Baptism, Sexuality and Covenant

I once had a United Methodist pastor tell me that he had, after much badgering and cajoling by a parishioner, re-baptized her. He told me in clandestine fashion, because he knew that our Doctrine and Discipline are very clear: United Methodists do not re-baptize. Our theological statement on baptism, By Water and the Spirit (1996), makes this very plain, “Since baptism is primarily an act of God in the church, the sacrament is to be received by an individual only once. . . The claim that baptism is unrepeatable rests on the steadfast faithfulness of God. God’s initiative establishes the covenant of grace into which we are incorporated in baptism. By misusing our God-given freedom, we may live in neglect or defiance of that covenant, but we cannot destroy God’s love for us.” The pastor recognized it, knew it was not something that should be a part of our lives as United Methodists, and resolved for himself to not do it again. He determined to live within our covenant.

In the coming months, I will be going before the Board of Ordained Ministry in my Conference as a candidate for commissioning to ministry. I will likely be asked for my view on baptism and to articulate the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church on the subject. If I state that I believe we should be allowed to re-baptize, and make a solid case for such a thing, the Board will likely tell me that while my case for the practice is solid, a Wesleyan understanding of the sacrament of baptism does not allow for re-baptism. We see baptism as a sacrament and unrepeatable.

On its face, this might sound unjust. If a candidate came to me requesting re-baptism, how could I refuse a means of grace to a person genuinely seeking the services of the church? The church is open to all people, why wouldn’t the sacrament be as well? However, our theology of baptism is very clear. I would be required to redirect that person to the re-affirmational Baptismal Covenant IV. In the words of By Water and the Spirit again, “When we repent and return to God, the covenant does not need to be remade, because God has always remained faithful to it. What is needed is renewal of our commitment and reaffirmation of our side of the covenant.” That sacrament is not open to those who have already been baptized, regardless of that person’s heart-felt and vibrant desires.

Still, there are, in fact, other expressions of Christianity who do practice this, and they have articulated a theological case for it. The Board might suggest that, perhaps my understandings of Christianity would fit better in a Mennonite context, or, because I am a Wesleyan, maybe the Brethren in Christ denomination might fit me better. That denomination has developed a fusion of Wesleyan holiness theology with the practice of re-baptism and infant dedication. The Board would thank me for my time, my dedication to the process of ordination, but send me on my way toward another denomination which would fit me better.

That brings us to the subject of sexuality. The United Methodist Church has an articulated theological understanding of what acceptable practice is with regard to sexual expression. As with baptism, these are grounded in the historic teachings of the Christian church and can be theologically anchored in Scripture. This perspective is a part of the Covenant to which all United Methodists have committed themselves. As with our perspective on baptism, we have agreed, as a body, that there are doctrines and disciplines to which we adhere that will be common among us.

That being said, as with baptism, this is not the only perspective on sexuality. There are other denominations where different cases are made and different practices exist. The United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church allow same-sex weddings and ordain openly practicing LGBTQ persons.  Practices exist with theological statements to go along with them. These expressions of Christianity see things in a different way on sexual practice.

But, if I were a candidate for ordained ministry and came to my Board of Ordained Ministry articulating a theology on sexuality that differed from our shared United Methodist covenant, would my Board realize that my understandings might fit better within a different context? Would they suggest that I might be a better candidate in an Episcopal Church context, having a Wesleyan perspective but a more progressive understanding of sexuality? Or would they instead upend the shared Covenant, resist the shared doctrine and discipline of the church and ordain me anyway? Unfortunately, there are Bishops and Boards of Ordained Ministry who are doing just that, and it has torn the Connexion apart.

The United Methodist Church is broken because we have leadership that insists on forcing a denomination into a different expression of Christianity rather than adhering to our shared Covenant. To suggest that those who have a different understanding of the Christian faith find a more appropriate context is not ungracious. We would do the same thing with baptism, and no one would ever bat an eye. To suggested it with regard to understandings of sexual practice however, has shattered an entire denomination. Those who seek to force a change have spared no expense. Instead of recognizing that their views may be better suited for another denomination, they have dug in their heels. To what end? I fear to the end of destroying anything good left.

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