A Radical-Wesleyan Understanding of Christian Initiation

Baptism is fundamentally an act of protest. It is the initiation into a community committed to living contrary to the oppressive ways of the world. Baptism is a collective form of “civil disobedience.”

As Rodney Clapp writes, the rite of baptism is the act that most expresses our constitution and cultivation as a Christian people. Central to this vision of baptism is the role of the church, whose life is a kind of re-socialization—a community that learns together to live as Christians. This, Clapp suggests, is a profoundly subversive view of the church. That is because it views the journey of learning to be Christian as entailing that the biological family and the nation-state are no longer the primary source of identity, support and growth. Indeed, in committing our lives to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, every other source of identity must be held in question. So, while debates about what happens in baptism tend to focus on what happens with the water or the individual, Clapp proffers that God works in the individual primarily through the community that embodies the commitment to live together formatively.[1]

Much of our confusions about baptism come from expecting it to be “something that God does for me.” One might exect that, in Baptism, God acts “on my behalf, but on my conditions.” But, as Russell Haitch puts it in his characterization of Karl Barth’s view of baptism, “there is a movement both from above to below, and from below to above.”[2] While we may, as individuals, focus on what God can do in our own broken lives, through the Church we come in contact with a community of people who teach us that we are a part of another story—the story of what God is doing for all of creation. We learn to live in a way that allows us to approach the created world with gentleness and grace, while practicing collective and individual forms of resistance against the oppressive systems of the world that rule through fear, manipulation, exploitation, and violence.

Central to any view of baptism is an ecclesiology and a narrative. A Radical-Wesleyan view is one that  sees baptism as the initiation into a communal narrative that is capable of being truthful and repentant, and thus is often self-critical for the sake of learning to replace practices of violence and exploitation with practices of healing and wholeness. The church gives us a community that incorporates us, not just into a new people, but into a new reality. The Church teaches us to tell a new story about ourselves and the world around us—even holding us accountable for the way we tell that story through counsel, correction, and pardon.[3]

James White, an important theological influence for the Methodist Church when it comes to our understanding of the sacrament, gives five New Testament metaphors for Christian initiation: union with Christ, incorporation into the church, new birth, forgiveness of sins, and reception of the Holy Spirit. To be faithful to the New Testament accounts, White suggests, all five metaphors need to be a part of a faithful interpretation of Christian initiation.[4]

During the Radical Reformation, Anabaptists came to see that baptism is not simply about the individual being baptized, but about how everything in the community and the world around them changes. This radical view gives new life to the metaphors of initiation White offers, especially that of new birth. The baptized may not only come to think differently about him or herself, but the Church helps form them in a new way of thinking about all of creation.[5] Baptism unites the individual with Christ, incorporates them into this new life in fellowship with a community that lives together under the direction of the Holy Spirit before the watching world. Baptism, in the language of Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, “connects the divine and human narratives.”[6] In this new community, we learn to live in ways that faithfully weave together these narratives in the process of learning to live Christianly—both for the committed community and the individual. The Church considers itself a peculiar people with a story to tell to the nations of the world—taking on the task of “exhibiting an exemplary form of human community.”[7] Or, as one theologian put it, “The people of God are called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.”[8]

I have termed this a Radical-Wesleyan understanding of Christian initiation because it originates from a commitment to live within communities that identify with the Wesleyan tradition while drawing from a well of theological-political thought  and practices rooted in the Radical Reformation. It is an articulation of baptism for those who live within in the context of a community that takes the Wesleyan view of experiential holiness and communal accountability seriously, but relies on Anabaptist views of the relationship of the church to the wider world as the proper way of viewing the Church’s politics and practices.

For those of us worshiping and serving within the United Methodist Church, there are several areas where this hybrid Wesleyan/Anabaptist view may conflict.

The peculiars of working within the United Methodist Church

The first question this Anabaptist influenced view of Christian initiation poses is this: How do we be the Church visible, and yet continue to be welcoming to everyone, even those who do not share our convictions? The second question is about infant baptism. Do we continue to do infant baptism, and if so, what is its meaning and function? The answer to both of these questions comes in the importance of teaching and celebrating baptism as a process of forming of a new communal identity. For the watching congregation, we must learn again to interpret the New Testament metaphors (see White’s list, noted above) through the lens of God forming a community before the watching world. For the infant, it is a promise to raise the child into this new identity—in a sense, raising the child to live rebelliously in a way that is often contrary to the values of the wider world.

Perhaps, we need to ensure the participants are clearly making a voluntary commitment to join the community. To be consistent with the wider practicing Methodist community and our Wesleyan heritage, we do not want to withhold baptism from infants.[9] Because baptism is seen as a means of grace, we never want to see grace withheld. Nevertheless, we should be clear about the severity of the language of the baptismal covenant: “Do you renounce…reject…repent?…Do you accept…resist? …Do you confess…promise? …Will you nurture…? …According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”

Thus, prior to the public ceremonial act, there must be a private catechesis that allows the neophyte, or the family of the infant, to really wrestle with their ability to make this commitment. It should be affirmed that they are truly welcomed, valued, and loved by God, even if they remain outside of the baptized community. This catechetical opportunity also allows for a time of discussion about the mystery of how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers and in the community of the baptized. It opens up the possibility that these new members will feel more open to share their lives with others in the community in a way that allows for more “binding and loosing” to let the strength of the community empower us together to be a holy body before the watching world.

In the public, liturgical act, I believe there should be a reiteration of the commitment of the congregation to acknowledge Christ as Savior and Lord, to flee from sin, and to work against evil in a public way of remembering their baptism. Baptism needs to gain its important place among the acts of the church as the key beginning place to learn, rethink, and remember what it means to tell our story as Christians. This liturgical act, I believe, reinforces the commitment of the community that the life of faith is not a life that is lived alone. It reminds them that Christ has not left them on their own to journey this road of learning to live Christianly—but that it is something we constantly must do together.

[1] Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 99-102.
[2] Russel Haitch, “Karl Barth: Baptism is Prayer,” in From Exorcism to Ecstasy: Eight Views of Baptism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 135.
[3] John Howard Yoder, “Binding and Loosing,” Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottdale PA: Herald Press, 1992), pp. 1-13.
[4] James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 218-19.
[5] Russel Haitch, “John Howard Yoder: Baptism is the New Humanity” in From Exorcism to Ecstacy, p. 35.
[6] Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), pp. 36-56.
[7] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (London: Basel Blackwell, 1990), p. 388.
[8] John Howard Yoder, Body Politics, p. ix.  Yoder makes this same comment many times, that is, that the church is “the paradigm for what God intends for all humankind.” See John Howard Yoder, “Karl Barth: How His Mind Kept Changing,” How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald K. McKim (Eugene, OR: Wipf and stock, 1998), p. 170.
[9] “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The Baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.” (From Article XVII—OF BAPTISM, “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church,” p. 63, The Book of Discipline—2004).

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