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.
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 sin, becoming 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.