I baptized my younger son on New Year’s Day. On a day of new beginnings, we celebrated his new birth. My voice cracked when I asked him to confess what he believes about Jesus. He responded, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
These words rang sweeter in my ears than the first words he spoke as a toddler. My tears mixed with the baptismal water when I lowered him into the burial of his old self, and raised him as a new creation in Jesus. I experienced the same joy I had felt when I baptized my older son 18 months earlier.
Baptism matters. I believe in its significance now more than I ever have.
Just five days after I baptized my son, I received a note from Christian Standard about an article idea. The editors envisioned a survey and analysis of what Christian church and church of Christ websites reveal about our baptism doctrine.
I responded within seconds. Like some others, I fear that our churches have minimized what Scripture teaches about baptism, and have thereby robbed it of its beauty and significance. I’m not concerned with winning arguments or proving points—I didn’t baptize my son to prove a point—but I do fear that a casual approach to baptism will weaken our perspectives of conversion, submission, and discipleship, not to mention our biblical faithfulness.
So, I began researching, anxious about what I might discover.
Method and Results
Two friends graciously helped me examine 250 Christian church and church of Christ websites, chosen randomly from the latest edition of The Directory of the Ministry. The sampling included congregations in 46 of the 50 states, from New England to California, from Florida to Washington, and everywhere in between.
1. Historic Restoration Movement Doctrine: Baptism is a part of the process by which a person receives salvation from Jesus Christ.
2. Generic Evangelical Doctrine: Baptism is an important act of obedience that occurs after a person has been saved.
3. No Mention: The website says nothing about baptism.
Of the 250 church websites, 166 (66 percent) displayed the historic Restoration Movement doctrine, 16 (6 percent) taught a generic Evangelical doctrine, and 68 (27 percent) made no mention of baptism.
Before I draw conclusions from the research, four observations merit consideration.
First, most of the websites that do not mention baptism lack any doctrinal statement whatsoever. Often, these websites present only a picture of a church building and a listing of the church’s service times and contact information. The exclusion of baptism has more to do with the sparseness of the website than with the church’s doctrine.
For this reason, we can remove from consideration the 68 websites that make no mention of baptism. The websites simply do not reveal what the churches believe on this matter. Of the remaining 182 websites that do discuss baptism, 166 (91 percent) hold to historic Restoration Movement doctrine, while 16 (9 percent) reflect a generic Evangelical view. [See the chart on page 6.]
Second, some churches that present a generic Evangelical perspective have, I believe, simply worded their beliefs poorly. I base this speculation (and I admit it is speculation) on an examination of other parts of their websites, which appear to reflect historic Restoration Movement doctrine.
For example, one church’s website demonstrates a strong sense of Restoration Movement heritage, discussing the movement’s history and pioneers, and repeating throughout a desire to pattern itself after the New Testament church. On the minister’s portion of the website, he speaks highly of his own baptism, and describes the spiritual growth he experienced after his conversion at one of our movement’s prominent and conservative churches.
In the section that discusses the church’s beliefs, however, this congregation seems to have allowed generic Evangelical language to seep into its vocabulary, describing salvation as coming when a person confesses Christ, and baptism as something that relates to church membership.
Third, this study revealed only what churches list on their websites. A more comprehensive study would account for how the churches discuss baptism in Sunday school classes, small groups, pulpits, elders’ meetings, and elsewhere. Just because a congregation describes a particular perspective of baptism on its website does not mean that perspective permeates church life.
Fourth, while I believe some churches have simply not been careful with their vocabulary, other websites make perfectly clear that the church’s baptism doctrine reflects the generic Evangelical perspective. One church’s website, for example, speaks of the “ABC’s of salvation,” explaining that when a person Admits his sin, Believes in Christ, and Confesses his name, that person is saved.
The website goes on to describe the role of baptism: “One more step Jesus encouraged, but it isn’t needed for your salvation. If you did the ABC’s (steps 1 through 3), you have been saved. However Jesus also encouraged water baptism to show others that you have been joined to Jesus. Baptism is your public testimony that you have been saved. It is an act of obedience and a symbol of commitment.”
This study has its limitations, but it does reveal that an overwhelming majority of Christian church and church of Christ websites reflect the historic Restoration Movement perspective of baptism, stating that baptism holds an essential place in the process by which a person receives salvation from Jesus Christ. Of the websites I examined that discuss baptism, 91 percent state this belief outright.
While I browsed websites, the same words and phrases continually crossed my computer screen: “Christ’s free gift of salvation is received through belief in Jesus, confession of sin, repentance from sin, and baptism by full immersion in water.” Or, “Those who choose to become Christians should repent of their sins, confess his name, and be baptized into him.”
Though there are some differences among our churches’ beliefs about baptism, our websites indicate there is more agreement on this doctrine today than existed among Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and Walter Scott, particularly in the earlier years of their ministries. And, those differences that do exist today can serve to keep us on our doctrinal toes, assuring that the discussion of this important matter continues.
For churches contemplating how to present baptism on their websites, I offer three suggestions.
• First, give careful attention to what you post on your website. Your website is the first exposure many people will have to your church. Present the church’s beliefs clearly and accurately for this first “meeting” with potential new believers.
• Second, celebrate, and do not hide from, a biblical explanation of your beliefs, including your belief about baptism. Baptism holds an appropriate place in a discussion of Christ, his cross, sin, grace, and faith.
• Third, avoid an argumentative tone. Some websites I examined seem to assume that the person visiting the website holds a different view of baptism, and attempts to prove that person wrong. Such websites say more about baptism than they say about Jesus. Though we want to give baptism its proper due, we do not want to detract from its beauty by minimizing it into a doctrinal argument.
Baptism holds an essential place in Scripture, in conversion, and in Restoration Movement heritage. May we honor it without worshipping it, and may we maintain its biblical priority without turning it into an argument. Instead, let us worship and celebrate the one who grants us the privilege of participating in his death and resurrection through baptism.
Daniel Overdorf is professor of preaching at Johnson University, Knoxville, Tennessee. He is author of What the Bible Says about the Church: Rediscovering Community, soon to be released by College Press Publishing.