I mean, yes, I know its fun. And yes, I know it makes us feel all frontline missionary and that. But can we just agree to stop it?
What’s the hoopla? Well, it kind of undermines the sign a bit. Pretty much every church, throughout history, regardless of the stripe, has recognised baptism as the sign of entry into the church. It is a sign of membership. It is a sign of belonging. Baptising a geezer in his own bath, immediately after he professed faith, isn’t really baptising him into anything, it’s just dipping him in a bath. Unless you run a house church, and you are baptising the guy into your house church and using your bath to do it, what you’re doing isn’t really baptism.
It’s also a bit individualistic. I mean, what is a sign that nobody gets to see exactly? If signs are meant to point to something, what is its purpose if nobody can see where it is pointing? Who, exactly, is the sign for? If baptism is the outward sign of the inner washing of regeneration by the Spirit, if you’re the only person who sees it – and incidentally the only person who has any knowledge of the inward sign and seal – it feels a bit… well, pointless. You see, the sign is supposed to physically represent the spiritual reality that you know has taken place, but the rest of us can’t see. If you have the inner witness of the Spirit authenticating your faith, your baptism for your own benefit isn’t all that necessary. But if baptism is meant to be a sign of belonging to God’s people, that the Lord’s people can actually see, it surely requires the Lord’s people to see it and affirm your belonging to them?
Here’s what we read as early on as Acts 2:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Those who heard Peter’s message accepted (or, believed) it. Upon it being apparent that they accepted the message, they were baptised. Upon their baptism, they were ‘added to their number’ i.e. joined to the church in membership.
Isn’t that a logical leap to claim they joined the church? Well, three things push us to believe it was so. First, why count the numbers at all if there was not some purpose behind doing so? Second, we’re told they ‘added to their number’. What number was that if it wasn’t the existent church in Jerusalem that, we are told earlier, was meeting? Third, immediately afterwards we are told just what they got up to when they were added to their number. These are the things we would typically associate as the things that make a church, a church. As the reformers liked to argue: right teaching of the word and right administration of the sacraments are the marks of a true church.
So, what about anomalies like the Ethiopian Eunuch? Doesn’t that give us ground for the dip in the bath? Granted, he wasn’t baptised into church membership. But context is important, is it not? Where, exactly, was the Ethiopian Eunuch? In the middle of nowhere. What church was roundabout? There wasn’t one. Nor was there one where he was going. In fact, if Irenaeus is to be believed, the Ethiopian Eunuch was the one sent back to his country to preach the gospel to the people there. In other words, there simply wasn’t a church for him to be baptised into. That means a decision had to be made in a somewhat unique context. What is more, a good case can be made for arguing that those baptised under such circumstances were counted as the first members of the church in their particular place.
If you’re looking for a modern equivalent today, perhaps if you’re planting a church among an unreached people group, in totally virgin territory, you might have a decision to make. But I think we can safely say that is not the situation in which most of these dips in the bath take place. In places where there is a local church, baptism ought to mark one’s entry into membership not an individualistic symbolic mark.
I presume, if you’re baptising people in the bath with any frequency, you are in some sense baptistic. But baptists have historically argued that baptism is where faith goes public. It is the public profession of personal faith. Nobody can see your faith but they can see your baptism. Which makes it difficult for baptism to be a public profession of faith or belonging when you are neither publicly professing it nor doing it as a means of belonging anywhere. To be baptised apart from the local church is a bit like getting married and then not living with your spouse. It is to claim you belong to Jesus and then to not bother acting in any of the ways that would signify that you belong to him as part of his body.
So, please, fun as it might be – edgy and feeling like fronline mission as it may do – can we please stop privately baptising folk in the bath. Unless you’re in a house church, it isn’t baptism. It’s individualistic nonsense that undermines the very sign of belonging that Jesus gave to his people.