Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part Two): Baptisms By Convenience

NOTE:  Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable.  But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought.  In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.

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So you finally realize it’s time to commit to Christ.  You decide you need to be baptized into Jesus.  Great.  But when?  And where?  By whom?  It’s not as easy as you think.

After all, in today’s evangelical churchianity, baptism is largely by convenience. And that’s an inconvenient problem.

In many churches, particularly of the evangelical and non-denominational stripe, baptism happens by the clock.  Sunday morning, afternoon or night.  Sometimes on Wednesday night.  Baptisms are scheduled like church dinners, special events and holiday traditions.  In some churches you have to wait months or weeks to be baptized.  In nearly all, you’ll be delayed days (unless you experience a convenient Sunday morning conversion).  Easter Sunday is a popular day for baptisms.  Actually, any Sunday seems good.  Most people are baptized Sunday morning.

The problem? Baptism, as revealed in the New Testament, is hardly a scheduled event.  In fact, this sacred and ancient ritual happened at rather inconvenient times or unlikely places.  The book of Acts reveals a baptism occurred immediately upon a person’s profession of faith in Christ. Nobody waited until the next baptism night, annual church picnic or even Sunday morning.  Three thousand people were baptized on Pentecost immediately following Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:37-41). The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized immediately upon understanding Philip’s gospel teaching (Acts 8:36-38). Saul/Paul was baptized immediately upon being healed (Acts 9:18). Cornelius’ household was baptized immediately under orders by Peter (Acts 10:47-48).

In fact, there is NO conversion in the New Testament (post-Jesus ascension) where someone accepted the Message, believed in Jesus and followed Him without immediate baptism. Why? I believe it’s because of the incredible life-changing promises Scripture connects to baptism (being clothed in Christ, indwelling Holy Spirit, resurrection to eternal life from death and sinbecoming a part of the Body of Christ, spiritual cleansing of sin and salvation).  None of these promises were worth delaying.  Like Larry the Cable Guy says, “Git’er done!

And let’s be honest, baptism in many churches today is tragically more about the pastor or padding the church membership roll.  Sunday morning works great because the preacher has a captive audience and it’s, well, convenient.  Annual baptisms are swimming successes because a lot of people are getting baptized at once and, well, again it’s convenient.  Baptisms fill membership rolls and gives everyone (especially church leaders) a warm fuzzy. The problem is baptism isn’t for the baptizer/s, but for the person being baptized.  Consequently, baptism should never be convenient.  People come to faith at odd times and in strange places.   In Acts, individuals are coming to faith alongside roadways and by riverbanks, in prisons and in homes.  They’re getting baptized at all hours of the day, from morning to midnight. Maybe that’s why baptism was rarely a public act.  If a crowd was assembled, cool, but most conversions (as recorded in Acts and even today) happen Monday through Saturday.  They’re private matters.

The 20th century church not only made baptism convenient but “comfortable.”  Most baptisms nowadays happen indoors using warm water, with towels, thick robes, heated changing rooms and other creature comforts. Sure, churches in tropical regions sometimes employ ocean baptisms (when the weather cooperates), and many churches purposely schedule summer baptisms in order to use local rivers and lakes.  But I’ve heard plenty of old-timers talk about outside baptisms in the dead of winter.  Can you imagine chopping a hole in the ice to access the stream?  And a congregation braving the elements to celebrate a new convert’s baptism?  Nobody considered waiting for the spring thaw because baptism wasn’t something you waited to do.  Maybe that’s why churches today (who take baptism more seriously) find the inside heated mini-pool a convenient, comfortable amenity.

In the Didache (“Teaching of the Twelve”), one of the earliest (late first-century) Christian documents on church practices and a work some church fathers argued should be in the New Testament canon, the following statement about baptism appears (chapter 7): And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

Evidently the preferred baptismal plan was cold “living” or moving water (stream, river, ocean, lake).  But any water worked in a pinch.  Just git’er done. Now.

Of course the final problem is who will do the honor?

Church tradition delegates baptismal duties to priests, pastors and preachers. Why?  I think because it’s convenient.  It’s easier to control.  A sign of success. And it’s tradition. In many churches, especially of the larger type, new converts desire to be baptized by the pastor (often because it’s one of the few times to meet a significant pastor personally).  It’s also a badge of honor. It’s cool to say “so-and-so-muckety-muck baptized me.” The Corinthians had the same gloating issue.  Ironically, at least for Paul, it seems he did little baptizing (1 Corinthians 1:14-17).  Not because he couldn’t or shouldn’t, but rather because he understood his purpose was to preach not baptize.  After all, anybody could baptize.  You didn’t need a Bible college degree, ordination certificate, special garments or ecclesiastical title to baptize another person.  And you still don’t.

In summary, baptism by convenience (or when convenient) is not a biblical mandate.  The Scriptures are very clear.  Once a person professes belief in Jesus Christ they need to be immediately baptized.  No waiting. No delay. No problem.  And baptisms can happen anywhere at anytime.  Thursday midnight jacuzzi.  Saturday morning YMCA pool.  Wednesday afternoon riverbank.  Tuesday night lake shore.  Friday noon bathtub.  And, yes, Sunday morning church baptistery.  Finally, any believer can baptize a new convert.  In fact, I encourage parents to baptize their children, friends to baptize friends, and teachers to baptize students.  Spread the baptismal love around!

Baptism is by its very nature an inconvenient act.  It’s a soaking experience that changes and charges a life.  Like getting married, it’s not an act to be entered into lightly or without serious deliberation.  It’s a lifetime commitment to follow Jesus anywhere and all ways.

And it’s the best decision I ever made.

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About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on December 21, 2015, in Acts, Baptism, Biblical Interpretation, Christianity, Salvation, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Most of the NT baptisms were done by Apostles and there is certainly a God ordained muckety-muckness there. You are right to say it is “not an act to be entered into lightly or without serious deliberation” and with that in mind would not a few days “wait” until Sunday be used for delibertation, prayer, preparation. And Paul did say we should do everything in an orderly manner so a little control is a Biblical thing.

    • Thanks for commenting Charles…

      Where do you get the idea that “most of the NT baptisms” were done by Apostles? Outside of Paul’s clear note to the Corinthians that he baptized very few (which would seem to contradict your point), there is scant evidence at best for apostolic baptisms. We can assume the apostles baptized people on Pentecost. Peter maybe baptized Cornelius (he was with other Jewish believers and “ordered” their baptism). Certainly as the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem, baptisms were done by non-apostles. Philip (a non-apostle) baptized the eunuch and other Samaritans. It’s probable Apollos baptized, since he was viewed as one of the individuals dividing the Corinthian church and its in context. And there were no doubt others (like Priscilla and Aquila, Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, Silas).

      Actually, I think the elders did a lot of baptizing, but even that’s assumption. We just don’t know.

      As the Didache reveals (and I quoted), there is a call to fast at least a day or two before baptism. And within a century, there were early evidence of catechism (or instruction) prior to baptism. Of course, by Constantine’s time, baptismal teaching was perverted to the point that many/most? waited until their death bed to be baptized (Constantine being such a person). If the person isn’t ready to be baptized, then keep teaching them!

      I’ve done a lot of evangelism over the years and have found most people, once they understand baptism, want to do it…immediately. There’s no reason to wait until Sunday. And that’s my point in this article. The promises are too grand!

      Again, thanks for sharing and God’s blessings upon your journey with Christ, Charles!

  2. Hi! I don’t understand your quoting of the Didache which indicates to wait a day or two at least so there is time to fast and then say the point is to “get er done” “now.”

  3. Hi! I can’t understand why you quoted the Didache and inferred that we are to “just get ‘er done. Now,” even though it also says to fast a day or two before.

    • Heather, thanks for that question! My reference to the Didache was to show an early preference for “live” water (streams, rivers) rather than stagnant pools (baptistery, tub). However, it also shows an early confirmation of baptizing fairly quickly, allowing only a day or two for fasting (if desired or necessary). Early converts certainly didn’t wait weeks or months.

      The Didache, while important, also does not supersede the example in Acts. It’s my contention, in most of my writings on the Church today, that the Original D.N.A. (purpose and practice) for the Church is found in this historical book and we need to recapture it. In regards to baptism, the evidence in Acts says it occurs immediately once a person comes to believe and commits to change his or her life.

      Still a great question…thanks for reading and sharing your question!

  4. One glaring reason Biblical baptism is not happening is because almost all so called “Christian” churches teach that baptism is not really needed to be saved! Ergo, take your time. So the teaching – You just need to accept and pray Jesus into your heart (and some asks you to touch the tv screen). The only time it (accepting Jesus) was used in the Bible was in Revelation, addressing baptized disciples of a real church whose hearts has gone lukewarm and “about to be vomited.”

    Anyway, ‘been doing it in not so “holy hours” in not so perfectly “clean waters”, horizontal or vertical (huge barrel) as long as there is water that can accommodate an individual who fully understood what he/she did to Jesus and what Jesus did and still willing to do for them, git’er done!

  5. Hi Rick, thank you for your very informative article. I noticed you quoted the Didache as an example of the “early preference for live water.” The passage also speaks of pouring out “water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit” if water is not available. Do you believe this to be a sound scriptural practice? If not, do you agree that quoting/studying non canonized books can lead to more harm/confusion than good?

    • Joseph, there was a reason the Didache was not canonized, even though it provides insightful help into late first century Christianity. Perhaps this is a good reason! My quoting of the Didache was simply to give the earliest extant example of baptismal practice in the early church. The clear practice by 100 AD was to use “live” water not a stagnant pool and to immerse in the name of Jesus, Father and Holy Spirit.

      With that said, I think this instruction on baptism (considered a manual) is to look upon the “pouring of water” three times (thereby drenching the person) as a LAST RESORT (which the Didache clearly says it is) to baptize someone. Just like today, you might not have a stream or river or lake available to baptize (immerse), so the next best thing is a COLD tub of water. If cold water isn’t available because it’s too HOT outside, then warm water (pool) is fine. And in the EXTREMELY RARE times you can’t find a pool or stream/lake, then it’s okay to pour (bucket) over a person THREE times. This was not the preference nor encouraged method (like immersion). My guess is this was an issue in the desert regions of the Middle East, Asia and Africa as Christianity spread.

      Pouring, by the way, was used for centuries in the Catholic Church (even though Greek Orthodox still immerse). And in some circles it was pouring to drench (which I believe is what the Didache encouraged, so keep that in mind). It’s been within the past few centuries that baptism has been reduced to pouring cupfuls or sprinkling a person or drawing a cross on their head with a moistened finger. These contemporary baptisms fail to meet both the Greek meaning of the word (bapto = immerse) but also the clear history and commandments of the early Church.

      This is why I referenced the Didache. The manual book for baptism (among other things) shows IMMERSION (preferably in live, cold water) as the practice of the early Church. This is the clear teaching and practice of the apostolic church in the book of Acts.

      In summary, I would caution anyone from saying the Didache is promoting “pouring” over immersion. It’s clearly NOT. It’s merely saying if all you have is a few buckets of water to drench a person, then get it’s better than NO baptism whatsoever. Regardless, get it done. The IMMEDIACY of the act is inherent to the practice.

      Thanks for commenting, Joseph. And thanks for reading…may Christ bless you in your journey with Him.

  6. Is this article translated into Spanish? And if not, may I translate it and post it on my blog: http://preguntasteologicas.com/. I will credit the author and link back to the original document.

    • You are free to translate and transmit my writings as long as you give credit and it’s not sold or offered for sale. Thanks!

  7. Rick, thanks for this great article. What’s your take on the role of repentance as stated in Acts 2:38?

    Would you agree that repentance (prior to Baptism) is just as important as the “immediate baptism”?

    Thanks

    • Biblically, I think it’s easily proven that repentance is really two sides of the same coin: attitude and action. Repentance is an attitude of the heart and a commitment of the will to change direction. And repentance is the actual life change with demonstrable, observable actions to prove the change.

      In other words, in the short-term we express an attitude of change but in the long-term our behavior matches the initial commitment. It’s like anyone who “recovers” from an addiction. The repentance begins with a Day 1 attitude and mindset to never touch the drug or drink again. However, the real proof is in the coming days, months and years when sobriety becomes the new habit.

      So in Acts 2:38 I see Peter basically saying to Jews (good Jews who were in Jerusalem practicing their religion and following God as well as they could) to CHANGE in their attitude and show it in their behavior.

      What did they need to change?

      The Jews needed to not just believe Jesus was the Messiah but also COMMIT (attitude and action) to follow Jesus alone. That’s why Peter never talks about belief to these Jews. They already BELIEVED. Now they needed to keep believing and follow. This was their repentance. Too often we define repentance as a 180 turnaround. REPENTANCE means “stop” being bad/evil and now be “good/righteous.” But these Jews were probably already pretty righteous people. They were in town practicing Pentecost, a major holiday but nothing like Passover. For these foreigners to travel back to Jerusalem 50 days after Passover shows great fervency and faith. They probably already were morally good people with truly little to repent of.

      Their repentance was to CHANGE their attitude towards Jesus (affirm He’s the Messiah) and follow Him completely (starting by their baptism in which they identified with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus). When did Paul repent? It was when he followed. His attitude and heart was open to go to Ananias’ house. He remained in his sins at this point. It’s not until Ananias commands baptism (Acts 22:6) that Paul moves into action on his attitude of repentance.

      For us today it’s no different. We repent when we choose to change our idols. We decided Jesus is the One, and only One, we want to follow. And then in our immersion we connect to the body and blood of Christ to receive forgiveness, empowerment, insight and the indwelling Holy Spirit. That’s why you don’t wait. We need Help to repent of our sins and the indwelling Holy Spirit provides the Wisdom, Discernment, Strength and Courage to change the outer man.

      So, despite the teaching of some, the bottom line is we don’t need to necessarily SEE observable (long-term) repentance to know repentance has/is happening (short-term attitudinal change). When someone comes to Christ and desires to be baptized, they’ve already repented (changed their attitude and mind about Jesus). Just git’er done!

      Short answer to your question: YES, repentance must happen prior to baptism. But I see it as more attitudinal change than observable, change. The latter takes time.

  8. What about the thief that was on the cross with Jesus?

    • The thief on the cross is one of the most popular examples for the “faith only” or “all you got to do is believe” theology. But there’s a serious problem: the thief (as well as others that Jesus pronounced were “saved” [like Zacchaeus]) were still operating in the OLD COVENANT.

      Hebrews 9:15-18 lays it our very plainly: For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood.

      In other words, the NEW TESTAMENT (Grace by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Perfect Sacrifice) did not go into effect until Jesus DIED. Consequently, the thief on the cross and every other individual Jesus “saved” in his lifetime are immaterial to NEW TESTAMENT salvation.

      Jesus can also personally save ANYONE He wants. That’s why, in the end, I don’t judge someone’s salvation. Getting dunked in water doesn’t save you IF you’re doing it for the wrong reasons (to please another person, to get the preacher off your back, to take the Lord’s Supper, to join a church) or the wrong mode (i.e., sprinkling). Jesus’ baptism was an identification with His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:4ff; Colossians 2:12-13). In the NEW TESTAMENT (His Will for His Church), we are commanded to be baptized and to baptize others (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Matthew 28:18-19).

      Thanks for asking the question, Kenny! I pray Christ’s blessings upon you in your journey with Him.

  9. Is convenience a sin? Just wondering.

    • Perhaps another question first, if I may, Paul: Is it’s God’s Will that you be cleansed of your sin and be in a right relationship with Him? I believe you and I would both agree it is. And although its within a slightly different context (boasting about tomorrow), James 4:13-17 reveals that if “anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them (vs 17).” So, yes, you might say waiting until its convenient to be baptized is actually “sin.” If you KNOW its the right thing to do and don’t do it, then you are sinning against the clear Will of God.

      Plus,…IF your sins are “washed” away (Acts 2:38; 22:16) in your baptism, then waiting until its “convenient” is a bit like “boasting about tomorrow” in that you can wait until your schedule, your life and your time is right.

      Thanks for asking your question, Paul, and blessings upon your journey with Christ.

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