Why Spontaneous Baptism Fails the Church

The growing phenomena known as "spontaneous water baptism" seriously erodes the meaning and purpose of this New Testament ordinance. Sadly, those promoting it today are often evangelical pastors who should know better. As those responsible to teach and guard the apostolic truth, pastors are to lead their people in proper understanding of the Bible as well as correct practice of its teachings. 

Spontaneous baptisms are becoming popular as church leaders seek ways to increase the visible success of their ministries. To be sure, some consider it their way of "getting back to the first century practice of the church" while others simply see it as a dynamic opportunity to add excitement to the church experience. Either way,  the biblical purpose of baptism is being severely undermined, even in cases where the motivation is pure.

As a service closes, an invitation  calls people to demonstrate a decision they have made. They are invited to come if they want to receive Christ, want to re-dedicate their lives to God, are in need of prayer, or desire to be baptized. Those wanting baptism are then immediately baptized, usually after a short conversation with a church leader. On the surface it may seem to be a harmless, or even spiritually beneficial exercise. But when we measure it by the New Testament teaching on baptism we find that it misses the mark badly.

Here are 6 reasons the thinking behind spontaneous baptism is faulty, and potentially dangerous to the church and those being baptized.

1. There is no mention of people being invited to be baptized in the New Testament.

If we read Acts carefully we find that baptism is never the focus of the Apostolic command to follow Christ. In every case the command is to repent, with baptism being the public confession of the previous, internal act of repentance and faith. Peter at Pentecost (Act 2) and Phillip with the Ethiopian (Acts 8) are both clear. Baptism was the means whereby the call to trust in Christ was demonstrated before a watching world, and never the focus of the Apostles' message.

2. Baptism in the New Testament put your life and relationships at risk and so kept all but the truly regenerate from participating.

In Acts 2 we see thousands responding to the Spirit's use of Peter's message. This decision on their part would cost them dearly as the rising persecution, and eventual forced evacuation of Jerusalem by Christ-followers demonstrated (Acts 8). In many parts of the world the situation remains the same today. In Japan, for example, those professing faith in Christ are not recognized as Christ-followers until they are baptized, simply because it is the public confession of Christ that validates the sincerity of their faith and the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. In many parts of the world where the church shares our faith but not our freedom, those who refuse to be baptized are not recognized as believers.

The situation today in America is just the opposite. There is no risk in being baptized. In fact, it has become all the rage among students. High School camps and conferences regularly are flooded with requests for baptism from students wanting to do it "with all my friends watching." Among adults, baptism is often offered as a means of experiencing a fuller relationship with God, an emotional response opportunity to feel closer to the Savior. 

The vast difference between the time of the Apostles and today demands that those being baptized demonstrate their union with Christ over time through transformed lives. To baptize those in whom the Spirit has not brought about true faith and repentance is to be part of the mechanism Jesus denounces in Matthew 7:22. It should scare every church leader that they might inadvertently be part of the process by which "many" will think they are right with God only to hear in the last day "depart from me you workers of iniquity, I never knew you."

3. Baptism is an intentional declaration on the part of those being baptized that they have been given a new life and new identity in Christ.

Far from being simply an emotional response to a felt need, baptism is an intentional, bold declaration on the part of the individual that he/she have been made alive in Christ Jesus, and taken on a whole new identity. In Romans 6, where Paul argues that a sinful life is incompatible with following Jesus, he uses water baptism as the visual representation of what has actually taken place in the Christ-follower. They have died with Christ, been buried with him, and victoriously raised with him to live a brand new way. They are no longer dead, enslaved to sin, but now are alive to righteousness. This new life is not just the old one revitalized. It is a completely new identity that renders the believer capable of pleasing God and incapable of having a life characterized by a love for sin. Paul is clear: If you are still bound in sin, and in love with it, you haven't died with Christ and been raised to a new identity.

Spontaneous baptism provides no opportunity for the authenticity of the person's profession of faith to be represented by their life. In Acts, the simple fact that they wanted to be baptized, in spite of the very real risks such an act entailed, was sufficient. Few, if any, who had not been transformed by the Spirit through the Word would have taken such a step. But today, with baptism becoming fashionable, there must be evidence  that new life has truly  begun, that a passion for righteousness is growing, along with an aversion to sin. To baptize someone merely because they desire it makes the ordinance into a product that any emotionally moved religious consumer can acquire for the asking.

4. Baptism is a Christ-follower's declaration that he/she now has a new ethic and a new Master.

Paul continues in Romans 6 to explain further that those who have died with Christ are no longer slaves to sin, under the power of Satan, but rather under the Lordship of Jesus, and committed righteousness. They now see intentionally walking the paths of righteousness to be the best option for life. Again, Paul uses their baptism as a reminder of who they truly are! 

Water baptism is a bold, public declaration that the vertical relationship between sinner and God has been re-established, with powerful and radical changes now being evident in the life of the Christ-follower. Unless, and until, a person is ready to acknowledge what baptism truly models and proclaims, there should be no attempt to entice them into the water for purposes of meeting a felt need, infusing excitement into a service, or growing the numerical size of the church.

5. In addition to the vertical relationship modeled in baptism, the ordinance also has an important horizontal, corporate application.

For too long baptism has been seen only as between the Christ-follower and Christ. But it is a serious reduction to say that baptism is simply identification with Christ. While a public declaration that the person is now aligned with Jesus is important, it is also true that baptism is never merely a personal activity. 

In 1 Corinthians 12:12, 13 Paul reminds a divided Corinthian church that each of them who are "in Christ" are so because the Spirit has "baptized them all into one body." Once again Paul reminds them of their water baptism. Whereas in Romans 6 he stressed the vertical implications of the Spirit's work symbolized in water baptism, here he stresses the horizontal work of the Spirit. 

In a very real sense, those being baptized are announcing that they are now part of the body of Christ. They are aligning with Jesus, and as well, recognizing their union with the church. Their baptism is a picture of a new child being born, and being granted all the privileges and responsibilities of being in the family. Baptism is a community-creating event, and demands to be done within a community that knows, affirms, and is dedicated to the spiritual health and growth of those being baptized.

Baptism is to be practiced within the church community, not in private, or in youth camps and conferences. The church family benefits greatly from hearing believers of all ages confess Christ, commit to righteousness, and declare their partnership with the church family in the mission of the church. The corporate aspect of baptism is too important to diminish for any reason.

In most cases of spontaneous baptism people are baptized who have no connection with the church. The purpose of these baptisms is largely church-growth or visible success related rather than the intentional, personal affirmation and dedication of those being baptized. In my experience, churches often baptize those who belong to a different church family without recognizing that baptism is meant to affirm intentional congregational partnership.

6. Baptism is a person's public declaration that they are making themselves accountable to the church family, placing themselves under the shepherding care of church leadership, and committing themselves as partners in the church's mission.

Spontaneous baptism too often neglects the fact that baptism was always an initiatory rite that signaled the entrance of the person into something. First, it shows union with Jesus Christ. Secondly, it demonstrates entrance into the church, the body of Christ. Thirdly, it represents voluntary accountability to fellow believers as part of the family, submission to church leadership, and partnership in church mission. 

As mentioned above, spontaneous baptisms often include those from other churches, as well as those who have no intention of becoming missional partners in any congregation. This kind of "baptism lite" obliterates any sense that those baptized are now part of a local church body, in order to provide an emotionally fulfilling experience for as many people as possible.

Final Thoughts

It is certainly true, even in the best church situations, that not everyone who is baptized understands all that baptism is meant to convey. But this hardly can stand as an argument for continuing to downsize and minimize what baptism really means. The solution is not more reductionistic programs, but rather a commitment to better teaching and modeling of the New Testament's understanding of this vital church ordinance. 

Those who choose to practice spontaneous baptism must consider that they are playing to a felt need in ways that are potentially harmful. In addition to giving false assurance to some who are not truly converted, unmerited baptism can also dilute the purity of the church, unintentionally allow people to think nearness to God is accomplished by religious ritual, and greatly erode the gospel demands of sincere repentance and faith in Christ. 

Spontaneous baptism also calls into question the motives and philosophy of ministry of those committed to its practice. What possible reason could there be for baptizing those who have given little or no evidence of true conversion? While it is true that some who come for baptism during these open invitations are regenerate, the method itself thrives on the hope that many  will spontaneously decide to come, including those the leaders do not know, or with whom they have had little contact. Again, the question is why?

Perhaps the answer lies in the unquenchable thirst for visible success found in too many church leaders today. People streaming down the aisles to be baptized can be exciting, and the numbers can be an impressive statistic. But none of this can make up for the problems, both real and potential, associated with such a cavalier view of baptism. 

In Luke 3:7 the author recounts an episode from the ministry of John the Baptist. As he was calling the people to repentance, and baptizing those who chose to align themselves with his message, there were some he refused to baptize. He declared them to be a "brood of vipers", commanding that they demonstrate the reality of their faith and repentance through good works. 

Today the great problem in the church is not that we are too pure, too holy, and overly concerned to protect the flock from emotionalism and felt-needs church growth. The opposite is true. We are at risk of being a part of that heinous mechanism that is giving unbelievers reasons to think they are okay with God when they are not. 

My plea to my fellow pastors is to preach the Word courageously and winsomely, and then practice what we preach. Let's guard the truth that has been passed on to us, and thereby guard the flock that has been entrusted to us, so that we can better enlist and empower our people to partner with Christ in his mission, through the church, to the world.