WHENEVER I have to tell someone my denominational affiliation, I usually receive one of the following reactions: “I don’t believe it! You don’t fit the bill. You should join the Anglican Church” (or the Methodist Church, or whatever church to which the inquirer belongs).
My response to their well-meaning suggestion is that I happened to be baptised into an Assemblies of
God church. It is my spiritual home and will remain my spiritual home unless I am thrown out. One doesn’t think of getting oneself adopted into a “better” family just because one suffers some degree of maladjustment in the family into which one was born. One doesn’t just walk out of a bad marriage for a better one.
My explanation makes sense only if the inquirer shares certain traditional assumptions about marriage and family. Traditionally, the family is a basic identity marker. When one is born, one is given the family name which fixes the identity of the child. In a marriage the status of the man and the woman is radically altered and fixed. As vows are exchanged, both are transformed from the single state to the married state. In some cases, even the surname of the woman is changed.
The taking of baptismal vows as one is incorporated into the family of God involves a change no less radical — that is, if we accept the traditional understanding of marriage and family. But alas! the traditional views of marriage and family which used to serve as an appropriate symbol of our spiritual identity could no longer do so because in a postmodern world families and marriages are seen as the arbitrary constructions of the human will to serve one’s own private needs: if one doesn’t feel “fulfilled”, that is a good reason to walk out of a marriage.
The reality of this situation was brought home to me not very long ago when I was conducting a baptismal class at the church where I was the interim pastor. I was trying to explain to the candidates for baptism how important the baptismal vow is — a permanent commitment, just like the marriage vow — when it occurred to me that for many young people today, that is not the way they have experienced marriage, either their own or their parents’.
I suddenly realised that I had encountered a pedagogical crisis. In a world where traditional symbols of permanence lie shattered, where do we draw our analogies for life-long church commitments?
Perhaps we have been relying too much on traditional symbols to do the job for us. In a world of fluctuating morals, these symbols have lost their power to communicate biblical truths. And the church has also lost an important pedagogical tool.
It’s time to reverse our strategy: instead of using cultural analogies to teach church commitment, we need to begin with the key symbols of church commitment: baptism and communion. Baptism is incorporation into the church of God, in which we pledge our life-long commitment to Christ. Communion is the concrete expression of our shared life in the church, the family of God. These theological symbols themselves must now be the starting point for teaching commitment.
But for this new pedagogy to be effective, the appropriate theological symbols must be deeply ingrained into the church’s collective consciousness. The ancient church did this through the catechism. Before a person was baptised, he or she would be put through what is called the catechumenate, which consisted of about a year of rigorous indoctrination. The catechumenate not only teaches important doctrines, it drums into the catechumens (i.e., learners of the catechism) that baptism is serious business with God. Baptism thus became a powerful symbol of life-long commitment to the church.
The problem today, however, is that baptism has become largely a broken symbol in a broken world!
Baptismal vows are taken no more seriously than business contracts and even marriage vows. The radical shift in values is evidenced by many a modern church’s relentless pursuit of superficial “success” defined largely in quantifiable terms. Modern church leaders are becoming more like modern parents, who are so preoccupied with their “success” (for their children’s sake!) that they end up with dysfunctional families.
It looks like we are caught in a bind: cultural symbols could no longer teach us truths about commitment, and spiritual symbols have suffered the same fate. The only way out of this bind is to renew our faith in the God who promises to preserve his church against the gates of hell.
God keeps his vows! With this confidence, we can begin the unglamorous, churchly work of indoctrinating and catechising. Such work does not promise immediate result, but over time the church will recover its rich theological symbols of commitment that will enable it to ride through the cultural flux and, hopefully, stabilise our tottering institutions of marriage and family as well.
The Rev Dr Simon Chan was appointed the Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College last month. He is Dean of Studies at TTC and spiritual adviser of Herald Assembly of God.