Should Today Really be Different?
Baptism: Should today really be different? Should people choose to walk in a different way than did Jesus and His apostles? Should today be different from the way Jesus taught it, the apostles taught it, and the early Christians practiced it?
Isn’t it interesting how time changes things and how we view God’s will differently today than the early Christians did? Before Christ Jesus was crucified, He promised His chosen apostles that He would send them the Holy Spirit to teach them “all things” (John 14:26) and to guide them into “all the truth” (John 16:12-14). Then, during a forty day period after His resurrection and before His ascension, Jesus spoke to these special representatives “the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:1-3; cf. Luke 24:45). It was upon the foundation of these apostles (along with prophets) that the body of Christ is built (Ephesians 2:20).
Since this is the case, we should assume that the teaching of the apostles reveals the very will and truth of God revealed through the Holy Spirit. As we examine the New Testament writings, we can see that God in fact did manifest His truth to us through these inspired documents (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thess. 4:2; 2 Pet. 3:2). We are accountable to believe, receive, learn, and obey that which Paul and his fellow-apostles taught (Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 13:20). We must follow the inspired example that they set for us (Phil. 4:9; 1 Cor. 11:1-2).
All too often we have allowed time to cloud our vision of what God would want for us. We have allowed human religious tradition to divert out path from careful and implicit obedience to the teaching and tradition of the apostles (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). Sadly, TODAY is far DIFFERENT from what the Lord wanted in the beginning. Most do not explicitly admit that present teaching and practice is different from New Testament teaching, belief and life. But sometimes this is openly admitted. Let us notice several admissions of differences in practice between what existed in the beginning and what prevails today.
(1) Should the Meaning of Baptism be Different?
“In the Apostolic age . . . baptism of a convert by that very act constituted him a member of the church. . . . now it is different. . . . The churches therefore have candidates come before them, make their statements, give their ‘experience,’ and then their reception is decided by a vote of the members” (Edward T. Hiscox, The Standard Manual for Baptist Churches [Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1936], p. 22).
It is true that when one accepted the gospel message in the beginning, he immediately was baptized as an integral element of his initial response to Christ (cf. Acts 2:38-41; 8:12-13, 35-39; 16:13-15, 30-34; 22:16). The very act of coming to Christ in baptism constituted him a member of the body or added him to the community of believers (cf. Acts 2:38-41, 42, 47). But for some, “now it is different.”
(2) Should the Act of Baptism be Different?
“[Baptism] is a ceremony performed with water upon a person who has accepted the Christian faith. Early Christians practiced immersion (submerging a person in water) as the method of baptism. Today, water may be poured or sprinkled on the head, or the person may be immersed once or three times, backwards or forwards” (“Baptism,” World Book Encyclopedia).
As one reads the New Testament documents it does seem quite clear that immersion was practiced by the early believers in the beginning. This can be gleaned in various ways, including the fact that baptizo means “to immerse, to dip, to submerge, to sink, to plunge, to overwhelm.” Baptism is likened to a burial (Rom. 6:3-5; Col. 2:13) from which one is raised (Col. 2:12; 3:1). The first reliable indication of a practice other than immersion was in the early or mid third century. But, as the encyclopedia article above indicates, although immersion was practiced in the beginning, “today” people in various denominations practice pouring and sprinkling instead of or in addition to immersion.
(3) Should the Initial Response of Baptism be Different?
“Sometimes people ask why they cannot be baptized immediately upon confession of faith in Christ. This is a worthwhile question in light of the fact that this was the practice in the book of Acts. We see the need for a period of probation for a number of reasons. In the first place, a period of instruction is necessary so that the person understands fully the weighty decision he is making. Also in our day it is popular thing to be called a ‘Christian,’ whereas in the early church, a person who embraced Christianity faced certain persecution and possibly death. This kept the pretenders from joining the church” (Instructions for Christian Living and Church Membership [Ephrata, Pa: Eastern Mennonite Publications, 1984], p. 80).
Many different denominations today readily admit that they deviate from New Testament practice in this way and in other ways. Everyone readily admits that, in the beginning, the initial coming to Jesus was expressed when one was baptized as an expression of faith (cf. Acts 2:38-41; 8:12, 35-39; 16:13-15, 30-34; 18:8; 19:1-6; 22:16). It was carried out the same hour (16:32-34), the same day (2:41), as part of one’s conversion itself (8:35-39). The explanation in the epistles confirms this (Rom. 6:3-11; Gal. 3:26-27; Col. 2:11-13; 1 Pet. 3:20-21). TODAY, however, “we” see a need for a different practice. Granted, there are weighty problems connected with the Scriptural teaching and practice of baptism, but does this justify abandoning it to a practice of our own devising? Did God give us the right to forsake what we can all agree was the practice of the apostles and early believers?
Is Today Different?
According to what we have noticed in the several quotations above, some see the need for a practice different from what they read in the New Testament. In the first case, instead of baptism being the event in conversion that brings one into the community of Christ, the author asserts that “now it is different“we must wait a period of time and have a church “vote” on the person. In the second case, instead of immersion in water constituting baptism, “today” we do it differently–simply sprinkling or pouring of water, often for the sake of convenience alone. In the third case, instead of viewing baptism as an integral part of one’s initial conversion as in the New Testament, some today say we see a “need” for a different practice–a probationary period of instruction between faith and baptism.
In each case (and many other cases we could examine), the thought comes across “loud and clear”: The New Testament practice is readily admitted (immersion in water as the initial act in conversion in which one is brought into the believing community of Christ) BUT WE DO IT DIFFERENTLY TODAY! The change is justified in various way, but it seems that many readily admit that they have changed a practice that is clear enough in the Word of God.
Certainly we can admit that we live in a different century–a time far removed from the early Christians. But does this justify our different practice when the New Testament practice arises from the very nature of the practice? Do we have the right to turn from the teaching and practice of the apostles to suit our own agenda, to agree with our own theology, to make it more convenient for us, to fit in with our own traditions? Isn’t it more reasonable and safer to depend upon what Christ and His representatives taught and practiced? We deviate from this to our own peril.
In the days of Jeremiah the prophet, Israel was not content with the right ways of the Lord revealed in His Law. In view of this apostasy, Yahweh God declared:
Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths,
Where the good way is, and walk in it;
And you shall find rest for your souls.
But they said, “We will not walk in it” (Jer. 6:16).
In like manner, today God calls for us to return to the ancient paths of the early believers and walk in this tried and proven way. Will we be like those in Jeremiah’s day who replied to the Lord’s plea, “We will not walk in it”? Or will we return to the ways of the Lord reflected in the New Testament writings? As we return and embrace God’s will as revealed in His Word, we will find “rest for our souls.” Let us determine to do TODAY what God has desired from the very beginning!