In January I began teaching a series of evening Bible studies on the early Christian church as depicted in the book of Acts. Each week we began by re-reading Acts 2:41-47 as the focal point of our ongoing study. Over the course of our time, we dissected the practices, rituals, structures, and leadership patterns of the early church. Most of our study was free from debate and controversy. However, when we finally came to the topic of baptism, the room quickly filled with questions. I was somewhat surprised because the members of our church seem to have a general agreement about the way we believe it is best to practice baptism. However, as I realized, our general agreement on the topic as a congregation did not eliminate the larger controversies within the global church. The more we discussed the various controversies and positions related to baptism, the more I became convinced that what matters most in regards to baptism is what happens after baptism.
Even a casual reading of the book of Acts will reveal that the early church did not practice baptism in one set manner. This alone might account for the years of debate and disagreement within the church in regards to correct baptismal practices. I would suggest that Acts 2:36-41 comes closest to setting a normative pattern for baptism– hear the gospel message, repent and believe that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, be baptized in the name of Jesus, and receive the promise of the Holy Spirit. However, later examples in Acts show the Spirit arriving before baptism (Acts 10:44-48) or persons who have received John’s water baptism but not the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7). Then, add to the mix the additional controversy of the “household baptisms,” where young children or servants may have been baptized without making an individual profession of faith first (Acts 16:32-34). Discussion of baptism in Acts can quickly become more complicated than one might initially suspect.
Stemming from the ambiguity of the Bible itself, there are a whole range of debates today about the appropriate way to practice baptism. For starters, there is the debate about the age of the person to be baptized. Those on the side of infant baptism find support in the aforementioned “household baptisms,” or in the connection between baptism and circumcision, an old covenant sign placed upon male infants (Col. 2:11-12). Those on the side of adult baptism find support in the sequence of events listed above– hear, repent, believe, and then be baptized– that seem to preclude an infant or small child from being eligible for baptism. Furthermore, Tertullian, in one of the oldest references to infant baptism in Christian writing, advises that it is preferable to delay baptism in the case of young children due to the seriousness of the commitment.1
Then, there are a whole range of debates about the performance of the ritual itself. Should a person be fully immersed in the waters of baptism? Full immersion would seem to best preserve the imagery of death and new life (Rom. 6:1-4). However, those who favor sprinkling might argue that the efficacy of baptism is not linked to the volume of water used in the ritual. The debates related to the ritual do not stop with the amount of water, but they go on to include debates about the number of immersions and the words spoken during the ritual. Should a person be immersed/sprinkled once in the name of the Triune God? Or should they be immersed/sprinkled three times, once each in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Complicating matters further, some believers argue that Christians should be baptized only in the name of Jesus as in the book of Acts (2:38; 10:48). While others contend that Christians should be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as directed by Jesus in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19).
Lastly, the modern rise of Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on the baptism of the Spirit and speaking in tongues, has added further complications to the matter. Is water baptism directly connected with receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit as seems to be the case on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38)? Or, as later stories in Acts suggest, is Spirit baptism a completely separate phenomenon (Acts 19:1-7)? In other words, can a person be baptized with water in the name of Jesus (or the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) but not receive the Spirit? If so, that would suggest that Christians should, after being baptized, have a distinct experience of receiving the Spirit at a later point. What, though, would be the sign that a believer has had this experience and has received the Spirit? Would they speak in tongues as the disciples did at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and as the members of Cornelius’ household did (Acts 10:46)? Or, is tongues only one of the many gifts that could be demonstrated by a Spirit-filled believer as in the teaching of Paul (I Cor. 12-14)?
Clearly, the debates regarding baptism will not be magically resolved in the near future. For example, I do not expect either Roman Catholics or Southern Baptists to renounce their positions on baptism and move to the opposing position. However, might there be a way to move forward in Christian unity while also holding to our diverse baptismal practices? While most of the debates about baptism relate to the performing of the ritual itself, I would propose that what matters most is what happens after baptism not during baptism.
For all people who are baptized, young or old, baptism is not an end but a beginning. None of us come to baptism fully formed in the faith. None of us completely comprehend the doctrines of the church or the mystery of the Triune God. In some respects, all baptisms are “infant baptisms.” We all begin the Christian life as newborn babes in Christ. Baptism, however the ritual is performed, is always the beginning of the journey of faith.
In Paul’s letters, he often uses the stories of Ancient Israel as allegories for the Christian life. In I Corinthians 10:1-5, Paul draws on the Exodus story as a warning for Christians. As the Israelites were saved from bondage in Egypt, so we were set free from sin and death by Christ. Having been freed from slavery, the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea just as we pass through the waters of baptism. After being delivered and baptized, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and fed on the manna God provided. In the Christian life, we live as aliens and strangers in this world, and God feeds us with the spiritual food and spiritual drink of Christ. In spite of all God did for the Israelites, many of them were “struck down in the wilderness” because of their lack of faith and obedience (I Cor. 10:5). Paul argues that this should be an example to Christians. After being baptized, we need to remain faithful and obedient. After being baptized, we need to subsist on the daily bread offered to us by Christ. After being baptized, we need to endure through trials and tribulations.
The allegory of I Corinthians 10 is made more clear in Paul’s words in Romans 6:1-4. Baptism, however the ritual is performed, is a participation in Christ’s death. The waters of baptism are a grave for our old selves and our natural, earthly existence. What emerges from the water is a life that has been raised with Christ and joined with him in new and abundant life. What conclusion does Paul draw from participating in the ritual of baptism? All this has happened so that “we too might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).” Based on the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles, I cannot decisively say how Paul baptized persons. Yet, I am convinced that the why supersedes the how. Baptism, for Paul, was the end of our former manner of living and the beginning of a brand new life in Christ. What matters most in that approach to baptism is what happens afterwards. To return to the allegory above, however they got across the Sea,2 what mattered most was how they journeyed through the Wilderness.
In light of all the controversies and debates, I encouraged my congregation to focus more on the lives we live after baptism than on the ritual itself. Some folks in our church were baptized as infants and some as adults. Some have been baptized multiple times because they belonged to churches that did not accept or recognize a prior baptism for whatever reason. Some have attended charismatic churches that stressed the importance of a later baptism in the Spirit. Regardless of this diversity of practice, the challenge to live out our baptismal vows, whether we made them ourselves or a parental sponsor made them on our behalves, is the real crux of the issue. Are we truly turning from old sins and habits? Is our faith in Christ growing stronger everyday? Are the fruits of the Spirit evidenced in the way we live (Gal. 5:22-26)? Are we walking in the newness of life? Baptism itself lasts only a few moments, but the journey of the Christian life lasts the remainder of our days until we reach the Promised Land.
(1) Tertullian, On Baptism ch. xviii.
(2) In light of the discussion about baptism, I find it appropriate that there is much academic debate about the crossing of the Red Sea. If it was really the Sea of Reeds rather than the Red Sea, what body of water might they have crossed and what route might they have taken out of Egypt? Maybe the debate about the Sea forms an ironic parallel with debates about Christian baptism.
Image from Father Ted at Flickr used under creative commons license. The image is from a Theophany service that I attended this January.