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Posts Tagged ‘unity’

Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Baptism, the New Testament and the Church (JSNT Supplement Series 171; Sheffield Academic Press, 1999)

In his article, “Open and Closed Membership”, Kenneth Roxburgh acknowledges that “It seems evident that, in the early days of the book of Acts, baptism was ‘simple and spontaneous’ and appeared to be part and parcel of the experience of conversion.” (p. 444; quoting James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (T&T Clark, 1997), p. 448).

In reaction to some churches who are very dogmatic about baptism, one can swing to the other extreme and devalue or dismiss water-baptism altogether (e.g. Quakers and Salvation Army). Roxburgh does however note that

by the time Paul visits the city of Corinth about 50 CE, baptism is not so important that the apostle felt obliged to baptize each believer. Indeed, when he writes to the congregation he confesses that he cannot remember the names of all the people he had baptized. When we consider that the congregation probably “comprised no more than about three or four dozen” believers, this indicates that “Paul deliberately de-emphasises baptism”. [quoting James Dunn, 1 Corinthians (NTG; Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), p. 14 and ibid, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 450]

With respect to open membership, Roxburgh makes a distinction between believers transferring from another denomination where immersion was not practiced and the case of unbaptized believers raised within a Baptist church (typically youth who make a profession of faith). In the former, open membership is an act of charity and fellowship, whereas in the latter case, the youth would have to be baptized before formally received as members. George Beasley-Murray states the matter plainly thus:

[open membership] is solely for members of other Churches transferring to a Baptist Church. This restricts it to what it was intended to be — an act of Christian charity and fellowship among the Churches, in recognition that other communions are truly Christ’s and as truly Church as Baptists are. But young people confessing their faith and converts without should never question the need for baptism; they should refrain from  … Church membership  … until they have submitted to baptism.

At my church yesterday, I attended the second (of a three-part) baptism class, led by one of our pastors (SM). He rightly pointed out that there is a nexus of concepts of which baptism is inextricably linked with, which he summarized as: belief, (new) birth, baptism, belonging, behaving (hopefully I have this right!). I only wished that this point is stressed more often, as the NT knows nothing of an unbaptized believer (under normal circumstances, the repentant thief on the cross being one obvious exception).

This never fails to baffle me, how some Baptists get worked up in arms over the mode of baptism, but fail to discern fully the meaning of baptism and are therefore, “soft” on professing believers who delay baptism for months or years. Perhaps it is partially (largely ?) the fault of those who are communicating the Gospel, that it is often presented in a shallow and formulaic manner that leads to a reductionistic understanding of what conversion entails. In other words, saying Yes to the Gospel, saying Yes to Jesus means saying Yes to identifying with Him through baptism.

As to the motivation, it is desiring to obey Jesus as Lord and publicly identify with Him and His people, as a visible rite of initiation into the church. Furthermore, I was glad that SM alluded to the experiential aspect of baptism, that it is a means of grace. It is also a “bodily” expression of our faith and an opportunity for the community of believers to tangibly participate in this means of grace as a body: hearing the baptizand’s testimony (salvation story), witnessing the baptismal act and sharing the baptizand’s new life in the Spirit by welcoming him/her with a hug or handshake. It is a beautiful symbol, sign and sacrament of another brother/sister being brought into union with Christ and all the attendant salvific benefits, including the gift of the Spirit, through whom he/she is incorporated into the fellowship of the one Body.

Prolonged delay between conversion and baptism unfortunately weakens the significance of the event as well as diluting the whole matter of discipleship (cf. Matt. 28:19-20).

We come now to the matter of the mode of baptism.

Genuine believers have been baptized by aspersion (sprinkling), affusion (pouring) and immersion/submersion. Maybe my idea of trimodal baptism is not so crazy after all: beleivers should be sprinkled, poured on, and immersed when they get baptized:

Trimodal Baptism
Words Spoken Mode Scripture
 I baptize you in the name of the Father  water is sprinkled/splashed all over the believer  I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations. (Eze. 36:25-27; NET)
 and in the name of the Son  believer is submerged  Having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead (Col. 2:12; NET)
 and in the name of the Holy Spirit  water is poured over the believer’s head  Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38; NET; cf. Acts 2:17, 33, 38; 10:45-48)

Sailing Through Stormy Seas

As I see it, there are two practical matters that require immediate attention.

With regards to the brother who was sprinkled as a believer, we should recognize his baptism as valid assuming that there is a shared agreement on the meaning of baptism. As such, he should be welcomed as a full-fledged member of the church. (Rom. 15:7)

With regards to unbaptized believers in the church: they  should be encouraged and exhorted to be baptized immediately. There is simply no reason for disobeying and delaying.

The meaning and motivation is more important than the mode. While I think that immersion was the apostolic norm, I do not believe we can incontrovertibly demonstrate from the Scriptures that immersion is always in view. We should not be dogmatic and inflexible.

The ‘simple and spontaneous’ baptisms in the apostolic church should rebuke us for needlessly complicating this simple and significant conversion-initiation rite.

That said, the church as a body needs to reexamine the biblical teaching on baptism and come to a clearer understanding of the meaning of baptism as but one link in the conversion-initiation chain and that perhaps a trimodal administration of baptism does more justice to the rich meaning inherent in conversion-initiation.

I write as one who desires unity in the church and pray that love may prevail; I am certainly NOT trying to stir the pot or make waves.

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