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.