Years ago I had a nemesis. My counterpart positioned himself as a white knight type of character and was basically there to harass anyone too fond of the religious tribe I was born into. He knew the group, he had been a convert and was now an ex-member, who classified us as “an ethnic church” dismissing what we said about our conversion experience.
Now that I’ve left the group there is no reason to continue to guard the ideas left behind and that includes the notion that my own participation had been completely a choice. There are doctrinal reasons for this denial of the obvious. I mean, if you believe that conversion is a personal choice, a rational and unbiased conclusion, then it really gets under your skin when someone says that you’re more or less a product of a religious culture.
We were, in our own eyes, a sort of remnant church. And then also had to deal with the awkward reality that many, like us, were so inbred that they had distinct genetic disorders. And, unlike our radical forbearers, we had no cultural relevance besides being the quaint old fashioned people who dressed like it was the 1800s and called this non-conformity to the world. So, obviously, the fact that everyone who shared our views happened to be genetically related was the source of cognitive dissonance.
It is for this reason that converts, the more exotic the better, were clung to and even given special treatment. We would say it was out of Christian love and yet some of this had to do with our own insecurities. They were our validation. They were the proof that we were more than just an ethnic cloister, more than a bunch of cousins of a particular European heritage claiming that our own brand of religion represented something universal and relevant to the times.
Those who come into this group, visibly from the outside, are often treated both with mistrust and also with a special adoration as well. They can never be fully accepted, they’re always both more and less than equal, coddled or spared normal rebuke from some to keep them from leaving, and yet also can sense that they’re just the tokens being used to prove a point rather than being treated as people. Sure, they may form real friendships with some, but they themselves are often misfits from whence they came and still remain stuck in no man’s land.
Now that I’m in a church that both spans continents and is mostly converts locally, I don’t have as strong an urge to collect tokens or evidence that I’m not just a product of my ethnocultural roots. I mean, sure, I still want to be right. But the pressure to bring the Gospel to all people is off my shoulders. The Church didn’t take long to spread into Asia or Africa, early Christians didn’t dress like Europeans from a generation ago either, there may be some times to chase down Ethiopian eunuchs in their chariots, and yet there’s also a time to acknowledge that the fullness of the faith has never left Africa.
Evangelicals, of all stripes, have this desperation for relevance. They think that they will win more converts by being more cosmopolitan, and by painting a picture of superficial diversity and inclusion, but Jesus said that his message would make the world hate us and even divide families. If we have the truth, if we know the truth, we are no longer bound to ethnic quotas and, instead, simply love people, especially of the household of faith, as we are commanded. Jesus preached to his own tribe first, his converts were mostly other Jews, like him, and that was perfectly fine.
Let’s talk about consciousness and infant Baptism, shall we?
My entire life, as a child of Anabaptism, I was taught a doctrine called “Believer’s baptism” (or credobaptism) which a) tied Baptism to church membership and b) teachings that Baptism requires a conscious or adult decision. The irony of that is that many Mennonites are Baptized as children, as a result of indoctrination, and not after an exhaustive search for truth that ends with Christ.
It makes sense, at one level, that a believer in Christ must be able to “count the cost” (Luke 14) of discipleship, right?
And yet, if we look at the Apostles themselves, were any of them actually ready when they were picked by Jesus?
No, if Peter had counted the cost, if he truly understood what it meant to enter the kingdom, he would never have denied Christ. The doubts of Thomas, and the betrayal of Judas, all point to a group of men who did not fully comprehend the words of Jesus prior to their Baptism.
#1) We don’t choose, we’re chosen and drawn to Christ:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. […] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
(John 6:44-45,63-65 NIV)
#2) We did not decide the hour of our first birth nor do we decide the second birth:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. you should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
(John 3:2-8 NIV)
#3) We were dead, dead people aren’t conscious to make adult decisions:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
(Ephesians 2:1-10 NIV)
By adding the requirement of adult comprehension, the teachers of credobaptism turn Baptism into a work and base salvation on our consciousness of the need. That’s rational, yet humanistic and not the process we see outlined in Scripture. Lazarus, dead for four days, did not have the mental capacity to listen to the command of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!” No, we understand that this would be impossible. And, likewise, when the Rich Young Ruler (asks “what must I do to be saved,” the final answer is not “sell all and give to the poor,” as some Anabaptists believe—it is “with man this is impossible, with God all things are possible.”
The real problem with this idea that Baptism requires a certain level of consciousness (and the invented concept of an “age of accountability”) is that it is totally arbitrary and would exclude those not fully capable of making an adult choice. I mean, truly, will we refuse to Baptize the mentally disabled because they can’t count the cost of discipleship? Should we have an IQ test? Maybe make applicants provide proof of their faith? At the very least, if this notion of Believer’s baptism is correct, and adult consciousness necessary to appreciate Christ, then should we cut this silliness of a baby leaping in the womb (Luke 1:41) out of the Gospel narrative?
There is evidence, in Scripture, of whole households being Baptized. But there is little to support this idea that one must reach a certain level of consciousness to be Baptized. It is really like some people think they’ve saved themselves and this misunderstanding of the significance of Baptism, starting five centuries ago, got turned into theological hubris. If Baptism is about being born again or spiritual rebirth—and our first physical birth was not a willful choice—why would we ever conclude that Baptism must be a choice, a matter of age or adult comprehension?
What is Baptism truly about?
Baptism is the start of a journey of faith, like birth, and something to accompany repentance.
But wait, there’s more…
Baptism and the Nuptial Bath
Up until very recently, being unfamiliar with Jewish wedding traditions, I would never have made the connection between Baptism and a Jewish bride’s nuptial bath. A friend of mine shared a podcast that dove into that topic (listen here) and the parallels seem to be very real. Upon further research, this ‘other” meaning is also something understood historically by the church and quite clearly implied in this passage:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
(Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV)
Baptism, in effect, is a symbolic representation of the start of this ritual cleansing that doesn’t end with the act. The Christian life is a life of repentance, of continually turning towards Christ. Our spiritual cleansing doesn’t end with the water of our physical Baptism either.
After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
(John 3:22-30 NIV)
It was directly prior to this that we have the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus where we get the phrase “born again” and where Jesus tells the perplexed Jewish religious leader about this rebirth “of water and the Spirit” like the wind that goes wherever it pleases. That is an indication of the mysterious origin of Baptism, that it is not something that comes about through our own rational thought processes.
So what is this “ceremonial washing” about?
And how does Baptism relate to brides and bridegrooms?
A few months back I worked on a truss layout for a religious building project, a Mikvah bath, and learned more about the Jewish ritual cleaning process and something observant women of that religion must do on a regular basis.
However, most significantly, it is something they do prior to marriage, which seems to be the connection between the quarrel about everyone getting this ceremonial washing and the response of John the Baptist.
The point and purpose of John’s ministry, like the pre-marital ritual washing of a bride when her groom arrived, Baptism was to make people ready for the marriage to Christ. It was not symbolic of the commitment itself—rather it was only a part of the process leading up to the commitment. So, sure, Baptism is the start of an important transitionary moment and yet our salvation comes through a life-long Theosis, through our being washed, sanctified, and justified by the Spirit of God until the time we depart this world.
One last point, and related to this nuptial bath tradition and the parallels to Baptism. Jewish brides did choose their partners nor the time of their wedding like we do. No, they practiced arranged marriage and the arrival of the groom was at the appointed time of his father once the preparations were complete. So again, where does this idea come from that the bride must choose the time or place of this meeting and bath? Wouldn’t responsible Christian parents want to prepare even infant children for their groom?
The expanded consciousness that comes through our prearranged nuptials with Christ can come after the ritual washing of Baptism—as it did for the disciples who didn’t know what they were being signed up for when they began their journey of faith.
There was a Baptism service at my church this past weekend and not the usual indoctrinated from birth teenager either. This was a married couple in their thirties come in from outside the Mennonite religious tradition.
We had Communion that night and the devotional was about how Jesus asked “take this cup from me” when considering the suffering he would soon endure. The cup we drink at Communion is a voluntary commitment to “take up the cross” and suffer with Jesus.
Baptism is a serious commitment. Jesus urged to “count the cost” before making a commitment to follow after him and his converts were adults. This seems in stark contrast to the evangelical emotional appeals for a decision and child conversion of the current conservative Mennonite culture.
Mennonites, or rather our Anabaptist ancestors, suffered persecution because they (among other things) rejected infant Baptism in defiance of the established religious order of their day and tied the ritual back to profession of faith. This is called “Believer’s Baptism” and a commitment made with keen awareness that it could come at a tremendous cost.
Baptism Age: Then Compared To Now…
We, as Mennonites, especially conservative Mennonites, take pride in our Anabaptist identity, we like to use it as something that makes us unique, special or separated and, put plainly, better than other Christian denominations.
But are we?
Are we much like early Anabaptists and Mennonites who came before us?
In my own church experience, as noted, the ‘conversion’ to Christianity often comes at a very young age and most are Baptized as teenagers. This is probably a reflection of a departure from our Anabaptist roots and embrace of more recent Evangelical innovations. We, unlike our predecessors, have pulpits to pound on, Sunday school hours aimed at children and Revival meetings with strong emotional appeals.
So, what about our Anabaptist heritage, how does *their* normal for conversion compare to our own?
“The estimated average age of baptism for 10 representative Anabaptist men and women, 1525-1536, was 36.4, with none under the age of 20, two between the ages of 20 and 29, four between 30 and 39, and four between 40 and 49.”
Early Anabaptist converts were often adults who could likely more fully understand the commitment that they made and knew it could be a death sentence. Mennonite converts today, by contrast, are often children, products of a careful indoctrination from a young age, taught to please parents and through ‘conversion’ gain access to the perks of cultural acceptance rather than lose it.
Which leaves a question of whether or not our child converts actually able to count the cost of being a disciple of Jesus or are they simply doing what is culturally expedient and trying to keep up with their religious peers?
Sure, we could say that our children (because of our great teaching and example) are more ready for a serious commitment than say, for example, a 16th century German peasant facing death, a safe assumption, right?
However, then we get to the topic of marriage commitment…
Marriage Age: Then Compared To Now…
As far as I can tell our Amish and Old Order cousins are doing just fine in regards to courtship and marriage—It seems to be business as usual for them. However, in the conservative Mennonite subset I am a part of there also seems to have been a shift away from marriage commitment.
When compared to prior generations we are waiting longer and longer to tie the knot. My great grandma, not uncommon in her day, married as a teenager, and my grandparents married just into their twenties like my parents did. But in my own church today there’s nearly two pews of those twenty-five or older who never married and hardly even dated.
The subset of Mennonite I belong to came under the influence of fundamentalist voices, men like Bill Gothard (who remains single) and others, that taught a courtship model. They have embraced an idea that basically turns a first date into an engagement. Friendship, let alone development of a romance, has become nearly impossible and it is because there’s this fear instilled in both genders to prevent even healthy interaction.
These fundamentalist Mennonites have also come under the influence of worldly entertainment. Despite our traditional dress and slightly more cloistered communities, we are exposed (through internet and other media) to secular millennial generation values. Mennonite fundamentalists, like their worldly counterparts, are postponing a marriage commitment longer and more never do tie the knot.
Could it be possible that we value freedom from responsibility over commitment and our temporal pleasures (like freedom to travel or other self-satisfactory personal projects both religiously or otherwise justified) over the risk of a long-term relationship?
But, more importantly, what does this reluctance to show romantic love say about our faith? Can we claim to be committed to God when we can’t even make a serious commitment to loving each other?
Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?
I believe our practices betray our inconsistency of thought and departure from the identity we claim as our own. It is cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, etc. We urge our children to commitment before they are able to count the cost as an adult, but then continue to mistrust that decision after they do so as if we do secretly know better.
First we often urge them to wait to be Baptized. We save that public confirmation for teenagers who went through a young believers class, which is nothing like the Baptism immediately upon profession of faith as was the case in the early church.
But then, even after that, we continue to mistrust the commitment when it comes to courtship practice. Mennonite suitors are not treated as an actual brother in Christ when it comes time to ask. No, instead they are treated as if a hostile invader who must prove himself worthy by running a gauntlet and can be instantly disqualified if he dare be too honest about his own imperfection.
We might ridicule Catholics and Lutherans for doing the opposite of us (for Baptizing their infants and then confirming them as believers later on) but should probably be careful not to throw stones from our glass houses. We should instead consider the beam in our own eye and ask why we are urging commitments that we don’t fully recognize or completely respect later on.
We tell tales of Constantine marching his troops through a river and calling them Baptized. Yet could it be that we are really only manufacturing pre-programmed religious robots? Sure, we produce children who recite back memory verses, spout out our dogmas on cue, and give all the right sounding answers with a smile on their face, but are as evil as the world at heart?
Adult Commitment Rather Than Premature Birth and Underdeveloped Faith
In Christian commitment (as in marriage) we should probably be encouraging our adults to commitment and telling our children to wait until ready. If a person is too young to commit to marriage then they are also likely too young to comprehend the true cost of discipleship and make a commitment to God.
As one who was physically born early (my mother’s labor induced rather than natural) there is clear danger in going ahead of schedule like this. I spent weeks in the hospital, in plastic box seperated from my mom because of a collapsed lung, and seemed to have developmental issues since as a result.
Likewise, encouraging premature spiritual birth could be to our detriment and leading our converts to struggles down the road. Perhaps we have become like Abraham who tried to create a fulfilment of God’s plan through his own efforts? Ultimately our children are not saved by our good parenting, frequent altar calls or courtship standards.
We need to return to a radical faith that emphasizes the cost of discipleship and encourages adult decision rather than urge premature commitments. Perhaps the our young adults would be less fearful of lessor commitments and more ready to sacrifice all for love than cling forever to their childish fears?
Whatever the case, there is something very special about an adult Baptism and a decision made by one more fully aware of the cost of commitment. May God bless Dan and Dina for their testimony of faith and their public commitment yesterday.