Movies and tv shows have probably included more scenes of baptism than any other distinctly Christian ritual—wedding ceremonies aside. One that stands out as especially detailed (yet problematic) is the baptism of an escaped convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Delmar and his companions, Pete and Ulysses, are on the run from a posse when they hear heavenly singing in the forest. The song is "Down to the River to Pray," and it's being sung by a parade of white-robed baptismal candidates moving toward a river where a preacher is dunking them under water. Delmar joins the group and comes up from the water, shouting, "The preacher done washed all my sins and transgressions!"—much to the amusement and cynical dismay of Ulysses.

Many Christians find the scene bittersweet. On the one hand, its solemnity, sincerity, and beauty are inspiring. On the other, it raises questions about how well moviemakers understand baptism. The preacher dips the baptismal candidates almost mechanically—quickly and without words. He doesn't even know who Delmar is, and Delmar's declaration has little in common with the beliefs of churches that dunk converts in a river (or baptize by another method).

Why is baptism such a popular trope in popular storytelling? Perhaps because it is, or can be, visually dramatic. Or maybe because it's also a divisive issue and can add a dimension of tension to a plot line or scene. Baptism has long been a point of conflict and even division among Christians. Almost every denomination has its own twist on baptism. I realized this when I attempted to join the only English-speaking Baptist church in the European city where I studied theology. I came as a card-carrying, ordained Baptist—with my letter of recommendation from another Baptist church. The pastor and deacons explained that in order to become a full member, I needed to be re-baptized because my baptism had been an "alien immersion." I grew up and was baptized in a Pentecostal church. (My baptism may not have been Baptist, but it certainly was dramatic: I was 10, and it was in a gravel pit outside Des Moines.) I declined being re-baptized.

At least that Baptist church cared about baptism. Some churches today fall on the other end of the spectrum. For example, the Evangelical Free Church of America provides latitude on whether baptism should be required for church membership. Based on the denomination's autonomy, it's a local church matter.And some congregations believe the only requirement for church membership is simply being a born-again Christian. This stands in stark contrast with the New Testament and all of Christian history. For the apostles and faithful Christians after them, baptism was a necessary rite of passage for joining the church.

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While Christians generally agree that baptism is important for discipleship, many have divided over its correct meaning and practice. Paul's words to the Ephesians—"There is . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (4:4–5, emphasis mine)—seem to be wishful thinking. Baptism is an issue over which the church has split into innumerable denominations.

Water That Divides

In line with Cyprian (a third-century bishop of Carthage), most Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and some Protestants believe baptism is the "laver of salvation." According to this view—known as "baptismal regeneration"—the water does not save, but God saves at baptism. An infant or adult believer is freed from condemnation and given new and eternal life. Protestants who affirm baptismal regeneration insist faith is necessary for salvation. So the faith of the infant's parents and of the congregation stands in until the child is old enough to confirm his or her personal faith.

The Reformation challenged this belief, though certain Reformers affirmed it to some degree. Much of the diversity within Protestantism is the result of disagreement over baptism among the Reformers. After the Reformation, Protestants continued to develop diverse views and practices of baptism so that today they constitute a blooming, buzzing confusion of baptismal beliefs and methods.

During the Reformation, Martin Luther and his followers rejected the Catholic doctrine that baptism imparts saving grace ex opere operato—by virtue of the act itself apart from faith, so long as it is performed properly by a priest. However, Luther held fast to infant baptism and baptismal regeneration in the presence of faith. When critics asked him how an infant can have faith, Luther supposedly said, "Prove to me an infant can't have faith. Hah!" For him and his followers, faith is a gift of God bestowed at baptism. And proxy faith stood in for the infant's later, fuller, and more explicit faith.

Proponents of baptismal regeneration appeal to Scripture such as 1 Peter 3:21, "Baptism . . . now saves you," and Mark 16:16, "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved" (nrsv).

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Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss contemporary of Luther and the father of the Reformed branch of Protestantism, denied that infants need salvation. For him, infants are innocent. So why baptize infants? To initiate them into the covenant relationship between God and his people.

According to Zwingli, infant baptism is the new covenant counterpart to circumcision in the old covenant. When an infant is baptized, she is assumed to be part of the people of God, unless she grows up to walk away from Christ. Proponents use Matthew 19:14 for support, where Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me . . . for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs" (nrsv). Zwingli believed children are free of original guilt; thus, he denied baptismal regeneration. In fact, he believed elect children are saved whether they are baptized or not. However, like Hebrew children, they need to be included in covenant relationship with God. And that's what baptism accomplishes, Zwingli said.

However, some Zwingli followers wanted to abolish infant baptism, or paedobaptism (from pais in Greek, meaning "child or infant"), because it reminded them of the Catholicism the Reformers rejected. In 1525, several of them were re-baptized upon confessing their faith. Thus, they were called Anabaptists (from ana in Greek, meaning "over again"). Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier said infant baptism is like a pub putting out a sign that says good wine before the grapes are harvested.

For these "radical reformers" and their followers through the centuries, baptism is a public act of commitment and should therefore be performed only on believers old enough to profess Christ. The term for this view is credobaptism (from credo in Latin, meaning "believe"). Anabaptists linked baptism to church discipline and argued that all baptized persons are subject to it. Underlying the Anabaptist view is the belief that Christian initiation begins with conversion, not baptism.

Christians who reject infant baptism appeal to New Testament passages that suggest faith comes before baptism: Believe and be baptized (Mark 16:16).

Credobaptist ranks grew alongside revivalism in the Great Awakenings and later evangelistic campaigns. They include Anabaptists and Baptists as well as Pentecostals and many in Holiness churches. (Christians in the Stone-Campbell Movement, who typically belong to Churches of Christ, are also credobaptists. But unlike other credobaptists, they believe baptism is necessary for salvation.)

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Some Christians, such as Quakers and members of the Salvation Army, reject baptism entirely. And recently, one Texas megachurch pastor reported that nearly a third of the people who receive Christ in his church are never baptized. One response to the multiple views of baptism is to reject or neglect it entirely. Especially in large independent churches, baptism is often relegated to relative unimportance.

Discipleship in the Fullest Sense

So why should we practice baptism, especially since it has caused so much division among sincere, God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians? Are there ways Christians can accept one another in spite of their diversity?

Most Christians throughout history have agreed that baptism is an act of obedience to Jesus Christ, who commanded that his followers be baptized and baptize each other. Jesus inextricably connects discipleship and baptism in the Great Commission: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). And at the conclusion of his Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter told listeners, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you" (Acts 2:38).

The New Testament never speaks of unbaptized Christians. Rather, it assumes that baptism is requisite for following Jesus in the fullest sense. It's not until recently that Christians have assumed baptism is irrelevant or unnecessary.

The New Testament never speaks of unbaptized Christians. Rather, it assumes that baptism is requisite for following Jesus in the fullest sense.

Indeed, some credobaptists will balk at the claim that obeying Christ involves being baptized, because they deny a necessary link between water baptism and salvation. However, the very word Christian means "Christ follower," and rejecting or willfully neglecting baptism is disobeying Christ. Few Christians say baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. But the vast majority of Christians throughout history, including credobaptists, have believed baptism is an essential part of becoming a member of Christ's body, the church, and of being a disciple in the fullest sense.

Let me offer an analogy, though it will no doubt fall short of communicating baptism's importance. Baptism is like a wedding ceremony. While it's theoretically possible to get married without one, most Christians believe there is something defective about two people simply claiming to be married. Society may deem them married, depending on circumstances. But churches have tended, and with good biblical reason, to emphasize that it's important if not required for a man and woman to exchange vows before God and God's people.

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Similarly, a person who claims to be saved but refuses to be baptized may very well be saved but is not living out the Christian life in the fullest and truest sense. The majority of Christians everywhere and across denominations agree on that point.

Toward Unity

But a serious problem still exists: Many Christians, especially in liturgical churches, regard baptism as a work of the Holy Spirit in the person being baptized. To them, baptism is a sacrament that conveys grace—it may not save, but it plants a seed of grace and faith that will later blossom into personal repentance at conversion or confirmation (or both).

However, other Christians, mostly credobaptists in free church traditions, see baptism not as a sacrament that confers grace but rather as the individual's response to regeneration, being born again at conversion. Thus, they categorize it as an ordinance. For them, the Spirit is already active in the person being baptized; baptism is simply a public testimony to the Spirit's inward work, which began prior to baptism.

Perhaps both sides can find common ground in acknowledging that all good things, including baptism, are gifts of God and that the Holy Spirit is the giver. And credobaptists would be wise to recognize that the Sprit is the one who gives the Christian the courage and commitment involved in baptism. Not only that, baptism testifies to the Spirit's washing our sin away. Without the Spirit, baptism would be just a work and therefore void of significance.

Another divide can be bridged by discovering common ground. Paedobaptists look at credobaptists—who insist that infant baptism is no baptism at all and thus re-baptize believers who were baptized as infants—with horror because they see them as invalidating real baptisms. To paedobaptists, re-baptizing seems just as absurd as requiring re-marriage for church membership. It appears prideful and sectarian. They also believe credobaptists deny children full participation in the family of God.

On the other hand, credobaptists look at paedobaptists and think they are deluding people into believing they can be Christians without having personal faith. They see infant baptism, however understood, as no baptism at all but as infant dedication at best, with a little water. For credobaptists, persons baptized as infants often grow up thinking they're already saved without having a true conversion experience.

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The ferocity of the debate over sacraments has died down in recent years—Christians don't execute each other for their differing opinions, as was common in Reformation times, for example. But credobaptists and paedobaptists still have trouble accepting each other. Paedobaptists think credobaptists assume they are not even real Christians. Credobaptists think paedobaptists see them as fanatics or sectarians. I have certainly heard paedobaptists say that about credobaptists.

To be sure, there is no one simple way forward. But both sides must be willing to compromise if they want to see unity. Credobaptists should work to assure paedobaptists, especially those in the evangelical vein, that they do consider them fellow Christians, insofar as they have accepted Christ by faith. And it helps for credobaptists to go one step further and reconsider infant baptism, performed within a context of genuine faith, as valid if imperfect. They can still require would-be members who were baptized as infants to undergo a "completion" of baptism—perhaps immersion upon making a public confession of faith.

Meanwhile, paedobaptists could work harder to understand credobaptist concerns and consider re-baptism as completing infant baptism rather than totally rejecting it. And they would do well to emphasize more strenuously that baptism itself does not save the infant. Similarly, they should not relegate children of credobaptist believers to the status of covenantal outsiders.

Both groups should look beyond their differences and focus on a bigger problem: the growing neglect of baptism among people who call themselves Christians. As followers of Jesus, we must prevent Christ's call to follow him fully from being drowned out.

Roger E. Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and author most recently of The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press).

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