(Part of a sporadic series that takes another look at aspects of Adventism.)
Baptism, as Seventh-day Adventists practice it, does not appear to be biblical.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…and he was baptized at once.” —Acts 16:30, 33
“…he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?’ …and he baptized him.” —Acts 8:35-37
“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ…So those who received his word were baptized…that day…” —Acts 2:38, 41
Now, I am not one who believes that we have to do everything just like it was done in New Testament times. Practices and cultures and insights change over time. But in these three examples, we can infer some important things to consider.
First, little time passed between a decision on the part of the hearer to be a Jesus follower and their baptism.
Second, there was no dithering to study doctrine, prophecy, and/or praxis. There was no delay to determine whether the candidates had changed their life and habits. There was no determination made whether they were worthy or safe to baptize. There was no list of propositions to which to pledge allegiance. There was no denomination to join.
Third, in every case above, the call was to believe in the good news of Jesus. Period. In other words, the candidates believed and clung to the gospel of a Savior. And that was all that it took to be worthy of baptism in Jesus.
Occasionally, I attend a non-denominational church on Sabbath afternoon after attending my own church. It was a counterculture moment for me when the pastor said — Right out loud! — one Sabbath afternoon, “You don’t have to believe to belong. Just come join with us and we will grow together.” What? That can’t be right!
Then the pastor said, “We have baptism tanks set up. If you would like to give your heart to Jesus, please come let us baptize you.” Astounding! Now? Not later? Trust their decision on the spot? Do it now? Is that safe?
Apparently the practice is working; 18,000 people attend every weekend. They come from whatever circumstance exist in their lives to grow together. They come to drink up messages about Jesus and life with Jesus.
So, how is it that we have a wholly different form of baptism? How did we get to the place where baptism is at the end of a process of teaching, inquiring, observing, monitoring, quizzing, and consenting? Why don’t we seize the moment when someone says I want to be baptized, to be “buried and then resurrected” to live with Jesus? Why can’t we just baptize them at that point saying, “You don’t have to believe everything yet. But you are now a child of God. Come. We will grow together”?
What are we afraid of? What do we think would happen if we followed the biblical examples? Are our churches really hospitals for sinners, as some say? Or are they display cases for the saints? Are they places for saints to wear the Adventist mask regardless of what’s behind it? Are we afraid that a newly baptized person will show up and say, “Now tell me again why are we meeting on Saturday?” Would we be too embarrassed if they showed up smelling like tobacco smoke or booze? Would we be scandalized if they wore shorts to church?
It appears that we want to clean up folks to the point where you can’t detect too much difference between the fresh saints and the more saintly saints. Maybe we crave to have only colors in a restricted palette or only a musical monotone. Maybe our self-image can only stand a certain amount of variation in the stages of Christianity in our midst. Maybe we expect people to get up the ladder a certain number of rungs before we say, “Okay, now I’m comfortable accepting your decision to follow your Savior.”
In our three texts, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and Philip acknowledged decisions immediately. And I believe the angels rejoiced at that very moment, too. God doesn’t impose a waiting period for believers’ benefits. At the moment a person believes that Jesus is their Savior and turns to follow him they are covered by Jesus’ righteousness. Pronto!
But perhaps we are wiser than heaven is. We for sure know better than Peter, Paul, and Philip because we don’t follow their practice in the verses quoted above. We apparently have a better practice.
When we tell a person who has made a decision to follow Jesus that they must go through a process before baptism, we are in effect refusing to accept their decision. You know that old song, “Just As I Am?” Not true in our midst. The song should not be in our hymnal. Just-as-you-are is not good enough for us. It might be good enough for Jesus but not for us.
Who do we think we are to tell people they have to adopt a bunch of theology and clean up their lives before we recognize that most basic of all decisions a Christian can make? Jesus says, “Come to me just as you are. I will cover your sinful life with my pure righteousness.” We say, “Come let us teach you and observe you and then maybe we’ll decide to let you in.” Outrageous! And that may be the best we can say for it.
Jesus accepts the sinner who cries out to him. He says the sinner is now his adopted child. He says the sinner is now covered by his blood. There is no clean up period. We must follow the example and practice of Jesus.
Actually, our baptism practice is likely a form of legalism, perhaps a holdover from the days when people like the General Conference President, the Editor of the Review and Herald, and other church leaders during the 1888 controversy held that keeping the law perfectly was the objective.
“Legalism says God will love us if we change. The gospel says God will change us because He loves us” (Tullian Tchividjian, quoted in The God-Shaped Heart by Timothy Jennings). Our baptism ritual sends the legalistic message: the church will love you and accept you if you have changed.
The truth is that we practice baptism less like recognition of the saving grace of Jesus for the sinner, and more like the issuance of a ticket to the club. You know, the club of the saints who all wear the mask of the culture of Adventism. We only let people into the club after we’ve processed their application and they’ve passed muster with us. Lest you think I’m making this up, here is a quote from page 44 of the Church Manual.
“Candidates individually or in a baptismal class should be instructed from the Scriptures regarding the Church’s fundamental beliefs and practices and the responsibilities of membership. A pastor should satisfy the church by a public examination that candidates are well instructed, are committed to taking this important step, and by practice and conduct demonstrate a willing acceptance of Church doctrines and the principles of conduct which are the outward expression of those doctrines…” (emphasis supplied)
Nowhere in the above passage does it say a word about the candidate making a decision that Jesus is his/her Savior! It says things like “by practice and conduct demonstrate.” In other words, prove to us you have changed already and we will let you in the club. It leaves no room for the repentant sinner to come just as he/she is to be baptized, like the people in the opening Bible texts were.
I mentioned at the beginning that the way we practice baptism seems unbiblical. Truthfully, the quote above from the Church Manual seems unbiblical also. It sounds fearful and defensive, like Adventists are in a fortress and we have to guard the doors and windows from the barbarian hordes. Are we insecure?
I was heartbroken the Sabbath that a lovely new family in our local church, and attendees at my Sabbath School class, told me they were leaving our midst. They had attended for a year or so. When I asked why, they told me we made it much more difficult to be an Adventist than it is to be a Christian. Wow! I pondered whether I had unknowingly raised barriers in their minds. Their decision was in response to a baptismal class their daughter was taking.
But, wait! Let’s think about this again.
We don’t have to keep doing baptism the way we’ve been doing it. We too could choose, like Peter, Philip, and Paul, to baptize people the moment they put their lives in the hands of Jesus our Savior.
If someone says, “I believe in the saving blood of Jesus and want to follow him,” we should say, “Hallelujah! Let’s baptize you right now. You will be a new person. And then we’ll grow together. We love you!”
What are we afraid of? What do we think would happen if we baptize raw, baby converts? Well, we need to find out.
The truth is our Church is very hidebound. It is excruciatingly slow to even acknowledge the need for change, much less actually change. The bureaucracy of the Church finds it extremely difficult to alter beliefs and practices that existed when Ellen White died in 1915. Probably, changes in the practice of baptism will need to flow up from the bottom because it might take the bureaucracy 50 years (kind of like ordaining women) and still not reach a prudent decision on a new form of baptismal practice.
So, pastors, elders, church board members, just do it. Use scripture as your guide. Baptize people like Peter, Philip, and Paul did. But if you do that, you might need to rethink how you take newly converted people into your midst and nurture them. They will be babes in the woods; they will need tender love, friendship, and gentle influence to bring them along. How exciting a challenge for a congregation to exhibit the kind of loving acceptance that would help newly minted Christians grow in maturity!
Let’s just say, “Come. Join us. We will grow together!”
Up Next in the Series: “Wait! Let’s look at that again: Tithe.”
Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife, Janelle, live in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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