One of -if not THE – hallmarks of the Restoration Movement/Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is our doctrine of baptism. Like all things among the independent congregations of the movement, there is no official written stance and congregations will vary somewhat. I myself have been regarded as ‘lax’ and even heretical by some of my fellow ministers who hold ‘stricter’ views on the matter. And yet, I am on the spectrum with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in differing with almost all mainline evangelical denominations about –
*The mode of baptism * The purpose of baptism * The efficacy of baptism
As to the mode – I believe it to be immersion. The New Testament Greek word ‘baptizo’ means ‘immersion’. In one of the great ‘chicken out’ instances in the history of Bible translation, translators have generally decided not to translate the word into English. Instead, they transliterate – simply change the Greek letters to equivalent English letters and so we inherit the Greek word wholesale as the now familiar English – ‘baptize’. If this same practice were adopted with every word in the New Testament you would not be able to read it at all. An example – here’s a familiar verse concerning baptism in which I transliterate the whole thing. Hay agnoeite hoti osoi ebaptisthamen eis Kristos Iasoun eis ton thanaton autou ebaptisthamen. You can probably (now that you know what to look for) pick out the past participial form of ‘baptizo’ and maybe recognize the words – ‘Christ Jesus’. After that – good luck. The translation is – Don’t you know – all those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into His death?
So, why translate everything else but transliterate ‘baptizo’? Precisely because of the denominational disagreements! If the word is translated – ‘immerse’ – the version of the Bible in which it is so translated just lost millions of readers/customers who practice sprinkling, pouring, etc. So runs the calculation. Transliterating allows for ducking the argument and (more or less) pleasing everyone.
Grow a spine! I think everyone ought to be immersed. It’s what the word means. It better suits the context of the New Testament accounts – seeking out places where there was much water, wading out into the water, etc. It better suits the ‘burial’ motif (keep reading in Romans 6 past verse 3 which I both transliterated and translated above). It better fits the Old Testament antecedents. But what about all those people who have been sprinkled? Hold on to that one for a moment.
As to the purpose of baptism. This one is a little harder. Baptism is sometimes reckoned to be a statement of congregational affiliation or larger church membership. Others say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Still others, that baptism is a way of saying thanks for salvation already granted – or a public expression/testimony of salvation already granted. The question is complex and proof-texting is not the answer.
It is quite true that Acts 2:38 attaches baptism to the remission of sins. It is also true that I Peter 3:21, in the ‘flood of Noah’ themed discussion, says ‘corresponding to that – baptism now saves you’. But it is also true that Peter quickly adds – ‘not the removal of dirt from the flesh’ i.e. the washing with water ‘but an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ And in Acts 2:38 the exhortation to baptism is ‘in the name of Jesus’. In New Testament thought there is more to a name – especially the name of Jesus – than just phonics. The point is, in both passages (and others) the real power is not in the ritual dunking but in the blood/death/burial/resurrection/name/power of Jesus Christ. Given this, we can readily understand Paul’s rather dismissive attitude towards those who were in fact baptized but did not believe in the resurrection of Christ (I Corinthians 15).
The point is that ritual immersion in water is not a magic/silver bullet means of salvation. Back, then to Romans 6 where baptism is understood as being united with Christ in the ‘likeness’ of His death, burial, and resurrection (verse 5). I, at least, put it together this way – baptism is a ritual designed to express and move us toward unity with Christ – who saves us. Baptism is an appeal not an automated salvation process. God is in no way magically or legally constrained to grant the appeal just because you or I got dunked. There has to be a real desire/pledge for unity with Jesus Christ. Lacking that – we probably just got wet rather than saved.
But what about all those people who were sprinkled? Hold on a little longer.
If the purpose of Baptism is to help us move into unity with Christ, then the efficacy of baptism is measured by the degree to which that unity actually occurs. Let’s just say it – lots of baptized people are toast! Which begs the question -if baptized individuals who did not move into unity with Christ are not saved – are non-baptized (immersed) people who have moved into unity with Christ saved despite not having been baptized or having been baptized by a mode other than immersion? Now we’re really treading thin ice!
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church