When the CCMBC National Board of Faith and Life revised Article 8 of the Confession of Faith in 2021, they produced a document called “Application Guidance” (FAQ’s). We hope that this helps answer some of the questions that you have about baptism.
Why does jrcc practice believer's baptism?
Believer's baptism is the practice of baptizing individuals old enough to believe in and obey Jesus. MBs understand that baptism is a powerful act that testifies to past repentance, conversion, and belief--as well as to a present and future commitment to discipleship and mission within Christ's body. As a result, we believe that according to the biblical pattern (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38-41), baptism is a voluntary action taken by an individual post-conversion.
Some Christian traditions practice the baptism of infants to believing parents (paedo-baptism) for various reasons: they may hold baptism to have saving power or, like Old Testament circumcision, they hold that baptism includes the infant in the church family. Many such traditions understand that for the event to have meaning, the child must later affirm (or own) this event done to them. Other traditions practice infant baptism with less formal meaning, akin to our practice of child dedication.
We do not believe that the New Testament texts used to support infant baptism (the "household" baptisms [e.g., Acts 11:13-14; 16:14, 31], the "sanctification" of children by believing parents (1 Corinthians 7:14], Jesus' welcome of children to himself (Mark 10:14-16], or the continuity of the New Covenant with Old Testament Israel) provide adequate support for the practice of infant baptism today.
In addition, baptizing infants may lead to some adults later self-identifying as Christians without understanding that living as disciples of Jesus requires a personal surrender.
Therefore, it is our conviction that believer's baptism is the faithful way to live out the New Testament teaching and is practiced as such within our family of churches.
Does baptism save?
Baptism with water is not salvific (in the sense of making a person a Christian), nor is it sacramental (in the sense of being an extraordinary means of grace) but we embrace it as a powerful action overflowing with rich meaning for both the baptized individual and the church community. The water does not itself cleanse, save, unify, or give new life, but it is a rich symbol representing what the Holy Spirit has done and is doing in the life of the believer.
Several New Testament texts convey the close connection between conversion and baptism ("Repent and be baptized, every one of you" [Acts 2:38]; "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mk16:16] etc.). Hence in the New Testament, baptism is part of the process of salvation. It is the external and public step of obedient faith commanded by the Lord as part of conversion. While baptism is not necessary for salvation, it crowns the process of inner faith by giving it a visible and public dimension. It is in this sense that we understand 1 Peter 3:21.
However, without the reality of repentance, conversion and belief, the otherwise powerful act of baptism is empty. Article 8 describes baptism as an "act of obedience" and a "powerful testimony" to things that have happened in the past, are happening in the present, and by faith will be true in the future. The baptismal candidate and the local church testify that God has done a work of grace through faith in the candidate's life and that the candidate desires to grow as a disciple of Jesus as part of the local family of God. This makes baptism sacred, rich in significance, and covenantal.
When should baptism occur after a person's conversion?
With the exception of very young children (see question 4), there is no need for a long delay between conversion and baptism. All candidates should undergo basic preparation for baptism (see question 5). While this may require more or less time depending on the person, the Scriptural pattern brings conversion and baptism quite closely together.
In Scripture, baptism belongs at the beginning of the journey of Christian discipleship and serves as an entry point into covenant community for the believer. It is not a graduation ceremony that is reserved for the spiritually mature. While not having a delay is the New Testament pattern, all unbaptized believers even those well along in their Christian journey should respond to God's invitation and be baptized. It is never too late to be baptized. Paul in his letters (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27) assumes that every believer is baptized. FF. Bruce's often quoted statement says it well; "The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New Testament" (Commentary on the Book of Acts, 77).
Do we advise a minimum age for baptism?
Since believer's baptism is a joyful, public action that celebrates the new life in Christ, it is natural to desire to baptize new believers as soon as possible after the conversion experience. In the New Testament church, conversion and baptism are linked as two parts of the same experience.
Historically, as the church grew and children began to place their faith in Christ often at a very early age, keeping the conversion-baptism connection ceased to be a straight-forward matter.
In addition, since baptism is not only a look back to one's salvation, but also a look forward to full participation in the local church as it models and lives out its radical Kingdom mission, this question becomes even more challenging.
Article 8 states: "Baptism is for all those who repent and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, have received the Holy Spirit, and pledge to live as disciples who obey Jesus in all of life. Baptism is for those who understand its basic meaning, are able to be accountable to Christ and the church, and request it voluntarily."
Therefore, baptismal candidates must be old enough to be able to understand that in baptism they testify to their own repentance, confession of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, and their commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus as a covenant member of their local church family. In addition, they must be able to understand that they are testifying to God's saving action in their life (forgiving and cleansing, freeing from the power of sin, and giving the Holy Spirit), and that they are committing to participation in the body of Christ.
A temptation church leaders face is to acquiesce to pressure to baptize young children. Though their understanding of salvation may represent an authentic initial spiritual experience, loving mentors should attempt to determine whether the child actually "owns" their faith or if the child is taking this step merely to please parents or to join in with others taking the same step. Also, these mentors should determine if the child has an adequate understanding that baptism represents a past testimony of what Jesus has done, and a present ongoing commitment both to discipleship and to Jesus family.
Considerable sensitivity and discernment are needed both to avoid quenching the inner aspirations of the young believer, and to avoid trivializing the ordinance by baptizing children who do not have an adequate understanding of the act.
How much preparation for baptism is enough?
The New Testament accounts do not display long periods of preparation between conversion and baptism. Many of the first Christians were already familiar with the meaning of baptism rites and the arc of God's story. However, the early church soon developed a preparation process for candidates who were unfamiliar with the meaning of baptism.
It is significant that each candidate knows about the double focus of the baptism event (looking back at conversion and looking forward to discipleship and mission within the local church) and about the theological and ethical convictions held by the church they are joining. However, for most candidates this preparation should at the most be measured in months rather than years.
There is no need for a long delay between one's conversion and baptism. It is important, however, that the baptismal candidate has a basic understanding of:
- salvation and baptism,
- the shared theological convictions of the church they are joining (according to the MB Confession of Faith), and
- discipleship as part of their life in the local church.
There will be times when it will be difficult to assess whether such basic understanding is in place for baptismal candidates who clearly love Jesus, but who have learning and/or cognitive challenges. In such cases, the leadership of the church community will need prayer and loving discernment as they help these candidates take this important step which blesses both them and their church family.
How sanctified (or holy) does someone need to be in order to be baptized?
Baptism is a testimony on the part of the candidate, the local church, and God (through the local church) that this person is a disciple of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and committed to grow as a disciple in the context of the local church family.
The New Testament pattern is not sanctification and then, at some point, baptism. Rather it is a bowing down in surrender to Jesus as Lord, followed by baptism as a sign of one's willingness to walk on this discipleship journey no matter where it leads.
Local church leadership is called to discern whether the candidate deeply desires to become sanctified through the power of Jesus and his Spirit, rather than assess whether a believer is holy enough to be baptized, or whether God has given adequate victory to the candidate over sin. The issue is the direction of the person's life rather than their level of present perfection. The posture of submission and surrender to Jesus, along with a willingness to be discipled and accountable to the local church, are the key prerequisites to baptism. The process of sanctification is a long journey for every believer and is best facilitated by an intentional discipleship process carried out in the context of the local church community.
This means that many of those baptized will still exhibit sinful patterns and behaviours at, and after, their baptism. Since baptism is the powerful act of incorporation, the local church must take seriously its responsibility to teach these newly baptized "to obey everything I [Jesus] have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). This will involve modeling discipleship, loving exhortation, grace, and patient commitment, along with intentional discipleship paths for all in the covenant community.
When in the baptism process should we teach the MB Confession?
Neither the candidate nor the church family benefit when the candidate post-baptism expresses surprise to be obligated to shared theological and ethical convictions within their local covenant community.
The baptismal candidate's early discipleship process should therefore include some understanding of the collectively held convictions of the family of churches they are joining through baptism. Minimally, the candidate should be provided with access to the Confession and ample opportunity to ask questions about the theological and ethical commitments contained within it.
Each local church is encouraged to find the best process to introduce baptismal candidates to the convictions contained in the MB Confession.
See question 5 for more on preparations for baptism.
What if a person wants to be baptized but not become part of the local church?
We understand baptism and belonging to a covenant community as a one-step process. While there might be a number of practical reasons for separation of the two, that is not the New Testament pattern, nor is it the Anabaptist practice.
The 3,000 newly baptized believers in Jerusalem were immediately "added to their number" (Acts 2:41,47). According to Acts 2:42-47, being part of their number involved all the kinds of activities we associate with membership in a church family (e.g., teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer, mutual aid, worship, mission).
In baptism, God testifies (by means of the local church's witness) that this candidate is a child of God and joins that child of God to the "body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:13) as reflected in the local family of God.
The only exception to this pattern might be Philip's baptism of the Ethiopian cunuch (Acts 8) who was on his journey home. Since we do not know more about the eunuch's subsequent church journey, we do not base practices on being a member of a covenant community on this text.
To become part of Jesus means being part of his body, the church (see Article 8 Endnote 9). Some may counter by substituting the universal church here rather than the local church, but it is only the local church that can welcome a new believer, commit to encourage, disciple and teach a new believer, and hold a new believer accountable.
For these reasons, we discourage practicing baptisms which do not lead to belonging to the local church. See question 9 for exceptions.
Are there times when a local church might baptize someone and not have them become part of this community?
Article 8 echoes the New Testament pattern of baptism as the key initiation rite into the local church (the Ethiopian's baptism in Act 8 is a possible exception, not a normative example).
However, there may be worthy exceptions where the baptismal candidate is not denying this important connection but their circumstances may simply not allow them to be active members of their local congregation. Examples of this may include students who have participated in a local congregation while at school and may, prior to their return home, request baptism from this temporary congregation who has nurtured their faith. Others may be moving to a location without a local MB church and request baptism prior to their move.
Bearing in mind that baptism not only looks back to conversion but also looks forward to present and future participation and mission in the local church, the local church needs to carefully discern legitimate extraordinary circumstances at play with certain candidates. In such cases we encourage the church family to do everything they can to support that person from a distance until they are able to join and participate actively in a local congregation.
The key here is that separating baptism from full inclusion in the local community should be a rare exception that happens only by prayerful discernment on the part of leaders.
What does "being a member of a local church" mean?
Mennonite Brethren around the world understand the church to be a "covenant community" or "covenant family" characterized by belonging, mutual support, shared mission, and mutual accountability as maturing disciples of Jesus. Christian baptism incorporates each believer into this beautiful, Jesus-centred, missional community and thus discourages a solitary discipleship journey.
To be a member of the local covenant community involves sharing in the life and mission of the church, being discipled in the path of Jesus, exercising one's spiritual gifts for the benefit of all, and giving and receiving loving support and accountability. Covenant community membership is about belonging, receiving care, and contributing as one is able.
It is unlikely that these can happen without local churches knowing which of their attendees have entered this type of relationship. As a result, local churches should keep up-to-date records of those in the covenant community who have joined the church by baptism, and those who have joined upon their confession of faith and a report of their earlier believer's baptism.
Article 8 does not directly address all the details about how local MB churches structure their practices of decision-making and leadership eligibility, but since every baptized member has the Holy Spirit, we believe that every baptized member has a contribution to make in the discernment of God's will. For example, many local MB church families invite all covenant community members (with the exception of those under the legal age in their province) into full decision-making and voting at meetings. All covenant community members of legal age are simultaneously "legal members," able to vote on local church matters and eligible for consideration to represent the local church as delegates at the MB provincial and national levels.
Other MB churches invite covenant community members to a further, more complete embrace of the church's vision, mission, and theological commitments as demonstrated in the MB Confession of Faith, prior to the covenant community member becoming a voting "legal member." Both of these options are consistent with Article 8. For more resources on covenant community membership and legal membership, see: "Guidelines for Regulations of Members in Mennonite Brethren Churches" on the "Faith and Life Resources" page of our website. NFLT Resources: See also the following video "The Meeting Place practice of covenant community:"
What if a candidate desires a baptism location that excludes the local church?
A careful reading of Article 8 reveals the crucial role of the local church in each baptism. If baptism were only an individual's personal celebration of faith and commitment to Christ, then a private baptism in a special location would be appropriate. However, baptisms are central to the life and mission of the local church. 'They serve as an encouragement to the church family and celebrations of God's work in the congregation's disciple-making mission.
At baptism, the church is welcoming someone in. A baptism without the local church present is like a wedding without the parents and family present. We therefore practice baptism in the life of the local church community, in Sunday services or other formal gatherings of the local congregation, accompanied by the testimony of the baptismal candidates and the expression of shared commitments from both candidates and congregation.
In cases where individuals pursue baptism outside the local church gathering, the leadership of the local church must discern the best redemptive path forward. Welcoming the new member of the family after the fact with video evidence of the baptism, in-person testimony, and prayer of welcome into the church family is one example of one such a redemptive path.
What elements should be present in a baptism service?
A baptism service offers an opportunity for much creativity. The following are important elements that ought to be present whenever possible.
- Context of corporate worship with teaching on baptism.
- Testimony of the baptismal candidates' journey to salvation.
- Affirmations from a few witnesses from the local church family.
- Formal affirmation of faith in Christ by the candidate in the form of Q&A, e.g. Do you believe that Jesus is your personal Lord and Saviour?/I do.
- Formal declaration on the part of the baptizer such as "Upon this confession of your faith, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
- Prayer for the baptized.
- Formal acceptance of the baptized into the covenant community.
- Mutual covenanting on the part of the baptized and the congregation to follow Jesus together.
What about spontaneous baptisms?
The New Testament points to baptisms that immediately follow conversion (e.g., Acts 8:36-39; 16:33). However, the text also encourages all to "count the cost" (Luke 14:25-34) before making the decision to become disciples of Jesus.
Spontaneous baptisms have some benefits (e.g., listening and responding immediately to the perceived leading of the Spirit) and some drawbacks (e.g., failing to understand the commitment that comes with the decision).
Question 5 highlights the importance of preparation for baptism. In addition, it is important that the local congregation can testify on behalf of the individual as well so it can without reservation welcome them into the covenant community.
These concerns rule out most spontaneous baptisms.
In general, the less familiar a person is with Jesus and the church, the more pre-baptism preparation they need. If a local church wants to invite and practice spontaneous baptism, it needs to be confident that the person requesting baptism in the moment understands the rich meaning and mutual covenantal obligations to their congregation, and that the church is able to affirm that testimony without hesitation. If this is the case, the church certainly should celebrate this with joy.
See also question 11 - baptism locations which exclude the local congregation.
We welcome your feedback on these as well as any other thoughts you have regarding baptism at JRCC.
- Pastor Brad