How do you define a christian? Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

Part 1: Self-definition
Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

In most forms of christianity, there are various “ceremonies” which are often referred to as ‘sacraments’ by those of a high church persuasion. Sociologically, these can be good demarcation boundaries for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ In particular, the two I am thinking of are baptism and communion (the latter also known variously as eucharist, holy communion, mass or The Lord’s Supper). Personally, I’m not a fan of the term sacraments, as it is quite pretentious and off-putting for those who are not well versed in high church terminology. My own view is that church should be open and welcoming, including in the terminology used. The ordinary person on the street should not be given any reason to stay away from church on the basis that they don’t know what the “right way” is to behave and talk in church.

There’s an early christian handbook for new believers, which seems partly based on the gospel of Matthew, called the Didache [you can read the full text of the book here]. If you read down, chapter 7 has specific instructions on baptism and chapter 9 has instructions on communion. Both are very formal and ritualised but will be familiar to those who have grown up in many western churches today.

I recently read both the book itself, along with an analysis of it by a catholic professor, Thomas O’ Loughlin (you can read the review here). Although I think O’Loughlin missed the point somewhat, he does make an interesting observation when he says:

“any group which has a developed sense of belonging…; a firm sense its own history….; and a clear unifying set of ‘facts’….will have a very clear sense of its boundaries, and of who is within the group. Furthermore, it will ritualize [sic] the gateways in those boundaries so that the whole group have a badge of identity and newcomers know they have crossed a threshold.”

This is also echoed slightly by the christian theologian, Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope, when he says:

“I have come to believe that the sacraments are best understood within the theology of creation and new creation….God’s future has burst into the present and…somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of the new creation but actually part of it. Thus the event of baptism – the action, the water, the going down and coming up again, the new clothes – is not just a signpost of the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.” (emphasis added)

I do not think that the purpose of baptism and communion is to act as ritualised gateways, though I do think such the sacraments may be used thus. To draw an analogy, the raison d’etre of a book is to be read, although that doesn’t stop me from using it as a doorstop or as a spider-squashing device. The purpose of baptism is to publically declare one’s faith, but this is no way determines whether or not someone is a christian. If you accept the idea of baptism as a “gateway” then, when taken in a soteriological sense, this would mean that those who are not baptised cannot be part of God’s kingdom. I would argue instead that it is an indication(but not a definitive marker) that one already has become part of God’s kingdom.

One very interesting thing to note is that while we have a record of Jesus being baptised, and of John the Baptist doing the same to others, there is no record of any members of The Twelve themselves being baptised. They are instructed in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The book of Acts describes some of the early church leaders performing baptisms, yet I don’t recall seeing a specific incident where they themselves were baptised. The closest I could find was in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he uses the inclusive term “us” to describe those are baptised, implying he was shortly after his experience on the road to Damascus (watch this space for a further post on that topic, later this week or early next week).

This, of course, does not mean baptism is a once-and-for-all thing, which I suppose sets me apart (pardon the pun) from Calvinism where the idea of a secure election is sacrosanct. I have many friends who have publically declared their faith and been baptised only later to have left church life, renounced their faith or just plain old given up. One of the better writers on the web who has done this is Daniel Florien, author of the Unreasonable Faith blog.

In any sociological group, there is an important concept of “the other” – i.e. to define oneself not only by what you are, but also by what you are not. So I acknowledge it can be helpful to think in terms of those who are baptised as different from those who are not, or to consider those who take part in communion as having a different belief from those who do not take part. Yet I think it isn’t helpful to regard these as absolute boundaries.

There is a very obvious thought experiment one could do: suppose someone, having examined the evidence and reasons for belief, makes the free and conscious decision to “become a christian” (however they want to phrase this). They are on their way to publically acknowledge this by being baptised and on the way there they are killed. If we take Wright’s view at face value, then this person would not have met the membership requirement of the new birth. O’Loughlin’s view is not quite as harsh, but there would certainly be considerable doubt over whether they might be considered to be an ‘insider.’

It is also interesting to note that between them, the different stances churches adopt on baptism and communion are probably two of the main reasons for divisions and splits, which in my opinion is a sad state of affairs. I won’t go into any detail here, as the next section in this mini-series will be on denominations where I will be exposing some of my own prejudices on the matter.

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