We are considering N. T. Wright’s newly released Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God) – a massive and masterful consideration of Paul’s theology.
Beginning at p. 426, Wright briefly considers baptism as a symbol of Christian unity, starting with –
(1Co 12:13 ESV) 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
The primary point of baptism, then, is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual’, though it does, but that it defines the community of the baptized as the Messiah’s people. Those who submit to baptism are thereby challenged to learn the family codes, the house rules, the way of life that this community is committed to precisely because it is the family of the Messiah, the crucified and risen one.
(emphasis in original).
Wright is not denying that baptism itself does something. That’s not his present topic. Rather, he is more concerned with the impact of baptism, at a worldview level, on the Christian and the Christian community.
And, he concludes, baptism incorporates the convert into the body of Christ — so that the convert must learn to live as a part of this new community, according to its way of life.
He is most certainly not arguing the Baptist view that baptism adds one to the church but doesn’t save. He is simply not responding to those questions either way. Rather, he is looking pragmatically at how baptism works in the life of the convert.
And, as is certainly true in the Churches of Christ, a baptism (among many other things!) announces to the church that this convert has come to faith and made a commitment to Jesus as Lord. We properly consider someone who’s been baptized as a “member” and subject to the obligations that members must necessarily take on. And the baptized convert realizes that his baptism does these things (but not just these things).
And as Paul — typically — makes clear in 1 Cor 12:13, baptism is into the singular, united body of Christ. There is but one baptism and it is into the one church. Hence, baptism is powerfully a symbol of the united church.
Of course, the same is true of the Lord’s Supper. Paul only speaks to the topic in 1 Corinthians, and there he insists –
(1Co 10:17 ESV) 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
That is, the Lord’s Supper symbolizes the unity of the church. It’s not so much that there is only one loaf. After all, it’s unlikely that the church in Jerusalem, with thousands of members, all ate from the same loaf! Rather, “the loaf” is synecdoche for the meal itself. We eat at a common table; we share food; therefore, we are family and united.
But as was the custom of the day for families, they ate from a single loaf (to the extent the bread would go that far) and following the Passover tradition, they shared a cup (symbolic of family and a common heritage within Israel).
Of course, the church transformed the Passover so that the Lord’s Supper spoke of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the new covenant of Jeremiah 31.
Thus, at a very practical level, this common meal was intended to help build the church up in love. Hence, the Corinthians’ abuse of the meal was a great travesty and insult to the institution.
It is therefore my view that church leaders should lead their congregations to conduct joint communion services with other churches in town. This is, for a Church of Christ eldership, terrifying, of course, because it forces the leaders to take a position on a matter that is hugely controversial. Exactly.
We cannot claim to honor God’s command to be united unless we practice a visible unity. The Lord’s Supper is a travesty if it does not lead to a visible unity. And unity is not bounded by congregational lines.
The sad truth is that the Churches of Christ — and many other denominations, too — have improperly narrow views of who is and isn’t saved, going back to the error of the Reformation churches in which fellowship was only granted if you agreed on every single point of doctrine.
This is precisely the error that Alexander Campbell and the other Restoration Movement founders sought to correct — and that the later Restoration Movement leaders rejected — all the while pretending to follow in the footsteps of Campbell, etc.
Hence, we went from being a unity movement to a movement that divided over all sorts of strange things — including “grace/unity,” the Sunday school, one cup, and whether a church may provide financial support for orphanages. Strange … and sad.
We cannot put this error behind us — we cannot repent — except by showing visible unity with those who disagree with us on some things but not the main things — most especially faith in Jesus.