Last Sunday I witnessed a full-immersion water baptism when attending Chugach Covenant Church’s service at Begich Middle School. CCCis a relatively new church using convenient but inexpensive meeting places. Although this article won’t describe their service, I will comment on the baptism. Early in the service, a CCC pastor announced the baptism — a “dunking” as he termed it. Two younger men had each indicated a desire to be baptized. A stock tank filled with water awaited in front of the audience. Coming out, one by one, the men were baptized by a pastor. One man, it was explained, was wearing an ankle monitor needing to be kept out of the water, an unusual juxtaposition for any pastor. The congregation was encouraged to whoop and holler after each of these men were baptized. Personally, I felt that part was a little scripted. Full-immersion baptism is symbolic of a washing away of sin, and the commencement of a new life. I congratulated each man after the service for their baptisms
In the New Testament, Matthew 3:13-17 recounts John the Baptist’s ministry of preaching and baptizing in the name of repentance to prepare the way of the Lord. Theologian David F. Wells, in his recently revised book, “Turning to God,” writes, “Although there is much debate over the possible antecedents of John’s baptism, proselyte baptism probably was the only comparable rite known to his Jewish audience. When a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he was baptized once to prepare him for his ‘new life.’”
Many were baptized during John’s ministry. Jesus came to John the Baptist asking to be baptized, but John wanted Jesus to baptize him. Jesus said his baptism by John was necessary “to fulfil all righteousness.” After John immersed Jesus in the Jordan, scripture records the heavens opened and the spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice from the heavens declared, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Later, when the disciples were sent out by Jesus, he said, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15-16, KJV, describe the disciples being given this injunction, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Numerous other references are found in the New Testament regarding baptism.
Purpose of Baptism
Baptism is symbolic of our death to sin and our old life. Coming out of the water, one is resurrected into a new life made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. Death, burial, and resurrection are prefigured by the act of baptism. A new birth into a life in Christ is demonstrated. In many, but not all, religions, the sacrament of baptism is also accompanied by acceptance into fellowship with the baptizing religious body. A “call to service” — i.e. serving God — is the other result of baptism. Many churches miss this and do not put newly baptized members into service.
Denominational Baptismal Practices
Various styles of baptism are practiced throughout the world. Some denominations baptize everyone, even infants. Others insist baptism is only for those who are able to make conscious decisions about accepting a life in Christ. Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches sprinkle or pour water on infants and others to baptize them. Many evangelical churches such as Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Church of Christ, and Pentecostals practice full-immersion baptism for those who’ve attained an age of accountability, and understand the rite of baptism.
Catholics actually practiced immersion baptism from early church times until 1311 A.D. when the Council of Ravenna changed the practice to pouring.
Lutherans practice sprinkling or pouring. Martin Luther initially expressed beliefs in baptism by immersion, but was somewhat conflicted about it, also advocating sprinkling or pouring.
Presbyterians, following the direction of Protestant reformer John Calvin, believe and practice sprinkling of infants and others joining the church. Calvin was resolute about these practices from the very beginning.
Methodists inherited traditions and teachings passed down by John Wesley who was adamant about baptizing infants, a practice still followed.
Mormons practice full immersion water baptism, but not for infants and children under eight years of age, believing they are under the age of accountability. However, Mormons adhere to a controversial belief of proxy baptisms for the dead, harking back to Joseph Smith. They’ve come under fire for this practice, especially for those not of the Mormon religion.
This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but representative of many traditions and practices surrounding baptism. Not all Christians view baptism as a necessity. Examples of churches not practicing baptism are Christian Scientists, Quakers, The Salvation Army, and Unitarians.
Films portray poignant examples of baptism. I think of Robert Duvall’s depiction of self-baptism in “The Apostle,” or his baptism in “Tender Mercies” as being powerful. “O Brother, Where Art Thou” showed a moving baptism scene accompanied by Allison Krauss’ haunting “As I Went Down to the River to Pray.”
Baptism is not a guarantee of salvation; only God’s grace does that. My full-immersion baptism at age 12 is still a strong memory. It was a huge moment in my life and a momentous decision. No one asked for “whooping and hollering” for me. Instead a chorus of “amens” rang through the hall — a solemn moment indeed. Although not all churches practice baptism the same way, it remains a powerful, divinely-inspired sacrament, full of rich symbolism. If you’ve never attended a full-immersion baptism, I urge you to do so.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.
The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.