Baptism

At this point, a lot of my childhood memory is indistinguishable from my childhood artifacts. What I think I remember in many cases is nothing more than knowledge of a Polaroid or scrap of paper. One thing stands out clearly, however: October 9, 1980, the day my father baptized me.

I remember nine-year old me nervously sitting in a grown up chair on the other side of my Dad’s pastor desk and answering his serious questions about the authenticity of my faith. I remember coming down to the front altar of Trinity United Methodist Church in Muskogee, Oklahoma, wearing my navy blue church sport coat with the gold buttons. I remember my Dad in his preacher robe having me kneel at the altar and the feeling of his wet hand dripping water down my neck as he baptized me in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

My family was a mixed breed. My father was a Methodist who became an ordained pastor after attending a Southern Baptist seminary in Kentucky. My mother was raised General Baptist, then Southern Baptist. I don’t know if it was her influence or by mutual agreement, but I wasn’t baptized as an infant. Methodists, as is their usual way, accept all the traditions, so I could have gone either way. They chose to wait, and by age nine I was ready to take the plunge (although as we will see that’s really the problem). October 9, 1980 was a good day for my family and me. My memory of it is clear. It began a life of followership that has directed me over paths of varying terrain.

Fourteen years later I was married to my Baptist-raised wife and attending a United Methodist seminary in Dayton, Ohio. (Don’t tell me that people don’t live out their parents’ lives.) We were trying various churches in town and had enjoyed the worship creativity at Far Hills Baptist Church. We decided to join, and met with an associate pastor. I knew that the Southern Baptist way is to require immersion, a “Believer’s Baptism”, as a requisite to membership, so I scheduled a meeting to discuss my theological position on baptism. I told the pastor with the strident assurance of a 24-year old seminary student that I liked his church and that I wanted to join, but that I couldn’t be baptized a second time. I quoted Ephesians 4 at him. I said that I had already been baptized, by my father no less, and that it was offensive to be asked to do it again. I told him that I was already a Christian. None of this mattered. The pastor got angry with me. We ended up leaving the church in frustration, and a few months later I accepted a church job at an innovative, large United Methodist Church up the road called Ginghamsburg.

Things have changed in the seventeen years since then. I have four kids now. We have held off on their baptisms because we want them to have an immersion experience. After many theological discussions with my wife we have a mutual understanding and agreement that immersion is the best way, not just because it’s “biblical” but because it most fully captures the meaning of death to life that baptism symbolizes. We agree that a person can also be baptized in another tradition and that it’s okay, too.

I put biblical in quotes because to say that immersion is the only biblical form of baptism is to confuse theology and tradition and a proper understanding of the Bible’s position as the voice of and not the object of our faith. Consider the other ordinance of the Baptist tradition, the Lord’s Supper. Is it taken as literally as baptism? Do Baptists drink wine in worship? Some traditions emphasize the sacred act of the Eucharist with a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, and others treat it with the metaphor of grape juice. Likewise, baptism is literal for some and symbolic for others. In either case it is the heart’s acceptance and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, not the method, that matters.

It has been helpful for me to look backward. As far as I understand it, the need for immersion in the Anabaptist tradition is part of a post-Reformation movement of believers who created an alternative means to distinguish expressed belief and faith from the institutional association of those born and baptized into the state religion as a matter of civic course. Adult immersion was a way for reformers of that era to lay claim to an authentic faith that was separate, or set apart. Baptist to this day are considered a sect, or a separatist tradition, as opposed to the Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian/Anglican “mainline” traditions, which are all descendants of the state religions of European nations.

The Methodist tradition is an entirely different animal. Many within and from a distance consider it mainline. Yet it shares similar origins to the Anabaptists, as it was built on a reform movement against the Anglican Church. Its populist roots changed with money and societal position, however, and by the mid 20th century Methodism, through association or strategic decision, had become part of the mainline Protestant tradition in America.

I realize now that I was baptized into a community of faith, that of John Wesley, that had drifted into the institutionalism it initially rejected. Talk about prodigal. But this is a topic for another day.

Here is what I believe: The Methodist tradition ascribes to two sacraments – the Lord’s Supper and baptism. (This is opposed to the full seven sacraments of our Catholic forbearer faith.) I believe in these. The Baptist tradition calls them ordinances. They are both important but have less sacramental authority than in the Methodist tradition.

My wife and I agree that baptism is an important part of the life of a believer, a rite of passage, or confession, which every believer needs to undergo.

The Scriptures tell us that it was at Jesus’ own baptism that the Holy Spirit came into him. Ephesians 4:5 (“There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism”) can be understood as either a reference to water or Spirit baptism. In either case, it is the transformation and not the methodology that matters. It is symbolic, an ordinance as the Baptists call it, but it is more. It contains elements of mystery, which give it a sacramental quality. On the ritual mystery scale, if Catholics are at one end and Baptists at the other, I’m about halfway in between.

Yet the issue of my own baptism won’t ever go away.

As a part of moving to middle Tennessee, I told my long-suffering wife that we’d go to a Baptist church. We’d been attending United Methodist churches since we got married, with mixed personal connection and success. She was sorely missing the faith expression of her childhood, and my early married attempts to get rid of the Baptist in her had evolved into a loving realization that her spirit needed to go someplace where she could find affinity for her faith. While I have devoted my career to bringing life to The United Methodist Church, I also have serious reservations at this point about the ability of my faith tradition to disciple its young, and think the Baptists do a better job of it. (A person’s lofty positions often fall apart in the face of the pragmatic decisions of parenting.)

We’ve found a couple of good Baptist churches in Hendersonville. We’re ready to join, we think. We want Kaylyn and Christian, our first two children who have expressed faith in Christ, to have an opportunity to be baptized.

But what to do about me? Should I meet with the pastor and tell him, as I did before, that I’m already a Christian? That might not go over well, and I am no longer driven to persuade anyone to my position. Should I not join? This wouldn’t be good for our family. Should I just suck it up and get immersed for my kids’ sake? This seems like the easy solution, but it still bothers me on principle, and worse, if I do this, am I saying to my children’s future selves that all of a person’s theological positions are just so much semantics? This contradicts the nature of the Reformation itself, which teaches the priesthood of all believers and the ability of every Christ follower to come to God through the Scriptures and not by following the traditions of the established church.

What do you think I should do?

 

13 Comments on “Baptism”

  1. Do you know for sure that the Baptist churches you’re considering require an immersion baptism to join their church? Ours didn’t. And I probably wouldn’t ever have considered a Baptist church except that I really really like their positions on things like baptism and communion. The pastor talks about the “mystery” of baptism (and communion) and even though they do immerse their new believers, and do children dedications and then wait for a personal declaration of faith, they also talk quite a bit about how it’s an outward symbol of an inner transformation that has already taken place. So our church doesn’t have a problem with me having been baptized by sprinkling, or that Madeleine and Zachary have already been baptized. We’re kind of in the strange position of half our children having been baptized by virtue of being at a Presbyterian church when they were born, and the other half not because we’re at a Baptist church now.

    Anyway. Point being that not all Baptist churches are the same, and you can’t know unless you talk to the pastor. I personally think that it’s wrong for churches to insist on a particular type of baptism over another, because I think God can be expressed in all of it. I like that baptizing an infant emphasizes that God’s grace calls us before we ever do anything toward Him. And I like that choosing to be baptized emphasizes that we respond to God’s loving call. So I think ultimately both sides have a valid point, but you in theory can’t be baptized twice.

    Also… this may be a technicality, but would it be possible for you to attend without “joining?” So you are active and engaged and such, but you don’t actually join the church and get rebaptized. I guess you probably can’t serve in an official capacity if you don’t…

  2. Oh, also, I think it’s interesting that Dad baptized you but made a point not to baptize me, they brought in the DS to do it so he could “just be a father” that day. I mainly remember the water tickling on my head and trying not to laugh. NOT appropriate!

  3. Len,

    I love this post – both the historical perspective and your vulnerability. I especially like this sentence: “On the scale of ritual mystery scale, if Catholics are at one end and Baptists at the other, I’m about halfway in between.”

    Given that you agree that salvation is not dependent on the act of Baptism, have you considered the act of immersion as merely a “public profession of faith?” Jesus, when questioned about paying taxes, said in essence to do what is civically required to live in peace.

    In that same spirit, here are some questions I would consider:
    – Has God indeed called your family to this congregation?
    – Can your personal call to ministry through this local body of believers be fulfilled without becoming a member? Today there are many legal issues churches must consider. For example, a parent driving the church van on a youth trip must be a member in order to be eligible by the church’s insurance company.
    – If membership is the gateway to the next step God has for you, what is the cost of making yet another public profession of faith? Is it pride in tradition? Is the cost embarrassment for your extended family? Could the cost bring glory to God?

    The whole point for me is – God is perfect and we are not. Religion and theology were given to us as some small way to grasp the essence of an immense God. The most significant choice you will make in your life is whether or not to accept the free gift of salvation. We must get that one right. The others, do the best you can given the circumstances and the Spirit’s leading.

    Thank you for a great dialogue. And may the Lord guard your heart and guide your mind.
    Sincerely,
    BP

  4. Len,
    My hope is the pastor of the SBC you are currently attending will be more sympathetic to your situation than the pastor years before. For you the issue is not believers baptism vs. infant baptism, but an issue of mode or the amount of water necessary.
    For the pastor to require you to be rebaptized, he is ignoring the reality that Baptism is into the Body of Christ not into a denomination. For him to require your rebaptism is to call into question the legitimacy of your original baptism. I would really struggle with that.
    In my own experience, I am now attending a free church that practices immersion of adults, but has not required a second rite of passage into the Christian community. My prayer is your pastor will offer similar grace. Hang.in there Len, you are in my prayers.
    Bob

  5. As a clergy type myself, I am always deeply comforted by the ancient roots of our sacramental traditions. At the heart of the idea of a sacrament, like baptism, is that we don’t really know, own, or control how it works. A sacrament belongs to God. This gives me comfort that no matter how I or my denomination might screw them up, sacraments always work, because they are always God’s actions and not ours. For me this is key to the holy mystery of grace received through baptism. I believe that baptism, no matter the method or repetition, always works.

  6. Glad you have found a new church home. This issue came up in UM Doctrine class last year. I was on the side of not going through a baptism again on princple as it’s saying that God didn’t “take” the first time. However, the professor had another point of view. She said that the a church requiring immersion of someone who had been previously sprinkled should not be a barrier to joining it, that what was more importnat was your own understanding of it as- what has already been said here- a public profession of faith and not a “re-baptism.” In fact, she believed it can be a means of grace as a re-commitment and therefore a good thing can come out of it.

  7. Hi Len,
    As someone that did not accept my own faith and spent many years as an agnostic I questioned my own baptism for some time when I came to my own faith. After years of prayer I finally came to the conclusion and acceptance that God had claimed me all of those years before, even if there had been mistakes in the denomination, practice, acceptance and me. God’s love was unconditional. I may have gone in all kinds of directions, but he had never moved. If someone today were to question my baptism I would question what their insecurities about are about God. Thank God that he can work through all of our mistakes!

  8. Hey, Len

    Thanks for your openness and transparency in wrestling through this. I appreciate your sensitivity in this. I’m sorry, too, to hear about the less than positive experience many years ago at Far Hills. I grew up in that area and am familiar with that church. Those experiences can certainly influence how we approach a similar situation down the road.

    My background is immersion, but as a pastor, if you came and gave a clear testimony of a relationship with Christ and transformed life, I wouldn’t make an issue of it. I’ve known people to get re-baptized for a number of reasons, but that was a choice they made as part of their spiritual journey. I don’t think there is any need for you to do it again, but if you wanted to, I also don’t think it would minimize what you experienced earlier in your life. I would agree with what’s already been suggested to simply go and engage in the conversation. If it’s a huge issue at one church and not another, I think that will be a key factor in which church you choose to associate with.

    Trusting that God will clearly guide you and your family in this season of transition.

    Chris

  9. Len,
    I just read this article for the first time. I wanted to share that I did not want you and Lori baptized as infants, as I wanted you to be old enough to decide and understand the meaning of salvation and baptism. Your dad agreed with me that we would wait. My belief at the time was probably due to my Baptist background and now many years later, I believe God does call us to Him, but as I came to Christ at age 9, I knew very little at that time. I just knew I wanted to be saved to be able to go to heaven and not hell. After hearing a sermon on that at a revival, I wanted to make that decision right away. Daddy (Grandpa) said I ran down the aisle that night! I honestly do not remember that, but I do remember making a choice to walk with Jesus. I’ve been on a wonderful journey with the Lord ever since that night.

    Regarding your decision on baptism back in Nov., what has happened since then? Have Kaylyn and Christian been baptized yet? How did things go with your family at the church in Hendersonville since that point in time? I personally do not think a person needs to be baptized again, unless he/she so chooses to do so. I enjoyed reading your and Lori’s comments too.

  10. Has there been an update to this? I’m in almost the EXACT same position (except it was not my father and I was 13.) Are we just being stubborn? Do we even want to join a group that makes us do something we don’t even feel is right? I personally don’t even want the person that would give me the the “2nd baptism” the job of doing it because I would devalue their role.

    1. Ryan,

      Thanks for asking. It’s still unresolved. Since I wrote this we’ve made a move. God led me to a position at a church in Atlanta. A Presbyterian church of all things, which as it turns out is kind of in between Methodist and Baptist in many practical and some theological ways.

      We feel very comfortable here theologically, but the church has a rich history and is slow to change, so the practice of worship fits a much older demographic. That’s difficult to deal with.

      Because of these changes, the entire question has kind of been put on hold. If we do nothing, our kids will get baptized as they matriculate through the children’s program in a few years. Or we might schedule something earlier. Meanwhile, we continue to try to teach the Christian life through our daily activity.

      Perhaps sometimes the best solution is to not act and wait for the variables to change.

    2. Ryan, no update. In fact God has led my family and I to a Presbyterian church, where I now serve as Creative Director. No one is asking me to be immersed, but on the other hand we’d prefer to have our kids immersed and this church sprinkles. So still no ideal.

  11. Well, nothing like coming late to a discussion. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting question to which I have been drawn for many years. There are two major points for me on this one, when considering it for myself: 1. Do we think God is so limited that he can’t get 100% potency out of a “sprinkle” baptism? “My” God is more powerful than that. And yet, 2. do we think God is so weak that he’ll take offense at a second baptism? If He doesn’t, should we? I believe that the Spirit is the important ingredient in my baptism, not water. Or, should I say, “Living water, not H2O water”. I think that when we argue over the mechanics of baptism, we miss the point.
    I’ve been baptized three times, I think. Catholic, Baptist and Methodist. I have been Baptized only once.

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