Baptism By Flexibility

Rough Water Surface, copy space“You been gypped if you ain’t been dipped.” An older pastor friend of mine has been saying that for years. And, until recently, I would have agreed with him. I was raised a Baptist, went to a Baptist seminary, and have served in a number of baptistic churches. And, on the subject of baptism, the only thing that my friends emphasize more than believers only is immersion only. But I’ve come to wonder if the Bible supports an immersion-only mode. I hope that my seminary doesn’t revoke my degree, but I think that the Scriptures allow for more flexibility on mode of baptism. Allow me, if you will, to make my case.

There are, generally, three defenses that Baptists give for immersion-only: (1) The proper translation of “baptizo”; (2) The language of “going down” in the relevant baptism passages; and (3) the parallel between baptism and Jesus’ burial, and resurrection in Paul’s teaching. A review of these arguments and a response is in order. In each case I want to argue that the Baptist position is over-stated, and that more flexibility is in-order if we are to be consistent with Scripture and gracious to recipients of baptism.

First, let’s address the Greek word “baptizo.” It’s a common refrain from Baptists, that the Greek word translated “baptize” means to “immerse,” “dip”, or “sink.” That is of course true, and yet it betrays a fundamental flaw in word studies. Word studies can’t reveal what every usage of a term means. Context is how we dictate usage, not merely a lexical reference to general definition of a term. Sometimes “baptizo” can imply immerse, but other times a different usage seems necessary. In Luke 11:38 and Mark 7:3-4 it likely means “to wash.” In 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 the word “baptized” actually refers to those who escaped immersion in the waters of the Red Sea. In addition, according to some scholars, there is evidence that by the time of the Second Temple baptism was used to describe a purification right done by pouring. Simply pointing to the lexical definition does not end the discussion; we must do more than word studies. Context helps us best understand the meaning of a word, and the contexts do not always dictate that “baptizo” be understood as “submerge.”

Second, the Scriptures do, on at least two occasions, refer to a person being “baptized” as “going down” into the water. In both Mark 1:9-10 and Acts 8:36-39 we find this language. But what does it mean?  Jesus clearly did “come up” out of the water, but it seems from the Acts passage that these references are nothing more than geographic references. In the Acts passage, at least, both the one being baptized and the one baptizing are said to “go down” into the water. That is hardly a passage dictating method. Unless both parties involved are being submerged, it seems best to read these references as geographic ones.

The third argument is easily the most significant. After all, if baptism is meant to identify us with the resurrected Christ, which all Baptists believe, and I do too, then how can a different mode be said to do this? It’s an absolutely fair question, and Paul seems to state that correlation plainly in Romans 6:3-6 and Colossians 2:11-12. That was certainly how I read the passages for years, but I tend to think that such a reading of mode of baptism into the passage is an imposition on the text. We must consider what Paul’s main point is, and then seek to determine how that speaks or relates to our baptism. This will take some careful considerations.

Romans 6:3-6 gives us the first connection.

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  6 We know that our old self1 was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

It’s obvious from the passage, and I doubt that my Baptist brothers would disagree, that the point of the passage is the believer’s union with Christ. It is not about mode of baptism. The question, then, is whether or not we can draw a principle about mode of baptism from this passage.

Baptist New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner doesn’t think so. He writes:

The comparison between baptism and death and resurrection is not the main burden of the text. Those who stress this parallel unduly may begin to emphasize our death, burial, and resurrection in this text, whereas Paul’s purpose is to emblazon on the reader’s minds the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and our participation with it. (Romans, 309)

Schreiner, along with NT scholar Doug Moo, believes that Paul’s use of baptism in Romans 6 is not about mode, but a synonym for conversion. He writes that the “reference to baptism is introduced as a designation for those who are believers in Christ. Since unbaptized Christians were virtually nonexistent, to refer to those who were baptized is another way of describing those who are Christians, those who have put their faith in Christ” (306). Doug Moo states that in Romans 6 Paul is not emphasizing “how we were buried with Christ,” but rather demonstrating “that we were buried with Christ” (Romans, 381). The text does not demand an immersion-only mode, because the text is not primarily about mode.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out, that there is an inconsistency in reading the text for a strict instruction on mode of baptism. After all “burial,” is only one aspect of our being united to Christ in his death. We do not speak of our baptism as being united to him in crucifixion; there is nothing in mode of baptism that symbolizes this. In fact Schreiner rightly states that “the analogy between baptism and death, burial, and resurrection is found only in later church history, not in the NT itself” (309). The text must be read according to authorial intent. We do not read Galatians 3:27 and suggest that baptism is about “clothing ourselves.” Nor should we, then, read Romans 6 in a way that dictates a specific mode of baptism.

Colossians 2:11-12 seem a bit more solid ground in mandating an immersion-only mode. After all, Paul says we were “buried with him in baptism.” And, though some contest it, it is clear that the “en ho” construction in the Greek has “baptism” as its antecedent, not “Christ.” Does this mean, however, that “baptism” here is meant to be done in a manner that reflects “burying” and “resurrection,” i.e. immersion? I don’t think so. Again, his point is to argue for union with Christ, not mode of baptism. Consider the contrast between baptism and circumcision. Each is a sign of their respective covenants, and yet Paul is not interested in the physical reality but the spiritual one. He highlights this in contrasting circumcision of the flesh with circumcision of the heart. His point is to highlight spiritual circumcision. His discussion of baptism, then, too is focused on a spiritual reality. It is the same scenario as that found in Romans 6. Paul is not so concerned with how one is baptized, but that one is baptized. Baptism does testify to union with Christ, but not in the manner in which Baptists argue it does.

We should consider too, that Jesus was not buried in the typical modern sense. He was not “submerged” under ground. He was buried in a cave, in the side of a hill. So the idea that baptism symbolizes “burying” by going under water just doesn’t connect to the historical reality. The language of Colossians 2 follows that of Romans 6, with the overall goal being to demonstrate the believer’s union to Christ. “Baptism” in these verses is not meant to symbolize death, burial, and resurrection, but to indicate that the believer, by virtue of his conversion, is united to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

I love my Baptist brothers and colleagues. I tend to think, however, that we have overstated our case for immersion-only baptisms. I think that far more flexibility in mode of baptism is in order. Baptisms that happen in homes and after midnight suggest an alternative to immersion. The baptisms of Saul (Acts 9:18), of the Philippian jailer and his household (Acts 16:33), and the household of Cornelius (Acts 10), while not conclusive, lend credence to arguments for flexible mode.  I am not arguing, here, that baptism is unimportant, or that infant baptism is permissible. Rather, I am arguing for flexibility in mode of baptism that allows for people of various backgrounds and persuasions to share in the membership of a local church. The church is far too fissiparous as it is, let us not create division where there’s no solid textual support for it. Baptism isn’t about being dipped, it’s about testifying to your union with Christ, and any mode will do that.



David R. Dunham is associate pastor at Revolution Church in Portsmouth, OH. He also currently serves as Executive Director of The Southern Ohio Pastor’s Coalition, and adjunct professor of New Testament at Shawnee State University. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

10 Responses to “Baptism By Flexibility”
  1. jasonboothe says:

    [36] And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” – Acts 8:36 ESV

    If mode is incidental, why didn’t Philip just sprinkle the eunuch upon his profession of faith? I am sure that a caravan travelling through the desert would have provisioned itself with ample water to spare but a few drops. Additionally, why did the eunuch only ask to be baptized when he himself saw water? Philip must have explained something about baptism and its proper mode to the eunuch because it was the eunuch who, seeing water, challenged Philip to find a reason why he (the eunuch) could not be baptized. “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” said the Eunuch. If sprinkling, pouring, or immersion are all proper modes, then the Eunuch’s question makes no sense. Philip could have simply requested a small portion of water with which to sprinkle the new convert. But this did not happen. They went down to the water and I’m sure that Philip didn’t go to all that trouble to sprinkle the man.

    The account of Paul’s baptism provides absolutely no proof in favor of sprinkling either. The Scripture remains silent. The same can be said of the Jailer and his family. Are we to simply believe that because it was dark outside that they could not find a source of “much water” in order to be baptized?

    We are buried with Christ in baptism. This baptism is, of course, spiritual in nature. But what ordinance immediately corresponds and testifies to this spiritual reality but physical baptism? Paul’s analogy refers to immersive baptism (which is an oxymoron, in my view) as the physical picture of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

    From the London Confession – “Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be to the person who is baptised – a sign of his fellowship with Christ in His death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into Christ; of remission of sins; and of that person’s giving up of himself to God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.”

    I humbly submit to you that faithful Baptists must continue to “overstate the case for immersion-only baptisms” or risk being unfaithful to the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Ultimately, there is little doubt by most scholars, including many Reformed men, that the ancient church practiced immersion baptism. Why not follow in the footsteps of these faithful brethren? Why not baptize new converts in the same manner and mode as the Lord Himself was baptized?

    “Sweet the sign that now reminds me, of my Savior’s sacrifice, of a price so freely given, bought at such a costly price! O what pleasure, o what pleasure, to be buried with my Lord!” – Baptism Hymn

    Sincerely and with all due Christian love,

    Jason K. Boothe
    Teaching Elder
    Horizons Baptist Church
    Piketon, Ohio

    • Nicholas K. Meriwether says:


      I assume from what you write above that you consider an adult convert who is only sprinkled as unbaptized. How would you justify this scripturally in light of Dave’s analysis of Romans 6:3-6, which you didn’t question, and especially in light of Paul’s rejection of the requirement of circumcision in, e.g., Galatians? Even if we could deduce from the meaning of “baptizo” and early church practice that immersion is the best way to express the reality of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, how do we get from there to the exclusion from church membership (typically reserved for heretics and people engaged in gross acts of disobedience, e.g., adultery) of someone who has gone before a body of believers and confessed Christ, but who was nevertheless only sprinkled?


      — Nick

  2. Jason,

    Thanks so much for your comment. It is always encouraging when a brother takes the time to respond to something you’ve written, so thank you. You’ve made some great points there, and it’s certainly not my intention to be “unfaithful to the gospel of Christ Jesus.” It is my intention to be faithful to what I see in the text, but where I am wrong I welcome the push back, so thank you.

    In regards to the Ethopian eunuch I am actually inclined to think that the reason he thought about Baptism was because he was reading through Isaiah, and in Isaiah 52:15 we read that God’s Holy Servant would cleanse many nations. The word used for “cleanse” is “sprinkle” a common idea in the Old Testament (see also Ezek. 36:25). So from reading Isaiah he came to the conclusion that he should be baptized.

    Now of course we don’t know exactly what prompted his desire to be baptized and my answer is on no more solid ground than your suggestions. So we can’t know for certain what prompted it and therefore should be careful to build a doctrine off of this single verse and the motivations of the people in the passage.

    You are certainly right to question my use of the baptism of Saul, the jailer, etc. Robie did so when he edited the piece as well. It’s not necessarily a support, that’s why I say “suggestive”. Again we don’t want to make conclusive arguments from silence and neither those verses I mention nor the details about the eunuch are good support. So we have to look elsewhere for conclusive evidence. My argument is simply that I am not sure there is conclusive evidence. But if I’ve missed something I welcome the correction, brother.

    Thanks again for your feedback.

    God bless,

    • Jason Boothe says:


      Thank you for your irenic spirit and thoughtful reply. I would ask you directly, why didn’t Philip simply sprinkle the eunuch? There is no doubt that water was available in the caravan. Of this we can be most certain. The amount of wealth needed to even make such a round-trip journey would have guaranteed this type of ample provision. Why didn’t Philip sprinkle? Why did they have to stop and perform the baptism where the eunuch “saw water?”

      It is highly speculative to assume that the Ethiopian, a man who by his own admission did not understand what he was reading (even assuming he read the portion of Isaiah that we call Isaiah 52) “unless someone guides me” (Acts 8:31), would understand “sprinkle many nations” as Christian baptism. Again, if this is what Philip taught him when he proclaimed the Gospel of Christ unto him, would not Philip also have come to the conclusion that sprinkling is permissible? Instead, we see the caravan stopping at a larger body of water, Philip and the eunuch going down to the water, the eunuch being baptized by Philip, I believe, by immersion. If sprinkling would have sufficed, they could have performed the ordinance with the smallest bit of water from the stores of the caravan. It makes no logical sense to seek out a larger body of water to perform the ordinance if sprinkling was/is a valid mode.

      And we know exactly what prompted the eunuch to be baptized. If Philip was even remotely faithful to the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, we would proclaimed what Gospel preachers have proclaimed since Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

      Surely, it was the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the eunuch that prompted this newly justified man to seek out the waters of baptism. And, when his eyes laid hold of the water, he willingly and obediently and joyfully submitted to Christ’s holy ordinance.

      This may sound a bit facetious (please pardon me), but we absolutely know that John the Baptist didn’t go walking around Jerusalem with a bladder of water from which to sprinkle repentant followers! He baptized in the Jordan where there was “much water.” Our Lord Christ Himself was baptized in this large body of water, undoubtedly by immersion. And there is no positive intimation, much less a clear example, anywhere in the New Testament that any apostle or evangelist ever baptized by sprinkling or any other variation save “much water” baptism. —

      Again, thank you Dave for your willingness to jump into the fray! It takes courage to blog about matters of theology, especially in an online environment where multiple views are held. I commend you for your boldness and for your frankness and honesty. Thank you for sharing your heart as well as your thought processes that have led you to the conclusions you now hold. God bless you and keep you, be merciful to you, and give you peace. I look forward to more interaction on this and many others issues of theological import.

      Grace and Peace in Christ,

      Jason K. Boothe
      Teaching Elder
      Horizons Baptist Church
      Piketon, Ohio

  3. Jason,

    You’ve given me some things to chew on brother, and I am happy to do so. I don’t necessarily have a response to your question about the eunuch. I think any answer either way is really just speculation. We can only go on what the text says and it doesn’t say much except that he saw water and asked to be baptized. We know nothing about how the baptism was done or what motivated him, so I don’t want to draw conclusions about baptism from this passage, I want to look to more detailed passages.

    From what I understand there is actually going to be a nice little series of posts on Baptism. A sort of point/counterpoint arrangement. I know there’s an immersion-only post forthcoming as a counterpoint so you can look forward to that from the guys at SOPC. It should be a good series of healthy exchanges, and you’ve strated us off well here.

    God bless,

  4. pgepps says:

    Hey, very interesting. As someone who grew up Baptist and visited, but couldn’t join, Presbyterian churches for years, I think mode does matter–but it matters in a certain way.

    Oddly, on my way to becoming Catholic, I discovered an answer that moved me off “only immersion counts” (with the rebaptizing problem this can create) without moving me back to the “mode doesn’t really matter” position I had tested and abandoned in my sophomore year of college. What I discovered was normative reasoning.

    You see, the Catholic Church to this day considers the baptism by immersion of adults upon profession of faith as normative baptism–that is, it is the *rule*. Unlike Reformed churches which took the Catholic rite and re-explained it, and thus have to defend the primacy of their practice against the arguments in favor of credobaptist primacy, the Catholic Church has always practiced adult baptism as the norm and infant baptism as an authorized extension of that norm to meet a particular need. Adaptations of the mode, to include pouring but not “sprinkling” (we are “sprinkled” only in congregational renewals of our baptismal vows), are likewise authorized to keep the rite suitable to the conditions of various places and times. But when pouring is used, it still requires that the baptizand be bowed down to the water, that the water be poured so as to cover the head, that is, to create the visual image of being put under the water. In other words, the mode is adapted, not to a completely different mode, but to the best approximation of the normative mode that is suitable to the setting. Many Catholic churches do in fact have baptismal fonts that a person can step down into, though even then there is usually not a “dunking” but a bending down and pouring practiced–which is actually the picture we get from most early representations of baptism in drawing and in word pictures.

    I say all that not to urge the Catholic view, but to urge that we consider the “better way” than either “only immersion counts” or “mode doesn’t matter.” And to the considerable extent that that’s what you mean by “flexibility,” I applaud your efforts. I certainly enjoyed reading your article.

  5. Elder Larry G Stanley says:

    Water Bapstism: There is a beautiful simplicity in the ordinances the Lord has provided for the New Tesment Church. For our rejoicing in this the testimony of our conscience, that is simplicity and Godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, We have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you ward. II Cor 1:12. Under the Law of Moses there was such a long list of sacrifices and feasts and ceremonies that you have to wonder how they managed to keep them all straight. Every oberservance differed from all the others and it had its own list of minute details and conditions to be observed.
    The Lord has provided the New Testment church with just two ordinances –water baptism and the Lord’s supper. The protestant churches have taken these two ordinances and for communion, some don’t use wine and stopped the foot washing in many cases. To me it is simple per John, wine, unleavened bread and foot washing, often but not to a point it becomes a non-feeling habit. Then Bapstism has been debated since the early church age. The Catholic did baptize by immersion, if my memory serves me correctly, then stopped at a later date. While these two ordinances are given by Jesus they are not the test of Eternal Life which is a spiritual baptism through regeneration and by the Holy Spirit. We were dead alien sinners, lost and undone. I mention this because some hold the faith that liquid water is what places one’s soul into heaven. I felt this was necessary information since water baptism is under consideration and the method to apply to a new convert. Acts 2:38 is not giving us an invitation to baptism but Christ giving us a commandment to follow Him in gospel obedience. Baptism is a public confession to all around that the born again individual is going to do things different. Luke 7:29-30 “And all the people that heard him and the publicans justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him.” He does not leave us an option. We are commanded to be baptized. Notice they justified God by being baptized which is to say, the people declare to be just. I call it an answer of a good conscience brought about by the Holy Spirit. I might note that the opposite of Justify is to condemn. Therefore God’s people are commanded to be baptized. Qualification of baptism is repent and be baptized every one of you. The Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip, “What does hinder me to be baptized?” Acts 8:36 Philip Answered, “If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest”(37). The church is an assembly of Baptized believers , therefore we should not baptize anyone who does not meet the qualififcations of being a true believer and repentant heart. Church to me is not a social club of unbelievers and if it is a social club then it is not a church. I told you I was Old Baptist. “smile” Kinda to the point. Why do we not baptize infants? Philip was clear you must be a believer. Those who show no sign of repentance should not be baptized. John refused to baptize the Pharisees and sadduccees and called them a generation of vipers. Family snake. Matt(3:7) He told them they must bring forth fruits meet for repentance (v. 8). The word for baptism is greek Baptizo. By transliteration we mean the word was translated or transposed into English by substitution the English letters for the corresponding Greek letters. The final o to the English e. It means to plunge, to dip, to immerse. Baptism is a symbol of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is also a symbol that this child of God is dead to sin—and to the law–and that he or she has risen to walk in newness of Life with his Lord. Romans 6:4 therefore we are buried (literally, completely buried) with him by baptism into death; that like Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of Life. I beleive this is quite clear that any form of baptism that does not completely immerse the body in water does not constitute a burying, therefore it does not constitute a baptism. John 3:23 “and John also was baptizing in Enon near to Salim, because there was much water there.” Much means a lot. Sprinkling only takes a little water. Mark 1:4,5 John did baptize in the wilderness and preach the baptism of repentance for the remisssion of sins. He basically baptized them in the river. He immersed them. John baptized Jesus who was sinless to fullfil all righteousness. I am not sure if this addresses Brother David’s article appropriately but it is what I understand on Baptism. I appreciate you brothers and the discussion and the opportunity to give input. Submitted with Love and kindness. We are all a work in progress.

  6. I am still reading on Baptism and methods. I just read where a brother in California insited on a tub of rose pedals and bath. One clergy in California met a woman at a grocery and after a short discussion Baptized her there in the isle with a can of coke. One Baltimore clergy just took his new converts into the street and turned on the fire hose and declared them Baptized. I then read more about the two men on the cross with Jesus and after a Born again Spirtual request, Jesus told him he would be with him in paradise. There is no mention of natural water. John 3:5 speaks “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit.” he can not enter into the Kingdom of God. Verily , verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. So to be born of the Spirit, clearly refers to conversion. Ephesians 4:5 states “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. I always defined the method by words that have already been spoken and by Paul also. “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life, knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the bady of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. Romand 6: 4-6 Paul is saying there has been a death of the old life of sin, which is identified as the old man. Paul is saying the baptism is the occasion for burying that crucifed nature. The spirit cleans up the inside and the water is an act of walking in a different way. Total immersion is the act of doing as Christ did with his own example. Let me ask a simple question. How would one ideally symbolize this entire experience of death to sin, burial with Jesus, and rising to a new life? There does not seem to be a more perfect way to represent all those steps than to have eyes closed, breath suspended, hands folded, and to be lowered gently beaneath the water. I read a lot of articles all day long. Some just seem to flow down great.Others keep me awake. When they keep me awake….I read. Pray and read some more. This topic is keeping me awake. Written in Love. Still listening. Still Praying. The other important topic is when Christ died on the cross, not only did the blood fow but blood and water came from His Body. The Old Baptist referred to this as Spiritual Baptism. This might be spiritualizing to much but I still wonder why the scripture mentions it.

  7. Larry,

    Was there a specific question you were wanting me to respond to? I don’t want to seem like I am ignoring you if there was something you were asking me in that previous comment.


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