Yesterday I spoke to a group of ‘ministerial’ students here at Union and my assigned topic was baptism. I chose to frame my comments with the question, “Why is baptism so unimportant in our Baptist churches?” (I am here writing clearly from my baptist perspective, though I realize non-Baptists may read this blog as well). It is a concern to me that though we, Baptists, take our name from this ordinance, we treat it with little concern. So, I argued for four reasons why baptism is so little appreciated in our Baptist churches.
1. We have bought our culture’s line that ritual is bad. We don’t tend to have the ability to see the value and beauty of traditional practices. Instead we tend to think that spontaneity and change are always best. But we should examine critically this assumption. Why do we assume that having a regular pattern to our worship is necessarily bad and that ‘changing things up’ is necessarily good? Probably part of the reason is that generations before us failed to think through for themselves and thus to teach to us why we did what we did, so that we saw empty tradition and ritual. However we must not let a bad example turn us away from the real thing. As you search the Scriptures you find that God is pretty big on tradition and ritual- properly done. Jesus and Paul will warn us not to let our man-made traditions obscure Scripture (Mt 15:1-9; Col 2:8); but, Paul also praises the church for holding firmly to apostolic tradition (1 Cor 11:2), exhorts the church to hold fast to apostolic tradition (2 Thess 2:15), and calls for the discipline of those who do not live according to apostolic tradition (2 Thess 3:6). This is pretty high commendation for tradition. The distinction between good and bad tradition is whether it is something God has commanded or whether it is something we have dreamed up. Baptism, and communion for that mater, are traditions Christ has commanded. If we appreciate the place of history and tradition, baptism becomes all the more meaningful as we join with the church through the ages in administering the sign of Christ.
2. This leads to a second and related point. Our culture has largely lost its ability to appreciate symbolism. In short we have lost our poetry and as a result have little appreciation for the symbolic. As people are realizing this many try all sorts of way to integrate the use of the symbolic and dramatic into our worship all the while missing that Christ Himself has instituted for us two symbolic practices which are dramatic portrayals of the gospel.
Our general failure to appreciate symbols is seen in the language used when baptism or communion is described as a ‘mere’ symbol. ‘Mere’?! Why ‘mere’? Not ‘mere’, but Christ-ordained, holy, precious symbols which portray for us the gospel.
3. A third problem is that baptism does not fit well in entertainment driven worship services. Things like baptism (and communion as well) take up too much time and get in the way of our show. They don’t make for good television. It should be a cause for pause when we feel that events commanded by Christ ‘get in the way’ of things desired by us.
4. Lastly, I think we have removed baptism from its proper place as the public profession of faith. We have created new ordinances which are not mentioned in the Scriptures (e.g. walking the aisle, praying the prayer) which have pushed aside the divinely ordained ones. In the New Testament baptism functioned as the public profession of faith (which is expected in Rom 10:9-10) as the new believer publicly identified himself with the Church by taking on himself the ritual sign of this group typically in the public square rather than inside a church building. Notice this with the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul, the Philippian jailer, etc. We tend to make ‘walking an aisle’ the public profession rather than baptism thus robbing the act of baptism of some of its significance.
This connection of baptism with the public profession also helps us to make sense of the texts which could seem to say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Acts 2:38 is an example when Peter calls upon the people to “Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Baptists too often see this as a text to explain away. Having successfully argued that it does not mean baptism saves we contentedly move on without addressing what it does actually mean! It is not enough to be sure what a passage does not mean if we have not wrestled what it does then mean. The typical apostolic call is to repent and believe. Baptism here takes the place of ‘believe’ because it is the expected way of professing this faith. If we would reclaim baptism’s place as the profession of faith, I think we would more readily see its significance.
More could be said on each of these points (esp. more exegetical defense of point 4), but this is long enough already. Perhaps there is enough here to stir some conversation. I am very interested in response and conversation on these points and the basic idea in general.