Part 2: Baptism for the ex-Muslim Christian: Some Pastoral Observations
*Part 2 is a continuation of Duane’s blog on convert baptism, you can read part 1 here.
When considering the safety of converts from Islam, a recommended practice, if possible, is preparing converts for baptism in groups. In the context of Muslim villages in Southeast Asia one minister told me that they will not carry out baptisms until there is a large threshold of people—40 or 50. The reasoning is that it is easy for a Muslim society to compel one or two converts to return to Islam through abuse and enticement. However, when such a large group converts the ability of the community to coerce or entice such a large number of people, all baptized at the same time in what was likely a public gathering, to return to Islam is just too much. The Muslims resign themselves to living side by side with the new Christians.
Of course, many of us are not ministering in Muslim villages, and others don’t have ministries that could realistically gather a large number of converts at one time. But there is still wisdom in baptizing people in groups. Baptism is, after all, a rite of passage, and rites of passage are integral to identity formation and the strengthening of interpersonal bonds. Many of us still stay in touch with people with whom we were “initiated”—graduated from high school, college, were ordained on the same day, became eagle scouts, etc. One Palestinian community I observed practiced this, with a lay pastor explaining that when people are baptized together they form a bond and will keep each other accountable, which is to say make sure that the other is remaining faithful to their new identity in Christ. For this reason, it is preferable to baptize people in groups rather than as individuals if at all possible.
Pastor Thad (the same one quoted in part 1) explained how in his church in the USA when Iranians are baptized they must invite any friends and family who are in the area. Then the converts share their testimony as to “How I came to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” Is this not inflammatory and offensive? Is the convert not provoking his family by inviting them to the baptism?
The real concern here is not with making sure that no one’s feelings are not hurt. Furthermore, there is nothing inherently negative or bad about being offended. Being offended can be an occasion to question our most deeply held beliefs about God, the world, and ourselves. And that is part of the intention here. Not to offend for the sake of offense, but to present in an irenic, welcoming, joyful context a message that is radically subversive to the Islamic worldview: that Jesus is the Son of God.
In terms of identity baptism, carried out this way, with this confession and friends and family present, represents a clear break with the past and the proclamation of a new identity accompanied by an ancient religious rite and (hopefully) carried out in a dignified manner. In this example the songs and preaching are all in Farsi, a meal of Persian food may follow the baptisms, a sermon in Farsi is preached—all of this helps to communicate to the non-Christian Iranian that one can indeed be Iranian and Christian, the traditional conflation of Islam and Persian-ness is in reality a fiction. In other words, the service acts as a strong argument in favor of the reality and goodness of an identity that is both Persian and Christian.
Here in Madrid I am a founding co-pastor of an interdenominational Arabic Christian congregation. Recently I met with some other leaders and a Moroccan man who was requesting baptism. I was very clear with him that leaving Islam did not mean he was leaving the Arab people or his Moroccan culture. I told him to be ready for family and friends to tell him that by leaving Islam he has left his people. I explained to him that there had always been Christians among his people, and that really he was returning to the ancient religion of some of his ancestors prior to the advent of Islamic imperialism. This sort of historical awareness can help lead to a solid identity in Christ.
Lastly, the custom of inviting friends and family also acts as a check against the person who only wants a certificate. After all, surely there are other churches that will baptize a person without insisting they make the potentially dangerous move of inviting relatives and friends.
We are living in exciting times. The influx of people from a Muslim background to the West means that even clergy and churches who had never thought about evangelizing Muslims are forced to consider certain questions about Islam and Christianity. One of those is, how to honor the conscience of a woman or man who is seeking to leave Islam and enter the household of Christ, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, through baptism.
 In the field of anthropology this is called comunitas and is associated with the groundbreaking work of Victor Turner—see his book Forest of Symbols. For more on rites of initiation for converts see Miller, Living among the Breakage, pp 48–52.
 Many Muslims and converts from Islam regard the casualness of some evangelicals in their worship as being an affront to the dignity and majesty of God. For an example of liturgy for the baptism of a convert from Islam see Abu Daoud, “Mission and Sacrament, Part IV: a liturgy for the baptism of Muslims, to be conducted on the feast of Pentecost,” St Francis Magazine, Vol 10:2, Jun 2014, pp 1–8. All of Abu Daoud’s papers are available through his page at academia.edu.
Rev. Dr. Duane Alexander Miller lives in Madrid with Sharon and their three children where they teach and minister at the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer. He is associate faculty at the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Madrid (UEBE). You can contact Duane here.