101 Why I am a Baptist, but not an “Immersionist”

The “Immersionist” position is that any act of baptism that is not by the mode of immersion cannot be accepted as fulfillment of Jesus’ command to baptize.[1] Their rationale stems from a deep and admirable desire to radically obey[2] Jesus in all things and since the Greek baptizo literally means “immerse,” only that form is a true fulfillment of the command. In thinking through the issue I have come to the opposite conclusion and believe that highlighting the immersion mode diminishes the purpose and meaning of baptism because it emphasizes something peripheral to the command. Both symbolically and with a life-surrendering vow baptism is an act of “plunging … into the very name and life and character of the true God, who is Father, Son and Spirit.”[3] Radical obedience is the fulfillment of the latter vow, rather than a literal adherence to the form of the symbolism. It would be an unfortunate emphasis in our Fellowship churches if, by insisting on the outward appearance, we denied ourselves the fellowship of those who have also made that vow and embraced that symbolism, albeit by a mode that is less expressive than it could be.

Part of the argument provided by the Immersionists is that a transliteration (“baptize”) rather than a translation (“immerse”) of the word baptizo masks its true meaning and was employed in Bible translations for political reasons.[4] While political reasons stemming from church practice and the influence of the monarchy on religious authority were evident at the time of the early English Bible translations, these reasons need not be the sole motive behind the choice to transliterate. As a Bible translator into the Sindhi language,[5] I have often struggled with the benefit and impact of transliterating rather than translating. For example, in the Bible many names have meaning yet the function of identification usually overrides other aspects leading to a choice to transliterate. Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement,” which the original readers would have understood but this meaning is lost in the transliteration. Nonetheless, this loss is considered appropriate since the purpose of the name is primarily the identification of the person, just as a woman called “Joy” is only occasionally reminded of the significance of her name. Even closer to the issue at hand, when translating the New Testament into the Sindhi language for a Hindu audience, we discovered that some Hindu-background Christians were referring to baptism as a “holy bath.” For a time we seriously considered this as an option, but eventually settled on the transliteration “baptism” in order to facilitate a common Christian vocabulary and avoid potential divisions and arguments based on terminology.

Other than political expediency, the desire to avoid controversy and to encourage greater uniformity in Christian terminology, the most important reason for transliterating baptizo is theological. Baptism is far more than a symbol of immersion, its primary significance is as an ordinance. I am a Baptist because I am convinced of believer’s baptism and I value immersion as the most appropriate symbol to express the profound commitment of making a vow of total submission to God in Jesus’ name. The imagery of immersion is powerful and significant. It is an acted out metaphor of the internal reality and I would not want to lose that. But to deny expressions of baptism based solely on the mode raises the physical act to a level that I do not believe Jesus intended. His focus was on the heart not the outward appearance and in order to follow Christ I believe that we need to treat baptism the same way. The commands of Christ lead us to the heart of God, not to outward symbolic actions. A focus on immersion that causes us to reject those baptized by another mode is to move our attention from the purpose and meaning of baptism to a secondary and less important aspect.

In a recent paper Phil Webb[6] stated that “every change that God desires of us is relational and takes place in relationship,” which means that true obedience is done “by the spirit of the law rather than by the letter of the law.” The transliterated term “baptism” is more appropriate than the translated “immersion” because it points to the spirit of the command rather than the mode; “baptism” emphasizes the meaning and purpose of the ordinance and avoids placing too much emphasis upon that which is secondary.

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[1] Belyea, G., Carter, G. & Frey, R. (2016) Conclusion in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 151). Brampton: Kainos: 151-152.

[2] Stairs, J. (2016). Why the Dripped Should be Dipped! in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 199-200). Brampton: Kainos: 191-204.

[3] Wright, T. (2011). Lent for Everyone: Matthew Year A (p. 149). London: SPCK.

[4] Frey, R. (2016). The Linguistic Evidence in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 22). Brampton: Kainos: 21-32.

[5] https://www.nbseminary.ca/church-health/cild/cild_sindhibible

[6] Webb, P. (2016) Unpublished.

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