Though a few mainline denominations may overemphasize the sacrament of baptism, some Nazarenes today neglect this historic means of grace.
For a previous generation of Nazarenes, a trip to the mourners' bench assumed a sacramental status that tended to make baptism a seldom-used organ in the Body of Christ. Few people realized that the 'altar call' was a modern innovation in the church, originating in the nineteenth century. The only invitation to the altar earlier centuries of Christians knew was sharing the celebration of Communion.
'Open altar' time during the pastoral prayer is a mid-twentieth century invention, designed to make the altar a less forbidding place. Has the dwindling lack of response to altar calls in recent years made the reaffirmation of the older and universal sacrament of baptism more urgent?
What does the Bible say about baptism?
One justification some have used for treating water baptism as 'take-it-or-leave-it' stems from Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 1:11-14. Some readers feel Paul belittled the importance of baptism, as compared to preaching. But is this what Paul actually did?
Because of spiritual arrogance (1 Corinthians 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4) and allegiance to various Christian leaders, the Corinthians considered their leaders to be competitors, rather than colleagues in ministry (1 Corinthians 3:1-9). This led to Paul's passionate appeal for unity in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21.
Apparently the Corinthians gave special loyalty to the Christian leader who baptized them. As recent converts from paganism, they misunderstood this leader as a mystagogue - a person who instructs others in mystical religions. They felt this leader was to be honored above all others because he had initiated them into the Christian mystery. Paul discouraged such thinking about himself and other human leaders to end the conflict between the various Corinthian groups.
Paul baptized. But he denied baptizing anyone in his name. He baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 1:14, Paul conceded that he only remembered baptizing a few believers. Why so few?
This was not a large church. House churches could probably accommodate fewer than 50 believers. Paul may also have taken for granted what became standard Christian practice-any Christian could administer the rite of baptism, not just apostles. His special, Christ-appointed mission was to preach the gospel.
Paul did not depreciate baptizing. Instead, he rejected the Corinthian misunderstanding of baptism. He did not minimize the sacrament's importance, or suggest that baptism was optional. He assumed that all believers were baptized. The thought of an unbaptized believer was inconceivable to him.
We should not overemphasize the contrast between baptism and preaching in 1 Corinthians 1:17. Paul's real concern was to focus on the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5) in contrast to human wisdom.
Nothing humans do--not even exercising faith or being baptized--would matter if God had not taken the initiative for salvation in Christ.
One distinguishing mark of the Christian church compared to other human communities was the Holy Spirit's presence. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul referred to being baptized in the Spirit, and being given the Spirit to drink. Both descriptions were metaphorical--the Spirit is not a liquid into which believers may be immersed, or which they may imbibe.
Interpreters disagree on whether the metaphors make two points or one, whether they allude to the sacraments of water baptism and the Lord's Supper, and whether they point to the initial conversion experience or to a second experience. Regardless, Paul presumed that Christians were differentiated from others by the 'one Spirit' - through whom 'we . . . all' enter the Church.
Despite the diversity of the Church, the fellowship of the same Spirit made believers one.
All Christians had the Holy Spirit, and all Christians had been baptized (see 1 Corinthians 2:10-14, Romans 8:9, 14-16, Galatians 3:2-3, 14, Ephesians 4:1-6).
Paul did not accept 'baptismal regeneration,' as if water alone brought Christian conversion. But he did presume a close connection between the preaching of the gospel, baptism, the gift of the Spirit, and saving faith in Christ (see Romans 3:21-30, 4:3-25, 10:13, Galatians 2:16-21, 3:2-27, Ephesians 1:13, 2:5-8, 5:26, Colossians 2:11-15, Titus 3:5-7).
What should Nazarenes think about infant baptism, which is not clearly mentioned in Christian literature until the second century? Even if the practice has no biblical justification, it is centuries older than any modern innovations that have replaced baptism - including our ritual of infant dedication. Of course, older is not always better, and novelty is not necessarily bad.
Since the first Christians were all converts, they were baptized only after they became believers. Some New Testament household baptisms (1 Corinthians 1:16, Acts 11:14, 16:31-33, 18:8) may have included infants. Given the high infant mortality rates, believing parents chose not to exclude their children from the new covenant community until they were old enough to believe - perhaps following the analogy of circumcision in Judaism (see Colossians 2:11).
Early Christians never imagined that this symbol of God's grace made personal faith unnecessary. But they probably could not have imagined Christians accepting Christ at an 'old fashioned altar,' seeking God at an 'open altar,' or publicly dedicating their children to the Lord either. To settle for a reasonable facsimile makes as much sense as a spam E-mail ad for 'Genuine Imitation Rolex Watches.'
George Lyons is professor of New Testament at Northwest Nazarene University.