Missiological Implications of the Symbolic Understanding of Baptism

<Note: I take a more Baptist understanding of Christian baptism (although I am certainly more open-minded than some). Thus I understand baptism as primarily symbolic rather than sacramental or salvific. However, I think most all Christians would agree that there is a strong symbolic aspect to baptism. As such, hopefully there are thoughts here worthy of consideration by all. But since baptism is one of the biggest divisive issues in the Christian faith, I cannot promise you will find this edifying. Also, since experts have argued over this stuff for centuries, don’t expect to be “wow’d” by this post. Just some thoughts to think about.>

Semiotic Model: Symbol, Reality, and Meaning

Baptism has indefinite roots. Some suggest its pre-Christian roots are tied to the rites involved with Jewish proselytes. Others suggest Essene purification rites. Still others focus on John the Baptist‘s symbolic use representing repentance. Rather than argue over which one is correct, perhaps it is best to see all three as relevant symbols for a pre-Christian understanding of baptism.

Baptism can then symbolize: Change of state, Moral purification, and Repentance.

In the early church, there appeared to be additional, yet related symbolism involved. Romans 6 shows baptism describing association with the death and resurrection of Christ. The early church also saw baptism as symbolizing membership in the church… to the point that the Corinthian church thought people who were part of the church but had died prior to being baptized should be baptized in absentia. From this point of membership in the church, it quickly became associated with salvation.

In the early church, baptism appears to have been done quickly after conversion. Later, it was more formalized after years of catechetical training. In the early years, baptism was done in “living” (or flowing) water. Later, a pool was set up where women and men were baptized (separately). The came in naked and left the pool given a white robe. Clearly, there was added symbolism added. The time delay was probably tied to the need to ensure that a person was a true convert. After the Emperor Constantine, becoming a Christian was more “faddish.” So there was a concern that people wanted to join the church without a true conversion. Going into the baptismal pool with no clothes could symbolize how one brings nothing with one into the Kingdom of God (as one takes nothing with one into the grave), and coming out with white clothes is reminiscent of the symbolism in Revelation describing the new life in Christ.

With all of this, the symbolism for baptism could involve:

     -Change of state from spiritual death to spiritual life

     -Repentance and Moral purification through Christ

     -Identification with Christ in His death and resurrection

     -Identification and membership with the church

Missiological Implications of This Symbolic Understanding:

  1. Baptism should be done within the context of the church. That is because identification and membership with the church does not make sense if done disconnected with the church. The symbol breaks down otherwise.
  2. There is a lot of question as to whether baptism should be through immersion, dipping, or sprinkling. While I prefer immersion, and find historical justification for it, symbolically things are more mixed. Immersion does work better in identification with Christ in death and resurrection. On the other hand, sprinkling, dipping, or washing does work quite well in terms of symbolizing purification.
  3. In some cultures, such as very dry cultures, there has been the question of whether one could baptize, for example, in sand. Here, the issue is the opposite of the sprinkling issue. Covering with sand is a better symbol of burial and resurrection than water, but less effective as a symbol of purification. Looking at the figure in this post, the symbol needs to connect both to the meaning and to reality. The further it drifts from reality, the less effective the symbol becomes.
  4. In some cultures… for example close knit Muslim or Hindu cultures, it can be quite dangerous to have a recent convert baptized. Is baptism absolutely necessary? In the early church, baptism was presumed to be tied to conversion. The idea that one would convert to following Christ without being baptized (unless unable like the thief on the cross) was unknown. But what about today? First of all, if baptism is primarily symbolic (as opposed to sacramental or salvific) then immedicate baptism is not necessary. So one has the options of delayed (or never) baptism, near-term secret baptism, or near-term public baptism. So what about secret baptisms? Is that acceptable? I would argue that it is acceptable as long as it is done within the church context. Baptism wasn’t a symbol for the broader society… it had meaning for the individual and for the church. So a secret baptism within the context of the church seems acceptable. I guess that I don’t have any clear answers. However, forcing a quick and public baptism isn’t required. I do believe that following Christ ultimately involves public testimony… but baptism is not directly part of this. Delay may be appropriate in some cases. One should be sensitive to the concerns of the individual. (More on this in the next point.)
  5. Some hold that baptism must be immediate upon conversion. Others require a delay. I would suggest that as a symbol, it is best to be neither immediate (normally) or greatly delayed (again normally). It should not be immediate since symbols lack value if they are not properly understood. In some cases the understanding may be immediate… but more commonly some time would be required. On the other hand, despite the the habit of the ancient church of taking approximately 3 years of training prior to baptism, a long separation between conversion (and connection with the church) and baptism breaks down the symbolic value. While there may be times when immediate baptism is appropriate, or times when a great delay is appropriate, normally baptism should be done soon after conversion and connect with a church at a point when the individual understands its symbolism.


So we can look at a few items comparing symbolic and sacramental

Water Baptism     Symbolic        vs                 Sacramental

                                         (Unity)                                  (Salvation)

Lord’s Supper       Symbolic        vs                  Sacramental

                                      (Memorial)                           (Grace)

Spirit Baptism       Symbolic        vs                 Sacramental

                                         (Unity)                             (Individual Blessing)

From a sacramental standpoint, water baptism is viewed as related to salvation.  Symbolically, it represents unity with Christ and unity with the church. From a sacramental standpoint, the Lord’s Supper is a medium of grace. From a symbolic standpoint, it is a memorial, looking back to Christ’s death and look forward to His return.

From a sacramental standpoint, Spirit baptism is an individualistic blessing. For some it describes the blessing of the indwelling and sealing of the Holy Spirit that occurs with the salvation of an individual. For others it describes some form of “second blessing” that hits an individual at some point subsequent to salvation.

I would like to suggest that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is better understood symbolically.The main passage describing the Baptism of the Holy Spirit (and one of only two unambiguous passages on this topic) is I Cor. 12:12-13. This passage is clearly speaking of unity and diversity in the body of Christ (the universal church). By one Spirit we are baptized (“immersed” or “dipped”) into one body. Then the passage talks about each of us have drunk of the same Spirit. So the Spirit is compared to water. In the first image is that the Spirit is someone/thing that we can be immersed in as a group, becoming one. The second image is that the Spirit is someone/thing that we can individually drink and have within us. So the Spirit symbolizes our communal and individual identities, our unity and diversity.

The other passage (Acts 1) seems consistent with that. Jesus speaks of the baptism (immersion) of the Holy Spirit a group of His followers. It was spoken to a group, not to individuals (hardly proof that the emphasis is on unity but is consistent with that image). The baptism was demonstrated in a form for all members of the initial first church focusing on the community rather than the individual. Since the apostles had already received the Holy Spirit before (according to John) and were empowered by the Spirit during the ministry of Jesus, it seems unlikely that the individual or sacramental interpretation of baptism of the Holy Spirit is justified.

All in all, I believe that water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit focus on unity/community within the body of Christ. This powerful truth tends to be lost in the sacramental understanding of an individualistic second blessing or indwelling. These symbols can be useful to draw us together as believers from different cultures, denominations, and traditions. Far too often they have been used to divide.  (Note: I am not discussing the validity or lack of validity of the concept of Spirit indwelling or the ‘second blessing’, I am simply noting the inappropriateness of tying either one to the symbol of Spirit baptism.)


One thought on “Missiological Implications of the Symbolic Understanding of Baptism

  1. Pingback: Missiological Implications of the Symbolic Understanding of the Lord’s Supper « MMM — Munson Mission Musings

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