After four centuries, believers’ baptism remains the symbol of Baptist identity, historian Bill Leonard stressed during a lecture series at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
But in the 21st century, Baptists must respond to two pressing “problems” with baptism — the widespread requirement that long-term Christians be immersed before joining a Baptist church and the rebaptism of church members, Leonard urged.
This year’s Parchman Lectures contributed to the Texas Baptist school's ongoing celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement. It began when John Smyth and Thomas Helwys led a group of English expatriates to start the first Baptist church in 1609 in Holland.
Dissent runs deep
“Baptists were dissenters from the very beginning,” noted Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University’s Divinity School. The original Baptists first rebelled against what they saw as the corruption of the Anglican Church and its affiliation with the English government. Next, they split from the English Separatists for not distancing themselves far enough from the Anglicans.
And then they even dissented among themselves, he wryly observed. By 1610, that little Baptist church had split itself over the validity of its baptism.
“Baptists understood conscience and dissent in light of the need for sinners to be regenerated — made new through conversion to Christ,” Leonard said. “Yet in their assertion that conscience could not be compelled by either state-based or faith-based establishments, they flung the door wide for religious liberty and pluralism….
“Believers’ baptism, ultimately by immersion, was thus a radical act of Christian commitment, covenantal relationships and anti-establishment dissent.”
Their commitment drew from their identification with Christ, Leonard continued. Their relationships reflected the value they placed upon the gathered church. And their dissent against the establishment welled up from their insistence that God alone, not religious or government authorities, is Lord of the conscience.
Historically, “the call to uncoerced faith produced the appeal to conscience and the necessity of dissent,” Leonard said. “It was the witness of the permanent minority, a group of people who never dreamed that their views would prevail this side of the Kingdom of God, but who demanded voice and conscience nonetheless.”
They embodied their dissent by insisting on believers’ — adult — baptism, refusing to baptize their infant children, he added. Their stand on baptism dissented not only from the practice of the established church, but also from the government, since at the time, English citizenship and church membership were considered the same.
Sigificance of believers' baptism
“Baptism is the outward … sign that links regenerate church membership, conscience and dissent as the central witness of Baptist identity in the world,” Leonard insisted. “In short, believers’ baptism does many things for the individual and community of faith.”
His list included:
“It is a biblical act, identifying the believer with Jesus and the movement he called the Kingdom of God.”
“Believers’ baptism is a conversion act, demonstrating the new birth of an individual and incorporating that individual into Christ’s body, the church…. For those early Baptists, baptism was public profession of faith. It still is.”
“Believers’ baptism is a churchly act that marks the entry of believers into the covenantal community of the church. Baptism, while administered to individuals, is not an individualistic act. It is incorporation into Christ and his church.”
“Believers’ baptism was and remains a dangerous and dissenting act that frees Christian believers to challenge the principalities and powers of church in response to the dictates of conscience.” He cited the Standard Confession of 1660, in which early Baptists acknowledged the need for “civil magistrates in all nations” but pledged they would “obey God rather than men” when conscience so dictated.
Dealing with pressing problems
The persistent significance of baptism for the Baptist movement presents a vital question, Leonard said: “What are we to do about it on the way through the 21st century?”
Specifically, he asked: “How will we deal with the two most pressing baptismal problems confronting many contemporary Baptist congregations — rebaptism of non-immersed, long-term Christians and the rebaptism of Baptist church members?”
The requirement of rebaptism for people who were baptized as infants and now seek membership in a Baptist church “is perhaps the oldest and most historically divisive question in the history of the movement,” Leonard said. “Baptist churches are on ‘safe’ historical ground if they have either open or closed baptismal policies.”
Baptists have not always required rebaptism, particularly when the original baptism was part of the faith-life of the person’s family and not a requirement of government, he reported.
Also, the common practice of rebaptism of church members in some congregations should lead Baptists to study issues such as “the baptism of children, the nature of conversion and the theology of baptism itself,” he said.
In a question-and-answer session, a participant asked Leonard about his answers to the questions. He replied that, true to Baptist heritage, they are questions to be worked out by congregations themselves.