This past week our church had a baptism service at my kids’ favorite swimming hole. I must admit. I had my reservations about having it at the spot for which my children have become pavlovian-conditioned to splash. Therefore, in order to prevent Kong (my six year old) from shouting “Cannon Ball” and bombing into the baptismal waters beside the pastor and the candidates—or something even more abashing—I gave my children some strict pre-Baptism instructions. (These guidelines may or may not have contained threats, bribes, and the German word “Verboten“). I wanted them to understand that God loves to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, the natural into the supernatural. In this case, our beach was about to become holy ground.

 

It turns out that I am not the only one who saw fit to provide extra rules regarding baptism. Dating back to around the second century, there is an early Christian text called the Didache that gives further instructions on the matter. It reads:

 

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Do so in living [i.e. running] water. But if you don’t have any living water, baptize into whatever water you have; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism, the baptizer and the baptized and other able-bodied believers (ἄλλοι δύναται) should fast.

 

For you readers with Methodist sense and Wesleyan sensibilities, don’t worry: this post is not about whether one should “sprinkle” or “dunk”. Rather, I want to focus on the last line of that passage. And for those of you who want to flee quickly when you read the word “fast”, fear not: this article is not about fasting per se.

 

What I would like to ask is why does this “teaching of the twelve” command other believers to join in the preparation for baptism? I suspect that it reveals that for these second-generation Christians, baptism was not an individual rite but a communal one.  Moreover, for them, there was not simply a sacred exchange between the baptized and her baptizer. Rather, the baptismal waters rippled throughout the church. For this reason, the body of believers were also included in the admonishment to sanctify themselves through fasting in preparation for the holy occasion.

 

Whether you agree with this interpretation of the Didache or not, perhaps you will still concede the point that the baptism of the individual should dynamically affect the community of believers. But I am not sure it does: at least not as much as it should. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen so many baptisms that the mystery has become mundane. Perhaps it’s because we tend to tack it onto our usual worship schedule that it complements more than it captivates.   

 

But this week, I felt my church got it. Although as Southern Baptists we chose to feast rather than to fast, I felt as if we shared more than just our Dorritos. As our new brother was baptized in water, it seemed to me that we all were immersed—or at least sprinkled three times— with a spirit of unity and love. In fact, Kong was so inspired by the event that he decided to baptize himself immediately after the service. (I guess I forgot to give any post-Baptismal instructions.) But you know, when I left the lake that night, although I did not dive in after my son, I felt as if I, too, had been renewed and re-Baptized. And it seemed to me that everybody else did as well. 

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Joey Dodson
Dr. Dodson teaches for Eternity Bible College and also serves as an associate professor of Biblical Studies at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He received his Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and was a guest researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Joey is the author of A Little Book for New Bible Scholars with E. Randolph Richards; and The 'Powers' of Personification. Joey has also written a number of articles for academic journals as well as essays in various volumes. Moreover, he is the editor of Paul and the Second Century with Michael F. Bird; and Paul and Seneca in Dialogue with David E. Briones. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jrrdodson.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Joey. Long time no talk. I’m one of your old students from HBU. I remember you often reading from the Didache before class, as well.

    As for your post, I still feel like there is more to “participant baptism” than a collective sense of awe. Surely the instructions to fast – however that may play out, as you demonstrated – is to facilitate more than collective sentiment and appreciation, right?

    I just think (and am afraid) that somewhere along the way after NT times, the act of baptism lost some of its spiritual punch – though I’m not sure in what sense we’ve been shortchanged.

    Thoughts? Was there ever more to baptizing than powerful feelings, for the baptized and those around him?

    • Kris, thank you so much for your reply. I did not mean to imply that “participant baptism” was nothing more than a collective sense of awe. I agree with you that–at least in some circles, such as (ironically) my Baptist ones–Baptism has lost some of “its spiritual punch.” But I would want to capitalize the word “Spiritual”. Without spilling all of my beans, I’ll just say that I suspect our neglect of the Holy Spirit’s role in Baptism has a lot to do with that which has the form of godliness but not the power thereof.