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A Brief History of Baptism

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

"baptism was necessary to the disciple-making process, in which one could never become a New Testament disciple without being baptized... one does not make disciples without baptism, which makes baptism necessary to the discipleship process under the new covenant agreement." - Orpheus J. Heyward

If you are going to make disciples, you need to baptize. According to global ministry leader Cynthia Anderson, baptism for everyone and by anyone is an essential shift to see disciple making movements multiply. In Jesus' Great Commission, he commands us to go and make disciples, immerse them, and teach them to obey everything he commanded. What do we do today instead? We go into the world and make worship attenders, invite them into small groups, and teach them that being missional means volunteering a couple hours a month, while the professionals do the baptism and discipleship. How did we innovate to this modern day practice that so clearly doesn't fulfill Jesus' words? In this blog, we present a brief history and explanation of how baptism originated, deviated, reformed, and at some points in history restored back to Jesus' original intent. We hope that this overview will help you to include baptism as an essential part to your disciple making.

"A decision to allow ordinary, non-ordained people to baptize can raise serious controversy and opposition... to restrict the giving of baptism to only ordained clergy is detrimental to the rapid multiplication of disciples who make disciples. " - Cynthia Anderson

Baptism, a practice central to Christian faith, has deep roots in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, where ritual washings were a daily part of life for purity and spiritual preparation. These practices involved immersing oneself in water, often collected in mikvahs, and were essential for entering the temple or drawing near to God. The Old Testament typology reveals how these water rituals symbolized a transition from the old to the new, just as Noah's flood marked a new beginning. New Testament authors like Peter and Paul drew upon these typologies to link baptism to the redemptive acts of Christ, emphasizing that Christian baptism is a cleansing of the inner person and a pledge of allegiance to God. It's a transformational act that sets believers apart in their commitment to Christ.

In the formative years of the Christian faith, baptism held a central role among believers. Early Christian writings, including the Didache and the works of figures like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen, emphasized the transformative power of baptism. Immersion was the predominant mode of baptism, symbolizing the remission of sins, with a consensus that one could not be considered saved or part of the Christian community without undergoing this rite. Though infant baptism began to emerge in the third century, especially in emergencies, the theological understanding of baptism's purpose for the forgiveness of sins remained unwavering.

The Reformation was a time of profound change, and nowhere was this more evident than in the shifting perceptions of baptism. Martin Luther emphasized baptism as a divine promise of forgiveness and a lifelong source of comfort. For him, it was an effective means of grace that sealed one's faith. Huldrych Zwingli separated baptism from salvation, seeing it as an external act without salvific power. He believed faith preceded baptism, asserting that material elements could not contribute to spiritual salvation. John Calvin sought a balance, viewing baptism as an "effective sign" symbolizing union with God's grace. He believed God worked through baptism, confirming His presence.

Amidst the theological clash, the Anabaptists emerged, rejecting infant baptism in favor of baptizing adult believers who could confess their faith. They saw baptism as a public act of allegiance, testifying to their repentance and membership in the Christian community.

In the early 19th century, a transformative shift occurred within Christianity, led by visionaries like Walter Scott and Alexander Campbell. They introduced a fresh perspective on baptism, highlighting its pivotal role in obtaining the remission of sins and securing God's promises. This moment marked the inception of what would later be known as the Stone-Campbell Movement or the American Restoration Movement.

Walter Scott, alongside influential associates, initiated a baptismal revival, baptizing hundreds, and heralding a "Reformation" centered on "baptism for the remission of sins." Alexander Campbell contributed significantly by articulating the theology of baptism through a series of articles titled "The Restoration of the Ancient Gospel." This theology became a foundational belief within the Stone-Campbell Movement. Alexander Campbell held that baptism served as God's "formal pledge," an objective moment of assurance, and a means of obtaining forgiveness.

The Restoration Movement, exemplified by the Stone-Campbell Movement, marked a profound theological shift in the understanding of baptism. It brought together Calvinian elements from Scottish Presbyterianism and the practice of believer's baptism from Anabaptism, emphasizing baptism as both a means of grace and a source of assurance for forgiveness.


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1 opmerking


Thank you for such a detailed, yet concise historical overview of Christian baptism from 1st century New Testament teachings (bible), 2nd generation/century Christian teachers, and the drifting of doctrinal understanding from the 3rd through the present centuries. I appreciate the call to return to the foundational teachings and the eternal and spiritual ramifications connected to it. Well done!

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