John to be baptized because it was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” Now, that’s some serious Bible talk right there. But what does “fulfill all righteousness” actually mean?
Basically for Jesus, it meant that he, at age thirty (the normal age for Jewish men to get serious about their life’s work), recognized that the time had come for him to be about his heavenly Father’s business. He needed to fulfill, complete, or just hold up his end of the relationship God had established with him.
The Christian Church has traditionally held that Jesus didn’t have any sins that needed to be washed away. Yet all that Jesus had experienced up to the point when he stood on the banks of the Jordan and asked John to baptize him was simply a preamble to his eventual mission in life: to serve, to heal, to teach, to feed (physically and spiritually), and to sacrifice. In short, it was to proclaim the coming of God’s peaceable kingdom on earth.
Is it any wonder that when Jesus came up out of the water, thus completing/fulfilling his acceptance of a divine calling, that the entirety of the Trinity was present: Jesus, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of God (Father/Creator) indicating divine pleasure and satisfaction. Those words, by the way, reflect what the prophet Isaiah proclaimed about God’s “suffering servant,” who of course eventually came to be identified with Jesus:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa. 42:1-7)
The New Testament offers numerous understandings of baptism. The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have unique perspectives; and then there’s Paul’s way of connecting the death and resurrection of Jesus with going into and up out of the waters of baptism as a way for believers to participate with him as a symbolic reenactment. This is one of the beauties–and challenges–of Christianity: an abundance of ways to understand and believe.
And so, with all that in mind, I don’t think my own denomination’s previous practice of requiring rebaptism was wrong by any means. But now, having grown in understanding and being exposed to and recognizing the real situations of people in our contemporary world, we are now doing a new thing. In certain circumstances an individual who has previously been baptized by a Christian minister may become a member of Community of Christ through a profession of faith and with the sacrament of confirmation.
Perhaps in an institutional and communal sense we are completing our relationship with God–“fulfilling all righteousness,” if you will–and looking even deeper into our calling as a people, as a community of faith, as those who dare to proclaim on behalf of Jesus Christ, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and experience peace.”
*This ForeWords post first appeared January 9, 2011.