Home For the Seeking Spirit > Baptism > the Rite of Baptism Into the Christian family
What God does leads us to what we do in reply. God acts in baptism, then we react -- react with the rest of our lives.
There are two main ways to see baptism.
One is to treat the 'reaction' as key: a reaction to what God does. In this view of baptism, the choice to follow Christ becomes the opening through which the Holy Spirit comes in with the gift of saving grace, and the gift gets unwrapped. The effort to bring about such choices -- that is, evangelism -- then becomes an urgent matter. Each person has a role in their own salvation; not that anyone is capable of saving themselves, but that Christ will not save us against our will. Our act of surrender may well be our only role in saving ourselves, but there is such a role. Noone can make these decisions for us or in our place. This kind of decision-making isn't the kind of thing someone is able to do before they reach their teens, hence those with this viewpoint baptize adults, not infants. It is the ability to make such choices that makes us responsible for the wrongs we all do; thus even though a child may act like an unholy terror, the child is held to be innocent because the responsibility is not theirs. The early church was a church made entirely of converts, so almost all baptisms were of adults. Baptists, most Evangelicals, and Pentecostalists hold to variations of this view.
The second view is to see the 'action' as key : what God has done. In this approach, our role in fixing our skewed existence may or may not be there, but is not what's relevant when it comes to saving us. Only God's role matters. It is good that at some point we 'react' to God's action, either by deciding to take part in the development of the New You, or by deciding not to take part. But it is still not our decision which sets us right; it is God's. Otherwise, we'd be relying on our own faith, power, and actions to do it, a course of action which always leads to a most miserable failure. From this viewpoint, baptizing infants makes sense. The Father takes them in as children of God, and they can honestly live in the full confidence that they are loved by God. Baptisms of children as part of the household baptisms date back to the Paul-era church. Also, Baptism is linked with circumcision in Colossians 2:11-13. Circumcision (entry into the covenant People of Israel) was done primarily to infant males at the 8-day mark, at the behest of the parents (Genesis 17). The parents were responsible for raising the boy as a good Jew. Jesus wanted adults to have a faith that was much like that of children; if so, then why would he have us deny to children the saving grace of God and the gift of belonging to the community of Christ, His Body? Infant baptisms are often an event where the whole extended family comes; this brings the circle of familial love around that child to a level bigger than the nuclear family, even if for a short while. This is the view of the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran traditions.
Baptism is not something that comes undone, as if something God does 'doesn't take'. If that baby grows up to have faith as an adult, that is best seen as the Spirit's work on that person ever since that earlier baptism.
((See Mark 10:13-16; 1 Corinthians 7:12-14))
It's tempting to try to blend these views, because each focuses on key truths about the faith. Some Methodists, some Reformed churches, and the Evangelical (Mission) Covenant churches have their own ways of melding or otherwise handling these differences.
My own viewpoint, for the record, most resembles the second view. I feel it best catches the spirit of what God is trying to do with us. Those on the 'action' side should understand that we have no grounds for holding a baptism under the first view to be invalid. It is, after all, God's work. God's work through baptisms will go on whether or not the Body or its members understand it rightly; there is much mystery to it. The matters of truth behind our differences are important, but aren't crucial to being saved. Jesus' work saves. Even so, the 'reaction' side gives attention to something that's important to the Spirit's work in leading us to live lives of following Christ. And, they're also right that spreading the Good News about Christ is an urgent matter -- it is at the core of the church's purpose and work.
Either way, Baptism is an act that starts with God's love for us. Either
way, Baptism marks the Spirit's making a home in us, a citizenship in the Kingdom of God, and the start of being one of God's people. Both viewpoints baptize adults -- but the second view does it only if there hasn't already been a baptism. Either way, our response is one of obedience to Christ, through the Holy Spirit's enabling work. Their work unites, even as our own work sometimes divides.
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The ceremony of baptism is hardly unique. Other religions, including Judaism, have had ceremonies of ritual washing or dipping, usually as some form of initiation into something. The Jewish rite led to John the Baptist's rite, which led to Jesus' and then the church's. So, when did baptism start for Christians? At the faith's very beginning.
Baptism is usually done in a way that is not hidden from the public, in the presence of others, and specifically with others who are linked to the baptized person forever by way of that baptism. (There are sometimes invitations sent to specific people asking them to attend, but that's to get the people the person being baptized wants to have there. The event itself is still meant not to be hidden.) As a rule, secrecy is only used where the chance of persecution is high. Otherwise, Christians and even non-Christians are not barred, nor are they kept out of the loop as to whether it was done. You don't baptize yourself; it's always done by someone else (1 Corinthians 1:14-17).
The most suitable times for Baptism, symbolically, are :
Least suitable: Lent (repentance, which is, symbolically, before baptism).
But no time is really wrong for a baptism.
Some baptismal symbols:
Baptismal Sponsors are people who take personal responsibility for nurturing the faith of the baptized, especially infants. They're usually called 'godparents', though today's godparents rarely actually fill this role. Teens and adults may have someone who is as a 'mentor' to them, or acting as a spiritual counselor; such a person can be a baptismal sponsor. It's important that a godparent not be just a 'friend', but a person who is a committed Christian, active in fellowship with other Christians.
In some congregations where a member actively led the baptized adult into the faith, that 'witnesser' is sometimes given a role in the baptismal ceremony, as a thank-you for their role in bringing about that baptism.
In ancient times, and still today in some places, the Renunciation of Evil is more than just a simple "I do" response. In the older traditions, it involves turning Westward (toward the mythical realm of the Devil) and making gestures (for instance, spitting) in that direction to demonstrate the baptized's disdain for the Evil One. Using an approach more meaningful for today's world, some churches have the baptized adult renounce not only 'the devil and all his empty promises', but renounce in public the specific sins they are known to have been committing. In the US, one can hear young women renounce prostitution, or men renounce the sale of drugs or the building of personal arsenals. In Africa and the Caribbean, it may be destroying or turning over to the church a supposedly powerful talisman, or spell books, or statues of idols.
In a baptismal service, the whole congregation prays in support of the baptized, praying in 'intercession', stepping in on someone else's behalf before God. Hopefully, those same people will remember to keep doing so long after the service is over.
Immersion baptisms have some drawbacks. I saw a man be submerged, and when he came up his toupee was hanging over his ear. (What was he thinking??) Another man had this hairdo that was super-slicked down (he must've been in training for being a TV evangelist...). When he came back up, not a hair was out of place. Then, there's the woman who insisted on not having an immersion baptism. Odd, for she was being baptized by a Baptist church known for its mass immersions. She explained that she always keeps her appearance in tip-top shape and she didn't want to be seen with ruined makeup and a wet 'do. (I don't think she quite got this Christian stuff straight yet...)
It can hardly be deemed inappropriate if a newly-baptized adult passes out, breaks into ecstasy, or can't contain themself from praising or crying. In fact, it's hard to think of a more worthy moment for it. Naturally, an elder might grumble or a church lady might get indignant. But so what? It's not their baptism!
When adults are being baptized, it is best done as a part of a communion service, so they can take the bread and wine for the first time on the day they are baptized. They may also be given (or choose) a baptismal Bible verse.
A common practice in infant baptisms: once the baptism is completed, the infant is carried around the worship place so that everyone who's in the congregation can see their newest partner in Christ. Fair warning though: not all babies like to do this. Some of them don't see a room filled with a new family; they see a roomful of strangers. wwwWAAAAAAAHHHH..... Other babies take to it in great spirit.
When too much attention is given to baptism as an event at a particular point in time, the ongoing dimension of baptism may get shifted to the background. The Spirit's work is a constant, moment-by-moment thing, and Jesus' work was already a success long before you were even born. The baptized can be sure that they are still baptized after all these years, not just when they were infants or on the day of their adult baptism.
Baptism was originally done by dunking the person entirely into water ('immersion' or 'submersion'). This lies behind Romans 6:1-11, and also has parallels to the Jewish miqva'ot ritual bath procedures. But by the time of the Didache, the Church's earliest non-Scripture writings, the use of less water was common (Did 7.3). Some churches have a baptismal font designed to use running water. The water's motion brings to mind the 'living water', Jesus. When water is in motion, it is most effective at cleansing, which brings to mind what God does within you when you're baptized.
Most of those who use total immersion use baptism as a symbolic act only. The way to challenge that idea is to emphasize in each step of the rite the action of the Holy Spirit, in word and in symbol. It is God who makes a sacrament -- or anything else, for that matter -- work.
Some argue that a church should refuse to do total immersion (or submersion) of adults, to make a point about those who require that baptisms be done that way. For Lutherans, doing things a certain way to make a point against others finds some support in the Book of Concord. But that's silly, unless an immersion/submersion was somehow less of a baptism just by the way the water is used. The activity of the Spirit and of Christ in the baptism is the same no matter how water is used. And the action taken to make a point may cut in unintended ways. For example, with Lutherans, Luther's language about baptism (of drowning to death and sin, and then rising) can easily be said to be more vividly expressed by immersion.
Many Pentecostalist preachers wonder aloud if something's the matter when there is an adult baptism but nothing seems to happen.
Some of them look to the New Testament and think that something visible should happen. The Scriptures show us many times that when the Spirit grabs hold, extraordinary things are not at all rare. But read again : there are lots of people who follow Christ and don't fall faint, don't writhe, don't jump for joy, and don't speak in tongues. Paul's writings on tongues presume that many believers have gone through it to great benefit, but please note that Paul also presumes that many believers have not gone through it, and they and their faith are also of great benefit. Christian experience over the course of thousands of years has shown that by far most people do not ever receive 'signs' or 'wonders'.
This should be no surprise. The New Testament makes it clear that it is God who does these things, and does them not according to some preset rule, but only when and how God chooses to make it happen, working through witnesses that bear the biblical Word. If someone is transformed by the Spirit but speaks only their native language, doesn't break out in loud spontaneous song, and doesn't even twitch, then all it means is that God simply decided not to send a noticeable sign. If so, the 'sign' may well be in the way that person's life changes, in their doing God's will because of a new-found love of God.
It's easy to understand, though, why those preachers are concerned. They see so many people in churches who are living their lives as if God has no interest in their lives, or as if God is not full of the kind of power that makes mighty things happen. And these preachers wonder : if the living Spirit is already there through baptism, then where's the new life? Surely the Spirit would be causing something to stir in them?
I know some theologians in my own tradition sneer at it, but it's a fair question. It must not be ducked by slamming those who raise it for having a 'theology of glory' or for 'bringing works back into salvation'. Nor will it do to simply chalk it up to human sinfulness. (Those critiques have some truth to them, but miss the point at hand.)
Liturgical churches (like the one of which I'm a member) keep stressing that the Spirit comes in at the rite of baptism, and that this baptism entails a daily dying to sin. But they have a spotty track record of getting the newly-baptized to take up the new task of living a life of loving God. So many of us are not at all dying daily to sin that it's really frustrating, and even painful, to those who (more or less) are. If you think any of us are frustrated, just think of what God thinks of it!
The more their failures grieve us, the more likely it is that we will want to draw a line to keep others out. It's a natural, understandable, even somewhat justified viewpoint. Except for one thing : when faced with this very same kind of weak following, Jesus (and later, the Apostles) repeatedly refused to tell people to get out. Weak followers might weed themselves out as the demands of following Christ got tough, but they weren't sent out. We often become stronger with time, Bible study, and spiritual discipline. Make no mistake about this : Jesus and the Apostles had no brook for deception, willful wrongdoing, pretense, and power plays. They showed no mercy toward duplicity and trickery. Yet there was much mercy toward the simple failure to die daily to sin, because no one makes that grade 'well enough'.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we cannot let ourselves be more demanding than Jesus himself.
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If you have been baptized : do you know the day? (If it's something you can look up, do it, even if it takes a little digging.) If so, do you celebrate this 'spiritual birthday', and how?
What do you think of when you see water used in baptism?
For churchgoers : At your church, do the parents and godparents understand what baptism is? What their duties are? Does your church have information resources to teach them (booklets, videos, web sites, classes, and/or a member who has the responsibility to teach this)?
A Church of England (Anglican) page, on the Rite of Baptism.
Baptism Integrity, a British site with its own point of view. It also has some useful articles, including one from the United Free Church of Scotland.
An official statement on Baptism by the United Methodist Church (US). US Methodism has been influenced by so many different streams of thought and practice on baptism that it had to take a good, hard look at the matter to find some unifying themes.
A fairly typical fundamentalist Christian view of baptism.
The Catholic view of baptism, as found at New Advent.
The practices of the Evangelical Covenant Church (US), another church body affected by several different ways of thinking about baptism.
An Eastern Orthodox view of baptism.
A video presentation on baptism, with music from Kenny Chesney and Randy Travis.
(Travis, by the way, has recorded a humorous, and very US Southern, song on one heavy-duty sinner's baptism, "Pray For The Fish".)
"Behind this act of Christ in the present"
[ie, baptism] "stands his whole ministry
from the incarnation to the cross and resurrection. It is this work which
he continues when, invisibly present in the Spirit, he receives new members
into his church and makes them members in his body."
--- Gustaf Aulèn, *The Faith Of the Christian Church*, p.336
"..we believe that the confession of Christ
also extends to an understanding of the transformation (sanctification)
of the believer which is rooted in the converting reality of justification.
Hence, while acknowledging that Christians are simultaneously saints and
sinners (simul justus et peccator ), we also assert unequivocally
that there is an inextricable link and relationship between who one is,
namely a baptized and adopted child of God, and what one does, namely living
and acting in conformity to the will of God."
--- from "A Harare Message", as found in *Theology and the Black Experience*, ed. A. Pero and A. Moyo (Augsburg), p.266
"In our baptism, God has turned to us so that
we might turn to him. Daily we turn, responding to what God is doing in
us. We respond to the Spirit's urging within our lives. In fact, the response
itself (faith) is part of the Spirit's work in us.... The Spirit is not
optional equipment for Christians.... The Holy Spirit permeates the Christian's
existence, begins the Christian's pilgrimage, and leads us daily, tugging
at our lives until they be fully turned toward God. There is no conversion,
repentance, good work, or good life which is not a gift of the Spirit."
--- William Willimon, in *Remember Who You Are*, p.79
"The eyes of the flesh see water, but the eyes of faith behold the Spirit" --- John Chrysostom
Do you think baptism is puzzling? Stupid? Fascinating? Empty? Fictitious? Mysterious?
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|ver.: 14 January 2012|
Rite of Baptism. Copyright © 2003-2012 by Robert Longman.