Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Ecumenism on trial!

Ted Olsen of Christianity's Today's weblog posts on a very strange case involving divorced parents fighting over the baptism of their child. Poor kid. Her divorced Christian parents can't even agree that they worship the same God and that God isn't hindered by their fighting over her baptism. One would wonder, though, if their fighting has drowned out the proclamation of the gospel to her.

Custody battles are almost invariably messy, so be patient with this story. Jana Hicks grew up Catholic, but married David Hicks in a Presbyterian church. Eventually, the two started attending an evangelical church, then an Assemblies of God congregation. In 1998, David and Jana split, but by then they had a daughter (identified only by the initial "M" in court documents). Custody was shared, with David Hicks getting the girl three out of four weekends. Most weekends, M went to First Assembly of God in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. That fourth weekend, it was off to a Roman Catholic parish with her mom, Jana.
In 2001, Jana and M started attending St. Sergious Russian Orthodox Church in Parma, Ohio. Last year, Jana decided to remarry, this time to a Russian Orthodox man. And she wanted M to be baptized in that church. But David opposed the baptism.
"This will be now the third religion introduced into [M's] life, and her being baptized in the Orthodox Church, ummm, I oppose that," David explained. "I don't think that that should happen at this time. I think she should grow up, and at her age, when she's old enough, she can make her own decision."

Ted Olsen comments:

"The Assemblies of God and the Russian Orthodox Church stand together, however, against the Superior Court's apparent belief that baptism is just one more aspect of religious exposure. In fact, the churches would see this as the turning point in M's spiritual development up to this point. For the Russian Orthodox, this is the point at which M becomes a real Christian, the point at which she is received into the Church.

For the Assembly of God, M's baptism into a church that rejects the doctrine of justification by faith alone and new birth through the Word of God alone is serious business ...Of course, the Assemblies of God isn't too reluctant to rebaptize, so David's church may just teach her that the Orthodox ceremony isn't the final word."

Does anyone want to bet that little M takes her lesson to a next step and leaves the church at age 18, figuring no one has the answer. Her parents sure haven't provided her with spiritual training.

Ted Olsen telling plays his cards in his final remarks on the case. He's an evangelical and he believes that all should just agree to disagree. He is for ecumenicalism, even to the point of abandoning long-held doctrine of each church.

On one hand, Weblog doesn't want state courts making judgments where religious doctrine comes into play. Some here at CT think the courts should have nothing whatsoever to do with matters of religious doctrine, but Weblog isn't entirely convinced. The baptism may significantly change David Hicks's relationship with his daughter, and courts do have some leeway to exercise the wisdom of Solomon on such matters (not to suggest baptizing only half of M). Jurisdiction aside, is Jana's brinksmanship on this point even necessary? After all, it's not a sin to put off baptism in the Russian Orthodox Church until age 13 (Orthodox saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus both put off baptism until their 20s despite having Christian parents; Tertullian even criticized infant baptism). (Sure it is, Mr. Olsen. It is a sin to withhold the saving waters of grace from children. God creates a seed of faith at baptism. He said he does. It is a sin.) As Weblog said earlier, it's messy. But if this is precipitated more by Jana Hicks wanting to please the new man in her life than it is about the nature of baptism and conversion, Weblog expects that even the Russians would be saddened.

What an interesting court case!!! Ecumenism on trial!


Brisco said...

ok, im not a religious scholar or anything, but isn't baptism , Baptism as long as it is before the same God? And although we often wonder,'s the same God

Chris Jones said...

I can't agree that it is "a sin" to defer baptism for a child in a case like this. While it's true that grace is objectively given in baptism, it's also true that baptism ought not to be separated from the catechesis in which the Gospel is given to the new believer. In the case of adult baptism, the catechesis comes first, then the baptism; with infants, baptism comes first, then the catechesis, over time as the child grows in understanding. But infants are baptized with the understanding that the parents and sponsors are going to be there and make sure that the faith into which the child is baptized is actually delivered to her in its fulness. If there is no assurance that the faith actually will be delivered, it's not appropriate to baptize the child. After all, we don't baptize the children of just anybody who walks in off the street; we baptize the children of believers who will raise their children in the faith.

What chance is there that the child in this case will have coherent catechesis? and which version of the faith will predominate: the sober, sacramental, historical, and liturgical Gospel of the Orthodox Church? or the a-historical, individualistic, anti-sacramental Gospel of the Assemblies of God? Being immersed and anointed by the Orthodox priest won't make up for the mixed messages and inconsistent training the poor child will receive.

Chris Jones said...

I've blogged on this before; see this post on my weblog for more of my thoughts.