Paul* went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. 2He was well spoken of by the believers* in Lystra and Iconium. 3Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
On the first read of the passage from Acts, I was paused at learning (re-learning!) that Paul required Timothy to be circumcised. Really? I had not recalled this little factoid. After the huge stink he put up in Jerusalem insisting that Titus (a full Greek Gentile unlike Timothy whose mother was Jewish) specifically, not be circumcised and that new believers, generally, be allowed to join God’s church not through the Jewish door of the religious ritual of circumcision but through faith in Jesus Christ acknowledged in baptism.
As the Apostle to the Gentiles Paul was the first great ‘welcomer’, the first to preach, teach and write ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek’, the first open-table advocate, the first to ground all local expressions of God’s church in baptism. Baptismal Ecclesiology is the term you’ll find in seminary curriculums which says simply that the biblical view of the whole church is the people of God where membership is effected through baptism. Paul wrote as much in Galatians 3:
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
But not only does Paul appear to go against that line of thinking and his own words by having Timothy enter the church through the Jewish tradition of circumcision, he also says nothing about Timothy entering through baptism. No mention – at all – anywhere – that Timothy, who went on to be the first Bishop of Ephesus and a church saint, was baptized, let alone baptized by Paul who called him to serve.
My first thoughts about the circumcision piece of this puzzle leaned towards what role context and particularity plays in our faith journeys. We live in Christ and he in us in a particular time and in a particular place. Paul was sensitive to Timothy’s context – his family situation. And Paul was a savvy marketer, to put it crudely. Though Timothy’s mother was Jewish, he had not been allowed to be circumcised by his Greek father. Paul knew that Timothy’s testimony would have more agency with the unbelieving Jews of the area were he considered a full member of the Jewish church. The particularity of Timothy’s potential ministry was entirely different from Titus’ who Paul had fought so hard for against circumcision. There, in Galatia, the primary audience was Greek. But here in Lystra and Iconium, Paul and Timothy were preaching to Jewish non-believers in Jesus Christ. To further the gospel, it is good for God’s church to be aware and sensitive to our contexts and particularities.
But as far as becoming one with God’s church, as far as the one action that unites all in believers in Jesus Christ, it is baptism and context and particularity really have no big role. From the Book of Common Prayer on Baptism:
Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us
as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body,
the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God (p858).
This catechism comes straight out of scripture and threads are found woven throughout Paul’s letters, so why no mention of Timothy’s baptism?
Paul didn’t baptize, that’s why. Which didn’t mean that Timothy wasn’t baptized. Indeed, he certainly was baptized and most probably by some of his brothers in Christ from the Jewish community he had been born into. Because Timothy was a believer called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ it went without saying by Paul that he was baptized.
Why didn’t Paul baptize? You’ll recall he wrote often about not doing any of the work for any reason other than to glorify God. Paul went to great lengths to keep his name out of the mix, out of the churches he founded. Recall him warning the church in Corinth not to get too attached to their teachers writing in 1 Corinthians:
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
Paul planted but the individuals entry into the church of God was through baptism. And earlier in the same letter speaking to the divisions he had heard of arising from allegiance to one teacher over another, Paul clearly states why he doesn’t baptize:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.[b] 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[c] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.
In the words of another biblical commentator Paul is saying, “I avoid doing the baptizing myself, so that none of my converts will be tempted to say they were baptized in my name.”
What matters is not who baptizes you but into whom are you baptized.
Re-learning this about Paul softens my heart towards him. I often push back at what has seemed to me to be his enormous ego that gets in the way of hearing what the Spirit is saying through him to God’s church. I’ve written often about how I think Paul protests too much. But today, I see him so differently, and understand him and his heart more deeply.
We – the church – would do well to think about Paul’s refusal to baptize when it comes to baptizing new ones in our churches. How wonderful it would be for each town, city, borough, county to have a baptistery – a common font or pool where baptisms were done every quarter, officiated by the various faith community leaders of that place. For we don’t baptize into any denomination, any particular church – but into God’s church. We aren’t Methodists, or Episcopalians, or Lutherans, or non-denoms at baptism. We are members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.
Many churches have labyrinths or dedicated prayer and contemplative spaces for the public to access. How lovely would it be to provide access to a community baptismal pool, integrated into the landscape of the church, (like the one pictured below which is the property of a local Dallas church). Or perhaps all the faith communities of a region pitch in to build an old-school baptistery – a building separate from sanctuaries – dedicated to the sole purpose of baptizing all into God’s church (below are a few examples of baptisteries through the ages)? One of my dreams to be a part of something like this one day.
What matters is not who baptizes you but into whom are you baptized.
Monday Daily Lectionary Readings: AM Psalm 56, 57, ; PM Psalm 64, 65
Job 40:1-24; Acts 15:36-16:5; John 11:55-12:8