Just started Jacques Ellul’s Subversion of Christianity which I am told is vaguely reminiscent of Leithart’s Against Christianity. We’ll see where he goes, but the early returns are that he follows the anti-constantianism routine, in some fashion, suspicious that the Church sold out in the third and fourth centuries, a victim of its own success. While I’m open to being critical of the history of the Church, I’m generally a little dubious when these sorts of critiques romantically long for the simplicity and radical nature of the gospel, the teachings of Christ, and the tradition of the apostles and then immediately fail to take their own advice. Case and point here: frequently, it’s claimed that one of the marks of this devolution in the Church is the transition from a fairly elaborate process of catechizing, testing, and proving of individuals leading up to baptism to a more haphazard, popularizing of entry into the church.
Ellul writes: “In the primitive church personal conversion brought entry and presupposed preparatory training. When the church became an affair of the masses, it became impossible to be sure of the authenticity of each convert. The process reversed itself. People entered the church first and then received the religious instruction that would guarantee the seriousness of their faith. Entry into the church was followed by spiritual training and the acquiring of knowledge. The net had to be cast wide so as to bring in as many as possible. But success put Christianity on a slippery slope. For fundamentally, why wait for deliberate entry into the church?” (30)
The problem with this is that this is actually a place where the movement is toward greater faithfulness to the New Testament and not less. Where Ellul is suspicious of the Church growing soft and trendy (which very well may be true is some ways during this era), the fact is that in the New Testament, all the incidents of baptism that we have present baptism as entry into the church with catechism to follow. In fact, in some of the instances, it’s so rushed as to seem a little strange. Why does Paul baptize the Philippian jailer and his family in the middle of the night, for instance? Surely spiritual training would have to follow the baptism in this case. The Ethiopian eunuch is also a pretty short affair, and where Ellul is suspicious of mass baptisms, Pentecost is the great New Testament example of this very thing. A huge crowd hears one sermon, and Peter invites them to baptism. No catechumens, no waiting period, just baptize them. And they did, three thousand of them in one day. If mass conversions and baptisms is a slippery slope, we’ve got it starting on the birthday of the Church, the day of Pentecost itself.
Talk about radical. And here’s where Ellul and folks like him seem to miss one of the most radical aspects of the Christian faith. God welcomes people who don’t understand into His family. He welcomes everyone to join his family, and insists that it be full of babies, infants. And God claims His children by sprinkling a little bit of water on people who confess that Jesus is Lord. And when whole cities, tribes, and nations confess the faith, that will sometimes mean gloriously massive baptismal services. And yes that means that the church will quickly fill up with lots of immature, baby Christians who don’t know a lick of the Bible or basic morality. But apparently that’s part of the Church growing up into a mature man and being conformed to the image of Christ. In fact, that’s how we must come to Christ, like little children hungry for the milk of the word, crying, inarticulate, and completely dependent.