Recent books and articles on church growth often list the characteristics of the baby boomer generation. One of these is low denominational identity and loyalty. This means that young adults are less concerned with denominational labels and affiliations than they are with the actual life of a particular local congregation. They are interested in positive worship experiences, quality children’s programs, and need-based teaching. This market force has pushed many congregations away from history traditions and toward a generic brand of Christian religion. This has become of the the dominant trends in American church life.
This book is, in some sense, a response to this trend. It is a defense of the baptist way of knowing and living Jesus Christ. I contend that God raised up the people called baptists to enrich the church of Jesus Christ. God gave to the people called baptists an insight into the gospel that makes our way of living out the gospel something of value to the entire world, to the whole human community.
What is that something?
It is the way we emphasize two aspects of the biblical revelation: freedom and faithfulness. Like all other Christians, it is not what we affirm that sets us apart, but rather what we emphasize. Let me expand upon this idea. Christians and congregations often read the same biblical text, affirm the truth of the entire narrative or admonition, but emphasize one element that in turn shapes their vision of the Christian life.
The second chapter of Acts is the story of how the Holy Spirit of God comes upon the followers of Jesus and empowers them to speak in tongues and declare the gospel. Some read this text, focus on the fact that the Spirit comes to women and men, and thereby find scriptural motivation for seeking gender equality in the Church. Others read this story, highlight the gift of speaking in tongues, and hence feel compelled to seek this gift for themselves, even for all believers. Still others read the narrative and are moved by how the apostles proclaimed the good things of God so that all heard in their own language, and there sense a call to the missionary and evangelistic task. And finally there are those who read the chapter, seize upon the command to believe and be baptized, and therein discover the mandate to insist upon baptist as a condition for salvation.
All four readers would affirm the total truth and usefulness of every aspect of the text; all affirm it as the Word of God. But it is what is emphasized that shapes Christian living in such radically different ways.
What is true of one biblical text is true of the entire Bible.It is not so much what is affirmed about the Bible that shapes who we are and how we live as Christians, as it is what we are called to emphasize. Baptist are those people who emphasize those texts and traditions that undergird freedom and faithfulness in the things of Christ.
We believe in freedom before God, freedom in the Word, freedom in the church, and freedom in the world. Likewise, baptists are called to be faithful to God, faithful to the Word, faithful to the church, and faithful to the world. The locus of this chapter is faithfulness to God.
Paul the Apostle speaks to this issue in the sixth chapter of Romans:
“We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life…We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin….Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires…but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:103).
Baptists often read this passage because it speaks of baptism. Baptism is indeed one of the distinctive features of baptist life. For almost ten years, I was pastor of a church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Baptists in Pittsburgh are a distinct minority; for many of our friends, we were the only baptists they knew. There, believer’s baptism by immersion was unusual. Most Christians in the area had never seen a baptist-style baptism or had never heard an intelligent rationale for such a practice. It was quite common for people who were being baptized to invite their friends and relatives to the service. Recently, a pastor sent to me a baptismal invitation used by his congregation to encourage attendance of friends and relatives at a service of believer’s baptism.
It is not, however, the mode of baptism that is of chief importance. Paul does not deal directly with how a person is baptized (although the image of dying and rising is very suggestive); rather, he dwells on why a person is baptized. The manner is not as important as the meaning.
Baptism means the leaving of an old life of sin and the beginning of a new life of righteousness. Baptism signals the conversion of the sinner. Baptism initiates the Christian life of a person who has confessed Jesus as Lord. In other words, baptism is a ceremony for believers.
The Schleitheim Confession, one of the early baptistic confessions of faith dating from 1525, reads like this:
“Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with Him, and to all those who with this significance request it of us and demand it for themselves.”
The Baptist movement began as a protest against the baptism of infants and all of its consequences. Infants were (and are) baptized as Christians without ever hearing, understanding, or confessing the Gospel. This breeds a nominal kind of faith, one in which neither conversion nor discipleship is emphasized. Baptists insisted on the call to radical discipleship; those wishing to be named as believers must live a focused and disciplined Christian life.
This raises an interesting question. Baptists contend that believer’s baptism is more effective than infant baptism in developing mature, disciplined followers of Jesus. Is this so? Would not a study comparing baptist churches with Protestant or Catholic churches shed light on this matter. If believer’s baptism does result in more growth in the grace and knowledge of Christ, would not this provide confirmation of our contention that a disciplined church is related to believer’s baptism?
Apply this same principle to social conditions. Should the practice of believer’s baptism produce a community that is more safe, just, and decent than other forms of Christian initiation? This question came to me often during my pastorate in Pittsburgh. That city was largely Catholic and Presbyterian but had the lowest divorce and crime rates of any major city in American, far less than some baptist cities like Atlanta an Dallas.
If believer’s baptism does not produce a higher degree of Christian maturity or social righteousness, what then? Shall we abandon believer’s baptism? No, but it will change the focus of our defense of the practice. Modern scholarship consistently demonstrates that baptist-style baptism was the norm during New Testament days. Thus, the baptist principle of restoration would demand that we retain baptism; but the rationale would be weakened. I think this is an issue that merits attention by church scholars.
Regardless of the relationship between baptism and discipleship, the church in America needs the insistence on faithfulness to God that arises (in part) out of the baptist vision. There is today too much that undermines this call to faithful living: the baptism of small children; the baptism of those whose testimony is weak and whose lives give no evidence of true conversion; the failure of the church (even baptist churches) to follow through with discipleship; the large number of “inactive church members” who avoid worship, ignore Scripture, fail to tithe, and never invest time or energy in the Lords work. Such practices negate the baptist insistence upon faithfulness to God. They also stand opposed to the apostolic insistence that Christians put away sin and put on Christ Jesus.
Believers baptism is the public symbol of this baptist conviction of faithfulness to God. In a Sunday morning service at Third Baptist Church in Owensboro we baptized three persons, two adults and one youth. The immersion part created problems. The people were adults, the water was high, my wading boots were too low. The water sloshed over the top of the boots and down on my clothes. That happened to me once before, while in Pittsburgh. On that occasion while the service continued I raced to the car, drove home, changed suits, motored back to the church campus, and entered the worship service just as the minister of music said, “Let’s sing one more stanza and hope the preacher will be here in time to preach the sermons!”
I remember another baptism, this one in Israel, at the Pool of Siloam. The water through Hezekiah’s tunnel was low; thus, the water in Siloam’s Pool was low. In fact, it was barely knee-high.It was hazardous to baptize an adult in water that is too high; but it is exceedingly difficult to baptized by immersion an adult in water that is only knee-high. Perhaps that is why the Bible describes John the baptizer as located “at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water….” (John 3:3).
My point is this: in baptist-style Christianity, it is not the mode of baptism that is important, but rather the meaning. Indeed, there is good evidence that the first baptists (and even the first Baptists!) did not immerse, but rather practiced affusion (pouring). It is not how much water there is in the pool, but rather now much change there is in the person. It is the baptism of a believer, of a converted person, of a disciple, of a person committed to living a life faithful to God that is of chief importance to God and to the church.
James I. Packer told a story at the Baptist Conference Center at Ridgecrest, North Carolina, in 1987. Packer, an Anglican (Episcopalian) and thus one who practiced infant sprinkling, recounted how the baptist preacher took the convert into the river. They reach the place where the water came to the knees. “Is this enough water?” the man asked the minister. “No,” he replied and moved further out, to where the water came up to the waist. “This should be plenty of water,” the convert said. But the baptist minister said not, and they moved into even deeper water, to where the water rose above the chest. “Surely, there is sufficient water here to baptize me in a proper way,” protested the candidate. “Yes, there is,” said the minister. Whereupon he took the man and submerged him so that his head was fully covered by the water. Upon re-emerging from the water, the newly baptized Christian said, “Just as I thought; it was the little bit of water on the head that was important!”
The baby-boomer generation is bring many changes to the way Christian people worship and organize. It is altogether proper for people to year for worship that is dynamic and energetic. It is necessary that people demand church-based programs for their children. It is understandable that people need for the church to address the very real concerns of daily loving. But this consumer mentality does often reduce Christianity into one long version of this question, “What can the church do for me?”
The baptist insistence upon faithfulness to God and discipleship under the Lord Jesus Christ is an antidote that is very much needed in the American church. It takes the self-centered question of the immature believer and transforms it into the God-centered queries of the true disciple: “What can I do for the Lord? How must I change my ways? Where can I utilize my gifts and callings? Who needs the witness and the ministry that only I can give? When can I begin looking after the needs of others?” These are the true questions of Christian living. These are questions that are cultivated among baptist people. Their answers bring blessing to the whole world.