When it comes to the ordinance of baptism, does the mode really matter? In other words, is it really critical how the baptism takes place? Is there any significance to whether or not the mode is immersion (submerging the entire body in water), affusion (pouring water over the head), or aspersion (sprinkling water over the head)?
My desire is that this post be a discussion of this one specific question. We will not be delving into whether or not the person has to be saved prior to baptism; thus, we will not be discussing infant baptism at all. I'm assuming here that the person coming to be baptized is already a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. After this person gives a public profession of faith, does it then matter what mode of baptism takes place?
Is this even an important matter? Is it really worth a blog post, or was there just nothing better to write about? I do think it is important because some folks separate over this issue. Baptists, in particular, require that anyone joining their local church be immersed. So, if this issue is worth separating over for some individuals, then it certainly seems like it is worth blogging about.
As a Baptist myself, my first inclination is to answer the question I have posed here with a resounding "YES!" However, a better method is to begin with scripture as our authority and go from there.
Let's begin with Matthew 28:19-20. These are well-known verses because these are the final words of the book of Matthew and are often labeled "The Great Commission." In these verses, Jesus makes it clear that as part of making disciples, His followers should "baptize" them. This word comes from the Greek word "baptidzo," and is generally accepted to mean "to immerse, dip, or plunge." As we would expect, all scholars are not even in agreement over this definition.
In Mark 1:4-5, we read that John the Baptist was baptizing in the Jordan River.
Later in that same chapter (Mark 1:9-10), we see Jesus coming to John to be baptized. The text tells us that Jesus, "came up out of the water."
In John 3:23, we read of John the Baptist baptizing "because water was plentiful there."
In the eighth chapter of Acts, we read the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The text (Acts 8:36-39) tells us that they "went down into the water" and they "came up out of the water."
*Much of this information comes from Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994).
In light of all of the above passages, it seems that the method of baptism used in New Testament times was that of immersion. I do not know personally of anyone who would argue this point.
One other important issue is that when a person is immersed, it is symbolic of his union with Christ in death, burial, and resurrection. Romans 6:3-4 makes this clear.
So far we have seen two things. First, Jesus gave a command for his disciples to be baptized. This seems to mean immersion, but there is some disagreement over this. Second, the mode of baptism in bible times clearly appears to have been immersion.
Moving on from there, let's go back to our original question: does the mode of baptism really matter? Without trying to dodge the question, I believe an appropriate answer is "yes and no."
I think the mode is certainly important when we are discussing what we teach within the church. In order to be fair to the biblical text, we need to understand that the weight of the evidence falls on the side of immersion. We should not just tell the church body that they can simply make up their own minds based upon personal preference (like choosing a flavor of ice cream), and imply that the bible does not matter. Beyond teaching, the very mode we adhere to in the local church is important. Due to the biblical evidence, we should encourage immersion.
However, I think that the mode of baptism should not matter when it comes to church membership. Let's say that someone wants to join a Baptist church after having moved to a new town. Maybe he attended a Presbyterian church where he used to live. For this example, let's say that he came to Christ as a teenager, publically professed faith in Jesus, and then was sprinkled in front of the church. Should the Baptist church refuse him membership because he was not immersed? Should the Baptists tell him that his first baptism "didn't count" because he was sprinkled? I do not believe so.
Jesus cared too much about the unity of His body on earth to allow baptism to stand in the way of unity. In John 17:20-23, Jesus clearly states in his prayer to His Father just how much He desires unity for His church. Our Lord uses very strong words in His "High Priestly Prayer" to emphasize the importance of unity.
Baptism should be a celebration of belief in Christ rather than a reason for division. So why should we divide? Is there ever any reason? What is the dividing point? In seems that scripturally the only dividing point is between believers and non-believers (see Galatians 1:8-9, here dealing specifically with false teachers).
So, does the mode of baptism matter? Yes, for teaching and practice in the local church. No, for church membership.
I do not claim to be an expert on this topic. I would like to hear your ideas on this. Do you agree or disagree? Why?