By Bob Allen
Like a lot of long-time church members, when I move to a new town I look for a home church with a worship style and doctrinal stance similar to where I have attended in the past. Moving a few years ago to a small town that didn’t have my kind of Baptist church, I started visiting a congregation in a larger town a few miles away.
One Sunday morning before I had moved my membership, I overslept and decided instead of arriving late I would — out of curiosity — visit a Presbyterian church not far from my home. Prior to the service, the pastor spotted me and approached my pew to check me out.
I introduced myself and told her I was a Baptist. She replied that a lot of the members of her church are former Baptists. I didn’t bother explaining to her that I wasn’t a prospect, because my job required that I belong to a Baptist church, but I thanked her and told her, truthfully, that I might drop by again sometime in the future.
It happened to be Epiphany, the Sunday when some Christian traditions commemorate Jesus’ baptism, and the children’s sermon that morning was about the meaning of baptism. What happened next took me totally by surprise.
As the pastor invited the children forward to dip their fingers into the baptismal font placed in the pulpit area, feelings rose up inside me that I could barely contain. I didn’t physically grab the front of my pew, but it was close. She was talking about infant baptism.
I don’t remember a single word from the service after that moment, and to this day don’t fully understand why I reacted so viscerally.
I grew up in a part of the country strongly influenced by Landmarkism, a fiercely sectarian Baptist movement in the 19th century that taught that Baptists were the only New Testament church and had been around in unbroken succession since the time of Christ.
Unlike the polemical writings of the likes of J.R. Graves and J.M. Pendleton I read while in seminary, on this day I wasn’t primarily concerned that Presbyterian children were being inducted into a “corrupt and irregular” body that was in reality a “religious society” and not a “gospel church” or that “paedobaptist” preachers were false ministers that “do not belong to the church of Christ.”
I wasn’t even cognizant of the argument that the Greek word transliterated “baptize” in the King James Version means “dip” or “immerse” but wasn’t translated that way because it wasn’t the mode used by the Anglican scholars who wrote it.
It didn’t even particularly bother me that for this church, the symbolism of baptism was apparently less about the individual convert’s witness to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and more about the congregation’s faith and a pledge to raise this newcomer in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Shoot, even in Baptist churches I had begun to wonder what we really meant by “believer’s baptism.” Most of the baptisms I had seen over the years were not adults but children, some at a very young age. I am sure a preschooler can believe that Jesus is his Savior, but I wonder how much it really means when she also believes in Santa Claus or that storks deliver babies.
One by-product of this almost-infant baptism is that often the young person will later have a more mature salvation experience and come forward either to be rebaptized or to “rededicate” his or her life.
Somehow, I managed to miss the first go-around. I wasn’t a bank robber or anything. I grew up in and out of churches and knew the plan of salvation. I suppose I was one of those “continue in sin so that grace may abound” types that Paul warned about in Romans 6.
When I made a profession of faith at age 19, it went something like this. I was told that I could be saved by walking the aisle and praying to receive Christ, but in order to join the church I would need to be baptized. To be honest, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me that faith alone was enough to make me right with God but not with the Baptist church, but the preacher said it was in “obedience to Christ,” and who was I to argue?
Once in the water my pastor asked me if I had accepted Christ as my Savior. (He already knew the answer, because I told him that when I walked the aisle the first time.) I said “I do.” Splash! I was in.
Given that baptism numbers are down even in the Southern Baptist Convention, which is supposedly more focused on soul-winning than it has been in decades, I must not be the only Baptist who wonders why in today’s pluralistic society — where it no longer seems natural to view Presbyterians, Methodists or even Catholics as a different religion — that something like believer’s baptism is still important.
But brother, I can tell you that it is to me.