THE GOSPEL OF BAPTISM

Norman L. Parks

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:27-28).

No people have ever given more emphasis to baptism than those who embraced the Stone-Campbell-Shelburne "Restoration Movement" in America, and it remains so today with the Churches of Christ. Yet no group has more firmly shut its eyes to the deep implications of baptism.

Baptism stands in clear opposition to circumcision. In the old era circumcision was the great divider. It divided Jew from Gentile. It divided the free from the slave. It divided male from female. It trumpeted the great discriminations that have marked every social order of history race, status, and sex. The Jew could thank God that he was not a Gentile or a slave or a woman. Then came Jesus proclaiming a new era the impending kingdom of God. One entered it through the waters of baptism, which washed away all status, all racial barriers, all sex discriminations and established a universal priesthood of believers all equal and all free before God to serve him as their capacities and their gifts directed.

This being true, baptism is more than a command to be obeyed. It is more than a sacrament. It is more than a formal rite of admission. It is more than a ritual. Something revolutionary happens in baptism. It marks the death of the old life with its barriers and discriminations. And having died with Christ in the engulfing waters, the believer rises with him to a new life totally free of crippling social restraints of the old era. Left buried in the waters are those rules which elevate men over women, one race over another, social status over those less fortunate. Baptism is a healing of all human relationships. So declared Paul in his burning letter to the Galatians. Not just in heaven. Not in some far-off time to come. But now! You can't drag circumcision with all of its discriminations into the new order, he insisted, for that would be a denial of the revolutionary meaning of baptism.

How is it possible for a religious movement which has given supreme emphasis to baptism not to make it a part of its living experience? Why has it resisted the meaning and implications of baptism and shut its eyes to the new freedoms which baptism holds forth? In the Churches of Christ the old aeon prior to Christ and the new aeon of Paul's day are still merged. In the current secular world there still flourish the divisive, discriminatory, and exploiting values which torture its communities. This is the world of the unbaptized. The waters of baptism wash away these values and makes one a "new creature." It is tragic that the church in its worldliness and in its growing accommodation with the prevailing secular culture has reduced baptism to an initiation ceremony and dares not to challenge its members with the profound question: What does baptism mean to you?

It cannot very well thunder forth this question if it is concerned with putting up edifices costing millions of dollars in suburbia to gratify the pride of life and maintaining the church as a male-dominated institution rather than a living community of equals.

Paul drives home the fact that out of baptism flows equality. This the church is denying by setting up a hierarchical structure managed exclusively by males. Only males can be deacons and older women cannot be elders, even to the younger women, early Christian practice to the contrary notwithstanding. Males must head committees. Males must serve at the Lord's table. Only males can teach classes of mixed sexes. Only male voices are to be heard making announcements or delivering messages on the great truths of God. Women may be only in subjection.

Do these practices square with the values of Jesus in his personal ministry? Why did he engage Mary in profound theological discussion? Why did he brush aside a massive taboo with the Samaritan woman at the well? How was it that a woman was the first witness of his resurrection? What influences propelled believing women in the First Century to become teachers, prophets, missionaries, and deacons? Was it not that baptism was revolutionary liberating experience in which God's spirit was poured out on believers regardless of race, status, or sex? Was it not understood that through baptism liberated women were free to serve in any capacity according to their gifts and commitments?

Why did the names of so many noble women find their way into the history of the church of the Apostles? We may be certain that the full meaning of baptism allowed them to devote their energies and zeal to promoting the gospel. It is small wonder that in our day when baptism is presented as little more than a command to be obeyed, its significance has declined in the eyes of the world, and many Christians would be hard put to explain how baptism is a part of their daily experience.

The feminist movement in contemporary America is in itself a rebuke to the church. It is embarrassing to admit that the secular world appears more willing to abolish the distinctions of sex in work and service than the church. This cannot continue without deep injury to the gospel. It is high time for the Churches of Christ to restore baptism to its high place in the gospel and let Paul's great declaration ring out at every baptismal service.