The waters of baptism refract the soul of a church. Although not always the case, to stand at the shores of a church’s baptismal waters is to peer deeply into its character. It is here that a church states what it believes to be most essential in its view of God, salvation, and itself as church. At the edge of baptismal waters what is said and what is done is a condensed version of these great visions, ready to be released by water.
That’s why baptismal questions are so important. These questions condense the essential visions of a church, turning them into a way of seeking agreement from a potential member on critical matters. Do you share with us, baptismal questions ask, the most critical, the most crucial, the great things that we believe hold this world together in God’s hand? To answer “yes” is not merely perfunctory assent—although it is often treated as such—but a statement of intent to plunge into the faith that constitutes the church itself.
Many current churches, true to their Evangelical roots, ask questions that encapsulate Christianity as relationship. Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Have you confessed your sin and asked for forgiveness? Have you invited Jesus into your heart? So widely used are such questions that many churches may wonder what else there might be to ask.
How about “will you obey everything that Jesus has commanded”? That’s a question that encapsulates Christianity as obedient discipleship to Jesus Christ. Instead of fracturing the Great Commission, such a question holds the Commission together in a holistic vision of Jesus’ intent. Make disciples, Jesus tells his followers, by going, baptizing, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20.)
Some historic churches, less concerned with Christianity as personal relationship (only) or as inward experience (primarily), have asked this alternative kind of baptismal question. Consider, for example, the questions asked about candidates for baptism in the early patristic document known as the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus: Have the candidates lived uprightly? Have they honored the widow? Have they visited the sick? Have they been thorough in performing good works?
These are baptismal questions, reflecting the soul of a counter-cultural, light-on-a-hill-type church. These are baptismal questions that have a vision of Christianity as obedient discipleship.
Anyone familiar with the Bible will recognize such questions as derived from the commandments of Jesus and through him to the larger prophetic tradition calling for faithfulness to justice, righteousness, and attention to the poor and marginal.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect to these questions from the Apostolic Tradition is the church did not ask them directly of the candidate. The church asked a third party! If a baptismal candidate, one did not get to speak for one’s self. The church wanted an independent voice affirming the candidate’s capacity to live in this Way. Can this person actually live obediently to the commandments of Jesus? In the moment of accountability found near baptismal waters, this ancient church wanted someone to speak for the candidate.
And so, what if these were the questions asked concerning George W. Bush? Beyond his having a “personal relationship,” beyond any decisions he might have made about inviting Jesus into his heart, beyond any confessing of sin and asking of forgiveness, has he learned how to obey everything that Jesus has commanded?
I wonder about these questions often since I was challenged about Bush by a non-Christian a year ago. “According to Christianity, he’s not even a good Christian, is he?” the woman sincerely asked me. I guess my answer would depend upon what sort of baptismal questions are most critical. Would the ancient church have baptized George W. Bush? In a church concerned with obedience to Christ, who would have testified for Bush?
I ask such questions not primarily to denigrate Bush but because I am worried that Evangelicals who rabidly support him may ironically be hurting the church’s Gospel witness. In interacting with non-Christians since that initial question a year ago, I can’t help but believe that unqualified, zealous support for Bush strikes non-Christians as hypocrisy. To put it simply, the Jesus about whom they tend to speak appreciatively is the Jesus who taught about living uprightly, honoring widows, visiting the sick, and being thorough in good works. According to the New Testament, this is a worthy vision of God.