Sketches: Baptism


Gentle Reader,

Working to get my brain back into gear after a weekend in the woods.

So, let’s talk: differences between ancient and modern church services/practices. (Prompt submitted by my friend Tauni).

Thick, heavy volumes have been written on this subject. It’s hard to know where to start or what I could say that hasn’t already been said. But, the point of this whole series is to take a whack at whatever gets tossed my way. Without narrowing the topic down, however, I’d end up with a series-within-a-series, which would become burdensome and confusing. Thus, we discuss baptism.

In the ancient church,

If someone wanted to be baptized, they first underwent a period of instruction and moral examination. Because baptisms usually took place on Easter Sunday, this period of instruction happened during Lent.

Zondervan Academic

This stands in marked contrast to the way we approach baptism today. I have never been part of a congregation that required a period of instruction or examination before a person could participate in the sacrament. There are usually a few basic questions asked of the candidate, but nothing near as rigorous as 40 days of learning and soul-searching.

I’m not sure what to think about this. There doesn’t appear to be Scriptural precedent for the procedure that the early church developed. For example, in Acts 8:26-40, we read the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch; Phillip didn’t object when the eunuch declared he wanted to be baptized immediately. All that mattered was his sincere faith and desire. At the same time, it does seem logical for a baptisimal candidate to know exactly what he’s getting himself into, exactly what she’s saying she believes, especially given the persecution that the first Christians suffered. Baptism, the public declaration of allegiance to Christ, is hardly something to be taken lightly.

On the Thursday before Easter, the person being baptized began a period of fasting, praying, confessing sin, and attending Scripture readings and instructions. Exorcisms were also performed, in order to banish demons from the person.

– Ibid.

In other words, this was a big deal. I don’t know about you, but I get hangry quickly. Pause for a moment and imagine the self-discipline required to fast for three days, while attending classes, losing sleep to prayer and confession, and then being dunked into some cold water.

For the newly baptized, the Eucharist included a cup of water, symbolizing the washing that had occurred, and a cup of milk and honey, symbolizing the food of infants and entrance into the Promised Land. …

…in the early church, baptism was an extended event. The climax happened at the moment of immersion, but it took on greater meaning in the context of a more elaborate, multi-step process of initiation into the church.

– Ibid.

A person could not partake of the Eucharist (Communion) prior to baptism. This makes sense to me. Baptism is a symbol of dying to self, of asking the Lord to apply the shed blood of Christ to our lives. The wine or juice of Communion symbolizes that same blood. Why should any of us do the one without the other? It seems incomplete. (I should note that baptism is not required for salvation, though there isn’t any reason for a believing person not to be baptized).

I fall staunchly in the “believer’s baptism” camp, which was the position of the early church. Infant baptism did not become standard until the fifth and sixth centuries. While I’m not about to disown a fellow Christian who disagrees with me, I don’t think that the rite of circumcision and the sacrament of baptism can be said to be equivalent. The Lord required Jewish males to be circumcised as an outward sign of His covenant with Israel. It was not predicated upon faith. Baptism, meanwhile, is predicated upon faith, and that is declaration that no parent can make for his or her child.

It might do us some good to take a page from the playbook of the early church and require a time of reflection before a person is baptized. I have met people who have gone through the ritual without any real understanding of what they were doing, what they were proclaiming to the world. I’m not sure we need to go whole-hog with 40 days, classes and fasting, but learning to see baptism as the deeply symbolic process it is would be good.

My husband and I have each been baptized twice. He did so first as a child, out of fear of going to Hell, and then as an adult, just before we were married, when he truly turned his life over to Christ. The first time I was baptized, it was the “thing” to do at the church I attended at the time. It was very much a “going through the motions.” When Chris decided to be baptized again, I joined him. We thought it would be cool to do together, as a way of starting off our married years with Jesus at the center. Certainly nothing magical happened that day, but I do look back on that moment with fondness.

Honestly, I just like getting baptized. I’d probably do it every Sunday if that was allowed.


For all posts in the Sketches series, go here.



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