An identity worth celebrating

An identity worth celebrating
Michael Kinnamon
Michael Kinnamon

“We practice the baptism of believers, which emphasizes that God’s grace demands a response of faith and discipleship, while also recognizing the baptism performed in other churches.”

Not so long ago, baptism was a source of contention in our community. For generations, those in the Stone–Campbell movement battled over whether the “pious un-immersed” were Christians and, consequently, whether they should be admitted to membership in our congregations without being re-baptized. Thankfully, these controversies are mostly behind us. Disciples now affirm that what baptism signifies about new life in Christ is far more important than the age of the candidate or the amount of water used.

Along with the battles, however, Disciples seem to have lost a sense that baptism is crucial to who we are. The good news of our era is that baptism is no longer a source of contention; the bad news is that it may not be taken seriously.

The Vision Team captures our distinctive Disciples approach to baptism by holding in tension two things that don’t often go together in the wider church.

On the one hand, we are a believers’ baptism tradition. We don’t deny that everything starts with God’s grace. But God’s “Yes!” to us calls us, in turn, to say “Yes!” to God and neighbor. Alexander Campbell called baptism the “Jordan flood” that separates every Christian from the values of the nation or culture in which she or he happens to live. The church shouldn’t be a community of the lukewarm, of those who are Christians because their parents were or because it is socially expected. The church, wrote Campbell, is a “peculiar people” who respond to God’s grace by living as disciples of Christ, not Caesar.

Churches that practice the baptism of those who can say their own “Yes!” to Christ almost always begin with the conviction that the contemporary church, like the early church, is in a missionary situation. In those first centuries, ministry was leadership in mission, and baptism, though a means of grace, was a sign of commitment to that mission. Once Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the empire, however, ministry was frequently reduced to pastoral care and baptism to a rite of passage. Alexander Campbell and his colleagues thought they were restoring the pre-Constantinian church, a church of committed disciples who spread the gospel of God’s amazing grace in an often-antagonistic world.

Some denominations that practice believers’ baptism are closely aligned with the economic and political establishment. When coupled with rigorous Christian education, however, it should not be so. Through God’s grace signified in baptism, we take on a new identity in which race, gender, and economic status become decidedly secondary — and this should compel us to oppose all discrimination based on such human distinctions. Through God’s grace signified in baptism, we take on a new identity as part of the one body of Christ — and this should bind us in solidarity with Christians who suffer or rejoice anywhere in the world. Through God’s grace signified in baptism, we take on a new identity as those whose worth comes from our relation to God — and this should enable us to reject the idolatry that wealth or power is the measure of a person’s worth.

But now the other side of the tension: We are not only a believers’ baptism tradition, we are an ecumenical tradition that values the gifts God has given to others. Many churches that practice the baptism of believers either draw back from society or insist that theirs is the only way. Disciples, at our best, have been an unusual combination of radical discipleship and ecumenical openness. We have preached a costly faith without claiming that we have the last word on it — Christians only, but not the only Christians.

Overseas, only one believers’ baptism tradition has become part of church unions in places like India, the United Kingdom, and Jamaica — the Disciples of Christ. In the U.S., of the 11 communions participating in Churches Uniting in Christ, only one has the baptism of believers as its normative practice — the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This is an identity worth celebrating, worth teaching, worth living.

This is the fourth in a series of columns exploring a new Disciples identity statement developed by the 21st Century Vision Team, an advisory group to General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins. For the full statement, go to www.disciples.org.