I went sledding today with my baby girl. We went to Erskine Golf Course’s 5th hole – also known as “cardiac hill.” It was cold – but a lot of fun. It reminded me of when I was a kid and went down the same hill. Lots of fun. There is something sweet about hearing my baby girl giggling and screaming while sledding down the hill. But did I mention it was cold?! Good grief. It is supposed to be cold all week. I think this Sunday is going to have a low of 5 degrees. So, if you have ever said to yourself, “I’ll go to church when hell freezes over,” this may be your best opportunity. See you in church on Sunday!
Since I’ve been in the narratives of Acts over the past few weeks I have had a lot of guests or recent attenders at church ask me questions about baptism. They are great questions and I love talking about this stuff. It is interesting to hear how many diverse backgrounds and understandings there are about baptism. So, I thought I would post a few thoughts I have about the subject. This is an actual e-mail I sent a while back to a guy named David who was interested in coming to our church (when we were the Donmoyer Avenue Church of Christ) but wanted some clarification about baptism. Here was my letter. It’s sort of long. It also didn’t convince him!
In regards to baptism, don’t forget that you aren’t convincing me of the importance or practice of baptism. I’m already there. I believe in baptism and practice it in the manner in which you agree is right and biblical. The thing that is difficult in most of these conversations about fellowship is that it often feels like somehow I am placed in a position that makes baptism look something other than what I believe it is. God does all the things I stated in the Discovery notebook and to which you reminded me (i.e., forgiveness of sins, entrance into the Body of Christ, and entering the Kingdom of God) and the signage of that seems to be especially apparent in the act of baptism. That is not to say that baptism does that, but that God does that, and he seems to do so in and especially at baptism (this goes back to the “baptism being a sacrament and a sign” that we talked about in the Discovery notebook). Can God offer forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, and salvation prior to baptism? He seems to in the case of Cornelius and most likely Paul in the narrative of Acts. He also seems to extend grace and salvation to others who misunderstood baptism as is the case of Apollos. I would still contend the story of Apollos as well as the story of the Ephesians in Acts 19:1-7 in which they are called “disciples” but had never heard of the Holy Spirit nor had they received baptism in Jesus’ name illustrates this point. Having said that, there is enough passages (and by far the predominance of passages) that places soteriological significance on baptism, and for that, I think it would be a mistake for anyone to dismiss baptism as somehow inconsequential or not important in the salvation experience. While I think it is the most inferior of reasons to be baptized, the bottom line is – Jesus commands baptism.
So at least let us agree to these things:
1. Baptism is a part of the conversion/salvation process.
2. It is a sign of something going on in the heart, but it is also a moment in which God is actually doing something.
Now – here is the crux of the matter for me. The reality is that I’m unaware of hardly anyone who has not been baptized. With the exception of the Quakers and a few fringe religious groups, everyone practices baptism. It is rare that you come across anyone who has any Christian background who has not experienced baptism. They all practice baptism.
Having said that, if anyone were to come to me and say, “I’ve never been baptized” (I mean at all) I would not hesitate to appeal to them with everything that I am to be immersed in baptism.
The real issue between us is the form and manner of baptism. Not in what is the biblical example of form and manner, for we both agree on that as well. But whether the form and manner is the affectual thing in baptism. That is, does baptism work if there is variance in form and manner? I think baptism with a variance of form and manner can be affectual because baptism is ultimately about what God does, not what we do. Can I acknowledge someone as a Christian who was baptized as an infant? The answer is yes, not because I think infant baptism is right, but because I understand how thoughts, practices, and doctrines are passed down. Just as the both of us have changed our minds on many things that we once thought were right thanks to our background and heritage, I assume the possibility exists that others can do the same, and God’s grace isn’t dependent on having every doctrinal issue settled. We both, at one time, thought that having instruments would condemn one to eternal punishment. Why? Because we were taught that. Did God have grace for us in spite of our imperfections? Of course. It is funny to me that we presume God to be very gracious in all areas of morality, but when it comes to doctrine, we have a “get it right or burn” mentality. However, having said that, I would discuss with someone the need for immersion as an adult. This is what we practice, and this is what we do at [Donmoyer]. And this is why I think Apollos’ example is legitimate. Did Apollos get baptism wrong? Yes. Was he unsaved prior to Pricilla and Aquilla’s instruction? No. He was already considered by fellow believers as one of the best articulators of our faith. He just missed something (as we all do). Those who have been baptized as infants missed something. And how they missed it is easy to see. They just need instruction. And my experience (at least in the past nine years in one of the most Catholic of cities) is that no one has refused it when we simply entered into humble and affirming conversations about baptism. But it would be easy to miss immersion as an adult if you grew up as a Catholic. The English translations do not say immersion explicitly. I believe it to be the case, but you have to go through a Greek word study to get there or infer things from the text that we see because it is what we practice, but not necessarily apparent to those who all their lives grew up in another tradition.
Can I accept as a Christian someone who was baptized in another form (i.e. pouring)? I can. But again, I would explain why we do what we do and encourage them to accept adult believers baptism. And again, in my experience, no one has refused it.
The reason why this is so sensitive and why I think our attitudes are so important is because I think we are for the same thing, but if you presuppose people to be lost when the text has not said that in regards to the form of baptism (which is what we are talking about) you will have less success in seeing people immersed than one who can affirm their faith for what it really is and encourage them to take that step. It would be the same as if the Grace Brethren church came to us and said our baptism didn’t count and we were lost because we were only immersed once and not three times as they believe to be the ancient practice (and there is good evidence to support such a claim). Or the United Pentecostal Church coming to us and telling us that our baptism is not effective because we recited a trinitarian formula at baptism rather than only in “Jesus’ name” (which again, outside of Matthew 28, is the only example of baptism given in the book of Acts). We would be defensive and dismiss them immediately knowing in our heart that we aren’t lost because of who are hearts belong to and what God has done in our lives and the Holy Spirit that we possess. If ever I listened well enough and was convinced that their practice was more in conformity to the New Testament practice, I would submit to that baptism. Not because I was lost, but only because I could see it was more in keeping with New Testament baptism.
This is what all of the leaders of [our movement] understood themselves to be doing when they submitted to adult believers baptism. None of them (i.e. Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, etc.) was able to deny that they were Christians prior to their immersion, only that they could see it was more in conformity to biblical practice. This is the example, in my mind, of Apollos.
The other problem with form questions is it puts way too much emphasis on what we are doing, rather than what God is doing. God is the one who saves. It is really what God is doing. None of us are saved because we did something (this is Paul’s whole point in Romans 3-5 which I think especially important in this conversation). Any doctrine that teaches that we are saved by a human work is a false doctrine. We are saved by a God work at the cross and through the blood of Jesus. Does receiving that work of God depend on a perfect understanding or practice of baptism? I’m not so convinced. Even in the OT we see quite a bit of grace for those who got Passover wrong, but because of their hearts, God permitted their participation. God knows hearts. He knows who loves his son and seeks to be obedient, and who doesn’t. He knows those who have been immersed but could care less about serving the Master (which I find far more of at [Donmoyer] than the opposite problem of unimmersed people who are trying to serve their master). And as the quote I sent earlier reflects, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to acknowledge those who truly have the Spirit of God at work in their lives and with all their hearts love Jesus and are striving with all that they have to follow after him. This obedience seems to me to be far more important in terms of salvation than baptism itself. That is why I think baptism can be emphasized to such a point that it eclipses everything else and produces people who think they are “Christian” simply because they were baptized. If baptism had that effect, I find it strange that in the proponderance of Scripture, it receives limited mention. Jesus almost never says anything about it, and the gospel itself makes it clear that Jesus did not baptize people and Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 1:14 & 17 seem odd.
For me, I think it is not impossible to affirm baptism and practice it and teach it with confidence and boldness and still not hold it up as the one test of fellowship (which seems to have happened even among us). I find some irony that the thing that was supposed to bring such unity and demonstrate the “one new humanity” (Eph. 2-4) has become such a cause of disunity and division. Of all the things that will be the test of faithfulness, would we say baptism gets top priority? That is what these conversations feel like to me. And while I appreciate F. LaGard Smith’s attempt at defining fellowship, my question is what is the basis for F. LaGard Smith to determine the tests of fellowship? We can all point to biblical doctrines that are explicitly taught in Scripture. Who gets to decide which one is THE biblical doctrine that is the test of fellowship? Why not Matthew 25 and Jesus’ statements of taking care of the “least of these?” At least for Jesus, he is a lot more explicit about that as a test than anything else. And the apostle John, as he offers tests of fellowship, does so only for the identity and person of Jesus (1-3 John). I’m for that. Why has baptism been elevated to the place of determining fellowship? That is where I think we missed it in the Churches of Christ. Not that we weren’t right on the execution of baptism, but that we were wrong on the emphasis of baptism and its test for fellowship. Baptism, ultimately, at least in my view, is about what God is doing. Baptism is a gift from God. And we get so caught up in the packaging of the gift (i.e., whether it has a bow or not, the color of the wrapping paper, etc.) that we are missing what is inside the box.
Whew – I know that was long. I hope this isn’t tedious for you to read through. But those are some of my thoughts as we continue our conversation.
Because of the Kingdom,