There is a bit of a controversy going on right now, coming mostly from the Baptists, about baptism. I believe the conversation begins with a sermon series by John Piper, though I first learnt of it via Fide-o. Other comments by Jason Robertson (Fide-o) here. John Halton gives us a take from the Lutheran perspective here and here.
Excluding the silliness of those who don’t take baptism and communion very seriously, the argument as I understand it boils down to a plain reassertion of the traditional Baptist position on baptism. Baptists hold to a particular form of baptism: It must be done by immersion; it must be done upon (that is, immediately after) confession of faith. So it rules out sprinkling, and the baptizing of infants. But the tricky part is the position that *only* credal baptism by immersion is acceptable. For Baptists, properly, there are no sacraments, only ordinances (those things which Christ has ordered us to do) – baptism and communion. So the value of doing of those things is not their direct spiritual impact, but the value of obedience. If you didn’t do it the Baptist way, it’s not just a little whoopsie.
This is where Baptists prove that they are still anabaptists – re-baptizers: The argument goes that if you didn’t follow the prescribed ritual, it isn’t that you didn’t do it wrong. You never did it at all. Sprinkled? Unknowingly “christened” in your infancy? It wasn’t obedience; it wasn’t baptism. You’re unbaptized. And unbaptized people can’t take communion. You are officially excommunicated.
And here I got a little theological education. I had been under the impression that to excommunicate was to say, in effect, that the excommunicated was not a Christian. After all, the scripture says to treat such a person as if they were unsaved. Evangelize them, but don’t offer communion. But Frank Turk informs me that you can still be a Christian even while excommunicated. Even though we should treat you like you’re not.
Regardless, the traditional Baptist position on baptism boils down to these two tenants:
- Baptism must follow a specific set of rules in order to be done **right**.
- If it wasn’t done **right**, it wasn’t done **at all**.
The first point usually get’s all the attention, but it wouldn’t carry water without the second coming right behind it. Hence John’s Lutheran response: “I *am* baptized! So there!” And yet, you hear constantly all the arguments for the first point, but never even a hint as to how to evaluate the second. Where does it say that if it wasn’t done right, it wasn’t done at all? I don’t know.
I think I have come up with an interesting criteria for evaluating the doctrine on baptism that if it wasn’t done right it wasn’t done at all: by comparing it to other similar rituals and seeing what happens if a similar rule is applied. I have two such in mind: communion and weddings.
What happens if I apply the rule that “if it wasn’t done right, it wasn’t done at all” to communion, the other ordinance? First let’s define what “right” might look like. Here are some options:
1. The bread – what kind of bread is it? Is it made with leaven or not? Is it served as a single loaf and broken publicly, or is it presented already broken?
2. The wine – what fruit is it made from? Is it actually fermented? Is it served as a single cup or in individual cups?
3. The service – Does it have to be served by an ordained official? Do congregants come forward or is it passed around? Are the elements consumed separately or together (the bread dipped in the wine)?
Let’s be hard-nosedly Biblical about the whole thing and suggest that the only correct form of communion is that a single minister should present a whole unleavened loaf of bread, bless it, break it, and distribute it among the congregants, who then eat. Then the cup is administered, using only red wine in a single cup that is passed around the group. This seems to me most likely to be the closest form to how the disciples were originally served by Jesus on the night that he was betrayed.
Now, let’s apply the standard that “if it wasn’t done right, it wasn’t done at all.” What happens? It looks like most churches in the world are voluntarily excommunicating themselves, including our strident Baptists, most of whom haven’t ever consumed a drop of alcohol within the confines of a church. But interesting as it may be to imagine attempting to persuade teetotalers that Christians *must* drink, I don’t know if it proves anything other than that Baptists aren’t applying the same standards to communion that they do to baptism. Accidental self-excommunication may be amusing, but I’m not sure it helps me evaluate the proper rituals standard.
Marriage may be a little more helpful in evaluating the proper ritual standard. There is a relationship between a wedding and a baptism, because each is a ritual that properly initiates a particular kind of relationship. There’s also the likely comparison between being married and being a Christian. These two relationships are something like each other, and it’s appropriate to take points from one as a basis for understanding how the other works.
So let’s imagine what a proper Christian wedding ritual should look like. The man and woman must both be adult Christians, preferably of the same theological persuasion. They must be married by an ordained minister before a Christian congregation. The minister must cite the role of God in their marriage. They must be intent to marry for life – the possibility of divorce, except in the case of infidelity must be out of the question. The man must vow to care and provide. The woman must vow to submit. They must intend to have children.
I can already think of a thousand possible violations of this code: They could have been married by the justice of the peace. One or both of the parties could be an atheist or any other unchristian persuasion. They could make up their own vows. They could be half-hearted in their commitments. They could intend to be childless.
And yet, in every one of those cases, I will roundly confirm: they are married, no matter how badly they did the wedding. The wedding was valid, and if they say they are married, and are acting like a properly married couple, I have a responsibility to believe them. In fact, in order to make things even more clear, we can bring up the question of childhood arranged marriages – as apt a comparison to infant baptism that I can think of. Do I approve of childhood arranged marriages? Not in the least. Do I deny the validity of childhood arranged marriages? Not so much. Provided the couple grows up into their marriage and ultimately begins to live as a married couple, it strikes me that the marriage is valid. There is no need to re-marry them as adults.
In all these cases, it would be inappropriate to go digging around to see if the wedding was valid. They stand before you a married couple. They affirm that they had a wedding. To suggest otherwise is to encourage divorce.