Table of Contents
Preface: Gathering at the River
1. Diving into the Divine Community
2. The Headwaters of Baptism in Israel
3. The Restoration of Israel: Spirit and Baptism in Luke-Acts
4. New Creation: Baptism in Paul’s Letters.
5. Quiet Water: The Early Church
6. Troubled Water: The Reformation
7. White Water: The Stone-Campbell Movement
8. Drowned in the River: Baptism and Justification
9. Seeking the Kingdom: Baptism and Sanctification
10. Transformed Unimmersed Believers?
11. Mixed Bathing: Baptism and the Church
12. Navigating the River: Practicing Baptism Today
13. Revisioning the River
Preface: Gathering at the River
Baptism is more important than you think, but not for the reasons you suppose.
Many believe baptism is simply the sign of salvation already received. Others believe it is an indispensable command that legally divides those heading to heaven from those going to hell. Baptism is more important than either think.
Baptism is a performative, or effectual, sign through which God works by his Holy Spirit to forgive, renew, sanctify and transform. It is a symbol by which we participate in the reality that it symbolizes. We must not reduce it to a mere symbol or sign that only looks to the past without any present power or reality. Baptism is more important than that.
Neither is baptism, however, the technical line between heaven and hell. It is not primarily a loyalty test or a command satisfied by legal performance of the rite. We must not reduce baptism to a line in the sand. Such a reading of baptism’s function reduces its significance to a technical legal requirement. Baptism is more important than that.
While baptism is both a sign and a command, it is more. While it signifies participation in the gospel and it is obedience to the divine will, baptism points beyond itself and effectually participates in God’s transforming work. God is at work through baptism to transform fallen humanity into his own image, to transform the fallen human community into a people who share the life of the divine, triune community.
God’s goal is to conform humanity to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29-30). Transformation is God’s fundamental aim. Everything God does, everything God commands, serves that goal. Baptism serves that end. Baptism must never trump, negate or simply point to a faint testimony of transformation, but transformation must always shape and determine baptismal theology. Baptism is not simply one among many commands, but neither is it the command. Baptism is God’s transforming work and serves the divine goal of transformation.
Picture a river’s path as it meanders smoothly, bursts into a torrent, creates oxbows and accepts tributaries and even dams. Teaching and practice of baptism is like this river. At first, there was One Baptism. Baptism was assumed and practiced by every Christian. Yet, further downstream Christians killed and have been killed over their beliefs and practice of baptism. Many come to these waters of baptism in great turmoil and confusion. Because of this confusion and our need to discern a baptismal theology for today, we invite you down in the river to pray with us. We invite you to a new understanding of Christian history about baptism but also to come in and experience the sometimes icy and other times fiery waters of the river.
Down in the River to Pray is our invitation to the church for a visit to these waters. By revisiting Scripture and historical theology—the stream of thought and practice about baptism flowing since the early church (and even before)—we may benefit from the faith and practice of Christians who have gone before us. Fighting back upstream is painstaking, but disregarding the river, in our view, is unacceptable. We have much to learn about baptism from the river.
The story of a woman named Susan illustrates the deeply confused ideas we have about baptism today.
“I was born Catholic,” Susan said, “and my mother baptized me in the church so I could have a godmother and godfather…I was an infant. She didn’t know what I wanted.”
Susan later attended what she called “Baptist” churches because she liked the way they explained the Bible. “My dad is still Catholic and my mom is Baptist like me,” she said, “but I don’t see any conflict, except later when I get married.”
A Baptist pastor immersed Susan when she was a teenager. Now she has a sister who wants to get baptized so she can take communion. Susan said that was the wrong reason to get baptized. In her search, Susan was also overwhelmed in the river of church doctrine about baptism.
We, like Susan, may also be tossed about in the river.
In the Churches of Christ, the community in which our fellowship, people feel anxious, angry, and confused about what is happening to our beliefs about and practices of baptism. Baptism has been a cornerstone doctrine taught in Churches of Christ. We have baptized because we believe it is a saving, Spirit-giving, forgiving moment for a disciple of Christ.
Yet Churches of Christ come to the river of baptism in need of more—not less—biblical instruction on baptism, conversion, and transformation. Even those churches that perceive themselves in a siege and believe they are correct and biblically sound on baptism should revisit their teaching and practice of baptism. Baptism is more important than you think, but not for the reasons you suppose.
You may come to the river of baptism from a different stream than Churches of Christ. We know of many religiously mixed marriages. Particularly when it comes time to baptize their children, these families come to the river confused and disoriented. For example, we spoke with a Greek Orthodox member whose wife was raised Baptist and joined the Greek Orthodox Church when they were married. We asked them, “What will you do for baptism?” They said they planned to baptize the baby in the Greek Orthodox Church by sprinkling. They said baptism would “protect” their child and add her to their faith community.
If you are Southern Baptist, on the other hand, you have a different pre-understanding about baptism than a Greek Orthodox, Church of Christ member, or Catholic. You were likely taught that baptism follows your decision to ask Jesus Christ into your heart and make him your personal savior—commonly called the “sinner’s prayer.” Baptism, then, was the ceremony through which you made your personal decision a public statement of faith.
If you were born into a Catholic family, the church may have taught you that baptism is a sacrament that saves you from the original sin of Adam. Your family, however, may have viewed the day of your baptism as your entrance into the church or an event that gave you a godfather or godmother.
A Mennonite may baptize because she believes it to be a symbol of a discipleship commitment. A Methodist may baptize because she believes that baptism is more than a symbol but a sacrament that effectively mediates the grace of God to a human being.
These are only a few examples, and there are certainly hundreds of others. You may not identify with any of these streams and feel that you come to the river with doubts and ambivalence perhaps, or possibly anticipation of diving into the river. Whatever stream brings you to the river of baptism, we all come to the waters with pre-understandings, emotions, and beliefs about the practice of baptism. We can all learn from the waters.
Shall we gather at the river to learn from each other, dialogue and grow together?
Chapter One: Diving into the Divine Community
His voice grew soft and musical: “All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin. It’s a River full of pain itself, moving toward the kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet.”[i]
The preacher had built up a full head of steam when Mrs. Connin and Bevel, the boy she was babysitting, arrived for a “preaching at the river.” A son of indigent parents, little Bevel most days made his own peanut butter sandwiches on stale raisin bread heels. Mrs. Connin took kindly to the boy and would pick him up from his parents’ home and whenever possible took him to the preaching and healing. She suspected the boy had never been baptized and wasted no time handing the boy over to the preacher.
At first the boy thought the preaching and baptizing at the river was a joke. Everything was a joke at his house. But when the preacher asked him if he wanted to be washed in the deep river of life that was made to carry sin, to lay his trouble in the “River of Pain, and watch it move away toward the Kingdom of Christ,” Bevel said “Yes.” He imagined he would find this kingdom under the water and not have to return to his parents and eat stale bread while they slept off another hangover. The preacher said the words of baptism, plunged him in the water and held him there, and he came up spitting and spewing. “You count now! You didn’t even count before!” the preacher said.
That night Bevel’s mother was furious that he was baptized. The nerve of that Mrs. Connin, she said, to have her son baptized without her knowledge then have the preacher pray for the boy’s parents and their drunkenness! The next morning Bevel, alone, ate more stale bread and poured the ashes from his parents’ cigarettes on the carpet and played like it was a sand pile. In despair, he got an idea: he would return to the river and find the kingdom of Christ.
He tried to dunk himself again down in the river but sprung up, gasping the way he did when the preacher immersed him. Something again was pushing him back. “He began to hit and splash and kick the filthy river.” He thought he’d never find the kingdom of Christ, that it was all just another joke. He plunged in frustration again, and this time the “waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he was overcome with surprise: then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.”[ii]
Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The River,” about young Bevel is a poignant starting place to dive into a discussion of baptism. Like Bevel, we are so in awe of the kingdom of Christ that we dive in with abandon. Then reality strikes us as a slap across the face. Perhaps in those moments we too stand in the river of pain, knee-deep, angry that this whole thing was just another cruel joke. Was Jesus in the water with us in our baptism? Where is he now? Some of us, however, keep diving, however recklessly and ignorantly and blindly and innocently, pushing forward. Yet, the church over the centuries has been going down to the river to try to find the kingdom of God there. The current lifts our feet. The river carries us along, and we are drowned. At first we are overcome with surprise and wonder and fear. That’s when we meet Christ in the depths.
Baptism is more important than you think, but not for the reasons you suppose. Yet the very questions we ask about our baptism may knock us off course from God’s intention for it. For instance, we have heard members of the Churches of Christ wonder aloud whether they were baptized for the right reasons. This line of reasoning looks not to God’s work in baptism but to how much we know at baptism. A question that leads us closer to God’s intention for baptism is, “Did I truly have faith in Christ at baptism?” This question centers more on God’s goal for baptism: transforming us for relationship with him. Baptism serves the goal of transformation.
In baptism we are plunged into the holy names and persons of God, and because of this we belong to him wholly. Baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are imaging the triune community. Relationship is God’s nature. When we submit to baptism we are initiated into the triune community—Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are making God’s redemptive story our own story. The story is not left to one’s individual interpretation or privatized belief, nor is the story about a personal savior. What we believe we believe in concert with millions of believers before us and as a part of the believers in the local community of faith.
Particularly for those who have never connected the movement of the divine community of God with their baptism, we believe a trip down to the river to revision our understanding and practice of baptism is vital. Because of the way immersion links us with God’s work in Christ and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, baptism is certainly more important than we may have previously believed and practiced in many churches. In baptism, we dive into the holy presence of the Divine Community.
No gift in the universe exceeds the offering of community with God our Father, Christ his Son, and the Spirit’s presence in our lives. Yet, we tragically underestimate the power of this gift and have instead settled for anemic beliefs and practices of baptism. The triune community of God saves, empowers, renews, and mediates grace through the events that baptism symbolizes and enacts. This action is effective and normative as an essential part of the whole conversion narrative of Scripture.
By God’s divine foreknowledge and wisdom, he has taken what humanity meant for evil, the attempt to destroy his Son, and raised him to life (Acts 2:23-24). The Father exalted the Son to his right hand, and from this exalted place Christ has poured out his Holy Spirit on his people.
The Stone-Campbell Movement, the historical tradition associated with Churches of Christ, generally needs a more transformative understanding of baptism. Churches of Christ in particular have focused too much on the command of Peter and too little on his preaching beforehand. We have attempted to skip to the imperatives with too little hearing of the indicatives of God’s grace. We believe the transforming power must be rediscovered in all Christian churches, but our major focus here is on Stone-Campbell churches. Ironically, many have obsessed about baptism so much that they have turned from the essential transforming truths about baptism to questions of technicalities and polemics against those who do not baptize in the same way.
We stand firmly for believer’s immersion, but we believe something has gone terribly wrong on the way down to the river. We’ve been led astray or distracted from the full significance and transforming power of the whole conversion narrative, which includes faith, repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
What went wrong on the way down to the river? On the one hand, we in the Stone-Campbell Movement often use technically exact baptismal teaching and practice as the litmus test of doctrinal purity. On the other hand, some Christians de-emphasize baptism in order to promote unity among Christians. Furthermore, members of the same churches do not even agree about the role of baptism for initiation, conversion, and discipleship. The singing at the river has descanted into sour notes and the water has turned bitter. Many churches decided on the way to the river that baptism is not the work of God but a human work to be technically accomplished rather than graciously received. Texts on baptism have been divorced from their context, re-married with other texts, while other parts of the narrative are skipped over in the rush to prove a point about the mode or essentiality of baptism. The whole conversion narrative of faith, Holy Spirit renewal, repentance, and baptism has been often boiled down to primarily faith or a focus on baptism or another singular element in the biblical witness.
Stone-Campbell churches continue to value baptism, but we are calling our own fellowship to a refocusing of the very doctrine and teaching we emphasize. We believe we need more—not less—teaching on baptism. We believe Churches of Christ in particular need a more transformative understanding of baptism.
In contrast to Stone-Campbell churches, Evangelical churches generally need a higher view of baptism. While many Stone-Campbell descendants have focused more on the technicalities and command of baptism to the point of diminishing the significance of the symbolism and true effectiveness of baptism to mediate God’s grace, many Evangelical churches have viewed baptism only symbolically and have also diminished the full significance of baptism. Many view baptism as less about what God does—a sacrament—and more about what humanity does—a sign—before witnesses as a display of what is truly happening in the heart of the believer.
As churches lead candidates for baptism into the river or to the baptismal font or baptistery, some believe the ritual of water baptism is more about what the individual is declaring than what God is doing and proclaiming through this event. On the way to the river, others decided that baptism is a private experience rather than a community moment of initiation into a divine community. Still others believe that baptism is merely a symbolic outward action that tells the story of the gospel through the metaphor of death to self, burial in water, and raising up out of water.[iii]
Down at the river churches are renewing the conversation about baptism—even some churches that had not previously emphasized baptism. We believe we must meet at the river, and Churches of Christ can and should indeed contribute to the unifying and challenging discussions among Evangelicals on the role of baptism in the life of a believer in Christ.
Streams of Baptismal Theology
The river illustrates the stream of teaching and practice on baptism by the community of faith in history. At the river, we see the power of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit flowing down to us, out of the very throne of God (Revelation 22:1), and we are so captivated not simply by water but by the triune source of healing, power, and rule.
As we come to the river, we acknowledge that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are the intended focus of our lives and should be the basis of reflection on baptism.
Baptism has been one common denominator in almost every Christian denomination through Christian history. Baptism is one Christian teaching and practice that has brought more people together down in the river than any other. One belief common to nearly all Christian fellowships is that baptism initiates a believer into the community of faith.[iv] At the river we can see that actual practice of baptism, however, is diverse. We see some immersing, others fetching water, calling it holy and pouring on the heads of baptismal candidates. Some include children and infants, while others include only adults.[v]
Over time, Christians at the river found that this most unifying ceremony in Christian history had become one of the most fractious. They debated on the riverbank then cut off the conversation with others farther away.
We had gone down in the river to pray and ended up drawing lines in the sand.
In the twenty-first century, the river banks are populated by Catholics who sprinkle infants for remission of original sin, Nazarenes and Baptists who are saved then called to be baptized later, Evangelicals who baptize both infants and adults, and Stone-Campbell descendants in Christian Churches and Churches of Christ who baptize for more reasons than you can count on one hand: obedience, forgiveness of sins, imparting of the Holy Spirit, pledge of good conscience, re-clothing, solidarity with Christ, burial and resurrection, and salvation.
Many in Stone-Campbell churches do not see the point of going down to the river for anything but baptism. There is no history there. But, have we written off history and decided to learn nothing from the river from the first century till now? The early church had gone down in the river in response to the telling of the good news about Jesus (Acts 2:41; 9:35), and our teaching and practice does certainly derive from this scriptural model, yet we must be aware of other influences on our views and practices. If we approach these texts contextually and with humility about our own prejudices about them, rather than for extracting proof-texts to correct others, perhaps we all may benefit from such study.
This book represents not a departure from the importance of baptism but a return to an even deeper understanding of God’s intention for baptism in the context of our relationship with him. Baptism is more important than you think, just not for the reasons we often suppose.
It’s time, again, for going down to the river for a preaching. Perhaps the setting of Flannery O’Connor’s story of Bevel was similar to the scene dramatized in the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? A preacher is calling the white robed baptismal candidates to the water and they are singing, “Let’s go down in the river to pray…Lord, show me the way!”
As we have seen, however, the riverbanks are not filled with unified teaching and serenity but chaos. Nevertheless, we are calling the church down in the river to see the vast history that flows before us, to renew our understanding of baptism in Scripture, and to get a vision for what’s downstream from us.
Baptism serves the purpose of transformation for relationship with the Divine Community. And the journey we embark upon is historic and powerful, much like a river with both smooth waters and rapids we could never hope to navigate without the power of Christ, his Spirit, and the Father with us. Baptism is, in the words of Luther, “Grace clutching us by the throat.”[vi] In awe we dive into the mystery of the community of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In baptism we are radically changed, a new worldview sets upon us. Like Bevel, we know this side of the river is bleak. We’re playing in the ashes and making peanut butter sandwiches on stale toast. We dive in, and at first we may be elated then perhaps disoriented, but we push forward however ignorantly and recklessly toward the kingdom of God.
Bevel found something at the riverbank that we must learn: baptism is more important than we think, but not for the reasons we suppose.
Our experience of baptism is important. Take a few minutes and write, perhaps for the first time, the story of your baptism, the events, ceremony, and people surrounding the occasion.
Our own story is important, yet when we visit the river again, we begin to experience baptism as something more than our own experience. When we take a fresh look at God’s intention for baptism as transformation, taking our pre-understandings of baptism into account and genuinely learning Christian history related to baptism, we flow further downstream toward the throne of God who longs to transform us for relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Dear Lord, we can’t come to a study of baptism without some pre-understandings. Whether those ideas are shallow as a summer stream or deep as the ocean, we want to lay these ideas before your throne, to open scripture fully and seek your goals and intentions for us, your creation. Please humble us before these Bible texts and church history, teaching, and practice on baptism. May you shape us in your image, and prevent us from attempting to shape you in ours. Amen.
- How did your baptism transform you?
- How can our churches add to the discussion about baptism in the Christian community without being sectarian or so defensive that discussion is cut off?
- Why is it important for us to go down in the river and envision baptismal history from the first century until today?
- What pre-understandings do you have about baptism?
- Why were you baptized?
[i] Flannery O’Connor, “The River,” The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971). Originally published in 1953 in a volume of short stories entitled, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, And Other Stories (New York: Image Books, 1970).
[ii] O’Connor, “The River.”
[iii] Beasley-Murray has been the “go to” source on baptism since the 1960s. Few Church of Christ preachers are without a copy of this Baptist writer’s Baptism in the New Testament (London: MacMillan, 1963).
[iv] For a look at one unifying effort on baptism, see Baptism and the Unity of the Church, eds. Michael Root and Risto Saarinen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Also, see http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/faith/bem3.html.
[v] David Fletcher and John Mark Hicks, “Introduction,” in Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective, ed. David W. Fletcher (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1990), 9f. Their introduction was helpful in my (Greg) understanding of how Churches of Christ have taken neither the Orthodox sacramental view nor the strictly Evangelical (symbolic) view. Churches of Christ are a strange mix and rejection of these two, because we have largely rejected the “magical” view of the sacraments but have tied legal exactitude of baptism to salvation. We have rejected the strict “ordinance view” of Evangelicals, yet maintain strong ties to faith and believer’s baptism. We have rejected infant baptism. Anglican N.P. Williams said Restorationists (he was speaking specifically of the Disciples) rejected infant baptism as the fundamental error of Christendom because it sets within the Christian system a standing contradiction to the gospel: no strong tie to faith (other than parents) and God’s personal relationship with his people.
[vi] As quoted by Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (6th ed., London: Oxford, 1933), 96.