This is the first in a series of six articles first published in Oikos. They are a simplification of John Yoder’s Body Politics Simplified – this time with a specifically house church audience in mind.
Our life together as a church is an important part of the good news we announce to people. This good news is much easier to find in a house-church structure than an institutional church. In each issue of Oikos, I will be discussing one of five important practices we find in the New Testament which mark the church as God’s people, living in the kingdom now. Baptism is the obvious starting point, because it is the practice which brings us together into one body. To follow are the Lord’s Supper, the giftedness of every believer, the open meeting and discipling /discerning.
Baptism brings together different types of people
In house churches, we are well set up to make baptism what God meant it to be!
For the early church, baptism had a social meaning. It meant entry into a new people – the church. Belonging to this new people gave the believers a new identity stronger than race or family. Different types of people who were once hostile to each other were brought into the same family. In Galatians 3:27-28, Paul puts it like this:
Baptized in Christ, you are clothed in Christ, and there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul says similar things in Ephesians 2:14-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. The point is that Christ has broken down the divisions between people. There is a new creation and we enter it through baptism. The ritual of baptism highlights the contrast between a believer’s old identity as part of an ethnic group and his or her new identity in Christ as part of the body of believers. Before baptism, we might have thought of ourselves as foremost ‘Australians’; afterwards, we start thinking of ourselves foremost as ‘Christians’. Our first loyalty is no longer to our country or race but to Christ.
The idea didn’t start with Paul. John the Baptist was challenged by Jewish authorities for baptising everyone who came to him in repentance – unclean Jews, tax collectors, perhaps even Gentiles. He responded by saying that God makes daughters and sons of Abraham by faith (Matthew 3:5-10). Jesus said the same thing in John 8, and Paul in Galatians 3. You no longer have to be born a Jew to be a descendent of Abraham. Now, anyone can become a descendent of Abraham by believing in Christ. The old divisions are overcome in a new people.
But many Christians lose sight of the way the church is meant to overcome divisions between people. Too often Christians encourage mono-cultural churches, designed to appeal to particular type of people. ‘It’s easier this way’, we think. ‘It’s more effective. It’s too difficult to bring together old and young or rich and poor or Lebanese immigrants and white Australians.’ And yet one of Paul’s missionary policies was to make Jews and Gentiles members of the same church, eating and worshipping together. Both sides criticised this policy. Many thought it was too hard; why go to the trouble? But Paul stands firm; it is part of the gospel!
We need to encourage diversity in our house churches by welcoming people from different backgrounds. It isn’t easy. It’s something the early church was always fighting about, this bringing together of Jews and Greeks. Sometimes it means giving up our precious customs, our sacred cows, our traditions; everything that is a stumbling block and a cause of division with our brothers and sisters. We might have to let people eat with their fingers at lunch. We might have to struggle to understand our brothers and sisters who don’t speak English very well. We might have to sing (with a smile) a hymn or chorus we can’t stand. We might find ourselves being friends with someone twice our age or half our age.
Sometimes we might feel like it’s not worth it – but it is; God tells us so! It is testimony to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It shows the kingdom breaking into a world divided along so many different lines.
Baptism is a commitment
Entry into the new people also means a commitment to the body, to its new way of life. This can be hard to see in an institutional church. Not so in a house church! When we are baptised, we should be committing ourselves to being accountable to each other. We are saying we want to follow Jesus and we want others in the church help us to do this. This can take a form of a baptismal pledge, something that dates back to the very early church.
Some practical steps
1. Encourage diversity in your house church. Be brave and invite along someone who doesn’t fit the mould. Celebrate difference in the church.
2. Explore baptism with your house church. This article is an adaptation of a longer chapter in Body Politics Simplified (from the book by John Yoder). You might want to read the full chapter for some more ideas about the social meanings of baptism.
3. Having talked about its meaning, you should look for an opportunity to put it into practice! Baptise anyone in the house church who hasn’t been baptised. Depending on how you want to do it, you might want to use the beach or a swimming pool or a tub. Conduct the baptism in terms of the social meaning of the believer’s new identity.
4. Be praying that this year a non-believer from a very different background joins your house-church family and that you have the chance to celebrate this with a baptism.