Monday, March 01, 2010

Are unbaptised Christians like de facto marriages?

Some people live together, sleep together, share finances, raise children together and do many or most of the things that married couples do (argue together, begin to look and sound like each other...), yet have not exchanged explicit public promises of commitment to one another. Their habitual actions mean that while they have never publicly made and received the promises that make a marriage (or those promises remain implicit or private), they are nonetheless acting (and are generally treated) as though they are in fact married. Hence, their relationship is a de facto marriage.

Some people repent of their sins, place their faith in Christ, love God and neighbour, participate in a Christian community and do many or most of the things that Christians do (argue together, begin to look and sound like each other...), yet have not exchanged explicit public promises of commitment with Christ. Their habitual actions mean that while they have never actually made and received the promises that make a Christian (or those promises remain implicit or private), they are nonetheless acting (and are generally treated) as though they are in fact Christian. Hence, are they de facto Christians?

Just a thought.


Mike W said...

hmm, and does baptism become a strange rite that might spoil the whole thing, securing a blandness of relationship, as marriage often appears in the eyes of defactos?
Should we start calling the church the 'partner of christ'?

cyberpastor said...

Throughout the bible story it seems to be no small thing to bear the name of the Lord and to do so publicly for the sake of hallowing that name. Perhaps people don't get baptised because. like an actual marriage, they are afraid that it might not work out...

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

If someone becomes a Christian and has not been baptised - well then they should get baptised.

Matt Jacobs said...

was the repentant criminal on the cross next to Jesus a defacto Christian?

Dave Barrie said...

I think the comparison with de facto marriages is a good one, as long as we remember that a de facto marriage is still a marriage in God's eyes.

There are a number of Christians who, for one reason or another, didn't get baptised at the time of their conversion and, now that they have been a Christian for many years, feel that it would generate a lot of confusion both inside and outside the church if they were to do it now.

A friend of mine has been a strong Christian for fifteen years and actively involved in leadership in her local church. Her public commitment to Christ is on display week in, week out, and she feels that to get baptised now would encourage others either to view baptism superstitiously or to think she has had some further conversion experience (which casts a shadow over the last 15 years of her faithful walk with Christ and her ministry).

I totally understand where she is coming from which is why I have offered to baptise her with a small gathering of close friends who understand her motivation.

I think my friend's feelings are very similar to those of a de facto married couple who decide to have a public wedding. They fear it will imply that their relationship has progressed to a new level and cast a shadow on their marriage up to this point. Again I totally understand why this couple would opt for a small wedding with close friends and family who understand their motivation.

Anthony Douglas said...

Ah, but does the public promise of commitment serve different functions in the two - the former actually creating a marriage relationship, the latter witnessing to the pre-existing converted relationship?

Dave Barrie said...

Biblically speaking, I think it is transferring your primary allegiance from parents to spouse and entering into a sexual relationship that creates a marriage (leaving, cleaving and becoming one flesh).

The wedding makes the couple's commitment to each other explicit and public (both very important) and it makes the marriage legally recognised as a de jure marriage by the government but in the eyes of God a de facto marriage is still a marriage.

byron smith said...

Dave - Yes, this was basically what I had in mind and thanks for the helpful illustrations in which pastoral sensitivity is required. The law still distinguishes (rightly, in my opinion) between de facto and de jure, while recognising (also rightly) that de facto is still a kind of marriage.

Cyberpastor - Fear may be one reason people hang back, but another is simple misunderstanding in assuming that marriage/baptism is a mere formality that can be dispensed with out of convenience.

Mike - :-)

OSO - Yes, that was what I was trying to say. Just as we encourage people to commit to de jure marriages because the public promises are important, so the promises of baptism are also important. But one difference (and this relates to Anthony's point, though is not the same as it) is that baptism is not constituted by the promises made in the same way as marriage (and nor are the promises as symmetrical), since I don't think the water bit of baptism is an optional extra (in the way that, say, a wedding ring is more or less an optional extra).

Matt - Yes, I believe he was. And Jesus' response illustrates Dave's point: de facto includes recognition in the eyes of God. But that doesn't make de facto equally desirable as de jure.

Anthony - They are not entirely equivalent. This is an analogy. See above.

Tony said...

Or - is the person who is Christian (that is baptised in the Spirit) but not by water like the person who gets married but did not exchange (and does not wear) a ring.
That is - the pledges and vows and promises have been made and received - but the symbol of those things (the ring) is not appropriated (let's say for concerns regarding Catholic overturns - which this person has rejected and repudiated).
They are truly married - they simply lack a sign/symbol that others feel is significant - but to them is not.

byron smith said...

Akenbak (Tony) - Acts 10.47: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”

Peter here assumes that baptism with water is obviously associated with the reception of the Holy Spirit.

We can discuss whether water baptism is merely a sign (as a wedding ring is merely a sign) but at the very least, water baptism is a sign received and commanded by our Lord (unlike wedding rings). So I'm not sure I buy your claim that we have equal freedom to accept or reject water baptism as we might over the use or omission of wedding rings. That is, whether or not an individual feels something is or is not significant is not the only (nor the most important) measure of its significance.

NB Not sure I grasp your point about Catholic overtones (I assume this is what you meant). Do you mean that you have rejected water baptism because of alleged (Roman) Catholic overtones, or that you have rejected the claim that water baptism has Catholic overtones, or something else?

Tony said...

The reason I am happy to say baptism is akin to the wedding ring – is that I am not wholly convinced that baptism is "commanded by our Lord" (which I assume arises from Matthew 28). Being a good Sydney Anglican allow me to quote from Knox:
"This 'great commission' of Jesus contains no reference to administering water baptism. The reference to baptizing is entirely metaphorical in line with other uses of the word by Jesus. It is a command to proclaim the news of the Messiah's coming to the nations to make them disciples of the true God, to immerse the nations into the revealed character of God so that their whole way of life is changed and their cultures sanctified (cf. Rev 21:24)." This occurs in a “book” by DBK on baptism – which appears in his second volume of collected works.
Thus, to not be baptised is not disobedient to the command of our Lord

Acts 10:47: Peter sees some sort of connection between water baptism and the holy spirit is clear - though why he makes the connection less clear. I think I would argue that here the visible act of baptism is akin to the visible demonstration of tongues – it is used by God to convince the Jewish Christians of the legitimacy of the Gentiles reception of the Holy Spirit and their incorporation into the Christian community. Thus, here, baptism is not about the reception of the Holy Spirit but rather membership (as it seems to be in John 4:1 and also Acts 19).

NB: "Catholic overtones": this was a reference to the rejection of wearing wedding rings (to show that there might be more going on than a simple dislike of jewellery). It was a minor point that I shouldn’t have bothered to include. Sorry for not being clearer.

byron smith said...

No disrespect to Knox, but he did hold a few decidedly odd views. :-)

And in this case, Knox goes out on a limb and offers a reading of Matthew 28 that would be considered by most commentators throughout history as quite unusual, to say the least. If I was going to say that Jesus did not command water baptism, yet received it himself, had all his disciples receive it and had his disciples perform it, (and that the early church universally preached and used it) then I think I'd like something a little stronger than an argument from silence or the observation that Jesus is able to use the term metaphorically (to refer to his death).

It seems pretty clear in Acts 11 that baptism is indeed about the Holy Spirit, though it might not be clear just what is meant by that "about", and I agree that it may well include a "horizontal" confirmation of the new Gentile Christians to their Jewish brothers and sisters. However, have we somehow reached a stage where such horizontal confirmation of co-membership in Christ by faith is irrelevant or unnecessary? I am not reducing baptism to merely this function, but I'd argue that it can, has and does continues to function as a marker of membership.

PS Speaking of Knox, Mike Wells (currently in 4th yr at MTC) has recently been blogging a few thoughts on the great man over here and here and here.

Tony said...

Undoubtedly Knox held idiosyncratic/original/out there views on a whole range of issues - having read (only some) of a biography about him - I think "eccentric genius" might be an apt phrase. Having said that - there is much that I am thankful for - theologically I am a Sydney Anglican (and given Knox's huge influence on our diocese) an heir of Knox.

The point that I think Knox (and if memory serves me correctly - Donald Robinson) make on the term baptism is that our history/tradition means that when we read the term "baptism" in the New Testament we instinctively read it as "water baptism". Both question the validity of this approach - given the metaphoric uses of the term, the primacy of Holy Spirit baptism (the baptism of Jesus) over against water baptism (the baptism of Jesus) and also the multiple uses of baptism in the NT. Whether you are convinced or not - their encouragement to go back and carefully re-read the texts aware of your own assumptions/presuppositions is undoubtedly a good thing.

The key question will be "did Jesus command us to be baptised?".
To that I think the answer is "no".
That does not mean I that I think of baptism as a "mere sign" or as "irrelevant and unnecessary" - it means though that I don't place more freight on it than I think is warranted.
Again - the wedding ring is (for me) a helpful parallel. That you wear a wedding ring - as a symbol of your love for your wife, a constant visible reminder of the pledges you made to one another - is a good thing.
That I do not wear a wedding ring any longer - says nothing about my views on my own marriage, your marriage or your wedding ring (and what it means to you). For some people once wearing a ring and doing so no longer might symbolise the end of their marriage. For me - it is simply that I have managed to lose two wedding rings - and neither my wife nor I can really come at the expense of buying a third.
Also - that I do not wear a wedding ring - has no necessary relationship to what I encourage you couples getting married at my church to do.

Mike Bull said...

Matt Jacobs wrote: "was the repentant criminal on the cross next to Jesus a defacto Christian?"

The structure of the New Testament consistently corresponds baptism with both the Laver and the Day of Atonement. The Veil and Laver are the waters "separated" on Day 2 to make a Holy Place for God's government, the sun, moon and stars.

Jesus was the High Priest between two goats. One "ascended" with Him through the veil as fragrant smoke; the other was sent, like Judas, to destruction.

In effect, yes, he was baptized. And he testified.

Mike Bull said...

akenbak wrote:

"The key question will be 'did Jesus command us to be baptised?'. To that I think the answer is 'no'."

Jesus commanded the disciples to disciple and baptize. They go together, surely. To refuse baptism is to be disobedient.

byron smith said...

I have just come across Barth's discussion of this question in Church Dogmatics, IV/4, 155ff. He has an excellent reflection upon the senses in which baptism is necessary. Basically, he says that there may be unusual circumstances that prevent someone from being baptised with water, but that these are unusual and that we are not free to take it or leave it as we see fit. However, the whole discussion is worth reading and can even now be found online here (you just need to scroll down to pp. 155-158).

Tony said...

My earlier post should have read (in part):

... the primacy of Holy Spirit baptism (the baptism of Jesus) over against water baptism (the baptism of John) ...

I am such a doofus!