I read this article a week ago and found it troubling: (Elizabeth Bryant, “Europeans ‘De-Baptize’ In Growing Numbers, Church Officials Worried,” [Huffington Post, January 18, 2012]. Online available:
I’m not sure what I found more disturbing: the story of one man, Rene Lebouvier, from France, requested and was later granted “de-baptism” status by a local court, the sexuality scandals within the Roman Catholic Communion that served as the rationale for his petition, the growing numbers of people in Europe following suit (with an eye toward what is also happening here), or the pastoral and theological implications of what this might mean and how we might address “de-baptism” as a category of discourse.
I suppose on some level Mr. Lebouvier should be commended. He at the very least is honest about his convictions and the church’s actions that have caused him a grievous offense. He actually took the time to shake the dust off his feet before moving on. How many people have we lost in our churches by apathy more than any other cause? Many people simply drift away because of lack of interest or engagement. His convictions about injustice not only drove him to make the “de-baptism” request, but to follow it through the court system. His commitment and integrity are inspiring, even if the outcome is troubling to church insiders like myself.
If we are really truth-telling here, the church has a lot of justified blame thrown its way, and we should not run from it either. Collectively as the body of Christ, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, Charismatic, or other expressions we have not lived up to our own principles and values, and have often tried to look the other way when we have been the cause of injustice, cruelty, hatred and other sins against our fellow human beings. Ignoring our past and our failures will not make them go away. There is much to contemplate and debate about whether or not a secular court should determine the baptismal status of a church’s roster, but the court of public opinion is always fair game, and we as the church have every right to be convicted. Being honest and repenting of our transgressions is a good first step toward credibility. It takes time, effort, and relationship building if we are committed to being part of the communities where God has placed our churches and in the culture as a whole both locally and worldwide.
What I am most interested in is how we speak and relate theologically to the concept of “de-baptism” because it really is a challenging category. We believe, teach and confess that baptism is God’s gift to us – that joins us to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6). The issue at stake seems to me to be – can we lose that promise? We also believe, teach and confess that faith itself is a gift of God, given by the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, make holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. (Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism: With Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts, [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008] explanation to the 3rd article of the Apostles Creed, p. 16). Can we lose that gift? Can we deny that calling, gathering, enlightening, holy making and keeping?
Reading through the Lutheran Confessions, particularly the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord on the section on Election (Article X), it appears as though we can. When we trust ourselves over God, when we live lives not of repentance but of arrogance, when we believe our work and choices matter more than God’s work and choices on our behalf we stand in judgment, convicted of our sin and rebellion against God’s good and gracious will. That is troubling – at least it should be.
However, when we do trust God’s claim upon us, when we do live lives of repentance, when we do believe God’s work on our behalf is true, and gracious and merciful – we have exactly the things that are promised – new life, salvation, freedom, and a divine comfort against all our doubts and uncertainties. The way, ultimately to be assured of your salvation – is to realize it isn’t up to you at all. It is to grow even more dependent yet empowered by a reality that, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38).
We used to say that unbelievers were “heathens.” Thankfully we have cleaned up our language a bit (we probably still have a long way to go). Now we church insiders refer to those outside Christian faith as “unchurched” or “de-churched.” “De-baptized” seems to be one more label that exposes an ever-present problem – we tend in the church to want to know who is condemned as we are assured that we are among the saved. But God has more at stake than that. God is at work redeeming the world, and invites us to take part in it. The reformers stated:
“The Father wills that all people should hear this proclamation and come to Christ. And Christ will never thrust them away from himself, as it is written, ‘Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away’ (John 6:37). That we may come to Christ, the Holy Spirit creates true faith through the hearing of the Word, as the Apostle testifies when he says, ‘So faith comes from hearing God’s Word’ (Romans 10:17) when it is proclaimed purely and clearly. Therefore if people wish to be saved, they should not concern or torture themselves about the secret council of God – whether they are chosen and preordained for eternal life – with which the accursed Satan is wont to attack and trouble upright hearts. Rather they should listen to Christ, who is the ‘Book of Life’ and the book of God’s eternal election for all God’s children to eternal life (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 20:15). For he testifies to all people without distinction that God wills all people who are burdened and weighed down with sins to come to him, so that all may be given rest and be saved (Matthew 11:28).” (“Solid Declaration to the Formula of Concord” (1577), Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], Article X, p. 651.)
So what about the “de-baptized?” Engage. Listen. Take criticism. When you do respond tell the truth: that the church is full of sinners because sinners need the church, and the promises God offers there. Do not devalue people’s painful experiences or emotional scars. Do not devalue apathy or disinterest either. Listen some more. Share and enter into their pain and outrage. Listen again. Admit your own questions and doubts. Remind them that no matter how far they run away, God isn’t through with them yet, and welcomes them home. God isn’t through with any of us yet, inviting us all. We have a whole new world in front of us. We are baptized!*
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2)
*“But I am Baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” (Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” Book of Concord, Concerning Baptism, p. 462.)