Regarding ruling elders: ruling elders and Baptism
March 15, 2017
Clive Gregory Guerra was clearly not having a good time. He was struggling in the arms of his mother. Perhaps he sensed her anxiety as they all stood in front of the congregation. When she passed him to his father, it did not help. He struggled in his dad’s arms and let out a loud cry. He did not want to be passed from his father to Pastor Tom. He struggled and squirmed and then when Pastor Tom put water on his head and said some important words, he let out a loud cry right into Pastor’s Tom’s microphone. His parents were cringing. So was the congregation. Then Ruling Elder Joni put out her arms and Pastor Tom gladly transferred Clive to her. Joni looked down at him and said, “That’s all right, Clive Gregory. God has given you a great voice. You use it to God’s glory!” That’s when Clive’s parents and the congregation broke out into smiles and for the first time in his baptism, so did Clive. Ruling Elder Joni then went on to look out at the congregation and ask if all were willing to care for Clive and to teach him about Jesus and to learn from him as well. Everyone said, “Yes!” Joni spoke to Clive who was now looking directly into her eyes and smiling, and said, “Pastor Tom better watch out. From now on, you belong to God and God has given you the gift of volume. I see a preacher in you one day!”
The Directory for Worship in the Book of Order tells us that Baptism is “the sign and seal of incorporation into Christ” (W-2.3001). While the pastor invites the individuals being baptized or the parents of the child being baptized to respond to a series of professions, the Directory for Worship says that a ruling elder may lead the whole congregation in a similar profession of faith and an affirmation of those being baptized and a promise to care for and nurture them (W-3.3603). Many liturgical theologians believe this is right and good since it is the responsibility of the session to authorize the Sacrament on behalf of the congregation.
Further, it is the ruling elders’ responsibility to invite parents to have their child baptized and to invite individuals to seek the Sacrament of Baptism. When I arrived as the guest preacher in one of our congregations in Michigan, I was told that three generations of one family—a grandfather, a daughter, and a grandson—were being baptized that day. I was delighted to hear this and when I asked how this came about, the pastor told me that the daughter, a frequent visitor, had approached one of the ruling elders after a worship service that included a baptism asking about her young son being baptized. When the elder asked about the mother’s own baptism experience, she replied that she had never been baptized. The elder then suggested that they both be baptized. Then when the young woman’s father heard about it, he revealed that he had never been baptized and would be honored to be baptized on the same day in the same service as his daughter and grandson. What a celebration that day as the three held hands and walked around the congregation to applause and laughter as the whole congregation welcomed them into the family of Jesus Christ!
The Book of Order also stipulates that ruling elders must ensure that those being baptized go through a process of preparation and following the baptism, continue to be nurtured in the faith (W-2.3012b, c, e). This helps Clive Gregory and his folks understand that baptism is not the end of the journey but rather one step on the lifelong adventure of following the Lord. The Sacrament of Baptism is an act of the whole congregation. This means that both ruling and teaching elders should participate in all aspects of the sacrament from the invitation to the preparation to the baptism to the nurture that follows. In this way, we demonstrate to the whole world our life together as the Body of Christ.
Dr. Rodger Nishioka is the director of adult educational ministries at the Village Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. Prior to his call to Village Church, he served for fifteen years on the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary teaching in Christian education.