Baptism - Methodists - Part 1 - History

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Baptism - What United Methodist believe about baptism

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Baptism - Methodists - Part 1 - History

Introduction
John 3:5 “5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
Today I have taken a different course than what I typically follow for sermon planning and preparation. Recently this topic of baptism has come up and based on two settings, I realized my ability to articulate and communicate what baptism is has not been sufficient for my role as pastor. On March 6 before the board of ordained ministry, I was asked this question, what is baptism? I hit what I thought was the right highlights but the board members kept pressing me further asking for clarification on things that I found myself not able to answer clearly. By grace, I still passed this interview process but I was asked to review one of our sources for learning what baptism is within the Methodist circle. The book or booklet is called, By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism. This book helps to work through the many important facets of understanding what baptism is and what it does for both the individual and what it is for the church. While there is much we share in common with many other Christians, there are some significant and some minor differences in how Methodists view baptism. Today we dive into this topic to begin this journey of understanding baptism. Hang with me today, even though it is a history lesson, it is also the foundation for how we have arrived to where we are today.
History
While not everyone likes studying history, and it may seem odd to bring it up during a sermon, it is important to do in order to describe how we got to where we are today. Methodism has its roots from John Wesley and the Anglican church of the 18th century. For Wesley, there were two aspects of baptism to be understood and incorporated into the rite itself.
First, this is a sacrament - as defined on UMC.org - “Something consecrated or holy. Traditionally, a Christian ordinance manifesting and inward, spiritual grace by an outward, visible sign or symbol” What does that mean exactly? This is probably the same question you and many others have. Lets break it down further. Ordinance is what we in Methodism call a sacrament. This points to a religious ritual or service that God’s grace is made visible by this ritual. There are as mentioned in the definition signs or symbols which point to this grace. When we cover the baptism service in our hymnal you will recognize the signs or symbolism representing God’s grace at work before, during, and after the service finishes.
Second, baptism carries evangelical aspects to it. That is to say that it is also a Gospel witness or demonstration of the God’s witness to humanity of redemption and restoration. So if you think of it this way, baptism serves both as a service or ritual that demonstrates God’s life changing grace, it also at the same time witnesses to others of this same grace available for all.
Our history as United Methodists is a bit complicated but in short, for the purposes of baptism and this sermon, there are three influences that shaped us and where we are in this topic. The first as I mentioned earlier is John Wesley and the Methodist movement that started the Methodist denomination. The second is another church which merged with the Methodist Church back in the 1960s and had brought their views and stances on this topic. The third influence actually predates both of these in that a study was done over many years to examine Christian tradition all the way back to the early church. These three influence are helpful to understand once we get through the backstory on this topic.
First, lets understand the first influence of Wesley in the beginning of the Methodist church. There was a view as I mentioned earlier with John Wesley who viewed baptism as carrying both a sacramental and evangelical aspect to it. This included cleansing from original sin, that is from the sin of Adam and Eve that makes us prone to sin. Or put another way, the strong inclination towards sinning we find ourselves fighting against both as Christians and as non-believers. Baptism as God’s gift to humanity was to cleanse us from this curse. Over time unfortunately this view of a baptism as a sacrament faded for a couple of reasons. Our Methodist background is best summed up by the following quote from By Water and Spirit,
“Within the Methodist tradition, baptism has long been a subject of much concern, even controversy. John Wesley retained the sacramental theology which he received from his Anglican heritage. He taught that in baptism a child was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the Church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew. He said that while baptism was neither essential to nor sufficient for salvation, it was the “ordinary means” that God designated for applying the benefits of the work of Christ in human lives.
On the other hand, although he affirmed the regenerating grace of infant baptism, he also insisted upon the necessity of adult conversion for those who have fallen from grace. A person who matures into moral accountability must respond to God’s grace in repentance and faith. Without personal decision and commitment to Christ, the baptismal gift is rendered ineffective.” (p.1)
All this means to say is that God’s gift is that God cleanses from sin, brings us into covenant, adopts us as children that makes us heirs of the kingdom, and makes us born again. His point on the adult conversation later is that while as infants we are made from from original sin, as we get older we can also choose to walk away or reject the gift of grace bestowed on us as an infant or child. This is the sacramental nature of baptism that Wesley believed and instilled into the early Methodists.
First, because baptism required an authorized person such as a bishop or ordained elder, there was a lack of access for this ritual to be carried out. This may sound strange today because every church has a pastor but this was not always the case until the 20th century. Why you ask? Well, it was because laity, that is the church members, did everything at the church. They preached, they taught bible study, they led every aspect of the church business and service except in this area of sacraments, that is baptism and communion. There was a circuit rider usually assigned to a region who would travel from church to church for this purpose to make sure they had access to these sacraments often as possible but it may be once a year or twice a year only. Over time, the people viewed this as less important because it was inaccessible most of the time and was only on special occasions that it was offered. The laity then focused on the evangelical aspect of it as witnessing the life changing grace God uses to transform lives. They can preach and teach and witness to the effects of baptism but focus less on the sacrament itself because it is largely unavailable to them. The less there was a focus on this individual decision making. Over time the understanding of baptism, including infants became weakened and ambiguous.
There was a second influence which also diminished the sacramental view was culture shift. Here is a quote from By Water and the Spirit.
“Later toward the end of the nineteenth century, the theological views of much of Methodism were influenced by a new set of ideas which had become dominant in American culture. These ideas included optimism about the progressive improvement of humankind and confidence in the social benefits of scientific discovery, technology, and education. Assumptions of original sin gave way before the assertion that human nature was essentially unspoiled. In this intellectual milieu, the old evangelical insistence upon conversion and spiritual rebirth seemed quaint and unnecessary.” (p.1)
Returning back to the sources I mentioned earlier, there was the merging of two denominations to create the Evangelical United Brethren church. Their debates and revisions is summarize best by this quote from By Water and Spirit:
“Baptism was also a subject of concern and controversy in the Evangelical and United Brethren traditions that were brought together in 1946 in The Evangelical United Brethren Church. Their early pietistic revivalism, based upon belief in the availability of divine grace and the freedom of human choice, emphasized bringing people to salvation through Christian experience. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both Evangelical and United Brethren theologians stressed the importance of baptism as integral to the proclamation of the gospel, as a rite initiating persons into the covenant community (paralleling circumcision), and as a sign of the new birth, that gracious divine act by which persons are redeemed from sin and reconciled to God. The former Evangelical Church consistently favored the baptism of infants. The United Brethren provided for the baptism of both infants and adults. Following the union of 1946, The Evangelical United Brethren Church adopted a ritual that included services of baptism for infants and adults, and also a newly created service for the dedication of infants that had little precedent in official rituals of either of the former churches.” (p.2)
In some ways this debate set the stage for a similar debate with the Methodist church just prior to the merging of this newly formed denomination and the new church that would be the United Methodist Church.
In the Methodist church during the 1950s and 1960s also debated over this same area of understanding baptism. After debate over the subject and recognition of the loss of sacramentalism in the ritual itself, a return was made to recognize and restore this aspect of baptism. One key difference noted is that dedication to God which is what the ritual had turned into was only about what we gift to God and it missed the more important aspect of baptism as a sacrament which was recognizing and embracing God’s gift to us in baptism. The key difference between those were recognizing God’s role is the baptism and the gift given by God to the individual.
In the same vein that The Evangelical United Brethren and Methodists churches were debating and recognizing a need to restore the sacramental view of baptism so were other denominations around the world. Many ecumenical circles also sought to restore this view across denominations as well. Many of these circles also returned to earlier documents of he church including those in the apostolic age or the first few centuries of the church. This included examining tradition where tradition, scripture, experience, and reason arrived at this conclusion.
Today this is where we hold the view and belief that baptism holds both an evangelical and sacramental aspect. Next we dive into what these mean. What does Jesus mean when he told Nicodemus that he must be born of water and Spirit?
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