Tuesday, June 16, 2009

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Sprinkled and Immersed (but no Cannonballs)

I've been baptized twice ... first by sprinkling, then by immersion. This is not entirely unique among Christians, though perhaps my particular circumstances are fairly rare. You see, I don't think there was anything wrong with my first baptism.

I was first baptized at age 16 in 1983 by Pastor Allen Moran, the man who led me to the Lord. As this was an Orthodox Presbyterian church, sprinkling was the mode of choice. I was not an infant, of course, so I had made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Eight years later, newly married (to a Baptist) and newly attending a Baptist church in Hawaii, I faced a choice I really had never anticipated. I wanted to join this church as a member, but their by-laws said my first baptism was no good. Meanwhile, I was still a member in good standing with my old church--I merely wanted to transfer my membership. But the old church was uncomfortable with me "denying my baptism" to submit to the rules of the new church, which seemed to say by its stance that the old one practiced an illegitimate form of baptism.

I was at an impasse. I couldn't join the new church without creating controversey at the old one. I had to deal with several issues at once. First and foremost, what did I think about the Bible's teachings on the mode of baptism?

Actually, to this day I'm still pretty wishy-washy on this, though I feel like I see both sides fairly clearly. The immersion camp has been ascendant within the evangelical community in the recent past, and claims the high ground of its particular interpretation of certain Greek words (baptizo="immerse"), lack of a clear biblical example of infant baptism, and the emphasis on baptism as a follow-on to an individual profession of faith, among others. The sprinklers likewise make a compelling case centered on the importance of God's covenant as it extends to the believer's children (reaching back to the covenant of circumcision). They also point to certain examples of baptisms including entire households, and of course to other meanings for the same Greek words (baptizo also means "wash", and perhaps implies pouring, etc.).

I'm sure both sides will feel shorted by the inadequate treatment I give their views above, but exegesis is not my purpose here. Suffice it to say, I was left in a quandry. I remember clearly expressing to the pastor of the Baptist church that my decision was complicated by the fact that I wasn't a Greek scholar. He said, "Well, I am." I told him that didn't help me very much, since there were other Greek scholars I respected at least equally which took the opposite view.

Wanting to join this particular church without creating controversey at the old church, I couldn't square the circle. I was frustrated at both the refusal of the Baptists to accept my Presbyterian baptism on one hand, and the Presbyterians' hard line on the other. Mostly it seemed to me that we just shouldn't divide ourselves over this! Oh, and to make matters weird, my old church was being represented at the time by my father (whom you know as Presbyter). Of course, this further fogged my brain.

In the end, my father wisely recused himself from the process. After several discussions with other authorities within the presbytery, we settled on the idea that I could follow my conscience and submit to a second baptism by immersion without causing great consternation within Presbyterian circles. It was a good end to an awful problem, and I think to this day it was the right conclusion: loving submission trumps strict adherance to theological/methodological purity where debatable issues are concerned.

Oh, and you'll be glad to know that I never even once contemplated baptism by cannonball:

5 comments:

  1. I am facing the same issue right now. After 20+ years in ministry with The Salvation Army -- whose stance on baptism is not to do it, lest people mistakenly believe that baptism is what saves rather than faith in Jesus Christ -- I have now left that ministry and am looking at joining another church. Now I'm going to be asked to be baptised having been a believer for 39 years. I feel some measure of awkwardness, since I believe that baptism is an outward sign of what has taken place inwardly, and should therefore the two events should be separated by a relatively short time period.

    Now, I could go into depth about where The Salvation Army's coming from in neither sprinkling nor immersing. For the same reason, they don't celebrate communion -- for fear that the sacrament could become an idolotrous substitute for faith. The command to baptize is taken figuratively and believers are told to live out the meaning of baptism -- publicly stand up and be counted as followers of Christ, live as if your old life was buried and you have risen into a new life in Him.

    Salvationists sometimes joke that "some churches immerse, some sprinkle, we dry-clean."

    Now, I have no desire to bad-mouth my old spriritual home before my new fellowship. While I have always have some unease about the S.A.'s position on taking baptism figuratively, I really don't think this excludes them from membership in the Body of Christ any more than the issue of sprinkling vs. immersion does.

    So how do I join a new fellowship without raising a lot of questions about "why the long delay in baptism"?

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  2. Zem -- Actually, I never realized that about the Salvation Army.

    My particular experience was that I explained my situation to the pastor who conducted my immersion. He understood that I was not a new Christian and, though he didn't agree with the mode of my first baptism, nor did he make the awkward experience more awkward than necessary. Rather, he gently but very briefly explained to the congregation that I was a mature believer and that I was submitting to my new church's authority by following their practices in baptism.

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  3. I was sprinkled as an infant in the catholic church, immersed as an adult when I met Jesus personally and then immersed again when I made an even stronger knowing of God in my life....re-dedicated.
    Which is more correct? I choose to sit on the side lines with this one and think that it is one of those side rules that we as churches get too wrapped up in. It is a shame that both denominations that you were dealing with felt so firm in their ways. It is a tricky trap that we all fall into every now and again as we walk out our relationship with God.
    I think God wants us as church bodies to be one body. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in one of my posts. As long as we all agree on the main line that Jesus died for the sins of all people and rose from the grave so that all who believe in, confess, and accept that Jesus is the only way to enter heaven can receive eternal salvation.......all the other things are just side rules. They don't make or break a person's saving grace. There are different denominations because there are different people.

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  4. The word "baptize" was transliterated from the Greek word "baptizo", which means to dip, plunge under, submerge. The reason it was tranliterated instead of tranlated was because sprinkling and pouring were in common practice by the time the Bible was translated into English.

    If you want to do it the way John the Baptist, Jesus and the Apostles did, you will teach and seek immersion of a penitent believer in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit or in the name of Jesus Christ.

    Develop a more passionate, personal and powerful relationship with Jesus by studying His life and teachings. It will change you life even more that He already has. Go to www.gettingtoknowjesus.org to order Getting To Know Jesus - Volume 01.

    May God bless you as you continue your walk with Him.

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  5. According to my mother, an unbeliever, if we moved to a new town, which we did often before I was six years old, she quickly picked out a mainline protestant church and had me and my brother "baptized" again. I have a vague recollection of the last of these occurances in Grass Valley, CA. Later, as a teenager in the Santa Clara Valley, I joined the youth group at a local mainline church and, since the youth pastor was anxious to make "converts", I was "baptized" again by him, despite showing only the most nominal sort of "faith".

    Many years later, when the Lord converted me at the same church where Jailer was converted, the same wise Presbyterians were equally understanding: Despite the unconverted mother and the several liberal churches involved in my "baptisms", their stance was essentially derived from texts like Philippians 1:18, and they held that, while it seemed clear that what those churches had done was reprehensible, it remained the case that our denomination had not declared these churches to be "synagogues of Satan", and so they would respect the first administration of the sacrament. HOWEVER, if my conscience were bothered by this state of affairs, they would be willing to "baptize" me. I chose to be guided by their judgment that I had been validly baptized.

    Had I chosen to accept their offer, I'm sure they couldn't have defended what they would have done in one of our church courts. They would probably have just pled for mercy, and I bet they'd have got it. As for me today, my stance is that of those courts, and of the Westminster Confession of Faith: The first administration, wherever it occurred, was valid. The others were "baptisms".

    Were it to happen that I were to move somewhere where only a Baptist church preached the gospel, I can imagine being faced with a similar predicament to the one that Jailer faced, but I'm not sure it would shake out quite the same way, since about the best I could do would be to offer to submit to them in part, but not to the point where I would profess that it was a valid baptism. It's probably best that I stay where I am, if the Lord permits it.

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