Baptism: pastoral perplexities

How should we handle rebaptism, children who want to be baptized, and those who want to join our church but who have been baptized by modes other than immersion?

Rex D. Edwards is an assistant secretary of the General Conference 'Ministerial Association, and directs the association's PREACH seminars and Continuing Education program.

As a pastor in the last half of the twentieth century, I have grown accustomed to the companionship of perplexity. In every significant area of my ministry integrity of ideals and actuality of practice collide mercilessly. This is certainly true as regards baptism. The very mention of the word brings to mind at least five perplexities that vary in intensity but are nonetheless real.

1. Baptism as the criterion of pastoral effectiveness

The baptizing of converts is indeed an important function of the pastor, yet it has assumed an inordinate role in the lives of Seventh-day Adventist ministers. It has tended to become the criterion of evaluating their overall effectiveness.

Pastors' "baptismal records"—which refers not to the quality of their handling of this sensitive area, but simply to the number of people they have managed to immerse—are often the foremost points of reference in determining their competence. From this one fact inferences are drawn that encompass their whole beings—their orthodoxy, their gifts, their spirit, their attitude toward people, and so forth.

This scale of religious values poses to Adventist pastors the temptation to use baptism to meet their own professional needs rather than the spiritual needs of the people they serve. Knowing that they will be lauded by their fellow pastors and denominational superiors and become more attractive to other conferences simply by baptizing as many people as they can makes it doubly hard to maintain sensitivity and integrity in relation to potential converts.

In the depths of their spirits, ministers know that Paul was right when he wrote to the Corinthians: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17, RSV). Immersing as many people as one can—any way, anyhow—is a tragic distortion of the high calling of God. Keeping the practice of baptism in its true focus poses a painful dilemma before many pastors because it means going against the stream of denominational expectation and staking one's own respect for persons over against the accusation of not having a passion for souls.

2. The age of the baptized

The age at which a person may be baptized is particularly problematic. With children many important factors need to be heeded.

On the one hand, I take very seriously the desires and impulses of the individual and the fact that the Christian life is a perennial process in which one never fully "arrives." Therefore, when a small child approaches me with a strong wish to become a Christian, and I sense that this is not motivated externally by parent or peer pressure, the desire to eat the Lord's Supper, or some other secondary reason, I am cautious about quenching this flame of interest and saying, in effect: "You cannot trust what you are feeling now. You are not old enough to understand yet; go and wait."

I am uneasy about such a response, for if the spiritual life is process, does it not have to start somewhere and will not the beginning point—no matter at what age—leave much yet to be learned? And if an earnest little child is told that his deep feelings are not to be trusted, will he begin to distrust all spiritual impulses and thus fail to recognize those that will come later? For these reasons, I cannot easily give a categorical answer that no children under the age of such and such (10 or 12 or 18) should ever be baptized.

On the other hand, I find myself asking: "Is baptism the way to acknowledge incipient religious interest?" Perhaps we should have another rite for this stage in a child's pilgrimage, and reserve baptism for that moment when a mature person knows the alternatives and the full power of sin, and then commits his existence to Christ in a way no child is capable of doing.

3. Rebaptism

My third question is akin to the second: Should a person be rebaptized in light of what is felt to be a more authentic experience or commitment? I am often confronted with this question and feel pressures from both sides. No person can ever fully know the depths of another's subjectivity. Thus, what happened years before and what is happening now are forever secrets of individuality that the experiencer alone can evaluate. If rebaptism would express and reinforce a significant milestone in the soul's journey, who am I as a helper of souls to deny such a benefit?

However, the question that intrudes again on such a line of reasoning is the question of meaning. Is this the nature and purpose of baptism? After all, a life in the process of becoming will experience many new plateaus of meaning and growth. And should the rite of baptism accompany each one of these? Is baptism a sign of birth, and thus unrepeatable, or is it a vehicle of expressing commitment to Christ and thus meaningful at various stages along the way?

4. Baptized but not immersed

The fourth perplexity I face arises when members of other churches who have not been immersed as believers seek to become members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Here one confronts the dilemma of how to speak the truth of his convictions in love; how not to make too much or too little of this distinctive rite.

I find achieving the right balance here to be very difficult. I do not want to be so dogmatic that I make the mode and meaning of baptism appear to be the central aspect of Christianity. Nor do I want to state our position in such a way that all other forms and practices are emptied of meaning and made to appear totally in valid. Yet the truth in believer's baptism by immersion is worth standing for and emphasizing.

The problem lies in conveying this uniqueness in a positive and not an arrogant way. We Seventh-day Adventists have often left the impression that "we are right and all the rest of you are wrong." For many non-Adventists, to be immersed after having been sprinkled and confirmed represents a humiliating capitulation the tacit admission that the churches from which they came and all their past spiritual experiences were unauthentic. I have known many people to use this interpretation to avoid serious religious commitment.

I hate to see baptism become the key factor in keeping a person out of a fellow ship, and yet I am not willing to jettison all conviction to gain one member. The solution to the dilemma lies in finding a way of relating believer's baptism by immersion to other religious practices so that it becomes a positive addition to one's experience and not a humiliating deprecation.

5. Dull ceremony versus joyful celebration

This fifth perplexity is the very practical matter of how to make the act of baptism more meaningful. A Jewish bar mitzvah is accompanied by a great deal more fanfare than a baptism in a Seventh-day Adventist church. Because of our repeated emphasis on baptism's nonsacramental and "merely symbolic" nature, we tend to regard the rite itself rather lightly.

I feel a great need to deepen its significance and meaning for both the candidates and the church, and to make more of baptism in the sense of a joyful celebration. So I find myself asking, "How can I interpret this rite, prepare people for it, execute it, and follow through in such a way that it catches up the feelings of wonder and ecstasy that one associates with a birthday or a first Communion or a bar mitzvah?"

Baptism's meaning diminishes perplexities

These are the most central of the perplexities I face in relation to baptism. How do we minister with integrity in light of these pressures? Let me begin a constructive rationale by attempting to define the core understanding of baptism out of which I work, and in reference to which I try to cope with all the perplexities that arise.

I look on baptism as a person's public declaration that he has been confronted by God in Christ and is responding to the gracious invitation to follow Him in obedience and commitment. I think this rite should stand at the beginning of such a conscious relationship, and is in essence a symbol of entrance or birth into a unique dimension of experience.

The mode of baptism is a derivative concern of mine. Given the meaning I have just described, the immersion of a believer is in my judgment the best medium of expression. It depicts in dramatic form both the Christ-event and the saving event in the life of the believer (Rom. 6:1-3). As no other mode, immersion conveys the essence of how the process of salvation begins. However, the meaning is the primary reality, and the mode should always be the second item of concern and grow out of this primal category.

With this definition as a working center, consistency leads me toward solutions to the various problems I have mentioned.

1. Baptism with integrity

For example, I try studiously to keep my own professional needs from affecting my handling of baptism. I try to allow it to be the authentic work of God-the- Initiator and man-the-answerer, and not a mechanical process of enlarging the church rolls and my reputation. Because baptism stands for "a happening" in which I am at best a spiritual midwife and not the causist, I do not coercively pressure the potential believer for an immediate decision. Rather, I wait for God to bring forth the growth of a seed of witness.

2. Baptizing the young

My definition of baptism has resulted in several guidelines as to when it should take place. The twelfth year has become a pivotal age in my understanding. This was the age when a Jewish child began to participate as an adult in the cultic life of Israel and when Jesus made His first pilgrimage to Jerusalem. From a psychological standpoint as well, this is a significant transitional age.

I make it a practice never to take the initiative and approach a child directly about a decision for baptism before the twelfth year, although I try to give general encouragement and instruction up to this period. If a child, on his own, expresses an authentic desire to be baptized, I take him very seriously and in consultation with his parents often en courage his decision. I do this out of respect for the mystery of individuality and the desire not to routinize the ways of the Spirit. The crucial factor under the age of 12, however, is that of initiative. I respond to the child's wishes rather than asking the child to respond to my appeal.

During the child's twelfth year, and usually in a small group situation, I for the first time try to convey to him my feeling that the time has come to consider this momentous decision. I try to increase the level of instruction and concern expressed through the youth classes, and by the time of that person's sixteenth year, to have done everything humanly possible to lay the claims of Christ before him.

In these latter years the full impact of sin has become apparent. If the child was baptized before the turbulence of adolescence, I try to direct his attention to the reality of life as process. Some rededication experience is often necessary if he is to continue to bring all that he knows of himself to all that he knows of God in Christ.

Some argue with urgency that baptism should be reserved for this more adult moment, and I sense great validity in this. However, there is a need for some public, active Christian commitment earlier than this. It seems to me that a 12-year-old's earnest acceptance of Christ as Lord and of his Christian tradition is an authentic beginning for his pilgrimage. Baptism should mark the conscious beginning of existence under the lordship of Christ, and I believe this can be actualized at 12 providing that life as process and growth and change is steadfastly taught.

3. Rebaptism

In regard to the problem of some people's desire for rebaptism because of a more mature spiritual experience, I try to use as a criterion the concept of baptism as the sign of spiritual birth. If the person really had not entered into spiritual life at the time of a previous baptism and has now, I might consider rebaptism. But as divorce precedes remarriage, so disfellowshipment would logically precede a rebaptism. To avoid this process would be to make rebaptism merely a reconsecration.

In the great majority of cases, however, I find there is a defective understanding of the process nature of spiritual life and therefore a confusion of the brand-new and new-as-growth. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther asks, "What does baptism mean for daily living?" His answer: "It means that our sinful self with all its evil deeds and desires should be drowned through daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever."

Most often I suggest other forms of declaration than baptism for the new plateau's that people reach. In this respect, I reinforce the importance of the ordinance of foot washing that precedes the celebration of the Lord's Supper. William H. Branson wrote, "Following con version and baptism, sins may accumulate in the life of a follower of Jesus. . . . He does not require a complete reconversion and cleansing. But he does require the lesser cleansing. Day by day he must come to God through Christ, confessing his failures, his pride, his selfishness, and his fallings into sin through the temptings of Satan. He must exercise faith that just as all his past sinful life was forgiven and cleansed when he first came to Jesus, so now the blood of Christ cleanses him anew from these additional sins. This lesser cleansing is symbolized by the ordinance of feet washing." 1

The foot-washing experience, then, can be an occasion when baptismal vows are renewed. Only if rebaptism really is an entrance or birth experience do I think it is appropriate.

4. Baptising Christians

As to the problem of interpreting baptism to those coming from a different background, I find that the crucial factor is attitude. When the mode of immersion is explained in positive and nonexclusive terms, I find that the emotional barriers often can be overcome.

I always attempt to interpret the immersion of a believer as a positive contribution to the faith that one brings to a Seventh-day Adventist church. I am careful to affirm what I consider to be the positive values in the practice of infant baptism (acknowledgment of one's birth into a Christian family) and sprinkling (a symbol of the outpouring of the Spirit), and show how believer's baptism can complement and enlarge the Christian understanding rather than contradict it. In doing this, I do not attempt to soften the Adventist distinctiveness, but simply put it in the form of a positive sharing rather than an argumentative debate.

I believe that this approach is more valid than that of a completely "open membership" that merely prefers believer's baptism by immersion, but accepts any form of baptism. I believe there is tremendous truth in a person's responding for himself to the claims of Christ and tremendous power in immersion as a witness to this response.

I deplore the fact that some people allow the issue of reimmersion to cut them off from the ministry of a church, but my experience has indicated that this rarely happens if the act is interpreted tactfully. Often an objection at this point is a way of avoiding significant religious commitment. Although this is certainly not the primary purpose of the rite, it does in such cases serve to separate religious seriousness from superficiality.

5. Meaningful baptismal services

My attempts at making the act itself more meaningful start with interpretation and careful preparation, and then the linking of the act of baptism with the person's ordination to a life of ministry (see my article "Baptism as Ordination," MINISTRY, August 1983). I deplore the practice of reducing baptism to a liturgical interruption. Ellen White says, "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, powers infinite and omnipotent, receive those who truly enter into covenant relation with God. They are present at every baptism." 2 Since the Godhead is present, with what dignity and care should this service be planned?

I encourage the families of the converts to have some kind of celebration either right before or right after the baptism to underline their interest and joy. The whole worship service should be given to and revolve around the baptism. It should be planned as a high day in the life of the church, and climax with the ordination of these candidates to a life of ministry in the Master's service at the frontier of their vocational worlds.

In my opinion, we Seventh-day Adventists have much to learn from other groups in terms of how to point up the mountain peaks of the soul's journey. Our Puritan background has left us impoverished in the art of "celebrating through the created order." Baptism offers a golden opportunity to develop rituals that will convey both intellectual and emotional meaning to others.

By no means do I sense having arrived in this area of ministry. I think that the meaning baptism embodies lies at the very heart of Christianity, and that room remains for the further development of nonverbal and dramatic forms of communicating that meaning. So I look for the practice of baptism to continue to be a creative aspect of organized Christian life.

1 William H. Branson, Drama of the Ages (Nash
ville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1950), pp. 183, 184.

2 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary,
Ellen G. White Comments, vol. 6, p. 1075.

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Rex D. Edwards is an assistant secretary of the General Conference 'Ministerial Association, and directs the association's PREACH seminars and Continuing Education program.

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