disciples of christ

(UN)Resolved Baptism Rites

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By. J.C. Mitchell

This entry is part of the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from #Unco14 focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The topic for January is (Un)Resolved.

Why did John baptize Jesus?  There are many answers, but the question is how did Mark, Q, Matthew, John, and Luke, handle John baptizing Jesus in the Jordon? They clearly marked it as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and thus the passing of the reigns from the one in the wilderness to the one that would take on our culture’s violence through death itself. 

Having grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I found baptism mysterious.  It was not the ritual or the idea that it may have washed sins away, but because we referred to this important rite that happened before we could establish memories.  This ritual of entrance into Christendom required no participation.  I had issue with this when I found myself exploring my faith in the protestant world, which led me to the Baptist mindset that we of the Christian Church (DOC) uphold. 

I do not believe any human being can do anything to deserve the grace, the forgiveness, and the love that is represented by the water, but I felt it must be much more meaningful if the ritual was engaged by the one being submerged.  I was once invited to Cokesbury to be part of the brainstorming team for their new Confirmation Curriculum.  I was already a DOC Minister, but I had been working as an Associate Minister in an UMC church so they simply assumed I was of their tradition. It became evident when I spoke of making Confirmation something special, like Baptism.  And this is really the only difference, or at least should be, when we baptize.  For we uphold one baptism as a reflection of God’s Grace, not human action what so ever.

So today I uphold our tradition in the denomination I am ordained, but I am not resolved that this is correct.  It is true that we are open to accepting baptism from other traditions and we believe it is God’s work, but what are we saying by doing it at an age of consent? I am aware from baptizing and confirming children that the understanding ranges, but I have felt it essential to commence with the ritual, even if I was not sure they understood.  However, I am not sure how to commence with a person that is not able to profess their faith, for we even call it “believer’s baptism.”  We Disciples understand the submergence is due to the individual’s profession of faith, even if we uphold it is God’s work, not ours.

This is a concern for me because of my son, and my work at the Church Open Gathering, for I know great people that will not able to profess their faith.  I know that many of you pastors and Christians will say there are obvious exceptions and my son and my friends should also be submerged in the Love of Christ.  But that is my point, that they should not be baptized as an accommodation, or worse with an exemption by the elders, for we understand that the work is done by the Divine, not by the pastor, the church, nor the individual under water. 

Unless we truly profess that Baptism is the work of God alone, we may not include everyone as equally baptized.  This may be why Jesus joined us without a profession of faith.  I find myself unresolved about the ritual, but I understand it should truly reflect the Grace for All.  

Exploring Theology of Disability for LGBTQI Advocates

By J.C. Mitchell

I am looking forward to the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I am not very excited that I have to travel from Seattle to Orlando, but traveling alone I will get a lot of reading completed.  I am already creating my list of books I need to know, since I have not figured out osmosis, not from due from the lack of trying to sleep with a book on my chest.  I have a long list but you are welcome to add to the list as well, if you will seriously take this book I just read on your own list.

The book is The Bible, Disability, and the Church; A New Vision of the People of God, by Amos Yong.    In a sentence it is a book that carefully creates a Biblical hermeneutics of suspicion of the presumed ableist perspective.  I believe his method is commendable, especially by admitting in the preface that through thanking Kerry Wynn, “[…] to how deeply I myself was mired in a normate (able-bodied) worldview, and irony indeed […]” (xi),  There were a few places where I may have disagreed; for example, I uphold only the authentic Pauline writings and Yong is fine with all traditionally attributed to Paul.  You would imagine some differences between a Pentecostal Scholar who was born in Malaysia, and a Disciples Minister raised in New England, and that is partly why I recommend this book, because so many of the recent books I have read have been people of European decent. 

Some of you may know that the theology of Disability has been pivotal to my theology and it became very personal, as my son lives with autism and is very limited in communication.  However, I write this book review for those that are allies of LGBTQI persons, for I know those working with the theology of disability is quite aware of Yong’s work.  (I confess I was delayed in reading this 2011 work, but as I admitted, my reading list is long).  I do not know where Yong stands on the issues of LGBTQI, and I started looking for such information, but then realized that the truth I know and the truth I read will not be affected by his stated beliefs elsewhere.  Yes it may be harmful and even wrong, but we cannot only read theology of only those we agree with entirely.

The importance of this work is how Yong handles the scriptures that are and have traditionally been read to marginalize and oppress people with disabilities.  This is of course an issue for the LGBTQI community as well, but truly with less problematic scriptures.  For instance, Jesus says nothing about homosexuality, but the healing passages have been often used against people with disabilities.  And let me note that it happens by conservatives and liberals alike, but the normate worldview blinds one from their insensitive readings of scriptures.  Therefore, I believe seeing how a careful reading that is aware of the able-bodied assumptions will help LGBTQI advocates to do the same with the few scriptures used for oppression.

Not only is it important to be able to deal with the scriptures, but what I really believe people will get from  LGBTQI advocates reading this is how our normate (able-bodied) worldview influences our reading of the scriptures and thus our theology.  By exploring this assumption, it will help in explaining the assumptions of those that have been influenced by hetero-centric assumptions, while learning about another population that needs liberation. 

[T]here is nothing intrinsically wrong with the lives of people with disabilities, that it is not they who need to be cured, but we, the non-disabled, who need to be saved from our discriminatory attitudes and practices, and that people with disabilities should be accepted and honored just as they are. (118)

Go ahead and replace the words disabilities and non-disabled as you want, but know also by admitting you have been influenced by the normate worldview, as both I and Yong are also not immune, will help us all understand how to love the other and include everyone. 

Amos Yong Book On Rainbow Flag.jpg

Work Cited:

Yong, Amos. The Bible, Disability, and the Church; A New Vision of the People of God.  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 2011. 

Priesthood of All Believers

Some of my deepest rooted religious ideas come from my childhood. I bet this is true of most of us. It’s why I’ve had experienced ministry mentors tell me that if a church has a strong children program, those kids will likely come back to church later in life because of those warm feelings brought on by cotton ball sheep, fuzzy shepherds, and tender safety. I think my mentors have partly been right – the lessons about faith that we receive from our family, neighbors, mentors, and tradition help set the stage for how many of us come to understand and realize the importance of the spiritual journey, for better and for worse. In my case, my parents were intentional about the gifts they had to offer to others. They opened their home to kids who were in trouble and needed a temporary shelter through the local juvenile protection system. They spent their lives caring for babies, mothers, parents, and children in hospitals and schools. They lived their faith beyond Sunday mornings.

On the other hand, their understandings of religious traditions also shaped me. I can remember conversations with both of my parents about other denominations. Why are we different? Why do we do communion every week? Why don’t we go to the Baptist or Methodist church? I got plenty of answers, one to two sentences in length, which seemed to indicate, at least to my young inquisitive mind, that we went to church where we did because we had it right.

For example, the Baptists voted on new members. If the congregation didn’t like you, you didn’t get in. We believe everyone is welcome, so we don’t do that.

Or you can’t take communion at the Catholic church, because they don’t believe you really are a Christian. Our communion table is open, like Jesus would have wanted it.

The Mormons think it is okay for one husband to have many wives, and they believe in things that are not in the Bible. We believe only in the Bible and only in normal relationships.

The Methodists don’t own their building. Scandalous! And yes, if you were wondering, we do own our own building, not some overbearing denominational institution.

Our Stone-Campbell tradition had it mostly right, according to my family, though the fact that we Disciples had a general office and trappings of a denomination was borderline heresy (as my parents came out of an independent Christian background).

One of the values espoused over and over again in our tradition was the democratic process behind everything we did. It’s the priesthood of all believers! We all have a responsibility to lead our church! We all have a say in the process! We all can shape the direction that we feel God is calling us to go! We all get a vote!

When asked by a friend or stranger about my denomination, in quick bullet points, I usually include our “democratic flatness” near the top of the list as what defines us and what makes us so relevant today.

But despite how ingrained that idea is in my Stone-Campbell marinated experience, I have discovered plenty of holes in its fuzzy ideals over time.

In their book, Missional Spirituality, Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson suggest that the priesthood of all believers may in fact have nothing to do with a democratic/flat church. Did Jesus hold a vote when he sent out his disciples, two by two, across Galilee or commission them to go to the ends of the earth? Since when does a democratic vote decide the will of God? Aren’t there times when a missional community must do what is unpopular in order to be faithful to the gospel they proclaim and the God that sends them?

The flatness and democratic process of a congregation can be a gift, but it puts us no clearer to better hearing or following the call of God than any other tradition.

The democratic process is also not the grand idea it once was. Like other systems, democracy can get stuck. Democracy can exclude voices. Democracy does not make a government or institution immune to bad leadership or poor decisions.

Likewise, our churches may claim to honor the priesthood of all believers and still live out a deep divide between clergy and laity. And as much as I like being treated like an expert in all things theological, it can become an idol that prevents me from learning, growing, and responding to God. Imagine instead a community where every member takes their call as minister and missionary seriously, in their workplace, home, neighborhood, and church.

As we seek then to be faithful Christians and communities in our world, it can no longer be about perfecting our system or tradition. Sure, the tools and resources we have at our disposal make a difference. The way we as communities make decisions, include and empower voices, and come to common direction is important.  Just as the early church did (looking at you, Jerusalem Council), we will have to deliberate and choose a course into an uncertain future.

I am grateful for what I inherited. I am thankful for my tradition’s rich resources, strengths, and challenges. I am honored to have received such treasures that help guide me in my faith. I plan to pass many of them on to my children and those I have the privilege to mentor.

But I recognize that those gifts are not always relevant in the ways I think. Like every generation that has come before, I honor them but also seek to discover richer meaning, to cast my net into the deep, to discover the precious jewels hidden in a field of weeds. It is not easy.

Helland and Hjalmarson insist that a priesthood of all believers, when practiced, ”suggests a missional adventure for entire congregations who have direct access to God and who mediate God to their local communities.”

Not quite the cotton ball sheep and fuzzy shepherds some people may be expecting - but something worth living into and passing on to future generations all the same.