But the reality for many people is less simple and often not so easy. Many are confused about baptism because various churches teach different things. Many Christians want to walk in obedience to the Lord in this matter, but often are just not clear what that means. One way to cut through the confusion is to change our question from what does "the church" teach about baptism to what does the Bible teach about baptism.
What does the Bible teach about baptism?
For example, Phillip, a deacon, preached this same truth in Samaria. Acts 8:12 tells us the result of his preaching, "But when they believed Philip, as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized." Again, we notice they believed first, and then were baptized as a result of that belief. It might be important to note in this particular verse that it says that it was men and women who were baptized, not infants or little children. There are no examples of infants or young children being baptized in the New Testament.
Another example, from that same chapter but in a different context, comes from verses 36-38. "As they were traveling down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, Look, there’s water! What would keep me from being baptized? And Philip said, If you believe with all your heart you may. And he replied, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him" (Acts 8:36-38). Once again, we see that a man believed in Christ and was then baptized. One caveat about this passage is that it refers to believing with "all of our hearts." Clearly this is not just a general belief in God, or in the church as an organization, or even in Christ as a concept or idea, but a sincere and deeply held belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.
Sometimes we encounter people who are already religious and active in a faith community but have not yet been baptized. Should they be baptized when they come to believe in Jesus? We find the answer to that question in Acts 18:8, "Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed the Lord, along with his whole household. Many of the Corinthians, when they heard, believed and were baptized." This scripture tells the story of Crispus, who was a leader of the synagogue. Crispus was VERY religious and already a part of a strong community of faith. Yet Crispus was baptized AFTER he believed. What ever he had done to become part of the community of faith prior to his belief in Christ could not replace his need to be baptized as an expression of his new belief.
In each of the examples above the people first placed their faith in Christ. Then as an outward expression of that inner faith, they were baptized. The need to believe before being baptized was the clear teaching and practice of the early church. This clear truth is recorded in the Bible numerous times. Regardless of the confusion we may have in the modern church, there was no such confusion in the First Century. There is an important principle to learn in regards to this issue that also impacts other biblical issues, which is, if we stay with the timeless truth of scripture, instead of human tradition, our faith will be much clearer and less confusing.
Because of all the confusion over this issue, there are many people who were baptized by their parents as infants before they were old enough to understand what it meant to be a Christian. Though parents meant well by trying to make this choice for their children, faith is deeply personal and no one should make faith choices for another person. We all know people who were baptized as infants into some church and now that church does not meet their spiritual needs. It does not mean that church has no spiritual value, it just means that church is not right for that person. Such people often find themselves in an awkward situation of being baptized into a church they are no longer interested in being part of but may feel guilty about changing churches because they do not want to hurt their parents’ feelings. Many of these people have dropped out of church altogether because they could not reconcile this issue in their own minds and now are Christians in name only, rarely, if ever, practicing their faith in a meaningful way. Others came to a more complete understanding of who Christ is and were born again. Now they struggle with the idea of baptism, because if faith is supposed to precede baptism, what are these Christians supposed to do? As challenging as it may be, if we strip away human traditions and stick with scripture, then people who were baptized before they made a sincere commitment to Christ should be re-baptized. This is important because the Bible teaches that people should be baptized only AFTER they come to committed faith in Christ. Though human traditions are hard to change, when our traditions go against scripture, we must always side with scripture. Re-baptism should be done out of obedience to the Scriptures and with all due respect to the parents and family who were doing what they thought best when we were infants.
What Method Should the Church Use to Baptize?
The word “baptism” comes from the Greek word “baptizo,” which literally means “to dip under.” In the New Testament when a person was baptized they were always dipped under water as a picture of being completely immersed in Christ. Baptism is also a reminder of how Christ stood on the cross for us, was put under the ground for us, and rose again out of the ground for us. Baptism by immersion under water is the best symbol of this as the person stands in the water, is lowered under the water and then raised up out of the water. This symbol should be preserved as much as possible and only changed under rare circumstances.
What is the Connection Between Baptism and Church Membership?
There are a number of scriptures in the New Testament that seem to link baptism and church membership by referring to the people who were baptized as being “added to the number” of the church. Some have interpreted the phrase “added to the number” as meaning that the people were placed on a church membership roll. This is possible, but there are other scriptures that appear to separate these two issues. For example, the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 came to personal faith in Christ and was baptized in the middle of the desert. There was literally no church for him to join. Philip baptized him anyway, resulting in him being a baptized Christian but not a member of any particular church. History tells us that he later founded what has become the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But that church did not exist at the moment of his baptism, therefore he could not join it. In this situation, baptism and church membership were not automatically connected. Therefore, we should be cautious about making them automatically connected in modern times. While baptism and church membership are not automatically connected, it is very important for people to make a commitment to a specific church so they can serve the Lord with their spiritual gifts and be accountable to the biblical authority of that church. Once a person has been baptized, they should prayerfully take the next step and become a member of a specific church. This would normally be the church that baptized them, but we know from the experience of the Ethiopian eunuch that it might not always be the case.
Baptism was important enough for Jesus to set an example by being baptized Himself. In the
First Century, baptism was practiced by those who came to sincere personal faith in Christ, regardless of their previous religious expression. Have we taken this important step and been baptized after we have made a personal commitment to Christ? If we have, then we should find a church to join and begin to serve the Lord with passion. If we have not, then we should prayerfully seek baptism even if it means we must be re-baptized. Once we have been re-baptized, we should join a church so we can use our gifts to serve the Lord.