Open or Closed Baptism?
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
When I came to All Nations, I think I inadvertently changed a practice of the church (or maybe not??). If my memory is correct, before I came ANBC practiced closed communion where only those baptized were invited to participate in communion, and then I somehow assumed that ANBC practiced open communion and followed that assumption (so that anyone who says they’re a believer can take it).
Now I am uneasy with both positions. I usually say that I am 75% of the way to a closed communion position. Let’s think through this a little bit. Now we all I hope can agree that what makes a person a Christian is that God saves then. He changes their hearts, and basically simultaneously they repent of their sins and believe in the gospel. Partaking of communion is not salvation.
The question is, what is the relationship between baptism and communion? Tonight I was reading my old friend Gregory (from Nyssa), and I got to thinking about this question more. He mentioned a few times this idea of getting immersed three times (reflecting the three days of Christ’s burial). Can you imagine getting dunked three times? Every time gasping for air before you get plunged again? Truly baptism is reminiscent of the death of our old selves. But what then?
A typical explanation of baptism is that it is the initiatory covenant sign of being a Christian and communion is the continuing covenant sign of being a Christian. One signals entrance and one signals continued fellowship. I essentially affirm this, but I have said that I’m not sure I can defend this rigorously with scripture. But if I can’t rigorously defend it, I do think we can explain this position generally with scripture. Let’s take for example the Colossians passage from above. Perhaps it is best to distance ourselves from calling it a covenant sign (since in general, it seems there is typically one covenant sign for each covenant, and communion seems to be named more explicitly as a sign of the New Covenant). Instead, perhaps we could say that Baptism is our physical act that reflect the inner work of God and our saving faith. It is our first act of faith that publicly proclaims (through the church) the gospel that you have been buried with him in baptism and have been raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God who raised Christ from the dead. This passage in Colossians is highlighting that conversion experience (after having dwelt deeply on Christ’s divinity and his cross-work that made this salvation possible).
So should baptism happen before I partake of communion? I think the answer should be, ‘Generally, yes!’ Is it necessary? ‘Not necessarily.’ I think that there are a few problems with partaking of communion before being baptized. First, you are acting as the sole judge of your salvation without having made a public proclamation. This might almost be called the evangelical heresy. A person is not a Christian if they simply say, ‘I am a Christian.’ Instead, a person is a Christian who has repented of their sin and believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ who died in our place. And that faith is a gift of God and it is the fruit of God’s transforming power through his Spirit. To simply ‘identify’ as a Christian is how the world grants associations. There is no need of spiritual transformation, and we have been suckered into this weak identificatory trap. Expecting baptism before taking communion (should) ensure that a congregation has examined a person’s confession to hear, to know, and to see this transformation. It also means that this person’s confession is made public; baptism is the first public act of evangelism of a new Christian. Secondly, baptism generally should happen before communion because the general practice of the church is that baptism follows conversion. We talk of a spiritual baptism by the Holy Spirit, and our physical act of baptism in water reflects that divine reality. We have to admit that many of the conversions in the early church were extraordinary. The preparation for the gospel in their lives had happened over the course of many years through Judaism and through the ministry of Christ. The quick switch transformation that seems to be reported is not the whole story. God worked through many seeds over decades in the brand new church, and he still works slowly but surely through simply gospel ministry. And Baptism is this public proclamation that your life is bound to Christ. You are his and he is yours. Perhaps these musings help as you consider this with me.