The Baptism Police

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The scriptures make it abundantly clear that people come to Christ through the waters of baptism (Acts 2:38; 8:38; 9:18; 1 Pet. 3:21). If you were to ask a 1st century Christian whether or not baptism was necessary for salvation I’m certain you would get a puzzled look from them. It was so fundamental to salvation that they would wonder that such a question would even be asked.

A 1st century Christian would also say that belief and confession of Jesus as the Christ were all part of the same act of rebirth (Rom. 10:9). We have a tendency to split up the spiritual rebirth of a person into different sections, such as belief, repentance, and baptism, but they’re all part of the same package. Repentance is part of baptism. How could someone turn their heart any more than by becoming a new person? The same goes for the other “elements” as well.

I believe that we can fundamentally point out the correct biblical view of the things involved in our conversion, yet if we’re not careful, we can turn into the “baptism police.” How so? When we become hyper-concerned with a person’s complete mental understanding at the point of baptism. Certainly, a person ought to generally understand what they’re doing when getting baptized. Their sins are washed away, and they become a part of God’s people in a new life. But that doesn’t always mean that they have a full comprehension of the act.

As Christians, we are continually growing and maturing in our knowledge and behavior. This means that sometimes we mature so much beyond where we were when we came to Christ that we look back on our baptism and think “did I even understand what I was doing?” The problem often isn’t that we didn’t fundamentally know what we were doing, but we see it in such a better light now that our previous understanding pales in comparison. Maybe we even misunderstood some elements of it that we see now.

The Bible shows us that those who come to Christ must fundamentally understand what they’re doing. But it does not require that they know everything perfectly and fully. This means that we need to be careful about the way we treat those who were baptized outside of our known brotherhood. God knows his people, and just because a person wasn’t baptized in association with a group that bears the name “church of Christ,” doesn’t mean they’re not Christians.

If a person was baptized by another group that we don’t typically associate with, yet they were baptized having believed, and confessed, then we have no reason to disparage their baptism, even if those elements occurred in a different manner. Does poor understanding invalidate their conversion? If that were the case, then many of the churches in the New Testament weren’t really Christians because they needed to learn after their baptism. Does Paul tell the Corinthians, who misunderstood something as fundamental as the resurrection (!), that their lack of understanding invalidated their baptism? No. They are just Christians who need to grow.

We need to be careful that we don’t become the “baptism police” by setting ourselves up as the standard for whether or not someone else is a Christian. It’s not a ritual that can only be validated when certain phrases that we deem important are uttered. It’s not an incantation that comes undone when some part of the act, either mental or physical isn’t perfect. If a person has generally followed the pattern of the Bible, then they are Christians, even if they didn’t have a perfect understanding of that act. We may be able to help them understand “more accurately” (Acts 18:26), but that doesn’t mean they have to start all over.

May God help give all of us the humility and wisdom we need to grow in our understanding daily in Christ (Eph. 4:15-16).

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But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. — Galatians 4:4-5 (NIV)

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