Christianity’s initial ritual.
- Baptism /'bæp.tɪz.əm/ n. Religious ritual of sprinkling water on a person’s forehead, or immersing them in water, symbolizing purification, regeneration, and admission to the church.
- [Baptist /'bæp.təst/ n., baptizand /'bæp.tɪ.zænd/ n., baptismal /bæp'tɪz.məl/ adj.]
Whenever the ancient Hebrews did something ritually unclean, before they went to temple they had to make themselves ritually clean. How they did that was to simply wash themselves with water and wait till sundown. After which point they could go to temple.
Since you only had to go to temple three times a year, this didn’t require a whole lot of ritual washing. That is, till the Pharisees showed up. To them, any form of worship required people to be ritually clean. So if you went to synagogue, whether daily or just for Sabbath, you needed to be ritually clean. Gotta wash.
How the Pharisees (and today’s Orthodox Jews) did so was to create a mikvéh/“collection [of water].” Basically a vat, pool, or something large enough where a person could stand upright underwater. It had to be “living water,” by which they meant running water: Something had to be dripping into it, and preferably draining from it. You walked into it, fully clothed; then walked out and waited for sundown. This, they called váptisma/“dipping, soaking,” and it’s where we get our word baptism.
If you were a new Pharisee, you’d be baptized as part of joining the synagogue. And that’s where John the baptist got the idea for his form of baptism: If you were repentant, and wanted to turn from your sins to follow God, here was baptism.
Since Jesus (though he personally had no sins to repent of) submitted to John’s baptism, and instructed his students to baptize any new students,
There’s another form of baptism, called baptism of the Holy Spirit. I discuss that elsewhere.
Like every sacrament, Christians get obsessed with doing it properly, or believing all the correct things about it. Sacraments, you recall, represent something God’s doing. Not so much us. We do the ritual, but God does the spiritual reality behind it, and that’s the relevant part. Still, you know how self-centered we humans get: “Oh, if you did it that way, it doesn’t count.” As if God’s not gonna embrace a new follower because we used a bottle of water instead of the nearest river.
Dunk or sprinkle?
The technical term for the person who’s getting baptized is the
Christians have all sorts of ways we perform the baptism ritual. The main four styles are these:
- Aspersion: They sprinkle water on the baptizand.
- Affusion: They pour water over the baptizand’s forehead.
- Immersion: They put the baptizand in a pool of water, and either partially or fully put them under the water.
- Submersion (“full immersion” or “total immersion”): They definitely dunk the baptizand under the water.
According to the Didache, a Christian instruction manual written in the first century, how you baptized was pretty much up to what water you had available.
Didache 7.1-4 KWL
- 1 About baptism. Baptize this way: After saying all these things first,
- baptize into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
Mt 28.19in flowing water.
- 2 If you have no flowing water, baptize in other water.
- If you have no cold water, use warm.
- 3 If you have neither, pour water onto the head three times,
- into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- 4 Before baptism, let the baptist, the baptizand, and anyone else who can, fast.
- Order the baptizand to fast one or two days before.
Of course, as humans will, churches turned these acts done out of necessity, into full-on traditions. They must do it according to their custom, or it doesn’t count as a proper baptism. And if other churches don’t baptize their style, it also doesn’t count as a proper baptism.
I’ve known plenty of churches which insist on full-immersion baptism. Some of ’em insist when you do it, you have to tilt the baptizand backwards into the water. Yeah, it’s an impractical position, because if you’re particularly heavy the baptists might drop you, or pull a muscle. Plus if you don’t hold your nose, water’s gonna uncomfortably go up into your sinuses. But to these churches, it’s profoundly important you do it this way: Since baptism represents dying to sin, they kinda wanna make that obvious, by lowering the baptizand into the water like you’d lower a body into the ground—and raising ’em up like God intends to resurrect them.
But again: If you haven’t been baptized their way, they’ll insist the baptism doesn’t count. You’ve gotta do it again. They’ve gotta officiate.
Here’s the problem: This is a sacrament. It represents something God is doing. If it was of any literal importance, don’t you think God would’ve instructed us to use soap?
The purpose of baptism isn’t to make sure we got baptized exactly the same way first-century Jews were baptized by John. Nor is it to make sure we understand all the lessons our churches want us to learn. It’s to demonstrate our allegiance to Jesus by doing as he told his followers. by repenting, turning to God, and being baptized. Anyone who insists only their form of baptism counts, is simply being legalistic. And grace, not legalism, is a much better way to begin our Christian life.
Taking forever to perform a baptism.
As a Christian, you can baptize any new Christian. Really. You don’t have to go to seminary or anything. You just have to be Christian.
Yeah, some churches are gonna be really particular about who does the baptizing, just like they get really particular about who performs marriage ceremonies. If you’re in one of those churches, don’t rock the boat unnecessarily. Make sure your leadership is fine with it if you perform a baptism. Usually the only reasons they won’t be are
- they have their doubts about the person you wanna baptize, or
- they have their doubts about you.
See, the baptizand needs to actually be a new Christian. (As do you.) Really believes in Jesus. Really determines to follow him. Really repents of their previous life and lifestyle. Really means it. Preferably understands a little bit about what they’re getting themself into (although let’s be honest; how much did any of us understand what we were getting into? But I digress).
So some churches are gonna want the baptizand to take baptism classes. Learn Christianity’s basics. Learn what baptism means. My own church can cover all this stuff within an hour, but when I was growing up, the Fundamentalist church I attended required a four-week class. If you think that’s overdoing it, I’ve known churches with 12-week classes.
If the point of baptism is to embrace new followers, this point becomes less and less obvious the longer it takes to go from confessing Christ, to baptism.
But for many a church, the point actually isn’t to embrace new followers. I mean, it’s in there somewhere, but mainly baptism is about purification and regeneration. You’re (really God is) washing your sins away. Baptism symbolizes dying to your old way of life, and when you come up out of the water you now have a new life. So it doesn’t really matter when you get baptized… just so long that you do it before you’re dead.
In fact, one ancient Christian practice was actually to get baptized on your deathbed, of all places: This way, all your sins would be washed away right before you died, and you could enter God’s presence all clean. Yeah, this idea has serious problems, which is why eventually Christians quit doing it.
But when we look at Acts, we don’t see any real delay between the point when someone confesses Christ, and someone gets baptized. Looks like they’re meant to happen right after one another.
Acts 2.37-41 KWL
- 37 Hearing this, they were stabbed in the heart.
- They told Simon Peter and the other apostles, “What should we do, brothers?”
- 38 Peter told them, “Repent, confess, and each of you be baptized
- into the name of Christ Jesus, for forgiveness of your sins.
- You’ll receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!
- 39 The promise is for you, your children, and everyone far away—
- as many as our Lord God can summon!”
- 40 He testified and urged them with many other words,
- saying, “Be saved from this twisted generation!”
- 41 So those who accepted his message were baptized.
- On that day they added about 3,000 souls.
Acts 8.36-38 KWL
- 36 While they went along the road, they came to some water.
- The eunuch declared, “Look! Water! What hinders me from baptism?”
- 37 [Philip said, “If you believe with your whole heart, it’s right.”
- In reply the eunuch said, “I believe God’s son is Christ Jesus.”]
- 38 He commanded the chariot to stop.
- Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
Acts 9.17-19 KWL
- 17 Ananias left, and entered Saul’s house. Placing his hands on him, he said, “Saul, brother,
- the Master sent me—Jesus, whom you saw on the road you came down.
- Thus you can receive sight, and can be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
- 18 Quickly something fell from Saul’s eyes, like fishscales, and he received his sight.
- Saul got up, and was baptized. 19 He took food, and was strengthened.
- He stayed some days with the students in Damascus.
Acts 10.44-48 KWL
- 44 While Simon Peter was saying these words,
- the Holy Spirit fell upon everybody listening to the lesson.
- 45 The circumcised believers who came with Peter were astounded:
- The Holy Spirit’s gift was also poured out on ethnics!
- 46 They heard them speaking in tongues and magnifying God.
- Then Peter replied, 47 “Can anyone stop the water to baptize these people?
- They received the Holy Spirit same as we did!”
- 48 He ordered them baptized in the name of Christ Jesus.
- Then they asked him to stay for some days.
I mean, beyond some really basic instructions—which you can kinda explain in less than a half hour—what’s the point of delaying things?
Because we wanna first make sure God really saved them? We’re not gonna have our proof of that for a while yet. Not till they start producing the Spirit’s fruit. Sometimes that takes a while. You gonna hold off on baptism till they learn to be patient? Some Christians still haven’t got the hang of that one.
Because we want ’em to know their catechism first? Look, good theology is important. I’d never say it’s not. But is baptism a form of graduation now that we have our beliefs all sorted out, or is it a representation of God’s grace before we ever got our lives straight? Are our delays in fact stripping baptism of everything it might possibly teach us?
Because they’re saving all the baptisms for a special occasion? Okay, that one I can sorta understand. Fr’instance some churches like to do all their baptisms on Easter, so they save ’em up and do ’em all at once. Other churches (like mine) borrow another church’s baptismal, so they gotta plan ahead.
But if you wanna be baptized, and your church insists you first need to jump through dozens of hoops, I would say your church doesn’t entirely understand what baptism’s about.