Baptism: Elephant in the Room?


iven that I’ll only have one more period of Study Leave (if I’m lucky) before I retire – and given that I’ve never managed to set aside time in the course of ‘normal’ life to ‘read and write’ – why focus on the area of Baptism?

[If you’ve not read my intro page about the site, do go read it before you plow on…]

Do you want the good news of the bad news first?

The bad? Ok…

The Bad News

There’s a whole bunch of reasons why clergy in churches anything like mine – any church that anyway resembles an “evangelical” (of whatever flavour) local parish CofE church (and there are stacks) – tend to tiptoe around the subject of baptism. Here are a few in no particular order:

    • Preaching in a mixed economy – not the bumpy recession, but the mix of Anglicans, Baptists, Vineyard-ers, Methodists, Roman Catholics… and more, that our churches bring together. A few of the most committed and thoughtful Christian families in our church have chosen for reason of conscience not to have their children baptised. Clergy don’t want to open up a division.
    • Acknowledging the baggage – that reminds us that Baptism carries baggage… a lot of baggage. It represents some peoples denominational allegiance, it signifies for some a ‘line in the sand’ as to how committed a church is to evangelism and personal faith – or (on the other hand) to the nurture of children’s faith. Preaching on stuff that is so weighed down with pre-conceptions is hard work.
    • Dealing with confusion – it’s hard work, too, to preach on many of the NT passages on Baptism, because commentators (even those who seem to agree on most other stuff) so often disagree over what the original writers means. As a preacher, digging into passages where even my guides are arguing is (again) hard work.
    • Eating stale bread – the argument (and it has often been argument) between those who will baptise children and those who won’t (to put it in an unhelpfully simplistic way) has become stale in recent decades. A quick skim of some of the most popular books ‘defending’ paedobaptist theology shows that it can end up being simply a war of evidence about “did the early church baptise whole households or not?”. Given that we’ll (probably) never know for certain, it can feel a pointless exercise to join in.
    • Ducking complications – if we’re to take seriously the context and content of several of the key passages on Baptism as preachers, then we need to grapple with the Old Testament : with its covenant(s), with circumcision and what it meant to belong to God’s People and, most difficult of all, the relationship between OT and NT peoples. As a preacher, when these issues hove into view, we realise more than ever what a gulf there is between the world of the Bible and the world of our hearers and how little existing knowledge there is to work with… and, besides, we’re often not sure what we think of the issues ourselves.

That’s the “bad news” – there’s plenty, in other words, for me to get my teeth into as a preacher and a church leader (and on behalf of other preachers and church leaders)… but where’s the “good news”? Is there really any point in “diving deeper”? I think there is. More on that another day…

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