Baptism of Christ, mosaic, detail, from Ravenna Baptistery
In my last blog post I quoted James Davison Hunter as saying that Christian efforts to change the world necessarily begin with the formation of Christian lives engaged in a vision of human flourishing for all people. Here I will consider the formation of Christian lives. A place to begin is in the city of Zürich, Switzerland in the winter of 1525.
The reformation movement in the city had reached a crucial, defining point. They were arguing about the practice of baptism but the underlying matter at stake was the nature of the reformed church that would emerge. Would it be a “free church” that people could join of their own free choice or would it be a “state church” that required church membership of all citizens under the force of law?
These different visions of the nature of the church came to a head on the practice of baptism because all parents were obligated to have their children baptized. When the matter was brought to the city council, the council ruled against those arguing for a free church. The group committed to voluntary church membership was gathered at the home of Felix Manz, on January 18, 1525. They had been ordered to bring their children for baptism the next week—the choice was compliance or exile.
One member of the group spontaneously asked another to baptize him and, feeling led by God’s Spirit, the whole group then baptized each other. With this act they formed the first Protestant church in Europe and inaugurated the Anabaptist movement. The word Anabaptist means re-baptizer. They were given that name because they were accused of practicing rebaptism. They, insisted, however, that they were not rebaptizing but practicing a true believers baptism.
The insisted that mandatory infant baptism violated the very meaning of baptism as an initiation ritual signifying one’s commitment to follow Jesus. That is no longer an issue today because no government forces families to baptize their babies or forces citizens to be church members. In that sense the Anabaptists were ahead of their time because all churches today are voluntary, free churches.
We all want to practice meaningful rituals that signify God’s presence in our midst. Yet, there’s no perfect formula. Those of us who practice adult baptism often don’t have a good way of inviting young people to faith. And we’re unclear about how or when children should participate in communion services. Furthermore, many of us have started doing child dedications because families appreciate a church ritual where then can dedicate their children to God. In this respect, it has become a matter of when we will use water as part of the ritual.
Those of us who practice child baptism have another set of problems. The primary one is that the baptism ceremony has no direct meaning to the baby who is incapable of making a personal commitment of faith. If done conscientiously, as part of the broader life of the congregation, this will later lead to catechism classes when the child is an adolescent and she or he is invited to make a personal confession of faith, followed be a consecration service and first communion. But this often doesn’t happen in a way that’s connected and meaningful.
It’s helpful to think of baptism as a part of church practice and ritual that includes catechism (instruction in the faith) and communion or the Lord’s Supper and to keep all these rituals closely tied to the goal of forming Christian lives engaged in the vision of human flourishing for all people. I’ll write more about that in my next blog.
This is an important clarification of our identity as a church. It appears as if our denomination is still undergoing evolution. – Margie
I agree Margie. We’re evolving on some of these matters along with everyone else. I’m personally finding myself challenged and stretched in response to new pastoral challenges in our changing world.