Rainbow colors from the stained glass windows rested on the people in the pews as I walked to the front of the church where my grandfather stood beside the carved font. His face was solemn, but there was a welcoming twinkle in his eye when I knelt in front of him. I bowed my head and he put his hand into the water in the font.
As water sprinkled down on me, he said, "Child of the Covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
At this confirmation of my membership in the Covenant of Believers, a feeling of security spread through me, resting in my heart, where I knew Jesus had lived since I was five. Now that I was ten, I understood that I had obeyed Jesus and made a public confession of my faith.
Nearly fifty years later I stood in another church and talked to another pastor about baptism. Since moving to the South - the Bible Belt - my husband and I had found our search for a home church surprisingly frustrating. At one church service we sang three repetitious songs for forty minutes, and then heard testimonies, but no sermon. Another church followed a traditional service, with old hymns, responsive readings and uninspired preaching. Wayne felt at home in a more charismatic church, but I was uncomfortable there. We eventually tried a Southern Baptist church, although he didn't want to join a denomination and I knew my baptism would be a problem. They didn't apologize for their doctrinal stance. On the back of the bulletin they stated clearly that baptism by immersion was required for membership.
Finally, God led us to an independent church where we both immediately felt at home. The worship and preaching were scriptural and the people were friendly. By our second visit we began to feel like family. So we asked the pastor more about the church. To my chagrin, we learned that membership in this church also required baptism by immersion. I had never questioned the validity of my baptism, but the pastor said he could show me the scriptures that supported immersion.
We loved the church, and felt that God had led us there, so we decided to continue attending without joining, and hoped that baptism would not become an issue. Wayne, who was immersed when he was saved as a teen, stood with me, even though he could have joined. I believed that I could commit to the church without officially joining. And I did. I attended a Bible Study. I volunteered to help with Operation Christmas Child and pitched in to clean up after events. I co-taught a children's class and eventually led a ladies Bible study and coordinated fellowships. It was rewarding to be an active participant in a growing church, even though I couldn't vote at business meetings.
Then one day, the pastor told me that the elders had decided non-members should not teach. By then, most of my service to the church was teaching. I went home and grieved. For nearly fifty years I had lived in the confidence of my salvation and in the baptism that confirmed it. I had grown in my love for God, His Word and His people. I served His Body wherever He gave me the opportunity and I knew which spiritual gifts enabled me to do it in His power. But now I was stuck in a situation that had no solution.
I didn't want to be baptized again. I knew I was saved, no matter how and when I was baptized, but I thought it was something you did once. My experience was precious to me and I felt that doing it again because the method was wrong meant that generations of Christians, including my Presbyterian ancestors, had gotten a point of doctrine wrong. I tried to believe that it didn't matter, since it wasn't a matter of salvation, but the church thought it mattered enough to keep me from joining.
So I searched the scriptures and talked to wise and knowledgeable people, including my husband, my Presbyterian minister father, my former pastor who was sprinkled, but baptized others by immersion, and a group of caring friends. And I prayed for God's direction.
I had three choices. I could accept the requirements of my church and be baptized again so I could continue in the ministries to which I felt called. Or I could remain true to my understanding of baptism and continue to attend the church where I had been led, but without using the gifts God had given me. Or I could find another church.
First I had to understand what the scripture actually says about baptism. My search for an answer was personal, and I am sure I did not plumb the depth of the issue. But I prayed earnestly that God would give me an understanding that would let me know what He wanted me to do. I learned that the Hebrew word for baptism is mikveh. The mikveh is literally an immersion in water. In the Old Testament it was a ritual cleansing of both objects and people to indicate a transition from one state to another. Temple implements and people who touched a dead body were immersed to purify them. The temple of Jesus' day had many mikveh pools and devout Jews used them whenever they needed to be purified. In the sense of a transition, Jesus' baptism could be understood as a sign that he was beginning his ministry. So when he told his followers to make disciples and baptize them (Matthew 28:19), he wanted the new disciples to undergo a ritual cleansing to indicate their transition into the Kingdom of God.
The Jewish law in the Old Testament also sometimes requires sprinkling water on someone as a sign of ritual cleansing. God told Moses to do this to the Levites to set them apart for service. (Numbers 8:5-7) In Ezekiel 36:25 God says He will sprinkle His people with water to cleanse them before giving them a new heart. Although this sprinkling isn't mikveh, it sounds like what I always thought baptism was a ritual to signify that God has given me a new heart. In the New Testament, sprinkling refers to the blood of Christ, not water. But I could see how those verses could be used to support baptism by sprinkling. After all, it's His blood that washes away our sins. Finally, I Corinthians 10:2 says the Israelites were baptized in the cloud and in the sea when escaping Egypt, yet in neither case did they go under water. They were probably sprinkled by rain.
But there's a symbolism in immersion that sprinkling doesn't provide. When one is baptized, one is buried with Christ and raised with Him. It's easier to picture dying and rising when a person actually goes underwater and comes back up again. I understand the importance of this symbol, but sprinkling is also a symbol. In the Reformed tradition, baptism by sprinkling - symbolizes membership in the Covenant of Believers. Baptism is not just a statement of belief, but a recognition that the believer is a member of the Body of Christ. And whatever terms you want to use to describe it, baptism is just the symbol. Salvation by Grace is what actually brings you into the Body.
As I came to understand the meaning of baptism, I realized that my problem had several other facets. I had to also find out whether baptism is something you only do once, and whether God requires membership in a church. I didn't find anything in scripture that said one shouldn't be baptized more than once, and at least one instance in Acts where believers were baptized a second time. Admittedly, the circumstances were different from mine, but it gave me a reason to consider it. There are no explicit membership guidelines for a local church in scripture, but submission to church leaders is a common theme in Acts and Paul's letters. For me, that meant I must abide by the requirements of the local body to which I had committed. So it was starting to look like I should be baptized a second time. Just as Wayne supported me in my original decision not to join, he offered to be baptized with me if I chose to do it.
But there was one more battle I was fighting. While I was sincere in my beliefs about the meaning and purpose of baptism, I was also proud of my heritage and my life-long faith. As I struggled to understand the scriptures, I mentally argued against every evidence for baptism by immersion. I was worried that my baptism and the beliefs of my ancestors would be invalidated. I felt like a second class citizen at church and wondered if the church leadership questioned my salvation. After all, if Wayne could join the church without being baptized again, why did I have to go through this extra ritual? I asked how they could let a few gallons of water deny me the opportunity to serve where God had called me. I also worried what the women I had been teaching would think if I were baptized now. I thought they would see me as a new believer and question my knowledge and experience as a Christian. Truthfully, I was afraid I'd look bad.
As I began to acknowledge my pride, I realized that I was concerned about what people thought because I cared about them. Finding another church had never really been an option; I had given my heart to this body of believers. Because I loved them, I felt I might be able to do something that my head told me was unnecessary.
In the end, the resolution to my problem was to quiet my heart before God and submit to His will. I put away all the arguments for and against immersion, my research and notes and my questions, and waited for God to lead me. God knew the state of my soul; He had confirmed my salvation long ago. He also knew my pride and my need to be humbled. I slowly began to think that I could be baptized again. I pictured myself walking into the ocean to meet the pastor, while my church family stood on the shore and watched. I thought I could do it out of love.
I still don't know if God requires immersion as the only way. I don't know if baptism is a public profession of salvation or a symbol of entering the Kingdom of God or if they are the same thing. But I know God has given me the spiritual gift of teaching and He wants me to use the gift. I have made a commitment to a body of believers whose leaders require baptism by immersion in order for me to serve them. I think I'll be taking that walk down the beach this summer.
Phee Paradise is a freelance writer with diverse writing experience. Her work includes book reviews, newspaper articles and short stories, and she writes devotionals for her blog, Delighted Meditations. (http://delightedmeditations.blogspot.com). She also teaches public speaking at a local college.