Rich Brown is the newest columnist here at saintsherald.com. He recently posted the following on his own blog, ForeWords, published at the Isaac’s Press Web site.
The letters attributed to Apostle Paul offer particular guidance to Community of Christ in its current struggles related to baptism and human sexuality. Of course, they need to be considered along with 2,000 years of Christian history and doctrinal development, almost two centuries of the same in Joseph Smith Jr.’s Restoration movement, and 150 years of the Reorganization.
Let’s begin with baptism. One basic statement stands out in the seven letters just about everybody agrees were actually written by Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon):
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” –Romans 6:3-8 NRSV
Clearly Paul positions the act of baptism as participation with Christ in being raised from “death” to “life.” Thus believers experience a symbolic death to the power of Sin and a rising to new life. Note what’s not in that passage: the idea that baptism washes away sins (meaning individual transgressions), the ministerial authority of the person administering baptism, the particular method of baptizing, any connection with an institutional church, and baptism’s relationship with confirmation.
Does that mean none of these other areas are important or connected somehow with baptism? No, it just points out that (1) Paul’s theological understanding of baptism was focused on participation with Christ and (2) he wrote his letters before the believing community had begun to institutionalize its practices. The second point shouldn’t be surprising, considering Paul’s belief that Christ’s return was imminent. If anything, it might raise a question as to whether Paul even felt the need for an organized institution.
By the time Colossians was written, that had begun to change. Many scholars believe Paul did not write Colossians, as well as Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy (for theological, textual, and grammatical reasons). I happen to agree with that assessment, but even if Paul had written those six letters they clearly came later than the seven so-called authentic ones. That doesn’t make the six “less scripturally authoritative,” just different. They reflect how the Christian community was evolving even by the end of the first century CE (and, with the letters to Titus and Timothy, more likely the early second century).
In Colossians, baptism takes on additional meaning besides being raised to new life:
“In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” –Colossians 2:11-12 NRSV
To understand how baptism is “spiritual circumcision,” it’s helpful to look at how Paul viewed physical circumcision, the original requirement for all male Jews. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant promise to Abraham and Sarah that their son Isaac’s descendants would become a special, chosen people who would bring blessings to all the world. Four centuries later, Israel received the Torah (“the Teachings” is a better translation than “the Law”). This included “requirements” beyond circumcision: dietary and lifestyle rules, Sabbath-keeping regulations, observance of annual festivals, and ritual sacrifices (first in a desert tabernacle and later in the Jerusalem Temple).
Christians, however, have typically viewed those so-called “requirements of the Law” as the way Jews earn their status as God’s chosen people. We can largely thank Martin Luther and other Reformers for that misconception. Without getting too deeply into the details of indulgences and penance in the 16th century, I’ll just note that Luther was having his own troubles with what he considered a “works-oriented” Roman Church. Then he read Paul’s Romans letter and had a great “Aha! moment.” That was exactly Paul’s problem with Judaism, Luther concluded, and the solution to both problems was the Christian doctrine of justification by faith (in which grace plays a key role).
Trouble was, Paul was quite happy and proud to be a Jew (a learned Pharisee, fanatical observer of Torah, and member of the best tribe, Benjamin). There’s no indication from his authentic letters that he ever considered himself a “non-Jew” even after the risen Christ encountered him and commissioned him to be “apostle to the Gentiles.”
Although circumcision and Torah commands weren’t required for Gentiles, Paul didn’t believe they were the way Israel (and the Jews) became “Chosen People.” That was due to God’s act of grace dating back to Abraham. Circumcision was the first marker or sign showing to the rest of the world that Israel belonged to God. In other words, these markers showed how the Jews kept their status as Chosen People not how they got in originally.
The Pauline concept of spiritual circumcision (whether authored in Colossians by Paul or a close disciple) follows this same line of reasoning. Baptism is a marker for Gentiles showing to the world that believers in Christ are part of the “Family of God” not the way they work or earn their way in. Furthermore, the Gentile’s adoption into this “family” was made possible by Christ’s perfect faithfulness to the covenant God made with Abraham (and recorded in Genesis 12) that all the families of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s “seed/heirs.
Baptism has no more literal power to “save” the Gentiles than circumcision did and does for Jewish males, but both show the world “whose they are.” As Paul wrote to the Gentiles in Galatia:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ…. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring [seed], heirs according to the promise.” —Galatians 3:27, 29
Had these new believers in Christ replaced Israel/Jews in God’s “family”?
“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”—Romans 11:1–2 NRSV
In fact, as Paul further explained to the Romans, God had kept a remnant of the Jews from accepting Jesus Christ as Messiah just so the Gentiles could be adopted in. And because God had caused the remnant to “stumble,” God would eventually work things out for the entirety of Judaism. That would occur along with Christ’s return, Paul believed. Paul never explained the details of how that would happen because (1) Christ was returning very soon and (2) it was up to God to rectify the situation God had caused. But here we are twenty centuries later trying to make sense of it all. Obviously, Paul didn’t have all the answers.
Paul also wrote that Adam had founded a race of humanity subject to the power of Sin, which ultimately led to Death (both physical and spiritual, the latter meaning an eternal separation from God’s presence). Jesus Christ, on the other hand, founded a new race of humanity in which the possibility of eternal life was restored because of Jesus’ perfect faithfulness (to the Abrahamic covenant) and his resurrection by divine power, which triumphed over all lesser “principalities and powers.” Sin and Death weren’t the ultimate winners, after all.
Today we commonly assume that baptism is an individual’s personal decision and act, although most usually celebrated in a public ceremony. This reflects the dominant (Evangelical) understanding that salvation is the result of individual, private (interior/mental) acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal savior. Yet Paul and his contemporaries didn’t think in those terms.
Salvation was connected to community (family, clan, tribe, etc.), indicative of a worldview that lasted until the 17th or 18th centuries, at least in what we call the Industrialized West or “developed world.” However, Paul’s first-century worldview remains commonplace in much of the rest of the so-called “developing world” even in the 21st century. Curiously, that’s precisely where much of the demand for changing Community of Christ’s baptismal standards is coming from.
Many people associated with Community of Christ (and in other denominations, it must be noted) have returned to Paul’s primary understanding that one is baptized “into Christ’s death and resurrection” rather than baptized “as individual members of the church by authorized ministers.” That is not to say baptism has nothing to do church membership, of course, just that sometimes it’s best to get to the core of an issue.
Next time: Paul and Homosexuality