The Fully Immersed Life

I mentioned in an earlier post I’d likely discuss a few more of Jack Reese’s points in The Body Broken. I’d like to look at a passage from the chapter “Sanctuaries of Welcome: Where Baptism Leads to Holiness”. I really think he strikes the nail on the head with regard to the way our baptism into Christ should impact our lives through transformation and holiness.

[R]estoration churches contrasted themselves with churches late in the nineteenth century that disconnected baptism from salvation altogether. If God did the saving, some argued, then no human work could inaugurate that redemptive activity, including baptism. Salvation then came at the confession of faith; baptism was merely a visual sign of what God had already done. Eventually some churches in America ceased practicing baptism altogether or relegated it to a secondary role; the moment of salvation was one’s public expression of faith such as reciting the ‘sinner’s prayer.’ In contrast, restoration churches continued to connect salvation and baptism, as the great tradition of Christianity had done through the centuries. They taught, and still teach, that baptism is decisive in the faith response of believers, connecting believers to the blood of Jesus and allowing them to experience God’s saving work.

Good summary to lay the groundwork, not much to comment on from me, except to say I agree.

All restoration churches share this commitment to baptism. If many restoration churches have a problem, however, it is not that we teach too much about being baptized but that we teach too little about living as baptized people. This disconnection between baptism and holiness is evident in a variety of ways. I have seen it in churches that are baptizing children at younger and younger ages so that baptism is not viewed against the background of the insidious power of sing but as a public affirmation of the sweet behavior of children who have barely left infancy. I have seen it in churches that have grown too sophisticated to talk much about baptism or who deemphasize it because they don’t want to isolate themselves from other religious groups or appear judgmental. I have seen it in churches that send campaigners to other countries, baptizing people after little instruction, then returning home with an impressive headcount while the people represented by those statistics return quickly to their old beliefs and practices. I have seen it among those who talk about baptism as if it were little more than a legal transaction in heaven, God transferring the names of the immersed from the debit side of the divine ledger to the credit side. From this perspective, baptism is human work, a culminating step among several steps by which those who were lost become saved.

Amen. I’ve seen all that, too. When we served on a mission team in Russia, we were given a list of 200 people that had been baptized by campaigners before our arrival. When we went to visit them to encourage them to come back to the church, some didn’t even know they’d ever been members of the church to begin with! Some thought we were KGB because we knew their names and addresses and that they’d attended English classes four years before.

I think in the current climate among Churches of Christ in America, especially those who are trying to leave behind legalism, the danger of becoming “too sophisticated” or avoiding baptism because we want to “fit in” among greater Christendom is very real. And very dangerous. I’m not being alarmist here (and certainly not arguing some “slippery slope”), but the danger I see is this: if fitting in with any group of people means abandoning our convictions, or hiding what we really believe, that’s just weak and/or dishonest. Whichever your stance, be real, be humble, be honest.

The disconnection between the event of baptism and the practice of holy living is evident in the behavior of some church leaders who preach that baptism is crucial for salvation but apparently not crucial to empower Christians to act kindly and peaceably towards others. It is revealed in the cynicism of those whose education and theology have pushed them away from legalism and sectarianism, but not away unholy talk, relentless criticism, and smug superiority. It shows itself in the congregational life of churches that insist on baptism but who disregard Christians of different races, who tolerate racist comments among members, and who could never imagine showing hospitality to people of other ethnic group or to those of radically different social classes. More broadly it is evident in careless talk, gossip, and divisive behavior that it too common in the very churches that insist on baptism’s importance. The irony is conspicuous. To borrow a metaphor, some have been so preoccupied with the wedding, making sure it was done right and the wedding certificate signed and filed at the courthouse, that they have overlooked in the marriage itself. Those who have should not be surprised at how poorly things have turned out.

Amen! Ouch! Amen! Ouch! What can I say? We’ve all seen it and been shocked. We’ve all, in our baser moments, acted as though our baptism had no lasting effects and lost credibility. Ghandi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Stings, doesn’t it? In some ways, that must be the way those who crucified Christ felt as Peter preached. Acts 2:37 says, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Which brings us to…

My concerns here are not that we emphasize baptism less but hat we emphasize it more. I believe that had we done so all along, had we understood what kind of people God made us in our baptism, our churches wouldn’t be so fragmented. How could baptized people engage in destructive behavior? How could we disparage or ignore people for whom Christ died? How could those of us who are washed by the blood of Jesus sully his name by our words and actions?

If we were more alert to the sanctifying work of the resurrected Christ whom we put on in baptism, we would treat one another differently. We would be more patient and kind. We would be godlier. That is to say, we would be changed. What we experience in Christ is not merely some accounting entry in the heavenly realms but a blood-drenched transformation of the human condition here and now. Christ changes how we think, how we act, what we say, and how we treat others. He gives us new eyes and a new heart. We are by God’s power unholy people made holy.

Being right about baptism is not merely about getting the chronology of the salvation event right. it is knowing what baptism means and what is accomplished in it. Even then, our understanding of baptism’s purpose and outcome is not what makes it effective. God is the one who works in baptism, not we, and his work within us changes everything. During days of conflict, our common baptism should be our best resource. It should bring us together rather than tear us apart. Baptism, rightly seen, is God’s great uniter. All of us meet him there in our sins. All of us are made clean in its waters. It is the place of our surrender. It is the wellspring of our hope. How could we divide what Christ gave his life for?”

This should be required reading, I do believe, for everyone who believes in the importance of baptism in Christian life. What Jack writes here is so reflective of past conversations in my life that you’d think he’s been spying. It reflects the pleas of ministers I’ve known who were on the verge of burnout because of conflicts in their congregations. Baptism is the moment of the beginning of our transformation into the incarnation of Christ on earth, it is not the end, nor the whole process. It is the stone rolling back from tomb where our old life and ways are buried. It is the cry, “They are risen!” And living as risen people, we must now go and show the world, not by our baptismal certificate or our church membership, but by our lives that we are risen indeed. There will be doubting Thomases (I think he gets a bad rap, by the way), no doubt, but if our lives are proof of ongoing transformation by the power of God, maybe we can take the wind out of their doubts, and the truth out of Ghandi’s critique.

“Let us, before all words, astound them by our way of life.”
John Chrysostom

(excerpts from The Body Broken: Embacing the Peace of Christ in a Fragmented Church by Jack Reese, p. 106-108; © 2005 Leafwood Pub.)

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2 Responses to The Fully Immersed Life

  1. Will Spina says:

    Amen. Amen. Amen. We are not in danger of becoming too baptistic we are in danger of becoming too sophisticated to be true to the word of God. Too many issues, too little prioritizing.

  2. I love this book and Jack Reese!

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