What most people know about Baptists is that they practice adult, not infantile (ok, infant), baptism, and baptism not by merely sprinkling of water but by full immersion of the believer into water. The definition of an adult for baptism, it turns out, may be a bit loose. I was baptized when I was twelve or fourteen. But apparently old enough to profess that I was willing to accept Jesus as my savior.
Our church, as with many if not all Baptist churches, had a place near the pulpit for the baptisms, but it was different from what others may consider a baptismal. It had to hold enough water to dunk a six-footer. Ours was about the size of a hot tub, but without the heaters or the air of decadence. It, of course, was plumbed so it could be filled with water and then drained. Those of us being baptized changed out of our Sunday finery into something that could survive being soaked. When my time came, I got into the water that came up to my waist. I was surprised by the minister, who was wearing fishing waders that were not visible to the congregation. He supported my back and head. I leaned backwards until I was under the water, and then he lifted my sputtering body upright and said that this symbolized death and resurrection and a new life in God. And, so, at least for those moments, I was saved.
Baptists practice adult baptism by immersion because of the Bible. The Bible is divinely inspired, Baptists believe, and the ultimate authority for leading a Christian life. Baptists find no scriptural support for infant Baptism. The specifically-mentioned baptisms in the Bible, for example, of Jesus by John the Baptist and one done by Phillip, were of adults, and there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist’s other baptisms were not of adults.
Infant baptisms are a man-made ritual, according to Baptists, and it is not Christian to use man’s rituals over those of the Bible. And while it takes some extrapolation to conclude that immersion is required, the Bible says that Jesus and others came out of the water, and other passages do seem to support that the biblical baptism was by dunking, including the verse, I think it is in one of the Romans, that says baptism symbolizes life, death, and resurrection. Sprinkling or the thumb’s spreading of water on a forehead doesn’t really seem to be a good symbol of that. (I have wondered if we should draw different messages from some frequent consequences of the different kinds of baptism. Thus, a common result of infant baptism is a wailing baby. Do tears and caterwauling upon first encountering the Trinity mean something? With adult baptism, the first response is gasping for air as the person baptized emerges into the air. Is that somehow symbolic? The baptized baby is often dressed in a nice, sometimes expensive, gown often never worn again. Baptized adults might wear the equivalent of choir robes, but often wear old clothes, as I did, that will be worn again many times. Is there a symbolic meaning there?)
Baptists maintained that the only biblically-based rituals were adult baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And on the first Sunday of every month we had communion. Little cubes of Wonder bread and shot glasses of Welch’s grape juice were passed around. (As frugal as the church and congregants were, it might not have been Welch’s, but an off brand.) I did like communion, but it brought some of my first doubts. I was told to take the Bible literally, but our church also commanded teetotaling. When I asked about why no wine, I was told that when the Bible said “wine,” it meant grape juice. Hmmm, I thought to myself.
Adult baptism and communion and the Bible. Any other ritual or source comes from man and not God. No genuflecting. No stations of the cross. No Book of Common Prayer. No required kneeling. No incense. No icons. No required head covering. No rosary. No “mandatory” church attendance. No prayers other than to the Trinity. No saints. (It still bothers me to hear “The Gospel According to St. Mark. No, it is the Gospel according to Mark.)
Baptists are not only separated from other denominations by the lack of much ritual but also by the absence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The only kind of churches Jesus and his apostles recognized were no larger than a congregation, and Baptists maintain that is what the Christian church should still be. Nothing is above an individual church. No one imposes a minister, priest, or vicar on a Baptist church; the congregation selects its leader. No bishops; no presbytery. Each congregation is supreme. (To be continued.)