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An Ethos of Baptism

Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (WordAlone board member; Professor of Philosophy and Religion, South Dakota State University)

September 8, 2006

photo of Dr. Bielfeldt One can't really be against mom and apple pie. It's un-American. Anyone against these cannot be one of us. We don't want anyone to challenge our deepest sentiments. What kind of person could be against mom or apple pie?

My words today might put me in the same position as one who comes out against dear old mom, for I want today to talk about baptism, the apple pie of Lutheranism -- especially within the ELCA. No Lutheran Christian could be against baptism, could he? Apple pie is to American sentimentalism as baptism is to its ecclesiastical counterpart.

Lest my readers flee in horror, I want to say at the outset that it is not the classical Lutheran theology of baptism that I am against, but rather a definite ethos of baptism that has developed within the ELCA. I am against the shared set of values and assumptions about baptism now operating within the power structures of the ELCA. I am against the way baptism now functions for us as a people. I am against the implicit meaning that it has developed in the context of our life together.

I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which baptismal theology is used in the ELCA. My discomfort is due to the fact that baptism has become entirely too comfortable. This original act that separated Christians from others, often at considerable discomfort, has become, for our tribe, an act of social cohesion offering substantial comfort. Almost every Lutheran has it done early in life, and once done, it brings significant rights and privileges within the ELCA. It is the initiating ritual of our tribe granting to us a unity together.

Increasingly, within the ELCA, the theology of baptism has been replaced by a sociology of baptism. What is important is inclusion within the tribe and validation of all of its voices. Baptism is the initiating ritual into a tribe which has become increasingly comfortable before its god.

In Revelation 3, the church of Laodicea hear these words: ". . . You are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked."

We must face the facts: many churches within the ELCA, and the ELCA itself, have become lukewarm. Being neither cold nor hot, the ELCA has been assimilated well into contemporary American society. People in ELCA pews voice similar sets of values as those sitting in other pews, or those not sitting in pews at all. We saw this in 2005 at the churchwide assembly in Orlando on the sexuality vote, the percentages of which closely paralleled American public opinion.

The ELCA is comfortable in America. While ELCA numbers are dwindling, ELCA giving is increasing. Its leaders voice reasonable concerns within the public arena about war and peace, poverty, racism, sexism and the social ills of contemporary American society. By voicing what is reasonable, the ELCA lives quite comfortably within mainstream America. (I assume that one can be either liberal or conservative and still be reasonable, that he still can voice the conventional wisdom of his political convictions, and still be mainstream.) Many ELCA members belong to their church like they belong to the Rotary Club. They come when it is convenient, and they try, when present, to muster some concern for service to the community and world. They assume that as long as one does not become too fanatical about religious things, the church can be a good and useful social institution.

In this context of Lutheran lethargy, baptismal theology becomes a tool of comfort. One is baptized into the ELCA, and one's values and opinions now count theologically by virtue of that baptism. For instance, in "Journeying Together Faithfully," the ELCA study on sexuality published in January 2005, it seemed that each voice in the conversation was to have equal authority on what the Christian tradition holds, or ought to hold, about the virtues and vices of homosexuality simply on the basis that each voice was a baptized voice. As the preaching of the law dwindles in ELCA pulpits, the church of the "baptized" is lifted up as "people of God." The fact of baptism has made us part of this people, and we can be buoyed before the Eternal because of it, right?

"But what can be wrong with that?" you say. "Luther was buoyed before the Eternal on the basis of his baptism. Did he not retreat to his bedroom in bouts of temptation, repeating the mantra 'I am baptized, I am baptized'? Surely, baptism is something objectively given, something that breaks through all of our subjective barriers. Why, you really are against mom and apple pie, Bielfeldt!"

But Luther strongly criticized an ex opere operatum view of the sacraments. This Latin phrase means "having been worked by the work." Luther was against any mechanical view of the sacraments that claimed that simply by performing an external work, something objective happens.

Simply put, Luther fought against any magical view of the sacraments, any view of them that would downplay the human involvement of faith in their doing. Luther was so averse to an ex opere operatum view of baptism, that he even floated the idea of infant faith. Even for children nothing external avails, if it is disconnected from living faith.

Unfortunately, when we talk about faith today in the church, people get very uncomfortable. While baptism is inclusive, faith is not so. While we can languish in the security that all of us are baptized, it is decidedly uncomfortable to realize that God does not bestow faith on everyone. There is nothing democratic about faith. It is never lukewarm, but is always hot. Its exclusivity makes it permanently out of political favor. Moreover, it is often hidden. We can see and hear the baptized, but we cannot do so with the faithful.

The entire WordAlone criticism of the ELCA comes down to this: Lutherans should again solidly emphasize faith and the considerable discomfort and tension it produces. Lutherans should not find their security under the sacred canopy of human ecclesial structure and community, but rather in the divinely-wrought gift of a faith, neither deserved nor earned. Put faith at the center of Christian life, and all the ecclesiological externals will find their proper place. Displace it, however, and the externals will move to the center, and we will dream that we are comforted before the Eternal on the basis of a human work, no matter how "ecclesial" is its origination.

While baptism is like apple pie, faith is the meat and potatoes of Christian life. Any comfortable church must listen again to the words of Luther on faith: "Faith is God's work in us that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13) It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith." Simply put, faith kills the relentless human endeavor to secure rights before God.

So let us not be misled by the sirens of inclusivity and languish neither cold nor hot under skies that appear friendly. Rather, let us recall again our plight before the Eternal. "By grace we are saved through faith, and not of ourselves -- lest anyone should boast." (Eph. 2:8)