II. The One Family of God (Continued)

A. The One Family of God in Shaping Convicditons

1. Convictions Shaped by Baptism

Certainly few doctrines of the Radical Reformation are more conspicuous than baptism--it was the word that gave the Anabaptists, and later the Baptists, their very name. Baptism serves the purpose of defining the membership of the church, and that the church be comprised solely of confessed believers is closely tied to the house church conviction that church membership should be completely voluntary.

a. Baptism of Adults and Catechism

Of the various components of baptism, the most significant theologically is the house church conviction that it be administered only to adults, that it be administered only to confessing adults, and that it be administered only to informed, confessing adults. That this is a mark of the house church is documented as far back as the 1527 Schleitheim Confession, which makes baptism the subject of its first article: "Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance ...." A later Anabaptist confession is more concise:

Holy Baptism is an external, visible and evangelical action, in which, according to Christ's precept (a) and the practice of the apostles (b), for a holy end (c), are baptized with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, those who hear, believe and freely receive in a penitent heart the doctrine of the holy gospel (d), for such Christ commanded to be baptized, but by no means infants.

The clear implication is that believers' church protocol requires candidates to have been catechized prior to the performance of the rite itself. Candidates, in other words, must have not only reached an age of accountability, but also must have a clear understanding and appreciation of what they are doing; nothing short of a lifetime commitment is acceptable. That Paul agreed with fully informed, adult baptism is clear in a number of places in the text of Romans--in Rom. 6:17, "you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted," in Rom. 12:7, "if it is teaching, let him teach," in Rom. 15:14, "competent to instruct one another," and in Rom. 16:17, "the teaching you have learned."

b. Baptism as an Act of God

A second aspect of baptism concerns its function as a prophetic symbol, and is tied to the tendency of the house church to call the ordinance "believers' baptism." Even proper catechism cannot guarantee one's status as a believer; and believers' baptism will always include some form of witnessed confession of faith to attest to the conviction of the candidate. Even though the Jewish antecedents of Christian baptism saw the human rite that would change "the relation between God and the Israelite," the fact that John the Baptist's baptisms were always done by the acceptance of an invitation brought in the idea that the baptism accompanied a "change of heart." When placed into a Christian context, which understands conversion as a process that is always initiated by God, one must understand baptism as an act of God rather than the work of a human intercessor. Only God can "baptize ... into Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:3).

For this reason, the house church tradition understands believers' baptism as the rite of initiation of a believer into the local, house church fellowship, rather than transfer of grace or washing of sins by a human agent. Also, since baptism is administered only after the completion of successful catechism, it is a rite of passage from proselyte to full member.

Baptism as an initiation probably grew out of the Jewish proselyte baptism being practiced at the time, and with which virtually all of the Romans Christians who were baptized prior to Claudius' edict would have been familiar. That baptism might have any value as a means of"washing" sins is certainly not present in the text of Romans, nor is it in any way acceptable to believers' church advocates on the grounds that anything done by a human on behalf of another is an attempt by humanity to place God into one's debt (see Job 41:11, which Paul has quoted in Rom. 11:35). One can search Romans in vain for any recognition of priestly duties outside of those administered by Christ. Therefore, Paul's discussion in Rom. 6:1-14 must first be understood as initiation into the local church. The act of being "baptized into Christ Jesus" can only be understood this way; Fitzmyer sees the language of Rom. 6:3 as being an adaptation of an early Christian kerygma embedded in 1 Cor. 15:3-5.

c. Mode of Baptism

A third aspect of baptism is its mode, the believers' church community regarding immersion as the normative mode because that is the meaning of the word used in the original text (baptizo) and also because of the symbolism involved in the immersion process. Rom. 6:4 speaks of burial with Christ (being immersed completely under the water) and the raising of Christ (being lifted out of the water) with a symbolism that believers' church practitioners have understood as immersion baptism. The Schleitheim Confession contains a virtual paraphrase of that verse.

Actual immersion was not immediately practiced by the radical reformers. The initial (1525) baptism of the Swiss Brethren by Conrad Grebel was by effusion, but immersion quickly became the practice of house church fellowships as they attempted to conform more to the biblical model. That modern scholarship is by no means certain that the first century community actually made immersion the normative mode is quite beside the point. Those that shaped the believers' church worked from the New Testament as their witness to the first century community of faith, not the work of archaeology and modern scholarship. It is fundamental to an understanding of the believers' church that recovery of first century Christianity, as revealed in the New Testament witness, be regarded as an important conviction.

d. Conclusion

While Paul was not calling the local Roman churches to believers' baptism, because all indications are that they were already doing this, he was giving them a clearer understanding of the rationale for baptism. In doing so he was shaping convictions; he wanted them to appreciate the full depth of the meaning if baptism. In doing so, he was following the same track as modern believers' church practitioners.