To the outside word, sacraments like Baptism and The Lord’s Supper seem mystic, enigmatic, and strange. Even to us within the church, they’re often mysterious. We may mistakenly believe they’re 100% spiritual or symbolic and have no physical-world consequences. They’re in the Bible, and they make our Sunday morning services a wee bit longer, but they don’t impact our day-to-day, right? Wrong!
What we believe bleeds heavily into our everyday lives. Unfortunately, we usually only notice the effects until after our ideas and attitudes have begun messing up our lives or the lives of others. Take for example, ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son). Proponents of this heresy reason, “Because Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father [spoiler alert: he’s not!], therefor all women are eternally subordinate to all men, even in Heaven.”
In a weird plot twist, their Trinitarian theology directly affects how they understand gender, gender roles, marriage, and the afterlife. I don’t know about you, but being eternally subordinate to all men doesn’t sound like The Good Place.
Our theology of Baptism is no exception. Understanding it correctly should result in increased freedom and equality for women. Misunderstanding it can lead to all sorts of strange ideas, even leaving the church vulnerable to abusers and liars.
Disclaimer: My intent here is not to make a case for Infant Baptism. However, I do want us to understand what Baptism is in light of the Old Testament. So, hang in there my Baptist brothers and sisters! This will all hopefully make sense.
A Matter of Covenants
In the Old Testament, Jewish baby boys (and occasionally, new adult converts) were brought to the Temple to be circumcised. This sacrament – this cutting-off-of-the-flesh – meant this little guy was a member of God’s Covenant family. He was separated out from the world. He was blessed to be raised by Jewish parents. They were expected to teach him about God. He’d hear the reading of the Word. He was granted access to God to pray and worship at the Temple.
The act of circumcision symbolized the painful cutting off of sin and the curse of Adam, but it was not salvific. After all, many Bible characters who were circumcised rebelled against God, worshipped idols, and committed terrible evil. A few names off the top of my head include Saul, Ahab, Absalom, and Judas.
Baby girls were not circumcised. Rather, their fathers, brothers, or husbands were considered their patriarch. While a woman has never needed a man to get into Heaven, he was considered her leader and representative here on earth. His circumcision applied to her. She was under the Covenant symbolized by her nearest-male-relative’s circumcision.
This is partly why it was so important for widowed women to be remarried, or taken underwing by a male relative such as her husband’s brother. It wasn’t merely to secure provision and protection. It was a matter of spiritual headship.
But everything changed when Jesus was circumcised. And I’m not just talking about when he was a baby in Luke 2. I’m talking about when his entire body, his very life, was cut off from the land of the living. When he cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus was sacrificed – painfully cut off – to create a new Covenant between God and believers: The Covenant of Grace.
Paul explains this in Colossians 2:11–12. “In [Jesus] you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Because Christ was cut off – because the wrath of God was poured out on Him as he hung on the cross in our place – we don’t need to physically be circumcised any longer (congrats guys!). We are spiritually circumcised with a circumcision “made without hands … by the circumcision of Christ.”
What this means for women is that our patriarch, our covenant head, is Jesus Christ. We aren’t represented before God by our dad, or our brother, or even our husband any longer. Our Redeemer – the Bridegroom of the Church – is our Covenant Head. As females, we too can now bear the sign of the Covenant – which today is Baptism rather than Circumcision – reminding us that the wrath of God was poured out on his Son for us.
Side Note: This is why Paul, in Ephesians 5:21, calls husbands and wives to, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Our marriages are a beautiful picture of the church submitting out of her love for Him, and Christ submitting out of his love for her. (Matthew 26:39, John 6:38, 1 Corinthians 15:28). So, yes, wives are called to submit to their husbands, but not eternally to all men as the ESSers claim, and husbands are also called to submit to their wives, unlike what Biblical Patriarchists claim. Fun fact: Paul also references Baptism in Ephesians 5:26, reminding us that Jesus died to “make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word”. This is why Scripture must always be used to interpret Scripture; so we don’t pull one verse or chapter out of context and run wild with it. In Philippians 2:5-9, Paul urges us, “In your relationships with one another [this includes marriage, y’all], have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant …”
Are you starting to see how important our understanding of Baptism is, and how it affects how we view and treat women?
What is Baptism Anyway?
Let’s backtrack a bit to how Paul describes Baptism in Colossians. Remember? You were, “buried with [Jesus] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
When you dipped below the surface of the water, it symbolized Christ passing under the wrath of God, and the body of Christ passing below the surface of the earth. As you rose up out of that water, it symbolized Christ surviving the wrath of God and rising up out of the grave. You were buried with him, and you will be resurrected with him. You were spiritually dead in sin, but now you are alive in Christ.
Peter agrees with Paul, explaining that Baptism symbolizes the wrath of God poured out on Jesus instead of you. In fact, in 1 Peter 3:18-22, Peter compares Baptism to Noah’s Flood. Long, long ago, the wrath of God was poured down to cover the whole earth. But, like Noah and his family, you and I are “brought safely through the water,” which washed away the wicked people.
Baptism is a picture of God’s family passing safely through the Red Sea – which should have drowned them – but which was miraculously parted by God’s mercy, yet crashed down in God’s justice upon the evil slaveholding Egyptians (Exodus 14).
Just as God’s Spirit hovered over the waters at the beginning of time (Genesis 1:2) – just as Jesus walked on the water in the fullness of time (Matthew 14:22-36) – so now God holds the power over death and life, judgement and salvation, Hell and Heaven. He parts the sea of his wrath so we may pass through safely.
(By the way, it’s no accident that Jesus walked on water shortly after John the Baptist, who baptized Christ, was beheaded for his faith in Christ (Matthew 14). As John put it, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” Matthew 3:11.)
Do you see how important this is? Can you feel how revolutionary Baptism is, and how important it is to understand it in the context of all of Scripture? Like the Trinitarian theology of ESSers, a misunderstanding of Baptism can lead to weirdness and wrongness.
If we do not understand that Baptism replaces Circumcision – that it is the sign and sacrament representing our membership in a covenantal family – we cannot fathom the profundity of it. Because Baptism is granted to both men and women, it reminds us that females are now equal covenant members with males, and Jesus Christ is our patriarch.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
Baptism is – at least in part – a beautiful picture of equality before God. The Covenant of Grace means freedom in Christ. It means that the Curse – including that part of the curse in which God says to the woman, “your desire shall be for your [sinful] husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3) – is obsolete for all who believe in Jesus Christ.
No longer are we to be ruled by sinful patriarchs. No longer are we slaves to sin. We are emancipated! We are freed from metaphorical Egypt. This isn’t “feminism.” This is redemption! This isn’t “creeping liberalism,” but the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The world may view us as revolutionaries, but Jesus launched this movement over 2,000 years ago. Indeed, it was pictured and prefigured long before Jesus was even born. Those who cling to the Covenant of Works and Old Testament patriarchy, may want to “rule over” women and claim we’re “unsubmissive” if we don’t enable their sinful pride and lust for power, but we cling to a greater promise; that the works and glory of Jesus Christ are imputed to us and received by grace through faith alone.
Baptism Washes Patriarchy Away
Because of this new hierarchy manifested in the new Covenant (with Jesus as our patriarch rather than our nearest male relation), it should come as no surprise that when Peter and Paul talk about Baptism, they also talk about marriage. Yep. Remember Ephesians 5:26? That’s not the only spot where Baptism and marriage are discussed together. Right before Peter talks about Baptism in 1 Peter 3:18-22, he talks about husbands and wives:
“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” 1 Peter 3:7
Wives, we are fellow heirs with our husbands. Not under. Not after. Not subsequently. Not even symbolically. With. And this new covenantal headship is gloriously pictured in Baptism, which is why Peter logically goes on to discuss said sacrament.
It wasn’t until very recently that Western Culture caught up with Jesus and allowed women to inherit property. I’m sure many of my readers have read Jane Austen, or at least watched a movie or two. You’ve heard the lamentations of heroines who can’t inherit her father’s estate. But that’s not the case in God’s economy.
Jesus has made women equal heirs of Heaven. Our Father’s estate is promised directly to us, not via our brother or our husband or our husband’s brother. We are not subordinate. We are not covenantal dependents. Anyone who tells you otherwise is clinging to a religious era pre-dating The Dark Ages. Worse, they are clinging to the Curse, “and he shall rule over you!”
Gone are the days of Old Testament patriarchy. Gone are the days when only males could bear the sign of the Covenant. Christ is our representative. Christ is our husband, brother, and friend. I joyfully submit to my husband, Jason, out of love for Jesus, but Jesus has brought me into his family, and ushered in the Age of Grace.
2,000 years ago, Jesus rose up out of the waters of the River Jordan with John the Baptist at his side. The Spirit descended on Him like a dove, and the Father said to Him, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11). Someday, when we cross that metaphorical River Jordan of death, we too will rise up out of the waters of death. Jesus Christ will be at our side, and the Father will say to us, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:23)