Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Believers' Baptism in the Disciples of Christ

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Believers' Baptism in the Disciples of Christ

Article excerpt

In light of the emerging theological convergence on baptism and growing ecumenical encounter, how has the thinking of your church's tradition developed over the past 50 years in relation to our understanding and practice of baptism?

In responding to this question that was shared with each person who would be making a presentation at this consultation, there are five significant developments I would identify regarding our current understanding of "believers' baptism" within the Disciples of Christ. Like other Christian world communions participating in this consultation, the Disciples have experienced a changing, and growing, understanding of baptism both in our teaching and in our practice over the past fifty years.

Basic Affirmations

Before exploring these developments, I believe it is important to name six basic commitments regarding baptism that have shaped our core beliefs and practice as a fellowship of churches within the Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council:

1. As Disciples of Christ, we have always sought to derive our interpretations of the meaning and practice of baptism from the understandings and witness of the early church as reflected in the New Testament.

2. Baptism is rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism represents incorporation into new life in Christ and entry into the new covenant between God and God's people.

3. Believers' baptism is the most clearly attested practice of baptism in the New Testament.

4. Disciples have valued and practice immersion as the mode of baptism that is a vivid expression of the reality that, in baptism, one participates in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ--where one's sins are buried, the "old Adam" is crucified with Christ, and those baptized are raised to new life in the power of the Holy Spirit.

5. Through baptism, persons are united with Christ and with each other in the one church of every time and place. Baptism is thus the basic bond of unity, and represents a calling to all Christians and churches to overcome their divisions.

6. There is an intimate relationship and link between baptism and the eucharist (the Lord's supper). The grace of God received in baptism is nurtured and strengthened by regular participation in the celebration of holy communion.

Developments in Our Baptismal Teaching and Practice

Development 1: Choosing unity over restoration

One of the significant developments that has shaped the whole life, teaching, and practices and ethos of the Disciples of Christ, including our understanding and practice of baptism, has been within our own Stone-Campbell movement in making the choice to emphasize unity over (or, rather than) restoration.

The Disciples of Christ are one of the churches (sometimes we refer to "streams") that have emerged from the Stone-Campbell tradition, which had its beginnings in the early 19th century in the United States, and stressed two basic ideas (or principles) that gave shape to our life and witness: a commitment to Christian unity, and a commitment to restoration.

The name "Stone-Campbell" comes from our earliest founders--Barton W. Stone and the Communion Revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell (father and son) in 1809 in Bethany, West Virginia. Each of the churches that claims the Stone-Campbell movement as its origins--the Churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (sometimes known as the "Independent Christian Churches")--will agree that unity and restoration were foundational concepts that gave shape and vision to their life. These churches are not, however, in agreement concerning the priority of these ideas in our movement, nor concerning the relationship which exists between the two concepts.

One of the ways to interpret our history and the various streams/churches that emerged from the Stone-Campbell movement is to look to the interplay between the two concepts. …

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