Search Adorate

Baptism: The Elephant in the Room

      Baptism.  It is the elephant in the room – something everyone thinks about and no one talks about.  In major works on Christian worship, however, baptism is one of the topics covered.  So, I guess I need to talk about the elephant.
      Let’s be honest.  For many people, it is the first thing they search out to read in a church's "What We Believe" statement. 
Some read whatever it says to gauge orthodoxy.  Others read to identify narrow legalistic churches they’d rather avoid.  Some statements intentionally say as little as possible.  Others feel the need to add additional sentences making it clear what they believe or do not believe regarding it.
      But, the issue won’t go away.  It’s the elephant.  Historically, baptism was the single biggest obstacle separating churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement from other traditions and denominations.  In citywide cooperative efforts or local ministerial alliances or Billy Graham crusades or protests against abortion, it was the elephant in the room.  Usually everyone dances around the subject, not wanting to offend or argue.  If it does come up, it is inevitably debated with passion that often evolves into frustration and anger.
      Let me make the subject of this article clear.  I want to explain how I explain baptism.  That is, what words do I use to try and communicate what I have concluded about its purpose and place in the Christian life.  I am not intending, in this article, to explain the reasons that have brought me to this understanding.
      It is my experience that the words people use to explain baptism are often a major obstacle in the conversation.  Baptism as an event-based ritual inescapably linked with the initiatory rites that mark the covenantal inclusion within the Antenicene church is an accurate statement of my view.  It is also a useless statement outside the academy (and not much use even there).
      I think a usable explanation needs to be brief, understandable, and ought to give the person hearing it an accurate understanding of what I believe.  It should not require theological training.  By definition, it needs to be an explanation I can share with people who are contemplating following Christ.  Sure, it may lead to a discussion.  But, the explanation itself should be short and simple.
      So, here it is:  Baptism is how people in the New Testament church said yes to Jesus.     
      I know I need to unpack this a little.  Clearly, by “said yes to Jesus” I mean saying yes to his claim of Lordship and his offer of salvation.  This salvation is by grace and is received through faith.  It is not earned or merited by human works.  It is not a paycheck for obedience.  A discussion of baptism is not a discussion of salvation by faith alone or salvation by faith plus baptism.  Here, at least, I suspect the ways some have explained their understanding of baptism have clouded the issue.
      Stay with me for a moment:   If you believe being a Christian is not simply be born into a Christian family, then you surely believe that, at some point in life, a person needs to experience a conversion to Christ.  Let's set the scene:  A person has been to some Bible studies.  One evening they come to you and say, "I’ve been thinking about all I’ve learned.  I want to be a Christian."  And then they look at you.
      Honestly now, what church says to this person, “Well, my goodness. I guess you’re a Christian then.”
      Let’s admit it.  Every church has something we ask the person to do at this point.  Bow your head.  Say this prayer.  Kneel and we’ll lay hands on you.  Something.  The church surely does not mean the effort needed to bow your head and close your eyes and then form and speak a prayer are that little extra bit of human sweat and toil that pushes the guilty sinner over the line from lost to saved.  No one accuses churches who use the sinner's prayer of being verbal regenerationists.
      We all understand what role the “sinner’s prayer” serves in the process of conversion.  It is something people do to, in effect say: Yes.  At this point in my life, in saying this prayer, I now accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.
      Ask any Christian when they were saved and they will tell about the time when they became a child of God by grace through faith.  I’ve never met someone who, if I asked them, would say, “Well, Tom, I got saved back in 1995, 1996, and 1997.”  Unless they’re talking about multiple conversions, we just don’t describe conversion like that.
      Whether they tell you about going through the “Four Spiritual Laws” or saying the “Sinner’s Prayer” or being baptized or whatever, they are telling you about something that happened.  What they are telling you is, in effect, how they said yes to Jesus.
      Hopefully, you are still hanging in there with me to this point.  You probably know that Pastor Francis Chan and a number of others have now acknowledged there is just no evidence the early church practiced anything like the sinner's prayer as a step in conversion.  We never read anything about leading a convert to say a prayer or raise a hand or come forward during an invitation.  Not a word.
      But, in the New Testament (and the writings of the church over the first three centuries) we keep running into that old elephant.  There’s no way around it.  Baptism just pops up all over the place.  And, you’ve got to admit it, pretty much in the very place where we’d expect people to be doing something to say yes to Jesus.
      Here’s a link to several passages in the New Testament that refer to Christian baptism.  On the second page, I have repeated the list but have also replaced the word baptism with the idea of saying yes to God.  Come on.  Face the elephant.  Take a moment to look them over.
      Let me deal with an important objection.  Isn’t any statement that puts baptism into the process of conversion teaching salvation by works?
      I understand the fear.  After all, getting pushed under water is more physical and external than simply asking Jesus into your heart.  And, it is obviously a ceremony.  Connect a ceremony with salvation and we see old Pope Leo grinning at us over Luther’s dead body.  A prayer just makes more sense to us.  So, why not opt for the prayer over the dunk?  Bear with me…
      A person says a prayer.  A person submits being baptized. 
      In saying a prayer you yourself need to speak (or at least you need to think the words). 
      At the actual moment of baptism, however, you do nothing at all.  You are just there.  You don’t say anything.  You aren’t even told to think anything.  The only thing you might want to do is hold your breath (and even that is not doing something). 
      You do prayer.  Baptism is something done to you.  Even the language we use reflects the difference.
      "I pray." (first person active)
      "I am baptized." (first person passive)  Go ahead, try to say it with an active tense. “I baptize.”  The next question would be something like, “Good.  Now, who did you baptize?”  If baptism has to be a good work, then it could only be a good work for the person doing the baptizing.  For the convert, it is something being done to them.  
      And, then there is that little issue of the whole baptism thing being commanded in the Great Commission, showing up in the short list of "one's" in Ephesians 4, and popping up all over the New Testament.   It comes to us near the end of the Nicene Creed.  Sometimes what we think would make the most sense to us about how people ought to say yes to God needs to be held up against the template of scripture.   It does not have to happen the way we'd have set it up.  To do that would seem to be, at least partly, what faith is all about.
      There are other questions. 
      Here’s a brief list.  I will give my own (even briefer) answers. 
      Am I saying only people who are baptized (as described above) are saved? Absolutely not.
      Am I saying that "baptism is essential for salvation?" I have never said baptism is essential for salvation (except to say that I wouldn't say baptism is essential for salvation)
      Will God honor the prayer of a person who simply asks Jesus into their heart and is not baptized?   I certainly hope so.  Don't you?
      Can’t we just downplay this subject in order to get along and avoid being seen by others as legalistic?  I’d love to, but think about what that is asking.  A person honestly (even if wrongly) believes something I do not believe and I ask them to more or less pretend they don't believe it or I will dismiss them as a ______ [put label here: legalist; feminist; Calvinist; Pelagian; creationist; evolutionist; idiot]
      Can’t I tell a person who totally believes they are a Christian, and has never been immersed, to just forget about the whole thing?  Well, no.  But I’m very willing to tell them they ought to be baptized just because it’s something that would please God.
      Regardless of all other considerations, we are not saved by holding a completely correct theology of baptism (whatever that might be), but by our faith in Jesus. 
      But, we have to say something.  We come back to how we choose to explain it.
      I like the straightforward simplicity and doctrinal clarity of: “Baptism is how people in the New Testament said yes to Jesus.”
      Now, somebody go take care of that elephant over there.


Kirra said...

I love the picture you used, but definitely not as much as I love this post. The baptism "argument" just drives me crazy sometimes. One of my personal favorite posts on my blog is about my thoughts on baptism. I also agree that baptism isn't really a work, but I don't really talk about that in my post. My biggest issue is the people that just choose not to get baptized, whether it's necessary or not. It's not difficult to do, and Jesus said we should do it.

I'd appreciate if you'd check out my post and let me know what you think of it.

Gary said...

So how can intelligent, educated Baptists/evangelicals and orthodox Christians read the same Bible and come up with completely different interpretations? I would like to compare our two different approaches to interpreting the Bible with a non-biblical quote as an example.

How does one interpret this phrase: "All men are created equal" from the US Bill of Rights?

Baptist approach: Let's look at the original language at the time that this phrase was written in the late 1700's and see what the original meaning of each of the words in the phrase was: So...the word "men" meant "the plural of one adult male human being". Therefore, this phrase means that all men, every adult male human being on earth, is created equal. That is the meaning in the original language. Any other interpretation of this phrase is false.

Lutheran approach: Let's look at the original language of this text and the cultural context in which it was written. Also, let's look at the writings of contemporary writers of that period to see that they believed that the writers of the Bill of Rights meant to say in the phrase in question. So...when comparing the original language of the text with the documented, known cultural context, verified by the writings of other contemporary writers of that time period, we reach the conclusion that the phrase used by the writers of the US Bill of Rights "all men are created equal" did NOT mean that all adult, human males on planet earth are created equal, but that only WHITE European males are created equal.

Does any educated person today really believe that the Southern signers of the US Constitution believed that adult black males were created equal to them?? (Most Northerners did not believe that either.)

Do you see how easy it is to arrive at a different interpretation of any "ancient" document if you are unwilling to look at contemporary evidence from that time period to confirm your interpretation?
There is NO evidence of any early Christian believing the Baptist/evangelical position of Symbolic, adult-only Baptism; that in Baptism God does NOT forgive sins. The Baptist/evangelical interpretation of Scripture is very logical and reasonable, but as in the case of the "Baptist" interpretation of the Bill of is completely wrong!

Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals