“Believe and Be Baptized: A Global Conversation on Baptism”

Following a 5-year conversation with theologians from the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions, the Faith and Life Committee invited the members of Mennonite World Conference to consider our practices of Anabaptist together at Renewal 2027 in two webinars entitled “Believe and Be Baptized: A Global Conversation on Baptism.”

Biblical, theological, and historical context of believers baptism

On January 21, 1525 a small group of young people gathered secretly in the Swiss city of Zurich for an unusual worship service. They had been raised as Catholics; but for several years they had been meeting for Bible study and discussion with their mentor, Ulrich Zwingli, the priest of the city’s main church, the Grossmünster.

As they read Scripture together, the group began to question several practices of the Catholic church – including infant baptism, but they were divided about the next steps. Zwingli, supported by the Zurich City Council, insisted on a course of moderate reforms, introduced slowly. Members of the Bible study group resisted. If Scripture was clear, they argued, changes in church practice should be made immediately, regardless of the political or social consequences.

So, on that January day in 1525, the small group formally renounced their baptisms as infants and, in the pattern of Jesus and John the Baptist, received baptism as adults as a symbol of their voluntary commitment to follow Christ and to support each other in this new step of faith.

For modern Christians, the action seems almost trivial. After all, what could be so troubling about a group of people gathering for prayer and then pouring water over their heads? Yet this action – which marked the beginning of the Anabaptist (or “re-baptizer”) movement – had profound consequences. Within days, the Zurich City Council ordered the arrest and imprisonment of anyone who participated in such baptisms. By 1526, authorities declared the baptism of adults a capital offense. And in January 1527, Felix Manz, in whose home the group had met, suffered the ultimate consequence of his convictions. With his hands and feet bound to a wooden pole, Manz was “baptized” once more – pushed into the icy waters of the Limmat River in a public execution.

As the Anabaptist movement spread, church and political leaders condemned them as heretics. Over the next few decades, some 3 000 believers were executed for the crime of being “Anabaptists” or “re-baptizers”

Yet the movement they started lives on. Today some 2.2 million Christians around the world identify themselves as part of the Anabaptists tradition including all 107 national member churches that are part of Mennonite World Conference.

The ingredients seem simple enough: water; a gathering of witnesses; and a few carefully chosen words. To a secular person looking in from the outside it might seem hard to understand why the Christian practice of baptism is so significant. But despite its simplicity, virtually every Christian group regards baptism as a foundational event – a ritual that expresses convictions basic to their faith.

Few practices are more central to the Christian church, yet few have been the source of more disagreement and debate among Christians

  • Is baptism essential to salvation?
  • What is the appropriate age for baptism?
  • How should the ritual be done?
  • Does baptism confer salvation in itself or is it a symbol of salvation already received?

Baptism in the Christian tradition

An outdoor baptism in the Dominican
Republic. Photo: Mariano Ramírez

The roots of Christian baptism draw deeply on the biblical images of water – an enduring symbol of cleansing, refreshment, and life itself. In the Old Testament, water is often associated with God’s healing presence – a spring in the desert; a life-giving well; or justice that flows “like a mighty river.”

The symbol of Christian baptism comes directly from the Old Testament story of the Exodus when God parted the waters of the Red Sea to allow the children of Israel to flee slavery in Egypt and escape from Pharaoh’s pursuing armies. That dramatic act of “crossing through the waters” marked the rebirth of the children of Israel. Having passed through the waters, they were no longer slaves – they had become a new community of God’s people, bound to each other by the gift of the Law and by their dependence on God for guidance and sustenance.

Echoes of the Exodus story can be clearly heard in the New Testament account of John, who was nicknamed “The Baptist.” John’s fiery preaching called for repentance – a transformation of the heart symbolized by a ritual cleansing in the waters of the Jordan River. According to the Gospels, Jesus began his formal ministry only after he had been baptized by John. That act –accompanied by God’s blessing and the clear presence of the Holy Spirit – marked a “crossing over” for Jesus into a new ministry of healing and teaching that culminated three years later in his crucifixion, death and resurrection.

The early Christians understood baptism as a symbol rich with meanings drawn both from the Old Testament and from the life of Jesus. Like the Exodus, baptism in the early church symbolized the renunciation of a life enslaved to the bondage of sin and a “crossing over” into a new identity with a community of believers who, like the children of Israel, were committed to living in dependence on God.

Many early Christians also regarded baptism as a re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ. Baptismal candidates walked into the water naked – stripped and vulnerable, like Christ on the cross, dying to the old self. After emerging from the water, they were dressed in robes of white as a symbol of the resurrection and their new identity as followers of Jesus.

Strong evidence from the second and third centuries suggests that the early Christians baptized only adults; and then only after a long period of rigorous instruction and training. In other words, the early church reserved baptism for those who had experienced a transformation of the heart; were committed to a life of daily discipleship; and were ready to become part of a new community of believers.

From voluntary baptism to infant baptism 

Sometime during the fourth century, however, this practice began to change. At the heart of this shift in baptismal practice was the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 312, an event that slowly transformed the very nature of the Christian church. During the century after Constantine’s conversion, the church went from a small, persecuted minority to a powerful institution whose bishops came to rely on the armies of the Roman empire for their protection and as a means of eliminating heresy.

Gradually, Christianity became the “official” religion of the Roman emperors – a kind of religious-cultural “glue” that could help to unite a fragmenting empire.

Since everyone within the territory was now compelled to be a Christian, it no longer made sense to associate baptism with repentance, a transformation of life, or with a new identity within a community of believers.

About the same time, new arguments emerged to defend the practice of infant baptism. For example, St. Augustine (354–430), insisted at the end of the fourth century that from the very moment of birth, human beings were trapped in bondage to sin. The baptism of infants, he argued, was necessary for the salvation of the child’s soul. In his teaching, the act of baptism itself conferred a spiritual gift of grace to the child. The sacrament of baptism incorporated the infant into the church, saving its soul from the stain of original sin and the clutches of hell.

In later medieval society, baptism also marked a child’s membership in the civic community, registering the infant as an eventual tax-paying subject who owed allegiance to the local feudal lord.

The Reformation leaders Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others agreed that infants should be baptized at birth. Luther argued that infant baptism confirms that we are totally dependent on God’s free gift of grace for our salvation – not our own actions. Zwingli noted that Jesus taught that we must become “like children” to enter the kingdom of God. Infant baptism, like circumcision for the Jews of the Old Testament, was a sign of inclusion into the body of believers and a commitment on the part of believers to raise that child in the ways of God.

Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of baptism

So when Anabaptist leaders began to challenge the practice of infant baptism, people reacted with confusion, anger, and eventually, violence.

For Anabaptists, the primary argument for believer’s baptism, as opposed to infant baptism, rests on a bedrock principle of the Reformation itself: “Scripture alone.” In their reading of the New Testament, the Anabaptists of the 16th century could find no scriptural justification for the practice of baptizing babies. Instead, Jesus’ teachings explicitly linked baptism with repentance and belief – something that an infant clearly could not do. While instructing the disciples to preach the good news of the gospel, for example, Jesus promised, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). The sequence here is clear: belief comes first, then baptism.

At the end of his ministry, in a final admonition to the disciples, Jesus again spoke of baptism. “Therefore go,” he told the disciples in Matthew 28:19-20, “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Here again, the order is important. Jesus commanded his followers to first “make disciples,” and then to baptize with the expectation that the new converts would also be taught to obey Christ’s commandments. In other words, people become followers of Jesus by hearing, understanding and responding to a call – just as the first disciples had done.

This same sequence reoccurs in the story of the first baptisms of the apostolic church as recorded in Acts 2. The story begins with Peter preaching a sermon to a crowd of Jews who have gathered in Jerusalem for the annual celebration of the Passover. He ended his sermon with a call to repentance. “Those who accepted his message,” the account concludes, “were baptized.”

For Anabaptists – and the groups that came after them – the commitment to follow Jesus implied a conversion or “turning around” – a radical reorientation of priorities – symbolized by baptism, that could lead to persecution and even death. Not a decision that could be made by an infant!

The meaning of baptism: A three-stranded cord 

Pastor Sang Nguyen Minh
baptizes Nguyen Thi Lien in Vietnam.
Photo: Hoi An Mennonite Church

So when Anabaptist leaders began to challenge the practice of infant baptism, people reacted with confusion, anger, and eventually, violence.

Symbols, of course, can have more than just one meaning. Drawing on a verse from 1 John 5, the Anabaptists frequently described baptism as a kind of threestranded cord: spirit, water and blood all pointed to essential qualities of baptism:

Children of God are those who believe that Jesus is the Christ and follow his commandments. Three things, 1 John says, testify that Jesus is the Son of God: “the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (1 John 5:8).

1. At its most basic level, baptism is a visible sign of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. It is a public recognition that the believer has repented of sin, has accepted God’s forgiveness, and has “turned their life over to Christ.” Baptism celebrates the gift of salvation – the gift of God’s loving, forgiving and enabling grace.

2. At the same time, baptism is also a sign of membership in a new community. In the baptism of water, we place ourselves into the “care, discipline and fellowship of the community.” At baptism, we promise to “give and receive counsel,” to share our possessions, and to serve in the broader mission of the church. Salvation in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition is never purely private or inward; our faith is always expressed in relationships with others.

3. Finally, in baptism, new believers promise to follow in the way of Jesus; to live as he lived and taught, even if that includes – as it did for Jesus – misunderstanding, persecution, suffering or even death. It is not enough to claim the forgiveness of sins or to have your name included in a church membership list. Baptism also implies a way of life that looks like Jesus – a way of life that loves God with your whole heart, and loves your neighbour as yourself.

The Anabaptists in the 16th century sought to recover these teachings that had gone out of focus in the history of the church – based on these biblical insights, they understood baptism as a sign of the Spirit’s transforming presence; as a mark of membership in a community; and a readiness to follow Christ, even at great cost.


John Roth is secretary of the Faith and Life Commission. Professor of history at Goshen College, he is a member of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana, USA. 

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2021.
Read the full issue here.

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