Baptism and the New Testament Church
© 2021 by C. O. Bishop
What do we actually know about the New Testament Church?
There are many books written on this subject. I don’t propose to rewrite them. I do think it would be well to summarize:
The New Testament Church was:
- Indigenous. In no case was an outside person, thing, or material necessary to the function of the local church. (Titus and Timothy were sent to help, later, but they were commanded to get the job done, and get out. 2 Tim 4:9, 21; Titus 1:5; 3:12)
- Self-governing. No Church was subject to a distant board of overseers, or any kind of hierarchic structure. (Acts 15 was a request by an apostle for confirmation, from other apostles. It was not a board of cardinals, [or other “birds”] stepping in to correct a local church which was in need of correction.)
- Self-supporting. No Church was to depend upon another for its sustenance, but every church was concerned about the others, and stood ready to help in time of need. (2 Corinthians 9)
- Self-Propagating. No Church depended upon professional or foreign evangelists to bring in souls, or to carry out the work of the ministry. Leaders were raised up from within the congregation, and every member was expected to function in the ministry. (Ephesians 4:11-16) This is critical to the health of the church.
- Under the headship of Christ, with a plurality of human under-shepherds.
- There is no scriptural example of a singular leader in a church, except possibly Diotrephes, in 3rd John.
- Every example, either by anecdote or command, is “elders” (plural) of the “church” (singular).
- The headship of Christ is constantly underscored throughout the epistles.
- Free to fit the culture in which it has been planted.
- This, of course, is not a license to sin, but a recognition that the style of music, worship, and preaching will vary with the culture, and be used by God accordingly.
- If the church is unnatural to its environment, it becomes questionable what makes the people different—is it the indwelling presence of the person of Christ, transforming their life, and making them holy, saying “Come out from among them and be ye holy!”? Or is it the abiding presence of an outside influence that tells them “Live according to this creed, and God will be pleased.”? One is the voice of the Liberator; the other the voice of the Legalizer. One sets them free; the other enslaves them. We need to avoid error in this matter.
- Committed to the study and preaching and teaching of the Word of God.
- This one is obvious all through the epistles.
- The leadership gifts of the local assembly are all to bring about the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry. (Ephesians 4:12)
- Committed to obedience to the Written Word, administered by the Living Word.
- This one is harder to achieve, but we have to prayerfully, respectfully pursue it with our whole heart. This is where we live or die. It is the foundation to everything else.
- Those who desire genuine submission to Christ continue to purify their own lives, and keep going back to the Word, for the purpose of transformation. And God honors this desire, and gives them an even stronger desire to draw near to Him, and walk with Him.
- Devoted to the Love of, Worship of, and Obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ; and the Love of, Care of, and mutual commitment to one another.
- This is the heart of what makes genuine Christianity work. If you don’t love the Brethren, you don’t love the Lord. And the reverse is true as well. If Christ is the center (imagine a spoked wheel) and we (“the spokes”) desire to draw near to Him, we can’t help desiring to draw near to one another as well.
- Devoted to fulfilling the Great Commission.
- This is not a grievous task, but the natural outworking of a spiritual “chain-reaction” that has begun in the life of every believer. If we are doing what the Lord wants us to do, we will have opportunity to share our faith, and we will desire to do so. (1 Corinthians 15:34; Romans 15:20)
What about Today?
It seems to me that we should continually make it our aim to make a clean start, unfettered by tradition, whether recent or ancient, except where those traditions are plainly in obedience to Scripture, or where they are harmless, and in an area in which we have freedom to choose, anyway. (Church potlucks, Bible Studies, etc.)
It further seems to me that we should make every effort to not carry “baggage” from our former church or churches, but focus our attention on “What does God’s Word actually say?” and “How can I rightly apply it to my life?” We need to step away from the old baggage and move forward, not be constantly looking back.
When Paul went into a new area, he went to the local gathering-places (the marketplace, waterhole or well, the synagogue, etc.), and he preached. When some responded positively, he spent more time with them, and taught them, confirming them in their new faith. He spent further time, training up leaders, and ordaining them to the work of shepherding the local flock. He gave them two ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Table), and adequate instruction, and then he left, and began again elsewhere. Later he sent men to further instruct, train and encourage the new believers, but the fledgling churches were largely left in God’s hands, and, (amazingly!) they mostly flourished!
Is there any real reason the above principles cannot be applied in North America, in the 21st century? I can’t see any. The only thing that has limited the abilityof the Holy Spirit is the availability of Man. When we don’t do what God says, usually it is because we don’t choose to, not because we “don’t understand.” The door to the truth is the will, not the intellect. It is important that we feed the understanding, and we seek to do just that, here at True Hope: but we must also appeal to the will of every believer, to make a decision to walk with Jesus; to attempt obedience to the instructions in the epistles.
When we share the Gospel of Christ with people, we give them information sufficient to make a decision to receive Jesus as their Savior. But we also appeal to the will, asking them to believe. Again, the door to the truth is the will, not the intellect. When Noah was building the Ark, he was a Preacher of Righteousness according to 2nd Peter 2:5. All those around him knew what he was building, and why. But the only ones who were persuaded to believe were his own family, who obeyed by faith, and entered that Ark.
We obey the Gospel by faith, placing our trust in the Blood of Jesus at the Cross, as complete payment for our sins, and as our only hope for eternal salvation.
As believers, we see that two ordinances have been given: Water Baptism, and The Lord’s Table. We explain the nature of the Lord’s Table every month when we take communion, but we haven’t talked much about baptism. Both are an outward testimony of something that has already occurred inwardly, and a physical, visible demonstration of a spiritual, invisible reality. Communion testifies through the symbols of the bread and the cup that “Jesus died for me: His body was torn and broken for me, and His Blood was shed for me!” As believers we take part in communion to testify of His sacrificial death, until He comes: which means we also express our confident assurance that He is indeed returning!
When we celebrate communion, we are testifying that Jesus’s blood was the full payment for our sins. (Remember the Passover Lamb: the people who placed themselves under the blood of that Lamb for protection against the Wrath of God, did not just “stand there and watch:” they each ate of that lamb!) We eat (as we were told to do) as a commemoration of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the whole world. By faith we are laying our hands upon that sacrifice, and claiming it as the substitute for our own lives. And in doing so, we honor Jesus before the world, proclaiming His death until He comes.
What about Baptism?
There are two types of baptisms taught in the New Testament: one of them is absolutely necessary for salvation, but has nothing to do with water. The other does involve water, and is in no way required for salvation…but it does stand as a matter of obedience, even if we don’t fully understand it.
Baptism by the Holy Spirit
Turn to 1st Corinthians 12:13. This chapter is entirely given to understanding the gifts of the Spirit, and how He, the Holy Spirit, builds the church by giving appropriate gifts to each believer. He makes the choice as to who will do what task, and, just as individual cells in a body are not given the option to choose their individual tasks or locations in the body, believers are given their assignments by God, the Holy Spirit. Without going into a lot of detail about the gifts of the Spirit, this verse, in the midst of the larger passage, tells us a key point: every single believer has been “Baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ.” That fact is what makes you a “Member” of the Body of Christ at large.
When we talk about “Church Membership,” this is the only kind of membership God addresses. Every member of the Body of Christ is expected to find a local assembly of like-minded believers and attach themselves to that assembly and serve there, as a functioning part of the Body of Christ. Every member is to function.
Some churches have a “membership roll,” as if they are a country club, or something. No such idea is suggested in scripture. Some literally require that you be water-baptized (again) into that church, for membership. This also is unbiblical. Some require that you be “vetted” by a governing board, and deemed “worthy” to be a part of their organization. I personally find that to be repugnant. If Jesus’s Blood at the Cross, which made me clean enough to stand before a Holy God, and address Him as Father, is not enough to make me “worthy” to be in some human outfit, then I don’t belong there! (Is there “church discipline” in the Bible? Yes, but it has nothing to do with membership. We will discuss that at another time.)
Baptism by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ is the only kind of baptism necessary for salvation, and it occurs the moment you place your faith in Jesus as your Savior, even if you are unaware that it is happening. So let’s talk about the otherkind of baptism: water baptism.
First, let’s discuss the actual meaning of the word, “baptize.”
Oddly enough, the Greek word for “baptize” is pretty much just “baptize.” The problem was that when the first English Bibles were being published (particularly the King James Version which was “authorized” by King James, the then monarch of England, who was also the head of the Anglican Church)…since they had to not contradict the Church of England, the translators could not write in the actual meaning of the word for baptism. The Church of England (which was scarcely removed from Catholicism,) was practicing baptism by sprinkling, while the actual meaning is “To Dip!” The Greek word “baptizō”means “immersion!” The intensive verb “baptizō” is most frequent derivative of the root “baptō”, which is translated, and is always translated “Dip.”
In the Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, by Lawrence O. Richards (pp. 100-101,) under Baptizō, it says: “Baptō is the basic verb. It means ‘to dip in’ or ‘to dip under.’ It is often used of dipping fabric in a dye. Baptizō is an intensive form of baptō. From early times it was used in the sense of immersing.”
So… had they consistently translated the word to what it actually means, John the Baptist would have been John the Dipper! But when Jesus “dipped” the sop in the cup, and passed it to Judas, the word “baptō” was actually translated: and no one called that a baptism!
We can see, then, that the concept involved immersion, and that the result of that immersion is to fully identify the thing being dipped, with the substance it was dipped in. The sop Jesus handed to Judas was soaked in whatever was in the cup. Cloth that has been dipped in a certain pot of dye is permanently identified with that specific pot of dye. In fact, all the cloth that came through that specific pot is together identified as a specific “dye-lot.” If you have been born again through faith in the Blood of Jesus, then The Holy Spirit has immersed you into the Body of Christ, according to 1st Corinthians 12:13, and you are permanently identified with Him in every way.
Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized so that He was identified with the message of John: John preached the Gospel of the coming Kingdom—the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the 1000-year reign of Jesus on earth. Jesus is the promised King! So He needed to be identified with the Promised Kingdom.
We practice water Baptism for the same reason as we practice Communion: we were told to do so! It commemorates in the life of each believer the fact that the Holy Spirit has already placed us into the Body of Christ. He has immersed us into Jesus, so that we are fully identified with Him, forever, in every way. We do this once, as a believer, to testify of our new position in Christ. It is not how we “join a church,” or “repent of our sins” or any other such thing. This is a believer’s baptism.
What happens if you don’t get baptized? Nothing, as far as I can see: But Jesus commanded the eleven to go into the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” There is a spiritual “chain reaction,” there, which requires that this command, called the “Great Commission” is our marching orders, just as it was for the eleven. And that includes believer’s baptism. So, even though we may not really be sure how it works as a testimony, we do practice water baptism by immersion. We do not require it of anyone, and only offer it as it is requested.
It is interesting to read in 1st Corinthians 1:10-17, where we can see how the Apostle Paul felt about Baptism. He saw that it had already fostered some divisions among the brethren: (“Paul baptized me!” “Well, Apollos baptized me!” …etc.)
Paul said he was thankful he had only baptized a handful of them, and concluded that “Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the Gospel.” Paul did practice water baptism, but it did not have a very high priority in his mind. The reality (being baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ”) came about through the preaching of the Gospel. Water baptism was just a picture of the real thing.
Water baptism does not require any special clothing or ritual, or oath-taking or any other such thing: upon public confession of faith in Jesus and His finished Work at the Cross, a believer is qualified for water baptism, as a step of obedience and a testimony of the new birth.
One person in our fellowship, already a believer, has requested water baptism, so, next week we plan to fulfill that ordinance for that person! If there is anyone else who would also like to be baptized, please let one of us know, and we will extend the offer to all believers. Rick Flemmer and I will serve together to carry out the baptisms.
Next week is also communion Sunday, so we will be observing both ordinances of the church on the same day. That seems pretty special to me!
Lord Jesus, please help us to focus our attention on you, and not the “outward things” that so easily attract our eyes and our minds. Let us learn to walk with You in obedience.