EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–To the average ear, “alien immersion” may sound like some sort of Martian exercise, but to Baptists, it means church controversy and denominational discipline.
When I interviewed for a Baptist state convention position, the committee asked me whether folks immersed in other denominations should be baptized for membership in a Baptist church. In other words, “What if their immersion were alien?” I answered that they should be baptized if their baptism was not baptistic. The answer sufficed, and I think it holds up. Let me explain.
Some say that only Baptist baptism “counts,” and that those who haven’t received it should be rebaptized. They reason that Baptists are the only true church and that only her ordinances are valid. But I think this can lead to absurdity. A graduate student friend of mine, a Mennonite, was interested in joining the church in which my wife and I were members. When he spoke to the minister, he found that he needed to be rebaptized even though he had undergone believer’s baptism by immersion. The requirement for rebaptism was particularly curious since it was the Anabaptists, in which tradition the Mennonites work, who taught Baptists how to baptize.
On the other side are infant baptizers, whether Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Methodist. These people put water on a baby, with varying shades of meaning. And at these, a true Baptist balks. Not only is it spiritually vacuous to put ceremonial water on an infant. It is spiritually dangerous, in that all parties involved can get the impression that something spiritually substantial has occurred.
But what if someone receives believer’s baptism by immersion in a tradition that honors infant baptism? Is it enough that their particular baptism was not an infant baptism? My answer has been that the understanding of both the baptizer and the baptized are crucial. Whatever the candidate meant, it is also important to ask what the baptizer meant by what he was doing.
The New Testament speaks repeatedly of “John’s baptism,” a baptism of repentance, as distinguished from the baptism of the Apostles, a symbol of new life in Christ. A particular baptism is tied to the administrator and to the meaning he attaches to what he is doing.
If one were to come to me from a Lutheran church, I would note that Lutherans take a sacramental view of baptism. The Lutheran apple of the Reformation didn’t fall that far from the Roman Catholic tree on this issue. They teach that baptism affects faith in the recipient, even if he or she is a newborn, and that is emphatically not a Baptist understanding.
So I would ask the Lutheran to submit to our baptism. Luther’s baptism is not John Smyth’s baptism. We are in Luther’s debt for his advancing such doctrines as salvation by faith alone, trust in Scripture alone, the priesthood of believers, the sacredness of “secular” vocations, but we are not in his debt for his understanding of baptism, for it is essentially pre-Reformation.
Does this make a big deal of baptism, attaching unwarranted importance to its Baptist application? Actually, it’s just the opposite. It is those outside the Baptist tradition who have attached more or different weight to baptism than it warrants, and we are concerned that we distance ourselves from those baptismal traditions. On our account, the act of faith in Christ is the thing, and those who conflate it with a water ceremony do that saving faith a disservice. And how can we trifle with such a significant misunderstanding?
Of course, we believe that baptism is our duty and that the genuinely saved seek it. It is a wonderful occasion for worship. It is a striking picture of saving change and eternal prospects. It is distinct from United Methodist adult immersion in that it is obligatory rather than optional. But it is not sacramental.
So what shall we make of other immersions? If they are truly alien, then Baptist baptism is in order. If they are baptistic (or New Testament), then they stand, and the person may join on the basis of a statement of faith without rebaptism. This would apply, for instance, to folks baptized in Evangelical Free or Bible churches.
This account displeases those who insist on the exclusive validity of baptism in a Baptist church. It also displeases those who’ve been baptized as adults in infant baptism traditions. But the question stands, “Does it displease God?” I think not.
Does this mean we cannot cherish and work with Christians who affirm infant baptism? Not at all. It simply means that collegiality is not indistinguishability.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. Other columns by Coppenger may be viewed at listen.com and comeletusreason.com.