The Doctrine of Baptism
Why Baptize?Most Christians will answer this question in one of two ways:
- Jesus said that we should baptize (Mt. 28:19), or
- Jesus was baptized himself.
The Origin of Baptism is in the SynagogueWell before the coming of Christ, baptism had been established as the consummating step of the process by which a prosyelite would enter the Jewish faith. The people of the New Testament era were therefore quite familiar with the practice. Note that when the priests and Levites confronted John the Baptist (Jn. 1:19), they did not ask him "What are you doing?", but rather they asked him "Why do you baptize?" When an outsider confessed a faith in Judaism, he would be
- instructed in the faith,
- and then (after he had healed) he would immerse himself in water in a witnessed ceremony.
Since Christianity began as a Jewish sect, the process by which a Gentile would become a Christian followed this procedure precisely except that circumcision was no longer required (Acts 15:19). Note that this change tended to erase any distinction between men and women, making it clear right at the time of a candidate's initiation that Christianity completely removes the three traditional barriers between people that are enumerated in Gal. 3:28. This verse, believed by many scholars to be a quotation of a baptismal formula in the early church, says "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Therefore, functionally, baptism is simply the rite of initiation of in individual into the community of faith. Just as with its Jewish antecedent, it must be voluntary and it must be witnessed. It may be administered only after a confession of faith and instruction (catechism).
Baptism as a Prophetic SymbolIn Rom. 6, Paul added a rich theology that explained baptism in terms that were easy enough for first-century Romans to understand, but which are often difficult for modern westerners. In Rom. 6:4, Paul says that "we were therefore buried with him through baptism into his death." This passages suggests that time can be telescoped--that the contemporary believer can actually exist in some sense during Jesus' crucifixion. Furthermore, Paul says that the believer, as he is being baptized, actually participates in the death of Christ; that participation is the basis for Christ's future participation into the believer's death, leading him or her into eternal life.
One should be cautious not to over-extend this point; Paul was not saying that a person converted on his deathbed and who dies before he can be baptized would not achieve salvation in Christ. Such an understanding would give pelagian (magic) overtones to Baptism. But the act of entering the water and then coming out of the water was seen as symbolizing Jesus' death and burial, followed by his resurrection. Because of this symbolism, many evangelicals (especially Baptists) insist that Baptism must be a full immersion. Also, the Greek word transliterated "baptism" in our English Bibles (baptizo) actually means "immerse," but King James insisted on transliterating the word to avoid sending the wrong message to the masses. In a way, however, King James had a point. The ancient church document known as the Didache (the "teaching," c. 70 - 400 AD?) suggests that the early house churches had a great deal of flexibility in how to actually perform the rite.
It is interesting that Joseph Fitzmyer, in is excellent commentary on Romans, affirms the symbolism of Rom. 6 regarding baptism even though his own denomination (Roman Catholic) practices sprinkling rather than full immersion. The baptism of the first Anabaptists in 1525 was done by pouring, although the Anabaptists moved toward full immersion very early. In the end, the "mode" of baptism must remain a matter for each house church to decide.
The Baptism of InfantsInfant baptism was a hot button for the historical anabaptists and baptists. It was seen as the very symbol of church-state collaboration, and many of the early confessions anathematize the practice without mincing any words. Modern house church theologians, however, are not nearly as dogmatic on this issue--some are, and some are not. One can take the theology and prophetic symbolism of adult, immersion baptism and yet use "confirmation" as the adult confession of faith. So the material in this section is concerned with the theological basis of baptism--it is not intended to be taken as saying that one must renounce one's infant baptism and be re-baptized as an adult in order to be a Christian. Each must work out his salvation with "fear and trembling" on this point and Christians must learn to respect the decisions of their Christian brothers and sisters when they decide differently in the spirit of Rom. 14:13-23.
That said, let us venture into the biblical case for and against infant baptism. Many Christians, acting on the kerygmatic "the Church is the new Israel," have said that Christian Baptism is equivalent to the circumcision of ancient Israel. As such, it should be performed on infants when they achieve the age of eight days. Further, the water is seen as a symbolic act of "washing" that removes the "original sin" of Adam that was passed on to the infant through inheritance.
Many house church theologians have trouble with this line of reasoning for these reasons:
- Circumcision and Baptism are not interchangeable. Lk. (7:29) says that John's baptism was was acknowledged by "all the [Jewish] people" even though, as Jews, they had already been circumcised. Further, the New Testament actually contrasts circumcision and baptism in such passages as Col. 2:11-12.
- Sin is not inherited (Ex. 20:5, Ezek. 18:1-18, etc.) so there can be no . We are not sinners because of Adam--we are sinners because we sin (1 Jn. 1:8-10). We have no one to blame except ourselves. The events of Gen. 3 resulted in the fallen world, but did not make sin an inheritance.
- Infants, of course, cannot be held accountable for the life-long commitment that baptism represents. Such an understanding of baptism regards the candidate as an object upon which "magic" is performed by the administrator and the water. Any such practice attempts to force God to look differently on the candidate because of the actions of a human agent (but see Rom. 11:35--no one can ever put God in his or her debt).
- Rom. 7:9: Paul was born "alive,"
- Rom 7:10: he "died" when he became old enough to be aware of sin, and
- Rom 7:25: he became "alive" again through Christ Jesus.
Administering BaptismHouse church theology attaches no importance to the administrator of baptism. Other than the need for the person administrating the baptism to be a member of the church (that is, someone who is baptized), there is no biblical ordination required. Baptism is simply a voluntary, symbolic act of initiation into the community of faith. Theologically, it is an act that is performed by God, who is always in the role of initiator.
Baptism is an act that need only be performed once. When a believer leaves a church to join another, there is no reason to repeat the baptism. But the Lord's Supper is generally regarded as being reserved for members of the church, which means baptized persons.