I heard a story recently about a woman from another denomination who was visiting a Baptist church in the South. Let’s call her Emily the Episcopalian. She loved the church and wanted to join, but then she had a talk with the pastor. What follows is a close approximation of that conversation.
Pastor, thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time. I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying the church! I’ve been visiting for about three months now and I’ve gotten such a warm welcome from your congregation. I love the music and the message of your worship services. I don’t think I’ve ever left here without feeling blessed by the experience. I’ve even visited a Sunday school class where people did everything they could to make me feel at home. So, I think I’m ready to join, and I just want to know how I should go about that.
Well, that’s wonderful, Emily! And when it comes to joining, nothing could be easier. If you’ll just come forward at the end of any worship service, when I give the invitation, I can introduce you to the congregation, they’ll lift their hands to “vote you in,” and then, as soon as possible, we can schedule your baptism.
But I’ve already been baptized.
Yes. When I was a baby.
Oh, right. You grew up Episcopalian. In the Baptist tradition we don’t really think of that as baptism. The Greek word for baptize means literally “to dip,” or “immerse.” That’s the way they did it in the New Testament and that’s the way we do it. We baptize believers by immersion. So, (smiling) let’s get that on the schedule as soon as possible. You are a believer, aren’t you Emily?
Of course. I’ve been a believer for…thirty years.
Great, then I’ll look forward to welcoming you whenever you choose to come down the aisle.
Are you telling me my baptism doesn’t count?
No, not at all, Emily! I’m sure it was very meaningful for your parents and for the church. But, see, you didn’t choose to be baptized, and in the Baptist tradition we think you need to make up your own mind about Jesus.
But I did make up my own mind about Jesus. I was confirmed when I was twelve. I stood before the church and claimed my baptism, professing my faith in Jesus as Lord. Nobody made me do that.
That’s wonderful, Emily. It really is. And you’ll have a chance to profess your faith again when you are baptized. That’s the way we do it here: you stand in the baptistry and I ask you if you want to follow Jesus. You say “Yes” and then I dip you down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I don’t mean to argue, Pastor, but that sounds like what you do when you become a Christian, and I’m not becoming a Christian. I’ve been a Christian for years. It sounds as if you’re saying that doesn’t count either.
No, no! That’s not what I’m saying at all! Of course you’re a Christian. There’s no question about that. But if you want to be a member of a Baptist church you need to be baptized in the Baptist way.
What do you mean, why?
Why doesn’t my baptism count? Why doesn’t my Christian experience count? I’m not moving from one religion to another, just from one church to another. Why can’t I just transfer my membership?
That’s just not the way we do it, Emily. We place a high value on believer’s baptism. It’s the biblical way, and if you’re not willing to be baptized in the biblical way, well….
Wait a minute. I’m confused. I became a Christian in the Episcopal church. Now I want to join a Baptist church. But it sounds like you’re telling me I have to become a Christian all over again, in the Baptist way. Not only that, you’re telling me the Baptist way is the “biblical” way, as if the Episcopal way were not. I came into this meeting eager to join your church, but in the last few minutes you’ve told me my baptism doesn’t count, that I’m not a real Christian, and that my tradition is “unbliblical.”
No, no! I’m not saying that at all!
Well, that’s how it sounds to me (she gets up to go). Thank you for your time, Pastor. I’ll have to think about this. But, honestly? I’m not nearly as excited as I was about joining. In fact (she pauses), I think I just made up my mind.
This is what happens when real people encounter a membership requirement that treats their previous Christian experience as if it were no experience at all. I post this example because it is so similar to some of the conversations I’ve had with people from other denominations when I explain to them the current membership requirement of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. They can’t understand why their Christianity isn’t “good enough,” or why their baptism “doesn’t count.” Although I assure them that it’s not like that at all, many of them decide not to return.
I’m still hoping that we can come to that place where we welcome committed Christians from other denominations without asking them to start all over again. I think there is a way to honor their baptism, honor their previous Christian experience, and then “immerse” them in the Baptist tradition. Who knows what kind of Baptist Emily might become if we simply welcomed her with open arms, as if she were—in fact—our sister in Christ?
Because—in fact—she is.