Thursday, May 01, 2014

Rick Perry's Strange Baptism

According to a story first broken by the highly regarded online newspaper, The Texas Tribune, Governor Rick Perry submitted to baptism in the same stream once used by Sam Houston for the same purpose.  While the event itself was a private affair, its publication has inevitably resulted in fruitless and uninteresting commentary on his motives.  As for the author of this blog, the matter would not be terribly interesting, except for the odd understanding of baptism enunciated by those speaking for the Governor, and that would not be interesting, except in recent months I have heard from other quarters that these views may be becoming increasingly common among evangelicals.

While all major Christian groups baptize their converts with water, they significantly disagree over its proper subjects (believers and their children, or only believers), its mode (sprinkling, pouring, or immersion) and its primary significance (a means of grace, or a step of obedience professing faith).  These are significant divides just among Protestants, not to mention Catholics and Orthodox.

Nonetheless, while that is a lot to disagree about, both Protestants and Catholics have historically held to a consensus on some issues related to baptism:  it is a rite of initiation into the Christian community.  That means that baptism is something that occurs a single time at the front end of Christian experience, and it is the means by which a person becomes a part of the Christian community. Baptism is an initial sacrament or ordinance that is administered only once. Christians also share in common -- and disagree much about -- the Lord's Supper as a repeated sacrament or ordinance.

It is important to note that Baptists have historically agreed with other Christians on this issue, though others have criticized them for allegedly holding a different view.  The misunderstanding comes about due to the fact that paedobaptists will recognize a Baptist baptism, but the Baptist requires re-baptism of anyone who joins his church if that person was either baptized prior to believing or by sprinkling. Thus, even though I was immersed in a Baptist church, the Presbyterian Church that I eventually joined did not require me to be sprinkled -- Presbyterians consider baptism to be valid if it was administered by a proper church (for the most part, any trinitarian one, though some churches will additionally require that the church adhere to justification by faith alone) on a proper candidate (a believer or the child of a believer). Baptists believe also that baptism should ideally occur at the start of the Christian life, but they believe that the mode is crucial to the definition of what constitutes baptism, and they deny baptism to the children of believers.  Thus, in their view, baptism has not occurred if either the mode or the candidate was improper, and they, thus, require a person submitting for membership to be immersed.

With that background, we are ready to talk about Rick Perry.  Mr. Perry, by his testimony, has been a Christian for many years, so his recent baptism is not an indication that he has just come to faith.  Nor is his baptism an admission that his previous one was improper. Nor did it constitute a step toward joining a church (while the baptism was not a church event -- more on that later -- it was performed by the minister of the church where he is a member).

Rather, he was baptized, according to his spokesman, in order to "reaffirm his commitment in a way that holds great personal meaning.”

As mentioned earlier, I have recently heard of other churches doing this. Yet, baptism has never been regarded as being for this purpose historically by any major Christian grouping.  More importantly, there is absolutely no precedent for it in Scripture.  For anyone that regards Scripture as authoritative regarding Christian practice, this must be questioned.

Yet, there is no Scriptural warrant.  Baptism, the gentler sign of the new covenant, finds its Old Testament roots in the rite of circumcision, given first to Abraham as a sign of the covenant in Genesis 17.  We can be rather certain that none of the sons of Abraham were circumcised a second time in order to reaffirm their faith in Yahweh.  More seriously, the New Testament simply provides no warrant for using baptism in this way. As the Gospel spread, as described in Acts and the Epistles, baptism was administered to new converts and their households.  It was an initiatory rite.  Christians were urged to remember their baptism (see Romans 6 among many other passages), but it was never suggested that they should repeat it. The only arguable example of renewed baptism is found in Acts 19, involving those who knew only the baptism of John, but that is an example of converts being baptized because their earlier baptism was not Christian. 

There are other misunderstandings present in the article.  Another person close to the governor had this to say:  "Baptism is a very personal expression of faith.”  But, that is simply not true.  In both Old and New Testament, the sign of the covenant signalled inclusion in the covenant community -- inclusion in a community is not private.  Baptists would also emphasize it as a public profession of their faith, which by definition would not be a private matter.  It should also be noted that Mr. Perry's baptism appears not to have been a church function -- it is emphasized that the governor was accompanied only by a few friends and family and his minister.  As far as we know, his church only learned of it when reading about it in the paper.  Given that Acts, from the very beginning, associates baptism with being added to the church, this is very odd, indeed.

Before someone reminds me, let me acknowledge that these irregularities are not the end of the world. Worse stuff happens both in and outside of churches. However, there is a tendency here that believers should not ignore.  Churches and Christians cannot simply take the commands of Christ and make up what we want them to mean.  If Christ is Lord -- and he is -- then he is the one who defines the meaning of what he has commanded.