Friday, April 22, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Baptized Into What?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I’m going to quote a full minute of a recent sermon on the subject of the New Testament teaching about baptism here because I want to fairly represent what this particular pastor was trying to communicate. A punchy line or two out of a message is fun, but may distort the speaker’s intent. In this case, providing the entire context makes that intent quite clear.

“I believe that the commission to baptize all nations was given to the church.

I have different conversations about this: ‘We were at an event and a baptism took place’, or ‘We were at a camp and a baptism took place’ or, hey, ‘A bunch of us friends wanted to get together and we had a baptism’. I talked with a guy that said his small group did a baptism.

Where do we get the right to say that we are a local church if we are a small group or an organization? Let me tell you what I think the problem with that is. Let’s say if it happens at a camp or at a retreat — well, a retreat might be a little different because it’s more associated with a church — let’s say a camp. So a person is saved and baptized.

What happens then? Then camp is their church, and they are somewhat disconnected from a local body, a local church … until when? Until next summer, until camp starts all over again. That’s problematic. See, I think what needs to happen in a situation where a young person is saved at a Christian camp … I think what needs to happen is that person is saved, then the church is contacted: ‘This young person has made a profession of faith in Christ, we’ve walked them through what it means to be baptized. Let’s get them back in your church and let’s get them baptized in the church.’ ”

Tom: I see Immanuel Can is chomping at the bit already. IC, what’s your take?

Breaking Down the Issues

Immanuel Can: For me, there are three issues this speaker raises. One is his take on the practical consequences of allowing people to baptize outside of the church and clergy (namely, he thinks this denigrates their relationship with the local church). The second is the scriptural warrant for keeping baptism in the local church (a thing he seems to assume rather than bother to prove). Then there’s a third thing, one more implicit here but that he makes explicit in his additional comments; and that is the connection he sees between baptizing a person and bringing him/her into church membership (that is, that he seems to see it as a sort of church initiation ritual).

So which do you want to take first, Tom?

Baptism in the Local Church and Scripture

Tom: Oh, let’s do the scripture first. He’s against allowing people or maybe just against encouraging people to baptize outside a local church where there can be follow-up and membership.

But where do we get this idea that baptism falls under the purview of a local church? That’s not remotely a New Testament idea, is it? I mean, the Great Commission, including baptism, was given to individual believers. The church did not yet exist. Now the church did exist in the book of Acts, both locally and universally, but Philip baptized the eunuch from Ethiopia beside the highway. What church was the eunuch baptized into? Or the new believers in the house of Cornelius in Acts 10; what local church were they baptized into?

This preacher asks, “Where do we get the right to say that we are a local church?” Wrong question. We should be asking who gives anyone the right to restrict or control how professing believers get baptized?

Time and Circumstances

IC: That’s true. That’s the real issue here: when, where and under what circumstances is baptism to happen? Our problem starts with timing: in every case we have from scripture, baptism was immediate, on the spot, for every believer. There is no thought in scripture of an unbaptized believer. But we routinely allow people to make professions of faith without understanding that what they are doing is the dying to self that is modeled in baptism. That’s wrong.

Tom: I think this reflects the tendency of churches to want to micromanage these things and the default expectation among believers that it is right for them to do so. I mean, Catholicism vests authority in the Church rather than simply the scripture. Protestantism broke away from that to a degree and Evangelicalism even more so. Still, we have not completely lost this sense that we must look to the church for approval or initiative about many things that are simply the responsibility of individual Christians. The eunuch asks “What prevents me?” It’s a really good question. Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water?” I would suggest we had better not withhold water.

Location, Location, Location

IC: Here’s another thing: the issue of place. In no case was baptism ever cloistered in a church or temple; rather, it was invariably in a public waterway of some kind, as in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch. In fact, so nondescript was the waterway, we don’t even have its name. It certainly wasn’t even the muddy Jordan, where Christ and John’s disciples were baptized. But I think the most important feature was this: it was public, not privatized in any way. If so, we are wrong to hide in a church building to do baptism, because it deprives the person being baptized of the publicity that ought to attend his/her decision, and deprives the world of that testimony. I wonder if we’d have so many lackadaisical professors of faith if we went back to public baptism.

Tom: That’s quite right. Basically the NT criteria seems to be “Where’s the nearest body of water?” Nobody in the New Testament seems to think they need approval, or a venue, or a special date, or a special ceremony. It’s like, you’re saved? Let’s get it done. So, fine, you get saved at camp, get in the lake. Why not?

Who’s In Charge?

IC: I also think he’s way off track when he supposes a clergyman or religious official should even be present. There is no biblical mention of anything like clergy in connection with baptism: often it was performed by someone on hand, maybe the person who had brought the person to repentance or salvation; sometimes not even by that person, but by someone else on hand, another Christian. Paul sometimes actively avoided baptizing people in order to keep clear of any misapprehension of his personal specialness.

Tom: Absolutely. Jesus too did not baptize. It was his disciples who were given that privilege, and very early in their discipleship. Again, I think this comes back to the default assumption that the church must sanction these sorts of things to make them “official”.

IC: But what about this idea that baptism is some sort of membership ritual for the local church? Does he have a legitimate worry that people will stop valuing the local church if we baptize them at camp or in some other informal circumstance?

Tom: Is that the worry? I was thinking he had absorbed the high church notion that baptism grants you membership to a particular church.

IC: It’s not a worry in my view. But he worries about it. He worries there are all these people who will think they don’t need the church or him in order to be baptized, and he’s trying to hedge off that possibility. He also thinks believers would get baptized then continue in their way NOT being members of the church.

Tom: Wait, wait ... is he ... salaried? Never mind. Ungracious thought there. Carry on.

The Practical Consequences of Baptizing Outside the Church

Earlier you mentioned that he seems to have a concern that baptizing outside the local church (and perhaps with the presence of “clergy”) denigrates the new believer’s relationship with the local church. Can you expand on that.

IC: Well, he thinks that if someone is not “church baptized” then he or she will be less likely to see any need to be in a local church. The cause-and-effect he posits there doesn’t look at all obvious to me, but he seems to think it should.

Tom: Even if being baptized in a particular local church does make you a “member” of that local entity quite foreign to the teaching of scripture — he is still presupposing a sort of continuous church fellowship that almost nobody these days experiences. I was baptized in one meeting, broke bread in another a year later, and have attended five or six others regularly since, depending on my location and stage of life. Even many of the New Testament saints moved around and could not be said to be “members” of only one particular gathering of believers.

What Draws Believers into Church Fellowship?

I think he’s worrying about something that is not really an issue if a person has genuinely become a follower of Christ. Say you get saved at a Christian camp; really, truly saved. There first thing the Spirit of Christ in you is going to want is fellowship. How do we know we have passed from death into life? Because we love the brethren. If that isn’t true, we are probably not believers at all.

IC: I agree. And I think that substituting the regulations of man for the principles of scripture is always a bad idea. It’s always done with the rationale that it’s more “practical” to do so, but I think that only shows a lack of trust in the purposes and plans of the Head of the church. After all, if the Good Shepherd cannot keep his own sheep, we are certainly not going to be able to round them up with our regulations.

Baptism as Initiation Ritual

Tom: How about your third observation, the one about using baptism as a church initiation ritual. With whom are we identified in baptism, IC? Is it with a local congregation?

IC: Not at all. It is true that we are all “baptized into one body”, but the emphasis there is very explicitly on the universal body of Christ, into whose death we are baptized. There is no mention of a person being baptized into a local church at all, and no mention of membership or commitment to the local church associated with baptism … not anywhere, and not ever. So this preacher’s concern is simply one the Bible does not share.

Tom: And it is advisable to share concerns with the Bible. Our pastor friend is right in that he identifies baptism as connecting us to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Good on him. But how he gets from that to initiation or identification with a particular local church is quite mystifying.

IC: Perhaps that accounts for the fact that he really doesn’t know what baptism is. It’s a public confession of the death of an individual and his or her rebirth with Christ. As such, it precedes but does not cause local church membership, and no one has the right to interfere with an individual’s right to do it wherever he or she is. The preacher in question worries that it will denigrate the role of the church if a person does it in a public way, say with friends or at a camp. But he’s simply wrong.

The more public the situation, the more courageous the declaration.

That seems to me to be the best and truest spirit of baptism.

Tom: Amen.


  1. Let me share my experience and opinion on this topic. First of all, the Catholic church, no matter what the topic, always seems to get a bum rap when protestants (of any persuasion) make her part of a discussion :-/. That is often done in an uninformed way and simply based on century old stereotypical thinking. Here is what Catholics (this one) think and know about baptism. Yes, baptism is generally done in a church because it is also considered an important social event by the church community. Guess what, it often gets people to set foot in a church that haven't done that for decades but will do so for their new relative. Next, the church (and for a Catholic "the church" means its members, who also happen to like having priests) has come to realize that the romantic notion of baptizing at a lake site can be inconvenient and that there is a better flow of events if people are in a more social setting, dress up a little and enjoy a good social get together in a nice restaurant afterwards. We always appreciate that because we get to see and talk to long lost relatives that way. Get over the hang up with this church vs lake business. The directive and empowerment that has been passed on to me as a Catholic absolutely includes that I can, should, and will baptize at any time, from a dripping water cooler if I have to, if there is a lost soul in a personal or public emergency situation who wants to reconcile with Christ on the spot. This is totally within the purview of the Catholic teaching and the catholic believer.

    I have attended numerous Catholic masses where, without my knowing, or agreeing to beforehand, baptisms were held as part of a mass by one or several families having everyone in the congregation enjoy when those little squealing bundles are held up high after having experienced a dunk in (a non-heated) baptismal font. Invariably, at those baptisms, there were also a godfather and godmother present, friends or relatives of the baptismal family who commit to encouraging their new godchild in their faith as they grow up. Their presence stresses the fact that, as you mention yourself, it is preferable that you baptize if feasible with parents and godparents informed about the responsibility they bear for guiding that new life in faith. That is another reason, to demonstrate the readiness and willingness of the family to pass on and support faith of the new member, why church baptisms are preferred to an ad hoc baptism by the lake.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Q. If you ever feel like you're banging your head against a wall talking to Protestants and evangelicals, it may be because ... well, you are. I appreciate that there are all sorts of practical reasons why baptizing in a church with family may produce this or that good consequence, and all sorts of logical reasons why Catholicism (and numerous Protestant denominations too, to be fair) have evolved into doing this or that down through the years.

    There are probably logical reasons for sprinkling too, though it is not the pattern of scriptural baptism and we actually did not even get around to discussing it in this post.

    That said, with your knowledge of church history you are probably aware of the concept of sola scriptura, and that is the hill I am prepared to die on, personally. I think IC, for all his higher education and philosophy background would completely back me on that one, as would Bernie and everybody who writes here. What matters to us is the words and the pattern of scripture, nothing else. That's where our authority comes from and it's ... well, really the only thing we care about.

    All to say, you may wonder why we don't always see what may seem to you to be obvious, logical and practical. That's why. Everything I need to know about baptism is found in the pages of the word of God. Nothing else enables me to act with the confidence of faith in the church or at home, nothing else holds any authority for me, and -- not in the least meaning to be rude -- for me, nothing else even holds much interest.

    1. Yeah, I'll back you on that, Tom.

      If baptism were a human artifact, designed for our purposes and dependent on our needs, we might make it whatever we wished, I suppose. Or if it were a church artifact, then any church -- local or denominational -- could declare its baptism policy to be whatever it liked...and I would say nothing.

      However, my belief from Scripture is that baptism was ordained by the Lord, for His purposes. He arranged in it a way in which the believing person could mark his decision to consecrate Himself to God by placing his faith in Jesus Christ, and God the Father could draw to the believer's consciousness the full implications of any decision to follow Him.

      So I must confess I have no patience at all for anything that interferes with the Lord's purposes in baptism. It's His ordinance, for the individual believer...any church, clergyman, denomination or person who undermines that loses my sympathy immediately.

      So that's my position.

    2. You gave me too much credit, Tom. I mentioned before that I am not a theologian but a natural scientist (physics, math) that got interested in philosophy as more of a hobby. Turns out that philosophy of religion, or involving religion, is one of the largest and busiest topics out there that was able to hold my interest. So, I looked up sola scriptura and now understand what is involved here for Protestants. Your opinion, do you think there can ever be some type of rapprochement between the faiths?

      Since I debated a lot of atheists, I can also ask,

      1. God of course knows about the divide but seems to do nothing about it. Thus, is it, unbeknownst to us, a strategic move by God to have the current state of affairs, and eventually a greater good will come out of it? Thus you could argue it is even a beneficial thing.

      2. Is it simply the obdurateness of human nature that always throws a monkey wrench into God's works?

      3. Is it lack of human intellectual and/or moral capacity that needs further development over time to resolve this?

      4. Neither of the above?

      5. All or most of the above?

  3. We are in agreement then because that's exactly what baptism means for Catholics as well. As a matter of fact the emphasis in the Catholic tradition to talk to the parents and have them be aware of the significance of baptism and determine if they have the intent and disposition to follow through with the promise of baptism for their child is commendable and in no way interferes with but strengthens the biblical purpose of baptism. The fact that baptism is performed in small or large settings including, a resulting celebratory social setting does not detract from it but will encourage new parents to seek baptism for their child. To me there is no issue or divide here between the faiths.

    1. I note also a basic difference that is included (but not perhaps recognized) in the discussion between you and Tom so far, Qman. That is, the question of whether or not belief is an essential precondition of baptism.

      If infant baptism is to be considered at all, then personal belief would have to be thought unnecessary, as babies clearly have no beliefs of their own concerning Jesus Christ. However, if faith is a necessary prerequisite for conversion, and subsequently for baptism, then infant baptism would be unscriptural, one of those innovations brought in illegitimately by clerical fiat or tradition-gone-wrong.

      My own view would be the latter. For I do not know of a single Scriptural instance of anything remotely resembling infant baptism, and find only precedents for believer baptism.

    2. Here is an explanation of the Catholic perspective on infant baptism based on the source below.
      It stresses that dying in the state of original sin is risky and therefore baptism should occur early.
      Of course, if you do not believe in original sin, or that original sin remains with you were you not baptized, then it's a moot point. The Catholic church, to mitigate that risk also suggests, however, that there are other forms (spiritual) forms of baptism possible, a baptism of desire, (think of being/dying in a desert, then what?), which is also available to a non-Christian if they have heard of and desire Christ at point of death without having an opportunity for an actual baptism.

      "Infant Baptism
      In the Catholic Church today, baptism is most commonly administered to infants. While some other Christians strenuously object to infant baptism, believing that baptism requires assent on the part of the person being baptized, the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and other mainline Protestants also practice infant baptism, and there is evidence that it was practiced from the earliest days of the Church.
      Since baptism removes both the guilt and the punishment due to Original Sin, delaying baptism until a child can understand the sacrament may put the child's salvation in danger, should he die unbaptized."


      Btw, to me this falls into my interest and fascination with why and how human irrationality manifests itself so often that the best brains over centuries cannot resolve something like that amicably. It also plays into the hands of the non-believer because they say "just look at yourselves and you expect us to get involved in your messy beliefs?"

    3. Well, we certainly believe in original sin, but not in the efficacy of baptism (by immersion or sprinkling) to remove it. Believer's baptism in the New Testament merely identifies you publicly with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. Any other meaning that may be offered for it comes from tradition or fancy. I would be interested in any scripture reference you can find that might suggest that any form of baptism removes original sin.

      Part of the reason, I suspect, that non-believers may look at Christians and think our beliefs "messy" is that the authority of tradition and history gets held up by some as equal to that of the word of God itself. If we were all to simply agree that only the Bible is authoritative, we might have a better chance of coming to an agreement about what any particular scripture means.

      As it is, if some say that, say, infant baptism was "practiced from the earliest days of the Church", anyone who believes in Scripture Alone cannot possible accept that as counterevidence for the teaching the Bible itself. The two things are simply not of equal weight.

      I'm not expecting you to agree with me on that, Qman, but that is certainly where we part company on the meaning of baptism.

    4. Qman:

      Did I anywhere mention the Catholic Church? I've reviewed my message, and have found I didn't.

      But if the shoe fits...I mean, your article says that baptism "is not most commonly administered to infants." That stops a long way short of saying "believer baptism."

    5. Tom, respectfully, but it seems to be a matter of interpretation. It's just a question of who's interpretation. See the material below.

      Also, I have a problem with this totally literal business only without room for extrapolation, reasonable interpretation and review within solid limits of reason.

      As someone who wrote a lot, especially involving complex technical materials and market driven issues and based on my knowledge of communication in general it would be a disaster to claim that only a totally literal interpretation of written material is useful. Quite the opposite is true, it would be totally detrimental to getting the job done.

      I therefore, for sound practical reasons, cannot buy into the exact written word only meaning of the bible. It is, in my opinion, artificial and not realistic and sound. I agree though that deviating from pure literalism would make life more complicated if there are different thoughts of interpretation. But I think that could be resolved based on their historical, logical, and psychological merits.

      Here are some references:
      "Mark 16:16 - Jesus says to the crowd, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved." But in reference to the same people, Jesus immediately follows with "He who does not believe will be condemned." This demonstrates that one can be baptized and still not be a believer. This disproves the Protestant argument that one must be a believer to be baptized. There is nothing in the Bible about a "believer's baptism."

      Luke 18:15 – Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.” The people brought infants to Jesus that he might touch them. This demonstrates that the receipt of grace is not dependent upon the age of reason.

      Acts 2:38 - Peter says to the multitude, "Repent and be baptized.." Protestants use this verse to prove one must be a believer (not an infant) to be baptized. But the Greek translation literally says, "If you repent, then each one who is a part of you and yours must each be baptized” (“Metanoesate kai bapistheto hekastos hymon.”) This, contrary to what Protestants argue, actually proves that babies are baptized based on their parents’ faith. This is confirmed in the next verse.

      Acts 2:39 - Peter then says baptism is specifically given to children as well as adults. “Those far off” refers to those who were at their “homes” (primarily infants and children). God's covenant family includes children. The word "children" that Peter used comes from the Greek word "teknon" which also includes infants.

      Luke 1:59 - this proves that "teknon" includes infants. Here, John as a "teknon" (infant) was circumcised. See also Acts 21:21 which uses “teknon” for eight-day old babies. So baptism is for infants as well as adults.

      Acts 10:47-48 - Peter baptized the entire house of Cornelius, which generally included infants and young children. There is not one word in Scripture about baptism being limited to adults.

      Acts 16:15 - Paul baptized Lydia and her entire household. The word "household" comes from the Greek word "oikos" which is a household that includes infants and children.

      Acts 16:15 - further, Paul baptizes the household based on Lydia's faith, not the faith of the members of the household. This demonstrates that parents can present their children for baptism based on the parents' faith, not the children's faith."

    6. Hmmm....

      The interpretation doesn't follow there, Qman...or to put it philosophically, you conclusions are insufficiently connected to the available premises. Unfortunately, doing justice to explaining this is going to take some doing. I wonder if we're better to do it here, or to make a new post to address this case...

      Whatever the decision, I trust you'll understand we're not trying to Catholic-bash or pick on you personally, but rather to deal with questions you've raised yourself in a fair and substantive way. Take it as a sign of appreciation for your frankness, if you will.

      What say, Tom?

    7. Agreed. Too big for the comments section of a week-old post. Give me a few days to chew on it.

      But in the meantime, Qman, where did this whole "literal business" thing come from? It sounds like you may be arguing with other Protestants there. I don't believe I've mentioned literalism in this post or its comments.

      Since you bring it up though, I do subscribe to a literal interpretation of scripture, but by "literal" I mean "natural", or not spiritualized without a solid, text-based reason to read it that way. Literal interpreters of scripture read metaphors as metaphors, poetry as poetry, allegory as allegory (the parables, for example), figurative language as figurative language and hyperbole as hyperbole.

      Certainly "it would be a disaster to claim that only a totally literal interpretation of written material is useful", but I've made no such claim that I'm aware of, and I think all but the most extremely "literal" interpreters of scripture would agree with me.

      Frankly, I suspect it's a bigger disaster to interpret something figuratively that is intended to be interpreted literally; the instructions on a medicine bottle, for instance.

      Can you give me an example, Qman, of what you're referring to when you bring up the literalism issue? It sounds to me like you're either introducing another topic entirely here, or else you're confusing the concept of sola scriptura with a mode of interpretation, when they're two very different things.

  4. Hmm. By sola scriptura, as you will have seen, I mean "scripture alone". That is to say I believe the only legitimate authority for human conduct and the only useful source of understanding in the world is the word of God as contained in the Bible.

    So, as I understand it:

    (1) Does God know about the divide between people who call themselves His and and do nothing to resolve it? It would seem so.

    (2) Does the obdurateness of human nature throw a monkey wrench into God's plans? I would say not. Since he is all-knowing and infinitely powerful, he cannot be surprised and he cannot be outmaneuvered.

    (3) Will human intellectual and/or moral capacity resolve the differences? I would say not. What is needed for unity is the character of Christ worked out it each life by means of his Spirit. It is a spiritual issue, not merely a moral or intellectual issue.

    1. I disagree on that a bit on point 2, Tom. Of course I was not implying that anyone can get the better of God.

      What I am saying is that God permits us to throw a monkey wrench into the works because of free will. Why else are we often simply making a mess of our lives? God simply does not play policeman (a complaint that many atheists have and take as proof of no God or an uncaring God, (not my opinion)).