Billboard Heckler – Consider Baptism

I’ve been thinking about making this (the billboard commentary, that is, not burning down Barney’s) a regular thing. This was on the billboard of the Castle Hill Christadelphian Church yesterday (I went back for a photo but they’d changed it by then):

MATTHEW 28:19-20

Never one to shy away from a challenge, I considered whether baptism really matters.

Christadelphians believe, among other things, that baptism by full immersion in water is an essential part of salvation. It’s a topic of great interest to me, because the International Churches of Christ, to which I used to belong, believe much the same thing. This was probably the single biggest cause of doctrinal disputes with other Christian denominations. (As opposed to accusations of authoritarian and insular cult-like behaviour, which weren’t so much criticisms of core beliefs, and which the church has at any rate grown out of in the last few years, to some degree.)

You could be forgiven for wondering how something that amounts to not much more than a quick dip in the pool could become a core doctrinal focus. The short answer is that those who insist it is essential to salvation necessarily imply that anyone who doesn’t practice baptism is on their way to hell. Add to this the disagreement over whether it is a sprinkling, a pouring or full immersion, and whether it should be done at infancy or at a later age when the person can make an informed decision, and the result is plenty of opportunity for Christian infighting.

But what does the bible, the rock-solid standard of Christian beliefs, say about baptism? As mentioned on the billboard, the case for the support of baptism starts with Matthew 28:19-20 – baptism is mentioned as part of Jesus’ “Great Commission”. The next step chronologically is Acts 2:37-41, where Peter lists baptism as one of the two requirements to join the new movement that accepts Jesus as the Messiah. Baptism is defined as dunking in water by reference to the Greek word which literally means “to immerse”, with support from Acts 8:36-39. Acts 22:16 links baptism with cleansing sins, and finally 2 Peter 3:20-21 says outright that baptism saves you.

The argument that baptism isn’t necessary comes from a few different angles. Acts 8:15-16 suggests that people had been baptised (or baptized – American readers must forgive my spelling) without having received the Holy Spirit, which is clearly linked to salvation elsewhere. Acts 10:47 makes the opposite point, that the Holy Spirit can be received without baptism. Matthew 3:11 seems to say that the baptism Jesus taught would not involve water, but would be a direct intervention by the Holy Spirit – and (so the argument goes) this spiritual baptism is what 1 Peter 3:20-21 refers to, “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” Salvation can not be based on your actions, according to Ephesians 2:8-9. If water baptism is required for salvation, what happened to the criminal who was crucified next to Jesus in Luke 23:40-43? How could he have been baptised on a cross? Finally, the argument appeals simply to the absurdity of someone reaching the gates of heaven, having devoted their life to Jesus, only to be turned back because they hadn’t had a bath. And fair enough.

Similar arguments could also be outlined for infant baptism, the concept of an “outward sign of inward grace”, Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Spirit” leading to miraculous signs such as speaking in tongues, and so on. And an apologist for any one of these positions would be able to make a case against any of the others. My point is not to deny that a coherent interpretation exists. Rather, my point is that there are multiple coherent interpretations. Each of them relies on a specific interpretation of certain key verses and some assumptions about the context of other verses. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. But if you were to get two apologists for two different positions and lock them in a room until they come to a consensus, the odds are high that they would both starve to death.

I would like to propose an idea that could settle this once and for all. Under this new proposition, all of the aforementioned verses can be taken at face value. I believe it has the potential to unite all of the varied opinions about biblical baptism, and put an end to the spilling of massive amounts of ink (and quite possibly blood) over this debate. And I’m going to reveal it here, on this blog. Are you ready? Here it is.

The bible simply isn’t clear on the subject.

The New Testament was written by various people over the course of at least forty years, and it’s not totally surprising that on some of the finer details, they didn’t quite get their story straight. I propose that we don’t need to do their work for them. The writer of 1 Peter believed that baptism, in some form, saves you; the writer of Galatians said that no work can be the basis of salvation; the writer of Acts either changed what he believed over time, or referred to different types of baptism in different places without making it clear which is which. Possibly none of them thought that it mattered much – no one would be pedantic enough to have to debate the fine underlying details of a ritual that was well-accepted at the time, especially coming out of the smorgasboard of God-pleasing rituals that was Judaism. I think this is a much better fit for the message that we have actually been given.

Of course, the issue with this is that it doesn’t fit well with the bible being God’s perfectly inspired message to mankind. I think this is the fundamental source of the problem. Christians demand consistency from a book that is not consistent, and the result is an array of denominations that differ on more or less every point of doctrine. I’ve tried to make this point using the example of baptism; the same could be done with Jesus’ divinity, whether salvation is by faith or works, predestination, the duration of hell, whether God is loving or vengeful, the time and nature of Jesus’ return, the structure of church leadership, and even what it means for scripture to be “inspired”. (I reserve the right to do so in future.)

I’m convinced that the only way to fulfil Christians’ preconception that the bible is without error is with methods of interpretation so loose that a passage can be found to support any opinion, and therefore it might as well support none.


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