You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.26-28)
I was reared in Pentecostalism, the schismatic offspring of Fundamentalist groups like the Nazarenes and Baptists, which means I come from a tradition of “dunkers.” Baptism for us was/is less a sacrament (though it is that) than a rite of passage, much like First Communion and Confirmation are milestones for Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Unlike those practices, however, our baptism isn’t generally associated with a certain age or juncture in faith formation. Individuals who come to Christ and confess His Lordship are urged to take “the next step,” i.e., meet the minister in waist-high water—usually in the church baptistery, but sometimes at an outdoor location—to be bodily submerged beneath its surface. (We refer to this as “total immersion.”) Since confession of sin presumes moral conscience and precedes baptism, the ritual is reserved for believers who’ve reached the “age of accountability.” Ergo only those mature enough to recognize their errors, repent of them, and commit their lives to Christ qualify as baptismal candidates. Each believer holds the right to determine when he/she gets “dunked.”
This tradition fixes its adherents to a perspective that strenuously opposes two practices in other Christian communities: infant baptism and the sprinkling or pouring of water on the believer. In the first case, it holds young children are incapable of true repentance and thus ineligible for baptism. And die-hard dunkers, for whom total immersion becomes a cause célèbre, jump to point out Peter’s first instruction to the Church is “repent and be baptized.” (Acts 2.38) The insistence on total immersion isn’t as cut-and-dried, however, as New Testament accounts don’t explicitly report head-to-toe dunking. For example, at Christ’s baptism, Matthew 3.16 says, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.” Does this mean He was under the water or returned to Jordan’s riverbank? In Acts 8, after hearing the Gospel, the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip to baptize him. Verse 38 says they “went down into the water,” but doesn’t spell out the mechanics. And I’m not sure what we do with Acts 10, where Peter visits Cornelius, a Roman centurion, sees his and his family’s faith, and baptizes them on the spot. Are we to imagine Cornelius lives in a villa equipped with a spacious pool? Those are mighty fancy digs for a soldier stationed abroad.
Too Much Like Right
With no irrefutable example, total immersion advocates fall back on a literal reading of Paul’s turn of phrase in Romans 6.4 and Colossians 2.12: “buried with him in baptism.” Meaning and metaphor conflate into a method that inflates into a mandate: no submersion, no “burial;” no “burial,” no baptism. And now we come to the rich irony buried in this baptism business. While the dunkers’ rationale for their approach could use more solid scriptural backing, their neighbors across the fence—the sprinklers and dousers, many of whom recoil at the idea of getting soaked to the bone in a public display of faith—don’t fare any better. Nothing in Scripture indicates their technique is any more or less valid. The long and short of it: all we know is baptism exists as a holy ordinance, a symbolic demonstration of faith typified in death and rebirth. Everyone agrees on this and that it must be done. But no one can say with absolute certainty how to do it. So it makes sense to concede the issue on all sides and celebrate the meaningfulness of the act, rather than quibble over the material aspects of the activity. There should be no contention whatsoever about baptism. Yet it remains one of the most divisive topics among us.
Why can’t we come clean and admit we’re all solid on the principle, but shaky on the procedure? To borrow my grandmother’s pet phrase about people who insist on bickering over phantom differences, “Agreeing sounds too much like right.” If everyone’s right about baptism and nobody’s wrong, then I can’t question your Christian experience, nor you mine. That’s a beehive we’re terrified of splitting open, because once we do, we have to respect each other’s beliefs—and our individual rights to believe as we believe—entirely, without exception. In short, we have to trust one another’s word and mean what we say, neither of which comes readily, or reasonably, to us. It’s so much easier to speak for God despite His needing no spokesperson. And we’re very clever about how we do this.
We’re too smart to attack fellow believers on the grounds we’re forgiven and they aren’t. There are just too many “whoever’s” and “anyone’s” and “everyone’s” on the loose. We dare not tamper with that. But baptism—ah, baptism!—now there’s something we can rally around to riot over. If I don’t have to take your word about that, I don’t have to accept it about anything else I’m not comfortable believing. What’s more, since baptism is the physical testimony of repentance, disqualifying your baptism disqualifies your faith. We’ve turned this sacred institution into a trap door we use to pull the floor from beneath one another—or, in some cases, disappear through like it’s a rabbit hole to an alternative universe where we’re right and everyone else is wrong. God have mercy on us.
All of You
Baptism’s mystery and meaning aren’t in fingers that sprinkle, hands that pour, or arms anchoring candidates as they go under. (Or, for that matter, are they found in arms cradling an infant whose parents present the child in baptism to signify their vow to raise it in the faith and knowledge of Christ.) Baptism’s power and majesty reside in the water, whatever its quantity or however it’s administered. Thus, we must ask, “What’s in the water?” Opening Galatians 3.26-28, we find our answer. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Confession of faith brings us to baptism, whose primary purpose is removal of differences. It is not the equivalent of salvation, nor is it simply a reenactment of death and resurrection.
It is total immersion, if not literally, then in the far more profound sense of submersion in a Force so powerful it destroys all divisions, be they cultural, religious, social, or sexual. Baptism clothes us in Christ, Paul teaches. It creates uniformity of purpose by cloaking our pride of self and doubt of others. It enables us to see each other as one and the same. (“Your are all one in Christ.”) By way of baptism, everyone belongs—babies and grown-ups; Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox believers; rich people and poor people; brown, black, white, yellow, red, and mixed-race people; women and men, gay, straight, and everything in between; dunkers and sprinklers and dousers—everyone touched by the water belongs. And doesn’t it just figure? The very sacrament ordained to free us of differences is the one we won't quit fighting about. Agreeing on baptism doesn’t merely sound too much like right. It is too much like right. Once we get this corrected, we’ll be able to correct the “too much like wrong” that plagues and defames the Body of Christ we’re baptized into.
It’s not in the method; it’s in the water. Baptism submerges us in a Force so powerful it destroys our differences and clothes us in uniformity.