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 Baptism in the Methodist Church

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PastorChris
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PostSubject: Baptism in the Methodist Church   Thu Jul 28, 2011 4:42 pm

In addition to answering your questions about theology or religion, I thought I'd periodically share some thoughts about United Methodist theology on here. So this topic will be about baptism in the United Methodist Church. Feel free to comment on these posts, just remember to keep it clean and civil. (As Methodists, we adhere to an attitude of grace and hopefully that will be reflected in your comments).

So, what do United Methodists believe about baptism? Why do we baptize infants? What happens when a child becomes an adult in the church - do they get rebaptized? These are all great questions that I've heard many people ask over the years. Many Methodists come from other denominations, and the differences between how churches practice baptism causes many people to scratch their heads.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, believed and taught that baptism is a "means of grace". Basically that is fancy language for saying that baptism is one of the primary ways we experience the power of God in our lives. The water used in baptism is a symbol - there is no magic going on - but yet through the process of baptism we experience God's grace working in our lives. Let me give you two examples of how this looks - one for an adult and the other for an infant.

Example 1: Alan is a 22 year old man who has never been to church. He didn't grow up in a Christian family and he was never baptized. But, now that he is out of college and facing the 'real world', Alan is finding himself searching for a greater purpose for his life. He finds his way into a church and after a few Sundays decides there is more to this Christianity thing than he originally thought. So, he talks to the pastor about being baptized and on Sunday morning he comes forward to be baptized. In that moment of baptism, Alan realizes what a big step this is - he is committing himself to be a Christian - something he never thought would happen. As the pastor pours the water over his head, Alan truly feels as if his old ways are being washed away and he is starting a new and exciting chapter in his life. Whatever happens from that day forward, Alan knows in this moment that his life will never be the same. We call that grace. There was nothing special about the water - it is the same as water out of the tap. But while that ordinary water is being placed over his head, God is inwardly act work on Alan's life.

Example 2: Gracie is 3 weeks old. Her parents are Christian and have been members of the church for several years now. They understand what it means to be part of a church - it is not about going to a building every week, it is about being part of a community and supporting that community with time, energy and resources, knowing that the community stands to change the world. They love the community so much that they want Gracie to be part of it and to grow up in that environment. So, Gracie is baptized on Sunday morning. In that moment when the water is sprinkled over Gracie's head, her parents know that they are committing themselves to raising Gracie in a certain way - according to certain values. Also, the entire church celebrates with Gracie's parents and they know they have a commitment themselves to see that Gracie is raised as a Christian. God is already at work in Gracie's life, through the commitment of her parents and the entire church. Again, the water is ordinary water. But through the baptism God's grace comes into her life.

In both of these examples the people baptized are claimed by God as God's children. God says "Adam, you are my son"; "Gracie, you are my daughter". This doesn't mean that God can't claim those who haven't been baptized, but we believe baptism is a primary way this happens. This also means that if someone dies without being baptized we don't believe that they can't go to heaven.

So, the common question is, what happens when Gracie grows up? Most Christians believe that, during adolescence, children come to a point where they have to decide for themselves whether they want to be a Christian. In some denominations, this decision is marked with baptism. Thus, Gracie would need to be rebaptized because she is making a commitment to be a Christian for herself. Similarly, if Alan stops going to church for a while and then several years later (say, when he's 40) he decides to re-commit himself to Christianity, he would be re-baptized. However, as United Methodists we hold a different position. Because we view baptism as a means of grace, we maintain that you should only be baptized once. Think about it this way - if Gracie or Alan were re-baptized, we essentially would be saying that God was ineffective the first time around and now we have to ask God to try again. While we, as humans, might lose our commitment to God at different times in our lives, we don't believe God is ever ineffective or has ever forgotten about us.

So, is there no way to re-commit ourselves to God through symbol or ceremony? After all, this can be a very powerful worship experience for somebody. Well, we do have such a way in the United Methodist Church. We call it "re-affirmation of baptism". Basically this means we re-commit ourselves to the vows we took when we were baptized. It is an act of remembering who we are as Christians without asking God to 'try again'.

One other thing: When Gracie grows up and becomes an adolescent, we have a very important process for her to decide for herself whether to be a Christian. We call this confirmation. It is a time of intense, small-group study with other children her age where they talk about what it means to be a Christian and a United Methodist. At the end of study (which lasts several months), Grace and her new friends will be asked, in front of the entire church on Sunday morning, whether they commit themselves to be Christians and members of the church. Of course, Gracie won't be re-baptized at this time, but the commitment service she participates in will be an important time in her life.

So what do you think? Have you heard other ways of thinking about baptism that I haven't included here? Are there questions still left unanswered? Share your thoughts.

Peace,
Pastor Chris
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PostSubject: Inquiry   Fri Jul 29, 2011 11:37 pm

I posted a reply last night but don't know what happened to it?
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PostSubject: Re: Baptism in the Methodist Church   Sat Jul 30, 2011 12:31 am

Really? That's weird. This one showed up fine. What did you say? I hope you didn't lose too much writing!
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PostSubject: Re: Baptism in the Methodist Church   Sun Jul 31, 2011 9:50 pm

Maybe that the there was a bit of divine intervention regarding my reply. I'll keep it brief this time. In your two examples you describe an infant baptism scenario and an adult baptism.

In relation to the first example, are there any examples of infant baptism in the Bible, and if so were they conducted in a similar manner of tradition and ceremony. In this example, have we allowed "religion" to supersede scripture in order to appease a man created "desire" to overcome that fear of infant death and heaven question via religious ceremony?

In the second scenario we see an adult that fully understands the meaning of baptism and follows in biblical example of the public profession of faith. If this person had been baptized as an infant with no control of the situation and later wanted to experience and openly profess publicly their faith through baptism as Jesus did, they would be denied, not by God, but by man's religion.

I don't see how tradition, ceremony or religion can take precedent over the many biblical examples of baptism. I have a difficult time reconciling the Bible and "religion" on this topic.

Thanks for listening!

SPV

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PostSubject: Re: Baptism in the Methodist Church   Sun Jul 31, 2011 11:14 pm

now i've lost all my work! I just spent the last 30 or 45 minutes working on a response only to find it logged me out and didn't save my work. Mad Lesson be learned, if you have a lot to say, write it in a Word document and paste it in so you can make sure this doesn't happen to you!

SPV, I'll have to work on a response again tomorrow when I get time. Sorry!
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PostSubject: Re: Baptism in the Methodist Church   Mon Aug 01, 2011 12:26 pm

spvaca wrote:
Maybe that the there was a bit of divine intervention regarding my reply. I'll keep it brief this time. In your two examples you describe an infant baptism scenario and an adult baptism.

Thanks for your questions! It's clear you have spent a good deal of time thinking about these and you raise some good points. Let me try to answer them one at a time.

spvaca wrote:

In relation to the first example, are there any examples of infant baptism in the Bible, and if so were they conducted in a similar manner of tradition and ceremony. In this example, have we allowed "religion" to supersede scripture in order to appease a man created "desire" to overcome that fear of infant death and heaven question via religious ceremony?

You won't find any Biblical examples of infant baptism per se, but we can infer that the practice was happening from a very early time - from the beginnings of the Christian church. The first examples of this come from the book of Acts and one of Paul's letters to the early churches. In both of these we read that entire households were being baptized (see Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33; 1 Cor 1:16). We, of course, do not know whether children were in these households or what age they might have been. But, when the Biblical authors wanted to speak about a husband and wife in particular, without referring to their children, they made it clear. (for instance, see Acts 5:1). Thus, we can assume that children were probably included in these early household baptisms. Also, Paul is pretty explicit about the rules he created for how church should be run. If baptism (which was a fairly new practice just being established) was to be meant only for adults, we would expect the Bible to say so.

Also, we can see that the early church leaders from the time just after the writings of the Bible were practicing infant baptism. For instance, Bishop Irenaeus (writing in 185 AD) makes reference to the practice of infant baptism taking place in his churches. We see the practice happening in other early church writings as well.

In terms of 'tradition and ceremony', there's not much to go on in the Bible. We're told we should baptize, and that it is equivalent (or event superior) to circumcision (which was certainly practiced on children). But we aren't given much in the way of ceremonial guidelines. Of course, that's true with most church practices. The Bible doesn't require that certain liturgy be said every Sunday or that church be run a certain way. God has left that up to the Church to decide.

Your concern about the purpose of baptism, though, is a valid one. If baptism is ever taught as 'the way into heaven', we surely have gotten it wrong. In the United Methodist Church, we believe baptism is one of the primary ways God reaches out to us and extends us grace. But that doesn't mean baptism is equated to 'being saved'. If so, we would have a hard time understanding passages such as John 3:16, which say nothing about being baptized.

spvaca wrote:

In the second scenario we see an adult that fully understands the meaning of baptism and follows in biblical example of the public profession of faith. If this person had been baptized as an infant with no control of the situation and later wanted to experience and openly profess publicly their faith through baptism as Jesus did, they would be denied, not by God, but by man's religion.

Here we have to ask ourselves, what is it that the adult (Alan) really wants? Obviously, nobody can recreate the practices of Jesus in al literal way (we aren't him, we don't live in his time, we aren't really sure what exact age he was baptized, and we don't all have access to the Jordan River). If the intent is to be baptized because Jesus was baptized, we can and should do that. If the intent is to make a public profession of our faith, we can and should also do that.

In our church, we offer several ways to make a profession of faith. Certainly adult baptism is one way. But we also make public professions through the re-affirmation of faith service, which I talked about in my first post. Also, we occasionally give public testimonies. For instance, this last week someone emailed Pastor Randy a testimony of their faith and Randy used it in his sermon with their permission. From time to time people may even choose to give the testimony themselves in front of the church. Another way we profess our faith is when we join the church - we profess our faith and vow to support the church in front of the congregation. Certainly there are even more ways than these.

If we are to use Jesus' own baptism as a model for today, it is important to look at what actually happened. It is interesting to note that Jesus never talks about his faith - he never professes. Maybe he did and it just wasn't recorded, but we aren't given that information. Instead, the focus of the story in all four gospels (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; and Jn 1:29-34) is on what happens at the moment of baptism - namely the heavens open up, the dove/Holy Spirit descends, and God cries out "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." It is a story about God's grace breaking forth, and for so Jesus the baptism happened only once. God's grace was sufficient.

One last point should be made about the debate between infant and adult baptisms. It is true that Jesus was baptized as an adult. However, Jesus also spent much of his ministry praising children and saying that they were equal to or greater than adults. This is especially true with regards to their faith and understanding. We must remember that in Jesus' day, children were often seen as less than human - on par with animals. That is not just an exaggeration made by contemporary preachers, but shows up in the writings of ancient Greco-Roman philosophers and authorities. Jesus took a radical stance against his society to say "children are just as valuable as adults".


spvaca wrote:

I don't see how tradition, ceremony or religion can take precedent over the many biblical examples of baptism. I have a difficult time reconciling the Bible and "religion" on this topic.

Thanks for listening!

SPV


Throughout your post I see a deeper concern than what is at stake with baptism. You seem to have a skepticism toward religious tradition and what authority it might have in relation to the Bible. If not, I'm sorry for misreading. But if so, you are not alone. It seems many people today are wary of religious institutions and see rituals and traditions in the church as nothing more than doing the same thing over and over without having meaning or purpose behind it. When churches and leaders misuse their power, this skepticism becomes even more pronounced. Many people ask, 'why should we trust the church? why not go straight to the source?' Of course, we can't easily go to God directly and get straight answers. But we can go to the Bible, right? Well, yes - and we should. But the problem is that the Bible is often hard to understand and certainly has been misused over and over by people in power.

So what are we to do? Well, as Methodists, we believe that the Bible should have authority in our lives, but that it needs to be interpreted with care. Therefore we have three lenses to interpret the Bible which serve as a system of checks and balances to make sure we don't use the Bible simply to promote our own ideas. These lenses are experience, reason and tradition. Let's see what they might say about the Bible's instructions for us to be baptized:

1) experience: Our experience says that God is at work in baptism. For many people, baptism becomes a powerful experience in their lives and we can't help but call it grace.

2) reason: Our reason (or logic or common sense) tells us that God doesn't screw up. God's grace is sufficient for our lives, and while we may lose touch with our relationship with Christ, God never lets go. This is why we say that baptism is a sign of the covenant God has made with us - God doesn't break that covenant no matter how much we screw up.

3) tradition: For the 2,000 year history of the Christian Church, people have been practicing infant baptisms. When we interpret what "should be" we need to keep a sense of humility about us and remember the long line of people before us that have been studying the scriptures and faithfully trying to live them out.

I'm sure I haven't answered all your questions, but I hope I've given you some additional insight into what we believe about baptism as United Methodists. Thank you for raising these questions and for the conversation it has generated. For me, it is that spirit of conversation that best describes what it means to be a Methodist.

Peace,
Pastor Chris
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PostSubject: Re: Baptism in the Methodist Church   Sat Aug 06, 2011 7:58 pm

Pastor Chris,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. Have a blessed weekend!

Stephen Vaca
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Baptism in the Methodist Church

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