If I were to write A Generous Ecclesiology, here is what I picture as the first section of chapter 2, "Getting In: Baptism and Other Things":
We have every reason to believe that baptism in water was the most concrete way among the early Christians to tell whether a person belonged to “the Way” or not. “The Way” was apparently one of the earliest designations for the Jesus movement (e.g., Acts 9:2), although it is at least possible that some Jews considered themselves followers of the Way without specifically believing that Jesus was indeed the Jewish messiah. We at least wonder about this possibility because John the Baptist apparently preached “the way of the Lord” in conjunction with his baptism, and we find hints in the book of Acts and the Gospel of John that there were Way followers of the Baptist’s sort who were not Jesus followers.
It may be worthwhile to flesh out this idea just a little. We hear of an incident at the city of Ephesus in Acts 19 where there were followers of the teaching of John the Baptist who had been baptized accordingly (19:1-7).[i] In the story of Acts, Paul does not consider this baptism sufficient to be “in” the Christian group. He has them baptized again in the name of Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the Gospel of John portrays Jesus’ interaction with John the Baptist in such a way as to make it clear that Jesus’ presence immediately made that of John the Baptist obsolete (e.g., 3:30). The Gospel does not even mention that Jesus was baptized by John, and it alone has Jesus ministering at the same time as John the Baptist was still baptizing (3:22-24).[ii]
A very plausible explanation of these things is that, at the very first, baptism of the sort John the Baptist practiced was sufficient to be a part of the Jesus movement. Some followers of “the way of the Lord” came to believe that Jesus was in fact the messiah John the Baptist had foretold. At the same time, others may not have been convinced or may have lived in the Diaspora where they had only heard of the Baptist’s message. For example, we have no evidence that any of the twelve disciples were ever re-baptized in the name of Jesus, while they presumably were baptized as part of John’s movement. In time, however, it may have become more and more necessary to distinguish the baptism of John the Baptist from baptism in the name of Jesus.
If we are to follow the book of Acts, baptism took place as soon as a person believed. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 is perhaps the best illustration. As soon as the Ethiopian believed, he thinks of baptism and suggests he be baptized in water immediately (8:36). The clear impression we get is that Philip presented water baptism as a very important element in the process of getting “in” the Christian group and that it was the next step in the process, if not the first.
At the same time, we have no clear evidence that the early Christians were obsessed with baptism. For example, the book of Acts focuses far more on receiving the Holy Spirit as the key element of the “entry process” far more than baptism. The baptism of Simon Magus and the Samaritans was insignificant because they had not received the Spirit (Acts 8:9-17). Meanwhile, baptism is a kind of “after the fact” recognition of something the Holy Spirit has already done for Cornelius in Acts 10:47. Paul strangely baptized only two or three households in the church of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14-17), making us wonder who baptized the others. He almost trivializes the act when he says that "Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the good news" (1 Cor. 1:17). We get the impression that, as central and important as the act of baptism apparently was in some parts of the early church, it represented something else that was more significant than the act itself.
When we move from the early church to the variety of practices among Christians today, we need to keep several things in mind that we mentioned in the first chapter. For example, it is not clear that we have to do everything in exactly the same way that the earliest Christians did. Indeed, there was some variety of practice among the early Christians themselves. Similarly, we do not want to get certain practices out of focus by making various elements in the equation more significant than they were.
Did the earliest Christians baptize by immersion? It is quite possible that they did. The baptismal pools (miqvaot) in Palestine at the time certainly were large enough for immersion. Paul’s comment about being “buried” with Christ in baptism would not have to refer to immersion in water (Rom. 6:4), but it would be particularly meaningful if it did. Yet we are really reading between the lines here.
If baptism by immersion were really as important to God for the later church as some groups make it, we might have expected God to inspire some statement to that effect in Scripture. The early Christian writing called the Didache is very practical about the matter. If cold, running water is available, baptize in it. If not, then in warm water. In a pinch, though, pour water over the head. The key is that a person be baptized—not how a person is baptized. The evidence from the early church gives us no basis to be rigid about how baptism must take place.
Those groups that emphasize baptism as soon as possible after believing in Christ seem to come closest to the original idea of baptism as a concrete embodiment of what God was doing or had done in relation to a person’s sins. However, the New Testament never teaches that it is the act of baptism itself that “saves” a person. It is true that 1 Peter 3:21 speaks of baptism “saving” believers, but this is a figure of speech.[iii] 1 Peter 3 itself indicates that it is not the physical washing but the cleansing of sins that is the operative element in the equation. So while those churches that do not baptize immediately vary somewhat from the practice of the early church, it is not clear that we can condemn their practice for that reason.
More problematic are those groups that do not baptize at all (e.g., Quakers, Salvation Army). These groups represent the working out of the Protestant rejection of "empty ritualism" to its furthest extreme. Of course we find an increasing recognition today that ritual is quite often far from an empty activity, indeed that in many respects it relates to aspects of the human psyche that go much deeper than surface level thoughts or ideas. Nevertheless, what can we say to our Christian brothers and sisters who seem to have abandoned one of the central elements of early Christian conversion?
We can probably say that while they are missing a potentially powerful moment in Christian life with a heritage going back not least to Jesus, they correctly understand that the essence of being “in” is something deeper than the act of baptism. Following through with the character of God as we believe it to be, we believe that God will indeed accept these brothers and sisters because, like the uncircumcised and un-baptized Cornelius of Acts 10, they have received the Holy Spirit.
The question of infant baptism also requires us to go beyond any clear statement in the New Testament either in favor or against. It is true that all the explicit evidence of the New Testament describes the baptism of adults, all of whom presumably repent and confess faith in the Lordship of Jesus as Christ prior to baptism. At the same time, we are never told that the children of households whose fathers or mothers confess faith were not baptized. Individuals in the ancient Mediterranean formulated their identities more in terms of the groups to which they belonged than as a function of their individual decisions. It is at least conceivable that a father or mother would decide for their child (cf. Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 7:14). We have no evidence that can be decisive either way.
What we find is that while the practices of some Christian groups today are closer or farther from early Christian practice, we have no basis to exclude any group from the church because of how they do or do not baptize. We also may believe ourselves to have a good basis to critique the theology behind certain baptismal practices. But as we suggested in the first chapter, God is much more concerned with our hearts and how they lead to life than with the particulars of what we think.
So some groups baptize one way and other groups another way. From the standpoint of the New Testament, it is not an issue. Some groups baptize soon after confessing faith. Some wait some time. Some baptize infants. Some do not baptize at all. Since it is not the baptism in water that actually saves us, these are not issues that should be central to our faith. Each practice seems to have strengths, and each seems to have weaknesses. Those who do not baptize their children create a climate in which those whom God already accepts are not symbolically “in” the church. Their bodies are in the church, but they are like outsiders in our midst. Those who are baptized as children miss out on the power of remembering their baptismal experience.
Those who do not baptize at all miss out on the power of the act and on communion with the saints all the way back to Jesus. At the same time, they are perhaps more conscious than many of the need for an individual interaction with God in repentance and faith. Those who put too much emphasis on the act of water baptism itself may thereby forget the spiritual reality that is what it is ultimately all about. Those that delay baptism until a person can be fully informed of the faith to which they are assenting have the strength of a baptism that takes place with a fullness of understanding.
We will never convert all the Christians who do it differently to agree with us. But it is not necessary for us to try. Baptism is an issue about which we can be generous in our ecclesiology. We may disagree, but the person who argues to the death over such things is far more likely to miss out on the kingdom for their attitude than the person who perhaps baptizes differently from the early church or from the common practice of the later church.
[i] Apollos also in Acts 18:24-26 is someone who had believed in John the Baptist’s message but was apparently not acquainted with the Jesus movement that grew out of John’s ministry.
[ii] In this respect it is interesting to observe that the Gospel of John is traditionally associated with Ephesus, where Acts mentions followers of John the Baptist. It seems quite possible that the city of Ephesus was home to members of the Baptist’s movement who were not Jesus followers.
[iii] It is a metonymy, when something closely associated with something is substituted for it. If someone is known for a certain hat and I say, “Here comes the hat,” the hat substitutes for the person with which it is closely associated. Baptism is thus so closely associated with the actual cleansing of a person’s sins that it is substituted for the cleansing itself.