Is the Baptism Agreement true?

Written by Joel on July 4th, 2011

Today, The 28th General Synod of the United Church of Church was the final Reformed tradition to approve the “Common Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Baptism.” This agreement is the fruit of many years of dialog between various Reformed traditions: UCC, Presbyterian, Reformed Church in America, Christian Reformed Church, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The vote was not without debate at Synod. Those speaking against the resolution focused primarily on the language of the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” from Matthew 28. They argued for an alternate formula “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” suggesting that the traditional formula is gender exclusive. The agreement is clear that baptism using this alternate formula is not recognized by the Catholic Church nor by many Reformed Churches.

Those advocating for the alternate formula seem to ignore the Trinitarian problems it presents. These are not names, but functions in which all three persons of the Trinity participate. All Three persons create, redeem, and sustain. It’s a 21st century modalism, and it makes God impersonal.

Calling God “Father” does not mean we believe God is a male (though Jesus certainly is male – there are no two ways around it; Jesus was born a Jewish, middle-eastern man. Does recognizing Jesus’ ethnicity make us racist? Why would recognizing his gender make us sexist?). There are plenty of feminine images God uses – God nursing Jerusalem, Jesus wishing to gather the brood under wing; and yet Jesus calls God father.

It would seem that these alternate words are by no means rare in the UCC. One speaker against the resolution even went so far as to say “We shouldn’t care if other churches recognize baptisms preformed in our churches, we should only care if God recognizes it.” Are we no longer the United (and uniting) Church of Christ? What of John 17 which is incorporated in our logo “That they may be one”?

Those who spoke in favor of the resolution reminded us that Synod resolutions are not binding. “The General Synod speaks to but not for the UCC.” In other words, we can pass this resolution and yet not expect pastors to use the universally recognized formula.

There is my concern about this agreement. What does this agreement do, if pastors refuse to follow the ecumenical formula – not even for the sake of unity? Agreeing to disagree on these very basic elements of Baptism is no agreement at all – it’s a false irenicism. As long as the alternate formula is used, we cannot assume that a baptism preformed in all expressions the UCC will be recognized by the ecumenical partners of this agreement. So is this agreement true?

Ultimately this agreement did pass, 751 yes; 45 no; 13 abstain – that’s 93% approval. But ultimately pastors will continue to baptize in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” not caring if those baptisms performed are universally recognized or not. At the very least the agreement clearly explains how to preform a baptism which is recognized in the universal church (if that’s something you want).

I hope for this agreement to be true. I am sadden that it is not – at least not among what I hope is a small minority of UCC pastors who find gender inclusive language for the name of God to be more important than unity in the Body of Christ and the directive given by Christ in the Great Commission.


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