Baptism: Is there a Problem?

Is there?

Since the Radical Reformation and the emergence of the Anabaptists, this rite has been an apparent obstacle to Christian unity. It is not so much that the theological significance has been in dispute, as the time and manner in which this Gospel sacrament is to be practised and, in particular, its relationship with conversion.

To the modern mind, the Church's traditional practice of baptising infants who are too young to speak, and therefore unable to understand, let alone enter into personal faith, seems at odds with the New Testament doctrine that baptism is the means by which we enter into Christ's death (Rom 6.3f) and Body (I Cor 12.13). The Reformation emphasis on faith as the essential pre-requisite for justification seems to rule out such participation for those who cannot exercise it. How can those who cannot “confess in their mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead...” believe to righteousness or confess and be saved (c.f. Rom 10.9f)?

This dichotomy between theory and practice is a strong argument for bringing the practice into line, which is what the Anabaptists and their modern counterparts, the Baptists, Brethren, Pentecostals, and numerous house and community-based fellowships have attempted and continue to do, but that raises the problem of how and why the older tradition arose and whether it is truly contrary to Biblical teaching and practice.

That is difficult to establish because the Bible is silent on the subject. It contains theological comment on baptism, and a few records of people receiving it, but no detail on how it was administered and no exhaustive lists of recipients. We know of individual baptisms such as the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8.38) and of groups such as the gathering at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10.27-48) or the Philippian gaoler’s household (Acts 16.30-34). St Paul also baptised the household of Stephanas in Corinth (I Cor 1.16). We simply have no information on who was present, who, exactly, was baptised, or whether there were any dissenters. (Words for “all” were often used idiomatically by Biblical writers, so do not always indicate the totality we would expect.)

However, Paul’s offer to the gaoler is interesting for its inclusiveness: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved and your house” (Acts 16.31). To the modern individualistic mind these words are shocking; so much so that we would rather think of them as “ will be saved and your house if they believe too.” It is just possible to stretch them that far, but it is a long stretch, and it does not feel comfortable. We, with our modern soteriology might understand them that way, but what about an Ancient Greek gaoler in an authoritarian society where a man was expected to be master of his house (cf Esth 1.22, I Tim 3.4f)? Would Paul have promised him the Salvation of his household in such ambiguous terms if he had not meant it?

Collectivism and Individualism

Possibly, that first chapter of Esther can provide some sort of insight into the problem, although it applies to a different society from the one with which Paul was dealing in Philippi. While it was expected that Queen Vashti would obey her husband’s instructions, it was still physically possible for her to act according to her own wishes. We can probably understand her reluctance to appear before a drunken gathering as an exhibit. However, her refusal to obey was socially unacceptable and had serious consequences. She lost her marriage and royal status as a result.

Similarly, in St Paul’s day, it was possible though not permissible for a slave to run away (cf Phm 10-21). They were expected to obey their masters, but might not always do so in practice. Such disobedience would have consequences.

In a society where one person is expected to obey another, it is to be presumed that the other can speak for the one. It remains, of course possible for the one to rebel, but that is how it is viewed; as rebellion. So if the master of a household acts on behalf of all, their assent is assumed unless they specifically dissent, which may have other consequences.

Mediæval missionaries would often target the ruler of a tribe or kingdom knowing that, if they converted the ruler, the tribe or kingdom would fall in line behind him. This might sometimes have raised doubts about the genuineness of the people’s faith, and witch hunts and inquisitions might follow in an attempt to ensure it. The consequences of dissent could be horrific. This continued into the Reformation, when the State was seen as the natural protector of the newly-emerging national churches and politics and faith became deeply entangled.

If it were assumed that rulers or heads of households could take decisions of personal allegiance on behalf of their subjects, how was this viewed by those subjects themselves? Presumably, if they accepted the ability of others to take decisions on their behalf they simply accepted, without necessarily knowing what it meant, that they were now Christians and had an obligation to live accordingly. Whether they found a real living relationship with their Lord would follow from how seriously they took that sense of obligation. It is in that context that the concept of religious (whether in a formal or colloquial sense) and less-religious Christians or good and bad Christians makes sense, a concept which can still be found in countries with a Christian tradition among a diminishing number of those who are not closely associated with the Church.

For most Christians living in Western liberal democracies or areas evangelised by missionaries from such countries, such a collectivism is unthinkable, and the term Christian is reserved for genuine believers with their own personal response to Christ. That is because the growth of liberal democracy is inextricably linked to Christianity through the individualism and liberty of conscience which formed the basis for stabilising European societies after the wars which followed the Reformation. However, this is a modern development contemporary with the growth of the Baptists and their co-practitioners.

This notion of individual liberty of conscience is still developing, and the outcome is still unclear. In particular, it is now beginning to cut across the agreed values of the Faith which nurtured it, as well as those of other faiths, creating new challenges for both society and those faiths. The old joke that freedom tends to become compulsory is becoming a truism as structures and attitudes originally intended to protect people’s beliefs begin instead to repress them. We already have examples of charitable and local authority grant-making bodies adopting a policy of declining religious organisations in the name of equality of opportunity, on the grounds that religions favour themselves and therefore discriminate against others. Thus the system discriminates against religion because it allegedly disapproves of religious discrimination! We await the proposed new law (in the UK) against stirring up religious hatred, to see whether it will have a similarly perverse effect. Another example of this clash would be the anguish affecting some faith communities concerning issues of sexuality.

Changes in cultural paradigms present a unique challenge to theology, for theology is often expressed in cultural terms which become nonsensical in the new context. To this challenge there are two possible responses, which could most easily be labelled the liberal and the conservative. The liberal response is to try to retranslate the theology into the new cultural context. The conservative response is to insist that as God is the ultimate authority, theology should set rather than respond to the cultural paradigm.

In the case of Baptism, we could argue that as authority is now understood differently, the ability of leaders to speak for others which made infant baptism possible no longer exists, because individual consent is lacking, or we could argue that the new understanding of authority is a rebellion against the order God has created and should be denied and resisted. In the latter case the Church should continue to baptise infants because by doing so it continues to teach the true source of authority and the folly of human culture. Never mind that the human culture will not allow the teaching to be understood, that the Church would be in danger of losing contact with those it is trying to reach. That is the world departing from the truth. The Church is staying faithful. Any irony in the foregoing is not intended. It is a fully valid position and there is much in Scripture which could be seen to support it (cf Matt 7.13f, Jn 15.18-25, II Cor 2.15f, II Cor 4.4).

However, it can also be seen that the liberal position is valid, for it is the essential conclusion from the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) and St Paul’s letter to the Galatians that Christians are not required to adopt even the God-given practices of the Jews. Faith in Christ is sufficient and Christianity does not dictate a specific cultural code.

We have two contrary positions which both appear valid, both in terms of their own consistency and in their Biblical witness. It is difficult to see how we can choose between them. Possibly we should not do so, but instead accept the ambiguity as part of our understanding of the diversity of human conditions to which God speaks. Can we see that diversity as an expression of the catholicity of the Gospel? If so, it is less a problem than an affirmation of the universality of God’s love.

How can this diversity be managed at a practical level? Possibly some clues to that can be found on the Baptist Union website* where, at the time of writing, it was stated “Baptists recognise that other Christians, churches and denominations have different views about when baptism should happen. Baptist churches respond to those from other traditions in different ways.” The “different ways” were then described in a manner which made clear the degree of tolerance that was possible. Because every Baptist congregation is regarded as a separate Church, there is a wide diversity of response, but the fact that diversity does not prevent the churches recognising each other is indicative of the level of toleration which is now possible.

So, to what extent is Baptism a problem in the way of Christian unity? Possibly no more than we wish to make it one. If that is the case, it is surely good news indeed.

Ken Petrie

*This link is provided on the understanding cannot be responsible for the content of external websites.

1st draft
5th January 2005.
Your Comments welcome.

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