On August 12th our SBC President, JD Greear issued a challenge to our convention of churches. Although the genesis of this emphasis is nothing new to old-school SBC’ers, this renewed initiative might be new to the younger guys and gals involved in our cooperative effort.
No doubt, from the time Adam skinned his first rabbit to fashion extra bloomers for he and Eve, the Southern Baptist Convention has had a “Baptism Sunday” chiseled onto its annual Calendar of Activities. Baptism (the mode, the methodology and the meaning) is important to us low-church Protestants in a way that not much else is. It’s our name, for heaven’s sake.
The 2019 SBC calendar has this year’s “Baptism Sunday” slated for September 8th (you can see the full calendar here). Now admittedly, it appears little attention is ever really paid to the events enshrined on that particular list of activities. Honestly, when I look at that calendar my response is generally a shruggingly disinterested, “Eh.” Let me be clear, there are worthy items of focus listed there. I suppose my issue is, (1) I’ve never been much of a follower of ideas passed down to me outside of my context and (2) Youth Week, Senior Adult Sunday and Southern Baptist Media Day (among others) have no bearing on my life or ministry. We engage our youth and the seniors every week in our church and I couldn’t care less about Southern Baptist Media Day as a church emphasis. I don’t even know what it is.
Although many of our convention leaders have bemoaned the unfortunate trend of ever-decreasing baptism numbers, this year, our President is deliberately pointing attention to this special emphasis day and to the opportunity we have to make an eternal impact through emphasizing calling the lost to salvation through the call to baptism. If you’ve not done so, please pause here to read the BP articles from JD, published Aug. 12, from Johnny Hunt, published Aug. 15 and from Ronnie Floyd, published Aug. 19.
A WORD ABOUT BAPTISM METHODOLOGY
Many of those who will read this Voices article are aware of the quiet debate between differing views of baptism methodology. By this I mean the question of who is eligible for baptism and how long a period of time should expire between regeneration and immersion. In actuality, a broad spectrum of views is represented across the SBC on this subject. On one far side are those who will argue for total spontaneous baptisms. They keep the water flowing in the tubs and as soon as someone comes forward they are dunked. On the other far side of that spectrum are those who have a developed strenuous catechismal process a candidate must go through before entering the waters of baptism. Some of these churches decline to baptize anyone under the age of 18 out of a concern for possibly giving a person a false sense of salvific security when that individual is actually not regenerate. Both of these perspectives are borne out of a well-meaning ecclesiology and yet there is a division of thought as to which is a more correct view. Also important to realize is that this is not a “one or the other” issue. A continuum exists here that allows for nuanced views across the spectrum.
To be clear, I am not talking about the credo v. paedo division here. This question is happening within the credo family. Nor am I referencing Believer’s Baptism v. Covenant Baptism. We Baptists are firmly planted in the “Believer’s Baptism” side of this dialogue. This is a methodological question, not a question of meaning or mode.
ON SPONTANEOUS BAPTISMS
At first glance, one might be inclined to believe that Dr. Greear is advocating for a spontaneous baptism without any sort of deliberate examination of the candidate. Nothing could be further from the truth. JD makes an important point when he says,
Every one of our churches ought to do everything in its power to ensure that everyone who comes forward to be baptized understands the Gospel and the significance of what they are doing. Just because the decision is more immediate doesn’t mean it should be hasty or sloppy. During baptism services at our church, for instance, we individually counsel every person who comes forward. Those conversations take time — often extending into the next service — and we always end up turning some people away. But that moment is important, because it starts a conversation about what it means to follow Jesus.
Clearly, this is not a reckless call nor is it bereft of the due diligence incumbent upon those who have spiritual oversight of the flock. As he notes above, each person who comes forward is counseled as to their understanding and readiness for Baptism. Todd Unzicker (who, by the way, is an unsung hero of our convention over the last couple of years and who pastors alongside our Pres at their church in North Carolina) assures me that there are many who are not ready to be baptized and are told as much in favor of more detailed counseling and guidance.
The fact is, JD’s observation about baptism being an immediate occurrence in scripture is an important thing for us to consider. He notes,
…every single baptism recorded in the New Testament, without exception, is spontaneous and immediate. For New Testament believers, the pattern was alarmingly simple: Believe, confess, get baptized. There was never a gap between when a person trusted Christ and when that person was baptized. Not one.
Obviously, there is no mention in Scripture of catechismal classes, nor is there any reference to a baptism committee, nor to an age restriction on baptismal candidates. Thus, Greear’s challenge needs to be considered and used as a guard rail for those like me who have been very concerned over our tradition’s practice of what I would call the problem of “number-driven ego baptisms.”
A CONCERN OVER “BAPTISM NUMBERS”
I have long regretted the lack of integrity our churches have traditionally exhibited regarding the process of baptism. I argue that such a loose practice is the genesis of a number of our current problems in the SBC. And it’s why I have typically been averse to the “spontaneous” side of the baptism continuum.
First, I believe we have seriously bloated membership numbers due to our penchant for conflating baptism with regeneration or at least, wanting our numbers to “look good.” I’d assume most of today’s pastors look at the SBC’s “16 million-member” mantra with a frustrating shake of the head. We all know that number is bound to be inflated from years of being more concerned with notching our baptismal belt than our concern of over a truly regenerate and discipled local body over which we have charge.
Second, I believe that these years of bloated numbers do us a disservice today as we lament the ever-decreasing lower baptism numbers from year to year. We address this topic as if to suggest all those early numbers are true markers of regenerate lives and thus, in some way we are letting down or are in some way less evangelistic than we once were. Now admittedly, those concerns might be true but I’m not sure a look at past numbers is the way to properly gauge such a decline. Honestly, a simple glance at weekly attendance is enough evidence to dispute the assumption that those baptisms were indicators of regeneration. Could it simply be, and I’m just asking here, that the current “lower” baptism numbers are simply a more accurate attestation to true professions of faith? I know that is not going to be a popular idea, but I’m just wondering aloud. Please don’t slaughter me over this musing.
I remain dubious of the process of unbridled spontaneous baptisms. I believe serious damage has been done with our traditionally lackadaisical attitude toward this important ordinance. I want all pastors to be acutely aware of the spiritual condition of our baptism candidates but regardless of my concern in this area, I find that Greear’s challenge has caused me to rethink my own personal attitude regarding these issues (even though my view is not as far away from his as I once thought).
He is correct about the immediate nature of baptism while also pointing out that confirmation, as much as is humanly discernable, took place in the moment. I think there is a balance which may be found here. We must be careful in our concern that we not “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” We want to be, we should be, we need to be Biblicists on this and every other topic with which we engage. I believe there is a biblical way to do this where we are neither erring on the side of too much caution nor abandoning our due diligence to confirm (and affirm) the regeneration of our people.
Our President’s challenge is a good one and although we’ve had a number of baptisms as of late, our church has accepted the #FillTheTank Challenge. I’m also happy to see that our new Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Director, Steve Horn, has publicly encouraged Louisiana Baptists to take up JD’s challenge (that’s a promising sign to me that things might be changing in Louisiana).
Please do consider the challenge to #FillTheTank at your church on Sunday, September 8th. Do it right. Make a clear declaration of the gospel. Call the people to “believe, confess and be baptized.” Challenge the candidates who present themselves. Call them to faithful covenant-oriented membership and let’s glorify God with this biblical challenge.