Rebirth and maturity

Last week I made a comment that it seemed silly to insist every word in the Bible was literally written by God just to cling to the belief in the virgin birth, there were no dinosaurs and the world is only seven thousand years old. This upset some readers who hold at least one of those beliefs to be sacred.

If I upset creationists, I can hardly be surprised, since they get upset when textbooks don’t take their side, either. This is why they continue to seize the textbook selection process, so they can tell authors who spent years studying the sciences that they are ignorant, and people like themselves, who read the Bible once (if that), are experts.

No humility there, but Jesus never espoused humility as a virtue anyway. Arrogance and self-certainty defined his ministry.

I forgot, however, that the virgin birth is an even more sacred concept than creationism. People almost seem to believe that if Mary wasn’t a virgin, Jesus was a fraud. Sadly, this entire belief depends on whether the scholar in question interprets the gospels to read that Jesus was born of a virgin or born of a young woman.

I’ve been around enough scholars to know that the interpretation of the passages about Mary involve a debate that will never be resolved. Why? Because if the scholar believes the virgin birth is essential to the faith, the passages will be interpreted to reflect Mary’s virginity. If the scholar is neutral, or convinced a virgin birth is impossible, the translation is likely going to reflect Mary’s status as “young woman.”

In this way, scholars are very much like Baptists. If they agreed on anything, they would be neither scholars nor Baptists. All of them will provide compelling reasons why their translation is no doubt correct. God forbid that ancient writers could be any less ambiguous than modern ones.

I just have a hard time believing Christians should turn one or two passages into articles of faith.

I was thinking of another metaphor in the New Testament, the passage in John 3 where Jesus speaks of the need to be “born again.” He speaks to Nicodemus, who is basically the set-up guy in the piece. Ironically, Nicodemus asks Jesus if he is speaking literally, and Jesus makes it clear he is speaking metaphorically. Believers must be “born again” into water and spirit.1

As a Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK), we were taught that the born again experience was literal. It was a one time experience that transformed us once and for all, and we would know it when we experienced it. The reason we believed this is because the Bible was literal, and since birth is a one time experience, so must rebirth be a one time experience as well.

When we realized we weren’t fulfilling the ideal of the rebirth experience, we “rededicated” our lives, which meant we weren’t born again so much as rebooting. We couldn’t be born again again.

Being born again is one of the cornerstones of Baptist theology, as important as baptism. Unfortunately it is a cornerstone theology built on a single reference, much like the virgin birth.

It didn’t need to be. If we weren’t so determined to be literal, we would be able to recognize that the rebirth metaphor is an important thread that runs through Paul’s writing as well. When we pursue that thread, however, we have to rethink rebirth altogether.

Although Paul doesn’t use the term “born again” himself, he very much discusses the fact that believers are new beings. He even refers to himself and his fellow apostles as mothers experiencing labor to bring new Christians into the new life. He refers to new Christians as babes drinking spiritual milk who need to grow into adulthood where they can eat meat.

The rebirth theme isn’t as well developed as others in the New Testament, but it certainly complements other themes of nurturing and supporting fellow Christians (and the needy and the poor). The key difference between the rebirth theme extended through Paul’s letters and the Baptist reduction of rebirth to a singular experience is an important difference, however.

Rebirth doesn’t end with accepting Jesus as savior. It is a lifelong process, just as the first birth is a lifelong process. As newborns grow into adulthood, Paul expects new born Christians to grow into maturity. This is a message lost in the evangelical thought I grew up with, a thought that equated revival not with new energy for individual Christians to apply to maturity, but to “growing the church” by recruiting more born again first timers.

The consequences are significant. If we are born again once and forever, we have no reason to mature. But Paul believed we should be completely transformed, and that the mature Christian would resemble the newborn Christian no more than adults resemble the children they were. We recognize the similarities, but the immature newborn expecting the world to meet his needs and not serve the needs of others around him is long gone.

1I say Jesus is speaking metaphorically, because no one believes that the born again experience involves, literally, birth into water. They at least recognize that being born again of water is a reference to baptism.back


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