Tuesday, January 6, 2009

One Lord, one faith, one baptism

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism—Eph. 4:5

I take a broader view of baptism than most Baptist preachers. I credit my seminary professor Rev. Dr. George R. Beasley-Murray and a dear, hydrophobic Methodist saint for challenging my views on the subject.

While I regard immersion (the meaning of the Greek word baptizo) as the most historically and biblically accurate method of baptism, I do not believe using a different mode (e.g., pouring) makes baptism invalid. (By the way, the image above is an early 3rd century Roman catacomb fresco depicting baptism by “effusion,” or pouring.) And although I couldn't imagine administering baptism any way other than by dipping a person fully under water, I’m not sure how much is gained by insisting that those who were initiated in other Christian traditions be immersed, if they are satisfied with their own baptism—even if it was infant baptism. I know this is not “believer’s baptism” and it’s far from ideal, but we live in a less-than-perfect world in which regenerate believers belong to a wide variety of Christian groups with a myriad of differing beliefs and practices. And there are probably more true Christians who have not been immersed upon their own profession of faith than who have been. I smirk whenever “pedobaptists” (baby baptizers) call our practice “adult” baptism, since I know Baptist pastors who baptize four and five year olds (I’ve even heard of three year olds), which is not much different than infant baptism. Anyway, Shouldn't the doors of church membership be as wide as the Pearly Gates . . . and no wider?

Isn’t it inconsistent that we Baptists consider the elements of the Lord’s Supper (Communion) an indifferent matter (white bread, matzo, little square crackers, who cares?) but turn around and insist on baptism by immersion, which is always done one time backwards? Would a baptism be “invalid” if the person were dipped three times forward as in the Brethren churches? Or if a person baptized himself, as John Smyth did, who founded what some consider the first-ever Baptist church four hundred years ago this year? If we do not insist on unleavened bread and Kosher wine for Communion, why are we such sticklers for historical accuracy when it comes to baptism, especially when we consider it “an outward sign of an inward reality”?

The sixteenth-century Anabaptists practiced baptism by pouring, not immersion. And no less than John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress and the most well-known 17th century Baptist, held the position called “open membership,” resulting in a “mixed” congregation with both those baptized as believers and those who were baptized as infants in the Anglican Church and later joined the Baptist church as adults. He articulated his views in A Confession of My Faith (1672). Bunyan’s broad-minded approach to baptism and church membership raised the ire of some of his co-religionists, especially Particular Baptist William Kiffin—just as I’m sure this blog post is bound to irritate some of my fellow Baptists today.

Baptism is a rite of Christian initiation, and it signifies the believer’s spiritual baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). How appropriate is it to “initiate” a person who has been a believer and member of another Christian denomination for decades? Doesn’t insisting on baptism by immersion in such a situation make it simply a pro forma ritual that focuses on externals, instead of a truly spiritual act?

1 comment:

  1. Our 151-year old Baptist church voted (with some controversy) to accept the baptism of anyone for whom that baptism held meaning, which is very much what you are saying here. Since then we have welcomed an Episcopalian, some Presbyterians, and one former Catholic who actually asked to be immersed. It's been a good experience for us (once we got thru the vote) and I can't imagine going back to "baptism in a church of like faith and order."