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Troubling Waters of Baptism

Thomas Ascol

Southern Baptists are wading through troubled waters according to a recent Home Mission Board study. Last year the research department and evangelism division surveyed 1350 adults (18 years and older) who had been baptized in Southern Baptist churches. What they discovered ought to make all who love the souls of men and women stop and reflect on our practice of baptism and evangelism.

According to an April 13, 1995, Baptist Press report, the 1350 newly baptized participants in the survey were asked to tell why they had been baptized. Before giving the responses, let me quote from Chapter 7 of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message:

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in the final resurrection of the dead.
If Baptists should be clear on anything it is on the ordinance from which we take our name. Our Lord said "Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them [ie. those who have been made disciples] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). At the heart of our most visible distinctive is this understanding that a person should be baptized because he or she has been converted. Yet, according to the Home Mission Board study, that is not the reason which was given by half of all the adults who were plunged under baptismal waters in Southern Baptist churches during 1992-93.

When given multiple choices with which to answer, only 40.5% of those surveyed said that they had been baptized because they had been converted. "Rededication" was the answer selected by 40.4%. According to BP reporter, Sarah Zimmerman, "If the survey results represent the 150,000 adults baptized in 1993, then only 60,000 baptisms represented conversions of the lost to Christ." What a commentary!

These figures become even more alarming when two other facts are taken into consideration. First, the question was asked only of adults who had been baptized. It is safe to assume that they would be in a better position to understand the point and purpose of baptism than are the young people and children who were baptized that year (including more than 3000 who were 5 years old or younger).

Secondly, the 840 churches who participated in the survey admitted that they had lost complete contact with more than one-third of those whom they had baptized the previous year. These people were baptized into oblivion. They have been relegated to the denominational black hole known of inactive and non-resident church membership.

This is not quite as bad as the Colorado Springs (Independent) Baptist Church who "accidentally" baptized a Jewish boy last February. The mother, Audrey Ausgotharp, gave specific instructions to the bus ministry workers that her children were not to be baptized while visiting the church. Two women who accompanied the children home that Sunday told her that her seven year old son had been baptized "by mistake."

This is the latest chapter is what appears to be a pattern. The church is being sued by three other families whose children were mistakenly baptized in 1993. If "serial dunking" were a crime, this church would have been closed down a long time ago.

These "drive-by-baptisms" not only cheapen the ordinance from which Baptists take their name, they also leave widespread spiritual carnage in their wake. Think how confused and disillusioned those must be who have been mistakenly baptized! At the very least their case reveals a frightening disjunction between faith and practice. It is much more likely that this simply illustrates a lack of biblical instruction in many areas.

Believer's baptism dramatically portrays the gospel of Jesus Christ. Three ingredients are absolutely essential for this to be true: 1) Right mode--dipping beneath the water; 2) Right candidate--a previously unbaptized believer in Jesus Christ; 3) Right meaning--it is a testimony of faith, symbolizing the believer's participation in Christ's death, burial and resurrection.

Baptists throughout history have been severely persecuted--even to the point of death--for their distinctive convictions on baptism. How ironic that modern Baptists seem to be giving up through shoddy theology that which our forefathers would not relinquish despite the threat of the sword!

The Home Mission Board survey highlights the greatest need in the Southern Baptist Convention today. Southern Baptists need a renewal in theology--including the theology of baptism and church membership. In the 1830s Jacob Knapp introduced the practice of instant baptism and membership to Baptist churches in the northern United States. Prior to this it was common for professed converts to be examined by church officers or a church committee before they would be admitted to baptism and membership.[1]

John Dagg, Southern Baptists' first writing systematic theologian, warned his denomination of this unsound practice. In his Treatise on Church Order he wrote,

In order that the church may judge whether a candidate is duly qualified for membership, they should hear his profession of faith. He is duly bound to let his light shine before all men, to the glory of God; and it is specially needful that they should see it, with whom he is to be associated in fellowship as a child of light. . . .

Churches are not infallible judges, being unable to search the heart; but they owe it to the cause of Christ, and to the candidate himself, to exercise the best judgment of which they are capable. To receive any one on a mere profession of words, without any effort to ascertain whether he understands and feels what he professes, is unfaithfulness to his interests, and the interests of religion.[2]

What would happen if Southern Baptist churches began to exercise such care in the practice of baptism and church membership? How much spiritual confusion would be avoided? How much disillusionment would be spared? How much stronger would the testimony of baptism become in our churches and in our world?

Southern Baptists have much for which to be thankful as we move toward the third millennium. We have seen a clear reaffirmation of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. We are witnessing substantive positive changes in seminary education. A renewed commitment to missions and evangelism seems to be spreading. However, unless we see a thorough renewal of our theology--including our ecclesiology--all of these gains will be short-lived. If the doctrinal foundations and structures of our churches are not renewed according to biblical principles, within thirty years Southern Baptists will once again find themselves faced with the subtle inroads of liberalism.

May the Lord grant us renewed vigor to deal faithfully with the souls of men, women, boys and girls who are entrusted to our care.

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