The Equality of Baptism is Only Understood When We First Understand the Gospel.
This seems like a HUGE no brainer, but in many circles like my own, the message of the gospel can get pushed aside in an all-out effort to get people to experience baptism. Or, contrarily in other traditions, the message can get lost in an effort to show that one need not be baptized to be a faithful follower of Jesus. How can we see the equality of baptism if we do not understand the gospel message it is founded on?
One the one hand, those of my religious tradition have long stated and believed that baptism was and is the most crucial step in a 5 step plan of salvation. Our focus has been solely on the “forgiveness of sins” passages along with “buried with Him” verses. Of course, it isn’t hard to see how we got there. There are plenty of passages and examples that speak of baptism in this way. But, has our laser beam-like focus caused some of us to not see other aspects of baptism?
I believe the answer is yes.
The same is true for those who are adamant that baptism is nothing more than an outward expression of something that has already happened on the inside. Certainly something is happening on the inside, or a person wouldn’t ever feel the desire to be baptized. The attempts to avoid the water may have also blinded them to what I consider to be the most foundational part of baptism: the gospel message itself.
The Equality of Baptism
The gospel is the foundation of everything a believer does. It is the bedrock of prayer. It is the structure of grace, mercy and forgiveness. It is the “amen” to all the promises God ever made. The gospel is what gives baptism the power and purpose it has. And, when it comes to equality, the gospel message has no equal among humanity. The gospel of Jesus the Messiah has a way of placing every person on earth on equal footing. The gospel message tears down the walls of division that human power structures have built up and sustained. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand the good news of Jesus….and baptism.
It was the message of the gospel that changed everything for Paul. The fervor Paul once had (as Saul) in keeping the distinctions he grew up with was replaced by the good news that Jesus is king! What once was a badge of honor to be separate and apart from the gentile world had now become a sign of rebellion and disobedience to God. Truly, the world of Paul was turned upside down and twisted inside out that day on the road to Damascus, the place he planned to go and exercise his religiously misguided fervor, terrorizing the Jewish followers of Jesus there.
It was there, on the way to Damascus, that Saul met Jesus.
It was there in Damascus that he was baptized.
It was there that everything changed and his way of understanding the Bible, life and God was forever altered.
The gospel, for Paul, was an all encompassing message that, if permitted, would change everything for everyone. The distinctions that had previously been understood had now gone away.
In fact, when Paul noticed that the apostle Peter was retreating back to the old patterns and divisions, he took this as an attack on the gospel message. He took it as an affront to baptism.
Paul tells us in Galatians 2 that he confronted Peter when he, due to fear of his “group” (the Jews), had withdrawn from the gentile believers. The basis for his confrontation was not a mere, “that’s not very nice, Peter” comment. It was a violation of the very gospel that they both believed in. It violated the equality of baptism. And Paul made sure that Peter and those with him understood what their actions represented…a rejection of the gospel message.
When we skip to chapter 3 (don’t skip…just read until you get there), we see Paul demonstrating the power of the gospel message as it is connected to baptism and the equality it brings.
“25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (NRSV)
Notice the divisions of the old patterns of thinking that Paul brings to the surface.
“…no longer Jew or Greek…”
For both parties, claiming the identity of “Jew” or “Greek” might be a something of value and worth holding on to. The Jews could claim their history and oracles from God as a sign of favor. The Greeks might claim their wisdom or power as a sign of being better or more deserving. But in Christ, in baptism, those antiquated ways of thinking are laid to rest. When you are baptized with Christ, the worn and tattered clothing of inequality are exchanged for clothing that shows no distinction based on heritage.
“…no longer slave or free…”
In both ancient and modern times, there are few distinctions greater than those that represent “oppressors” from the “oppressed”. The equality of baptism changes this, flipping it upside down. The person who is considered by the world to be “free” is now on equal footing with the one who is a “slave”. The world may look and say “owner” and “owned” or “master” and “slave”, but baptism, founded on the gospel message, washes away those lines and causes us to say “brother” or “sister”. Any other category that drives us to treat one another differently is counter to the gospel of Jesus.
“…no longer male and female…”
This is perhaps the toughest one to swallow. For, certainly (based on other passages of Scripture written by Paul) Paul wasn’t saying that in Christ, there aren’t women or men anymore. To think this is to be unfaithful to the writings of Paul.
I believe (it suffices to say that this passage has long been debated among scholars and normal people alike) that Paul is driving at the same point he has been driving at all along. The distinctions between male and female as a basis for division or oppression is counter to the gospel message of Jesus. It is counter to the baptism into Christ, where these walls have been torn down. Mistreatment of the opposite sex because they are the opposite sex is an attempt to take off the clothing of Christ and replace it with the ungodly clothing of sexism.
(for my book baptism, click HERE)
If you belong to Christ, then you are a child of God. You are a child of Abraham. You are and heir. You are a recipient of the Spirit of God.
If you fall back into the old ways, you are falling back into idolatry. You are worshipping a false god. You are retreating as Peter did, holding on to your dirty spiritual laundry instead of letting the clothing of Christ, the clothing you put on at baptism, guide your life and actions.
At the beginning of this blog, I stated that there are some who perhaps focus too much on one aspect of baptism and there are others who want to avoid baptism all together. Perhaps both groups should consider looking at this topic from a different angle, the angle of “want”.
I want a changed life.
I want a lifestyle that shows the world how life is supposed to be.
I want to show the world that there exists on earth a place where true equality can be found and experienced. That place is supposed to be the church.
As the world around us looks and longs for equality, it shouldn’t have to look any further than the congregation that is closest to them. The place where walls have been torn down. The place where our differences are honored, not dishonored. The place where the poor are honored with the rich. The place where those in power love and honor as family those who lack power. The place where men and women mutually respect and love one another. The place where we are all on level ground because of Christ. No one becomes an heir by their own status, behavior, race, gender or heritage.
The church should be the place where rich and poor, young and old, black and white, powerful and powerless come together and say, “We are one.”
It should be the place where this oneness is lived out every day in every way.
This is the equality of baptism.