WATER BAPTISM IN A MIDDLE EAST CONTEXT
by Dr. Hanna Shahin
The church has had diverse and divergent views on the issue of baptism. What does it signify? What value does it have? When should it be administered, at infancy or later in life? Is the sprinkling of water or immersion the Biblical example? What happens if a child or an adult is never baptized? These are some of the innumerable questions that have more than one answer, depending where one looks in Christian theology.
This short discussion is not about the modes or circumstances of baptism. Rather it deals with baptism in a Middle East context. In that specific context, Western Christians may have missed the point completely. The necessity of baptism is very important to new believers in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, we have a documented case in one country where two followers of Christ, not having access to a body of water to be baptized, ended up baptizing each other using sand! Incredible, but true! By what stretch of the imagination can anyone expect and accept that to be Biblical baptism!
Baptism to a believing Middle Eastern is first and foremost about identification. Identification with Christ and with the church! If circumcision is the sign of identification for a Jew and with Judaism, baptism is the sign of identification for a Christian and with Christianity. To someone from a non-Christian background, such an act represents a complete withdrawal from, and denial of one’s former religious background and traditional faith. An individual committing such an act is considered an apostate in his family, society and culture. The consequences can be brutal, and in some cases fatal.
To many among us, baptism is not the key to our salvation, and never was. It is all about faith, and always was. As the apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the Ephesians, we confirm that, “By faith you are saved through grace.” Missionaries to the Middle East did not teach their audiences and followers otherwise. At least not Evangelical missionaries! So how is it that Middle Eastern believers place such an importance on baptism? It seems they missed the point. Or maybe we did.
Middle Eastern followers of Christ have in their heart placed their faith in Christ. Just like us. But this fact of believing in their heart, is exactly where the challenge is. Faith in one’s heart is obscure, hidden, and surely unseen. Nobody could see their faith in the same way that no one can see ours. Why not keep it that way? For one thing it would be a lot safer for them.
But as many in the Middle East see it, having faith in one’s heart and keeping it there is just not enough. Paul says that much in Romans 10:9, “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.” James also deals with this issue of showing our faith at length in his epistle.
To a Middle Eastern follower of Christ, what faith did on the inside, his or her baptism does on the outside. His baptism is the signal that he is now publicly identified as a follower of Christ. Baptism is much more than a ritual, regardless of which denomination performs it. A believer’s life can literally hang on whether he or she is baptized or not. This is why I asked whether we have not missed the point altogether.
To many of us in the West, baptism usually does not go much beyond a personal testimony before the church, and is often used as a prerequisite to join that church. However, because of the spiritual and experiential weight of such a step for a brother or a sister from a Middle Eastern background, this public act of baptism does not end their testimony of inward faith. Baptism is his and her testimony every day! It is ever present before them, and before others. They will not be baptized again and again, but their baptism will be their very shadow. Their baptism is the testimony of their lives day in day out. Baptism is the outward expression of their faith by which they will be marked in their culture. In a Middle Eastern context, their baptism identifies them as now being followers of Christ.
Regretfully, for many among us in the West, this perspective is absent. Baptism is another church event. We rarely refer to it. And if we do, we mention it as an event in our personal history. But we usually do not mention it as a major life marker, saying, “This is how the course of my life radically changed after my baptism.” Baptism is not our everyday testimony. And nobody points a finger at us saying, “These are the baptized.” We may be called Baptist. Yet baptism for a Westerner does not have the same significant effect on our lives as it clearly does in the life of a Middle Eastern follower of Christ. And for these believers it has this importance not only once, but every day, and forever!
I know that at the time of my baptism, I was asked about the creed. The person performing the baptism asked me questions to check my understanding in the Scriptures. I was expected to verbalize my faith that, yes, Christ died for my sins, and that, yes, I had accepted him as my Savior and Lord.
I have since attended scores of baptisms, including our sons’. And in every case, it has been the same scenario. Either the questions all come out from the same book, or those that ask the questions have all graduated from the same seminary. It all revolves around making sure of the person’s good Biblical faith. But does it reflect a tangible life change in the one baptized?
It is interesting to note that in the Gypsy communities of Europe where Christ has been proclaimed and accepted, baptism is not exactly the routine ritual we have become used to in the West. After an individual from that community accepts the Lord, there is normally a waiting period of at least six months before that person is allowed to be baptized, and even then one has to prove that his or her life has changed. The church leader or pastor goes around in that person’s community and asks the neighbors about the changes that have occurred in this new Christian’s life. Has that person stopped beating his wife? Has he stopped drinking, or stealing or whatever else was his common practice in that community? It is only after enough testimonies that real change has happened and has been noticed, that such a person would be baptized. Is there something for us to learn here? Is baptism really about having the correct biblical understanding, about asking the right questions, and hearing the right answers? Is it not more about how and in what areas our following of Christ translates itself in our everyday life? Here again, it seems we may have missed the point completely!