Sunday, October 07, 2007

Baptism and culture

The following clip illustrates something I mentioned in an earlier post Baptism -- a "Western" activity. If we reinterpret many early Christian acts as only cultural items relegated to the distant past, why should we stop at baptism?

"Baptism pools (called mikvehs) were abundant throughout Israel in John the Baptist’s and in Jesus’ day. These pools pre-date the preaching of John the Baptist, who baptized Jews in preparation for Jesus’ coming. They were used in a ceremonial rite of cleansing in preparation for worship. To these people baptism symbolized purity. Any visitor to Israel today can still see the ruins of these pools at Masada, Qumran, Capernaum, Korazin, and Jerusalem. Is it too hard to suppose such washings were brought into Christianity as a cultural symbol, yet divine requirement, of full commitment? There doesn't seem to be anything transcultural about the act of baptism itself. People from other cultures would not automatically recognize the act of baptism as indicating purity or suggesting full commitment. Perhaps baptism was a divine requirement to a people who understood its meaning. If so, then what would God think of believers in today’s culture who failed to be baptized because baptism was not viewed in the same way?

"Someone might simply respond by charging that baptism is clearly stated in the N.T., and I agree. But then we must ask: If it is so clearly stated in the N.T., then why have a majority of Christians gotten it wrong, both in the past and the present? I don’t have an answer for this. I do know that we think foot washing is cultural, and so is greeting one another with a kiss. We reinterpret what a woman should be wearing in church on her head, and whether or not we should sell all our possessions and give to the poor. Many denominational church leaders think this way about baptism, and we think they are wrong. But will God actually punish someone eternally simply because they are wrong on this? The answer I believe that is the most Biblical, reasonable and loving is that he would accept/tolerate their ignorance on this issue provided they longed to follow him with their heart and sought to obey all that they knew God to command.
John W. Loftus is an instructor at both Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, MI; and Tri-State University in Angola, IN. Because of his articles “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation” (Integrity July/August 1995) and “Is Baptism Necessary--One More Time” (Integrity, Jan/Feb 1996) [posted online 10/13/2006], Great Lakes Christian College did not renew his teaching contract. In interest of full disclosure, note that Loftus had evidently previously believed baptism was necessary for salvation, and at the time of writing “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation” was combatting the idea. He is now a self-described atheist.

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