Four of the five largest Protestant denominations in the USA practice baptism by full immersion in water. Millions of people in these denominations (and others that immerse) have confessed their faith in Christ, repented, and were baptized. Yet, some people in the Churches of Christ do not consider the baptisms performed in other denominations to be valid. Even though the recipients were old enough to make informed decisions and were fully immersed, some do not consider them to be Christians.
What is wrong with “denominational” baptism?
Some people believe that immersions performed by other denominations are invalid due to the following reasons:
- Denominational baptism has the wrong source of authority. Denominational councils and creeds authorize denominational baptism. In the New Testament, it was Jesus who authorized baptism.
- Denominational baptism has the wrong confession. Other denominations teach people to confess that “God for Christ's sake has pardoned my sins.” In the New Testament, people confessed their faith in Christ.
- Denominational baptism has the wrong purpose. Denominations baptize because they consider the person to already be saved and therefore immersion is merely an “an outward sign of an inward grace.” In the New Testament, people were baptized for the remission of their sins.
Wrong source of authority?
Having the correct source of authority for what we do in service to God is important. Since it was Jesus who authorized Christians to make new disciples and immerse them (Mt 28:18-20), I am not sure how a denomination’s affirmation of baptism can be seen as usurping Jesus’ authority. If a denominational council or creed advocates baptism, surely they are doing so because they desire to obey Jesus. Since I don’t have insider information on every denomination that baptizes by immersion I can only speculate, but I suspect the intentions of most are nothing more than to obey Jesus’ instructions.
Now let’s ask ourselves, how much do the Churches of Christ really differ from other denominations on this matter? The Churches of Christ may not have a headquarters or written creed, but we most certainly have a framework of orthodoxy that our congregations conform to. The result of this arrangement is essentially the same as a denominational headquarters in every way that matters. Likewise, our churches do essentially the same thing as other denominations in that our creed also endorses and promotes baptism. Although ours is an unwritten creed, it is as effective and forceful as any Catholic Catechism, Methodist Discipline, Baptist Manual or any other system which defines a set of beliefs and practices. While many will deny this, their denial doesn’t make it untrue. Do these facts mean our baptisms have the wrong authority?
The New Testament does not spell out for us exactly what a believer must say prior to being immersed. It just doesn’t. Traditionally, we have understood passages such as Mt 10:32-33 and Rom 10:9-10 to say that we must communicate our conviction that Jesus is the Christ as one of the steps in the plan of salvation (believe, repent confess and be baptized). Our traditional view in this matter may be without concern for the context of these passages.
The context of Matthew 10 describes a situation where people were committed enough to confess their faith in Christ while being threatened with persecution and possible death. Notice that the people Jesus said these things to were already disciples (Mt 10:1). Read Matthew 10, the entire chapter, and see for yourself that this is true.
To understand the context of Romans 10, one must first read chapter 9 (if not chapters 1-9) to recognize that Paul is discussing his fellow Jews who failed to understand that Jesus is the Messiah. In context, Paul’s point is that before the Jews could be saved, they had to acknowledge Jesus. Again, read it for yourself.
In both cases, the circumstances of confessing faith in Jesus were under the stress of persecution. This is directly stated in Mt 10 and implied in Rom 10. For a Jew to acknowledge Jesus meant being ostracised at best (Jn 9:22) or imprisoned and/or killed at worst (Acts 7, 9:1). Christians must be so committed to Jesus that we’d rather suffer and die than to deny Him.
Since these passages aren’t really teaching the meaning we have traditionally assigned, what about the eunuch’s confession in Acts 8:37?
Acts 8:36-37 NKJV Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” 37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
What we see here is indeed a confession of faith in Jesus, but it was not a ritualistic formula that needed to be said in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins. It was a spontaneous response to Philip’s statement. Again, the New Testament does not spell out for us exactly what a believer must say prior to being immersed.
If someone’s confession is similar to, “God for Jesus’ sake has forgiven my sins”, then they misunderstand the timing of when forgiveness happens, but they have confessed their faith in Christ! They acknowledge that God is forgiving them because of what Christ did. Confession is the expression of a person’s faith and anyone who can say that "Jesus has forgiven my sins" surely believes that He is the Son of God. It is not a “step” or an item on a list that must be checked off as part of a rite. Confession isn’t something done only one time when becoming a Christian. It’s something disciples will do for the rest of their lives.
Am I saying that a confession of faith in Jesus plays no role in a person’s salvation? No, I am not suggesting that. A person who is unwilling to acknowledge their faith in Jesus is not ready to be a disciple. What I am saying is that scripture provides no specific phrase or set of words that must be said prior to immersion. When a person, in their own way, expresses faith in Jesus we know that they are ready to be immersed. Let’s not get hung up on the “correct” wording or the “proper form” and declare their confession to be invalid if it doesn’t align with our traditions.
Some people in the Churches of Christ insist that a person must clearly understand that the reason for being immersed is to have their sins forgiven. They reason that, “A person can’t be taught wrong and baptized right”. Therefore, if a person is immersed thinking that their sins are already forgiven, their immersion didn’t count and their sins were not forgiven.
There are several problems with this idea:
It makes salvation something to be achieved by our own effort. I must make sure I understand just right. I must make sure I confess just right. I have to know by whose authority I’m being immersed. It’s all about what I must do. It’s all on us! It’s up to us to get it just right and puts the focus on our own efforts instead of professing that it is God who does the saving. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God Eph 2:8 ESV
It makes flawless comprehension the basis of salvation. We aren’t saved because of our understanding of immersion, we are saved because of God’s promise. God promised to save all who have faith and penitence who have been immersed. Notice that Acts 2:38 says nothing about the essentiality of a person's understanding, rather it promises an outcome! No one expects a person turning to the Lord to have perfect faith, nor is it expected that they will have a perfect repentance. Yet, we expect people to have a perfect understanding of immersion. People who have been Christians in the Churches of Christ for decades continue to learn things about immersion that they didn’t know before. Does their incomplete understanding mean they have never really been saved?
It negates what Jesus said. To insist that people’s immersions are invalid because they did not know that in baptism their sins were forgiven is to deny Jesus' words in Mark 16:16, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved." Jesus was quite clear in His statement. Who are we to add requirements not found in the scriptures?
It requires something that God doesn’t require. The bible nowhere says that a faultless understanding is a prerequisite to immersion. The whole idea is the result of eisegesis and is pure conjecture. Jesus said,”Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:16). Peter said, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Neither they, nor any other writer of the New Testament, gave any additional requirements to have our sins washed away. Some would have us believe that the Bible teaches that in order to be saved we must:
- Hear the gospel
- Believe in Jesus
- Repent of your sins
- Being sure that your confession is composed of the right words
- Being sure that your confession is said at the right time
- Right after you repent
- Just before you are immersed.
- Be immersed (preferably by a member of a Church of Christ)
- Understanding what the Bible actually says about the purpose of immersion
- Having verified:
- that the person immersing you is not doing so by the authority vested in him by his denomination's headquarters
- that the person immersing you is not doing so by the authority vested in him by his denomination's creed
- that the person immersing you is in fact doing so by the authority granted by Jesus
Clearly, this sort of thinking is more about creed than Scripture.
It is disturbingly similar to the Galatian Heresy. In the book of Galatians Paul teaches that if any requirement is added to the gospel as a condition of salvation then it is no longer the gospel of Christ, but a different gospel. In the case of the Christians in Galatia, they were being deceived into thinking that a person could not be saved unless they were circumcised according the the custom of Moses (Acts 15:1-5, Gal 5:1-3). In the strongest possible language, Paul told them that those who taught this were accursed (Gal 1:6-9) and that those who accepted and practiced the teaching would be alienated from Christ and would fall from grace (Gal 5:3-4)!
Do we teach a different gospel when we require a near perfect understanding of the purpose of immersion? Again, there is no statement in the New Testament which says God rejects those turning to Him who have a deficiency in the their understanding of the purpose of immersion. Of course, we must teach the fact that it is during immersion that our sins are washed away, but do we dare add a requirement that God didn’t specify?
It focuses on only one effect of immersion. There are many:
- receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 9:17-18)
- new birth (John 3:3-5)
- regeneration (Titus 3:5)
- put on Christ (Gal. 3:27)
- crucify the old man (Rom. 6:6)
- crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6)
- body of sin destroyed (Rom. 6:6)
- died with Christ (Rom 6:8)
- buried with Christ (Rom. 6:4)
- immersed into Christ (Rom. 6:3)
- changed life (Rom. 6:4, 6)
- united with Christ (Rom. 6:5)
- freed from sin's power, old nature (Rom. 6:6, 17-18, 22, Col. 2:11-12)
- become servants of righteousness, and God (Rom. 6:17-18, 22)
- prepared for future resurrection (Rom. 6:5, 8)
- end result is everlasting life (Rom. 6:22)
- saved (1 Pet. 3:21)
- cleansed (Eph. 5:26)
- sanctified, set apart (Eph. 5:26)
- made alive (Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12-13)
- remission of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16)
How many of us in the Church of Christ understood all these effects when we were immersed? How well do we understand them after being a Christian for years? If misunderstanding just one effect results in an invalid immersion, how does incomplete or inaccurate knowledge of the other effects of immersion impact our salvation?
Why isn’t the same emphasis placed on all the results of immersion? Could it be that our conclusions have been distorted by an unhealthy desire to win arguments with the Baptists?
Why does anyone submit to immersion? It is because we know this is what God wishes us to do (this is why Jesus was immersed - Mat 3:15). Those turning to God are immersed due to a desire to please God and obey Him. When they are immersed with an imperfect understanding, how exactly does this result in a failure to comply with Jesus’ teaching that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16 ESV)? Acts 2:38 tells us that one of the effects of baptism is the remission of sins. Neither this passage, nor any other, teaches that the recipient of baptism must understand the effects in order to receive the benefits.
Is God pleased that we reject millions of immersed believers over a question of the timing of a work that He performs (i.e. the forgiveness of sins)? Let's start taking seriously the unity that God expects us to have with one another (Jn 17, Eph 4:1-3).