Let me say this first of all, as a disclaimer: baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, and it’s something that we should all be able to biblically defend, so lest anyone put words in my mouth, realize that this isn’t an article against baptism. It’s against the unbalanced emphasis we often put on baptism. You don’t need me to tell you that we in the churches of Christ talk about baptism a lot. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that we discuss it as much as or more than just about any other biblical doctrine. But I don’t think that should be the case. I think we need to examine ourselves and see if we’ve put too much emphasis on it, given it too much time at the expense of other things the Bible has to say. See if you recognize these three side effects of over-emphasizing baptism.
One and done
This one certainly hits close to home, as I’ve certainly made this mistake my fair share of times. When the church gets visitors and young people so focused on baptism, baptism, baptism, that becomes the central part of conversion, and the risk of them discounting subsequent parts of the Christian life goes through the roof. We’ve all seen the people who study and get baptized, only to rarely (if ever) return to be an active member of the body. If we teach baptism first and foremost, it’s abundantly clear that people can put too much emphasis on it and fade from the faith after being baptized. But if we put the majority of our emphasis where the Bible puts it – on glorifying God, submitting our lives to Him in faith, and finding our satisfaction in Christ – baptism will still be taught, but in its proper place, as an important part of an all-consuming conversion. Salvation is not a short checklist process (as these two articles did a good job of pointing out). We have to show people how salvation is a change of life, and so we must be careful about the place we give baptism in that discussion.
Misplaced Emphasis
There are those who think our emphasis on baptism shows that we believe in works-based salvation, and that’s not true. But our over-emphasis on baptism can have a real unintended consequence, and that’s that we put our emphasis in the wrong place. We have to be careful to make sure Christ doesn’t become an afterthought or a supporting character in our discussions about baptism. Beyond that, we have to be careful that our emphasis doesn’t become focused on what makes us different, which I suspect is often the case. When we spend so much time discussing the things that make us different from other churches, we help label ourselves as “the people who believe in baptism for salvation” or “the people who don’t use instruments.” While those are accurate statements, they should never, ever be the first things people think of when they think of the church. We should be known as the people who will do anything for the cause of Christ, the people who truly treat each other like a family, the people who make a difference in the community because of the love of Christ. Think about the blog posts that get shared the most, though. They’re almost always the ones on baptism and the instrument. What does that say about where we’ve placed our emphasis?
Keeps us from deeper teaching
Baptism and instrumental music. Instrumental music and baptism. Baptism and instrumental music again. Maybe women’s roles sprinkled in here and there. Lectureships, sermons, articles, Facebook posts… all dedicated to these few issues. Yes, they’re important. But at some point we have to move past milk (Hebrews 5:12-14). If your child was still having to recite the alphabet for school every morning in high school, you’d probably have something to say about that. For the same reason, church auditoriums filled with people who have been Christians for decades have no business rehashing these few core doctrines over and over and over. Shouldn’t we be a little embarrassed if we’re still stuck in the kindergarten of the faith?
Sure, we need to revisit these issues from time to time. I’m not saying we should stop talking about them completely. But think about how much deeper we can go in our study if we all realize that we’re in agreement and don’t have to spend much time on it in our gatherings. That way we can free up time to talk about some of the difficult questions the world is bringing to our attention today, and we can start answering the difficult questions about God to build a deeper theology. (Stephen C. Hunter shared some great thoughts on this issue in a recent article at Start2Finish, and I’d encourage you to give that a read for a more detailed discussion of this particular problem.)
Again, I should make it clear that this is not an article against baptism. Not in the least. But, if we’re being honest, it’s not wrong to say that in many congregations and in the church’s online community, we spend more time on baptism than is probably necessary. At some point, we have to start looking at how we can grow instead of constantly talking about how everybody else is wrong. Our teaching and writing needs to be focused on how we can all build a more solid foundation, and at some point that has to mean we stop rehashing the basics at the expense of other teachings.
By Jack Wilkie
Jack Wilkie is the author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education” and is the speaker for Focus Press’s “The Lost Generation” seminar. To schedule a seminar at your church, contact jack@focuspress.org.