Form of Baptism: What is the Real Issue?

Baptism is one of the few biblical imperatives that is agreed upon by all Christians — there is no question that Christians must be baptised. Of course, what is not agreed upon is form of baptism (how), appropriate age of a baptismal candidate (when), and “what happens” when a person is baptised.

I come from an Anabaptist background. The Anabaptists had the radical (at the time) idea that Baptism is a new Christian’s public declaration of his allegiance and submission to Jesus the Messiah as his Saviour, Master, and Lord — his initiation ritual, in a sense. His conversion to Christianity must be utterly uncoerced and freely accepted with clear understanding of what he is doing, and therefore cannot be considered valid if he is below an age where he would be considered responsible for his spiritual actions. This contradicts the earlier practice of infant baptism as a means of “saving” the child without his knowledge or understanding. This gives, in a nutshell, my beliefs on the “what” and “when”.

It is fascinating that while Christians have gotten very intense on the “how”, Scripture itself is nearly silent. All we really have are hints and allusions, by studying the Greek word “baptizo”, studying the cultures at the time, trying to figure out exactly what Jesus meant by, “baptise them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

As has been often said, “baptizo” means “to dip”, or “to immerse”. Interestingly (because it’s often not mentioned), the Roman context was a pre-battle ritual of dipping their spearheads in blood. Yes, the spear was immersed… but only its head. Hmmm.

The Jews had a baptism ritual for converts to Judaism. It involved a private ritual where the candidate would be fully immersed, naked.

The early church Didache could provide some insight. Written by the very early church while under Roman persecution, it provided clear guidelines on appropriate practices, including that of Baptism. It said, in my paraphrase, “Immerse the candidate in cold, running water. But if you don’t have running water, use still. If you don’t have enough water to immerse him, pour the water on him. If you don’t have enough water to even pour it on, sprinkle it on.”

What is fascinating to me is the tone of that statement. It seems that what was really important to the early church was the meaning and intent of the baptismal ceremony, not its form. Immersion was preferable, to be sure. Immersion provides the best experiential example of what baptism represents: the regenerate believer’s spiritual death and resurrection into new life in Messiah. “Having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12, NIV).

But if immersion was impossible or impractical or in some other way undesirable, another method was fine. So long as the principle of baptism was emphasised: “You are laying aside your former life, considering it dead. You are being reborn by the power of God, given new life in him. Your new identity is that of a regenerate believer, a transformed human, a disciple of Jesus the Messiah. ”

The principle of baptism is what is truly important. The methodology is interesting, and even helpful, but spiritually irrelevant. When a mature person chooses to surrender his life to Jesus the Messiah, and the method of baptism chosen is something other than immersion, that baptism should be considered real and valid. To look at it another way, when we emphasise “baptism = immersion”, we entirely miss the point. Baptism is not immersion. Baptism is the initiation ceremony into the New Life. Immersion is a just a great way to symbolise that.

©2002 Jason Friesen