Rethinking Baptism in an Open Table Theology

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by Bob Cornwall

 

Baptism             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 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?

point to ponder

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.

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!

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