(I am a Baptist. Alright, then, for all those Baptists out there, this article is not a criticism from outside our denomination. We are just talking about stuff that is happening in our own backyard.)
Not too long ago I had the pleasure of reengaging the subject of immersion versus sprinkling. It was a “pleasure” because the actual argument did not happen in my own church. I only needed to hear about it. Otherwise, my blood pressure would have gone up quite a bit in trying to resolve the matter.
Southern Baptist has argued for ages that immersion is the only proper form of baptism. We appeal our viewpoint to the meaning of the original Greek word βαπτίζω, which means immerse. Since our Lord Jesus commanded us to baptize believers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we will serve Him best by immersion and not sprinkling. The Southern Baptist’ theological standing of baptism is that it is an “ordinance” and not a sacrament; therefore, like the Lord’s Supper (the second ordinance), it has no spiritual bearing towards salvation but merely serves as a remembrance to the work of Christ.
I must contend that I agree with the Baptist’ notion on immersion as the preferred format over sprinkling. In Romans 6, Paul uses the image of baptism to explain our dying with Christ and rising with Him. Similar to liturgical worship, the tactile involvement of our body in baptism heighten our senses in realizing of what symbolizes the parallel occurrence in the spiritual world. Consequently, immersion does serve as a better tool of remembrance. Nevertheless, what drives me crazy is not what we, Baptists, believe, but is how we believe. While all Baptists would agree that baptism bears no weight in salvation, we would argue for immersion like it does! The energy and emotion stirred up are like that of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses on the door of Wittenberg. When a friend described to me how he vehemently argued for immersion, I could almost hear words that would parallel those of a martyr who defended the doctrine of justification. “Immersion, or burn me at stake!”
To be fair, though I prefer immersion over sprinkling for the reasons mentioned above, I do not think that it should be an irrevocable doctrine. To start with, the original meaning of the Greek word should not dictate the form of baptism with such absoluteness. Although I truly believe the Lord probably baptized all His followers in the form of immersion, His command to baptize is, in fact, a command to make disciples, and not to make a point on immersion versus sprinkling. In other words, if we start sprinkling after we have brought someone to Christ, I do not imagine the Lord would say, “Hey, you guys are messing up with my command. He is not my disciple until he goes under the water.” In the same manner, the form of the Lord’s Supper has deviated quite a bit from its original form. In the days of Jesus, the bread and the cup were taken in the context of a supper, separated by a whole meal. If we feel comfortable with how we are going by the Lord’s Supper differently from the first century, why we need to be so uptight with the baptism.
Another reference we should take note of is the Didache, the teachings of the Twelve Apostles according to Eusebius in the 4th century.
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.
As we can see, early Christians understood the command of Christ on baptism as I described above: with immersion as the preferred format but not with an irrevocable absoluteness.
After saying all these, I believe that no “immersionist” would change his mind on the subject. Why? Because at the emotional level, baptism has stopped being an ordinance but has actually assumed the role of sacrament. I think that Baptists should come out of the closet and acknowledge that baptism is our sacrament. And, when we do that, nobody will ever bother us again with our insistence on immersion, as it is a part of our liturgy.
(Now that I have published this article in public, I would imagine that I will be excommunicated soon. Will anybody out there take me? Lutheran? Episcopalian?)