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SBC LIFE (ISSN 1081-8189), Volume 22, Number 3, © 2014 Southern Baptist Convention, Executive Committee


September 2006 Issue

Understanding Baptism
by Tom Elliff

Editor's Note: In recent days, there has been an increase in debate among Southern Baptists over the necessity of a believer's baptism by immersion for church membership. SBC LIFE asked Dr. Tom Elliff, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and current senior vice president for Spiritual Nurture and Church Relations with the SBC International Mission Board, to address this foundational Baptist distinctive and provide a Bible-based treatment of the subject. His treatment is offered with full recognition of the autonomy of each and every Southern Baptist church; it is presented as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Our hope is that his presentation of the biblical foundations of this historic Baptist distinctive will serve as a valuable resource for pastors in explaining — and perhaps even defending — Southern Baptist beliefs on the matter.

By all rights, if any evangelicals should understand the doctrine and practice of baptism, it should be Southern Baptists. Our name itself speaks of a history rooted in this practice. Baptism is even referred to by many among us as a believer's first step in obedience to the Lordship of Christ. But perhaps we are not as clear on the issue as we think. Given the recent focus of attention on the subject of baptism, it certainly should help any individual or congregation to look once again at this ordinance of the church.

The Source for Our Beliefs

As Southern Baptists we consider it of utmost importance to be "people of the Book." This means, of course, that we hold to a high view of Scripture, affirming its inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and sufficiency. We frame our beliefs within the parameters of Scripture, considering it a sufficient source for our faith and practice. We do not take a position and then find Scripture to defend it. Rather, we allow the Scripture to define our theological positions.

Our doctrine (or systematic statement of foundational beliefs) is not born out of experience. We know that experience can be quite subjective. Who doesn't know of someone, for instance, whose testimony is of an earlier "salvation experience" which, in fact, over time and with the conviction of the Holy Spirit, was proven to be less than authentic? Experience is essential for us all. However, given its subjective nature, it is not a trustworthy source for doctrine.

Our doctrine is not born out of human reason, which can often seem so wise one moment and so foolish the next. In this era of rapidly expanding church planting movements, major confrontations with cultures and religions antagonistic to the Christian Faith, government suppression, house churches, mega-churches, and a host of additional factors, one might suppose that we must go outside the parameters of Scripture to accomplish the mission of the Church. Sounds reasonable. Yet upon further thought we are confronted with the reality that this was precisely the setting in which the New Testament was birthed. Perhaps it faced even more troubling issues!

Our doctrine is not born out of some new revelation or prophetic word from God. Unfortunately, such practice is all too common. Someone standing before a TV camera announces to the "Church" that God has given him a new word for this generation. Really? If that is the case, then the scriptural canon must not be closed and we must be constantly adding pages to our Bibles in order to accommodate this fresh wisdom from God.

Our doctrine is not born out of successful practices. Who among us is not aware of the subtle dangers of pragmatism? There has always been a tendency to adopt practices modeled after the successes of others. In itself, that is often commendable. But what happens when these practices become so imbedded in our thinking that we begin to embrace them as doctrinal positions? As you might suppose, at least part of the rationale for sprinkling as opposed to immersion rests on the popularity of its inoffensive, less humbling, and convenient nature.

Here is the bottom line: In the unfolding plan of God for the Church, it is clear that we are neither the legislative nor the judiciary branch of His government. God sets the parameters for our beliefs, mission, and practice. And He is the Judge of all the earth. The Church might more aptly be considered the "executive branch" in the sense that we are given the responsibility of executing, or carrying out, His mission on earth — within the parameters of the clear teachings and examples found in the Scriptures.

What About the Ordinances?

An ordinance is a practice that pictures some aspect of our relationship with Christ and the completeness of His atoning work in our lives. While participation in an ordinance does not save, it does present an outward expression of an inward reality. Southern Baptists, and indeed many other evangelicals, claim baptism and the Lord's Supper as the only ordinances because they are the only two practices which clearly have: 1) the specific command of Christ that they are to be observed, and 2) the clear evidence in the New Testament that they were subsequently practiced in the churches. These two ordinances are pictures of past, present, and future realities associated with our faith in Christ, His atoning work, resurrection, and promised return.

Sometimes there is confusion as to the use of the term ordinance rather than sacrament. In the early years of Christian history the term sacrament was often employed to describe the practices of baptism and the Lord's Supper. In more recent history, however, Baptists have instead preferred to refer to these practices as ordinances. The preference for this term stems from the fact that many non-evangelical churches (churches which do not hold to the sole sufficiency of Christ's atoning work for salvation) use the word sacrament in reference to specific practices that have saving efficacy. It is their belief that a person must add something to the atoning work of Christ in order to be saved and to remain so. Among those practices, but not necessarily limited to them, are baptism and the Lord's Supper. Additionally, many churches of this type hold that such practices are of a sacerdotal nature and should only be administered by ordained clergy rather than by individuals appointed by the local church.

Christian Ordinances ... or Church Ordinances?

In the Baptist Faith and Message we state that baptism and the Lord's Supper are both Christian ordinances and church ordinances, exercised under the authority of the local church by those whom each church appoints to administer them. Sometimes, in our eagerness to embrace our individual responsibility in carrying out the Great Commission, we fail to see that observing the ordinances is not only a matter involving the individual but the Body of Christ — the fellowship of believers, the local church — as well.

The Scripture reveals a doctrine of the Church that gradually unfolded during its early history. In the Gospels we find the Lord speaking to the apostles about the foundation of the Church. It is to be built upon Him. In Matthew 28:18-20, He speaks to the eleven disciples, commissioning them and saying that all He has taught and authorized them to do, they are to teach others to do as well. Thus the commission remains valid right down to us today.

In Acts we then see the advent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2) who will now take up residence in every member of Christ's Bride, His Church. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that the Church becomes His Body, a representation of Christ Himself on earth today. In that same book we then begin to discover both teachings and examples for certain practices in the church such as the establishment of deacons, the importance of giving, church government, decision-making, and ordaining individuals for specific missions and ministry. And it is here that we find early examples of the oversight and authority exercised in regard to the ordinances (See, for instance, Acts 10:47-48).

As the doctrine of the Church unfolds throughout the Book of Acts, it becomes increasingly evident that the Lord's commission is to be fulfilled, not outside or apart from, but rather through our participation within the Body of Christ, represented by the local church (lower case "c"). As Paul said, we are all like different parts of a body, and it is when we are "fitly joined together" that we experience increase in the church (Ephesians 4:16). In other words, it is God's intention that, with Christ as the Head, each member of His Body will play an important role in the health of any local church.

Proceeding through the epistles we discover even more about this remarkable body, represented in the church. We find that it is to be primarily considered in its local sense for reasons of accountability and doctrinal purity (note the references to the church at Jerusalem, Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, and the churches in Galatia). Here we begin to receive even more detailed teaching and helpful examples of the ministries and practices of the local church. We discover that the ordinances are exercised under the authority of the local church, given as a means of insuring accountability, enabling discipline, and protecting doctrinal integrity. They are both personally and corporately significant. Thus Paul can write that an individual should "examine himself" on the occasion of "coming together" with the church to the Lord's Table (See 1 Corinthians 11:23-31).

Like Faith and Practice

With sufficient scriptural example and precept, Southern Baptists have affirmed that membership in our churches is a responsibility to be exercised by those who observe the ordinances in a manner befitting the concept of "like faith and practice (or order)." This simply means that, in terms of "like faith," we believe salvation comes by the grace of God alone and through faith in Christ alone. Similarly, "like practice, or order" refers to our belief that according to Scripture, salvation precedes baptism (Matthew 28:18-19) and baptism precedes both the consequent membership in a local fellowship (Colossians 2:11-12) and the observance of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). Because of this sequential emphasis, many Southern Baptists prefer the term "order" rather than "practice," though the latter term may include the sequential order as well.

Most Southern Baptist churches and each of our agencies use "like faith and practice" (or, "like faith and order") as the litmus test for fellowship, membership, and service. This means that our members (and ultimately those involved in ministry or missions through our mutually-supported entities) have been baptized in Southern Baptist churches or under the authority of churches of like faith and practice.

When is Baptism Properly Administered?

Using the Scripture as a guide, we find that the ordinance of baptism is properly observed when five issues are satisfactorily addressed:

1. The proper candidate. This would be someone who has already experienced the grace of God unto salvation and now desires to make that a matter of open confession (See Acts 8:36-38; 10:47-48).

2. The proper mode. This is clearly immersion. The word itself is a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo, which means to immerse or plunge into. This is the manner in which Christ was baptized (Matthew 3:16). It was the manner of the disciples' baptism (John 3:22-23). In fact, the picture of death, burial, and resurrection demands immersion (Romans 6:4).

3. The proper understanding. Baptism is a picture of our total identification with Christ in His atoning work and glorious resurrection. It is an expression of our belief that salvation is His work and, like His resurrected life, complete and eternal in nature. It does not affect or secure our salvation.

4. The proper authority. The ordinance of baptism is a public expression; it preaches a message. The message is one consistent with the beliefs of the church authorizing the baptism. Thus, in the understanding of church authority that unfolds for us in the New Testament, Peter could ask of the representatives of the Jerusalem church who apparently accompanied him to the house of Cornelius the Centurion, "Why should these not be baptized seeing they have received the Spirit as did we on the day of Pentecost?" (Acts 10:47-48). If a local church does not feel that a candidate's beliefs are in concert with its own, it should resolve that issue before granting participation. It is obvious in the Scripture that, in addition to the profession of the candidate, there is an obligation on the part of the church. Otherwise Paul was overstepping his bounds in his instructions to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11).

5. The proper life. Baptism is to be observed by individuals who portray an appreciation of grace and a willingness to adhere to the Scriptures. When the eunuch asked Philip if he could be baptized, Philip responded by clarifying the eunuch's confession of faith (Acts 8:36-37).

The Issue of "Re-Baptism"

It is interesting that so much attention is currently focused on the issue of what some have called "re-baptism." However, this is not without historical precedent. After all, those who came to learn that we did not view this ordinance as one that conferred salvation are the same ones who originally gave the title of "Baptist" to us. They found it strange that we discounted infant baptism and marveled that we "re-baptized" individuals after their experience of genuine conversion. The church's concern, however, was twofold: 1) the genuine nature of an individual's salvation, and 2) the fellowship of the church.

A New Testament precedent for this practice is found in Acts 19:1-5. Here, Paul's question of some in Ephesus was "Into what, then, were you baptized?" They replied, "Into John's baptism." After explaining that true Christian baptism was different than "John's baptism" (which was by immersion but for repentance and looking toward Christ's coming), they were subsequently baptized in the Name of the Lord Jesus." Their new understanding of the salvation/baptism issue did not make their previous baptism, though by immersion, an appropriate Christian baptism. Scripturally speaking, there is no such thing as "re-baptism." Therefore, Southern Baptists generally refer to this act as one of being "scripturally baptized."

Baptism is a public testimony. It preaches something to an audience. While it is personal, it is not private. As a result, one's baptism takes on the meaning of the church authorizing it. If a person comes to faith in Christ after a previous "baptismal experience," or if a person realizes that an earlier immersion did not appropriately convey the idea of an eternally-secure salvation by grace through faith in the forever-resurrected Christ alone, then the example above argues for "scriptural baptism." Such an act of obedience actually then clarifies their testimony and opens the door for ministry in the church and through the entities supported by the church.

Why All the Fuss?

The issues surrounding the ordinances, particularly baptism, are not new. They have surfaced periodically throughout the two-thousand-year history of the Church, seemingly revisited by each succeeding generation. Such interest is healthy insomuch as it forces us to turn again to Scripture for the purpose of reviewing those things most surely believed. A serious examination of the doctrinal positions addressed in our Baptist Faith and Message will reveal that in days past people have literally sacrificed their lives rather than surrender or compromise key issues of the faith.

Even today, in many arenas antagonistic to the Christian Faith, the act of baptism invites persecution. Several years ago I was a guest preacher to a congregation of over two thousand people in just such a setting. At the close of the preaching service the pastor announced that the church would then observe the Lord's Table. With that announcement, over one thousand people promptly stood and walked away! Stunned, I asked through an interpreter just why these people were leaving. "Oh," responded the pastor, "these people are not yet willing to die."

My pastor friend, a victim of persecution himself, then explained matter of factly that once a person believed in Christ, the next act of obedience was baptism. Such a public exposure of faith had already led to the death of several and could easily cost the lives of even more. Unwilling to die, and therefore unbaptized, they were not considered qualified for either church membership or the observance of the Lord's Table. People such as those mentioned above would find strange many of our discussions regarding baptism, especially those in which concern was expressed over the embarrassment or inconvenience such an act might cause.

But there is another reason for us to consider seriously the role of baptism, especially in its relation to the local church. Permit me to share one other personal experience. While I was preparing to write on the subject of the church and its ordinances, a missionary couple stopped by to visit with me. I was intrigued by the purpose of their visit. They are not Southern Baptists, but do work in the same region as some of our personnel and know of our work. As we discussed their ministry, I asked them how they "did" church and the ordinances. They replied by saying that they did not understand how the church was to be involved in the ordinances. When they personally led people to Christ, they baptized them and then encouraged the new converts to do the same with others whom they might lead to Christ. Similarly, they each would then share the Lord's Table with these new converts and encourage them to do the same with those whom they might win to Christ and baptize.

I shared with the couple that it was apparent they considered the ordinances to be "Christian" ordinances but not "church" ordinances. When they agreed that this was indeed their understanding of the ordinances, I responded by saying, "Then your work will ultimately unravel and fail, because you have no means of insuring doctrinal integrity. It's like passing a message from one person to another. With each telling, it changes."

I explained to the couple why, in God's sovereignty, He had obviously invested the practice of the ordinances in the local church so that the testimony might remain firm and unwavering. I further used an example of how a person's perverted view of salvation, for instance, could be clarified as he gave witness to his church, using the Book of Acts as an example.

This couple looked at each other in disbelief. Then they said to me, "This is exactly what we see taking place in our work. We have just been busy leading one after another to Christ and encouraging each new convert to do the same. We have not been clear on the importance and involvement of the local church. Yet with each new generation we have seen subtle but dangerous changes in very important doctrines. In fact, now we see leaders beginning to assert an ungodly type of authority."

That couple's testimony demonstrates that seeking to understand the doctrine of the church and its ordinances is not an inconsequential exercise. If our desire is to plant churches that will succeed in multiplying disciples until Jesus comes, we must insure that they are founded solidly upon Christ and grounded in the Word of God. That's why it's so important to understand baptism.

Tom Elliff is senior vice president for Spiritual Nurture and Church Relations with The International Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention.


What Does The Baptist Faith and Message Say About Baptism?

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper.

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