As someone serving in a denomination that does not baptize infants, and as someone who at the end of the day remains basically convinced by the best arguments for believer’s baptism as the normative mode of Christian baptism, I was compelled to reconsider the issue the other day when I observed in the Great Commission text (Mt. 28:18-20) that Jesus commands his followers to “disciple (v., imperative mood) all the nations,” and not, as most translations read, “make disciples of all nations” (see reflection on the Greek text of Matthew 28:18-20: “Make Disciples” Said Jesus Never“; for a sermon that addresses the issue: Disciple Is A Verb).
There are any number of implication that follow from turning the verb, and indeed the only imperative/command in this text, to the object of a verb that is decidedly not in this text. I think the wooden translation of Jesus’ command (to “disciple all the nations”) opens up support for the infant baptism position, because the participles “baptizing…and teaching…” aren’t modifying the object of discipleship but discipleship as such. In other words, the question is not What qualifies as a disciple? but rather What qualifies discipling? If the question is What qualifies a disciple, then the answer will have to draw a hard line between a disciple and not-a-disciple (which has no doubt contributed to the conflation of the definitions of “disciple” and “convert” in English parlance). That line, for many, is baptism. But if the question is What qualifies discipling, then the answer is, as in Matthew 28, baptizing in the name of the Triune God and teaching to obey all Jesus commanded. As such, the Great Commission should function to qualify what constitutes true discipling community (a church) and only derivatively to qualify what constitutes true disciple. Only Jesus can determine who is truly his disciple, or not (cf. Jn. 8:31). The church’s job is not to make that determination but to do what Jesus commanded to do, trusting that he will accomplish his will through it. He commanded us to disciple, not make disciples, and to do that by baptizing all nations in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all he has commanded.
In other words, it is clear that the Church must baptize people as a means of discipling people, but we are not given any formal criteria for baptizing people. We are only given a theological condition (later particularized by Paul) that ensures we communicate the Name of the God into whose life the initiate is being baptized, in whose life the Church participates, because it is from that Name the children of God are given their own–as children (cf. Jn. 1:12). The meaning of baptism is far more important than the mode of baptism. Baptism should thus be regarded a means of discipling, not a qualification of a disciple, and it’s essential meaning has to do with preserving and extending the (Trinitarian) Name of God from which the believing community and its members derive their name (re: identity): “baptizing them in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:16-20).
But I can’t help but think that perhaps the lack of specificity is intended precisely to be suited to the task of discipling “all the nations” (Mt. 28:19). Remember, this is at the dawn of the Church, a people God envisages consisting of peoples from ‘every tribe, tongue, and nation’, whose universal message of salvation comes precisely through the local Gospel of Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, Lord of all. The Gospel to all nations would thus need, it seems, an initiation rite that is just as translatable as the Gospel to all languages: indeed, the Word of God itself testifies to the Gospel of our Hebrew Lord who spoke Aramaic, whose source documents are written in Greek and will eventually be translated into every language on earth.
In other words, God seems to have done everything possible to situate the Gospel within a variety of cultural expressions (hence the “fullness of time” Paul spoke about was a time when Judaism had been Hellenized within an all-but-consuming Graeco-Roman culture) and to preempt our tendency to divide over secondary and tertiary matters of form rather than uniting over matters of content (or mode vs. meaning). We have the Creeds and the Canon to delineate the people called the Church, and therein we have the most explicit and emphatic command to be a united people as such. But how often has God’s vision of ‘all tribes, all tongues, and all nations’ been shriveled up to many sad and disparate partisan visions of our own. How often have we exchanged harmony for homogeneity.
Could it be that Jesus was not too concerned about contextual forms so long as they were adapted to adequately communicate the internal theological content? Could it be that to take too rigid a position on this matter would be to take the only position that is definitively in error, because to do so would encourage disunity among those who have been baptized into the Name of the One True God, an implicit violation of the only explicit condition given with the command to baptize?
So perhaps we across denominational lines could do our best to embrace the communicative value of, especially, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the two fundamental sacraments, which St. Augustine referred to as “visible words,” largely based on the way Paul uses them: as embodied Gospel communication (“as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11); “you were baptized into Christ’s death…” (Rom. 6)). The salient matter, then, is that we need to make sure whatever contextual forms we adopt in the administration of the sacraments, we do our best to adapt those contextual forms to their theological content in our effort to communicate the Gospel faithfully. This can be done well or poorly no matter what the age or agency of those being initiated. Being on the “right side” of such issues too often provides us with the excuse to do the “right side” wrongly, or often at least carelessly and uncritically. How many services have you sat through in which sacraments seemed, quite literally, meaningless?
So we would all do well to consider with extreme care ways in which the baptism ceremony functions for the whole community as a “remember your baptism” ceremony: if every baptism is an identification with Christ’s death and resurrection, every baptism is in essence “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) and is thus an opportunity to cultivate the corporate identity of the people of God as one Body with one Head, as well as the personal identity of believers as members of that One Body.
Imagine if the Church would begin thinking hard about understanding what we can learn from other positions across the ecclesial spectrum rather than thinking so hard about how to prove those other positions wrong. I’ll be continuing to reflect on what I can learn from the infant baptism tradition–it has been fruitful thus far. Lord knows the world has enough examples of people forming an “us” by pointing a finger at a “them.” May it not be so of the people whose Lord was broken so that we who are broken could be made whole, the people who have been taught to pray, “Our Father…” The Lord our God, the Lord is one. May his wholeness begin to restore our brokenness.