The history of baptism in the church is interesting and typically one of the most controversial teachings. Today there is a great deal of emphasis in many denominations on baptism, and over the centuries people have been baptized in many different ways.
The Bible actually has a lot to say about baptism. We see in Matthew, chapter three, the coming of John the Baptist, a first cousin of Jesus, calling people to repentance and baptizing them in the River Jordan.
The word baptize is from the Greek word baptizo and means “to dip or immerse under water.” However, the word also can mean “to clean with water.” The Greek word was used, for example, in the way cloth was dyed: it would be immersed under water with pigment. Another example would be how a blacksmith would baptizo a piece of hot iron in water to cool it quickly and therefore make it stronger.
The Jewish followers of John the Baptist, who were called to repent of their sins, already knew a lot about baptism. In the Jewish culture, ritual washings, or baptisms, were also one of the final steps for Gentile converts to Judaism. They would be baptized (called a mikvah) “into Moses” by symbolically recalling the crossing by the Israelites of the Red Sea.
In the early church people who were converted “into Christ” were baptized typically by being immersed in water. We know this because we have historical evidence from the time of the apostles, including excavations of baptismals that are deep enough for an adult to be immersed fully. We also know from first-century writings that the bishops could grant permission for water to be poured only if there wasn’t sufficient or deep water available.
During the first few centuries, new Christian believers would receive special instruction for an entire year. These new believers were called Catechumens, and after their instruction the church would have a huge celebration, typically right around Palm Sunday, when these new believers were baptized, given white robes, and became full members of the church.
At that time baptism was a rite of initiation with great symbolic meaning, but it was not directly tied to the forgiveness of sins. Many Catechumens, for example, who were not yet baptized went to the Roman Coliseum and faced martyrdom confident of their salvation.
However, by the fourth century, Christians generally associated baptism with the forgiveness of all sins. As a result many people would delay their baptisms to gain maximum effect and wash away many years of sin. Emperor Constantine the Great, for example, delayed his baptism until his deathbed. The leaders of the church saw a great moral danger in delaying baptism, and fortunately for them another teaching—that baptism was necessary for salvation—became popular. St. Augustine (AD 354–430) had written, “How many rascals are saved by being baptized on their deathbeds? And how many sincere Catechumens die unbaptized, and are thus lost forever!”(15)
As a result of these dilemmas and Augustine’s teaching, two new Catholic doctrines—the doctrine of necessity (that baptism is necessary) and the doctrine of forgiveness (that baptism forgives original sin)—officially emerged. Since the mortality rate for infants was very high, soon babies were being baptized within a few days of birth. By the end of the fourth century, baptism, as an initial step of initiation into the church, split into two sacraments: baptism for infants and then a later confirmation for adolescents and adults, replacing what was typically an adult baptism via immersion that accomplished both rites. In the Eastern or Orthodox Church, babies are still baptized by immersion rather than being sprinkled, or by having water poured over their foreheads.
By the sixteenth century, many of the reformers began to look at infant baptism in light of both early church history as well as the teachings in the Bible and encouraged each other to be baptized again. These Anabaptists, as they were called, restarted the practice in the church of what we know today as believers’ baptism, which is practiced in many of our Evangelical churches.
Not all Christians baptize the same way, nor do all Christian denominations recognize each other’s baptisms. However, many Evangelical Christians believe that water baptism identifies the believer with the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as we are commanded in Matthew 28:19 to “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Further, water baptism identifies the believer with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
"Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." (Rom. 6:3–4).
While some may believe baptism is only symbolic, we also need to remember it was one of the two commonly recognized sacraments of the church. Historically sacraments were viewed as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us, ordained by Christ himself.” (16) Baptism is the manner by which the church fulfills the commandment of Jesus to “make disciples…and baptize them” as well as for the believer to identify himself or herself with his or her new life in Christ.
The text above is from pages 44-46 in Baptism, Chapter 9 of "Roaming Catholics"
Was Peter the first Pope? Should Christians pray the Rosary? Should priests be married? These are among the provocative topics addressed in Roaming Catholics: Ending the wandering to embrace the wonder.
This thoroughly researched book presents the development of the Catholic Church in an engaging way to help Christians understand their common history shared by all. The apostle Paul referred to the church as the "Body of Christ," not the "Body of Christians." Rather than Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female he proclaimed we are to be one in Christ.
Pastor and theologian Kenneth Behr shares his own religious evolution from a Catholic altar boy to an evangelical pastor and engages readers with a parallel story of the evolution of Catholicism.
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