Is baptism necessary?

When you read the book of Acts, you see a simple thing over and over: the apostles take the Gospel to new people, bringing them to confess faith in Jesus Christ and be baptized. Taking this as a cue, therefore, you would naturally think that baptism is a vital, normal, essential part of the process of Christianizing people. And you would be right.

Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be right for the right reason and the people who disagree with you wouldn’t be wrong for the right reason either.

See, there are several sorts of arguments which commonly arise over the place of baptism in the Christian faith. People argue about whether one can be a “real” Christian without being baptized. People argue about who is “authorized” to perform a genuine baptism. People argue about whether baptism is symbolic or sacramental. And people argue (endlessly) about what particular details are essential to a proper baptism. Sadly, although these questions make wonderful discussion topics, those discussions wind up being most successful only at leading the participants away from the truth for the simple reason that they miss the whole point.

In Matthew, there is a very famous passage called the Great Commission, where we are instructed to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded [us].” One of the more common observations about this passage is that we are told to “make disciples” and not mere converts.” A disciple, we are then usually told, is a “serious” Christian who “really commits” to following Jesus by studying the Bible and obeying God’s commands. This is a fine observation cautioning against a real problem of one-night stand evangelisms which leave abandoned newborns strewn about the sidewalk. But it again misses the big point staring readers right in the face.

Why does this passage (along with all the events in Acts) connect discipling so closely with baptism? Not because of what discipling means, but because of what baptism is. The problem is that baptism isn’t about water or what words get said or by whom or even the metaphysical reality underlying it (or not). Instead, baptism is the rite of indoctrinating a new believer into a support and identity structure which Christians call a church. Baptism makes you part of the family. Not in a vague sense or part of some general family, but in a very specific sense and part of a very particular family: the one which surrounds you as you are baptized.

Just as children are born into a family, newly born-again Christians are baptized into a church. And when you start to think of baptism this way, you suddenly realize what’s really going on in both the book of Acts and in the Great Commission. The point about disciples is that they differ from “mere converts” not by sincerity or knowledge but instead by the fact that they can only become fully mature and healthy Christians by being part of a discipling community. And whereas for us baptism has all-too-often come to mean some individualistic ceremony, baptism for the early Christians (and for most of the centuries of Christians after them) meant incorporation (literally “to make part of a body”) into a particular group of the faithful.

That’s why I have to laugh a bit at the mischief I intended in selecting the title for this thought. The people who read it probably assumed I was going to offer some semi-definitive answer about whether baptism saves or not. Perhaps, already armed with their own answer to that question, they hoped I would finally align myself with them (or else with those they can safely dismiss as heretics). Shouldn’t the recognition of such impulses alone concern you?

The fact that we are inclined to take such an essential feature of Christianity and turn it into a pretext for theological squabbling should serve to reveal the big problem we should really be addressing: our concept of Christian salvation itself as an individual matter. We want to know which particular mechanisms or tests to perform so that “I” can know that “I” am saved or that “he” is not when a much better view would notice that the Bible is saturated with the notion of “us” being a holy community, “a city on a hill” if you will, who (as a group) will show that we are Jesus’s disciples by our love one for another.

So is baptism necessary?

Of course.

For what?

For the fulfillment of God’s basic purpose for all human beings: being tightly connected to Him and to each other as bundles of loving interaction, bearing burdens, sharing treasure, and functioning as an organism (or body or house) rather than as bits and pieces of random Christian flesh distended from each other by the thought-habits of a culture virtually incapable of thinking about human nature communitatively.

And lest some of you reading this develop a false sense of comfort from the fact that you “attend” church regularly or even “belong” to a congregation, allow me to notice that these are not the Biblical standards at all. Family is what family does, not just the shared name on legal forms or an address held in common. Family involves service and heartbreak and intimacy and proximity and interaction and history and a whole host of other things that offer a comparative test by which far too many “churched” Christians seem far more similar to the “unchurched” than they do to truly integrated members of a Biblical community.

Can a person be a Christian without being baptized? The question you should instead ask is whether a person can be a Christian by himself, to which the Bible gives a resounding denial. And if you think salvation entails anything less than membership in a robustly flourishing community of believers glorifying God by their society rather than merely their individuality, you have been sold a line of theology so thin it will barely hold the weight of even the most miniature Bible.

That’s why I say that baptism is necessary for salvation, neither for the reasons you normally hear nor in refutation of the denials you often encounter, but because of what baptism fundamentally is and how it fits Biblically with the entirety of the Christian message about God’s plan and purposes for humanity.

What is brave?

I recently watched for the very first time an extremely famous Western, “The Magnificent Seven.” It was excellent from beginning to end, but, as those who’ve seen the film (most of you, I expect) it is precisely the ending which both infuriates the audience and makes the film so special.

See, after they heroes talk themselves into going back into town to help the peasants and kill the bandits, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen ride off into the sunset, leaving the town. What’s frustrating about this is that only minutes before they had both been vowing to give up their gun-slinging and settle down in the town as farmers themselves. It was this dream which seemed to motivate their odds-defying reengagement with the bad guys. So why the course reversal?

Well, one answer is that in the end, these “real men” realized they were just that, masculine archetypes who know at some level that they are unfit for the effeminate domesticity of farming and will never be fully satisfied outside a good fight. So the one temporary (and dubious) member of their posse returns to his agricultural roots and settles down, the four others die fighting, and these two ride off to further future do-goodery. “After all,” the audience is invited to wonder, “aren’t their services going to be wanted elsewhere? The world needs good cops, right?” But this interpretation misses the entire point of the movie and woefully demeans it in the process.

Who in this movie is a hero? Who is brave? Who is a man?

Although the answer seems obvious, it turns out to be exactly the opposite of what it would appear. And this isn’t idle speculation by some film critic me. Embedded within the movie is everything we need to solve the riddle, and solve it we must or risk seeing this as merely another reluctant-American-warrior-saves-the-day epic.

At one vital point in the film, the three young boys who (not coincidentally) have settled on Charles Bronson as their masculine idol come to him bemoaning their sad fate as the children of cowards. Their fathers, you see, have decided to cut a deal with the bandits in exchange for avoiding the risk of an all-out gun battle whose outcome is uncertain but will inevitably mean many peasant casualties. And so the boys want Bronson (the real man) to take them away from such a humiliating society. His response to their plea is swift and stern.

He smacks them around and adjures them to never call their fathers cowards, and then launches into a soliloquy contrasting the apparent courage of gun-fighting with the true courage of fatherhood. Their fathers, he explains, are the truly brave ones who make themselves vulnerable to the needs and the tremendous responsibilities of caring for their families. Gunslingers by contrast are cowards who neither attach themselves to anyone nor make themselves responsible for anyone. “You think I am brave because I carry a gun? Well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility! For you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do this because they love you and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage! Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee [that anything] will come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that. That’s why I never will.”

The clear implication is that the men who decide to lay down arms and swallow the bitter pill of looking weak or cowardly because it is the prudent thing to do are in fact the brave ones. Reinforcing this point is the earlier speech Brynner makes when Horst Buchholz tries to duel him in the bar, saying that it is the foolish pride of young men that leads them to die so frequently over matters of honor. Clearly, the pride of the Magnificent Seven isn’t much better in the end, and all the fine speechmaking about settling down in town afterwards was merely a persuasive ruse toughs use on themselves to reenter the fray. They would rather die (which most of them do) than run away and live to fight (or farm) another day. That their ego-drivenness happens to benefit the villagers in this case is mere good fortune.

So in the end, this is a film which actually inverts the standard thinking about machismo in an entirely Christian and family-values sort of way, even daring to reveal the adrenalin thrill-seeking behind the thin veil of faux heroism. In this way, the Magnificent Seven is in a far subtler precursor to something like “The Hurt Locker” than to any of the less honest modern “hero” films.

But having seen all of this, one significant question lingers for me…a question which isn’t just about which way to come down on assessing a historically important film. The question, if the film’s embedded morality is true, is whether all those men (and women) who deliberately refrain from having children, for all their sincere-and-responsible-sounding reasons, aren’t at heart just cowards unwilling to participate in the world’s oldest and most terrifying mission of courage: parenthood.

Say what?

As most of you know, I’m pretty good at giving people the benefit of the doubt whenever that’s possible. It’s an essential part of approaching others with charity and humility, in addition to being an obvious implication of the Golden Rule. But sometimes, well, there just isn’t enough room to do anything other than describe a massive problem.

Yes, I’m talking about yesterday’s daily White House press conference wherein Jay Carney now infamously claimed the Bible says, “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” which it doesn’t. But Jay Carney isn’t the story. The fact that one staffer, even such a prominent one, would attribute an aphorism from Ben Franklin to Scripture is purely uninteresting, precisely the sort of blunder we are in fact called to overlook or forgive. Besides, it’s probably the most common erroneous attribution people make to the Bible, so the fact that Jay did so doesn’t bother me a bit.

What flabbergasted me was the fact that the entire White House press corps didn’t catch the error. It took Politico several hours later to notice that the White House transcript issued for the event had noted the error. That means that there wasn’t a single reporter in that room yesterday with enough exposure to Christian teaching to recognize Carney’s mistake on the spot and call him on it.

See, Evangelicals pretty regularly complain that the media or the leaders of culture don’t really get us. Sometimes that’s a fair complaint and sometimes not. But in this particular instance, I know I could go to any Evangelical church in the country and expect at least half of the attendees to correctly know this particular piece of religious urban legendry. So what I’m guessing half of all Evangelicals know, not a single major news reporter in a room of a hundred knows. And for a group of people who generally will pounce like piranha on even the most minor gaffe, their silence symbolizes a tremendous disconnect.

The good news, such as it is, is that the White House itself made the correction. They may have been prodded by outside sources, but a self-effacing government is always better than the alternative. But the White House hinting at its own errors is still quite some distance from a coalition of major news sources first admitting and then rectifying their vast ignorance of mainstream American religion.

What is mine?

Due to the blessings of ridiculously generous relatives, our boys are regularly showered with gifts and money for Christmas, birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, Valentine’s Day, and “Third Tuesday Fest” which I don’t even think is a real thing. Ever the diligent family accountant, my wife keeps close track of each boy’s individual bank balance whenever they go out shopping for toys. Well, an interesting problem has started cropping up.

Whereas Spencer and Ethan (7 and 5, respectively) always have consumer appetites which exceed their savings, Sage (3) has the reverse problem. As the beneficiary of two older brothers’ toys (and a dubiously grown-up father with some lingering childhood artifacts), Sage luxuriates in a continuous toy surplus. Having no real needs, the result is that Dani never has anything to buy for him with his money. Since the others will always be older and passing their former toys down to him, this problem seems likely never to fade. But it raises an interesting philosophical-economic question.

If the flow of toys is all Sage’s way but the dispersal of money is equal to all three, why shouldn’t some of that money go to benefit the undersubsidized desires of Spencer and Ethan? To put the matter more politically, Sage is the undeserving beneficiary of our family’s societal infrastructure the creation of which was not due to any merit on his part. So, even though the gift money is his, it seems only fair to spread it back up the inheritance chain a bit.

Now, I understand that a country is not the same thing as a family, and I understand that confusion over this distinction is near the heart of most of the mistakes of modern liberalism. That being said, isn’t there something here to support the idea that maybe some factions of our current political landscape are slightly excessive in their demand that citizens of a long-established society unequivocally deserve to keep every last scrap of anything that comes to them?

The gold-digger in me

No one likes to see his own flaws. This is what makes Christianity so fascinating. On the one hand it says your flaws don’t matter so long as you have Christ, but on the other hand it then entices you to look unabashedly at those flaws and eradicate every last one of them. The beautiful importance of this process should be obvious since even a casual survey of common human practice reveals a robust set of tactics for hiding our ugliness from ourselves.

Consider what I’ll call defense mechanism number 84, in which we soothe away the awareness of our own moral decay by finding a more extreme version of ourselves, labeling it as a special category of evil, and then castigating it as some unimaginably sub-human horror. Today’s case study: the “gold-digger.”

This woman is despised by society because she marries entirely (or even mostly) for the purpose of financial security, perhaps hoping (with enough age disparity) to become a surrogate heir to an existing male fortune. Evil, right? Sure. But for clarity’s sake, let’s rephrase. Described less pejoratively, isn’t she really marrying for the purpose of getting something from her spouse that she wants? The problem is that she wants something from him rather than wanting him.

But when you put it that way, it seems rather ordinary for the simple reason that we all marry for this reason. We marry in hopes of sexual pleasure. We marry to get entertaining companionship. We marry because our beloved is pretty, or accomplished, or appealing in some other way and thus an effective proof to others (and ourselves) that we are the sort of people who can bag off such a trophy. To put it bluntly, don’t we all marry primarily for the most selfish of reasons?

Oh, sure, we love the other person, but would we marry them if they were uglier, stupider, meaner, and more irresponsible? We may say “for poorer…in sickness…and in bad times,” but we don’t cherish those possibilities, and we strive valiantly to date around them. So unless I’m performing logic poorly, this means we’re all basically gold-diggers at heart, a conclusion our security in Christ permits us to face without the risk of psychological self-destruction. But there’s a silver lining to this precious metals analogy. None of this is a surprise to God. In fact, one might even suppose He knew it some time ago. And in response, He crafted the institution of marriage.

Now as anyone knows, marriage has a funny way of exposing your flaws and then cultivating your undeveloped virtues. You see, although she might resist it, I suspect that even the schemingest gold-digging sexpot discovers during the course of her matrimony that this man is worthy of love and that she cares for him as a man rather than as a means. That’s just what marriage does to you. And although I may have married for what I would get from my wife, over the years I have learned how to gain the most joy from being married for what I can give to her. Yes, it’s a practice I am still learning, but I learn it every day from the God whose pattern I am following and in whose marital health club for the soul I am growing.