Baptism: A Radical Act

BELIEVER’S BAPTISM BY IMMERSION was no insignificant step when Baptists championed it in the 17th Century. This radical and public act was a break with over 1300 years of recognized practice in Christian society and it won few converts in the early years. Why was it so unpopular?

Infant baptism was important to almost everyone. With it came a Christian name, a recognized family and community relationship. For the church it meant another communicant who would obey its teaching and support it financially, either through offerings or taxes (or risk severe punishments!). Since church and state were wed across Europe, infant baptism was significant because it was the first point of accountability and authority which a person met.

Baptists, on the other hand, saw no scriptural basis for infant baptism and no need to succumb to the authority of the church in this way. Dedication of children to the Lord was permitted, but scriptural baptism was something else. A believer’s baptism by immersion was a profession of his faith in Christ as Savior and Lord … it was a picture of his death, burial and resurrection. When Baptists immersed new converts, the believers knowingly and voluntarily sought baptism and church membership, thus exercising each individual’s precious liberty of conscience. Believer’s baptism was an act that no parent, guardian or sponsor could do on one’s behalf. It was a personal, public witness of faith.

For those who defended the baptism of infants, the public spectacle of immersion was disgraceful, unbecoming and unhealthful. More than that, believer’s baptism was an affront to church tradition, control and authority, and certainly the continued well-being of both church and state.

Believer’s baptism by immersion … a radical act indeed!

“Baptistification Takes Over”

The above claim appeared not in a Baptist publication but in the September 2, 1983 issue of Christianity Today. It is the headline of a major article by noted Lutheran Church historian, Dr. Martin E. Marty, Professor of Modern Christianity at The University of Chicago. He coins the word “baptistification” to describe what he calls the “most dramatic shift in power style on the Christian scene in our time, perhaps in our epoch.”

“Baptistification” refers to the Baptists and their spiritual kin as an alternative Christian expression to the Catholic, or a more traditional and liturgical approach.

Marty sees the two alternatives as both opposed yet complementary and “urges the need for both styles if the church is to be healthy …” He observes that: “For the moment, baptistification is the more aggressive and effective force, and the circumstances that make it so could prevail for a long time to come. It may succumb, as the worst in Catholicism did, to the temptations that come with its new power and prestige. If so, God could raise up the latent Catholic Christians to be the voice of prophetic upset.”

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #6 in 1985]

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