An Urgent Plea for Disciplistic Baptism in the Buddhist Context
by Daniel Daesoon Kim
The supreme task given to the Church is the disciplization of all nations. Each generation ought to discern its unique context and how to implement disciplistic baptism.
The quiet water in the swimming pool was disrupted by abrupt splashes as a middle-aged woman entered and came out by the guidance of two church leaders. Fellow church members toppled the magnitude of water splashes with cheerful songs and unsynchronized strings of an old guitar. Beaming, the woman received warm congratulations and a bundle of red roses from the other church members. This woman was born into a traditional Buddhist family but had just participated in the sacred rite of Christianity. Six months after joining a women’s fellowship, she responded to the invitation to receive Christ. Christian baptism followed not long after her conversion.
This is only one example of baptism we have witnessed during our many years of cross-cultural mission in Asia. This, however, was not much different from the baptism found in Western Christianity, and so we must ask ourselves: Is it suitable to transplant the foreign model of baptism into the Buddhist context, hurrying to offer the quick baptism (i.e., “conversionistic baptism”)?
Biblical Christianity wrapped in North American culture has unpretentiously produced an Americanized form of Christianity. The contextualization of biblical Christianity in North American culture is suitable for North American Christianity; however, an Americanized Christianity should be unwrapped of its “Americanness” before exporting it to other cultures.
Unfortunately, Americanized Christianity has been precariously transplanted onto mission fields all over the world. Often, local receivers are unaware of or incapable of correctly discerning and distinguishing the “Americanness” of Christianity from “biblical” Christianity. The apostolic Church in Acts, on the other hand, demonstrated how to effectively unwrap the Jewishness of the gospel when taking it to the Gentiles (Acts 15).
A Look at Americanized Christianity
What does an Americanized Christianity look like? First, it emphasizes individualistic conversion, raising hands with an acceptance prayer. Second, it tends to reduce the biblical gospel to conversion. This kind of gospel has resulted in both local pastors and Americanized missionaries struggling with how to disciple new believers in a systematic, integrative, and culturally sensitive way after the quick baptism.
Samuel Kim’s conversation with a Thai pastor reveals the reality of transplanted Christianity in the Buddhist world. He spoke of Thai people getting up to accept Christ at revival meetings in Northern Thailand. To this Thai pastor, this was the way to be a disciple of Christ (1980, 129). From whom did this Thai pastor learn that getting up was the way to become a disciple of Christ?
Mark Noll writes that American missions increasingly reflects forms of Christianity that are conversionist, voluntarist, entrepreneurial, and nondenominational (2009, 91). The Buddhist world in Asia received this form of Christianity from both American and non-American missionaries who exerted little effort in contextualizing the gospel and the baptism suitable to the Buddhist culture.
World Christianity has been shaped by American Christianity. However, whereas Americanized Christianity is “conversionistic Christianity,” biblical Christianity portrays “disciplistic Christianity.”
The Problem with Conversion Alone
Jesus never commanded his Church to make converts of all nations; instead, he commanded his Church to make disciples who wholeheartedly follow him—this is disciplistic Christianity. Church growth empowered by the conversionistic gospel is an unhealthy symptom we observe all over the world and leads to a lack of church depth. Buddhist countries like Thailand see little impact of the disciplistic gospel since the baptized are often drawn back to their old religion because they did not comprehend the biblical gospel and the full understanding of baptism.
Ubolwan Mejudhon, a noted Thai missiologist with a Buddhist background, admitted that in the early stages of her ministry she used Western ways of approaching, witnessing, and nurturing Christians and non-Christians. She discovered that Thai Christianity seemed westernized (2003, 96). Her observation was pre-stated by Carl Blanford, who said, “Christianity has been introduced into Thailand by Westerners and is generally regarded as a foreign religion….This foreignness of Christianity as introduced and practiced in Thailand constitutes a difficult barrier for the present-day missionary to overcome” (1985, 84).
Christopher Flanders connects the slowness of church growth in Thailand to the cultural disconnect and the foreignness of Thai Christianity. This foreignness of Christianity continues to be an obstacle that hinders Thais from following Jesus (2011, 19).
For the purpose of this article, we must ask ourselves, What is the relationship between discipleship and baptism? “Make disciples” in Matthew 28:19-20 is the main imperative verb with three participles that describe the manner in which a disciple is made: going, baptizing, and teaching. But how is “make disciples” brought about?
The New Testament never portrays the picture of an “unbaptized disciple” because baptism is an important part of a disciple’s life. Biblical scholars are not in agreement on the interpretation of whether baptizing is the mode or the means of making disciples.
A natural reading of Matthew 28:19-20 may render the sequential order of baptism prior to instruction. This view interprets “baptizing” and “teaching” in chronological order (see Figure 1). Going comes before baptizing, which comes before teaching. Is this the concept Matthew intends to portray? Or is it possible to interpret that three participles (going, baptizing, and teaching) in making disciples do not mean to be prescriptive as a chronological order, but rather to be descriptive of what involves making disciples? The way we interpret this can influence missiological implications of how we make disciples.
For example, is there a place for a baptism preparatory class in making disciples? Can some instruction be done prior to baptism? Is it biblically acceptable to organize a baptism class to prepare a new convert for baptism? If the local church organizes a baptism preparatory class, how long should it be (Figure 2 below)?
Although Jesus clearly commanded the Church to use baptizing to make disciples, he did not specify the detailed information on how and when to baptize; instead, he left the responsibility to us. The Church in each generation and in each context must formulate the most suitable way to disciple people through baptism. What we see in Acts is a model of baptism which early church leaders contextualized in their context; it is not necessarily the only form for every church in every context and generation.
For early church leaders, baptism was inseparable from discipleship. In their missiological context, they contextualized teaching immediately followed baptism. According to their missiological concept of baptism, this type of practice was the most effective; therefore, there was no reason to delay it. Everett Ferguson argues that teaching must accompany baptizing, but he doesn’t explain how and when this happens (2009, 137). Can the context decide whether some disciplistic teaching can be done prior to baptizing?
After the era of the apostles ended, the apostolic fathers emerged to lead the Church differently. In spite of being well acquainted with the baptismal tradition of the apostles, this next generation of men formulated a different path: baptizing people became an integral part of discipleship called the catechumenate, which was a formal preparation for baptism.
Theologically, the apostolic fathers totally agreed with the apostles on baptism, but missiologically they took a new turn from the practice of baptism shortly after conversion and eventually developed a three-catechumenate process (Arnold 2014, 44; see Figure 3 below). Perhaps the most significant motive for the shift away from baptizing immediately after profession of faith to a time after substantive training, mentoring, and preparation had to do with “the concern the ministers of baptism had from the very beginning for the sincerity of the conversion of the candidates” (Arnold 2004, 42).
Why did the church leaders in the second and third century deviate from the apostles’ practice of baptism? Alan Kreider suggests four reasons why the second-century Church developed a lengthy catechumenate which required completion prior to baptism:
1. Most first-century converts were Jews or god-fearers; second-century converts were pagans who needed extensive instruction and re-socialization.
2. The longer catechetical process was a result of the theological disputes present in the second century.
3. In an age of persecution, there was a need to screen out possible spies and informers.
4. The teachings of Jesus required significant time to incarnate and practice as part of the process. (1996, 316-318)
Many evangelical churches today place minimal emphasis on training new believers, especially when compared to the prominence and importance of the catechumenate in the ancient Church. Some churches find it adequate to have a four-week members’ class prior to baptism and the acquisition of church membership. Others may have no formal baptismal preparation. How many contemporary evangelical churches, however, have a plan for training new believers over a two or three-year span (Arnold 2004, 44-45)? Evangelical theologian James I. Packer expressed his concern on the lack of catechesis:
Historically, the church’s ministry of grounding new believers in the rudiments of Christianity has been known as catechesis—the growing of God’s people in the gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight. It is a ministry that has waxed and waned through the centuries. It flourished between the second and fifth centuries in the ancient church…. Today, however, things are quite different, and that for a host of reasons. The church in the West has largely abandoned serious catechesis as a normative practice. (2010)
So what had been taught in these three-year baptismal classes? Although the precise structure and format of the catechumenate may have varied from place to place, four common features were central to how the catechesis was carried out: (1) immersion in the word of God, (2) being taught the central doctrines of the faith, (3) being taught spiritual and moral formation, and (4) taking part in deliverance ministry (2004, 46-54).
Personal Journey to Disciplistic Baptism
During our first term working in a Buddhist context, we were naively ignorant of the missiological implication of practicing the conversionistic model of baptism without any adequate disciplistic instruction. We practiced what we knew—the conversion model.
At the end of our first term, an article by Clinton Arnold (2004) prompted us to begin considering the contemporary practice of baptism in the Buddhist context. Like Arnold, we asked ourselves, “Is the current practice of baptism in the context of the Buddhist world effective? Is the quick baptism after conversion suitable for new Buddhist background believers in making disciples of Jesus Christ?” We redirected our attention to investigate the biblical and historical understanding of baptism. I arrived at the conclusion that baptism is not a one-time religious event of going in and out of the water; it is an important process of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Shortly thereafter, we began implementing a new practice: every baptismal candidate is encouraged to go through the baptism preparation of nine months to one year in the community of believers. Why this timeframe? Because we have seen this prove to be a good timeframe for us. After disciplistic baptism, at least two more years of instruction have been implemented to make disciples of the Buddhist world.
The supreme task given to the Church is the disciplization of all nations. Disciplistic baptism can enhance the process of making disciples of the Buddhist world. Each generation ought to discern its unique context and how to implement disciplistic baptism.
Arnold, Clinton E. 2004. “Early Church Catechesis and New Christian’s Classes in the Contemporary Evangelicalism.” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 47(1): 39-54.
Ferguson, Everett. 2009. Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Flanders, Christopher L. 2011. About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Mission. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications.
Kim, Samuel I. 1980. The Unfinished Mission in Thailand: The Uncertain Christian Impact to Buddhist Heartland. Seoul: East-West Center for Missions Research and Development.
Kreider, Alan. 1996. “Baptism, Catechism, and the Eclipse of Jesus’ Teaching in Early Christianity.” Tyndale Bulletin 47(2): 315-348.
Mejudhon, Ubolwan. 2003. “Evangelism in the New Millennium: An Integrated Model of Evangelism to Buddhists Using Theology, Anthropology and Religious Studies.” In Sharing Jesus in the Buddhist World. Eds. David Lim, Steve Spaulding, and Paul De Neui, 95-119. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Noll, Mark. 2009. The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Packer, James I. and Gary A. Parrett. 2010. “The Lost Art of Catechesis.” March 12. Accessed February 1, 2013, from www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/march/14.26.html.
Daniel Daesoon Kim is director of Chiang Mai Theological Seminary and a church planter with his wife, Song Kim. The two are missionaries with OMF International. Daniel is a graduate of UCLA and Talbot School of Theology.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 322-328. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.