If you’ve read my last two posts you know that I’ve had a fresh insight about baptism and church membership. In the first post I commented on the difference between the child who comes down the aisle in a present-day Baptist church and the adult who would have been a candidate for baptism in the first century. In those days people were hearing about Jesus for the first time. They responded in faith, repented of their sins, and entered the waters of baptism. That “New Testament pattern” is just what you would expect under such circumstances, and it is still the pattern we follow when people are hearing about Jesus for the first time.
But the child who comes down the aisle in a Baptist church has likely heard about Jesus all her life. She was probably dedicated in the church, rocked by caring Christians in the nursery, taught to love the Bible in Sunday school. When she finally makes up her mind about Jesus and comes down the aisle we celebrate right along with the angels in heaven, and as soon as we can we baptize her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. I call that “raising” a disciple, and in my second post I pointed out the striking similarities between the way we do it and the way people of other denominations do it.
But here’s the thing:
In our sincere desire to follow the “New Testament pattern”—to be thoroughly biblical in our approach to baptism—we Baptists have sometimes treated disciples who were raised in other denominations as if they were not disciples at all. When they present themselves for membership we try to make disciples out of them by asking them to enter the waters of baptism just like those first century converts. But they are not converts, they are Christians, and although I have searched the Scriptures I cannot find a single place where a Christian is baptized. If that’s true then our current practice at Richmond’s First Baptist Church is a departure from the “New Testament pattern,” in which the only appropriate candidate for baptism is a new convert to Christianity.
We need to think about these things, and we need to consider the implications carefully. To insist that Christians of other denominations be baptized before they can become members of our church is to treat them as if they were new converts; it is to empty their previous Christian experience of any legitimacy. Not only that, but it empties “believer’s baptism by immersion” of its meaning; it turns this powerful symbol of dying and rising with Christ into little more than the fulfillment of a membership requirement.
I heard such a story just recently. A couple from another denomination told me they had visited a Baptist church in the area for several months, but when they inquired about membership the pastor told them they would have to be immersed. “But we’re Christians!” they insisted. “We’ve been Christians for a long time.” “Oh, I’m sure you are,” he said. “I have no doubt about that. But it’s a requirement for membership in this church.” They were indignant, and on the verge of taking their membership to another church when he offered this option. “What if we wait till everyone else goes home on Sunday and I baptize the two of you privately? That way, if anyone asks if you’ve been immersed, you can say yes!”
“And so we were dunked,” they said, chuckling at the memory. And so the life-giving, life-changing symbol of baptism was reduced to the fulfillment of a membership requirement, in an empty church on a Sunday afternoon, with no celebration, no singing of hymns, and no angels rejoicing in heaven—only a preacher in rubber chest waders dutifully doing what his church required as two long-time Christians allowed themselves to be “dunked.”
Whatever else that may be, it is not the “New Testament pattern.”