What’s Baptism Got to Do with Leadership?
Being a part of a tradition that practices believer’s baptism means that what I am about to say may sound a little odd. But here goes. I do not think that most of us take baptism seriously enough. Really. Of course, we want our children to be baptized and when people make a commitment to Jesus Christ we do so in a baptismal pool in church or in somebody’s swimming pool after a Bible study. I get that—and, as Jesus says, “it fulfills all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).
But after a person towels off and the chlorine smell fades, baptism all too often fades into a distant glow. Folks get on with their lives. The deed has been done. It’s time to get back to work and play and family and sorting out how to make it through life balancing some Jesus and taking care of oneself.
That is precisely where our theology of baptism fails us. Baptism becomes a mountaintop experience that recognizes our acceptance of Jesus instead of baptism becoming the first act of a lifetime of following God’s call. I believe it is far too easy for us to think baptism is about our decision to say “yes Lord” without reckoning with the part about dying to ourselves and beginning a new life characterized by Christ’s living presence within us.
In other words, we fail to understand baptism unless we understand that baptism marks us as disciples of Jesus Christ who obey his calling—every single day. Following Jesus isn’t always easy. It means that his purpose becomes my purpose. It means taking risks so that others might find life.
So at one level I would say that baptism has nothing to do with leadership. When church leaders gather it is not usually to read Rom. 6 or to recount stories of persons coming to faith. Rather, leaders are usually focused on questions about the health and mission of the congregations they serve. But here is the rub. And I want to say this lovingly but clearly. If churches have leaders who are not fully sold out as disciples of Jesus Christ—consciously aware of the demands of being a baptized, dead, and reborn person who is committed fully to God’s transforming work in the world—then you will likely find churches that are anemic and more interested in keeping content.
But if you find a church with leaders who are consciously living with the reality that Christ lives in us and that baptism commissions us to live radical lives of faith, adventure, and obedience for God’s mission in the world, then I think you will find a church that is lively and full of hope.
So baptism may not have a lot to do with leadership—but baptism has everything to say about discipleship. And if leaders are not disciples of the living, acting Lord … well, then our anemic baptismal theology has sadly won the day.
So remember your baptismal commitments: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2.20). Our churches desperately need disciples who will provide leadership toward God’s preferred future!