Baptised into Christ

Everyone keeps saying that we are baptised into a faith. That makes things easy when we are considering if we can recognise the baptism of the Catholic Church. They clearly believe some things that are different, therefore they have a different set of teachings, and therefore they must baptise people into a different faith than our Coptic Orthodox one. Yes? No? So, we can’t receive their baptism? Yes? No?

It would be easy if this was what Orthodoxy taught. It would makes things both very clear and very complicated. If we could decide whether someone had been baptised into the Church by considering what they believed then that should make everything much more straightforward. Yes? No? Actually, it is another one of those perspectives in things that looks really traditional and simple. But when I look out over a congregation I can be very sure that most of the people gathered there, maybe even all the people, hold an inaccurate understanding of at least one aspect of the Orthodox Faith. Some of the people in front of me might have a very distorted understanding of Orthodoxy. Yet when everyone comes forward for communion they are not required to take a theology test before receiving Christ in the Holy Mysteries.

That doesn’t mean that right belief is of little importance. Indeed, I am convinced that having a wrong understanding of the Christian Faith causes problems in our experience and growth into the spiritual life. But it seems to me, when we think about it, that teaching and encouraging a right understanding of the faith is the responsibility of the bishops and priests in the Church in the first place, and a poor knowledge and experience of the riches of Orthodoxy is not usually the fault of the laity, but of those with the ministry of teaching. Indeed, when we realise that the Church is made of many people from very diverse backgrounds, educational levels, spiritual experience and understanding, it is not a surprise that our churches have to face the lack of a proper patristic understanding and knowledge of the faith in many places. This is why, to a great extent, non-Orthodox teachings and practices have become so attractive and problematic.

What am I saying? It is that even in our own community, we do not make theological accuracy the most important, or even a very significant, standard by which we determine if someone might participate in the sacraments. So, if we wish to adopt the view, which looks serious and Orthodox, that we cannot accept the baptism of Catholics because they do not believe as we do, then we would need to adopt just such as strict a view towards our own congregations. And even within our Coptic Orthodox Church there are priests who disagree on serious matters, and even bishops who hold opinions on theological matters which cannot be easily reconciled with Orthodoxy and with other of our. bishops.

What we have not done in our Orthodox community, is to insist that a difference of theological views and understandings immediately means that one or other of those who disagree must have ceased to be a member of the Church. Those Orthodox, in other places, who have adopted such a view, and it is not Traditional at all, have ended up splintering into smaller and smaller groups, becoming more and more sectarian, as even the tiniest theological difference becomes a cause for further schism.

There are priests in our own Church, let alone laity, who will disagree with some of the things that I write, and I will disagree with them. But our disagreement does not ever lead me to suggest that others are not part of the Orthodox Church. Yet the strict and not Traditional view, that because Catholics have some different teachings, they must be baptising into a different faith requires just such an attitude. And if we want to apply it to Catholics we must apply it to ourselves. And if we did, then we would find the Coptic Orthodox Church shattered into contradictory groups, each claiming to be the true Church.

Our faith is not a matter of accepting certain propositions about Christ. Such a view is in fact not very different from many Protestant groups. It is indeed in Protestantism that the idea that we are baptised into a faith has some meaning and expression. I have friends who were baptised as an infant in the Anglican Church, and were then baptised again when they joined an Evangelical Church. To a great extent this was because what is called baptism in the Evangelical groups is not a sacrament at all, but a means of a mature convert showing that they have accepted the Christian faith themselves and have asked Jesus to save them. I went though such an experience myself as a teenager with no thought at all that baptism should be a sacrament in which God performed something for us by the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, we were doing something for God, witnessing to our beliefs in front of other people. This might be commendable, but it is not baptism in any Apostolic sense, and it requires primarily a commitment to a set of values and teachings. There are even those who are baptised many times in modern Evangelical and Pentecostal groups because it is a way of making a personal statement and it is not a sacrament at all.

I remember passing one local Evangelical Church which has a poster outside saying, in paraphrase,  “If you believe that Jesus died for your sins then you are saved”.  This sounds great, but it entirely denies the union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit which is the heart and purpose of the Christian life. It makes Christianity a matter of believing things about God instead. If we are not careful then the language being used by some of being baptised into a faith is no better than that advertised outside this local church, and is certainly not Orthodoxy.

What beliefs are we being baptised into in such a view? If we were tested on them, what would be the pass mark? How would our children and youth pass? Or those without a detailed theological education? This is not Orthodoxy. This is not how our own Coptic Orthodox community has acted over the last 1500 years or more.

In fact we are not baptised into a faith but into Christ. As St Paul says, Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? And it is Christ who acts in the sacraments by the Holy Spirit. They are his gift to mankind, not activities that belong to a society or club, and which restricts them to those who meet certain membership criteria. From the earliest times the Church accepted the baptism of man groups that certainly taught error. These included even the Arians, those who did not believe that the Word of God was truly God. Our Coptic Orthodox Church accepted the baptism of the Chalcedonians, even when the controversy with them was at his height and we were facing persecution from the Imperial power. The Coptic Orthodox Church even accepted the baptism celebrated by the Church of the East, sometimes called the Nestorians. Nor was this a very long time ago, but this was the constant practice of our Church from the earliest times until the 19th century.

There was no sense that anyone was baptised into a faith. Rather, those who are truly baptised, are baptised into Christ. And to be baptised into Christ has never meant the same as holding onto an exact set of statements about Christ and God. Indeed, when St Cyril of Jerusalem was teaching those who were to be prepared for baptism, there were a great many things he didn’t teach them until AFTER they had been baptised. It was IMPOSSIBLE for them to be baptised into a faith, if we mean a list of things that are to be believed, because they had not been taught it all, and much of what the Church believed was kept secret from those who had not been baptised.

Much of what the Church teaches is still a mystery to many laity, and even priests, how can this mean that we baptise anyone into a faith? We do not. When we baptise someone, and last week I was reminded of the words of our baptismal service because I was blessed to baptise both a tiny baby on Sunday morning, and then an adult convert later in the day, we do not ask very much of the person being baptised at all. We ask them to renounce Satan, and to confess Christ, and then to accept a very short reference to the Holy Trinity and the resurrection of mankind, and the Church. Our baptism is not into a faith, but into Christ, in the name of the Holy Trinity, and for membership in the Church, the Body of Christ.

What is required of those being baptised into Christ is some measure of faith in Christ, not the acceptance of a set of doctrines, however important those also are. Nor does this mean that the Church in the past, or in the present, should accept any washing with water that is called a baptism. I have already spoken about my own Evangelical baptism, which had meaning, but since it absolutely was not a sacrament, and no one, including myself, believed it was a sacrament, it cannot be called the sacrament of baptism. Nor did the Christian group I belonged to have any connection with any expression of Apostolic Christianity. In such circumstances it seems entirely reasonable, and in agreement with the practices of our Fathers over 1500 years, that a baptism that was performed by a group with no connection to Apostolic Christianity, and with no recognition of baptism as a sacrament, should not be recognised as a sacrament, and so a true sacramental baptism into Orthodoxy should be required.

But the situation with Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox, is very different. And it is not different as a matter of my personal opinion, but as a matter of the practice of our Church from the 4th century to the 19th century. The question which our Fathers asked, was not, does this group have exactly the same faith as us, since clearly groups outside of our communion did not have exactly the same faith. But did this or that group intend to practice the sacrament and unite the one being baptised with Christ, and did the group have a Trinitarian faith, even if it were defective, and did the group preserve the episcopate and the priesthood. On this basis, for all of the centuries since Chalcedon, the Coptic Orthodox Church has not baptised or even chrismated Chacledonians, even though their teaching about Christ was considered heresy. Even priests and bishops were received in their rank. They were, essentially, considered as being also the Church, in some sense, and being Christians who held to error rather than those who did not have a Christian faith at all.

The only reason that relations with the Catholic became difficult, and we began to baptise those in Egypt who wished to become Orthodox, was because they unreasonably began to conduct hostile missionary activities towards the Coptic Orthodox minority, and then established a Catholic Church in Egypt. The response was to treat them as non-Christian. But it was a new approach, entirely out of keeping with 1400 years of unbroken Tradition, and introducing a new idea, even a Protestant idea, that we are baptised into a particular faith and not into Christ.

It is problematic to introduce St Samuel the Confessor as one who would object to receiving the baptism of Catholics. On the contrary, he was appalled that one of the worst of Chalcedonian bishops dared to start baptising Coptic Orthodox. St Samuel considered the baptism of Chalcedonians, even when their persecution was fiercest, to be blasphemy. He would never support those demanding the baptism of Catholics. He would insist that such views failed to express the real meaning of baptism. It is not a badge of membership in the Coptic Orthodox Church, but is the means of union with Christ in his own Body.

Within the Body of Christ there is no exact agreement between all. This does not prevent our experiencing union in Christ. There is no requirement for a certain theological education. The theologian is one who knows how to pray, not someone who knows a lot of things about God. There is even the possibility, as history shows us, of those who have been truly baptised into Christ, falling into separation from each other, or holding wrong teachings in some respect. But this does not, and has never, prevented Christ acting for the salvation of souls in his own sacraments by the Holy Spirit.

We are not baptised into a faith, and therefore we cannot deny the baptism of Catholics because we have some controversy remaining between us. There were much greater disagreements in the past, and our great Fathers – St Dioscorus, St Timothy and St Severus – all refused to consider baptising Chalcedonians. St Samuel the Confessor would not agree with those denying the baptism of Catholics – this was never his practice. There is no practical difference between the Catholic Church, with its errors, and the Chalcedonian community of which they are a part, and which was ALWAYS received without baptism or chrismation. We are baptised into Christ if we are baptised at all, and our Fathers teach us that Catholics certainly are.

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