This past June, during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in Greensboro, I had the privilege of attending a workshop led by Dr. Bill Leonard, one of my former Wake Forest professors. This workshop was titled “Take Me to the Water” and it was Leonard’s goal to revisit the Baptist tradition of believer’s baptism in a way more fitting for 21st century culture.
As always, Leonard was sharp and in his element, informally proclaiming a lifetime of knowledge and curiosity on the topic like an old-time revivalist preacher. At the conclusion of the session, after more than an hour of inspiring dialogue and story sharing between Leonard and the audience, I sensed that we all left refreshed, with a greater commitment to one of the more peculiar practices of Baptist polity and the plethora of ways our churches apply it.
However, as I have reflected upon Leonard’s workshop as well as some of the organic and civil discussions it has produced, I cannot help but feel that we Baptists have a much more difficult task before us in light of our current postmodern world than defining, understanding and practicing our rituals of initiation. While I believe with all my heart that our unique commitment to one another through the act of an intentional covenant community with agreed upon standards and entry requirements will always be a great source of witness for our movement, I think that a far greater issue for us to revisit long before we tackle that of baptism is the nature of conversion itself. Before we ask what baptism means and how it functions in the postmodern church, we must first revisit the various moments and processes of conversion and consider how we can extend the ministries of the church to our converted brethren, baptized and not.
Conversion has been at the heart of Baptist life since our beginning in the 16th century. Thomas Helwys described, in the earliest Baptist confession, his congregation to be a “compainy of faithful people” who have been “knit unto the Lord, and one unto the another, by Baptisme. Upon their owne confession of the faith. And sinnes.”
Conversion, made manifest by a confession of faith and sins, was the first marker of a Baptist church. While various Baptist groups differed on definitions of conversion, how one was converted and how one lived a post-converted life, all early Baptist churches advocated for a church made up of believers who had experienced a conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As we move deeper into the 21st century, sometimes one of the greatest deterrents from Christianity are our own theological shortsightedness on issues of conversion, who can be saved and what that means for their friends of other faiths. As Baptists we have the opportunity and responsibility to re-communicate the converted identity and what it means in a pluralistic society.
We can no longer work under the assumptions that we’re in and everyone else is out. Rather, we must channel openness to those with different expressions of faith, trusting that the Logos may be working in mysterious and no less revelatory ways in the other’s own soul. Although we certainly are not yncretists, we still must be hospitable and leave open the possibility that we’re much more alike than we had previously thought.
As we move into this new era of church life, we must acknowledge that conversion and faith are lifetime journeys and that not everyone in our congregation or greater community will reach the same conclusions at the same times. While at first this notion may be met with fear and uncertainty, it is a beautiful opportunity to practice the patience of congregational life, trusting that God alone is the judge of conscience. Such congregations allow for greater diversity inside the community of faithful and allow space where every individual is completely free to run, jump, fly or linger anywhere they feel lead by God on their own faith journey.
In the Gospel narratives, we see a Jesus who is unbelievably gracious towards those society has deemed unworthy while at the same time offering polemic criticism at the righteous who were expected to be the first welcomed into the kingdom. Time and time again Jesus offers parables that told of rich men inviting outcasts to their banquets, a loving shepherd who left the 99 and did not come back until he had found the one, and the lucky few who arrive to the job site late but still made the same wage as everyone else. If the 21st century church is going be serious about following the God of Jesus, it must understand that this God is best understood in creation as the God of love who welcomes all people, the good and the bad, into the kingdom.
We’re all on our journey home, and we should all interact with others in ways to aid them in their journeys, trusting that in the process they are also aiding our own. Believing that God’s kingdom is for all people, it is the occupation of the modern Christian to simply go about life seeking to become a participant in bringing that kingdom to pass, hoping and even trusting that one day, the kingdom will be realized by all.
Alex Gallimore ([email protected]) is pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.