Belonging and believing: Baptism and the People of God

978-1-426-71137-4Helen came 15 minutes early to Sunday night service. “Pastor,” she said, “I have to get saved!”

What was up with Helen?

This seventy-something Missourian certainly hadn’t stopped by my office on the spur of the moment. Her coming to Christ was like a pot on slow boil, and the “flame” had been two years of friendship from others in the women’s ministry group. In short, women in our church loved Helen to Jesus.

I thought about Helen when reading George Hunter III’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again (Kindle edition; Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2000, 2010). Hunter reports on John Finney’s 1992 study, examining how people come to faith in Christ. Finney discovered that most people today come to faith gradually, as they are folded into the life of the Christian community. Hunter calls this the “ongoing contagious life of the congregation” (location 795) in contrast to “special event preaching.” Summing up this philosophy, Finney uses just four words:

Belonging comes before believing.

Yet Finney’s and Hunter’s insight has implications not just for adult conversion but for how we bring up our children in Christian faith. The Anabaptist view dominates in North America, reversing the “belonging/believing” order to “believing/belonging.”  It reserves the waters of baptism (the sign of belonging) for children old enough to make a conscious decision about their faith. Practically, this means most children aren’t baptized until at least ten or older. It is an essentially individualistic view, where the person is seen as prior and superior to the group. (Contrast this with the dominant African ethos, which says: “I am because we are.”) Whether intentionally or not, does this give the message to our children: “You don’t really belong to the church until you believe”?

Surprisingly, many Nazarenes coming from a Baptist background do not realize that our DNA includes a strong strand of the Finney/Hunter “belonging before believing” idea. This is passed down to us from our Methodist heritage and the covenant theology espoused by John Wesley. A newborn child (as symbolized by infant baptism) is early folded into the loving community of faith. Later in childhood, he or she through careful Christian education, including catechism, comes to a personal understanding of saving faith. Just like circumcision “marked off ” the Jewish male as part of the faith community, so baptism “marks off” the male and female infant of Christian parents as belonging to the covenant New Testament People of God (Colossians 2:11-12). It announces to one and all:  “This child, through prevenient grace, belongs to the church, even before he or she believes.”

Hunter and Finney (location 797) contend that the postmodern mindset is much more receptive to the belonging/believing pattern than the dominant evangelical opposite. As Wesleyan people, are we not well-positioned to appropriate the best from both Evangelical and covenant traditions? We must continue to invite unbelieving adults to a place of personal conversion followed by baptism. Likewise, we encourage those bringing up their children in the Nazarene community of faith to present their infants for baptism. Baptism (like circumcision) is a one-time sign of initiation. Whether later as an adult or earlier as a little child, it’s an amazing thing to belong to the People of God. Let’s joyfully celebrate it!

UPDATE: There has been some excellent feedback to this piece over on Naznet.com. The “nub” of the debate is this: Does a Baptist -like ecclesiology really reverse the order from belonging/believing to believing/belonging? Not everyone accepts this premise.  Is it simplistic for me to call this ecclesiology “individualistic” and that represented by baptizing young children “corporate”? What do you think?

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Image credit: The Good Book Stall

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