Thursday, April 21, 2016

Rethinking Baptism in an Open Table Theology


            In a previous post I argued for the adoption of a completely open Eucharistic Table. I made this argument on the basis of Jesus’ own practice of Table Fellowship. In the practices of most American congregations, at least Protestant ones, the Table is completely open. That is, rarely does a congregation bar a person from taking Communion. They may suggest that it is open to believers and may even suggest that children refrain from taking communion if they’re not baptized, but other than that it’s open. The rationale for this practice is more pragmatic than theological. We want to be nice and hospitable, but is that enough? As for me, I would like to have a theological foundation for my practice. I hope to explore these ideas in more depth over the next few years.  One of the components of this conversation is the role of Baptism. If you open the Table to all-comers, what does that do to Baptism, which has traditionally functioned as the entry point into the community and the prerequisite to receiving communion?


I would argue that the connection between Table fellowship and Baptism emerged in the second century, probably for good reason, but it doesn’t lie in the New Testament. Of course, silence is not the best evidence. Nonetheless, I have not found evidence that first century Christians required Baptism prior to admission to the Table. So, could Baptism function in a different way than we’ve typically understood?

I need to state up front that I am part of a tradition that practices Believer’s Baptism, though we also practice “open membership.”  By that I mean we affirm the Baptisms of those who come to us, even if they were administered differently than is true of our own practice. In other words, if you were baptized as an infant, we won’t immerse you before we accept you as a member.  Now, I was born into the Episcopal Church, and thus I was baptized as an infant, and later Confirmed. On that basis I would have been welcomed into full fellowship as a member of a Disciple church. However, before I ever became a Disciple, I was rebaptized, as a teenager, at a church camp. I did this because I was looking for a sense of confirmation that my new-found commitment to Christ was real. I wanted to have it sealed. This decision, this need for a sealing event in my spiritual life, led to an ongoing struggle with my own baptismal theology. I finally recognized that my issue may have had more to do with my Confirmation experience than my Baptism (I even wrote a lengthy article for Church History on 18th century Anglican Confirmation practices), but nonetheless I have thought often about the meaning of the church’s baptismal practices and theology.

What then is the connection between Table fellowship and Baptism, if we practice an Open Table? What role should baptism as a sacrament play in our faith journeys? I would like to argue that Baptism is that sacramental event that signals one’s desire to enter into a deeper covenant relationship with God and with God’s people.

In Acts 2, Baptism functions as the point at which one enters a redemptive relationship with God. Peter suggests that Baptism follows repentance, and is the key to the reception of forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit (though in Acts 10, the mark of the Spirit comes before Baptism).  In Romans 6 it is through Baptism that one identifies with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Paul connects the symbol of Baptism to our identity as people linked into Christ’s death and resurrection. To be baptized in this scenario is to have died to sin, and have been raised to new life in Christ. Now the reality is that in this earthly life sin’s hold on our lives remains present. I am by no means perfect in my discipleship or my life practices. I get angry. I say things I shouldn’t. I’m selfish. I can even be mean-spirited (hopefully not very often). At the same time, I am a new creation, to draw from Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 5.

Baptism is understood to be a once in a life-time event. We don’t need to continually go through ritual baths to purify ourselves, while the Table is understood to be an event that we participate in regularly. I would argue for weekly communion, at the very least. The Table then functions both as entry point, and as the point at which we are nourished by the Bread of Life (John 6). But once again, Jesus didn’t require the crowd who gathered to share in the feeding of the 5000 to be baptized before receiving bread and fish.

I’m still working this out. I don’t have all the answers. But, if we’re going to practice an Open Table, then we need to consider the consequences of this practice for Baptism. That is, if we’re going to affirm the sacramental importance of Baptism, then we need to figure out how it functions in our faith journeys. Baptism must be more than simply a naming rite. It needs to be more than simply a rite of passage into adulthood. For those communities that practice infant Baptism, they, like we Believer Baptist types, might need to strengthen their Confirmation practices that often parallel our baptismal practices.

With this brief introduction I invite you to consider with me what it means to baptized in the 21st Century. This will become, I believe, increasingly important since the numbers of persons in our society having no previous Christian connections begin to enter our congregations. Paedobaptist types will need to figure out how to embrace growing numbers of adults who haven’t been baptized as children. Believer Baptism types will need to address the difference between the experiences of our children who have grown up in church and those who are coming in for the first time. Parents can determine when a child takes communion. The same is not true for an adult!


What is the meaning of Baptism in an Open Table community? That is the question of the day!

4 comments:

John said...

While I believe is more than a symbolic event, it is a common perception that baptism is no more than that. The same symbolic understand also is also embraced by many people with respect to communion itself. Symbols have only as much significance as those who embrace them and those who witness them attach to them. We hope that the significance of the symbolism is perceived by the entire witnessing community. However we know for a fact that the members of the witnessing community do not have a common understanding of the symbolic significance of either baptism or communion. In fact, many discount the symbolic significance of these sacraments entirely, claiming them to be empty rituals - for them I suppose it is an empty ritual.

Ultimately the infusion of the value into both baptism and communion comes down to the theological effort made by each member of the witnessing community.

Personally while I can sacrament ally connect communion to baptism, (spiritual food for the spiritual person that we have become through our baptism) I think that there is much theological value to be gained by communion participants who have not been baptized. If we as believers accept the notion that the grace which God promises to us is infused into the communion elements then we as believers must also understand that such grace is not the exclusive property of the baptized believer but ought to be made available to everyone. Continuing in the same line of thought, it seems to make sense that if we believe in the grace of God which is contained in these communion elements, then we should not be opposed to allowing God to work through these elements to bring Grace and wholeness to the unbaptized.

We need to learn to trust in God's efficacy, after all it is not for us to convert but to care for, the work of conversion is ultimately God's work.

Robert Cornwall said...

John I'm in agreement about the Table being a means of grace for the unbaptized, and thus affirm the open table. I have written previously that the Table should be seen as the entry point in the modern context -- following Jesus' practice of Table fellowship. The question that this raises concerns the meaning of Baptism, which in Disciples circles has traditionally been seen as the necessary prerequisite to dining at the Lord's Table. Of course, baptism like confirmation, has become in most of our churches a marker of a rite of passage. At about age 12-13, we go through a class, get wet or hands laid on us, and then we're church members. What we're seeing in many churches across the board is that as soon as the young person goes through the rite of passage that's the last time you see them in church. Obviously this rite has failed to imbue a sense of connection with either God or church for many. Thus, it is necessary that we begin to rethink, retheologize our sacramental practices.

Joshua Jeffery said...

Having grown up in Churches of Christ and now being a Disciple, I view both the table and baptism more sacramentally. Theologically, I find Campbell useful, as far as his nuance that the blood of Jesus actually saves, and that baptism is a FORMAL washing away of sins. As such, he could see the unimmersed as Christians, even though they had not fully conformed themselves to biblical teaching.

However, unlike Campbell, I don't think Baptism should be used to fence the table. I allow my 11 year old son to take communion. He's a believer, but I don't think he's ready for baptism. However, I think that, as a believer, he should not be bared from the means of grace which is the Eucharist.

Bob, have you read John Mark Hicks on this topic? He has both a book on baptism and on the Eucharist...writing for a Stone-Campbell audience. There is much of value there.

Robert Cornwall said...

Josh, thanks for the comments -- especially since you've moved from Churches of Christ to Disciples. I'm learning something of what that means since I have two new members who are Churches of Christ background!

I've read the Hicks book on the Table, and he has a similar view on the openness of the Table as do I. I've not read him on baptism, and likely should!