Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2014 Apr 28
There has been much talk of late about “spontaneous” baptisms.
If you’re a bit out of the loop, here’s the gist of the conversation: some churches offer “on-the-spot” baptisms to people who may have come to the service unprepared or not even knowing that baptism would be made available during the service. Once there, they are encouraged to be baptized, and everything from clothing to toilet articles are provided for “spontaneous” decisions to embrace the sacrament.
The hoopla has been about whether some churches have been manipulative about “juicing” the process with staff staged to get up and leave the auditorium as if they are going to be baptized in order to motivate others.
Or simply hyping it up in a way that gets people to be baptized who already have been baptized.
Or failing to teach on the sacrament beforehand so that it represents in the person’s life what it should.
Or whether people are properly vetted on the front end.
As a result, some have questioned whether it should be offered at all.
So should it?
First, almost every baptism in the New Testament was “spontaneous.” Meaning the person wasn’t thinking about it, or planning on doing it, on the front-end. They were confronted with the gospel and/or challenged with the importance of going public with their faith through baptism, and then decided to do it. Biblical examples would include the Ethiopian eunuch, the earthquake-rattled jailer, the thousands confronted with the preaching of Peter at Pentecost.
Second, the word “spontaneous” is misleading and is probably not best. It brings to mind things like “spontaneous combustion,” something that happens for no apparent reason. Applied to baptism, it gives the idea that people are doing it for little or no reason, or that there isn’t proper vetting, or that people are getting baptized without understanding the nature of what they are doing.
Third, there is no real biblical case to be made for required catechesis, or time of instruction/discipleship, that should precede baptism. To be sure, a candidate should have an understanding of the gospel, and have embraced it for their life, but baptism marks the beginning of a relationship with Christ – not a subjectively defined point of spiritual maturity.
Finally, no matter how baptism is offered, it should be free of manipulation of any kind. The nature of the sacrament should be clearly explained, its importance made known, and then proper vetting should be employed for every candidate. But “spontaneous” baptism services should not be contrived to get “numbers” that were not appropriate baptisms to begin with.
So where does that leave us? As qualified above, offering baptism “on-the-spot” to people is thoroughly New Testament. In full disclosure, Meck has been doing this for years. Each time, we teach on baptism as the sacrament it is. We vet each person who expresses a desire to be baptized to ensure the sacrament is being administered properly. But following that teaching, on the weekends we offer baptism, we open it to all in attendance whether they had planned to participate or not.
For us, we do so in the spirit of the Ethiopian eunuch who, upon understanding the gospel and the importance of baptism, asked the apostle Phillip, “Is there any reason I can’t be baptized here and now?”
And we all know the apostle’s answer.
“No reason at all.”
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.