Have you ever seen the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”? It runs in repeats a lot on cable now, but it remains one of my all-time favorite movies. One of the best scenes in it is near the beginning, when the escaped band of convicts stumbles across a congregation dressed in white heading down to a river, singing “Down to the River to Pray.” Two of the three wind up stumbling into the water to be baptized.
To some, that seems too easy. Many churches require long classes or meetings with the pastor before a person may be baptized. In some congregations a person has to have a “Christian testimony” to salvation prior to being baptized, in order to be granted baptism. In most Christian communities the pastor is the only one authorized to baptize people.
This isn’t what we can find in the Scripture, and missional churches will do well to realize that baptism is open to all who believe in Christ alone for salvation, is non-denominational in nature and may be administered by any Christian. Ultimately, it is Christ who gives baptism meaning and power, as it is He who gives the Spirit at that sacred moment.
Before I first went to Brazil during the summer of 1997, I had a Brazilian roommate. He was from an evangelical background in Brazil, and spoke broken English. Struggling through one of our first conversations, I learned that he had never been baptized. The church he attended required him to attend 6 months of baptism classes without a single absence. He never managed to make all the classes, due largely to work obligations. For a couple of hours I went over the Good News with him and discovered that he positively believed in Jesus Christ as the only savior an d that salvation is a gift, not something to be earned. He earnestly wanted to be baptized to follow Jesus. That same night he was baptized by a college professor in Moberly, Missouri that he admired for his work with youth.
Were we wrong? Absolutely not!
Reading the Book of Acts we find no example of anyone being told to wait to be baptized. In the earliest days of the church, people were told the Good News of Jesus Christ, and then baptized as soon as they asked for it. Baptism was the natural result of coming to faith in Christ and repenting of sins.
“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him” (Acts 8:36-38 NRSV).
We don’t find denominational baptism in Scripture, simply because there were no denominations. Some groups of sincere, good Christians actually consider baptism to be an initiation into their church group. Baptists generally hold this view, with some exceptions, and the Community of Christ baptizes all people who seek to join their group. Although in recent times they’ve softened and recognize that baptism in other groups is also valid, they still require rebaptism for entrance into their denomination.
Christian baptism is simply that: Christian. When I baptize someone, it is into Christ’s body, the church universal, and not into a specific expression of the church. Yes, I hope that the one I baptize will hold to the teachings of Scripture as I do, but ultimately what must be believed for a baptism to be “valid” is the Good News of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection for our salvation.
A certain Baptist missionary in a third world country has no trouble reporting progress in his mission field. He came into the region 40 years after the first missions of his denomination had begun there, and Baptist churches and mission outposts were already located throughout the area. The only ordained minister of his fellowship in 150 miles, he travels a circuit of villages teaching, preaching and administering the ordinances, including baptism. Truth be told, he’s never led a single person to Christ, though he has baptized hundreds. The local Christians do the actual evangelizing, and he just finishes the job by baptizing the new converts.
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20 NRSV).
If the “Great Commission” was meant for more than just the 11 apostles of Jesus (after the death of Judas, prior to the selection of Matthias), and in fact is spoken to each new generation of the church, then it must be applied in its entirety. Disciples of Jesus are called to reach out with the Good News, making disciples, baptizing and teaching the whole counsel of God as revealed in Christ. On the authority of Christ, each and every Christian has the right and obligation to proclaim the Gospel and baptize. No one needs to wait for an “expert” to arrive to complete the sacred work of initiation into the Way.
Christian baptism is the immersion in water, but there is more to it than the physical aspect. The Scripture soundly promises the “gift of the Holy Spirit” to those who are baptized into Christ (Acts 2:38). The living presence of God Himself comes not through the instrumentality of man, or based on some power inherent in the earthly baptizer who can only lower one down into water and lift up again, but rather the immersion from on high comes from the Master.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11 NRSV).
Baptism is for everyone who believes in Jesus, is ecumenical, can be provided by any Christian and is empowered and blessed by the Spirit of God promised and sent by Jesus.