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Lecture 9: Pastoral Care and Baptism
We are going to move into baptism. I wonder sometimes when we get to heaven, at least those of us who are pastors, if God is going to gather us together and say, “Why did you make ministry so hard?” I wonder if we make it a lot harder than necessary. We get into lots of controversies and that is part of it.
When we talk about sacraments, we have already seen just wit communion, it has its own controversies. Baptism is the same. So I am going to start again rather basic, just build some theology and then we will move into practice again.
I. Baptism in Scripture
I think most of us are familiar with this word, “baptizo” from which we get our word, “baptism” which amongst its definitions means to immerse or dip. Some use this as the main reason to say what the mode of baptism should be.
A. Pastoral care
Before we get there, let’s talk again about pastoral care. This is another again, central pastoral act. This is what pastors do. It is an important part. We are commanded to baptize, going back to the Great Commission in Matthew 28, never presented as an option or something unimportant. It is a sacred task so it must be treated with great care.
B. An act of cleansing
What I want to do here for a moment is again attach it to things historically that tell us it must not be separated from. When we look at the act itself, it goes back historically to cleansing. The act of cleansing appears to be borrowed from ancient Near Eastern culture where part of the culture was ritual washing, the Jewish practice of baptizing proselytes that centered around repentance and desire for cleansing. We see this with John the Baptist and his ministry. His primary ministry was to cleanse, in a sense, the nation, prepare them for the Messiah. Baptism or at least this act of cleansing was where people came to confess their sins, to get right. By the time The New Testament epistles are written, it is described as a cleansing act, Titus 3:5, Acts 22:16. That is part of the definition. Therefore, just even starting with this very basic theology, we are underscoring in this act that this person is declaring publicly, there has been a cleansing that has happened.
Here is a second word that we need to think about and that is identification. Baptism cannot be understood apart from our vital identification, our union with Christ, our willingness to be identified with Him who, one of his very first public acts was his own baptism. We are identifying with Him. We are identifying with Him in his act of death, burial, resurrection. Therefore in the act itself we are thinking back and are identifying with Him, we too identify with dying, we too identify with Him in rising. It announces we belong to Christ. It is a coming out ceremony, if you will, for believers. It is saying that I want everyone to know that not only have I given my life to Christ, not only have I embraced the Gospel, I identify with Him. I identify with Him in all of His acts because of my union with Him.
Baptism is a cleansing. It is an identification. Here is a third thing I need to understand pastorally, it is an initiation. It is a rite of initiation. It cannot be understood apart from 1 Corinthians 12:13 which says, “We have all been baptized into Christ.” It is the initiation process. It is a reception into the visible company of the people of God. It signifies our adoption. We are part of the family. It is those three things at least I need to understand. It is cleansing, it is identification, it is initiation. In the service itself of baptism, those three need to be somehow conveyed, expressed so people understand this.
II. Baptism in History
We have looked at it a little bit more on the theological side. Let’s think about it from the historical side. Baptism, just like the Lord’s Supper, has been the center of numerous controversies. For example, participants. Are we talking about infants? Are we talking about adults? Children of confessing parents? Or those who have made a personal confession? At least in my historical practice, baptism is a post salvific experience that comes after that decision of giving our life to Christ. That has been very controversial in lots of different denominations.
Here is a second one and that is the mode. Sprinkle? Immerse? Pour? Historically baptisms in my background have held to immersion because again of the nature of the term; but also, more than baptizo, to immerse, it also goes back to the very practice, to symbolism, of dying, which seems to argue for someone being immersed, going underwater.
The issue here is, can we allow for other modes? Sprinkling, I Peter 1:2 is where some go; or pour, Hebrews 12:24. Can we argue or allow for other modes as long as it is post salvific? What I am discovering is that more and more churches are honoring the freedom for different modes.
I faced this as a pastor in my last church where about three to four hundred of the congregants are Korean. Most have a Presbyterian background. Most have been baptized after salvation, but they have been sprinkled. So for some of them, they had a difficult time joining the church because we had at least constitutionally stated that one must be immersed. We took some serious time to think it over. We wanted to at least draw the line to say it has to be something that comes after salvation. But we came to a place of saying that we can honor their experience. If they have been sprinkled or they have been immersed, what matters is that they have been baptized. I think more and more Baptist churches are going that direction.
C. Means of grace/ordinance
Here is a third issue and that is, is it a means of grace or an ordinance? Is it simply symbolic, or is it a saving act? Some people would say that your salvation is not complete until you are baptized. Others would say, and I tend to line up more here, it is a means of grace, grace that sanctifies, but does not justify because our salvation is by grace, not by works. So baptism does not produce change, it announces change. That is how I understand it theologically.
III. Baptism in Pastoral Practice
Understanding what the word means and understanding cleansing, initiation, etc., all part of the theological foundation. What about the practice itself? I would like to lay out a few things when it comes to our pastoral practice.
A. Administer with preparation
It should be administered with preparation. That is, it is important to spend time with candidates. It is important to be clear what baptism means. Lots of people have crazy ideas about baptism. There should be a time of preparation, of people understanding what it means. Then if we have people, and we often will have people take the time to share their testimony, we also need to help prepare people for that. I have heard some really bad testimonies and I’m sure you have as well, some that just meander and go all over the place.
For part of the preparation, I actually have people write out their testimonies. I want people to be really crisp and clear. This is what I will often say, “I want you to share your testimony as preparation before you are baptized. I want you to write it assuming that the church is filled with nonbelievers, that there are no believers, that they are all nonbelievers. There are some of your friends or some of your neighbors who, many will come, they won’t come to church, but many people when you ask will come for a baptism. So I want you to think about what you are going to say today that will be convincing, that will be put in a language they understand. Think of it this way, take a moment to share what your life was like before Christ. Take just a brief moment to say, ‘I was a pretty self-centered person,’ or ‘my life was consumed by worry’, could be a lot of things. When did you realize your need for a savior? That could be a second thing that might be really good to say. What brought you to a place of say
ing, ‘I really need a savior, I need Jesus.’ Thirdly, tell us what happened. How did you come to Christ? “
I remember for me, I was 16, I was at Westmont College. I came to a place where I was really coming to the end of myself. I heard a clear message spoken by a speaker who at the last minute was asked to speak because the speaker at this particular conference became sick. Somehow he just connected with me. I remember that moment. It was all God’s grace. It was not actually a great message, but it was simple, it was to the point. Somehow I just connected with him and I realized that I really needed a savior.
How has your life changed? That would be a fourth piece that I want people to think through. This is where of course there has to be authenticity. This is where again, imagine that room is filled with unbelievers. Imagine some of them know you. Obviously, you are not going to want to say something that is not true. If you have not seen a discernible change in your life, you may not be ready to be baptized. But when you can stand and say, ”I used to be consumed with anger, I used to have a really short fuse, I used to just go ballistic. It’s not to say that I don’t deal with anger anymore, but God has really changed my heart in ways only God could do that.”
People are going to stand up and take notice, so I want people to be well prepared. They need to know what to say. We need to coach them, listen to them.
We recently moved to having most people do this by video. That way, people can see the larger screen, but it also allows us an opportunity to say, let’s do this a little bit differently. What we typically do is, as people come out and they are introduced, we will say, “We want you to take a moment to hear about Linda’s life and Linda share.” Again, in that time she has been taped, we want to make sure it is said well. It only takes a few bad experiences for you to make sure you do this.
I remember once I was baptizing this woman, I can’t remember her name, I’ll call her Helen. I said, “Helen, just before I bring you into the water, I want you to share with everyone why you are getting baptized tonight.” I remember, Helen looked out and she said, “Well, these are all my friends and I just want to be with my friends.” You are not going to correct something at that moment, but it obviously missed the point.
So administer with preparation.
B. Administer with passion and not indifference
Secondly, administer with passion and not indifference. This should be a passionate moment. There should be something of expectancy. It can sometimes deserve a service on its own because it is a central act of the church. It should be done with a certain enthusiasm.
C. Administer with holiness and not disrespect
Thirdly, it should be done also with holiness and not disrespect. It is a holy moment. There should be dignity in the service itself. I fear sometimes we become so casual, we do these in swimming pools, we do it with a certain hilarity. There should be joy, but there needs to also be something sacred in the act. We are saying something like this: Based upon your confession of faith, I baptize you in the Name of the Father and the Son and The Holy Spirit. If I am going to say that, that is a holy moment. I am doing something in the Name of God. I had better have something of the fear of God working in my life.
D. Administer with order and not chaos
Here is a fourth thing, administer with order and not chaos. Like we talked about with the Lord’s Supper, there needs to be again, preparation, people knowing what to bring, change of clothes, a towel. Guide them in advance of where they need to go. Getting down to the mundane things. There is a microphone, please don’t touch it when you are in the water. Going over the physical act. I’m going to take you down and as I bring you down, it really helps if you will bend your knees just a little bit. If your knees are locked, it will be really hard for me to lift you back up. Your feet might also come out from underneath you. But even just the posture of bending and bringing the person down makes it easier to bring them back. Reminding people, as I bring you down, plug your nose or it could be an unfortunate experience.
These are some of the really mundane details, but we need to think, to prepare people for these things. So we tell them also where to stand so that they don’t fall back and hit perhaps a wall or a floor. Tell them the order. Tell them when they are going to come out. Meet with them ahead of time. Pray. What a moment for a dedicatory prayer. You are doing something that is one of the highest spiritual acts. So let’s pray this is going to be a really holy moment. Let’s pray this is an experience you will remember the rest of your life.
Have a list of names somewhere there if you are doing several, so you can call them by name, maybe in the baptismal. Have the details all worked out in your mind, just exactly what you are going to share. Make sure you have a crew of people so that there are a number of people engaged in the process, people that want to serve, want to help.
E. Administer with thoughtful creativity
Do it with creativity. When should we do baptism? You can do baptism in a lot of different moments. I think Easter can be a wonderful day to do baptism, we are celebrating resurrection. It can be done at Christmas. It can be done at Pentecost. It can be done in oceans and rivers, especially if you don’t have a baptismal. It can be done with other churches. Sometimes there is something powerful in engaging two or three other churches, going to a river, sort of taking over the shore and having a huge event, just a day of celebration. We have done this with 20, 30 baptisms, hearing story after story.
F. Administer with the unchurched in mind
It can be done a lot of different ways, but it needs to be done mindful, in particular as I have already said of the unchurched. Again, this is when they are going to be most inclined to come to church.
I always encourage candidates, invite your family, maybe your son and daughter who don’t come, or your neighbor. Just like communion, it is a wonderful moment in a very brief way to say, let me set a context, let me tell you what is going on here. These people are coming out to declare publicly something has happened. They have died. They are still alive, but an old life is dead. They have risen to new life. They are different. This is what Christ does. The work of his salvation is transformational. So you are going to see them do something that symbolizes this. They are going to go down, symbolizing death. They are going to rise up. Prep people, tell them, share the Gospel. Use their testimonies as I have said. Some will have very powerful testimonies, some maybe not so powerful. But what they all will have in common is, they have met Jesus.
IV. Practical Questions
This leads to some practical questions, so be thinking of questions because I probably won’t hit them all. Here are questions that I have had to work through over the years as a pastor.
A. Should baptism be required for church membership?
Here is the first one. Should baptism be a requirement for church membership? That is a good question. Some would take it that just as being baptized by the Spirit initiates into the body of Christ, so water baptism carries the same function into the local church. Incorporation into Christ, 1 Corinthians 12:13, into the body of Christ. There is another symbolism going on in baptism. I’m symbolizing the fact that I have been incorporated into the body of Christ. I have been baptized as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:13. So putting my theology together would seem to argue for baptism as an essential part of membership.
B. How old should children be?
Here is a hard one. How old should children be? I have had some bad experiences where this is what often happens. Parents will call you and say, “Pastor, Timmy has given his life to Christ and wants to be baptized.” Then I baptize Timmy and Timmy freaks out. He has no idea what is going on.
I remember one case, Katy. I can still remember her name. I was looking to her to come down into the water and at that moment she screamed. She was probably five or six. Some it is obvious are doing this because their decision is based upon pleasing Mom or Dad. Sometimes the testimony that says, “I don’t want to be left behind when Mom and Dad leave.”
I said to parents, when they can articulate faith that they own, then I think we are ready to talk about baptism. My encouragement is, don’t let emotions drive this. Some parents might be put off, but I think there is wisdom in just saying, “We can wait a little bit because I want your child to give a clear testimony.”
C. Who can baptize?
Who can baptize? Is it only the ownership of the clergy? It is sort of like communion, can only the clergy serve the elements? It probably depends upon your church tradition. In some church traditions only those who have been ordained, called to ministry, because of this high and holy sacramental act, should do this. I’m not sure I’m quite as firm on that. I do think there is wisdom in having a pastor present in the act. Sometimes people will say, “I would like my brother, or I would like my father to participate “ which is perfectly fine with me. But I think in those cases it should be a shared moment, with the pastor.
I’m not sure it is really healthy that every time someone is baptized, it can be a friend who baptizes them. Something may be lost there. I can’t build a firm, airtight theological case for that. But it seems to be something that is part of the corporate body, part of the church and should be something that includes the pastor.
D. Private or public?
Private or public? Some people like to maybe get away with their pastor to the gorge or to the Pacific Ocean, or maybe in the confines of a pool they have in their backyard. Like the Lord’s Supper, I think this should be a corporate experience. It seems to me that it should be something that we do together as a church. Which therefore also means that it should be done when we all gather together. Sometimes this is what I have seen happen. Kids go to let’s say high school camp. They meet Jesus for the first time and they celebrate with baptism which sounds great on the surface, until they get home and maybe their parents realize they have just been denied an experience they have always wanted to have, to see their kids baptized.
My counsel would be, let’s do it when we all gather together and it’s not something therefore private.
E. Can we be baptized again?
This comes up obviously as another question. Can we be baptized again? Sometimes people say, “When I was baptized, I was sort of interested in God, but I have just rededicated my life and I would like to do it again.” I find nothing in scripture that really sanctions a re-baptism. I think there is only one legitimate baptism. So, therefore, it is important that we do it right and we do it at the right time. As salvation is not repeated, at least that is my tradition and my understanding of scripture, so baptism should not be repeated, even if it could be a more meaningful experience.
F. When should a person be baptized
When should one be baptized? This is, I think, one of the more difficult questions. There are those who would say, and rightfully so from scripture, we look at Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch. As quickly as there was a decision for Christ, one was baptized. Some would say, when should you be baptized? Immediately after conversion.
The one thing again that we can be positive about this, is that baptism in a sense should serve as an announcement. Ideally, it would be a case where people have entered a room and someone comes to the waters of baptism and there is almost maybe a gasp as people go, “Fred has come to Jesus?!” There is some argument for immediacy.
In early church tradition, I have discovered that often baptism was done after radical discipleship, often done at Easter as a final kind of last step in this long process of going through core discipline and moving to spiritual maturity, and then going through the waters. So, who is right? I’m not sure anyone is right and anyone is wrong. There is wisdom in both. It is hard for me to take with real seriousness someone who has just come to Jesus, talking about how their life has changed. It is hard to see life change in a week or in a month. There is some wisdom of letting this all settle and give time.
I also like the idea of seeing someone who has just come to Jesus, declaring because baptism in a way - and I think this is the reason it was instituted - is to say there is no such thing as private Christianity, secret Christians. I know in some cultures, the Indian culture I know, that there are some who have made a decision for Christ and parents might say, particularly in a culture that is okay with adding more gods, “That’s okay, just don’t make it really public.” But then also discovered that when they go through the waters of baptism, let’s say in the community, out in the river, parents have been known to just ask their kids to never come home again.
There is something about in the act you have made a public declaration. So there can be something I should say really exciting about this announcement. But if I was to say where I come down on it, I would tend to go more with giving people a time to grow in their faith a bit. By saying that, it is not to say, maybe I’ll do it in five years, 10 years. I think there should be some time frame that is fairly close, but some discipleship that has happened.
G. What if they are from an unchurched family and their parents forbid it?
What if they are part of an unchurched family and they want to be baptized but their parents forbid it? I would again say, you probably need to respond by your conscience. There will be a cost with following God and there will be a cost in obeying God’s commands. But there might also be some wisdom in waiting on this as well until maybe your parents come to a place of saying, I have to let go and respect your convictions.
Some of these questions don’t have easy, black and white answers. I think a lot of wisdom is trying to look at issues from both angles and then hopefully come to a place somewhere maybe in the middle that gets a wise answer.
Questions on baptism. What comes to mind, anything?
Question: What do you do in a situation where you have a church member that has been sprinkled and they come to Christ later but don’t want to be baptized by immersion?
Dr. Johnson: I would say, it doesn’t matter what the mode is if it is pre-salvific, whether they have been sprinkled or immersed or dipped, or poured. If it was prior to, I would say there needs to be a baptism that celebrates a decision that has been made on the other side. The mode in that sense would not matter. As we told our church, we are a Baptist Church, so our practice will always be immersion; but if it is post salvific, we want to respect your baptism in whatever mode it was.
Question: I know of a particular situation. What do you do when they do not respond to that, when they refuse to submit to baptism post conversion?
Dr. Johnson: Obviously you don’t kick them out of the church or make them feel like second class citizens. I think when you have a baptismal service and hopefully, they will be there, to maybe remind people, this is not a suggestion by God, it’s going to be really spiritual, it is part of the scriptural command. It is an act of obedience. There is a certain disobedience if we don’t. I think we say that and we don’t apologize for that. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that you are going to purgatory instead of heaven, or going to hell. Sometimes I struggle with men I have known, in particular. Not that it just has to be men, but men who have never been baptized but there is a certain humbling in the act of coming into the waters and being dipped and all, and there is a public fear if you will. In those cases, I try to remind men or anyone, that yes, there is humility in the act, but there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, humility is a big part of our faith. So if we think we are too proud to go through
the waters of baptism, then I fear we have issues, other issues that pride is getting in the way of.