Baptism-Lite—SBC and Spontaneous Baptisms
Tim Rogers, Pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Indian Trail, NC
There is a movement that seems to be sweeping our denomination and it is called Spontaneous Baptisms. I for one believe, if done properly, we should not be concerned with this movement. However, with every movement there comes some who refuse to adhere to the clear teaching of scripture and thus dumbs down the scriptural understanding. Therefore, I call this “Baptism-lite”. This phrase is taken from an article I saw referencing the Church of England and their uprising concerning the prayers being offered over the waters. In the Church of England their Baptism has a salvific meaning to it and as such I would vehemently disagree with their practices and their thought that the Priests prayers does something special to the water.
Steven Furtick, Pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, in a sermon he has prepared on his website concerning how to prepare for a spontaneous baptism service expresses some things that are completely tied to scripture and some things where he abandons the scripture to fuel his own particular beliefs. Concerning the meaning of baptism Furtick says; “Baptism is an outward expression of an inward change. The reason we dunk people all the way under the water is that Jesus went all the way into the grave and came back up again.” Amen and Amen!! PREACH IT, PREACHER!!!!! “Great opportunities necessitate immediate obedience.” “Today my mom is choosing it to be her spiritual birthday.” “This has nothing to do with you joining a church.” This is where Furtick leaves the scripture. Baptism has more scriptural evidence with becoming a part of a local body than it does with identifying a spiritual birthday. Thus, the baptisms that are performed at Elevation have nothing to do with church membership because Elevation does not have a membership role. When Elevation baptizes people they view this as baptizing them into the “universal” church and nothing to do with accountability within the local community of baptized believers we refer to as the local church.
An article in the Christian Index listed three churches that perform spontaneous baptisms. In this article there is a very clear presentation concerning the doctrine of baptism. According to Dr. Bryant Wright, Pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist and our current SBC President, his church is in prayer weeks before the spontaneous baptism service and they counsel people when they come forward concerning their relationship with Christ and the meaning of baptism. Dr. Wright says:
“Prior to our first spontaneous baptismal service we told the deacons, elders and staff so they could be in prayer…we asked everyone to consider being baptized by immersion if: (1) they had never trusted Christ for their salvation, but were ready to do so that morning; (2) if they had become a believer after being baptized (maybe baptized as a child, but later came to faith in Christ as an adult); (3) if they had already been baptized but by means other than immersion; or (4) if they were a believer who had never been baptized at all….we asked everyone to get their relationship right with Christ first, then follow through in obedience with baptism.”
Certainly this type of baptism service where the doctrine of baptism is clearly spelled out to the participants would be something everyone can celebrate. However, if these participants are not seen as coming into that local church body, then we certainly have a very serious doctrinal error. Dr. Alan Hix, Associate professor of Christian Studies at Shorter College said it this way:
“The implications for Baptist polity seem clear. Believer’s baptism is a step of obedience following conversion, which initiates the new believer into the Christian fellowship. Any broader application of baptism risks the depreciating of its significance as a testimony of a new covenant relationship of the believer with God and that believer’s membership in the people of God.”
“The physical expression of God’s people is the local church, and it is the church that is charged with the mission of carrying out Christ’s command to baptize those who have expressed faith in him.”
“This also has implications for those Baptists who have recently engaged in ‘spontaneous’ baptismal services in which people are generally baptized without intention of church membership, or who come from denominations which practice infant baptism and request immersion and then return to their denomination. This practice not only ignores the biblical model of the role of baptism as an entrance to church membership, but it also overlooks its observance as an act of obedience following conversion.”
“If a believer from a denomination that practices infant baptism wishes believer’s immersion but wants to remain in his or her tradition, the better response for us as Baptists is to offer our baptisteries for the petitioner’s own pastor to immerse them. I have done that on several occasions for persons in local Methodist congregations.”
If we truly believe our work involves the “Kingdom of God” and not the “kingdom of our personal platforms” then why not allow another congregation to baptize their own members? Many times we become so enamored with making certain we have the numbers for Nashville that we forget the needs of the natives. Our biggest concern should not be whether we baptize more than the next church but whether we are presenting the Gospel. Therefore, due to the problem in presenting the Gospel, the appearance of baptismal regeneration, and the voracious appetite of American consumerism, I feel we should proceed with great caution when it concerns spontaneous baptism.
Presenting the Gospel
Part of the reason that “spontaneous baptisms” has become so popular is the excitement that surrounds a baptismal service. We have promoted these services for the adults the same way one church, in the past, promoted baptizing children–with a fire truck baptistery. While some spoke against a church using such a gimmick to get children to be baptized those same ones seem silent on this gimmick. To have a service where we are calling people to make a decision for baptism on the spot reveals that the Gospel was never clearly presented to the person in the first place. Do not get me wrong; I am not promoting baptismal regeneration. However, I am saying that when the Gospel is clearly presented there is also presented truths about an obedient walk. The Gospel is not about removing the past only; it is about the renewed life for the future. That renewed life is one of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ. If we do not teach such obedience and how the first step to that obedience is Baptism by immersion–as the Bible teaches–we have not clearly presented the good news of Jesus Christ. We have presented a convoluted Gospel much like a Golden Corral buffet–where one enters and has a right to choose or refuse what one places on their plate. Salvation is not a buffet line. Salvation is all about Jesus and as a result it is the repenting of one’s sins, asking Jesus to come live in their life, surrendering to Jesus as Lord and following in obedience to Him. Anything short of that, presented to one that is lost, is a convoluted presentation. Any convoluted presentation that is accepted into the life of the church results in making people two-fold the children of Satan.
The way “spontaneous baptism” services appear to the average attendee is you are asking him/her to accept salvation and baptism is needed for salvation to take place. It isn’t said in so many words but it is certainly implied. For example Brian Bloye, pastor of West Ridge Church in Dallas says:
“It (the spontaneous baptismal service) is for people to step out in faith and identify with Christ. We have a lot of attenders from other denominations who are more comfortable participating in this way.”
Brother Bloye goes on to say they have teams on hand to make certain the ones coming forward are making a decision for Christ. To be completely fair, West Ridge has a statement on their website concerning Baptism and how it is not salvation. However, just the implication that coming forward, spontaneously, for baptism indicates a mindset that says; “I am going to be baptized and thus this is my spiritual birthday.” Years from now, when a candidate that participated in a spontaneous baptism is asked about their salvation one may in all likelihood hear, “I got baptized in a spontaneous baptism service.” May I remind us of one of the clear teaching in Evangelism Explosion to the qualifying question was that someone referencing their baptism was proof they probably were not saved? Also, one huge difference exists here as evangelism seems to be losing its zeal among Southern Baptist. Salvation is focused on a relationship with Jesus; it is not focused on identifying with Jesus through the excitement of being baptized.
As a FAITH pastor one of the criticisms I took on the chin was all the people whose homes we left that never followed up with baptism. Another criticism I took on the chin was the people that did follow-up with baptism but after about six months we could not find them. I will take that on the chin because we evidently missed something or we did not do follow-up discipleship as we should. But, spontaneous baptism is a monster that needs to be nailed down. Why? When the gospel is presented in the home, on the street, in a coffee shop, etc. etc. you then invite them to the next step of their Christian walk. When spontaneous baptism is presented the very first step is missed completely–the blood atoning work of Jesus Christ that is needed for the salvation. We seem to have, unknowingly, presented the water in the baptistery, pool, pond, lake, or ocean, as the necessary element to wash away our sins. As the old hymn of the faith says: What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the water from the Baptistery? No, nothing can wash away my sins but the blood of Jesus!
A Constant Consumerism Mentality
Spontaneous baptisms seem to rest on giving the people what they want. Many participating in these spontaneous baptism services do not join the local church body. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that these events do not match our theology. Why do I say that? Many of these pastors will tell you that they are not into counting numbers, but they list these baptisms on their ACP’s, but announce they are not asking the participants to join the local church. These pastors will tell you that they do not believe baptism saves anyone, but they do these events to remove the barriers that many use to keep from being baptized. Why do these churches post the over 500-1000 baptisms but only post 300-400 increase in membership roles? If I have to coax a person to get baptized by telling them it isn’t about joining a church, then I have denied a clear teaching of Scripture. If these are truly saved people why are they not members of the church? Which brings us to another barrier that seems to be an issue—baptism by immersion. This excuse reveals evidences that we are not depending on the Holy Spirit to direct the new believer. We are merely giving the people what they want. Dr. Steven Kimmel, pastor of First Baptist Smyrna said it better than anyone else I have read in his article on this subject.
“Having a candidate stand in the baptistry and declare (in word or effect), ‘I surrender my life to the Lordship of Christ,’ while in the very same instance declare (in word or effect), ‘But, I’m not prepared to be accountable or committed to the body of Christ,’ is a contradictory and confusing message for us to send.”
When the Gospel is clearly presented, baptism is no longer a question. It may be that a discipleship class for New Christians is something a church needs to consistently offer. We have heard it argued that spontaneous baptisms remove the barriers. Could it be that the only barrier for baptism is merely what we refer to as old-fashioned discipleship? We have heard it said that spontaneous baptism enables a person to walk in obedience to Jesus Christ. Could it be that we are making spontaneous baptisms appear to a lost person as salvation? Also, if a survey were commissioned in some of these churches, I believe, it will reveal that many reference their baptism as their salvation. We have heard it said that many people will not get baptized by themselves or as a planned event. Could it be that we find ourselves, as pastors, shaping a gospel filter that is more closely defined to the rampant consumerism that has infected the church? This consumerism has even taken us to the very role assigned for the pulpit? Every church, looking for a new pastor, wants a 25 year old pastor with a beautiful wife that sings or plays a musical instrument, has his doctorate, has three perfectly well mannered 4-year-old children, and twenty years of pastoral experience. It certainly appears that many pastors today become more concerned with the significant numbers publicly presented than they are with the Spiritual Needs of the People.