I heard a sermon on baptism the other day. It wasn’t bad, but it was pretty much exactly like every other sermon on baptism I’ve heard in evangelical churches over the past 15 years. It prompted some random thoughts on the subject that I’d like to dialog with you.
First: baptism is an outward profession of an inward faith. Heard that one so many times, or some variant of it, that you’d think it’s some major verse repeated in the Bible in bold font. Except it isn’t. This is usually followed up with some cute story about branding cattle (hey, we live in Wyoming, bear with us) or relating it to circumcision in the Old Testament (although evangelicals are always quick to make sure we know they’re not talking about infant baptism – heaven forbid!) or some other “marking” or “branding” scenario. We get baptized so folks know who we belong to, and we belong to Jesus. But here’s my question: if that’s the case, why in the world didn’t Jesus pick a rite that was a little more… well, permanent? I certainly can’t tell who’s been baptized and who hasn’t. It sure doesn’t work like a mark or a brand for me. I doubt somebody can look at me and say, “Oh, yes, he belongs to Jesus. I can tell because he got baptized.” If baptism really was about being marked or branded, Jesus should have got Sharpie in on a sponsorship deal for the whole thing. Think about it: exclusive sponsorship for the next 2,000 years+ of a rite that over half the world more or less has to participate in? What permanent marker company wouldn’t pay through the nose for that deal?
That leads into my second thought: baptism is a public confession of faith. This is another staple of evangelical baptismal teaching. My immediate thought when somebody says that, though, is this: if that’s the case, why do 99% of baptisms take place in a church building? Where the ‘public’ isn’t around? Where it’s mainly just other Christians who have ‘publicly’ declared their faith in the same way? And what about the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts? When Phillip baptized him, it wasn’t a public ceremony. It was just the dude (minus his dude-goods) and Phillip. The jailer that Paul and Silas converted while they were his prisoners got baptized at midnight, immediately upon his conversion — not quite the “let’s talk about this to make sure you really understand what baptism is, and then schedule a baptism service for a few weeks from now” you see these days in churches. And most definitely not a public ceremony or a public confession of faith.
Which all leads to my final thought on baptism (at least for now): are evangelicals missing the boat on this whole baptism thing? (And I include myself in that question, since I began following Jesus in an evangelical church and am still currently attending one.) If our two major teachings on what baptism is are flawed, do we even understand what baptism is? And I can’t help but feel like we are missing some of the beauty in this rite with our sterilized teachings on the subject. We seem to be more concerned with whether baptism is a sacrament or an ordinance (honestly, all you “laity” out there – do you really care about that debate? At all?) or who is eligible to be baptized than we are with the beauty and symbolism it contains.
I wonder if we don’t sometimes sterilize something, like baptism, so much with our intricate doctrinal stances that it just loses meaning. And then our folks lose interest.
Baptism as a purification rite was practiced long before Jesus ever came to earth. In fact, pagan religions dating all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, and including Babylonian religions, believed in the cleansing and purifying properties of water and practiced water baptism. The Jewish people practiced water baptism. In fact, baptism meant different things to different sects within Judaism. To some, it was a purifying ritual, to others it was an initiation rite… but they all practiced it. In fact, it could be said that baptism is one of the common threads unifying incredibly diverse religions together.
In that, it is a shame that it has become such a divisive practice in the Church these days.
Should infants be baptized? I don’t know. I know what I’ve been taught my whole Christian life, because I’ve just hung out in evangelical circles for most of that time. But I also know that there were at least five times in the New Testament when a guy gets saved and then his whole family is baptized. Chances are at least one of those families may have had small children or babies. I do know that roughly 80% of Christendom baptizes babies, and that evangelicals would have to possess an immense amount of hubris to assume that we – and only we – have interpreted the Sciptures correctly. And I do know that many of the early church fathers and writers agreed with and encouraged the practice of infant baptism, and that “believer’s baptism” wasn’t instituted as a doctrine until the 1500s.
I don’t know if we should practice infant baptism or not… but maybe it’s high time we stopped devoting so much time in our baptism sermons to explaining why infant baptism is wrong.
Should we sprinkle or immerse? I don’t know. Again, I’ve been taught a clear dividing line my whole Christian life, and on one side of that line was truth and on the other side the people were WRONG. Now, that line looks really fuzzy from where I’m sitting. I don’t know if we should sprinkle, but I do know that in the Old Testament, cleansing and purification rituals were all done by sprinkling — whether that was sprinkling blood to purify the altar or sprinkling water to purify and cleanse people. I do know that God promised in Ezekiel as part of the coming covenant to “sprinkle clean water upon [us] and [we] will be clean.” I know that Jewish men were readied to hold priestly office by being sprinkled with water for purification – and that seems to be a pretty decent picture of what was going on with Jesus’ baptism… and I know that the Greek word for baptism that evangelicals are so sure only refers to immersion quite obviously means sprinkling in passages like Mark 7.
In the denomination our church is a part of, you can’t be a church member if you were sprinkled instead of immersed. Even if you were sprinkled as an adult. That’s just silly to me. And really, beyond all of this, I can’t help but wonder if God isn’t above these sorts of silly debates.
He’s gotta be looking down, shaking his head at us stupid humans and wishing he would’ve rethought the whole Sharpie thing.
Maybe it’s time we lighten up a bit about all our little quirky doctrines that man has built, extra-biblically, around the symbolic practice of baptism. Maybe we should talk about it a little less and practice it a little more. And maybe we should stop arguing about it and stand back to just admire the simplistic beauty of one of the few remaining ancient religious rites in Christianity.