And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”
No membership class. No onlookers are mentioned. No period of seeing whether or not this Ethiopian was serious about his profession. All that we have in this context is a gospel explanation by Philip, a chariot driver, and “some water”. Therefore, churches ought to follow Philip and baptize people upon profession. Right?!?!
Not so fast.
I’ve had to think through this question in recent days. First I’ve had to think of it because I believe that there are many people within our churches that have said a prayer, given a few correct answers, and then took a bath at church. Upon this bath they are now told that they members of the church. Within the Southern Baptist community that means something. It means that we as a church are standing behind your profession and as it were saying to the Lord, “We believe this person is a disciple of Jesus”.
Yet as the days, and months, and years pass this church-bather is no longer faithfully following Christ. This is a problem. As Mark Dever has rightly noted, “Uninvolved members confuse both real members and non-Christians about what it means to be a Christian”. Therefore, many churches agree with Dever that we need to,
…guard carefully the front door and open the back door. In other words, make it more difficult to join, on the one hand, and make it easier to be excluded on the other. Remember—the path to life is narrow, not broad. Doing this, I believe, will help churches to recover their divinely intended distinction from the world. (What is a Healthy Church, 105)
Doesn’t this seem to fly in the face of the practice of the New Testament church? Does it seem that Philip was making it “difficult to join” in the life of the Ethiopian eunuch?
That is the conundrum that I find myself dealing with. While I fundamentally agree with Dever, I cannot help but consider the early church practice. And I know our tendency to make the pendulum swing from one extreme to another. In our effort to curb careless baptisms and spiked churched membership numbers I do not want to be equally guilty of withholding baptism from someone that knows Christ and legitimately desires to follow Him in this ordinance. So which is it? Do I baptize upon profession as it seems to have been the practice in the early church? Or do I follow the wisdom of Dever and others within church history?
Context is Key
The truth is that I do not have to pit one against the other. We need to consider the context of the early church compared to that in America. Here you can profess Christ with very little ramifications. Saying “Jesus is Lord” can be very empty rhetoric. Those words are not fruit of conversion. They can, in our context, just be an empty profession.
In America (especially in the South) people will get baptized just to please their dear old grandmother. That is not the case in other contexts. Where persecution is ever present, as it was in the New Testament, saying “Jesus is Lord” is tantamount to saying, “I’m identifying with Jesus—take all my worldly goods and lop off my head if you must, but I’m following Him”.
That’s not our context.
Our context is probably closer to that of John the Baptist in Matthew 3 when he called the Pharisees and Sadducees to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. In contexts where false professions seem to be running rampant, or when it’s beneficial to profess Christ, it is necessary that we be very cautious about not giving someone false security.
Be very faithful in preaching the gospel as Philip did to the Ethiopian. Be certain that the people that say, “I want to be baptized” really know what that means. Not only that they know baptism doesn’t save you but also that they understand Who does save you. Make sure that they can articulate the gospel and that their life is showing a different trajectory as it concerns sin and the beauty of Christ.
You don’t need to see a shiny and polished life to proceed with baptism. What you do need to see is that the profession comes with a changed trajectory. If you see evidence of that and they can decently articulate the gospel then I believe we ought to believe their profession and proceed with baptism. Love calls us to “believe all things”. We ought to lean towards believing a profession rather than dismissing it.
Yet, we also must remember that even with the apostles unbelievers were baptized (see the case of Simon the Magician). Keep the back door open. The more faithful a church is in proclaiming the self-denying gospel and the more a church practices biblical church discipline the less that church will have to worry about false professions. But they still happen. And no amount of caution will prevent that.