Non-liturgical baptismal rites

The Bible does not give precise instructions for how a baptism should be performed. I do think a strong case can be made for baptising believers by full immersion rather than infants by sprinkling, but here I am talking about the makeup of a baptismal service. Who should perform the baptism (must it be an elder?), where should it be done (does it need to be in public?), and what words should be spoken by the baptiser or by the one being baptised? It would appear that Scripture gives us a large degree of freedom to decide for ourselves.

Churches like the one I attend in newfrontiers often do not have a formalised liturgy or baptismal rite, but it is common for a whole host of traditions to emerge. These might include wearing a special baptismal clothes, giving your “testimony” beforehand, receiving a prayer, prophecy, or Bible verse from a spiritual mentor, being allowed to choose a favourite song to be sung upon emerging from the water, or designating a close friend as a “towel-holder”.  None of these things are mandated in Scripture, and indeed I would have no problem with doing away with most of them. Many of them are simply nice ideas that help to make baptisms a special and significant occasion in the life of the church and for the person being baptised.

In addition there may also be a pattern of words that is usually followed, such as saying “we baptise you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, asking the candidate if they have repented of their sins and renounced the devil, asking them to make vows to live for Christ, or asking them to confess Jesus as Lord. However, I wonder whether the anti-liturgical and anti-sacramental tendencies in many new churches causes us to too quickly dispense with a form of words and just say whatever comes into our heads at the time (“right then, let’s get on with the dunking!”).

So I have seen a number of baptisms in newer churches where the candidates make no explicit profession of faith in Christ at all. They may give a ‘testimony’ but this can often be a story about how welcome they have been made to feel at the church, or how sure they are that they will one day see their deceased rabbit in heaven. It also seems rare for the candidate to make any form of vows. However, the trinitarian forumula is usually spoken as most churches recognise Matt 28:19 as the proper Biblical form of words to use at a baptism.

In 1 Tim 6:12 Paul says that Timothy made the “good confession” in the presence of many witnesses. It is not certain, but I think the most likely explanation of this verse is that at his baptism, Timothy confessed Christ as Lord (see Rom 10:9). Certainly throughout church history, baptismal rites of all denominations have included affirmations and vows (often based on the apostles creed).

So I’m wondering, what would you consider the minimal form of words that ought to be said at a baptism? Does anything need to be said at all for it to be a valid Christian baptism? Do non-liturgical churches make baptism less meaningful by stripping it of any rites or are we more in line with the baptisms in Acts which were often spontaneous affairs lacking pre-planning and presumably without a formal liturgy. Myself, I personally would expect that a baptism should be explicitly “in the name of” the Father Son and Holy Spirit, and that the candidate should in some way confess Christ as their Lord. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Non-liturgical baptismal rites

  1. I think that people should confess publicly that Jesus is Lord, that they believe that he died as a substitute for us and rose again and that they are living a new life for him. I don’t think that this should be done in a ‘read from the card’ type of way. To unbelieving onlookers I feel that liturgy reeled off a card or by memory can seem somewhat ingenuine and forced.

    So I think that when people share their testimonies they should be encouraged to include this confession in their own words. As for whether or not this should be in public, I think that’s the biblcal example set and I think it’s a good witness.

  2. Hi Tom, thanks for the response. I think I would agree if people actually did include the things you mention in their testimony, but I would say it is extremely rare for any of those points to be included. New converts are not often theologically sophisticated, and so may not appreciate the significance of verbally confessing Christ as Lord.

    You say that a “read from the card” type of way is ingenuine or forced, and yet almost all our worship is done in a “read from the screen” type of way. It’s genuine because we take those words and make them our own. We also don’t seem to have a problem with giving people an exact form of words to pray as a “sinners prayer” when they respond to a gospel appeal.

    Anyway, I’ve got at least one more blog post on this topic and hopefully we can have a good debate on this at our next theological meetup.

  3. Hi Mark, I see your point about singing from the screen. I tend to mix in my own prayers and singing with what we’re singing as a church a whole lot of the time but yes I agree that a lot of people do read and sing and it’s not ingenuine it’s helpful to have such good truth in the songs.

    I completely agree that so often testimonies are sadly not about Lordship of Christ and instead are about as you say, how welcome a church made them feel or whatever it might be. Perhaps the way we preach the gospel and what response this produces is the issue?

    Whilst I have used the ‘sinner’s prayer’ model once when I’ve preached I don’t really think it’s a very good idea. The best analogy that I’ve heard with regards to this is of a husband who has cheated on his wife, the husband’s mate takes the husband to her and says “are you sorry? If you are, repeat after me. I am sorry that I have sinned… etc”

    I think we’ve got to preach with perhaps more clarity about who Jesus is, what he has done for us and what our response should be, and then asking people to make their own response rather than having ‘altar calls’ where people help you to pray. When Jesus preached people were repulsed or they repented, they didn’t need too much help in terms of what they’re response should be.

    We may then see people’s testimonies are a little different.

  4. Pingback: A Pattern of Sound Words | wordandspirit

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