Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Baptist Faith and Message, Article 7, emphasis mine)
Baptists baptize. Such a self-evident statement might be considered incontestable if not for the curious trend described in this essay. If you will pardon the expression, Southern Baptists are watering down our doctrine of baptism. Today, a number of Southern Baptist Churches are accepting Christians into full membership who have never been scripturally baptized by the mode of immersion. In doing so, they are creating a class of sprinkled Southern Baptists—a development presenting us all with a host of denominationally defining implications.
Please notice I did not say that these churches are practicing baptism by the mode of sprinkling. When a person becomes a Christian at one of these churches, they are baptized by immersion into the fellowship of the church. However, if a person has experienced conversion at another church where they were sprinkled, some of our churches are now accepting these candidates into the full membership of the church by statement without requiring the only mode of baptism we have ever recognized as legitimate. It is in this manner that some people have become sprinkled Southern Baptists—never having been immersed at all. They are non-baptized Baptists.
Perhaps it will help some readers to review the three primary modes of Christian baptism practiced by various denominations. Aspersion is sprinkling. Affusion is pouring. Immersion is plunging. While some denominations permit each individual to select the mode of baptism they prefer, Baptists have historically required that the mode of immersion be utilized. Immersion accurately reflects the true meaning of the word baptism. Immersion is the only mode we find in the Bible. Immersion best symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. It is an act of obedience by which a new Christian identifies with Jesus and unites with the church.
At first glance, this subject may appear to be centered upon baptism. However, upon reflection, it also hinges upon one’s theology of church membership. Is it required for an individual to be baptized in order to become a church member? Traditionally, Baptists have answered yes. In fact, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 defines baptism as “prerequisite” to the privilege of church membership. Typically, there are three methods of joining a Southern Baptist Church. First, a person can join by baptism after a profession of faith. Second, a person can join by letter to transfer their membership from another Southern Baptist Church. Third, a person can join by statement if they have already been saved and immersed in a church “of like faith and order” even if it was not a Southern Baptist Church. In each case, the foundation for church membership is that, at a certain time and place, one professed faith in Jesus and was immersed as a believer. We have always shared a common baptism.
Until now, there has never been a “sprinkling” option for Southern Baptist Church membership. We have never before created a class of sprinkled Southern Baptists. The argument in favor of a totally immersed denomination consists of two parts. First, baptism is prerequisite for church membership. Second, there is no scriptural mode of believer’s baptism other than that of immersion.
I believe this is an important topic for Southern Baptists to address. As we discuss this matter, theologians and historians will offer various considerations based upon biblical research and time honored traditions. I will leave such worthy discourse to others. For now, my interest as a pastor is in the existence of certain practical daily implications that are raised by this new existence of sprinkled Southern Baptists.
Because there are some doubting Thomases out there who will not believe in the existence of something they cannot see and feel, I fully anticipate the question: “Which churches and ministers are accepting as members candidates who have merely been sprinkled?” After weighing this matter on the scale against an equal concern not to embarrass anyone, I have decided not to call them out by name in this essay. My aim is thereby to depersonalize the issue. After all, the names and the churches should not matter. It is the issue itself that deserves our consideration.
Having said that, some evidence of the existence of sprinkled Baptists is no doubt in order. Therefore, consider the policy statement reprinted below. It is representative of the position of a number of other Southern Baptist Churches today:
While we practice a baptism by immersion at [Church Name], we do not require the mode of immersion for membership. If a person was sprinkled or immersed (or a possible other mode) after conversion, he or she has met our requirement for membership.
Finally, the question may be asked, “Where should this issue be addressed?” Personally, I believe it is a matter for every affiliated association or convention to consider. That is, it should be considered by the executive committee of each local association, state convention or national convention to which such a church belongs. Every Southern Baptist has a stake in the preservation of a denomination that believes in immersion baptism, practices immersion baptism and tolerates nothing except immersion baptism as a requirement for church membership.
If a person who has merely been sprinkled—but never baptized scripturally—truly wishes to join a Southern Baptist Church, then they should be required to do so in the only manner recognized by our denomination. If a church refuses to require that a Baptist be baptized, then the rest of us have every right to consider such a church as residing among the countless other churches in Christendom lying outside the parameters of our denomination—and for one simple reason. Baptists baptize.