The Waters That Divide
There's an interesting article on baptism by Andrew Wilson in last month's Christianity Today that begins by using the phrase, "the waters that divide." I'm not sure that I've ever heard that before (maybe I have), but it fits. Baptism is something that the church has been fussing and fighting over ever since we ran out of apostles. In fact, it goes back before then. The reason that Jesus bumped into the woman at the well in Samara is that things got hot for him in Judea because of baptism and he left for Galilee (John 4:1-4). We have argued over how to do it (immersion vs sprinkling), who can do it (the proper officiant), what words must be used when its done (the proper liturgy), the proper theological understanding of the person being baptized, and on and on it went and goes. Many have concluded that if someone was not correct in their baptism in every regard, then they are not to be regarded as Christians. One member of our tribe was baptized and rebaptized a couple of dozen times back in the day of Alexander Campbell! So Wilson is right on the money; baptism really has been "the waters that divide."
And that is ironic. Because baptism was meant to be a unifying act that both brings us together with Christ and with all others who commit to following Christ. Baptism is a symbolic act in which we participate in the death of Jesus on the cross. Paul tells those at Rome they can't continue in sin because they are baptized, "Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death" (Romans 6:3). We've come into a relationship with Christ that obligates us to a certain kind of living; we can't continue to live lives of sin.
But just as we are united with Christ, we are also brought to unity with others who have put on Christ. Baptism is Paul's point when driving that point home For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28, ESV)
Baptism proclaims our unity in Christ. It's not that we figure out the hard stuff on baptism, and then unity follows. No, God works in the mystery of baptism; unity is the work of His Spirit. Paul is dealing with the disjointed and dis-unified mess that is the church at Corinth, but somehow he comes back to baptism (1 Cor. 12:12-13).
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Unity is God's work through His Spirit—and so is baptism. We don't have to figure out every nuance in order for God to do His work. Sure, we must respond in faith and obey from the heart, but figuring out everything precisely in order so that all the dominoes fall just so—that's just above our pay-grade. We'll continue to learn more about baptism years after God has done his initial work in us. We are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), and His wind blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8).
We must see baptism as more than something to argue about and divide over. We must come to see baptism as the waters than unite.