In his book Sent and Gathered: A Worship Manual for the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), Clayton J. Schmit addresses the idea of modernizing traditional Protestant worship. He writes from the perspective of a Lutheran, and he considers the changes in worship that have occurred in Protestant churches in recent decades, including the influence of the seeker sensitive churches, the liturgical reform movement, “missional” churches, and so forth. (His definitions and perspective may be somewhat different than what you might expect.)
Although an advocate of “worship renewal,” Schmit makes some pungent observations about the effects of such renewal on a church, and he offers some clear warnings: “There is a temptation among congregations to attempt worship renewal at the expense of those things that provide their core identity. . . . Attempts at renewal in Christian churches are a commendable practice . . . yet renewal must be done with an awareness of each congregation’s core identity lest changes in worship and congregational life have unintended negative consequences” (128).
Schmit then goes on to share some particular struggles experienced by Lutheran congregations that followed after the church growth movement:
“One of the distinctive qualities of Lutheranism is its carefully articulated view of baptism as the entry point for faith. . . . Because baptismal theology is central to Lutheran theological identity, it would be a loss for Lutheran worshiping communities to dispense with the baptismal focus in life and worship. Still, in accommodation to the church growth movement of the late twentieth century and its strategy to remove ‘churchy’ things from worship in order to appeal to baby boomers, some Lutheran congregations adopted worship practices that were more aligned with seeker services. . . . They built worship spaces that bore resemblance to auditoriums and hotel banquet halls. They displaced the strong symbols of worship and supplanted the tradition of Lutheran hymns and chorales with songs reminiscent of the idioms of popular music. Baptismal fonts, usually located in prominent places in Lutheran churches, were removed, along with other theological symbols” (129–130).
“The problem encountered in these churches was that they established worship practices and church programming that ran counter to a theology that places Christian identity in God’s call for sinners to be baptized. . . . In trying to reach out, the Lutherans in these congregations lost out. In throwing out the traditions of Lutheran liturgy, worship architecture, and congregational life they correspondingly jettisoned much of the theology that has historically identified Lutheran Christians. These churches effectively threw the baby out with the baptismal water. When Lutherans cease to be identifiable by such theological distinctives as baptismal identity, they run the risk of losing not only their traditional worship practices but also their theological character” (130).
Although it may be difficult for Pentecostals to relate to the struggles of Lutherans, some of Schmit’s comments are remarkably relevant. A method has arisen among us that deeply troubles me. Those who have read my recent articles know that I have argued for the diversity of methods while holding fast to the apostles’ doctrine. However, when a method comes into conflict with a New Testament teaching, I draw a line.
I have noticed several churches delaying baptisms until some future “baptism Sunday,” “baptism celebration,” or the like, even after a person has repented or been baptized with the Holy Spirit. This is troubling. I am not a doctrine policeman or a heresy hunter. That is a crowded field that doesn’t pay very well. But I am concerned for the preservation of apostolic doctrine and method.
The Pentecostal message is one that is constructed on a strict restorationist hermeneutic. We seek earnestly to pattern our teaching and practice after the apostles. The New Testament clearly teaches that conversion consists of baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. Hence, our Fundamental Doctrine: “The basic and fundamental doctrine of this organization shall be the Bible standard of full salvation, which is repentance, baptism in water by immersion in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the initial sign of speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance.”
Some may delay baptism to make sure the candidates have received adequate instruction. And though I insist that baptismal candidates be fully aware of what they are doing, it typically does not take months, weeks, or even days for me to explain to them the significance and urgency of baptism. It must be remembered that baptism is part of the conversion/initiation experience, not the discipleship experience.
Too, the people who heard the gospel preached in the New Testament were less familiar with Christianity than most people in North America today. The hearers in the New Testament were hearing about Christianity for the first time, and it was yet to be a worldwide religion. Even in this religious ignorance, baptism was administered immediately after a simple explanation.
Some may argue that it is beneficial to wait for family and friends to attend a baptism. Some may suggest that it elevates baptism by devoting a special service to it. Some might say that it is an opportunity to attract visitors including the friends and family of the one being baptized. And although there might be some value to deferring a baptism for the sake of having family and friends attend, this should be done on a case-by-case basis and not become standard operating procedure. Further, I would argue that it is detrimental to prolong baptisms as a matter of policy for the following reasons:
1. It ignores the pattern of the apostles.
Three thousand were baptized on the Day of Pentecost with no delay: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
The Samaritans were baptized as soon as they believed the word that was preached to them: “But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12-13).
The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized as soon as water was available: “And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36–37).
Peter felt obligated to baptize Cornelius and his household immediately: “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days” (Acts 10:47-48).
So as not to delay unnecessarily, Paul and Silas baptized the Philippian jailer in the wee hours of the morning: “And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway” (Acts 16:33).
After assessing their need of baptism, Paul immediately baptized the Ephesian disciples: “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).
Ananias commanded Paul to be baptized and not to delay: “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).
2. It de-emphasizes baptism. Delaying baptism until a special baptism service may make for a more festive environment, but the long-term effect is a culture that says baptism is important, but not important enough that one must do it now. To illustrate the point, we would not defer people to a once-a-month or once-a-quarter opportunity to be baptized in the Spirit, because this would de-emphasize the work of the Spirit in our lives. So why would people be deferred for baptism if it is part of the new birth? Delaying baptisms places them on par with other communal rites like baby dedications and weddings, but baptism is fundamentally different. The urgency of baptism cannot be subordinated for the sake of celebration or community impact.
3. It withholds grace from that candidate. Apostolic doctrine upholds that the new birth includes baptism in Spirit and in water. We believe that the grace of God and the benefits of Calvary are applied to a person’s life in repentance, water baptism, and Spirit baptism. Therefore, when we defer baptism—essentially forbidding it in the present—we are withholding grace in the life of the person seeking after God. This is contrary to the pattern in Acts. Too, especially if one has received God’s grace as evidenced in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, who are we to forbid baptism? (See Acts 10:47–48.)
So the question is: Why the delay? Where did this practice come from? It certainly did not come from the New Testament. Christians began delaying baptisms over time, and this is one reason why baptism came to be de-emphasized in many traditions. For some it became a once-a-year event on Easter or Pentecost Sunday (and what a pageant it was!). But we jettisoned these traditional forms one hundred years ago, so why are some returning to where we came from? It is likely that this practice has been borrowed from scores of contemporary Evangelical churches who do not believe baptism is essential for salvation, but is only an outward symbol. This is one of the dangers of following non-Apostolic church templates. We need to fully embrace our theological and historical roots; our theology and practice must be rooted in the New Testament. As Schmit admonished, “Proper worship renewal cannot be achieved at the expense of a tradition’s theological birthright” (131).
Why are you waiting? It is not apostolic.
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