About two weeks ago I wrote a piece on the doctrine of the church. In that piece I argued that the church is an alternative community – a distinct polis – called together (ekklesia) by Christ and sent to be witnesses to the reign of God.
In thinking about the doctrine of baptism – and in an attempt to turn our attention to the practice of baptism and the question of what baptism is for – I’d like to expand, briefly, on this notion of the church as a new society or a new polis.
In these series of essays on the 28 Fundamental Beliefs we are being asked to examine how our beliefs translate into action. That is, how does the official statement of what we believe lead us toward an understanding of Christian habits and practices? So, the crucial question is not what one believes about the church or about baptism or any other doctrine, but how one practices those beliefs and how those practices shape our life and witness in the world.
The practice of being the church is essentially the practice of being a distinct people (the people of God) with a distinct way of life (worship, Eucharist, hospitality, etc) and a distinct purpose (witness). The Apostle Peter gives one of the best descriptions of this:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge (1 Peter 2:9-12, NRSV).
Notice the repeated emphasis on being “a people” and the idea of aliens and exiles (or strangers). This is Peter’s theology of the church.
Baptism, then, is basically inauguration into this new community. In my Bible studies to prepare people for baptism we use the metaphor of naturalization.
Baptism as Naturalization
The scripture uses explicitly political metaphors to speak of the church. Paul, in particular does this in two key places. In his classic statement about salvation he says,
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast”(Ephesians 2:8-9).
Then, just three verses later, Paul sets this salvation in explicitly political terms.
“Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (vs. 12).
But, because of what Christ has done to break down the wall of separation through his death on the cross, he declares, “you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (vs. 19).
Here Paul mixes two familiar metaphors for the ekklesia – the polis and the family. He makes a simple argument: before you were aliens and outsiders, now you are included. In the political metaphor the means of going from being an alien to being a citizen is immigration and naturalization. In the familial metaphor, the means is adoption. These are two different ways of talking about baptism. Either way, it is a rite of passage into a new social reality that we call the church.
To stay with the political metaphor (because it is more provocative and therefore more helpful, I feel, at getting at the heart of the issue), what exactly does naturalization mean?
Wikipedia defines naturalization as “an act whereby a person acquires a citizenship different from that person’s citizenship at birth. Naturalization is most commonly associated with economic migrants or refugees who have immigrated to a country and resided there as aliens, and who have voluntarily and actively chosen to become citizens of that country after meeting specific requirements.”
This, it seems to me, is a perfect description of baptism. Baptism is an act (a rite or a sacrament, we would say) whereby a person leaves behind her citizenship in “this world” and becomes a citizen of “the kingdom of God.” Remember that “kingdom” is also explicitly political language. To follow Wikipedia’s definition a little further, baptism is associated with migrants or aliens who have immigrated and resided there as aliens and who have chosen to become citizens of that country after meeting specific requirements. This is the reasoning that enables Paul to say, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
Immigration refers to the physical and spatial act of moving from one country to another and naturalization refers more to the process of transference of ones loyalties and commitments to a different “lord,” whether that lord is a Constitution or a way of life or a King or Queen. Additionally, citizens inevitably go through a process of resocialization in the new location. This I would argue is the process of discipleship.
So now, following baptism, rather than being aliens and outsiders from the household, or polis, of Israel, we are now citizens. And, instead of being citizens of this world, we are now aliens and exiles, as Peter put it in our earlier text. This is a reversal of loyalties. But there is a both/and nature to this relationship. We are not completely immigrants to the kingdom of God. We are still expatriates in this world. We are ambassadors, to use another Pauline metaphor, representing the reign of the King, but stationed in outposts in the kingdom of this world, for the purpose of doing the King’s work of redeeming the world that the King loves.
This political act of baptism has real risks associated with it. The kingdom we seek to leave behind is not content to see its citizens simply walk away. To transfer one’s loyalties to a new King is a subversive act, which has led Rodney Clapp to say that Baptism is an act of civil disobedience.
“…when the church takes itself seriously as an alternative culture, baptism is politically charged. When we recognize that ‘the people of God do not go to church; they are the church,’ baptism can quickly, easily and accurately be seen as act of civil disobedience” (Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People, 102).
And, as N.T. Wright is fond of saying, to declare that Jesus is Lord is to simultaneous declare that Caesar is not.
None of this takes away from the understanding of baptism as a person’s public confession of “faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” as the Fundamental Belief states in the open sentence. Indeed, it is this world-changing act of Christ’s death and resurrection that has opened the door of immigration and naturalization. And if the reader today is an immigrant from a totalitarian state to a free and democratic state, he or she knows that this is, indeed, good news!
Baptism has real social power, similar to the power of standing with other immigrants, raising your right hand and pledging to be loyal to the United States of America. To wake up the next day and realize that you are a naturalized citizen of a new land is amazing good news.