Immediate or Delayed Baptism

As I may have mentioned before, I've been doing lots of thinking about baptism in the last three or more months. I've also been looking at baptism from a church history perspective.

The very early church (within 100 years of the Ascention) practiced 'delayed' baptism. The ritual was performed after a period of training as they saw baptism partly as an 'initiation.' Before the convert was to be accepted by the local church, they needed to get some basic training (replacing their previous pagan background with what we might now call 'a biblical world-view') and show real commitment ("Do you truly renounce the world, the flesh, and the Devil?").

Post-convert-pre-baptism folks were called "catechumans" (because they were in the process of "catechesis," or training). There actually were some of these catechuman guys who delayed getting baptized for years because they weren't *quite* ready to seriously renounce the world, flesh, and works of Satan. One of our early Best-And-Brightest guys, Augustine once quipped, "Lord, give me chastity - but not quite yet." Of course, Augustine eventually got with the program.

Anyway, all of that just gets me thinking about folks who we may allow to become members of our churches.

Let's be clear about this historic position of 'delayed' baptism - it is not necessarily saying that these converts were converted only when they were baptized  There is some confusion on that point. Still, the emphasis was on, as we put it, "affirming by an outward sign an inward reality."

So that was the argument for 'delayed' baptism - the local church wanted to see a level of evidence that the convert really had engaged the gospel. In this view, the Ethiopian (Ac. 8:27-38) clearly already had a biblical world view - he was reading a personal copy of Isaiah so knew the OT pretty well and was asking good interpretive questions. The Ethiopian already had a good 'biblical world-view.' So Philip, goes this reasoning, could baptize the Ethiopian immediately. Again, the Phillipian jailer (Ac. 16:25-33) got training and instruction directly from an Apostle (16:32) so he and his family - after showing evidences of conversion and commitment - could be baptized very quickly by that Apostle.

These don't capture all the arguments for 'late' baptism, but it is worth reflecting on the issue. The very early church faced the same problems that we do: so-called "believers" who turned out to have been admitted into the local body too soon. The result, for those true believers long ago, was severe persecution and death by 'turncoat Christians.'

Is it possible that allowing unprepared "believers" into church membership too early could cause harm to our local churches? Is that a risk we run today?

So, some suggest that the Biblical model is immediate baptism  Why don't we go back to that? My response is to challenge whether 'indiscriminate' early baptism truly is the Biblical model. The very early church did not seem to think so.


Eric said...

I think the idea of waiting is good. I have been in churches where it seemed like you needed to be almost perfect before you could even call yourself a Christian. I could see this easily turning into that in some cases. However, I don't think that's your intent.

JohnMark said...

Then there is also the lingering issue of how this tradition arose simultaneously with infant baptism. I must say that I enjoy seeing conversations had at table in the student center entering your blogs. Way to go Eric!