I declined to perform a baptism.
That sounds like an incredible statement from a Christian pastor. Baptism is the key word in the Great Commission, to baptize all the nations. Baptism is the entry point into the kingdom of God. Baptism, according to some understandings, wipes clean original sin and offers anyone a fresh start. Baptized members show up on our metrics and dashboards and make us clergy look effective! Why, oh why, would I deny baptism to someone? [somewhere, the batphone to the Board of Ordained Ministry is ringing]
It’s not what it sounds like. Rather, it is a continuation (and conclusion) to our three-part series on Baptism fails, or flawed understandings/practices of baptism in United Methodist Churches. We first talked about having baptisms after church. Then we talked about churches that “prefer” adult baptisms and put infant baptisms as a second-rate event. Today, we look beyond the institution to the individual’s flawed understanding of baptism. Read on…
In my first year of ministry, the first baptism I was asked to do came in. I got a phone call from a woman who had not attended church since she was 18 (15 years prior) and she wanted her newborn daughter to be baptized. She had set the end of September as the date for her child’s baptism, and then started calling churches in the area to find one to perform the baptism on that day.
She called my church, the local United Methodist Church. After the pleasantries and purpose of the call were discussed, here’s roughly the conversation that took place (I wrote it a long time ago for another blog at the time, so I can’t fill in the details anymore):
So Pastor, can I get my child baptized?
I’m very glad you want to get your child baptized. However, there is one area that has not been addressed. Baptism is not just a promise to your daughter.
What do you mean?
I mean that baptism is not just an individual action, where your daughter is blessed into entry into the Church. Along with that, and affirmed in our baptism liturgy, is a promise from the congregation to care and nurture for the child, or even the older convert. Baptism is not just an individual action, but a reception into the community. So it is very important that baptisms are offered to members of the church and to member’s children.
So you only offer baptisms to members of your church?
Yes, that’s correct. We strongly believe, not only as Methodists, but also this pastor’s conviction, that baptism is a community promise, and it is difficult to keep up the promise if you are not part of the community.
So, from my perspective, you have two choices if you want this church to become involved. I will happily offer a Naming ceremony for your daughter, where we recognize her name, speak of her name, and the importance of naming in Christian faith. That’s not christening or baptism, but it is a meaningful event.
The second option is that you can join as a member at the same time as your daughter’s baptism. I would take it on faith that you would support the church with your prayers, presence, gifts, and service.
Would you like to come in and talk about it?
Yes, I think I will.
I would ask that you pray about the options before you, and also check out other churches in the area that offer baptims. It is possible given the great diversity of Christian beliefs that you will find one with a different perspective, but I think you may be surprised how many churches consider baptism to be their concern also, not just the family’s.
She never came in and I found out later that another church held the ceremony for her family, they made an offering, and then never came back.
While there are certainly denominational and theological differences in the Christian perspective regarding baptism, I (and this may be a shocker) agree with my denomination’s stance on this. We already talked last week about how baptism is reception into the community of the church, the church pledges to raise the child, and they were being denied that by churches that held baptisms after church. We also talked about the importance of infant baptisms being done in the presence of the full congregation. And today we examine why infant baptisms are typically done for children of members of the church.
By Water and the Spirit is the accepted and well-written explanation of Baptism (it’s a resolution, not church law), and in it is this section on why baptisms are best for those who pledge to raise their child in the church:
The baptism of infants is properly understood and valued if the child is loved and nurtured by the faithful worshiping church and by the child’s own family. If a parent or sponsor (godparent) cannot or will not nurture the child in the faith, then baptism is to be postponed until Christian nurture is available. A child who dies without being baptized is received into the love and presence of God because the Spirit has worked in that child to bestow saving grace. If a child has been baptized but her or his family or sponsors do not faithfully nurture the child in the faith, the congregation has a particular responsibility for incorporating the child into its life.
Understanding the practice as an authentic expression of how God works in our lives, The United Methodist Church strongly advocates the baptism of infants within the faith community: “Because the redeeming love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, extends to all persons and because Jesus explicitly included the children in his kingdom, the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian parents or guardians to present their children to the Lord in Baptism at an early age” (1992 Book of Discipline, par. 221). We affirm that while thanksgiving to God and dedication of parents to the task of Christian child-raising are aspects of infant baptism, the sacrament is primarily a gift of divine grace. Neither parents nor infants are the chief actors; baptism is an act of God in and through the Church.
So, there ya go. My first time to be offered a baptism and I decline it. I felt bad, a bit, and I got into “intense conversation” with my Board of Ordained Ministry for my more by-the-book understanding of baptism into a faith community. But it is an important belief to me, and coincidentally (thankfully!) my Church.
Many people – especially occasional churchgoers – understand baptism to be a “ticket” that must be punched if their child is to go to heaven. That is a very misinformed understanding of baptism. Baptism is a sign of God’s parental love and a means of God’s grace. It is a cleansing and a rebirth, burial with Christ and a sign of the hope of resurrection. It is a visible sign of initiation into the Church.
In reality, I didn’t deny the baptism. I gave the family the chance to join the church, to become open to the spirit flowing through our congregation, and would take it on faith that the woman would raise the child in the faith. That would have been fine. They chose not to take that option and chose the path that their consumeristic approach to baptism allowed for, which was a drive-thru baptism to receive the sacrament and then go on. In my opinion.
Now, six years later (almost to the day!), I might have a bit of a different stance. If they were a professed and active member of another Christian community, and were asking for a baptism in another church for some reason (divorced parents, gay parents, etc), then I would likely have had a different decision. Even our most hardline of Wesleyanists out there, they still allow the Sacrament of Communion to be given to “any baptized Believer.” So I would likely have given the Sacrament of Baptism to any committed Christian’s child, even of another denomination. Trusting the work of God to work through another community? Maybe.
In this series, we’ve brought forth an ideal: Baptism, infant and adult, is best celebrated in the community of the church. It is not an add-on to the service, infant baptisms are not done outside of Sunday worship, and baptisms are done to members (with some exceptions) of the church. Baptism involves the community in ways that allow the grace present at the Sacrament to multiply and pervade longer than the moment. I hope you found some level of inspiration from it.
Your turn. Do you allow drive-thru baptisms in your congregation? How has your track record been with them? And what are the reasons that families want these baptisms in the first place? Cultural? Spiritual? Family pressure? Genuine seeking?
Discuss. Thanks for your comments!