Thoughts On Christian Baptism

Ken Crawford, 11/12/08


The Ministry Council began a conversation several months ago (around December 07 – January 08) specifically taking up the topic of dedication / rededication of believers. What might it involve, and how might it be signified. Over the last year we have discussed it several times, and mentioned it in various settings throughout the life of the church, including during Worship, in Sunday School, and in the Newsletter and various leadership meetings. We have invited input throughout this time, but received little.


Through the Summer and into the Fall of 2008, Shirley Johannsen began to experience and articulate a personal challenge around baptism, which finally culminated in her preaching this Fall on Baptism, and stating that she would be baptized for the first time in the coming weeks. As she described, her faith journey has included exposure to a variety of Christian forms and theologies of baptism, and she personally arrived at a belief that Christ desired her to enter into baptism as an act of obedience following Jesus’ example, “to fulfill all righteousness”.


This seemed to begin a chain reaction of folks’ hearts being stirred. That Sunday, Shirley came forward, as did her mother Judy Williams, Judy has never been baptized. Shirley’s brother Glen will also come to be baptized for the first time. Judy, and her children, come from a Nazarene tradition where baptism was not even stressed. And, within the Nazarene tradition, Sprinkling, Submersion, and Immersion are accepted forms of baptism.


One of our Elders, Gary Rodenbaugh was baptized as an infant, and desires to reaffirm his baptism through following Christ into the waters of baptism.


Devin O’Donnell, will make her first-time public profession of faith and be baptized. 


Cindy Kyle came forward at the end of the service, desiring to reaffirm her baptism through immersion.


Madison Beaty will make a first-time public profession of faith and be baptized, and her mother Karen will come with her, entering into the baptismal waters as a way of claiming and reaffirming her infant baptism in the Roman Catholic Church.


That group then includes 2 youth who will make first time professions of faith, 3 adults who have previously made professions of faith but never been baptized because their previous church tradition did not teach baptism as important, and 3 adults who were baptized as infants and will come to enter into baptism as adults as a way of reaffirming their baptism. At least one has requested baptism by pouring, and one by sprinkling.


The normative Disciples form of baptism has been by full immersion of those who can profess their faith. In fact, Alexander and Thomas Campbell, two founders of the movement that became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Churches of Christ, and the Independent Christian Churches, had both been baptized as infants in the Presbyterian Church but came to believe that Believers baptism by Immersion was the appropriate biblical form of baptism, and so their teaching became the norm within our three streams of tradition which follow after them.


During the 20th Century, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in an effort to honor Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that we be one as the Father and Son are one, and to honor Paul’s teaching that there is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, (Eph 4:5) began to ‘accept’ as valid, other forms of baptism for those who came into the denomination by transfer from another tradition. In other words, if someone was born to a Presbyterian family, and they had him baptized as an infant, and later he went through confirmation (at about the time that adolescents in DoC churches hold pastor’s class for young believers) then he would be welcomed into full fellowship and not expected to be baptized. This then becomes a tacit approval of infant baptism. While we would not practice infant baptism, believing that a believer needs to make the decision to follow Christ, and that baptism is a sign and seal of that decision, we do honor the beliefs of others.


Additionally, while the common historical interpretation and image of biblical texts on baptism has been that immersion, the texts do not actually say. There is no biblical text which states, “Baptism is by full immersion, with the head and entire body going completely under the surface of the water.” It is highly likely that many baptisms were done this way, as baptism is related to a Jewish ritual washing in a deep bath that would have allowed full submersion under water. It is also believed by many scholars that the Jordan river in the area where Jesus was baptized may not have been deep enough for full submersion, but rather a standing or kneeling in the water, which would then have been scooped and poured over the head. Christian art depicts this and other forms of baptism from as early as the 3rd century. Likewise, the Didache, a document written as a guide for church practice concurrent with the writings of the New Testament, describes various forms or modes of baptism (see reference below).


The word baptize often, but not always, means to submerge. It can also mean simply to wash, as in the text of Mark 7, where the Pharisees challenge Jesus because his disciples do not baptize (wash) their hands. Here two different words for wash are used interchangeably – baptidzo, and nipto.


There are various texts, particularly in Paul’s writing, which develop a metaphor of baptism as a type of burial and resurrection – an idea which would suggest Paul being accustomed to submersion baptism. See especially Romans 6, though Paul does not specifically state water baptism, and may be using the word in the same way that Jesus does in Mark 10:38-39 – entering into a life commitment, mission, or experience.


Finally, it seems to me that the crucial issues in baptism is that the individual be a believer, having made a profession of faith and a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. Further then, that baptism be seen by that individual as an act of obedience to Christ, a uniting with Christ by sharing in this act which he both experienced and taught. This baptism was and is with water, though the biblical mode can not be certainly determined or narrowed to only one. Additionally, the Disciples of Christ are a non-creedal church, resisting any test of faith beyond “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the Living God, and accept Him as Lord and Savior of the World.” As such, we teach and encourage each believer to ‘work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling,’ including discerning what it means for them to faithfully follow Christ. Disciples have historically affirmed the motto, “Where the scriptures speak, we speak. Where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.” The scriptures speak that we should be baptized with water, but beyond that are silent as to how. And our passion for Christian Unity, which first drove Alexander and Thomas Campbell to search the scriptures and study baptism and other biblical Christian practices, calls us to take seriously and honor with integrity the faith and practice of our sisters and brothers in Christ.


Thus, though I respect those who differ, I presently believe it is consistent with the Disciples’ teaching and spirit, as well as with Scripture and Christ’s teaching and desire, to practice baptism by immersion and pouring, and under special circumstances sprinkling.


It just now occurs to me that I need to say… The responsibility for articulating a ‘Church Position’ on baptism or any other theological issue rests with the Body of Elders of which the Pastor is a part, not with the Pastor or any other individual in isolation. AND, theology is a living discipline, thus the need for each generation and each person to learn and practice theological reflection, rather than simply absorbing and embracing earlier interpretations without critical reflection.


I covet your prayerful reflection and spirited discourse on this and any other theological topic.


As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. (Pr 27:17) … and …

In an abundance of counselors there is safety (Pr 11:14)


G&P –  KGC

The Didache

The Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is a second century document, dated around 120. It is generally considered a “pious fraud,” meaning that it was fictitiously written in the name of the apostles for a pious reason. It has value historically, however, because it gives valuable evidence relating to the practices of the early church (N. Feldmeth. “The Anti-Nicene Church.” Class lecture. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary. 1998; CCEL Intro. Teaching Twelve). Its section related to baptism is quite short:

1. And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. 2. But if thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. 3. But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. 4. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before (CCEL Teaching of the Twelve Apostles:VII).

The main points here related to the topic of regeneration are (as in Ignatius’ works) implicit, in a discussion primarily centered around the baptismal mode. There is a stress on baptism in living and cold water. Living water is likely preferred because rivers had symbolic significance as boundaries of transition in the ancient world. The living water emphasis also has Jewish parallels. Water which was running is also still connected to its natural source (J. Draper. The Didache in Modern Research. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1996:46,218). Cold water may have been prescribed because of the shocking nature, which would make baptism a memorable event. Interestingly, however, if these types of water are not available, or even if enough water is not available to immerse, the great importance of baptism is seen in the admonition to do so in at least some fashion regardless of the resources at hand. The emphasis of living water is especially consistent with concepts of a change in the baptized person’s life.