CONFESSION OF FAITH IN A MIDDLE EAST CONTEXT
by Dr. Hanna Shahin
The discussion presented on this website on the significance of baptism to a follower of Jesus from a Middle Eastern background, leads me to broach another issue that is directly related. In many ways it stems from the discussion on baptism. This is about the public confession of faith.
In the discussion on baptism I said that what the faith of a Middle Eastern follower of Christ did on the inside, his or her baptism did on the outside. That is not to be taken to mean that there is a redemptive value to the act of baptism. What I mean here is based on the verse in Paul’s epistle to the Roman church chapter ten and verse nine where he says: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
To a Middle Eastern follower of Christ, baptism is that confession. Baptism is his faith made public. Or put in other words, what faith is to God, baptism is to others.
Given the fact that our faith is also unseen, some if not many among us have had their faith challenged by others. But we do not feel the pressure to do anything much about that. We do not see the necessity of making our confession of faith public. Faith saves. Not the public exposition or expression of it. Faith gives us eternal security. Not the testimony of our lives. We are content with faith. There is no need for anything else. But, as we will see, this is not necessarily the case with Middle Eastern followers of Christ.
Though these brothers and sisters have also experienced saving faith in Christ, the true confirmation of that faith is validated only when their faith becomes public knowledge, and realizing the price they may have to pay to do that.
It is one thing for such a follower of Christ to believe. It is another to publicly confess their belief. The issue ceases to be about their individual faith. It ceases to be about what went on in their hearts. It is as if this is only validated, even in their own hearts and minds, when they tell others about it. In most cases, baptism is the first step in that direction.
It is worth noting that the apostle Paul, in Romans 10:9, puts the confession with the mouth before the believing in the heart. It can be easily argued that such an order does not necessarily mean that an individual can be saved simply by confessing the Lordship of Jesus with his mouth. Such an outspoken confession indicates that something has happened on the inside. Words can only express convictions. They represent convictions. They cannot make them. An outspoken confession indicates a change of heart and a settled conviction of belief.
Yet by the same token, it can be argued that by placing the two conditions in the order he did, Paul was sending a clear message to those that received his letter. And to us! They could not content themselves with simply believing in their hearts. Their faith had to be translated into a public confession.
Such a confession in a Middle Eastern context is almost never cheap. It was not cheap in the days of Paul. If anybody knew that, it was Paul himself. Paul knew that firsthand from both sides of that divide. First as someone who exacted a heavy price from those that did make their confession public. Then as someone from whom a heavy price was exacted! Therefore, he knew well what such words could carry to his readers.
Having said all of that, it is quite probable that many young Middle Eastern men and women who ask to be baptized do not fully understand all that is involved in making such a decision.
There are two things that imperatively fall on us when it comes to baptizing followers of Christ from a such a background. First, that we only baptize adults, not children, unless those children have parents who themselves are followers of Christ.
Secondly, that we very openly and honestly alert and prepare those wishing to be baptized to the real risks involved in such a step. This is not a question about having qualms to follow what is definitely the teaching of our Lord in scripture. It is rather about taking responsibility for what we can bring upon others as we lead them to such acts of obedience.
The above should not take away from the sense of personal faith, boldness, and risk that each of those baptized has when they ask and often plead to be baptized. This is the case more often than not. And more often than not, those among us who were and are involved in performing baptisms, usually wait weeks and months, and hesitate before we embark on such duties. The reason is simple. We want to make sure, among other things, that those asking to be baptized have a good understanding of the risks involved. We want, as it were, to free ourselves from any sense of guilt if, and when some type of persecution comes their way. It is therefore a two-way and not a one-way street.
I have to admit that we cannot pass over these issues lightly. I know we cannot allow ourselves to draw people into a vital relationship with Jesus, knowing fully well what that could entail for them, and then simply withdraw. The same is true when it comes to leading them to acts of obedience or identification. The responsibility is as much with us as it is with them. The commission that was laid before us by our Lord does not disengage us from our responsibilities. For though we may be willing to take up that commission seriously regardless of the cost to us, yet that does not exempt us from our responsibilities towards those that we reach out to. These include our responsibilities to them of encouragement, of support, of prayer, and most importantly of building them up as true disciples willing to turn around and disciple others.