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Spring 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 1 · pp. 3–20 

Baptism Among the Early Christians

Jon Isaak

The topic of baptism and membership in Mennonite Brethren thought and practice has been addressed from various angles in several important papers during the last thirty years. 1 The objective of this paper is to survey the practice of baptism known to the early Christians and to probe the significance of this material for contemporary Mennonite Brethren baptismal practice and theology. Five discussion questions and three suggestions emerge from the survey.

In every culture and in every time, for different reasons, Christianity has had to make the case to link baptism and membership.


Christians were not the only ones who practiced baptism. There were other religious groups baptizing in the first and second centuries. These baptizing groups ranged from gnostic spiritualists, to rabbinic Jews, to Essene sectarians.

Gnosticism with its diverse set of religious and philosophical views emerged at about the same time as Christianity (Ehrman 2000, 173-77). Generally speaking, gnostics understood the world in radically dualistic terms: material vs. spiritual. For them, God was totally spirit and accompanied by divine offspring. However, when one of them “fell,” the world was created in order to entrap the malformed divine within human bodies. Gnostics knew that heaven was their home and that they were imprisoned in mortal bodies. They claimed that people could be saved from this material world only by acquiring secret knowledge (gnosis) from the elite few who had already been enlightened. Baptisms {4} were part of their rituals. “Dip yourself, you who can, into this bowl, you who believe that you will ascend to him who sent the bowl down, you who know for what purpose you have come into being” (Corpus Hermeneticum 4. The Bowl 3-7, in Barrett, 101-2). 2

Within Judaism baptism was also practiced. However, before the destruction of the second temple, Judaism was not uniform and there were various washing rituals (John 2:6) and baptismal movements (Hartman, 1:583). Sometime during the first century C.E., proselyte baptism was introduced in rabbinic Judaism (Hartman, 1:583). The candidate was instructed, circumcised, and then “he immerses himself and when he comes up he is in all respects an Israelite” (see Yebam. 47a,b in Barrett, 209-10). 3

Josephus (ca. 30-100) tells of a rigorous Jewish reform movement called the Essenes which had strict codes of conduct as well as “washings.” The candidate, “having given proof of his temperance during this probationary period, . . . is brought into closer touch with the rule and is allowed to share the purer kind of holy water” (see War ii 199-200, 122, 137-42, 152-53, 162-66 in Barrett, 158-59). The “holy water” was used for lustrations or purification in the ceremonial baths of Essene ritual (Barrett, 160; see Life 7-12 in Barrett, 270).

Evidently, baptisms were used by a wide variety of religious groups known to the early Christians in order to give witness to purification, to commitment, and to inclusion (rites of initiation and passage). However, non-Christian baptism had two special characteristics: it was self-administered (people dipped and washed themselves) and it lacked eschatological meaning (not connected to God’s final wrap-up movement of bringing creation to its goal, nor was it something done once and for all).


The Greek term for baptism, its cognates, and synonyms appear 125x in the New Testament (NT); these occurrences are discussed below. 4 Baptism refers most basically to washing and dipping (16x). 5 However, its full semantic field ranges from washing cups (concrete) to symbolizing a rite of passage or initiation (figurative).

The Baptism of John

In the NT gospels, baptism refers to John and his baptism of repentance as preparation for God’s end-time judgment and salvation (51x). 6 John’s baptism does not appear to be simply an adaptation of previous baptismal practices (cf. Josephus’s account of John the Baptist, {5} Antiquities xviii. 116-19 in Barrett, 276). Rather, exodus images are used when describing John’s appearance at the Jordan (Hartman, 1:584). His appearance, preaching, and baptism were unique in their expression of the ideas reflected in certain Old Testament (OT) texts (Deut. 30-31; Isa. 40; Ezra 36; Jer. 31).

These texts looked forward to an end-time repentance when God would cleanse the people from evil in order to accomplish God’s purposes (Hartman, 1:583). Thus, John’s baptism marks the first stage in the development of NT baptismal practice. It was once for all (unlike repeated washings), because of its eschatological orientation announcing the coming of God’s end-time kingdom rule.

The Baptism of Jesus

Jesus and his disciples also baptized (4x). 7 Jesus proclaimed the coming kingdom and summoned people to repentance in preparation for the end (eschaton).

Jesus uses “baptism” to symbolize the challenge of faithfulness (8x). 8 Jesus asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

John’s baptism is contrasted with Jesus’ baptism (10x). 9 The NT witnesses a “two-sided treatment” regarding John and his baptism. On the one hand, they were a necessary preparation for the Messiah, but on the other, their importance is played down. It is the Messiah who is the “stronger one” and it is he who will baptize with water and the Spirit.

While John announced the end, Jesus was intent on announcing and embodying God’s coming end-time rule so that Israel could at last be what God had always intended: a light to the nations. Jesus probably left the actual baptizing to his disciples (John 4:2). Still, it is John’s baptism which is clearly the point of departure for baptism in the Jesus tradition (Hartman, 1:586). Baptism in the Jesus tradition is a second stage in the developing practice.

The Teaching of Paul and Others

Baptism “into the name of Jesus” and into his death/resurrection is used to mean inclusion into the newly reconfigured family of God (21x). 10 Here baptism symbolizes ordination to God’s mission, transfer of primary allegiance from the Way of Death to the Way of Life, membership in the body of Christ, realization of true humanity, regeneration, renewed creation, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

In this third stage of the NT’s baptismal development (most clearly seen in Paul’s writings), the “forgiveness of sins” from the earlier {6} stages is taken to its ultimate goal and gathered into our intimate participation with Jesus in the new humanity. This is not something spooky or mystical, but the realization of “our true, but not yet realized humanity” (Eller, 48). Furthermore, it is about participation, intimacy, and “life in the Spirit” (Rom. 8), all of which becomes our collective norm (Rom. 12:1-2). To be “in Christ” is to join others in becoming one in purpose, commitment, desire, and experience, with Jesus and his mission in our world, so that his story becomes our story.

The role of “baptizer” sometimes appears contrasted with “proclaimer” (4x). 11 Perhaps Paul’s sense of sharing God’s mission with others caused him not to add “baptizer” to his role of “proclaimer.”

Two Anthropological Issues

At this point two anthropological issues need to be addressed. First, to which “body” does baptism give entry: to the local or the universal church? It is unlikely that Paul and the early Christians would have understood such a question. This is because

the church is the visible manifestation of the people of God, whose life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Baptism is a visible act with a spiritual meaning; it is therefore well adapted to be the means of entry into a visible community of God’s people and the body which transcends any one place or time. (Beasley-Murray, 64)

Second, is baptism about a personal commitment or about membership in a new family? Again, it is unlikely that Paul and the early Christians would have understood such a question. This is because personality in the ancient world was essentially collective in nature and not individual. “The collectivist personality derives its information from outside of the self and in turn, serves as a source of information for others” (Malina, 75).

This is not to say that individual psychology, individual uniqueness, and individual self-consciousness were nonexistent. But these were not central to ancient identity formation (compare this to the contemporary interest in promoting self-esteem in children!). Therefore, when we read that someone “believed and was baptized” (like the Ethiopian Eunuch, Acts 8:38), it is less a statement of personal identity, and more a statement about the people with whom they are being identified. Baptism is linked to collective identity in the NT. 12 {7}

Baptism and the Holy Spirit

Baptism “into the name of Jesus” appears disconnected from the Spirit’s gifting (3x). 13 “The New Testament understanding is that Christian baptism catches up John’s theme of repentance-forgiveness but adds the distinctive—and more central—theme of the coming of the Spirit” (Eller, 52). Sometimes water baptism seems to attest to the believer’s experience of the Spirit (Acts 10:47), while at other times it is the occasion for the coming of the Spirit upon the believer (Acts 2:38).

More important than the differences in sequence, the event needs to be seen globally. Baptism is not a “water ritual” that automatically “triggers” the coming of the Spirit, but a sign that now is the time God is “pouring out the Spirit” for the renewal of all creation. “The gift of the Spirit that comes with baptism represents a relationship of new intimacy with God that includes not only . . . receiving power for a new quality of humanity but likewise . . . being ordained and deputized to use that power in the mission of God, God’s program for the world” (Eller, 55-56).

Peoplehood and Mission

Baptism is used in argumentation for the “collective” sense of identity (8x). 14 NT writers use baptism in its “collective” sense to illustrate the new reality that invaded the planet with the resurrection of Jesus. This was the great “hinge” on which the ages turn. One enormous step toward becoming truly human together had taken place—toward accessing true life, the life God intends for all people.

The mood during the [baptismal] service is not to be “Thank God, our brother [our sister] has found the fire escape,” but “Glory be! Kingdom come! It’s happening! The race is finally on its way to getting human; our brother [sister] just decided to let God make a man [woman] out of him [her]!” (Eller, 55)

Interestingly, Eller used “missional” language long before the term became fashionable (see Guder). Already in the 70s, Eller pointed out the increasing tendency to think of baptism and membership as individual entitlements. Typically, baptism

comes to mean little more than [being] . . . issued a credit card qualifying [one] to draw upon the church’s {8} dispensation of grace. But make baptism an ordination to God’s service, and the picture changes drastically. Now we must speak of membership in a caravan, which is membership of an order like an arm or a leg’s being a member of a body; members are expected to be integral parts of the body and devote themselves in the performance of service for that body and to the ends for which the body exists. (Eller, 56)

The Function of Baptism in the NT

Evidently, the early Christians used baptism to express the new reality they had come to experience in Jesus. However, nowhere in the NT is there direct teaching on baptism. Instead, the NT writers mostly discuss the implications and consequences of baptism. It is, therefore, risky to try to reconstruct a “theology of baptism” from the NT since we are likely to leave something out or to stress something at the expense of others. However, this did not stop the second- and third-century theologians from doing just this (see below).

The 125 references to baptism discussed above are used variously and, as we have seen, there appear to be three stages in the development of the NT baptism traditions: John, Jesus, and Paul. Apparently, the early Christians did not drop earlier formulations, but filled them out, all the while celebrating both the inbreaking of the new age of the kingdom and the realization of our true humanity (Eller, 67). The early Christians, like those in other baptismal movements around them, used baptism to symbolize the same combination of repentance, commitment, and inclusion. However, there appear to be two unique features that characterize NT baptismal practice: it is emblematic of the eschatological character of the Jesus movement (once for all), and it is emblematic of the collective new humanity that is on the way to being realized (not self-administered).


Early Developments of a Baptismal Theology

A survey of the extant early Christian writings shows the development of a “baptismal theology” from “baptismal practice.” The Didache (ca. 100) is the first “church manual” to have survived from early Christianity. Literally, it is identified as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It includes instructions on how to baptize, when to fast, what to pray, how to celebrate the eucharist, and how to appoint community leaders (see Did. 7, 9.5 in Ehrman 1998, 313). 15 {9}

Although there are references to baptism scattered throughout the Christian literature of the second and third centuries, “only one extant treatise from that period [ca. 200] is devoted exclusively to the subject, that of Tertullian” (Pelikan, 163). However, the most succinct statement by Tertullian on baptism actually came, not in his treatise, but in his polemic against Marcion. According to Tertullian, baptism brought four gifts: the remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Against Marcion 1.28.2 cited in Pelikan, 163). 16

The first incontestable evidence for the practice of infant baptism comes in the writings of Tertullian. He asks,

Why should innocent infancy be in such a hurry to come to the forgiveness of sins? Let them come while they are maturing, while they are learning, while they are being taught what it is they are coming to. Let them be made Christians when they have become able to know Christ. (On Baptism 18.5 quoted in Pelikan, 290)

The origins of infant baptism are uncertain. Some point to Jesus’ blessing of the children (Mark 10:13-16), to the account of the baptized “household” (Acts 16:15), or to the analogy between OT circumcision and NT baptism. In any case, the practice of infant baptism began sometime in the second century (Pelikan, 291). 17

Hippolytus of Rome during the mid-second century wrote a manual of detailed instructions on how to conduct the various ministries of the church (including baptism) in order to reestablish “apostolic tradition” and to correct some perceived lapses in practice (Easton, 25; see Apostolic Tradition in Bradshaw, 82-135). 18

From these traditions rooted in the second century, it is clear that baptism was a significant symbol in the life of the church. By the fourth century, the process of baptism was two to three years in length and marked by four discrete periods of growth along with passage rites: (1) inquirer (seeker), (2) catechumen (hearer), (3) enlightenment (kneeler), and (4) entrance to full life of the church as marked by baptism (faithful).

Four Assumptions about Baptism

Webber observes that the emerging “baptismal theology” was based on four assumptions (147-48). First, the “schematic” of how Christ’s death was “for us,” was shaped by the “Christus Victor” explanation of {10} atonement. The liturgy used renunciation and transfer language from Satan’s rule to God’s rule. The “redemption drama” involved three players: God, Jesus, and Satan. Since Jesus lives, he is victorious over evil along with all those who associate with him in the dawning of the new age. Thus, the baptismal process symbolically carried the “converting Christian” through the story of Jesus’ whole life as it now characterized theirs.

Second, the church played a “mothering” role of nurturing the new convert through a salvation journey. There was instruction, preparation, and symbol to mark the developmental process of conversion. The church was an invitational sign to the world and an “outpost” of God’s dawning kingdom—not an “additive” to the secular world, nor a parallel movement, nor an isolationist movement, but the central dynamic to God’s transformational aims for all of creation. Baptism testified to a missional ecclesiology.

Third, liturgical rituals were external means of organizing internal discipleship experiences to clarify the truth of the new reality in which the candidate participated. Tangible rituals were used at each stage, including anointing oil, laying on of hands, sign of the cross, confession, water, nakedness, redressing, milk and honey, and others.

Fourth and finally, conversion was conceptualized as a process with discrete stages of development. The candidate was led by mentors through a maturation process culminating with baptism and entrance into the church. The gospel proclamation always led to baptism and entrance into the church. It was about repentance and renunciation. And it was also about entrance into a new community, marked by the reception of the Holy Spirit.



The survey of baptismal practice among the early Christians leads to five questions. First, the hermeneutical question: All of the texts surveyed in this paper emerge from an ancient world, one which employed several cultural assumptions that Mennonite Brethren do not share: a hierarchical household family clan system vs. a nuclear family system, a collectivist identity vs. an individualistic identity, and an imperial political system vs. a democratic political system. Given the Bible’s origin in a time-conditioned cultural location, how can Mennonite Brethren continue to confess the Bible as authoritative for life and practice in the twenty-first century? Is it even possible? Do we pick and choose what seems relevant to us? {11}

Or is there another way of appropriating the biblical vision? I think there is, but it is not as obvious as we would sometimes like it to be. It involves discerning the underlying theological vision, constructing bridges to our time, and being shaped by that same vision to which the biblical writers give witness. Still, how do we bridge the temporal and cultural gap in order to continue to hear the living word of God and be shaped by it?


Second, the soteriological question: Most Mennonite Brethren have been significantly shaped by modernity’s emphasis on the individual. This has touched most of our practices, even the way we think about salvation. We have used the “satisfaction” theory of atonement almost to the exclusion of the other biblical images of salvation. 19 The result is that we think of salvation as primarily a “transaction” and a “payment for personal debt.” The “redemption drama” here involves only two players: God and Jesus. Salvation is reduced to a personal and privatized “commodity” that we “shop around for,” looking for that which will best “enhance our portfolio.”

Such thinking spills over to our understanding of baptism—it is reduced to my witness to my salvation and largely disconnected from the church. What would it look like for Mennonite Brethren to recover a full-orbed soteriology that participates more fully in “the scandal of the cross,” one that identifies with Jesus’ victory over the powers of evil? If baptism is more than a sign of “my decision for Christ,” then what is it? If we have learned anything from the recent cultural shifts, it is that people are tired of rugged individualism and long to be part of a community that addresses the fragmentation and brokenness of life. Why would we say baptism is only about me? Does not our culture even cry out for more? Why are we tempted to offer less when the gospel is about so much more?

Readiness for Baptism

Third, the developmental question: Given our tendency to “individualized personal identity” and to “reductionist” soteriology, how are we to assess the baptismal “readiness” of children? Some claim that, “asking children who have already made a decision to follow Jesus and be part of the family of God to postpone baptism until they are older may only serve to stall their development, frustrate their faith, and drive them away from the church” (Kalmar, 155).

Perhaps a more basic question needs to be addressed first. How do {12} we understand the place of children in our families and our churches? Are they simply “miniature adults”? Or is human development more complex than this? If baptism is more than a sign of “my decision for Christ at summer camp,” then what is the developmental stage required for baptism?


Fourth, the ecclesiological question: The issues raised by the three above questions come to bear on the basic ecclesiological question. What in fact is the church anyway? Why bother linking baptism to church membership? Some say there is more effective “buy in” if some space is placed between baptism and church membership. In fact, many youth leaders tell us how hard it is to convince youth that linking church membership to baptism is a good idea.

Perhaps current practice is not worth defending. By reducing membership to a “commodity,” the church functions like just another “volunteer society” that we choose based on personal preferences. I think the resistance of young people to membership in its current form is well placed. They can “smell the problem a long way off.” Why have we let this kind of ecclesiological reductionism erode Mennonite Brethren Church thinking and practice? 20

Church membership is not about a name on a roster or a certain level of financial contribution or some other entitlement; it is about accepting God’s invitation to be gathered together with others to share in God’s missional witness to the world through a particular local church. What kind of ecclesiology best suits such a missional church? There are several options the church has chosen over the centuries: the church “identical to culture,” “isolated from culture,” “unaffected by culture,” “in dual relationship to culture,” or “overtaking culture” (Niebuhr 1951). None of these seems to describe the church’s mandate adequately. What about being invitational—inviting whatever culture we live in to be realigned to the way of Jesus? Would that capture the imagination of the youth, not to mention the rest of us?


Fifth, the liturgical question: If we are to take seriously our cultural location, then what kinds of liturgical practices could we develop to help us live our faith in this context? According to Hershberger, postmodern youth, by definition, do not trust cognitive learning or linear thinking: {13}

Since modernity’s solid scientific and logical foundations have now fallen for them, their way of finding reality must come from something else. That something else is experience. (Hershberger, 143)

Can we design liturgical practices that are experiential, participatory, and interactive? What ritual could accompany a young person’s beginning-of-faith steps? How could we revamp catechism? How can we recharge the baptismal ritual?


Baptism as Ordination to God’s Mission People

First, I propose that we expand our understanding of baptism from a symbol of personal commitment to one that also symbolizes ordination to God’s mission people. Baptism is the ritual reserved for the celebration that marks full engagement in God’s mission through its local expression of the Lord’s risen body. This will require a significant amount of reflection, courage, and cultural reframing. While we cannot escape our cultural location (with its focus on individual autonomy and rights of self-determination), we must still ask how we will live in our world. We are to be self-critical participants of our cultural location.

Modernity fooled us into thinking that we are autonomous. This is simply not true. All of us serve some power. Conversion is the process by which we access our true identity as God’s beloved, in order to participate in the newly reconfigured People of God (the new humanity). It is a transfer from one allegiance/engagement to another—the rule of Satan to the rule of God (it is not self-administered!). This involves hearing the call, responding, being empowered, and being commissioned to participate in God’s mission through the local church. Recovering baptism as ordination (or deputation or commissioning) probably holds the most promise for renewing the church today.

There are three practical implications flowing from the first proposal. (1) Keep “the bar” high for membership. Willow Creek’s “Five Gs” for participating members is an excellent guide. 21 The “Five Gs” include grace, growth, group, gifts, and good stewardship, as evidenced by investigation, affirmation, confirmation, and celebration. However, use baptism to mark the candidate’s participating membership, not only the candidate’s personal conversion. (2) Design an appropriate “beginning-of-faith” ritual other than baptism to mark the start of conversion, such as a rose, a prayer, a ring, or a mentor. (3) Affirm children’s beginning {14} steps of faith with these or other rituals, but keep baptism for when they begin to “move out” from parental influence (age 16?) and are developmentally able to be “ordained.” Graduating from a car seat to a seat belt is worth celebrating, but it does not authorize one to drive a car.

Membership as Missional Vocation

Second, I propose we transform our understanding of membership from an entitlement to a missional vocation. This too will require a significant shift in thought and practice. It means shifting our conception of the church as “sending body” to the church as the “sent body,” a missional community actively engaged in God’s mission. Membership can no longer be thought of as a punctiliar event that once achieved, remains in force. There is no tenure in God’s missional team! Conversion is an ongoing process and membership must reflect this. Inactive membership is a contradiction in terms.

Three implications flow from this second proposal. (1) Pare down “membership lists” to only those who are “participating members.” If some “members” no longer participate, attend, support, give, or live intentionally in community with us, they have already “moved on” and are not really “members” any longer. Some may be “friends” of the church, but they are not vital members. Others may no longer want to be members. Make available other categories, but keep membership for “participating members.” (2) Design regular (annual?) covenanting opportunities for members to reaffirm their participation. (3) Develop special rituals to enhance these times.

Keep Baptism and Membership Connected

Third, keep the connection between baptism and membership. Even though cultural forces (such as individualism and a distrust of institutions) push to disconnect these, to give in to these forces would be to say something about the gospel that I believe is fundamentally untrue—namely, that it is possible to live as a Christian apart from the body of Christ. This is not some new postmodern challenge (see Paul’s argument with the Corinthians about the importance of the body). 22 In every culture and in every time, for different reasons, Christianity has had to make the case to link baptism and membership. In Paul’s language, to fail to make the link is to argue for “bodiless” Christians, when the body of Christ cannot really be experienced apart from its local expression. Finally, using a provocative Pauline sexual metaphor (1 Cor. 6), to separate baptism from membership would be like promoting premarital sex, the rush of orgasm apart from the covenant of marriage. {15}


  1. Bystrom 1986, 2000; Coggins; Esau; Ewert 1980, 1999, 2000; Hein; Hershberger; Kalmar; Konrad; Miller; Nikkel; Shillington; Toews; Delbert Wiens; Devon Wiens.
  2. Gnosticism and Christianity likely influenced each other in significant ways. For example, the first commentary on the Gospel of John was written by Heracleon, a gnostic Christian living around the year 170 (Ehrman 2000, 178), the library of gnostic texts found in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, was likely preserved by Christian monks (Wisse, 440), and polemical tracts were written against gnostics by second-century Christian heresiologists. The references to baptism in some gnostic texts likely owe something to Christian precedent (Barrett, 102).
  3. Note that proselyte baptism is self-administered, not passive, and that it is closely related to purification, without an eschatological dimension (Ferguson, 1:160). Some have thought that proselyte baptism is the origin of Christian baptism. However, the practice did not exist early enough to be taken over by Christians (Dockery, 56; Hartman, 1:585).
  4. bapto 4x; baptizo 77x; baptisma 19x; baptismos 4x; baptistes 12x; apolouo 2x; louo 5x; loutron 2x.
  5. Mark 7:4 (2x); Luke 11:38; 16:24; John 13:10; 13:26 (2x); Acts 9:37; 16:33; 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 6:2; 9:10; 10:22; 2 Pet. 2:22; Rev. 19:13.
  6. Matt. 3:1; 3:6; 3:7; 3:11 (1st); 3:13; 3:14; 3:16; 11:11; 11:12; 14:2; 14:8; 16:14; 17:13; 21:25; Mark 1:4 (2x); 1:5; 1:8 (1st); 1:9; 6:14; 6:24; 6:25; 8:28; 11:30; Luke 3:3; 3:7; 3:12; 3:16 (1st); 3:21 (2x); 7:20; 7:33; 7:29 (2x); 7:30; 9:19; 20:4; John 1:25; 1:26; 1:28; 1:31; 1:33 (2x); 3:23 (2x); 10:40; Acts 1:5 (1st); 1:22; 10:37; 11:16 (1st); 13:24.
  7. John 3:22, 26; 4:1, 2.
  8. Mark 10:38 (3x); 10:39 (3x); Luke 12:50 (2x).
  9. Matt. 3:11 (2nd); Mark 1:8 (2nd); Luke 3:16 (2nd); Acts 1:5 (2nd); 11:16 (2nd); 18:25 (Apollos); 19:3 (2x); 19:4 (2x). {16}
  10. Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 2:41; 8:12; 8:13; 8:36; 8:38 (the Ethiopian’s baptism does not refer to personal commitment in the sense of individual identity, see text for the difference between collective and individual identity); 9:18; 16:15 (household—what is true of the “head,” is true of all; this is not a nuclear family); 16:33 (“entire family,” as a collective, but doubtful that it refers to each person including infants); 18:8 (Chrispus the Pharisee and his household); 19:5; 22:16; Rom. 6:3 (2x); 6:4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5.
  11. 1 Cor. 1:14, 16 (2x), 17.
  12. Attention to the collective nature of identity in the biblical worldview not only helps make sense of the symbol of baptism, but other difficult passages as well. For example, in Rom. 1:16 Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Paul is not talking about personal embarrassment, but about his refusal to be shamed by being associated with Israel’s God who has chosen to include Gentiles in the final form of his end-time people. Similarly, in Rom. 7:14-25 Paul writes, “Wretched man that I am. Who will rescue me . . . ?” Paul is not wringing his hands over personal guilt for not being able to keep the law; he is giving voice to honest theological struggle and deep frustration with God—what kind of God gives good gifts like the law that turn out to be co-opted by evil—how can this be? Later he affirms that God is not impotent after all because Jesus actually fulfills the goal of the law, which is to bring life and undo death (Rom. 8:4; 10:4). Both of these examples are not statements of personal “introspection” in the western sense, but powerful statements of collectivist identity (see Stendahl).
  13. Acts 8:16; 10:47, 48.
  14. “Into one body,” 1 Cor. 12:13; “one Lord, one hope, one baptism,” Eph. 4:5; “into the name of Paul,” 1 Cor. 1:13, 15; “into Moses,” 1 Cor. 10:2; “on behalf of the dead,” 1 Cor. 15:29 (2x) (not promoted, but utilized—the communitarian aspect of salvation was not so surprising then as it may be to us today); “saved through water [Noah],” 1 Pet. 3:21.
  15. In the Didache, instruction, preparation, and fasting all precede water baptism, and the eucharist is reserved for those thus identified with the body of Christ by baptism.
  16. Contending against Marcion’s dualism between the Creator and the Redeemer, Tertullian argued that none of the four basic gifts of baptism could be granted if that dualism were maintained.
  17. Origen, writing a few years after Tertullian’s treatise On Baptism, {17} maintained that there was “a tradition of the church from the apostles” to administer baptism also to infants (Commentary on Romans 5:9 quoted in Pelikan, 291). According to Pelikan, “the practice of infant baptism contributed to the development of a more precise doctrine of original sin by Cyprian” (165). “The achievement of a correlation between the practice of infant baptism and the doctrine of original sin was first made visible in Cyprian” (Epistles 64.5 cited in Pelikan, 291). He invoked “a doctrine of original sin to account for a practice about whose apostolic credentials and sacramental validity he had no question whatsoever” (292). Later, Augustine argued that “infant baptism proved the presence in infants of a sin that was inevitable, but a sin for which they were nevertheless held responsible” (On Marriage and Concupiscence 2.29.51 cited in Pelikan, 292). In fact, “the practice of exorcism associated with the rite of baptism was liturgical evidence for the doctrine that children were in the clutches of the devil” (On the Merits and Remission of Sins 1.23, 28, 39; 3.2.7; 3.3.6 cited in Pelikan, 292, and Ferguson, 1:162). Thus, “original sin was to be the principal basis for infant baptism, but the historical development followed the reverse sequence. The early Christian documents, in contrast, contain frequent reference to the sinlessness of children” (The Shepherd of Hermas 17:1-3; The Letter of Barnabas 6:11 cited in Ferguson, 1:162).
  18. While the original text was written in Greek, it is no longer extant. It is available only in several incomplete “translations” into Latin, Sahidic (southern dialect of Coptic), Bohairic (northern dialect of Coptic), Arabic, Ethiopic, as well as several versions known as the Constitutions, the Testament, and the Canons. The term “translation” is used advisedly since translators and copyists clearly elaborated and adapted the “apostolic traditions” to their particular ecclesiastical situation (Bradshaw, 14). The most that can be said is that the Apostolic Tradition represents Roman church practices from the mid-second to the mid-fourth century. In particular, the baptismal tradition is given in detail, ranging from the instructions to candidates on to the application of various symbols and rituals (see Bradshaw, 82-135).
  19. The Bible also uses images like commerce (redemption), relationships (reconciliation), worship (sacrifice), and the battleground (triumph over evil) to picture salvation and to picture atonement (see Green and Baker). Enlarging our atonement thinking by utilizing the other biblical metaphors for salvation (besides the court of law image) could move us beyond our cultural preference for autonomy. {18}
  20. Let us remind ourselves of the critique that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists had against the state church. They were persecuted not because they were Christians, but because they threatened the social status quo by contending that church membership should not be hooked to state citizenship. They were condemned as traitors. The issue was allegiance, not their profession of faith in God.
  21. (accessed on December 10, 2003).
  22. In some ways the postmodern disdain for institution and structure is similar to the gnostic-like conceptions of spirituality present in the Corinthian church with which Paul worked. First Corinthians records Paul’s extended interaction with the Corinthians who were exhibiting ways of behaving (e.g., sexually, interpersonally, liturgically, organizationally, spiritually, anthropologically) that in fact trivialized the “body.” Even though it was not fashionable in Greco-Roman thinking, Paul insisted that there was such a thing as a resurrection body, that it was not a “bodiless spirit” (1 Cor. 15). Paul had to remind the former pagans in Corinth that the body was worth transforming (not bad or to be escaped). While it may not be fashionable today to speak of accountability or commitment, Paul’s insistence on the “body life” character of Christian communities continues to challenge the western world’s preference for “bodiless” existence.


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Jon Isaak is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.
A version of this paper was presented at Rite and Pilgrimage: A Study Conference on Baptism and Church Membership sponsored by the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Board of Faith and Life, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 22-24, 2003.

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