Binding Tension

by Joel on August 30, 2005

On many Christian blogs, including those of several Methodists (big family Methodist), dialogue and sometimes what resembles war can predomininate concerning theological and doctrinal matters. Could there be ways that the resulting tension binds us together instead of pulls us apart ?

The United Methodist Church, true to its Anglican roots, encourages the baptism of infants and young children. I support that, which is also official church doctrine. Of course, we cannot command parents to have their infants or young children baptized, and particularly in many of the U.S. Southern, border and/or rural areas, many parents prefer waiting for their children to make a decision for Christ and then have a “believer’s baptism.” It was, in fact, that way for my own parents. Altough they became Methodists in the 1940’s when they were married, they both came from “believer’s baptism” backgrounds of Southern Baptist and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and felt strongly that such “adult” mode was not only proper, but that infant baptism didn’t make sense. So, I was baptized at the age of 12, as were my siblings, and confirmed into membership the same day. However, since I grew up in the Methodist Church and was exposed to its doctrine from as young as I can remember, and saw such baptisms done on a regular basis, I never formed any substantive objection to the baptism of infants. The majority of my Methodist friends confirmed with me had been baptized when young, so that experience was infuential, too. As well, my folks kept a copy of the Book of Discipline in our living room and I often studied on it and its views in favor of infant baptism.

I think there are strong Biblical points to be made for infant baptism while I also see the logic and reasoning of “believer’s baptism.” Because John Wesley connected salvation so strongly to baptism while at the same time stressing the need for conversion, he had to deal with some theological tension between the two positions. Richard has previously handled defense and promotion of infant baptism quite well, so I am not going into the points here except very briefly.

My focus, rather, is when I hear people ask whether theological liberals and theological conservatives can live in the same church, my clear, affirmative answer is that we can. Not always easily or without bruised feelings or egos, but we can. (See Dean Snyder’s post describing the tension between those who might want Methodists to be a “church” and those who might want it to be a “sect” as a partial explanation of why we have become so divided.) For you see, there resides within my heart a certain fondness for believer’s baptism, because that’s the manner in which God’s unique grace was bestowed on me. I delight and treasure being able to remember the event. On the other hand, I am also quite sure that official Methodist doctrine of welcoming infants and the young into the community on the faith and solemn promises of their parents makes a lot of sense. Because of our views on prevenient grace, we certainly don’t teach that an unbaptized infant or child who dies goes to hell. We do, however, say that they are part of the fellowship, part of the community, not “in waiting” to be in fellowship. They are not somewhere behind a curtain waiting to be announced or presented, as if they were debutantes (no offense intended toward that custom, even as I don’t quite “get” it). Rather they are already a vital part of the covenant community. Yes, we do ask at a later date that the person confirm that the inclusion in fellowship and community has had the desired result, that being that the person has made a personal, informed decision for Christ by which they have been justified. Perhaps because of our American individualism, however, we can tend to dismiss the power of community and fellowship to work God’s grace, believing somehow that a decision made by a “proxy” is without power. The grace is God’s act, however, thus it is also his power, albeit he invites us to enact the accompanying covenant.

Going back to my main point, though, is that there may always be in my head and heart some psychological and theological tension between the two types of baptism. The time I stepped forward and said I repented of my sins, accepted Christ and was then baptized is written so firmly on my heart that a measure of truth is encapsulated there. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed the real power of the parents/guardians and the faith community in raising the child in the faith “train a child in the way he should go.” I’m not sure the tension beteen what I feel emotionally in favor of believer’s baptism as grounded in my personal experience and what I see as the faithful and truthful rendering of Scripture in “baptizing entire households” and Jesus’ “let the little children come to me” can be fully resolved within me. And yet I am not at war with myself. I am not confused or perplexed. When I encourage parents to have their infants or young children baptized, I do so not only in obedience to Discipline but with enthusiasm. I “see through a glass darkly” but have both confidence in the collective wisdom of the Church and evidence in the “fruits” produced through infant baptismal covenants enacted and later confirmed.

The tension between how I was baptized and how I encourage others to be baptized will always exist. I believe that infant baptism is the far better way but I’m glad I wasn’t baptized as an infant. That’s a conflict my intellect can’t heal but that can be “patched” by the power of the Spirit. Thus, God has stretched the peace of Christ over that tension such that my two outlooks on baptism have bound me the firmer to Christ and his great commission, not taken me further away or created inner turmoil. If I can live as a “house divided” perhaps the Church can too, for the warning is not merely against a house divided, but of a house divided against itself, that is, a house that has turned so inward in conflict that it no longer has any united message to carry outside the walls. Thus, if we can find common purpose in service and witness, as I pray that we can, our house can withstand multiple divisions.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1

DH 08.30.05 at 8:49 pm

I love your testimony. Your Faith seems so strong. I guess I don’t see where non-believers were Baptised in Scripture. For me that is where I seperate. I do believe strongly in dedicating infants to God. I believe strongly in Believers Baptism. I feel strongly that Baptism is much more meaningful and truly Biblical if done as a Believer. Why can’t we dedicate rather than Baptise when Baptism is a symbol of ones Faith in God when a baby has not made the choice to accept Christ yet if at all. (we should pray though that they do)(You get my drift) :) Maybe to combine the two children who are Baptised as infants can be Baptised again when they accept Christ? What do you think? It might make the whole concept clearer to the one being Baptised and to the Body of Christ. As you and I know it is our Faith in what Christ did on the cross and His resurrection that saves us and Baptism is a symbol of that commitment.

2

Joel 08.31.05 at 4:47 am

DH,

I sincerely appreciate your different perspective, but on this one post at least, I prefer to keep the focus on how liberals and conservatives might live in the same church. A lot of United Methodists, at least the more vocal ones, seem to be asserting that differences on homosexuality and the exact manner of viewing Scripture as authority mandate that the denomination split. I’m sharing that in a matter of fashion on the issue of baptism my left hand doesn’t agree with my right. My right hand, or is it my left, is controlling doctrine, while the other is in dissent, but nevertheless both hands come together in thunderous clapping to the Lord.

So, my failure to respond to your comments about baptism doesn’t indicate a lack of interest on my part or a disrespect for your view. My desire here is to concentrate on the difference between a house merely divided and a house divided against itself. My belief is that many are making a very premature call to schism for United Methodists.

As always, your input is enormously appreciated.

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