DALLAS (ABP) — Disputes about baptism are troubling the waters among some Baptists.
From a controversial guideline of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, which narrows the definition of an acceptable baptism of a new missionary, to churches that wrestle with the perennial question of how to accept new members from other denominations, questions swirl around an issue most Baptists considered settled more than 350 years ago — believer's baptism by immersion.
“Believer's baptism has long been a distinctive mark of Baptists,” Baylor University religion professor Bill Brackney wrote in a paper published by the Baptist History and Heritage Society and the Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society. “All Baptists, to one degree or another, recognize the importance of a believers' church and the signal rite or
ordinance of baptism.”
The earliest English Baptists believed only adults who professed faith in Christ should be baptized, but they initially practiced sprinkling or pouring. However, by the mid-1600s, immersion became the standard mode for Baptists, Brackney noted.
But some modern observers believe that distinctive mark is being diluted by factors such as post-denominationalism, postmodernism and pragmatism.
A variety of reasons may cause some modern Baptists to downplay believer's baptism by immersion, said Bill Pinson, director of the Texas Baptist Heritage Center and executive director emeritus of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Possibilities include the influence of “ecumenical evangelicalism” that stresses commonly held beliefs over denominational differences; the influence of Calvinism in some Baptist circles; a desire to be nonjudgmental and tolerant; a postmodern worldview that questions exclusive claims of truth or “right” methods; and a lack of understanding about distinctive Baptist beliefs, Pinson noted.
Baptists who champion immersion as the proper method of baptism have appealed both to the original Greek meaning of the term and to the symbol of being “buried in the likeness of Christ's death and raised to walk in the newness of life” — a phrase commonly used by Baptist ministers as they immerse a new believer.
New Testament baptism requires a proper subject (a believer who comes to faith in Christ voluntarily), the proper mode (immersion) and the proper meaning (a symbol of death, burial and resurrection), according to Oklahoma pastor-theologian and 20th-century Baptist statesman Herschel Hobbs in a study guide to the Baptist Faith and Message.
“Change the mode and the meaning is lost. Change the meaning and the mode loses its New Testament significance,” Hobbs wrote.
Traditionally, most — but not all — Baptists have understood believer's baptism by immersion as an ordinance that is “prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper” — language common to both the 1963 and 2000 versions of the Baptist Faith and Message.
“This is the oldest and most divisive theological question in Baptist history,” said Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School. “Early Baptist churches divided over closed and open membership regarding baptism.”
Landmark Baptists — an ultra-conservative group that seeks to trace Baptists' origins directly to New Testament times and believes Baptists are the only true church — draw the circle narrowly. They grant membership only to Baptists who have been baptized in likeminded Landmark Baptist churches and limit participation in a church's observance of the Lord's Supper only to members of that local church.
But as far back as John Bunyan in the 1600s, some Baptists have argued for open membership — granting membership to sincere Christians whose baptism was by sprinkling or pouring.
“However, Bunyan held that believer's baptism was the ideal and pleaded for baptism by immersion, but he asked for ‘a bearing with our brother that cannot do it for want of light,'” Pinson said. “Such an approach to baptism and church membership was in Bunyan's day, and has been since, criticized by most Baptists for various reasons, including weakening or undermining other basic biblical beliefs precious to Baptists.”
Leonard contends most Christian communions have “broken baptism” in some sense in that they do not literally follow the New Testament norm of “adult believers' immersion — in cold running water.” For instance, the practice in some Baptist churches of baptizing children — some as young as age 4 or 5 — deviates from the biblical standard, he insisted.
“When Baptists started baptizing children, especially preschool children, they departed from the New Testament norm, so they can claim to have believers' baptism, but not adult believers' baptism, which is the only kind practiced in the New Testament church,” Leonard said.
Some churches continue to wrestle with the issue of whether believer's baptism by immersion must be prerequisite to church membership. Last year, elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn., recommended a policy change that would have allowed the church to accept as members — under certain conditions — Christians who gave evidence of conversion but who were sprinkled as infants.
In a widely disseminated 85-page position paper, pastor John Piper, an influential Reformed Baptist theologian, and the council of elders asserted the belief that “the door to local church membership should be roughly the same size as the door to membership in the universal body of Christ.”
But three months after the church's governing body introduced its original motion, some elders reconsidered their position, and the group withdrew its proposal.
Still, the church's website acknowledges “the issue cannot be dropped because the majority of the elders still favor the motion, including almost all the pastoral staff. …”
Other Baptist churches have found different ways to include in their membership Christians who have not been immersed. Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas, has carved out a special niche — “alternative baptism” — for Christians who are baptized as believers but not by immersion.
“As long as a person's baptism comes after salvation and is done for the right reasons but by a different mode, we accept it,” said pastor Steve Stroope.
People who enter the church by alternative baptism are granted full membership, except for limits on their ability to serve in some leadership positions, he explained.
“We have not changed our theological position on baptism by immersion, but we are not making it a test of fellowship,” Stroope said.
Lake Pointe Church rejects infant baptism and believes immersion is the clearest symbol of identification with Christ's death, burial and resurrection, he stressed. But the church does not deny fellowship to a person who becomes a Christian and subsequently is baptized in a church that teaches pouring or sprinkling as an acceptable mode.
He compared differences about baptism by immersion — as opposed to sprinkling or pouring — to varying opinions about the millennium or Calvinism among “conservative evangelicals.”
Alternative baptism has served as a gateway through which people from other denominations have entered Lake Pointe Church. Once they become a part of the church, about 85 percent eventually ask to be baptized by immersion, he noted.
Some churches provide a special category for people who want to be part of the church but are not ready for membership — watch-care.
In part, watch-care provides a way for college students who temporarily live in the area to become part of a local fellowship without moving their church membership. But it also provides a transitional step for people who have questions or concerns about baptism or some church doctrine.
“Watch-care is for those who are not yet ready to become a Baptist,” the website of Williams Trace Baptist Church in Sugar Land, Texas, notes. People who seek to enter under the watch-care of the church are not entitled to full voting membership, but it allows them a way to be included in the life and fellowship of the church, said pastor Phil
“We tell them: ‘We'll watch over you. We will care for you. You are a part of our congregation. You're just not officially a member of the church,'” he explained.
People under the church's watch-care cannot serve on committees involving the congregation's legal status, such as personnel or finance, and they are not permitted to be teachers. However, many of them serve as ushers or greeters, participate in church-sponsored mission trips and ministry projects, Lineberger noted.
“We want them to be a part of the family and to be in a place where they have the chance to hear the gospel presented in a friendly, non-threatening way,” he said.
Typically, people under the church's watch-care are part of a family that includes some church members, he noted. “Usually, it's the father whose wife and children may come to join the church, but he's not ready,” Lineberger said.
While the family member under watch-care often is a Christian from a different denomination, William Trace Baptist's watch-care ministry also includes non-Christians, he added.
“We have a Muslim family in which the son has accepted Christ as his savior, and the mother and father have not, but they're in our watch-care,” he said. “We've had three Jewish men under our watch-care, and one of them — the grandson of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi — came to faith in Christ.”
Watch-care offers churches an avenue for evangelism, Lineberger noted — including people within the circle of fellowship who haven't been immersed as believers — without watering down distinctive Baptist beliefs.