Baptism is commonly administered in one of three ways; immersion (totally submerging a person in water), pouring water over a person (Catholics refer to this as infusion), or by simply sprinkling water over a person. Which of the three are valid, or should we say more valid? Does it really matter? Is the mode of baptism irrelevant if a person is doing it for the right reasons?
As a Baptist pastor I know more of the reasons for immersion than I do reasons for infusion or sprinkling. Sprinkling and pouring are not foreign concepts to Scripture or early Christian practice. It is true that in the early church pouring was used as a valid mode of baptism. However it seems that this mode was used only when “living water (running water such as in a river or stream) was not available.” When running water was not available baptism would be administered by pouring water over a person three times, once in the name of the Father, the second time in the name of the Son, and the third time in the name of the Holy Spirit. What is interesting about this is that for most of us that immerse, our current method of the indoor baptistry would not be considered a valid mode of baptism because it is not “living water.” Even in the modern context there are many groups who practice immersion who would not consider baptizing anyone in any body of water other than a running stream. We should also acknowledge that while immersion was a common practice of the Jews, sprinkling was also a common mode of administering blood or water in purification rituals (Num. 19:18, Hebrews 9:19).
Why immersion? It is clear in the New Testament that immersion was the mode of baptism practiced by John and the first century church. In examining the language used in passages about baptism one will find words that communicate an image of people being fully in water, coming up out of water, or needing a sufficient body of water in order to be baptized (Mk. 1:5, Mk. 1:10, John 3:23, Acts 8:36). We also find in the New Testament that baptism by immersion communicates more clearly the idea of participating with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, as well as the idea of salvation as a means of washing away the stain of sin (Rom. 6:3-4, Col. 2:12, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21). Furthermore the Greek word we translate “baptize” in the New Testament is a word used to describe the process of dyeing fabric or yarn in which the material is immersed fully into ink.
As a pastor I have never experienced difficulty in arguing these points from Scripture. Most people would acknowledge that immersion better typifies participation with Christ in salvation and that it is a better symbol of washing away sin. The difficulty with baptism is most often on a personal level. Baptism is a matter of conscience. For those who have been sprinkled as a believer, baptism is as personal to them as it is to someone who has been immersed as a believer. As a pastor I must always be careful not to belittle a person’s conversion or baptism experience. Yet in holding to my beliefs and the policy of the church, this is all but impossible to do. As Baptists, at least in the policy of our church and most Baptists churches, we only consider people who have been immersed as believers for membership with the church. Many people who have been sprinkled feel this policy belittles their baptism. I understand their point, yet I still hold to my own convictions on the matter. Furthermore, some would say that if baptism does not save a person, why do we make such a big deal about the mode of baptism?
The reason, as Baptists, we hold so strongly to Baptism by immersion is more about the positive than the negative. We believe immersion is clearly the proper mode of baptism as taught and practiced by Scripture and the apostolic church. As such, I would also have to logically conclude and say that other forms of baptism such as sprinkling and pouring are the wrong modes of baptism because they are not modes of immersion. In making this statement, I would at the same time, not want to damage the conscience of a brother or sister in Christ. This is a fine line, and I am not sure at this point I can adequately walk it. There are many incredible people of God of whom I am firmly convinced know Christ intimately, who are clearly born again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who have not been baptized by immersion. There are many people who have not been immersed that I wish were members of RBC. We are brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, but at the same time I would encourage them to be baptized by immersion so that they may not only follow the example of Jesus in baptism, but also properly typify what God has done in their salvation in burying and raising them in Christ Jesus.
In researching this topic I came across an interesting set of documents published online by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota under the direction of Pastor John Piper. It seems in 2005 they wrestled with the issue of welcoming for membership those who have not been baptized by immersion. From what I understand in their documentation, the conclusion was that they would accept for membership those who have not been immersed only after they have submitted themselves to the teachings of the church on baptism by immersion. If a person has humbly heard these teaching and considered them; and they still hold in their conscience that their baptism is valid, Bethlehem will accept them as members as not to violate their conscience. Here is a link to the document. There are many others posted in the same context, including dissenting opinions, that speaks to the issue as well http://www.desiringgod.org/media/pdf/baptism_and_membership/QuestionsAndAnswers.pdf.