Baptism is one of the earliest and most important rituals within Christianity. Have you ever been curious as to how early Christians practiced baptism?
The Didache is one of the earliest Christian documents not found in the New Testament. “Didache” means teaching, and is short for “The Lord’s Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”. It describes early Christian ethics, practices, and order, including how they practiced baptism. It provides instruction as follows:
“And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.”
What I find fascinating about this instruction is its flexibility. There is an obvious preference for full immersion in cool, running water, but if circumstances don’t permit that, no sweat, just use what you have available, the simple act of pouring warm water upon the head is enough. It may not have quite the same symbolic resonance as full immersion but what matters most is the intent. How refreshing. I wish all Christians would take such a gracious attitude.
Interacting with Pagans prompts me on occasion to consider the function and efficacy of ritual. I am not entirely comfortable with Catholics sacramentalism but I’m also seeing limitations with the way Protestants speak of “ordinances” and wonder if we’ve sometimes tossed the baby out with the bathwater. If we see mental assent as sufficient for salvation we’re being awfully dualistic. Shouldn’t we be approaching it more holistically? I am beginning to wonder if preaching the gospel, praising God, breaking bread together, gathering together, and baptising one another should not all be considered “expressions of faith”, and as such, “means of grace”. It’s not that God can’t confer grace through other means, it’s just that it pleases God to frequently act through these means. I am not at all comfortable with the way that the sinner’s prayer and/or altar call seem to have gazumped baptism in many baptist churches. Something is seriously wrong with that picture. When I think of baptism as a kinaesthetic expression of faith it kind of makes more sense for me though. Baptism isn’t a work or the law, it’s an act of gift reception.
“He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3)
If we recall that the exile and ongoing oppression of Israel was understood by the prophets to be a consequence of the collective sin of Israel, then is it possible that John was calling for, first and foremost, a collective repentance?
And is it possible, therefore, that we should not only think of immersion, not only in terms of reconciliation with God, but also in terms of reconciliation with one another? As initiation into God’s world changing initiative?
“Some recent studies have suggested that children are making decisions about attending or not attending church much earlier than previously. While many children used to cease attending in their middle teenage years,some are now making such decisions at the end of primary school.” – Dropping Out of Church, Christian Research Association
Have you heard that the Church of England has voted to wash some Bible imagery from its baptism rite? What’s your view?
Here’s mine. On the one hand, I’m all for cultural sensitivity. On the other hand, I’m also for scriptural authenticity. Critical contextualization involves striving for both. So when it comes to contextualizing Christian rites – whether we’re talking baptism or ordinary Sunday services – what I like to ask is, where are our sacred stories in the alternative worship styles we’re experimenting with? Are the stories washed out or are they contextually sharpened?
You be the judge of this. Here’s what they consider problematic:
In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Here’s what’s proposed instead:
Heavenly Father, bless this water,that whoever is washed in it may be made one with Christ in the fellowship of your Church, and be brought through every tribulation to share the risen life that is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord.