Baptism is one Christian ordinance that nearly all denominations accept as scriptural and applicable to today. It has survived when feet washing, the prayer veiling, the holy kiss, and others are explained away. Not all who practice baptism do so in a scriptural way, however. Perhaps a brief look at the history of baptism will help us understand why it is popular yet sometimes sadly corrupted.
First, this is one ordinance that Jesus Himself specifically mentioned. Jesus mentions some others, and He even instituted at least one, but some other ordinances are explained away because they are taught only in Paul’s writings. I believe that is one reason baptism has survived while other ordinances have not. We know that before Jesus ascended to heaven, He left His disciples with the command to go into all nations to teach and baptize (Matt 28:19). Jesus Himself was baptized (Matt 3:13-16); thus baptism is plainly understood to be part of Jesus’ teachings.
Second, the apostles took this seriously. Peter in his address to the assembly after Pentecost told the crowd to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Philip baptized the Ethiopian (Acts 8:38). Peter baptized Cornelius and his household and others. Paul discusses baptism openly in his epistles. Interestingly, he mentions being thankful that he was not the one to baptize the Corinthians (1Co 1:14).
Because of the two reasons listed, it seems that the early church understood baptism to be a necessary step of obedience. This continued to be the practice for the next several decades. What changed? We remember the history of persecution of the Christians until the days of emperor Constantine. Constantine, according to tradition, saw a cross in the sky and the words, “In this sign, conquer.” He accepted the vision as a sign to extend tolerance to the Christians. The government helped build churches, and in time Christianity became the official religion. We do not believe this made Constantine a Christian; rather, we see the resulting corruption of the church as evidence that Constantine’s “help” to the Christian church was in reality an arm of the devil trying to ruin the church.
Satan’s devious plan could not have worked better, it seems. In time, the bishops were asked to bless the Emperor’s military campaigns, first by praying for them, later by going to war themselves to invoke God’s protection. This led to the inevitable union of church and state, with the church gaining the upper hand in power. by this time, most of Christ’s teachings had been ignored or corrupted, one of which was baptism.
Christianity was reduced to a set of works and rites. Baptism was taught as saving a person. because of attempts at “Christianizing” the world, baptism became compulsory. This was believed to be in obedience to Jesus’ teaching to go into the world and baptize. I believe that throughout this dark period, there was a faithful group practicing Jesus’ way of baptizing and teaching, but the lack of recorded history indicates they were in the minority. This was indeed a dark era for the church.
Let us fast-forward to the next big event in the history of baptism: the reformation. We know quite a bit about the reformation, but have you ever wondered why baptism played such a role?
Remember, the church and state had been united now for years. The pope had the ultimate power, as God’s representative, over the kings and emperors of the “Christian” world. The common people were just doing what they were told they needed to do to be saved. Everything trickled down from the pope. The only way to guarantee this kind of control would continue would be to force everyone to be part of the church and to instill fear of excommunication from the church as the absolute disgrace in society and the way to receive damnation of God Himself. To achieve these goals, at least two tactics were used: keep the bible out of the hands of the masses, and make baptism (even of infants) mandatory. The end goal was total control by the church, mainly the pope. During the reformation, this doctrine of baptism was stoutly contested. We know the story of the brave few who dared rebaptize upon confession of faith. This was no small issue to the pope and other (even Protestant) leaders. They would lose a tremendous amount of control if people became free to choose baptism and church membership. The very essence of church membership was about to change; the name Reformation is an apt one for this time.
What was the position of these Swiss brethren, later called Anabaptists? They believed that baptism is an observance that requires faith in Christ and repentance, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, renouncing the devil and the works of the flesh, and becoming part of the church of Christ. We are privileged to be part of a church that teaches the exact same thing. When confronted by the infant baptism defenders, the Anabaptists answered by scripture, whereas the Protestant and Catholic leaders were forced to resort to traditions of men. The definitions of baptism given by the popular reformers such as Luther and Zwingli were actually more in line with what the Anabaptists taught, but their view of church and state would not allow them to agree. There is no support for infant or compulsory baptism in the Scripture. It is reserved for those who can believe, confess, and request baptism.
Baptism is an outward sign of the cleansing that has taken place as an answer of a good conscience before God (1Pe 3:21). It is not the agent of regeneration. The songwriter says, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” However, all repentant people, I believe, will want to be baptized, not for salvation but as an act of obedience to Scripture and their Lord.
Today, there are still those who teach the baptizing of infants and baptismal regeneration. We must reject those teachings and grasp the teaching of Scripture and the practice of believer’s baptism only. We have a heritage of men and women who died for the cause of believer’s baptism; let’s hold fast to that which we have and strengthen those things that remain.
~ Tylertown, MS