PITTSBURGH (BP) – Siani Null thought she could earn God’s favor. If she got the right grades, spent time with the right people and gave her best as a competitive swimmer, the young college student would be the right version of herself. Not only would other people be pleased with her, but God would be pleased, too.
But when her world stopped being perfect, Null’s life became dismantled and broken.
That’s when she turned her life over to Jesus.
So last month, Null got up in front of her church family at Renaissance Church, a seven-year-old Southern Baptist church plant in Pittsburgh, to tell the world about that decision.
“Siani, what is your sacred confession?” Pastor Rob Maine asked.
“Jesus is Lord,” Null responded.
“By your sacred confession and evidence of a changed life, we baptize you …”
At those words, hands flew up throughout the audience. Church members then said: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Then Maine immersed her in the baptismal pool, saying “You’ve been buried with Christ and raised to walk in newness of life.”
With that confession, the church erupted in applause.
“At that point we clap, we cry and we shout,” Maine said as he described the church’s baptismal practices. “Because it is symbolizing a family member has come home. It doesn’t save them. But it’s a symbol of their salvation.”
For Renaissance Church, the local church is at the heart of the baptism.
“It purposely goes against the westernized idea of Christianity where I get to choose when I’m baptized without the accountability of a local church community,” Maine said. “It’s a communal identity in Christ. When you’re baptized, you are not only baptized in Christ, but you are also welcomed into this new family that you didn’t choose. We love the communal aspect, the member responsibility aspect, affirming that the Spirit is alive and well within this brand-new brother or sister.”
If someone outside of the fold knows nothing else about Baptists, they likely know this: Baptism is central to Baptist identity. In Barry Hankins and Thomas Kidd’s book Baptists in America: A History, they include baptism among the three features that mark Baptists throughout history.
“[Baptism] is really central [to the Baptist identity],” said Kidd, a professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “It’s one of the few things that united all Baptist groups. I can’t imagine why anyone would consider themselves Baptist and not practice believer’s baptism. People naming themselves Baptists disagree on all kinds of theological and ecclesiastical issues, but one ritual that has always been there for Baptists and distinguished them from other Protestants is the ritual of believer’s baptism.”
The role of the local church in baptisms
Recent news has brought baptism back to the forefront of the national conversation. Earlier this month, Andres Arango, a longtime Roman Catholic priest in Phoenix, resigned after it came to light that he had used the wrong wording when performing baptisms. Instead of saying, “I baptize you” as Roman Catholic church law prescribes during a baptism, Arango would say, “We baptize you.” Soon after this was discovered, the local bishop announced that all the baptisms from the priest’s 25-year ministry were invalid, potentially throwing out decades of marriages and ordinations that were based upon these baptisms.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, the Phoenix bishop who issued the ruling in collaboration with the Vatican, noted that the Catholic church believes that “it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ, and Him alone who presides at all of the sacraments, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes.”
Southern Baptists have historically seen the ordinance of baptism differently. Malcolm Yarnell, a research professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, notes the command to baptize in the Great Commission wasn’t just given to the apostles or to ministers, it was given to the church.
“We understand that we, as a church, are baptizing because of the commandment of Jesus Christ,” Yarnell said. “For Roman Catholics, they believe the priest stands in the place of Christ. The priest acts as Christ. So they don’t want to speak of the local church being engaged in baptism. Baptists are just so different from that. We do believe that baptism is done by the church, as an act of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ in the Great Commission.”
Baptism for early Baptists
The distinctiveness of baptisms in the Baptist tradition goes all the way back to the decades after the Reformation and the first Baptists. Kidd notes that the name Baptist itself comes from Anabaptist, which means “re-baptize.” Early Baptists taught that those who were baptized as infants needed to be re-baptized as believing adults.
Kidd says this focus on believer’s baptism made Baptists unique among Christians of their era. The overwhelming practice of Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox was infant baptism, Kidd says. Other Protestants, he adds, largely saw baptism in the same way as circumcision in the Old Testament, bringing children into the covenant community of the church.
“The Baptists, starting in the late 1500s and early 1600s in England in particular, believe that kind of use of baptism as a sign of the covenant is confusing what baptism is in New Testament times,” Kidd said. “In Acts, it’s a sign of the internal transformation of regeneration and faith that only people who can understand what’s happening could possibly go through.”
Nathan Finn, a Baptist historian and the dean of faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C., says this focus on believer’s baptism often made early Baptists take more time than we do to assess a baptismal candidate’s conversion. He calls that the most significant change in how Baptists have done baptisms throughout history.
Mode of baptism has been a consistent Baptist distinctive throughout history, although Finn notes that the first generation of Baptists struggled to settle on immersion. While every generation of Baptists has consistently practiced believer’s baptism, many early Baptists still poured water over candidates instead of dipping new believers into the water. But for most of Baptist history, immersion has been the settled mode of baptism.
“We’re not going to baptize someone unless we think they’re a Christian,” Finn said. “We might be wrong about that, but we won’t baptize them if we don’t think they’re a Christian. And when we baptize them, it’s going to be in the water and we’re going to get all of them wet.”
What makes a baptism legitimate
Yarnell says the issue of the legitimacy of baptisms is different for Baptists who don’t hold to anything like canonical law.
“We don’t have any legal format we follow,” Yarnell said. “We follow more Christian principles that we find in Scripture. I wouldn’t want to present it in the same terms as Catholic or Lutheran or Anglican or even Reformed church law. We just don’t think in those terms.”
But, Yarnell says, without the Gospel – and both an internal and an external representation of it – a baptism isn’t proper.
“We believe that the baptism in water ought to happen alongside or after the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” Yarnell said. “To have the baptism of the Holy Spirit means to be born again, faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We want a real confession of faith. That’s the external. What’s the external? It’s that external confession of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that God is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. If you don’t have the external and the internal saying the same thing, you’ve got a problem.”
Finn notes that historically there have been disagreements by Baptists about baptism, they’ve generally been united around three issues regarding legitimacy – the right mode (immersion), the right meaning (a symbol of the Gospel in a person’s life), and the right subject of baptism (a fully converted believer).
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 addresses all three topics, calling baptism “the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.”
Because Southern Baptists have historically tied baptism to both conversions and church membership, it has often been used as an important metric in the evangelistic health of local churches, state Baptist conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention. A decline in baptisms across the convention has been a common concern expressed in recent decades.
“We have to go preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ for us to see people baptized,” Yarnell said. “Baptism is something that happens after evangelism, after mission. So let’s put the priority on mission and on evangelism. Then let’s watch and see what God does through the number of baptisms.”
Kidd urges Southern Baptists to reflect upon the historic significance of baptism for Baptists – and to remember the price paid by those early Baptists for practicing it in what was a unique manner.
“I think that Baptists and Southern Baptists have probably lost some of the sense of how special and unusual the Baptist ritual of baptism was,” Kidd said. “For even centuries after the beginning of the new Baptist movement, in the early 1600s, Baptists went through a lot of persecution, because of how their baptism ritual was held in derision, even by a lot of other Protestants. I think that that’s something to be respected and understood. A lot of Baptists suffered at least harassment and ridicule, if not imprisonment and fines for upholding what we consider to be the biblical view of baptism.”