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Spring 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 1 · pp. 6–9 

Baptism: Method or Meaning?

Abram G. Konrad

An ordinance is an established or prescribed practice or usage, especially a religious rite which sets forth a central truth of Jesus’ teaching. Mennonite Brethren observe two ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each is performed by an acceptable method and filled with rich meaning. For the worshipper the essence of the ordinance lies in its meaning, not in the method by which it is performed, albeit the method can enhance or inhibit the worship experience. To the extent that the method becomes the primary focus in the observance of the ordinance, it detracts from its meaning. Meaning or substance must always receive prominence in a religious observance; method or symbol must remain secondary.

Of course the method matters, but meaning is more important . . . and symbol must not limit service.

In Christian communities, baptism has taken on both different methods and meanings. Some communities baptize infants, others adults; some use little water, others use much; some immerse once, others three times; some immerse forwards, others backwards. And in each instance, the method helps to convey the meaning ascribed to a particular practice.

Mennonite Brethren baptize believers upon the confession of faith through immersion. Baptism signifies an inner experience of faith in Jesus as the Christ; it is a public demonstration of a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord within the community of other believers. Baptism is not a private experience; it receives its significance as a public act. To be baptized {7} implies that the individual affirms faith in Jesus, and thereby identifies with the local community of believers.

Baptism is a church ordinance; it is not a religious rite that one performs alone or independently. To baptize in private obscures the meaning of a public testimony. (Of course, individuals have been baptized secretly in times of persecution or privately on sick beds, but ordinarily baptism is performed publicly as a sign of the regenerative work of God by which the individual enters into the covenantal community.)

How should we respond to the faith experiences of Christians who ascribe different meanings to the ordinances we practice? Or how should we treat a person who ascribes the same meaning to the ordinance, but whose practice differs from ours? Does it matter, for example, how much water is used in baptism or how many times or in which direction one is immersed? If in each instance baptism is performed upon the confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ, what difference does the form or method make?

Of course, the method matters. Each symbol or method signifies a particular aspect of the Christian experience. Among other things, baptism by pouring speaks eloquently of the cleansing we receive by the “washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). Similarly, here as in many other instances, pouring also signifies the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the believers (Acts 2:17; 10:45).

Baptism by sprinkling has perhaps an older tradition, with its roots in the Old Testament ritual of sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice upon the garments of the priest to signify that “he and his garments shall be holy” (Exod. 29:21). To be sprinkled means that we have been set apart for God’s service. More often, however, sprinkling with blood (Lev. 4:5), water (Num. 8:7), or with oil (Lev. 14:16) signifies cleansing. So also, we as believers were cleansed by the “sprinkling with his blood” (1 Peter 1:2); we were cleansed by the “washing of water” (Eph. 5:26), “having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Heb. 10:22).

The primary significance of baptism by immersion lies in its reference to our burial with Christ “by baptism unto death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The baptized acknowledges that anyone in Christ is “a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). The believer accepts the death of Jesus Christ as substitutionary, and the life of Jesus Christ as his own. To come out of the baptismal water is like rising from the dead to newness of life, “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11).

Much more could be said to clarify the meanings of these different methods of baptism, but perhaps these comments suffice to indicate that each method portrays a significant and valid meaning of the faith experience. Jesus enjoined his followers to make disciples, and to baptize (Matt. 28:19); Peter also called for repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). While baptism in the early church was closely linked with salvation, it always seems to follow {8} the faith experience (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 18:8). We do not believe that baptism conveys a means of grace. Rather it is performed upon the confession of one’s faith, signifying that the individual has accepted the substitutionary work of Christ and publicly identifies with the community of believers. If we as Mennonite Brethren agree on the basic meaning of baptism, then what method is used becomes less significant. Not unimportant, but not so vital that the method of baptism should become the basis for differentiating among members in a congregation.

Early Anabaptists did not make an issue of the form of baptism, but they insisted upon practicing baptism only upon the confession of faith. Baptism was not unto salvation, but on the basis of salvation. Their beliefs rested upon their understanding of the teachings of the New Testament; so should ours. If our understanding of the meaning of baptism clearly rests upon the Scriptures, then perhaps we will not become so dogmatic about the method.

The point of this discussion is not to discredit our present practice of baptism nor to weaken our commitment to baptize by immersion. Our concern is to address the way we treat members of our congregations who have been baptized by another mode. It seems as though our agreement to accept believers into our fellowship who were baptized upon their confession of faith by pouring or sprinkling was not genuine or developed with integrity if acceptance later limits the nature of their membership. To accept a non-immersed baptized believer into the fellowship at one point in time and then to disallow such a person from serving in the community at a later point in time because of the method of baptism violates the very essence of the original acceptance. That the Bible does not specify a mode of baptism should caution us against becoming dogmatic about the form or symbol of a meaningful and valid experience of baptism. How can we hinder one from using the gifts that God through His Spirit has bestowed on the basis of the mode of baptism?

Unfortunately, some non-immersed members are not allowed to serve in leadership positions. Call it super-spirituality, a holier-than-thou attitude, second class citizenship or anything else, but in some congregations such a differentiation among members exists. And wherever a separation among believers occurs, there Satan sows seeds of discord and disunity. “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-6). Let us earnestly maintain our oneness, and let us diligently avoid divisiveness among us. For the sake of unity among us, we must not allow the mode of believer’s baptism experienced prior to acceptance into our fellowship determine the nature of ministry one may be called to perform among us.

When someone is called to perform a ministry in the congregation, it is not as though he is “pulling a fast one, doing something of which we are not aware. On the contrary, the community calls out from among them those whom they believe God has gifted for ministry. When the community of believers (the congregation) recognizes gifts of ministry in a person, that person should be encouraged to use them (Rom. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:11-16). We are members one of another, and there must be no distinction of person {9} among us, particularly not for reasons based upon the mode of our baptism (Gal. 3:27,28).

To accept persons baptized by other modes clearly establishes that the significance of baptism lies in the meaning of the ordinance itself, not in the form. It also signifies that Mennonite Brethren affirm the larger Christian community. Of course we have good reasons for the practices among us, but we are not so naive (nor so conceited) to think that there is only one way to follow in obedience to God’s grace. Our faith confession affirms our oneness with all of God’s children. Our church polity should not hinder those among us who are gifted for ministry from serving in ways appropriate to their gifts. To call those into ministry who are so gifted edifies the body and glorifies our Lord. It also signifies anew our commitment to the larger community of faith, to our sister denominations.

What about teaching by example? How can one teach and practice baptism by immersion when one is baptized by another mode? Is the credibility of such a person in question? I think not. On the contrary, when one who has personally been baptized by sprinkling or pouring upon confession of faith in Christ teaches and practices baptism by immersion, his words and practice take on an even greater significance. Whereas he once accepted baptism by another mode, he now affirms the rich meanings ascribed to baptism by immersion. It does not mean that he denies the meaning and significance of other forms, but rather that he now accepts and agrees to practice baptism by immersion.

There are those serving among us who “for the sake of the fellowship” were immersed to affirm their oneness with our teaching of immersion—some voluntarily and others under pressure. But why should we expect anyone who has experienced believer’s baptism to be re-baptized just because he has teaching or leadership gifts? Scripture teaches clearly about the qualities of leaders (1 Tim. 3:1-13), but nowhere are leaders enjoined to conform to one expression of their faith, let alone to the method of their baptism. We should encourage those who teach to teach clearly the meaning of Christian baptism, and also to support fully baptism by immersion as the method we practice in our churches. But to require re-baptism of members baptized upon the confession of their faith by another mode violates our commitment to unity in the brotherhood.

“We were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13); let us allow God’s Spirit to make something new among us. Let us put away divisiveness, and let us affirm our oneness in Christ. We accept as full members those who have been baptized upon the confession of their faith by another method because the meaning they attach to baptism is clearly Scriptural. It is time for us to drop all barriers to full membership by affirming whatever gifts the Spirit has bestowed upon whomever he will. We will continue to teach and practice baptism by immersion as a method that symbolizes our death to past sins and our resurrection to new life in Christ. Something new can happen among us as a denomination when God’s Spirit empowers us to live in community and to find new ways to express our unity in Christ.

Abram Konrad is Professor of Educational Administration at the University of Alberta (Edmonton) and serves as Moderator of the Alberta Mennonite Brethren provincial conference.

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