New Testament Church – Baptism

It’s time to consider what the New Testament pattern is concerning baptism, and we all know that this is a contentious issue amongst evangelicals, whether charismatic or not. Restorationists, however, are firmly in the “believer’s baptism” camp, and this is the position I will argue for. Baptism is a practise that we can find mentioned in many books in the New Testament, although as usual there is no one place that sets out an exact definition of how the ceremony is to be carried out.

For Believers

When we first encounter baptism in the New Testament – it is John’s baptism “for repentance”, and was clearly administered to adults. In Acts, again we see that people who believe are then baptised. It is presented as the logical next step to repentance and faith.

Those who argue for infant baptism generally make three points. First, reference is made to various “households” who were baptised. It is argued that this must have included infants. This is of course possible, but not necessary. As someone has pointed out (Fee I think), the word for household can sometimes include animals, but no one thinks they were baptised. If the general understanding was that baptism was something that those who had made some sort of “confession” underwent, then it would be taken for granted that the very small children would go through this at a later stage. Even proponents of infant baptism generally recognise the need for some later ceremony (i.e. confirmation) to make this important stage explicit.

Second, a parallel is seen between circumcision and baptism. There may be something to this, but it is not a very convincing case for arguing for extending baptism to infants. After all, only male children were circumcised. An extra stage needs to be inserted into the argument (Gal 3:28) to make it work. This view is also strongly linked to a certain view of being in the “covenant”, which Restorationists do not generally share.

Finally, it is pointed out that we have some records of the early church practising infant baptism. I am in no position to comment on the evidence or lack of it, and how early this went back, but for Restorationists, this is not a particularly important point. They are happy to concede that the early church may have wandered from the New Testament pattern in a number of ways, and so what exactly they did in regards to baptism is not thought to be binding.

Total Immersion

I believe it is much easier to demonstrate etymologically (what the word baptism means), logically (why rivers were used, when jars of water were to hand) and theologically (symbolising dying with Christ and rising to new life) that total immersion was the normal New Testament mode of baptism.

Public Profession

All the baptisms recorded in the New Testament are preceded by some form of public profession of repentance and faith – turning from an old way to follow a new one. These baptisms are also all performed in the presence of witnesses – usually family and friends, but often held in public places.

Apparently, many early churches had “baptismal formulas”, or creeds which affirmed the basic beliefs of the faith, some of which may even be quoted in various New Testament passages. Restorationist churches encourage people to give their “testimony” (although this is not insisted upon), and will usually speak a very short formula before performing the baptism (e.g. “on profession of your faith we baptise you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”).

Hearing baptismal testimonies is often very encouraging and moving, although sometimes they do reflect a very limited understanding of the gospel. Perhaps we would do well to encourage candidates to make some form of creedal statement of faith as part or instead of this testimony. I thing this would be helpful, as baptism is usually linked to formally joining the church, which requires an assent to the doctrinal statement of the church, which is normally done privately (e.g. signing a form).

More to learn?

Baptism is a subject on which Restorationists feel very confident that the NT pattern is being followed. Yet there are two obscure verses concerning baptism, which people of all persuasions struggle to adequately fit into their theology. 1 Pet 3:21 comes very close to making baptism sound essential to salvation, an idea that evangelicals do not subscribe to. Perhaps it is just that it is inconceivable to Peter that a believer would not go on to be baptised. 1 Cor 15:29 talks about a practise where people were baptized “for the dead”, which barring an archaeological find that sheds some light onto this phrase, must remain an enigma.

2 thoughts on “New Testament Church – Baptism

  1. Hi Mark,

    I guess that I’d better post my thoughts on this one!!

    To be truthful I’m still working through my thinking about Baptism.

    I was baptised as a child, confirmed at a teenager, got serious about my faith at university and was baptised by full immersion some 2 years ago, whilst at a NFI church.

    At that time I had been pretty much convinced by Baptist theology and thought that, technically, I had never been baptised, and seeing that the Lord commands this – I underwent this in order to be obedient to his command.

    However…over the past couple of years I’ve been reading a bit wider and have had some thoughts which challenge this basic Baptist theology.

    This is more than just an ‘interesting point’ as well, since we have an 8 month old daughter and clearly I want to do the ‘right thing’!! She hasn’t been baptised yet, mainly because we are currently part of an independant ‘free’ evanglical church which doesn’t perform infant baptism and so we’ve kind of ‘suspended’ the case for the time being!!!

    To be honest, I can now kind of see ‘both sides’ of the argument and am trying to work through some thoughts.

    One interesting point is that of ‘consistency’.

    Without getting too into the theology of the sacraments (yet…!) if communion is the community meal then baptism is the community entry symbol (I think most people of all sides would agree with this). Thus one should not be admitted to the community meal until they are ‘part’ of the community (as marked by baptism). This then raises several current ekklesiastical inconsitencies. Within the anglican tradition one may well baptise a child (saying that a child brought up by parents-of-faith within the community-of-faith is admitted to that community) BUT then children are not permitted to take communion until they are ‘confirmed’. This makes ‘confirmation’ the ‘symbol of entry’ which is kind of ‘double dutch’! Then on the other hand there are ‘new church’ streams which are happy to let kids chomp and munch on bread and juice (“after all it’s a ‘family meal’ and they’re part of the family!!”), but then (theologically) deny that they are part of the community because they aren’t allowed to be baptised until they have ‘mature faith’ in their early to mid teens!

    The Catholics have tried to get around this by having infant baptism and very early ‘first communion’ (much earlier than the anglicans would allow confirmation or the baptists would allow baptism) which sort of ‘gets round’ the problem – but even here there is some inconsistency, not to mention the slightly ‘skewed’ Catholic theology surrounding the operation/effectiveness of the Sacraments.

    To my mind their are only really two positions to adopt.

    1) Children are NOT part of the community-of-faith until they can express that faith independantly for themselves (whenever that is determined to be). Until that time they are allowed to ‘attend’ the community gathering but NOT share in the community worship (of which eucharist is one element). If one takes this slant then one would NOT baptise until personal confession is expressed.

    2) Children, who are brought up by parents-of-faith, within the community-of-faith are thus members of the community (through dependant-faith to be sure, but faith none the less) and allowed to partake in the community worship (inc. eucharist). If one takes this slant then one would baptise such a child in infancy.

    However, for those of us with children, position 1 just feels to ‘standoffish’. We are all aware that coming to faith is a journey (which, in some ways, we never stop making) and children growing up within the faith-enviroment are relating to and encountering God. Jesus strongly rebuked the disciples for stopping the children coming to him. God has, I believe, a ‘huge’ heart for children (since I, as a father, have a huge heart for my little girl and I, ‘who am evil still know how to give good things to my child’, and take MY fatherhood from THE almighty Father!) and openly welcomes such ‘little ones’ into fellowship with him. Sure, such fellowship may seem ‘infantile’ to our adult thinking but the faith of children can often knock spots off adults!! I personally would hate to put any barriers between my daughter and God and not allowing her to partake in the community worship (inc. eucharist) would be to do as much!

    However….I understand that position 2 can feel too ‘open’. How do we know that this child will actually hold to the faith? Baptism should be for those who ‘have’ faith and since the future of a child is unknown, it is presumptious of us to assume….

    Yet I believe that this position is a bit ‘scientific’ – as if a child is an anthropological observation! Clearly the input of ‘faith’ during childhood may as well determine the outcome as anything!! Also, how do we know where ‘any’ of us will be in 5 years time. Certainly I was baptised 2 years ago as a confessing believing adult, but I don’t take even my faith ‘for granted’. As Sven pointed out on his blog:

    Augustine said:

    “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”

    We need to tred that mysterious border of confidence and humility regarding our own standing before God!!

    In conclusion:

    I find myself becoming much more (as per Brian McClaren) ‘generous’ in my orthodoxy! If a child is not baptised in infancy then no ‘harm’ may be done – if the child has believing parents who are bringing them up in knowledge of the Lord then this is fine – and if such children are then baptised in teenagehood then brilliant. However, if parents belong to a community of faith that is happy to see the child as belonging to the community and inviting him/her in and allowing them to partake in community worship (and thus baptising them on the ‘behalf’ of the communities faith – read the BCP rites for child baptism to get an idea of parental/community responsibility within such traditions) then that is good too.

    I both cases – a child is brought up knowing the Lord and is (ultimately) baptised. So I think there’s very little to worry about!!

    And as for mode of baptism….that’s for another day!!


  2. Hello from Montreal, Canada.
    My name is Wren and I just happened upon your blog today.
    I have a family friendly discussion forum, and am trying to get discussion on various sects…or just plain old christian discussion!
    Registration is free and the forum rules are posted at the top of the various sections.
    It would be an honor to have you post there…that is if you wish to, of course.
    Have a wonder filled day!

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