Like Water Out of a Tub

Recent comments on my blog and conversations in the church hallway have convinced me that there is another line of reasoning in our current debate about baptism and membership, one that I haven’t fully understood.  As these people have explained to me (gently, patiently) our membership requirement doesn’t imply that people from other denominations are not Christian, it only points to the fact that they are not Baptist.  And if they want to be Baptist they must submit to believer’s baptism by immersion. 

So, let me see if I’ve got this right: believer’s baptism by immersion is what makes you Baptist?

Maybe that’s where I’m confused.  I’ve always thought that baptism was a symbol of entering the new life in Christ.  I thought that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 6 that it’s like dying with Jesus, and being buried with him, and then being raised from the dead.  I thought it’s what Jesus was referring to in John 3 when he told Nicodemus that in order to enter the Kingdom he had to be “born again.”

The language of resurrection and re-birth is powerful language.  I sometimes refer to it as “transfer terminology”: it’s about making the move from one way of life to another.  And I can see how, if you have come out of a life of sin and selfishness, you might want to drown the “old man” (as Paul calls him) in a watery grave, and let God raise up the “new man” just as he raised Jesus.  You might want to be “born again,” in the way Jesus described it to Nicodemus, if that really meant you could make a fresh start of your life.  The waters of baptism—to me—have always been a place where people entered the new life in Christ, where they were raised from the dead or born again, but they have never been—to me—a place where you make a Methodist into a Baptist.

Is that what Paul was talking about?  Is that what Jesus meant?  I cannot find any scriptural support for the idea of making Christians from other denominations into Baptists by baptizing them.  To me it empties the meaning of baptism; it drains it out of the baptistry like water out of a tub.  Instead of doing it “to fulfill all righteousness” (the words chiseled in stone above our baptistry) we do it to fulfill a membership requirement. 

That’s not even in the Bible.

I don’t want to empty baptism of its meaning.  I don’t want to use our baptistry to make Methodists (or Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, or Lutherans) into Baptists.  I want to use it to symbolize that moment when someone becomes a Christian, when they rise up from that watery grave or take the first breath of their new life in Christ.  That’s when the angels rejoice in heaven, that’s when the Hallelujah chorus begins.  Transferring your church membership from one denomination to another is not the same thing at all.

And shouldn’t be.

20 thoughts on “Like Water Out of a Tub

  1. Jim,

    That’s exactly where I started in my thought process. It took awhile and a lot of prayer but I finally came to see it differently! I never thought we where the only true Christians but I did see immersion as the way to join a Baptist church. Maybe we do immerse as Baptist but we shouldn’t immerse just to make Baptists.

  2. “And if they want to be Baptist then all they have to do it submit to believer’s baptism by immersion.

    So, let me see if I’ve got this right: believer’s baptism by immersion is what makes you Baptist?

    Maybe that’s where I’m confused.”

    That’s not what they’re saying at all. This is another in a series of straw-man arguments you’ve used to misrepresent the position of people who disagree with you.


  3. So if someone is already a Christian, then it is too late for them to be baptized the Baptist way, they have already been baptized back when they became a Christian. Which means we need different rules for believers who become Baptist. And different rules for unbelievers to become Baptist.

  4. I was “christened” (that’s what they called the splash of water on the head in the church I grew up in), and I was confirmed in the Episcopalian Church. I was told the laying on of hands came down one-after-the-other in an unbroken chain from Peter, and to make that direct-from-Peter-thing happen, the Episcopal Church had to get some Presbyterians to help out because the Church of England didn’t want to cooperate (because of the American Revolution). The point I’m trying to make is the emphasis the church I grew up in placed on ritual. And that’s what we’re talking about with this baptism debate — ritual.

    In 1987, I married a Baptist and started attending FBC. After a time, I decided I really liked the form of Christianity I found at First Baptist. Everywhere I looked I saw love, and I saw people helping others, and it seemed to me that’s what Christianity is about. After preachers in robes, and standing and kneeling, and the Book of Common Prayer — all that ritual in the church I grew up in — it was a welcome change. It seemed much more authentic — much more what Jesus would have preferred.

    So I decided to be baptized and become a full member of First Baptist. I didn’t do it because I thought it would make me a Christian, or that it would make me a Baptist, or that it would make me a better person in any way whatsoever. In my mind, I was already a follower of Christ, a full-fledged Christian, just like all the many disciples who have come before me, starting with Peter and the rest. There was no doubt in my mind about it.

    So why did I get baptized?

    I was baptized because I considered it a public statement of my faith, a sort of renewal or reconfirmation, and I thought that it might help others, my children in particular, to know that I was not ashamed of my beliefs — that I am convicted of them.

    And you know what? A number of people have come up to me and told me they saw me baptized on TV. That can’t possibly hurt the cause of Christianity. If it encouraged even one agnostic to take a serious look at Christianity, it was worth my getting Baptized.

    But you know what? I don’t think any ritual — Baptist or Episcopalian — makes me a Christian. Satan himself could participate in any of the rituals from Judaism to Islam to Christianity. What’s to stop him?

    What makes me a Christian is what is in my heart — a love for Christ and a sincere desire to become like Him. That’s a big, and probably impossible goal, I know, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

    I’m sorry to say I silently shake my head at all the wringing of hands I see going on at FBC these days concerning this Baptism issue. It all seems to me to be so beside the point of what Jesus came to do, or would have us spend our time and energy doing.

    Let me ask you this. When did Jesus ever focus on or pay homage to ritual? Just think about his attitude toward the Pharisees and their emphasis on the Law. The Pharisees thought you were going to hell if you healed a blind man on the Sabbath. I’m pretty sure you think that’s nuts.

    Well, consider this. After you die, when you stand before Jesus, you’ll have the opportunity to ask Him if all those Presbyterians and Episcopalians, who really did love him and try to become like him, but didn’t get Baptized by immersion, are going to Hell.

    And what do you suppose He is going to say?

    This is what I always come back to: “This is my commandment – Love one another.”

    How does that commandment fit into this baptism thing?

    It’s something worth thinking about, don’t you think?

  5. I wish David would explain his point of view so that I could understand it, as well. So far, I haven’t understood what he is trying to say, except that he doesn’t like your point of view, and believes you (& others who see this as you do) are somehow being disagreeable when they differ from his point of view. I, too, would appreciate the opportunity to hear and understand what it is that is being said. To me that is the best way to learn — to listen to a variety of opinions and facts, and try to relate them to one’s own experience, if possible, finding some common ground. Look forward to hearing more from David.

  6. I find it extremely interesting that people keep touting that there is no scriptural support for one side or the other. Interestingly, there is no support for infant baptism, (it started in the roughly middle ages due to rampant infant death). There likewise is no support for baptism of believers from other denominations since at the time of the scriptures there were no other denominations, only different religions. Either way, we are imposing our views on the scriptures. The only thing in my mind, in the scriptures is the discussion about whether Gentiles needed to become Jewish before they could become Christian. Other than that, any of us could be considered to be prooftexting our beliefs on baptism. The most important thing here is what is going to benefit the kingdom of God. That needs to be our question.

  7. I think we ‘immersers’ are suffering from a series of unfortunate misunderstandings.

    “So, let me see if I’ve got this right: believer’s baptism by immersion is what makes you Baptist?”

    To this question, I must respond with a sincere and definitive “NO, you don’t have it right.” Jesus’ life on this earth provided each of us with the model, the path that we should follow to live a Christ-like life and to glorify God. That is our end game. Being “Southern Baptist” is not the end game. It is a belief system some choose in conjuction with their understaning of New Testament theology for reaching the goal of being Christ-like and glorifying God. One part of this journey is baptism. When immersers read in Matthew that Jesus “came up out of the water”, we believe that, yes, he came up out of the water, i.e. he was immersed. And when God said, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased” well, hey, that’s good enough for us. Sounds like something we ought/want to do. It does not make us “Baptists” or better than anybody else. As independent, ‘priesthood of the believer’ kind of thinkers, we believe this is one of the many ways we choose to celebrate and follow Jesus’ example. Along with other basic beliefs, we as “Southern Baptists” share a commonality. Our beliefs make us unique which is not the same as making us ‘special.’ If others want to share our uniqueness, then come on, jump in, the water’s fine. However, dipping a toe in the water will not provide the same experience as will the full plunge. This is really the question that FBC has to answer. Do you want members who are getting the ‘toe-dipping’ experience or do you want members who are getting the ‘full plunge’ experience? It is not a question of wrong or right but a question of direction.

    In conclusion, I would like to posit another question:
    Why are we as a community of Southern Baptists quesitoning baptism by immersion? Why do we not quesiton why other denominations choose not to immerse?

  8. Maybe we Baptists should be baptized every Lord’s Day, or at a minimum quarterly as a profession of our faith. That way we would be covered. I was baptized on my ‘profession of faith’, in a Baptist church, many years before I truly became a Christian. I see baptism as a symbol of our willingness to be identified with Christ, not an impartation of salvation. So maybe regular baptisms of believers would cover people like me, to satisfy the beliefs of others who think we need to be ‘truly’ Christian first and then immersed afterwards.

  9. Help me with this one, Sally.

    The 12-year-old boy who was immersed in our baptistry last Sunday is now considered a full member of our Baptist church, but the English woman who has been in our church for 25 years is not. Let me tell you why. She became a believer at the age of 20 and was baptized in the Anglican tradition by a priest who poured water over her head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She was so on fire for Jesus after college that she went to Africa as a missionary, where she worked for years. She ended up in Richmond, Virginia, and started attending First Baptist Church. She has been a faithful attender, and a regular participant in Sunday school and small group Bible studies, but she is not considered a full member. She is a “Watchcare” member, because she considers her baptism in the Anglican tradition a very precious part of her Christian exerpience. For her, getting in the baptistry now would be a repudiation of that previous Christian experience. It would be like saying her baptism didn’t count. She’s not being stubborn; she just doesn’t understand why her baptism isn’t good enough.

    What would you say to her if you were her pastor?

  10. While you’re waiting for Sally to get back to you, perhaps you can help me with this one.

    George has been a tithing member of First Baptist for 25 years. Last week, he got word that his father’s cancer has turned especially vicious and doctors don’t expect him to live more than another week or two. As any son would do, George takes off for his father’s home in Gastonia, North Carolina. He plans to be at his father’s bedside, holding his hand and feeding him sips of Boost, on the same Sunday the church in which he was baptized and married votes on a change in the membership policy. Given George’s love for his church and his devotion to and financing of its missions and outreach programs over the years, he wants to participate in this vote. But there’s no way he can be with his dying father in North Carolina and at his church in Richmond at the same time. “I know,” he thinks, “I’ll vote absentee!”

    When he asks about voting absentee, he’s told by Bill, the leader of a select committee of deacons, that “any form of absentee voting would break with a long tradition which has worked well and by which FBC has made other major decisions.”

    This response puzzles him.

    “Aren’t we, in fact,” George asks, “proposing to do something along the same lines with this policy . . . break with a long tradition that has worked well?”

    Deacon Bill shuffles a bit and tries a different angle. “Well,” Deacon Bill says, “absentee voting is inherently complex and difficult to administer in a way that is fair to everyone.”

    This long-time member is puzzled again. “They’ve had two years to come up with a plan, he thinks.

    “I know, Bill,” George says. “Just mail a ballot to me, and I’ll complete it and return it by whatever deadline you propose. Then you can check my name off the membership roster as having voted. Just mail the ballot to the same address you’ve used to send me all the campaign literature, promoting this change. You know the address . . . the same one you use when you mail my offering envelopes to me.”

    At that moment, Deacon Bill reaches in his pocket, pulls out his cell phone, flips it open, and says, “Hello.” As he talks, he signals to George to hold on a second, and he’ll be right with him.
    Figuring Deacon Bill might be on the phone awhile, George heads down the hall for the minister’s office. He simply can’t believe that members of a church aren’t going to be allowed to vote on a policy about membership. Surely he can’t be the only one who has a scheduling conflict. What about homebound members or members out of area?

    You are this person’s pastor. What do you say to him?

  11. That’s a terrific hypothetical question, David, but I’m guessing it’s not entirely hypothetical.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t know what to say to George. It really doesn’t seem fair that he can’t tend to his dying father and also vote on this important issue. In the end I suppose it would come down to trust. Can George trust that congregation he’s been a member of for 25 years to make a good decision, even without him? I know others on both sides of this issue who also have to be away. They’re having to do the same thing. My prayer is that the group that gathers for the business meeting tomorrow will be a good representation of the entire congregation, and that the outcome of the vote will reflect the will of the church.

    With prayers for George’s dad,


  12. How about this? Why can’t the church leadership trust George to cast his own vote in a forum other than inside the sanctuary? George – as well as all those in his situation – have been cheated.

  13. This entire issue is precisely “a governance issue” as was stated by the gentleman on the website from last Wednesday night’s discussion.

    I also agree with the lady who said that “this whole process has been “railroaded’ (by the Pastor and the majority of the Board of Deacons.)

    I have known and loved First Baptist people for 37 years now. However, I always thought that there too many “yes” brothers and sisters in the congregation. It warms my heart to know that there is (minority) opposition to this proposal.

    If this proposal carries, it will sadden my heart because it will confirm once again that “church politics” at my beloved FBC Richmond is business as usual.


    Mark Waggoner

  14. What would I say to her if I were her pastor? Wow, Dr. Somerville, you are really asking me to step out of my comfort zone! As the daughter of a pastor, I have some insight into how difficult your job is and believe me, I am not gifted with the skills necessary to handle all that is expected and required of you. That being said, I will try to go where angels (and I) fear to tread. For both you and me, this is a diffictult situation because we both would be telling someone what she does not want to hear. However, for you, it is more difficult because you have to support a position with which you do not agree. I will assume for the sake of time and space that this woman understands the immerser’s perspective but does not agree with it. Apparently, she has been somewhat happy at FBC and she has found spiritual fullfilment and an opportunity to serve within the church community since she has remained a Watchcare member for 25 years. I would hope that the suggestions I make would provide her perhaps with a dfferent perspective on the situation. I would also hope that our discourse would be given and received in the spirit of Christian love and not censure or disrespect. Each of us has the “pity party” moments…it’s not fair, I don’t want to, no one understands, etc. Let’s get the focus off of “me” and onto God. First I would ask her if she believes immersion baptism is asking her to do something immoral–does it break one of God’s laws? Second, is personal pride involved? This is where so many of us falter, consciuosly or subconsciously. Finally, I would ask her if she could see any way that God might use her immersion baptism as a witnessing opportunity to glorify Him. God’s ways are not our ways. This woman will never know all of the positive effects her immersion might have on those who witness it. Every situation provides an opportunity to make a choice. Since the time of the Garden of Eden, God has given Man the freedom to choose and the responsibility to accept the consequences. I would hope her choice is based on how best to glorify God.

  15. After two years of discussion and dialogue regarding the issue of baptism, I have a new appreciation for our political leaders who have struggled for years to continue holding peace talks with our Arab and Jewish friends in the middle East. Another reminder for me that we all want to be understood and that we all need love and grace! And perhaps no one as much as me! Maybe our spiritual work now is to become grace to each other.

  16. Although I recognize that people are very passionate about this issue, I’m afraid I still don’t understand the level of passion that has surfaced. I was raised in a tradition that did baptize by immersion but did not view it with the strength of feeling that I have observed here.
    I am particularly saddened by the emergence of rancor and personal accusations. In this particular circumstance, there were no solutions that would have been palatable to everyone. The question that remains is, “Where do we go from here?”
    Please, Lord, let the healing begin.

  17. Just to clarify, the previous comment attributed to Ron Smith was actually my own. I forgot to enter my own name and email before I clicked submit.

  18. To Ralph’s statement . . . AMEN!!!!

    I do have a question, however; now that the vote is in, what exactly does it mean to those who are currently Watchcare Members? It’s one of those things that has been going on for so long, I forget why it started in the first place.


  19. Vicky: Watchcare members will not automatically become full members. That would be presumptuous on our part. But the change in our membership requirement will give them some options. 1) they can choose to do nothing, and maintain their current status, 2) they can come forward at the end of a worship service to make public their desire to become full members, or 3) they could simply request a change in membership status from the church clerk, who would make that part of her report at the next quarterly business meeting.

    This is really only my best guess at this point, but it’s a start. I’ll be talking with the church clerk over the next few days, as well as church staff and deacons, just to firm up the procedure.

    Thanks for asking!


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