Spontaneous Baptisms and the Early Church

There is a modern church ‘fad’ called spontaneous baptisms. Now, I am not one to condemn the practice as non-biblical or rally behind a protest. We actually have two examples of spontaneous baptism in Acts (Acts 8:36-38; 16:31-33).

Looking at these texts, however, one will notice a different ministerial context. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) were engaged in a one-on-one conversation as Philip was passing by, perhaps to never again speak to this man. Obviously, there were circumstantial reasons for the spontaneous baptism. Could the same be said for the Philippian jailer in Acts 16? Were there circumstantial reasons for the spontaneous baptism of the jailer and his household? I would say so. The jailer had taken Paul and Silas to his house for the night, so I think it is warranted to assume that they were on a bit of a ‘time crunch’ as well – i.e. Paul and Silas were technically still prisoners, unsure of what was to happen next. Still, this is not an interpretation that I am willing to die for, but I think one thing is apparent: biblical examples of spontaneous baptisms were special and isolated events. Luke, the writer of Acts, certainly does not make an effort to show that this was the typical progression; and more certainly, he does not spell out imperatives to prescribe the progression as the standard for church practices.

With that being said, there is nothing immediately wrong with performing spontaneous baptisms. My question is, however, why should spontaneous baptisms be preferred? Just because something is not explicitly ruled out in Scripture does not permit or prescribe the practice for us today. Some might argue that it generates a ‘decisive moment of significance’ for the baptism. Others might add that it better links confession, repentance, and faith with the ritual. Both of these assertions are understandable, but I wonder if they could be upheld apart from the specific practice of spontaneous baptisms.

Why would I want to steer away from spontaneous baptisms? It is for the sake of the sanctity of the ritual. It is a sacred practice, one that should be specially reserved for Christians, similar to the Lord’s Supper. I am not saying that confession is not a sufficient immediate cause for the testimonial ritual, but I would assert that it is not the best method given the sanctity of the moment of baptism.

Let’s take a different route, and look at how the early church treated baptism.[1] The Didache states,

Regarding Baptism…Before the Baptism, let the baptizer and the candidate for the baptism fast, as well as any others that are able. Require the candidate to fast one or two days previously (VII, 4).[2]

Two things are apparent that are worthy of our recognition. First, the ritual of baptism was taken very seriously to the early church. It was certainly an ‘event,’ but not an immediate one. Obviously the baptism was planned for several days in advance. The one who was to baptized was required, not suggested, to fast for a day or two before their baptism. Being that fasting was inextricably tied to prayer, the candidate was required to adamantly seek God in this decision. Secondly, the ritual of baptism had a communal emphasis. Notice that the one who was to be baptized was called a ‘candidate.’ This has a strong implication of application and examination, which would have preceded the baptism. Why would the one being baptized be referred to as such? I would surmise that it is because the community, the Church, recognized that this person’s baptism did not only have individual ramifications. This person was about to join the body, become united with the Church and Christ, and baptism was the physical testimony to this communal entrance. Thus, the church body, the baptizer, and the candidate himself conducted an examination as to whether they were truly fit to enter the community – i.e. whether they truly had faith in the Messiah, Jesus.

Now, I am not supplying that we adopt the exact external forms – e.g. I do not think we need to require that baptismal candidates and the Church need to fast for several days prior to the baptism (though, I’d suggest it). But I do think we should solemnly consider these baptismal principles: 1) Baptism is sacred and a well-examined decision, and 2) baptism is representative of entrance into the community, unity with Christ and unity with the Church. I believe that these two principles are best achieved not by spontaneous baptisms. Like I emphasized, I am concerned with whether it is profitable, not whether it is permissible (the latter being biblically attested). Perhaps we could learn a few things from our early Christian brothers.

[1] There were more elaborate and dramatic baptism rituals composed by the church in the fourth of fifth century. “The Christian initiation rites typically began several weeks before Easter with a solemn enrolling of the candidates for baptism. This initial enrolling was followed by several weeks of catechetical instruction; this was a period of intensive teaching, in which the basic doctrines of the Church were explained…The newly baptized were then clothed in white and led into the church to join with the congregation to celebrate the Easter Eucharist.” Hughes Oliphant Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 3.

[2] The Didache was composed as an instruction booklet for new pagan Christians. It would have been needed as early as 42 A.D. with the evangelism in Antioch, but was most likely produced around 60-80 A.D. Ancient Christian Writers; the Works of the Fathers in Translation, vol. no. 6, The Didache: the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Fragments of Papias, the Epistle to Diognetus (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1948), 19.

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One thought on “Spontaneous Baptisms and the Early Church

  1. It does seem baptisms in the book of acts were relatively soon after or during calling upon The Lord. However, with my kids I am waiting to see some sugnificant spiritual fruit in their lives before encouraging baptism. So in there case, it has been years since they professed, but it’s still hard to see spiritual fruit. It’s tough being a parent and a Christian. Thanks for the topic. Bob.

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