Believers baptism has been the standard practice of Mennonites since their origin in the 16th century, perhaps to the point that we sometimes take it for granted and do not remember or think through the reasons for it. As a result, in more recent years, as people have come to our churches from an infant baptism tradition, we have sometimes not been as prepared as we should have been to explain and defend this vital doctrine. Yet very good reasons can be given for our practice.
THE ARGUMENT FROM HISTORY
It is sometimes assumed that the Roman Catholic Church, with all of its traditional practices, including infant baptism, was the original church, existing from the time of Christ until the 16th century, when other churches (Protestant and Mennonite) began.
The reality is that the early church was quite different from what we think of as the Roman Catholic Church and that, while there were instances of infant baptism before 300, the usual practice of the early church was believer’s baptism.
What changed all this was Christianity’s expansion and transformation to being an established and accepted part of society. A key point in this process was the “conversion” of the Roman Emperor Constantine about 312. Realizing that the Christian church had grown to the point of being a considerable force in society, Constantine decided to co-opt the church into forming part of the power base for his rule.
This alliance with the state and with the mainstream society in the Roman Empire radically altered the church.
For one thing, it brought into the church a mixture of pagan “magic”– the idea that certain places, objects and rituals could transfer spiritual power. (It was Constantine’s mother, for instance, who went to the Holy land to try to rediscover the places Where Christ had been and the objects He had used. Until this time, Christians had felt no need of such objects to connect them to Christ because they had been confident that the resurrected Christ Himself was living among them and in them.)
Infant baptism, a ritual requiring no faith, fit well into this new emphasis on magic. Moreover, the government encouraged the baptism of infants so that all members of society could be brought into the state church and thus into support of the state.
Nevertheless, the practice of believer’s baptism persisted and regenerated as an underground movement in various times and places throughout the Middle Ages.
In the 16th century, when reformers rediscovered the Bible and tried to reform the church, in addition to the biblical arguments for believer’s baptism, they also discovered a very practical reason. They discovered that it was virtually impossible to reform the existing churches because the churches were dominated by large numbers of people (including government leaders) who were not committed Christians at all and who had been brought into the church through infant baptism.
THE ARGUMENT REGARDING IMMERSION
The early church practised not only believer’s baptism, but also baptism by immersion (having the believer’s whole body immersed in water, rather than just pouring water on the believer’s head). This is supported by the root meaning of the word “baptize”, by statements that those baptized went down into the water (Matthew 3:6,16; h::ts 8:38) and by the biblical teaching that baptism symbolizes being buried (dying to sin) with Christ and being raised to a new life (Romans 6:4). When sufficient water was not available, the early church allowed baptism’ by pouring, but the standard practice was immersion. Immersion (total submersion of the whole person) implies a more radical change than baptism by pouring (applying water to only a part of the body). Moreover, immersion is more readily practiced when those baptized are adults and not infants.
THE ARGUMENT FROM NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING AND PRACTICE
In the Great Commission, Jesus’ only command to his followers to baptize, Jesus told his followers to make disciples and then baptize them (Matthew 28:19–20). This was what the apostles taught and practised (Acts 2:38–41); 8:12–13; 8:35–38; 9:1–18; 10:44–48; 18:8). Yet, in one sense, the New Testament does not spend a lot of time talking about baptism. Baptism was a sign that a spiritual rebirth had taken place, but it is far less important and receives far less attention than the spiritual rebirth itself. Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17).
Baptism has no power in itself, but it is a symbol, a sign that our sins have been washed away (Acts 22:16). that we have died to a life of sin and have been raised by God to new life (Romans 6:4) and that we have been drenched with God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).
In a sense, baptism works like a marriage ceremony. A wedding formalizes, legitimizes and publicly proclaims a couple’s lifelong commitment to each other, a commitment that was initially made when the marriage proposal was made and accepted. Similarly, baptism formalizes: legitimizes and publicly proclaims our commitment to Christ, a commitment that was initially made at conversion, when we accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour.
THE ARGUMENT REGARDING CIRCUMCISION
John Calvin argued from Colossians 2: 11- 12 that baptism in the New Testament is equivalent to circumcision in the Old Testament and that therefore children should be baptized shortly after birth. However, the passage does not actually equate Old Testament circumcision to New Testament baptism but rather to a “circumcision done by Christ” (verse 11) of which baptism is only the sign (verse 12). This circumcision is described elsewhere as ·circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit” (Romans 2:29). In Philippians 3:3, Paul says, “It is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh”; he then goes on to say that his own physical circumcision does not matter (3:5).
Similarly, in several instances, baptism in the New Testament does not refer to physical baptism in water but to spiritual baptism. For instance, Acts 1:5 says, “John baptized with water, but…you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” and 1 Corinthians 12:13 says that “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.” (Note also Acts 11:16). 1 Peter 3:21 says that the water of Noah’s flood “symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience before God.” Several other references to baptism in the New Testament are often taken to refer to water baptism but may well refer to spiritual baptism instead: Acts 19:5–6, Galatians 3:26–27, Ephesians 4:4–5.
To model baptism on circumcision is a poor argument because the New Testament repeatedly critiques circumcision, the reliance on a physical ritual carried out by human hands as being irrelevant to salvation and in fact as being a hindrance to the gospel: Acts 10:45 pointedly states that the Holy Spirit was poured out on Gentiles who had not been circumcised (the whole section from Acts 10:1 to 11:18 explains this more fully). ACts 15 and Galatians 2 clearly record the early church’s decision to oppose the erroneous idea that Christians should be required to be circumcised.
Romans 3:30 and 4:9–12 declare that God is the God of both the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Paul says that circumcision is “nothing” (1 Corinthians 7:18-19) has “no value” (Galatians 5:1-12) and not mean anything because “what counts is new creation” (Galatians 5:12-15).
The reason that the apostles opposed circumcision so strongly is that reliance on physical rituals such as circumcision undercut the gospel; it’ made people trust in the physical rituals rather than focusing on what was truly important: faith in Jesus Christ. In the same way, the practice of infant baptism can mislead people into thinking that that act has saved them (and their children) that it is not all that important whether they (or their children) come to a living faith Jesus Christ. The whole thrust of the New Testament teaching on circumcision is that physical ritual cannot save us from sin only a personal faith in Jesus Christ. To replace the empty ritual of circumcision with another empty ritual, infant baptism, is miss the whole point of New Testament teaching on this matter.
Circumcision was given to Abraham and his descendants as a sign of God’s covenant or promise of salvation. However, the New Testament makes clear that the real descendants of Abraham are not those who have Abraham’s genes but those who have Abraham’s faith (Matthew 3:9; 8:10–12, Luke 3:7–8; 13:28–29, John 8:31–59, Romans 4). Individuals joined the people of Israel because they were physically born into the people of Israel, and the sign of that was that they were circumcised shortly afterward. The New Testament church is not composed of individuals who are physically related to each other, individuals who have been physically born into church families. Rather, the church is composed of individuals Who have been born again, spiritually, through the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts bringing them to faith in Jesus Christ. The physical sign of this spiritual birth is baptism, and it should be performed shortly after spiritual rebirth, not shortly after physical birth.