Thursday, August 14, 2008

Adult Baptism? In the UMC?

"Nothing speaks more convincingly to the world than the habits, disciplines, patterns, and processes by which our lives are lived and ordered together." Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, p. 182

It seems that in the UMC, we have overlooked seasoned reflection on adult baptism. It used to be that Boards of Ordained Ministry would challenge candidates on their theology of infant baptism, especially if the candidate had some background in the Baptist or a believer's baptism church. RED flags would go up and you would be mired in a spiraling downward discussion if you were not prepared! Those who wanted to talk about believer’s baptism were instead faced with defending whether or not they believed in infant baptism. Once out in the parish, we were reluctant to talk about adult baptism for fear of rebaptizing someone, even if by honest mistake. To show how big a worry that is for clergy, rebaptism is a chargeable offense and proof of clergy malpractice in the UMC.

So the UMC (probably not by design)is traditionally weak on the practice of adult baptism. Among early Christians, the baptized were given new names. It was an inclusion into a new people. However, once church and state became friendly, baptism became more and more a tool of assimilation into the dominant culture and the nation-state's civil religion. Once the revolutionary aspects of the community (reconciliation of races, religions, classes, genders, and love of enemy, forgiveness of enemy, refusal to fight in wars of Rome) were left, baptism became more and more a “meaningless ritual.” (Stone, p.184)

Words matter because they shape reality and in Protestant sacramental theology, the word combined with the element distinguishes a sacrament from preaching or other acts of witness in the church. I’ve begun using the UMC baptismal words for youth and adults. They ask questions that are not simple or to be answered lightly:

• Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
• Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
• Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
• According to the grace given you, will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

Then the community of sponsors and witnesses and gathered congregation is asked: Will you who sponsor these candidates support and encourage them in their Christian life? Note that the above vows cannot be done alone; they are meant to be practiced in community. To me, this means that the community that is knowingly assuming responsibility for these vows is present if it is not the whole church. It is pastoral responsibility to identify the supportive community already living out their baptismal vows, from which the newly baptized can be mentored, and discipled. Where I think it is congruent to personalize or individualize, I hate the words, “private ceremony” because Christian baptism is neither.

My model is the story of the seeking Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. The story asks the question, “What prevents me from being baptized?” Phillip the Apostle’s word of preaching and teaching along with the water was the occasion for the Eunuch’s coming to faith and baptism. Gender, race, nationality and not-like-me-ness, even lack of community witnesses, did not prevent Phillip from baptizing. Accessibility to baptism is central in the question "What prevents me?" and I would rather err on the side of that openness.


  1. Interesting thoughts.

    In my new appointment (since April), I'm still working out who was baptized where and if we have any non-baptized folks.

    Do I hear in your post a concern that if you "accidently" baptized an already baptized person you would be given a tough time?

  2. Something I am honestly curious about, having not been trained as a Methodist: if Wesley held that a person could fall from grace, then why would that person not be able to be rebaptized? I understand that this is problematic pastorally, but purely theologically, why would this be an issue.


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