by Robert Brow
disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name
of the Father and of the
Son and of the Holy Spirit
AS WE GO TO DISCUSS THE GREAT COMMISSION Of Jesus Christ, we must now focus on the words "make" and "baptizing." Disciples had to be made before they could be taught. That means that Christian teaching was not to be a part of the general education of the whole of Society. Learners needed to be formally enrolled. If you want your kids to start kindergarten you must take them to the school and register them. You can't study at any evening school, or art college, or local high school without being enrolled. The enrollment may be very simple, such as attending the first class and giving your name and address. For advanced work you may need to present transcripts of previous work done, and for enrollment in a graduate school, only select and qualified students will be accepted. But in our society we are all familiar with the idea that it is only the registered learners who will be taught. There may be a few unregistered auditors but they are the exceptions. Teachers teach only students on their authorized list.
This is also a familiar principle in the East. In India, for example, a teacher of religious subjects is called a guru. He accepts as disciples those who come and learn with him. He does not teach just anyone, but only those who are his own enrolled learners. Other people in the community may come to him for advice, they may ask questions, and they might even sit in on some of his classes or public lectures, but they are not his disciples.
Similarly, in the Gospels we find that the personal disciples of Jesus were very clearly marked off from other groups of disciples. For example, "John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, and people came and said to him, `Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?'" (Mark 2:18). Here we have three distinct groupings, the disciples of John the Baptist, the disciples of Jesus, and the disciples of the Pharisees. Though it is not specifically stated, it seems probable that each rabbi among the Pharisees had his own recognized group of learners. There were thus schools of disciples, and people knew who and how many had joined each group. "When the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea" (John 4:1-3).
This large increase in the number of Jesus' disciples also indicates that it was not only the twelve apostles who were disciples of Jesus during his three years of ministry. In some cases disciples were fickle and lost interest. Thus, after Jesus' teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood (which was admittedly shocking to Jewish ears) "many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him" (John 6:66). There were also secret disciples. Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels as the man who took Jesus down from the cross and buried him. In Matthew's gospel he is called "a disciple of Jesus" and John's gospel adds "but secretly for fear of the Jews." In any case, whether secretly or openly, as loyal, long-term learners or as fickle turncoats, there seems to have been a definite enrollment of disciples among the learners of Jesus, and it was these who received the deeper instruction which was not given to the crowds. Parables were for the crowd, but only to the enrolled learners did Jesus give explanations. "With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything" (Mark 4:33-34).
Now, according to our text, Jesus expected his apostles to continue the practice of enrolling disciples. Disciples were made by baptism, and it was the baptized who were to be taught. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them... and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." As we will see, Jesus' method was continued in the early church in Jerusalem and in the churches planted by Paul. After the crowds had been preached to, those who wished to learn were quickly baptized, and then the intensive teaching began in churches which functioned as schools for the baptized. At first this sounds simple. In all Christian denominations, except the Salvation Army and most Quakers, some form of baptism is used to enroll people. And in all churches, most of the teaching is given to those who are already baptized. Why then do different denominations differ so bitterly as to mode, and time, and candidates for baptism?
The reason for misunderstanding is that baptism is a sign which has many meanings. Take, as an analogy, the raising of my right hand. The meaning of such an action is determined largely by its context. In the middle of the road it means "Stop!" In a classroom it probably indicates that I have a question. Passing by a friend on the opposite side of the street, I am saying "Hi!" In a committee meeting I indicate that I am in favor of a motion. And at an auction, after the question "Will anyone offer me $25?" my raised hand will buy me the white elephant, unless someone else makes a better bid. If we were living in a small town with no school, or traffic, or auctions, or committee meetings, we would recognize that raising one's right hand means "Hi" but we wouldn't know of its other meanings. That is why Christians who are raised in one narrow, sheltered church circle find different modes of baptism in other churches so disconcerting.
The use of water as a sign has dozens of functions among various world religions. Along the banks of the river Ganges in India, millions of people take a baptism every day. Each sect of Hinduism, and every guru, will attach a slightly different interpretation to baptism in the Ganges. At the time of Jesus the Jewish people were familiar with all sorts of baptisms among the heathen people around them. In Crete there used to be a baptism in the blood of a bull. The mystery religions of Greece used washing for various forms of initiation. Among the Jews the sect of the Essenes practiced baptisms. The monks of the Qumran monastery who may have reared John the Baptist, collected and hid what are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls refer to baptisms, and the monastery itself had a baptistry.
The variety of meanings of baptism has multiplied since the establishment of the early church. Some view baptism as a means of removing original sin from babies. Many people think of a christening as the proper occasion to gather one's friends to celebrate with a party. Other groups, including Baptists, make it an occasion of public witness to a new-found faith. Often churches have used baptism as a reward for perseverance during many months of instruction and good behavior. In nations where Christians are a persecuted minority, the rite is viewed as a proof of apostasy, a rejection of a traditional religion in order to join a new brotherhood.
According to our text, Jesus intended the sign of baptism to signify the enrolling of learners. Though most churches would concur, the agreement quickly turns to disagreement when we ask the question: Who should be baptized? If we use the school analogy again, do we enroll all candidates, or only those who first prove themselves, or who attain a certain age, or who understand and believe certain things, or those who have proved their commitment by good behavior and perseverance?
This problem arises wherever there are teachers and disciples of any kind. In Japan, a famous Judo instructor might accept only those who already have a black belt, or those with some particular moral or physical qualities. Or he might accept only young boys who have had no previous instruction. He might also require a probationary period to ensure the commitment of his pupils before they became official disciples, or he might make becoming a disciple easy and only later expel those who did not measure up.
What is striking about the early churches described in the book of Acts is that they seemed to take in anybody! Since all baptisms were immediate, there was obviously no time to investigate the new disciples, no probationary period to weed out the good from the bad. Disciples were baptized first and then taught. This was certainly the case with Jesus' first twelve disciples. They knew little of Christian behavior or doctrine when they began. I will argue in a later chapter that the twelve disciples were baptized by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry since there is no other record of their baptism. At least one of the first twelve turned out to be a rogue, and even the best of them failed pretty miserably.
According to the parable of the sower there is no way at the time when God's truth is first received, that we can ascertain whether an individual's faith is going to be genuine. Some will quit learning the next day, others will begin with great enthusiasm and then lose interest. The thorns of care and worry will choke the growth of many, and only a small proportion will produce the acceptable fruits of discipleship. In view of this there were two courses open to Peter and the other apostles on the day of Pentecost. They could either watch candidates for baptism for a long time until there was reasonable certainty that they were going to be good wheat. (And how long would most of us have to be watched?) Or they could take in all comers, teach them, and expect to harvest a proportion of good wheat in due course.
A characteristic expression for baptizing disciples in the book of Acts is "adding." "Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls ... and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:41, 47). As a minister of the church of Jesus Christ I am interested in "adding," but I may have questions about what should be required before baptism. Who are to be added? How should they be selected? Are there qualifications, or prerequisites, or proper attitudes of mind necessary before baptism? The next reference to "adding" might be cited to prove that only believers should be baptized. "And more than ever, believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women" (Acts 5:14). But then I ask myself whether believers are any different from learners, and if so, what should they have believed, and how should their faith be tested?
We have noted that, although churches were to be beautiful centers of the activity of the Holy Spirit, there was apparently no attempt made to exclude unsuitable candidates. What are the implications of this extraordinary receptiveness? A society which admitted all comers without question surely would destroy itself. And can we conceive of quality education taking place in a school where any pupils were accepted regardless of age or experience in learning, and without any consideration of their suitability or commitment?
Consider, for example, the Philippian jailer. He was a civil servant charged with the custody of Paul and Silas, so "he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in stocks." He may have heard his two prisoners singing hymns. At midnight he awoke to find that an earthquake had so shaken the prison that all the doors had swung open and the fetters had broken off. Imagining that a mass escape had taken place, the jailor was about to commit suicide, when one of his prisoners, Paul, told him not to harm himself - all the inmates were still safely inside. Obviously shaken, he brought Paul and Silas out of the prison and asked them what he had to do to be saved. They assured him that by believing in the Lord Jesus he would be saved, together with his household. After brief instruction "he was baptized at once with all his family" (Acts 16:25-35).
Now, even if we suppose that the Philippian jailer had previously heard Paul's preaching, would it not have been wise to see if this emotional, earthquake repentance was likely to be permanent? And what of his household? Even if we assume that they were all adult family members and slaves, and all had had a chance to hear what being baptized meant, and all accepted baptism and Christian discipleship of their own free will, the suddenness of their enrollment is still surprising; the whole household is baptized between midnight and breakfast! There was certainly no time to investigate their character. Nor did it seem necessary to check out their good intentions, or obtain assurance that they would all persevere in their teaching. Evidently it was the jailor's decision that was decisive. He wanted them all to learn about the Jesus that Paul preached, and that was sufficient. Similarly, when Lydia, the businesswoman from Philippi, opened her heart to Paul's preaching, she was quickly baptized, with her household. For the three thousand on the day of Pentecost there was no probation, no checking out the reality of the faith of the baptized. Baptism was immediate and what counted was the instruction given by the Holy Spirit to the learners after their enrollment.
The fact that acceptance into the church was to be open to all without question was also clearly implied in the parables of Jesus. In Matthew's account of the marriage feast, the first invited guests did not bother to come, so others were to be invited. "Go therefore to the thoroughfares and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find." Jesus expressly adds the words, "And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good" (Matt. 22:9, 10). In Luke's account of the parable the invited guests made trivial excuses. To take their place, the servant was ordered to "go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame." When there was still room in the banquet hall, the invitation was made even more strongly persuasive. "Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled" (Luke 14:16-23). In the light of such parables we should not be surprised that the early church took in all comers for instruction and invited them immediately to share in the church's feast.
In answer to this openness we may be tempted to object, "but surely faith must be a prerequisite to baptism." Admittedly the jailer must have believed it was worthwhile for him and his household to learn about Jesus Christ. But how deep could the faith of his family and slaves be at such short notice? In a later chapter we will discuss the theological distinction to be made between the faith to begin learning and justification by faith, which is the main learning topic in the school after baptism. We will also argue that the New Testament teaches justification by faith, not justification by a decision of faith. Profession of faith is no guarantee of spirituality. "Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father" (Matt. 7:21). John's gospel tells us that many of the disciples who decided to follow Jesus when he first began his ministry later "went back" (John 6:66).
From the parable of the sower it seems obvious that a fruitful faith cannot be discerned in the hearer when first the Word of God is heard. In some cases the Word never takes root at all. Others appear to have a joyful faith for a time, but they dry up during trouble or persecution. A third category of disciples have their initial faith choked by the cares and riches of the world, and it is only those disciples who prove to have a genuine faith who hear the Word and understand it, and so prove fruitful (Matt. 13:18-23). If baptisms are to be immediate there is evidently no way to distinguish among these four kinds of disciples. The possibility of some failures is no reason to delay the baptism of all who can be taught.
Another significant parable is that of the net. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous" (Matt. 13:47-50). It is closely parallel to the parable of the tares in which, again, the sorting out of good and bad is left to God at the close of the age. Meanwhile, we are instructed to refrain from any present attempt to root out the tares, "lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them" (Matt. 13:24-29). The early church must have used these parables to explain their enrollment of any seeker in their schools of the Holy Spirit. They accepted the fact that, in adding new disciples, some would eventually turn out bad. But that was not their concern. There was certainly no argument for limiting the catch of fish for fear of taking in some that would eventually be thrown out. As we will see later, the only limitation Scripture makes is the capacity of the net. We have no right to baptize people whom we cannot undertake to teach, but we must not refuse individuals because of their lack of promise.
The parables of Jesus therefore seem designed to justify the open admission policy illustrated in the book of Acts. Not only should everyone be included, but in some cases the riffraff of the city might even be compelled to come in to the banquet. That would be sufficient justification for the head of a household to insist that his whole family and all his household slaves be baptized and instructed. As the gospel moved across Europe it was common for a king to be convinced by the missionaries, and then order his whole tribe to be lined up for baptism. Though this may sound like in indiscriminate baptism, the picture of the church as a school for disciples changes the tone of the whole situation. Indiscriminate baptism in its bad sense involves baptizing all and sundry with no provision for "the apostles' teaching and fellowship," worship around the bread and the wine, and "the prayers" (Acts 2:42).
Indiscriminate baptism in the right sense requires that
any church that baptizes must also provide the rich life of a school of the Holy Spirit for those who are added by baptism. The responsibility to do this lies within the church, not in the good intentions or hesitating faith of the new learners.
We have already seen the problems of ascertaining proper faith before baptism, especially if baptisms are to be as immediate as in the New Testament. I have argued that baptism was used to enroll learners. If baptism is into the school of Christ, there is no way we can find out, before they are taught, how learners will respond. They want to learn and that must be sufficient. Any checking up at this point will hinder only the one who comes with a healthy sense of his own limitations. No ordinary examination will prevent the entrance of the self-confident, the badly intentioned, the tares, the false prophets. Once we are committed to taking in any one, however bad, with faith that the Holy Spirit will handle the stubborn and unteachable, then there is no need to introduce unnecessary obstacles to initiation.
In learning to drive we notice the vast difference in mentality between a government driving examiner and a good driving instructor. The examiner has his list of checkpoints, and if the person being tested fails two or three of these he is rejected. I suggest that there is no place for the examiner mentality at the point of baptism. Later I will argue that churches must never pose as examiners of their members in order to throw out those who fail.
The mentality of the driving instructor is quite different. He prides himself on being willing to teach the most hopeless driver. He is not disturbed by previous failures and accidents. Patiently he plans to teach those who cannot drive at all until they learn to drive safely. I have argued that the church is in the business of teaching the worst sinners to live safely, delighting in taking in the most unlikely prospects for heaven, and having no doubt that the Holy Spirit is willing and able to teach them. Later we will see that the early churches, while open to enrolling anyone by baptism, obviously expected higher standards for those who were to function as teachers. Driving schools cannot afford to use as teachers those with poor driving records, or those who encourage their pupils to drag at full speed down the street.
At this point we note two different methods of enrolling the children of parents who have been baptized. Let us assume that the parents come knowing very little of the Christian faith. They want to learn, so we baptize them. They also want their children to learn. One method is to baptize the whole household, whatever the ages of its members. If baptism is to enroll learners, and they are all going to be taught from infancy, then children are as much candidates for the school of Christ as are their parents. This would be the usual method of administering baptism in Anglican, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and other churches that practice infant baptism. A second method of applying the discipleship model of the church to baptism is to dedicate infants, and then view baptism as the entrance into learning under one's own initiative, say in one's teens. One might compare circumcision as a model for the first method. The bar mitzvah, when a boy of thirteen is made a full member of the Jewish community, or the practice of confirmation in some churches, would be comparable to the second method.
We should note first of all that the practice of baptizing the children of Christian parents on the model of confirmation or a bar mitzvah is not acceptable to those who take believers' baptism seriously. For them, baptism has nothing to do with becoming a learner, but is rather a witness to one's having accepted Jesus Christ as personal Savior and having thereby experienced the new birth. We will pursue the questions of decisional faith and the new birth in later chapters. Meanwhile, we should recognize some important factors that are common to both our first and second methods of baptizing the children of Christian parents under the Discipleship model.
Regardless of how baptism is administered, most denominations agree that some religious rite is needed soon after birth to express the welcome of the newborn baby into the family of God, either by infant dedication or infant baptism. In either case, the dedication or the baptism of infants is not an end but a beginning of a process of learning under the Holy Spirit. Whether a child is baptized or dedicated from infancy there should be constant learning of the Christian faith by actions, words, songs, Scripture, and worship. Even if there is a clear decision of faith and signs of deep spiritual life are observed, before baptism or confirmation in his teens, a child still has a lifetime of learning by the Holy Spirit ahead of him.
Although I practice the baptism of infants as an Anglican minister, I cannot prove that infants were baptized, say, in the household of Lydia or in the household of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16). Nor does it seem likely that all the children of those baptized on the day of Pentecost were baptized at the same time. Those who delay the baptism of children till they have made a profession of faith cannot prove that the children of Christians in the New Testament period were dedicated as infants. Nor is there any way of knowing what happened to the children of Christian parents when they came of age, or puberty, or made some personal decision to continue in their parents' faith. All that I have attempted to show is that baptism was used to enroll adult learners without probation and without delay. Justification by faith and an explanation of how exactly the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ saved them was taught to those already baptized, as in the epistles of Paul. Having settled the basic meaning of baptism as a method of adding disciples to be taught by the Holy Spirit, we must then decide on the most appropriate way of administering it in the case of the children of the baptized. And since we cannot prove conclusively that our method is the right one, we had better be charitable and at least listen to each other.
I will be suggesting, from various points of view, that children should be allowed to share in our communion services. We no longer maintain the Victorian idea that children must have learned their manners before they can eat with their parents. Translated into the context of the church family, that would mean that either we must baptize children and view baptism as the normal means of enrollment, with full rights to communion and worship, or we should view dedication as giving children the same right. Adult or believers' baptism, confirmation, admission into full membership, or any other rite can later be used to indicate entry into adult responsibilities.
It is important that we picture the tremendous faith which the early Christians had in the transforming power of the
Holy Spirit. What the Holy Spirit was going to do was very much a part of what was seen in baptism. They could afford to be totally welcoming at the point of admission because they had no confidence in the candidates themselves. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit every person, whether Jew or Greek, was viewed as dead (Eph. 2:1 ff.). It was taken for granted that he was unable, of himself, to produce anything of what the school proposed for him. Harriet Auber captured this thought exactly in her hymn:
And every virtue we possess,
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness,
Are his alone.
If, then, baptism was the introduction into the sphere or school of the Holy Spirit, obviously good or bad qualities, noble or despicable intentions, sincerity or perversity - all were irrelevant before baptism. The whole emphasis was on what God was going to do. The Holy Spirit, who was totally responsible for teaching and illuminating the pupils, could be relied on to handle the most unreachable, intractable, degraded human material. The school of Christ was viewed as capable of perfecting the very worst of sinners. The suggestion that some who came, or were brought for baptism, were too fickle, sinful, unmotivated, ignorant, or depraved would have been unthinkable. It would have been an insult to Christ to suggest that anyone was too sinful for him to save.
What about your own church?
"O God the Holy Spirit, thank you for what you have done in my life, and in the lives of so many Christians. Help us to bring others into your circle of disciples."