Another controversy within the Christian community is that of baptism. If you believe the Bible, Jesus gave a simple command:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-28:20 NIV)
Now, I ask you, how many ways can such a simple command be messed up? Apparently, a lot! With this simple straight forward statement comes controversy, church splits and bitter downright hostile disagreements. Christians can’t agree even agree on who should be baptized, never mind how they should be baptised or what baptism even means! Such a simple concept, that god could have easily clarified, is left open to mutliple intepretations and meanings. If you are going to give a command – “go an make disciples..baptizing them in..” doesn’t it make sense to clarify what you are commanding? How hard would it be to add: “And by baptizing, I mean…”? Strangely an omnipotent and omniscient god couldn’t see the outcome of leaving definitions out of a command. Probably because it wasn’t an omnipotent and omniscient god that had anything to do with the command! Let’s look at the controversies:
How Should a Person be Baptized?
How many ways can you possiblity use water on someone? Well there are several and they are all represented in the various modes of baptism.
- Aspersion – This is more commonly called sprinkling. Water is simply sprinkled on the skin, usually the head.
- Affusion – This is a little more intense than sprinkling as it is the literal pouring of water over the head and is most common in churches practicing infant baptism.
- Immersion – Strictly speaking this is when a person stands or kneels in water and water is poured over them during baptism. Less technically, it is often used as a synonym for submersion.
- Submersion – Submersion is where the body is submerged under water and is common in many evangelical churches where believers baptism is performed.
You may rightly ask whether the mode of baptism matters. Well, yes and no. Some denominations, clearly do not care and leave the choice to the individual. For instance the Methodists teach:
“Let every adult person and the parents of every child to be baptized have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion” (The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church).
For other denominations it is clearly important. What it comes down to in these denominations is how you view scripture. If it is the inerrant word of god, then you are compelled to try to do what god supposedly commands. Figuring out exactly what is commanded is a good trick given the contradictory nature of the Bible. But once that is “figured out” by a given demonination or church, they are usually inflexible and totally sure of their intepretation. For instance David E Pratte says:
Sprinkling and pouring are human in origin. They are changes from God’s plan. Only complete immersion can be practiced according to Jesus’ authority.
What if you once received sprinkling or pouring instead of immersion? Gospel baptism is immersion, not sprinkling or pouring. If you have not been immersed, then you have not obeyed Jesus’ command! You have followed only the doctrine of men.
If you now wish to obey Jesus, you must do what He said to do: be baptized (immersed) as described in the passages studied above. He who believes and is baptized will be saved – Mark 16:16. (The Action (Mode) of Baptism: Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?)
According to Mr Pratte, if you were baptized by the wrong method, you haven’t been baptized. Daniel R. Vess, using the same logic, goes even further:
Does sprinkling, pouring, or immersion meet the Bible requirement for baptism? Bible baptism requires: Water (Ac. 10:47); much water (John 3:23); going down into the water (Acts 8:38); coming up out of the water (Mark 1:10; Acts 8:39); a burial (Romans 6:3,4); a resurrection (Romans 6:5; Col. 2:12); a washing of the body with water (Hebrews 10:22) and a birth of water (John 3:5). Only immersion meets all the requirements. Sprinkling and pouring are inadequate substitutes for immersion, and even worse, they are additions to the Word of God (Rev. 22:18,19).
If you have not been immersed in water you have not been baptized. If you have not been baptized you have not been saved: “He that believes and is baptism will be saved, he that does not believe shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). (Is Sprinkling or Pouring Baptism?)
Here the correct mode of baptism is directly linked to ones salvation. Get it wrong (sorry Catholics) and you aren’t even saved – you are going to burn in hell! Does the mode of baptism matter? To these people and others, the answer is YES and they are willing to condemn entire Christian denominations that practice anything less than full immersion (submersion) as unbelievers.
Who Should be Baptized?
If you think the controversy over the mode of baptism gets a little intense, you haven’t see anything yet. The topic of who should be baptized is explosive! It seems simple. From the command of Jesus, it appears that baptism is linked with disciples (“go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them…”), so only disciples should be baptized. However, nothing in the Bible is clear or simple, as much as individuals would like to argue otherwise. As with the mode of baptism, there are several choices as to who should be baptized, encompassing almost every possible combination. In general, the categories are:
- All infants
- Infants of believing adults only
- Believing children and believing adults
- Believing adults only
- A Believer(s) and his/her entire household regardless of belief
Entire demonimations have been formed around the topic of who should be baptized and to some extent, “who” may also determine the mode of baptism. If you believe that infants should be baptized, most likely you are not a proponent of baptism by submersion!
A good overview of the issue of who should be baptized from an infant or believer dicotomy and from an “infant” or “household” view is “A Better Case for “Infant Baptism” by William Shishko. I reference this article for two reasons. The first is that it fairly shows that two groups can disagree about core doctrinal issuses and still be cordial. The second is I think that it is fairly obvious the extent to which the scriptures are contradictory and confusing on this important issue. A lot of assumptions have to be made in order to support a particular viewpoint since there is no clarity in the bible alone. For instance, when it comes to the household baptisms recorded in scripture, you have to make the assumption that infants were included or even part of the household since the Bible is silent. Again, how hard would it be for an omnipotent and omniscient god to “inspire” the writers of scripture to include a simple statement: “… all their household was baptized including all the men,woman, children, servants and their infants…”!
Bryn MacPhail says it this way:
…we must readily admit that neither side of this debate has as much supporting evidence as we would like. What we’ll call ‘the Baptist position’ has plenty of evidence to support the practice of ‘believer’s baptism’. However, what is missing is overwhelming evidence to support ‘believer’s baptism’ to the exclusion of infant baptism. And those who endorse the baptism of Christian children must admit that this endorsement is made by reasonable inference rather than according to a clear mandate. What I mean is that there is no verse in Scripture that reads, ‘You shall baptize every child born to Christian parents’—there is no explicit biblical mandate to baptize children. By the same token, there is no verse that reads, ‘You shall not baptize children; you may only baptize those who profess faith in Jesus Christ’—there is no explicit verse forbidding the baptism of children. So, again, in the absence of explicit New Testament instruction on this matter, neither side of this debate has as much supporting evidence as we would like. (The Biblical Basis For Infant Baptism)
However, as nice and polite as this discussion can be, this conflict can get downright nasty. Usually this is by those who profess some type of believers baptism since almost everyone who holds to infant baptism also holds to believers baptism for those not baptized as infant. For example:
The insistence on trying to use circumcision and household as the basis for this doctrine is damaging enough, but this is compounded by a total disregard for all the other many Scriptures which clearly teach water baptism is only for believers in Christ…no Christian should have anything to do with infant baptism for any reason. In fact, such is a baptism in name only. If such a person who was previously “baptized” as an infant should become a real Christian, he is commanded like all others to undergo true Christian baptism. Moreover, the mode of Christian baptism found in the Bible is immersion. (Infant Baptism—Is It Christian by Dan Corner)
Infant baptism is not a Scriptural doctrine. It is not found in the Bible. There is not one example in the Bible of one single baby being baptized. We will show that baby baptism is of pagan origin. It is my purpose in this article to set forth my reasons for saying, as I often have said, that…INFANT BAPTISM IS RESPONSIBLE FOR SENDING MORE PEOPLE TO HELL THAN ANY OTHER RELIGIOUS ERROR. From my point of view, it is a dreadful thing to baptize a baby and let him grow up believing that by that baptism he has been saved and is on his way to heaven. (Infant Baptism Exposed! It’s History and Harm by William Pettingill)
Being baptized as an infant doesn’t show that we understand God’s word and can apply his knowledge to make sound Christian decisions when Satan attacks. An infant can not understand what this type of dedication will entail and therefore should not be baptized. Baptism is a personal choice that should only be done after someone has dedicated his/her life to God. It is not a decision that should be made lightly. And it is certainly not a decision that should be made by someone else, such as the parent of an infant child. (Is Infant Baptism Christian? by CRAOM)
Infant Baptism is nothing, has no saving efficacy, delivers no grace, confers no faith, is a symbol of nothing. It is absolutely and totally pointless. It leads to ritualism, confusion and false security. (Is Infant Baptism Biblical? by Grace To You)
The fact is, infant baptism is no more than a human tradition. It has no higher authority than fallible man. It represents a digression from the New Testament order of things and ought to be abandoned by conscientious people who respect biblical authority. There are eternal consequences associated with advocating this error. As Schweitzer acknowledges: “[I]f Christian baptism is only for those who have enough faith to repent and believe, we are wrong and hypocritical to baptize anyone who is too young to exhibit these qualities.” (“We Baptize Babies” – A Response by Wayne Jackson)
Infant baptism is an evil, because its practice is unsupported by the word of God; because its defense leads to most injurious perversions of scripture; because it engrafts Judaism upon the gospel of Christ; because it falsifies the doctrine of universal depravity; because it contradicts the great fundamental principle of justification by faith; because it is in direct conflict with the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration; because it despoils the church of those peculiar qualities which are essential to the church of Christ; because its practice perpetuates the superstitions that originally produced it; because it subverts the scripture doctrine of infant salvation; because it leads its advocates into rebellion against the authority of Christ; because of the connection it assumes with the moral and religious training of children; because it is the grand foundation upon which rests the ration of church and state; because it leads to religious persecutions; because it is contrary to the principles of civil and religious freedom; because it enfeebles the power of the church to combat error; because it injures the credit of religion with reflecting men of the world; because it is the great barrier to Christian union; because it prevents the salutary impression which baptism was designed to make upon the minds both of those who receive it, and of those who witness its administration; and because it retards the designs of Christ in the conversion of the world. These, mainly, are the charges I prefer against infant baptism, and I believe that I have proved each one of them conclusively, if so, it is a great and unmitigated evil. It not only does no good, but it does evil, immense evil, and only evil (The Evils of Infant Baptism by Robert Boyt C. Howell)
What is the Meaning of Baptism?
As with the other aspects of baptism, there are also disagreements on the meaning of baptism. Is it:
- A sign of obedience to a command of Christ?
- Is it necessary for salvation?
- Is it a symbol of identifying oneself as a believer in Christ?
- Does it actually confer salvation?
- Is it an obsolete – something for another time and age?
- Is is a sign of the New Covenant that replaces the Old Testament’s sign of circumcision?
To some extent, how a Christian views the mode of baptism and who should be baptized, impacts the question of the meaning of baptism. For instance, if a Christian believes in infant baptism, it would be difficult to believe that it is a means of identifing oneself (as an infant) as a believer in Christ; although it may be looked at as identifying the parents as “in Christ” who are being obedient to Christ in baptizing their infant. As might be expected, those who see it as actually confering salvation are in direct opposition to those who see baptism in some symbolic sense.
Most of the hostilities in this area come over the question of whether baptism actually does something. For instance the Roman Catholic Church believes that baptism removes the taint of orignal sin and actually accomplishes several things (abbreviated list from A Guide to Catholic Baptism):
Baptism does five things specifically.
- It forgives all sins that may have been committed prior to a person’s baptism including original sin and it relieves the punishment for those sins.
- It turns the person into a newly adopted son of God and a member of Christ.
- It brings someone into the flock of the faithful and brings them to share in the royal priesthood of Christ (1Pet. 2:9-10).
- It gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers and it also brings about the sacramental bond of the unity of Christians.
- Last, but certainly not in the least, it leaves and indelible spiritual mark (character) of belonging to Christ on the soul. Nothing you can do will take away this mark even if you sin a million times.
Most protestant denominations would strongly disagree with #1 and #5 and may have problems, to varying degrees, with the other points. However “Baptismal Regeneration” (salvation is linked to baptism) is also believed by several Protestant groups as well (see Baptismal Regeneration). I’ll deal with this topic more in depth when I tackle the topic of the varying views of salvation; but, for our purposes right now, it is enough to show that there are strong disputes over what baptism means and accomplishes.
For instance, on the other side, is the more common Protestant view that baptism is a symbolic identification with Christ:
Why do we have to be completely covered by water when we are baptized? God chose immersion in water because it is a very powerful way of showing us that our sins must be forgiven. Believers realise that they need saving from sin and require God’s grace. They go under the water in baptism, and die to an old way of life. They come up out of the water to a new life. In baptism, believers identify with the death of Jesus Christ, who died for us. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, they also rise from the waters of baptism…(Baptism in Christadelphian Bible Mission)
If the meaning of baptism could be boiled down to one word, that word would be identification. Baptism speaks primarily of a personal, public identification with Jesus Christ. (What does Baptism Mean? by Ray Pritchard)
Even though the topic of baptism and the command to baptize appears to be fairly straight forward, it is far from it. Deep divisions and even church splits are caused by a little water – to sprinkle or not, to baptize infants or not, to save or not. The supposed word of god, in spite of what the church wants you to believe, is not clear on even such a basic issue. But why take baptism so seriously? Obviously, some denominations don’t, but the closer one gets to believing the bible is the literal word of god, without error, the stronger one has to hold “fast” to the “truth” as they see it. If the bible is without error… If your interreptation is correct… If god cares about the “truth” contained in his word… It follows that any interpretation that doesn’t agree with yours is not only error it is heresy! It can’t be otherwise.
It’s hard to understand this passion unless you lived it; but, understanding it is the key to breaking the spell of belief and faith in an imaginary god.