Baptism remains Baptists’ symbol, but ‘problems’ must be answered

After four centuries, believers’ baptism remains the symbol of Baptist identity, historian Bill Leonard stressed during a lecture series at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. But in the 21st century, Baptists must respond to two pressing “problems” with baptism—the widespread requirement that long-term Christians be immersed before joining a Baptist church and the rebaptism of church members, Leonard urged.

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WACO—After four centuries, believers’ baptism remains the symbol of Baptist identity, reflecting “the importance of uncoerced faith grounded in the power of conscience and the inevitability of dissent,” historian Bill Leonard stressed during the annual Parchman Lectures at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.

But in the 21st century, Baptists must respond to two pressing “problems” with baptism—the widespread requirement that long-term Christians be immersed before joining a Baptist church and the rebaptism of church members, Leonard urged.

This year’s Parchman Lectures contributed to Baylor’s ongoing celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement. It began when John Smyth and Thomas Helwys led a group of English expatriates to start the first Baptist church in 1609 in Holland.

Dissent runs deep

“Baptists were dissenters from the very beginning,” noted Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University’s Divinity School. The original Baptists first rebelled against what they saw as the corruption of the Anglican Church and its affiliation with the English government. Next, they split from the English Separatists for not distancing themselves far enough from the Anglicans.

And then they even dissented among themselves, he wryly observed. By 1610, that little Baptist church had split itself over the validity of its baptism.

“Baptists understood conscience and dissent in light of the need for sinners to be regenerated—made new through conversion to Christ,” Leonard said. “Yet in their assertion that conscience could not be compelled by either state-based or faith-based establishments, they flung the door wide for religious liberty and pluralism … .

“Believers’ baptism, ultimately by immersion, was thus a radical act of Christian commitment, covenantal relationships and anti-establishment dissent.”
Their commitment drew from their identification with Christ. Their relationships reflected the value they placed upon the gathered church. And their dissent against the establishment welled up from their insistence that God alone, not religious or government authorities, is Lord of the conscience.

Historically, “the call to uncoerced faith produced the appeal to conscience and the necessity of dissent,” Leonard said. “It was the witness of the permanent minority, a group of people who never dreamed that their views would prevail this side of the kingdom of God, but who demanded voice and conscience nonetheless.”

They embodied their dissent by insisting on believers’—adult—baptism, refusing to baptize their infant children, he added. Their stand on baptism dissented not only against the practice of the established church, but also against the government, since at the time, national citizenship and church membership were considered the same.

Sigificance of believers' baptism

“Baptism is the outward … sign that links regenerate church membership, conscience and dissent as the central witness of Baptist identity in the world,” Leonard insisted. “In short, believers’ baptism does many things for the individual and community of faith.”

His list included:

• “It is a biblical act, identifying the believer with Jesus and the movement he called the kingdom of God.”

• “Believers’ baptism is a conversion act, demonstrating the new birth of an individual and incorporating that individual into Christ’s body, the church. … For those early Baptists, baptism was public profession of faith. It still is.”

• “Believers’ baptism is a churchly act that marks the entry of believers into the covenantal community of the church. Baptism, while administered to individuals, is not an individualistic act. It is incorporation into Christ and his church.”

• “Believers’ baptism was and remains a dangerous and dissenting act that frees Christian believers to challenge the principalities and powers of church in response to the dictates of conscience.” He cited the Standard Confession of 1660, in which early Baptists acknowledged the need for “civil magistrates in all nations” but pledged they would “obey God rather than men” when conscience so dictated.

Dealing with pressing problems

The persistent significance of baptism for the Baptist movement presents a vital question, Leonard said: “What are we to do about it on the way through the 21st century?”

Specifically, he asked: “How will we deal with the two most pressing baptismal problems confronting many contemporary Baptists congregations—rebaptism of non-immersed, long-term Christians and the rebaptism of Baptist church members?”

The requirement of rebaptism of people who were baptized as infants and now seek membership in a Baptist church “is perhaps the oldest and most historically divisive question in the history of the movement,” Leonard said. “Baptist churches are on ‘safe’ historical ground if they have either open or closed baptismal policies.”

Baptists have not always required rebaptism, particularly when the original baptism was part of the faith-life of the person’s family and not a requirement of government, he reported.

Also, the common practice of rebaptism of church members in some congregations should lead Baptists to study issues such as “the baptism of children, the nature of conversion and the theology of baptism itself,” he said.

Questions for churches to consider

To guide a 21st century study of Baptist baptism, Leonard presented a set of questions for churches:

“Do those churches that accept baptism from other traditions have a way of incorporating new members liturgically and ‘covenantally’ into a believers’ church? Might a renewal of baptismal vows become a public profession of long-held faith in a new community of the faithful?”

“Can churches that require immersion of non-immersed, long-time Christians articulate a clear biblical mandate for doing so, especially when ‘New Testament baptism’ is given to those who have made immediate profession of faith?”

“Does immersion given to long-term Christians on the basis of a profession of faith require recipients to repudiate at least implicitly their earlier faith and the Christian tradition that nurtured them to grace?”

“Should immersion of long-time Christians at least be distinguished from the immersion of new converts?”

“Given that infant baptism is no longer mandated by state-based religious establishments, are Baptist churches that require immersion of all members prepared to declare that the churches from which would-be members come are ‘false churches’ or ‘mere societies’?”

“Given that the New Testament knows nothing of child baptism, can Baptist churches that require immersion of all members claim ‘the true New Testament baptism’ if they baptize children under the age of 12, when Jewish children confirm their faith?

“Given that many Baptist churches accept children—some even in the preschool ages—as members, how will they define the nature of a believers’ church?”

“If Baptist churches baptize children, especially very young children, can they commit themselves to … helping children remember their profession of faith and baptism? Can they develop clear, intentional methods for ‘confirming’ the faith of children once they confront the moral and spiritual dilemmas of adolescence and adulthood?”

“What can some Baptist churches do to extricate themselves from the cycle of rebaptism given multiple times to professing Christians? If baptism is administered in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, when does rebaptism become an act of literally taking the name of God in vain?”

“As Baptists lose their culture-dominant status, how does baptism become a renewed sign of conscience and dissent in the world?”

“How might Baptist churches again become ‘a shelter for persons distressed of conscience’ and a prophetic community that distresses the consciences of members and nonmembers alike in response to the great issues, ideas and injustices of our times?

“Might the early Baptists’ radical understanding of conscience encourage us to an equally radical concern for voice—an environment in which everyone can speak even when the differences are vast and irreconcilable?”

“Might a recovery of Baptist dissent compel Baptists to articulate ideas that inform and challenge the church and the culture, even when they will never secure approval by a majority?”

In a question-and-answer session, a participant asked Leonard about his answers to the questions. He replied that, true to Baptist heritage, they are questions to be worked out by congregations themselves.

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