An all-too-common scenario: Your church’s youth group goes to summer camp, and Billy decides to give his life to Jesus. Since there is a lake nearby, and since it would make for a memorable experience, Youth Pastor Jim decides to baptize Billy with the whole youth group watching on. When the students return, the church hears about and gets to see pictures from that special moment at youth camp.
While I made up the names in this example, the scenario is one that is repeated each year. Baptism has increasingly become almost exclusively focused on an individual’s commitment to his or her new faith. Often, baptism is merely one person’s experience with Jesus, and it just so happens that people are looking on. They are mere spectators.
What should we make of this? Is baptism simply one person’s commitment before God?
While one component of baptism is an individual’s profession of faith, there are other vital elements at work. Rather than being an individualistic religious experience, baptism is supposed to be a communal act that includes God, the baptized person, and a local congregation.
Historically, Baptists have staunchly defended a particular view of baptism’s proper recipients and mode—namely, that baptism is reserved for believers and should be done by immersion. What has not been so clearly outlined is the context of baptism. To state it another way, we have not reflected enough on the church’s role in baptism.
Baptism is a congregational ordinance where an individual publicly demonstrates their faith in Christ and is baptized into the body of Christ. Baptist theologian Shawn Wright explains, “Baptism is the entrance marker of a converted person into the membership and accountability of a local church” (Baptist Foundations, 124). The congregation plays an active and necessary role, and for this reason, baptism should not be exercised apart from the local church.
Church Discipline and Baptism
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples how to handle sin within the people of God. What he outlines is the process of church discipline. If a brother or sister does not repent of their sin, the final step of church discipline is to bring him or her before the church and disfellowship them. This is a public declaration by the congregation that the individual is no longer demonstrating a credible life of faith.
Church discipline is a weighty responsibility for a church. There are implications for baptism, as well. If the congregation is charged with perpetually evaluating a person’s faith, doesn’t it make sense that they would also evaluate the individual’s faith before baptism?
A lack of congregational involvement and evaluation is one primary cause of the number of bloated church membership rolls in America. If baptism becomes an express lane into the church with little or no input from the congregation, then we can expect an increasing number of unregenerate folks to be baptized and brought into membership. It is a tragic state of affairs where many churches have abdicated both their responsibility to carefully examine a person’s faith before membership, as well as the responsibility to discipline those individuals who fail to give credible evidence of faith with their life.
Baptism and the Parable of the Sower
In Matthew 13, Jesus told a great crowd about the different effects of the sowing of gospel seeds. He encourages the crowd that some who hear the gospel will truly believe and bear long-lasting, good fruit. There are others, though, that seem to bear fruit early on, only to reveal later that theirs was not an abiding faith.
How does this relate to a congregation’s involvement in baptism? Churches should take this parable into consideration as they evaluate a person’s profession. Patience is in order. This is the only way to determine whether or not true faith has taken root.
Many churches have mistakenly baptized those who could not withstand the scorching trials of life. As a result, many membership rolls could be described from verse 6, “Since they had no root, they withered away.” This is partly why the early church catechized prospective members. They wanted to ensure that members fully understood the tenets of the faith, as well as demonstrated a life of faith.
But what about the Ethiopian eunuch?
A common argument against the necessity of a church’s involvement in baptism is the conversion story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. In this story, Phillip baptizes the Ethiopian man immediately after he professes Christ. There is no wait time, and there does not seem to be any involvement by a larger community of faith.
There are a couple of reasons why the unique circumstances surrounding this baptism should keep us from being overly prescriptive. First, it was a unique circumstance because the church was not yet established in Ethiopia. In pioneer areas, baptism will look different than if the gospel is already established in a region. The congregation could not be involved because there likely was no congregation in Ethiopia.
Second, the Holy Spirit’s activity in this story shows that this was a unique event. The Spirit led Phillip to this man, and He mysteriously transported Phillip to a completely different area after the baptism. While this story shows us the importance of baptism following conversion, we should be hesitant to say that every detail is normative for the church.
What does congregational involvement look like?
While the details may vary according to each church, there are a few important ways that congregations, working with its leaders, should be involved in baptism. First, the congregation must require a credible profession of faith. This may take the form of a membership interview conducted by pastors, and it may also mean the individual sharing their conversion story prior to baptism. This would reveal whether or not the person actually understands the gospel, and it would allow the church to hear how the gospel has impacted that person’s heart.
Secondly, a congregation must commit to holding the baptized person to his or her profession of faith. Rather than being passive observers of the ordinance, churches must care for and nourish this new believer in the faith. Baptism is not just a picture of being baptized into Christ, but it is a picture of being baptized into a particular body of Christ.
The most accurate portrayal of this spiritual reality is through baptism taking place in the context of a church’s gathering, not a special gathering of one subsection of the church. When we baptize a new brother or sister in Christ, it should be a celebration that includes the whole family.
Baptism is a wonderful gift to the church. While it is a special time for the new believer in Christ, we must not neglect the communal realities. Baptism is to be cherished, protected, and carried out in the context of the local church.