“Other denominations certainly have tended to see it [believer’s baptism by immersion] as what set Baptists apart. For centuries, it has been the most obvious answer to the question: What makes Baptists different?” said James Leo Garrett, distinguished professor emeritus of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, and author of Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study.
But even a casual look at Baptist life today reveals troubled waters:
• While most Baptists reject infant baptism, some congregations readily baptize preschoolers.
• Many nondenominational churches require believer’s baptism by immersion, but some Baptist congregations accept as members Christians who were sprinkled as infants.
• Nearly all Baptists insist baptism is a symbolic ordinance with no soul-saving power; however, a small-but-growing number prefer to speak of baptism as a vital sacrament. Meanwhile, others ask why baptism should be demanded of new believers at all, since it’s “just a symbol.”
Many Christians choose their place of worship based on the quality of programs a particular church offers for their children or the style of music in worship services — and growing numbers move easily from one denomination to another, observers of church life note. So, some Baptists question whether churches realistically can demand Christians from other traditions submit to believer’s baptism by immersion before they are allowed to join a Baptist congregation.
Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C., points to the breakdown in denominational uniformity as a factor leading to a diminished emphasis on Baptist churches demanding believer’s baptism by immersion.
“Because denominations are breaking down, when people move from one town to another, they may be part of a Methodist church one place and then go to a Baptist congregation in the next,” Freeman said. “Before, the boundaries were stable, but the boundaries are very unstable now.”
Sociologists of religion agree on what marketers already recognize: Americans don’t value brand loyalty the way they once did. But committing one’s life to a specific Christian fellowship hardly should be equated with loyalty to a particular brand of toothpaste or toilet paper, other scholars insist.
“Is it just a consumer mentality, where the choice of church is looked upon as no different than choosing a grocery store or gas station, or is it a decision based on deeply rooted convictions?” Garrett asked.
Believer’s baptism by immersion represents an act of obedience to Christ’s command, not just a Baptist prerequisite to church membership, said Karen Bullock, professor of Christian heritage and at the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Arlington, Texas.
“There are young people in all of our churches who say they want just to ‘love Jesus’ but don’t want to be a member of a community of faith or to be baptized. These individuals reason that they can go to heaven and be a Christ-follower without baptism since, they argue, it does not convey salvation, and it is not necessary for salvation,” she observed.
“They don’t like having to think about being ‘dunked’ in water in front of a bunch of people they don’t know or care about. They don’t think Jesus’ command to be baptized should be applied to them and don’t know the biblical link between believer’s baptism and the local church.
“But at its root, many who work with young people who talk like this say that this may be an authority issue for them. They just want to pick and choose what parts they will do and will not do. Believer’s baptism is a matter of obedience to Christ, not just an outdated and meaningless churchly act. Baptists have not historically adjusted our theology to make it more palatable to culture.”
Baptism matters, Freeman agreed. But he maintains larger issues include uncoerced faith, what it means to be a church and what discipleship entails.
“What does it mean to exemplify the lifestyle of a follower of Christ?” he asked.
Walter Shurden, retired professor of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., and founding director of the Center for Baptist Studies there, also cited Baptists’ emphasis on an uncoerced faith.
“The defining theological characteristic of early Baptist life was a local body of believers made up of Christians who had voluntarily committed their lives to Christ as Lord, what in Baptist-speak has been known as ‘a regenerate church’ or a ‘believer’s church.’ Believer’s baptism was the practice that Baptists used to try and guarantee a believer’s church.”
Believer’s baptism by immersion offers the best practice for disciples of Christ — one that increasing numbers of non-Baptist churches have adopted, he, Garrett and Bullock agreed. Furthermore, Baptist churches should practice believer’s baptism by immersion — not the sprinkling of infants, they insisted.
But that does not mean those churches necessarily must see the infant baptism of other Christians as “no baptism,” Freeman insisted.
Advocates of open membership — both in early Baptist life and today — insist congregations should accept members on the basis of their profession of faith in Christ — regardless whether it came before or after their baptism, and without demanding that Christians who were baptized as infants submit to immersion as adults.
Freeman noted a small but influential minority in early Baptist life insisted Christ’s church was larger than the Baptist fold, and they argued individual congregations have no right to exclude any whom Christ accepted.
“In some ways, today’s instability looks similar to the instability among Baptists in London in the 17th century. Our history is really complicated,” he said.
Some advocates of open membership insist the vital issue for early Baptists was free faith without coercion, and their insistence upon believer’s baptism was a secondary corollary to that central conviction.
“In one sense, believer’s baptism was not the root issue; a believer’s church was the root issue, or, as you say, uncoerced faith,” said Shurden. “However, the early Baptists did believe that they were following biblical injunctions in calling for believer’s baptism”
But Bullock maintains while uncoerced faith and believer’s baptism are related beliefs, dedication to the latter did not just grow out of the former.
“The voluntary nature of true faith is important. Only one’s conscious, uncoerced repentance, faith and obedience to Christ can express the New Testament meaning of believer’s baptism. Symbolized in the baptismal act are the deeply rich theological realities that it beautifully portrays,” she said.
“But believer’s baptism also expresses much, much more as it speaks to how the local church is comprised and works to effect kingdom work together. The local church is primarily a spiritual reality of believers led by the Holy Spirit, who resides and does his work in the lives of believers.”
Baptist advocates of open membership and those who oppose the practice generally agree Baptists — at least in the United States in recent decades — have muddied the baptismal waters by baptizing young children.
“It’s certainly a stress factor. Toddler baptisms press the credibility of churches who claim to practice believer’s baptism,” Freeman said, noting issues of coercion and influence grow greater as the candidates for baptism grow increasingly younger.
Early Baptists saw baptism as the expression of “a sober, sacred vow with heavy expectations for church membership and a life of selfless service to Christ,” Bullock added. So, they insisted candidates for baptism possess the maturity to make that kind of serious commitment.
“Probably early teens would have been the youngest candidates for baptism,” said Shurden. “Again, the goal was a believer’s church.” Baptism of very young children has “devalued the root idea behind believer’s baptism, that of a regenerate church,” he said.
“I do indeed think that the trend toward the baptism of children has devalued the meaning of believer’s baptism among our own people,” Bullock said. “When folks do not understand what it is that baptism actually means, and when churches baptize people without the accompanying and necessary biblical teaching about it, the act becomes something anachronistic, unrelated to contemporary life, and considered not worth retaining.”
Failure to understand what baptism means — and to teach its meaning to the next generation — may be the real source of the baptism brouhaha in Baptist life. Too many Baptist churches have a “confessionally illiterate membership,” Garrett lamented.
Because the commitment to believer’s baptism has been neglected, some Baptists have moved in the opposite direction, Bullock noted. They have embraced an understanding of baptism as sacrament rather than symbol — that is, they have moved toward belief that baptism is a gateway to salvation.
“I think the questions about baptism’s meaning are not so much the fault of a ‘churchly act’ or an ordinance or a symbol losing its relevance in our culture today. I think these questions arise because we Baptists have not been faithful to the very truths they represent,” she said.
“I do think the newest generation of Baptist leaders among us here in the United States is looking for deep meaning and something worth living and dying for, and they have not found it in the way we have conducted ourselves of late. So, many are turning to sacramentalism for a sense of deep meaning. Perhaps even some of our younger Baptist scholars are leaning this direction in their disaffection with their experience of Baptist life. After all, the current problem has lasted some 30 years — long enough for a full generation to have no memories of ‘good days’ among us.
“But I don’t think abandoning or compromising the basic fundamental New Testament teachings about salvation and discipleship and obedience and the nature of true faith — all portrayed by believer’s baptism — will help us to become more vital as a distinctive people of God.”
Ironically, said Shurden, Baptists have unwittingly sacramentalized baptism by viewing believer’s baptism by immersion as necessary.
“I think Baptists today need to rethink baptism as it relates to a believer’s church. The empirical truth, obvious I think to everyone, is that the practice of believer’s baptism has not guaranteed a believer’s church and adding immersion certainly does not guarantee a regenerate church. … [Baptists’] sacramentalizing of baptism has not moved them one inch closer to their original idea of a believer’s church.”
Ken Camp is managing editor of the Baptist Standard.