Baptism and Church Online

by Paul on September 16, 2009

Baptism is an important part of being a Christian.  I think most Christians agree on that point.  Most probably agree that baptism is an essential part of being a maturing disciple of Christ.  Beyond that, the how, where, when, and why of baptism are bones of contention between the various Christian denominations for a very long time.

I would be foolish if I thought this post could solve any of those issues – for the churches past and the churches yet to come.  In fact, I may be really foolish to even briefly address the issue.  This post will probably cause some to label me liberal and others to label me conservative.  The only reason to label anyone at all is to give permission to summarily dismiss anything the person you labeled says.  So, if I’m labeled by liberals and conservatives, no one will listen to me.  Which might be a good thing, really, because then I can dedicate more of my time to reaching the lost and less of my time soothing the sensibilities of either camp. (Perhaps I should strive for labels, then!)

Nevertheless, let’s dive in.

What do we know about Baptism?

What do we know about baptism, really?  From the New Testament, we know that John the Baptist baptized others.  We know John the Baptist baptized Jesus.  We know that Jesus’ baptism was an act of obedience and that Jesus pleased God the Father when He was baptized.  We know that Jesus’ disciples baptized people while He was alive.  We know Jesus commanded them to baptize others in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit in the Great Commission.  Peter and the disciples baptized over 3000 at Pentecost.  After Pentecost, most baptisms were household affairs – Cornelius and his household, the Philippian Jailer and his household, etc.  There are three exceptions to baptism outside of the entire household: Saul (Paul the Apostle), The Ethiopian Eunuch, and Pro-counsel.  In some cases, baptism preceded the gifts of the Spirit.  In others, the gifts preceded baptism.  Baptism was by water, although there are references to a baptism of the Spirit that was sometimes separate.  By all examples, the person being baptized was immersed in water.  We also know that in every case, baptism immediately followed a decision to follow Christ.

Given all of these, what seem to be the essential elements of baptism?

  • The person who discipled the lost household (and sometimes an individual).
  • The household (and sometimes individual) who believed Jesus was the Son of God and chose to follow Him as Savior and Lord.
  • Water

Risking redundancy, why were people baptized?

  • Obedience on the part of the disciple to Christ’s command to the disciples in Matthew 28:18-20.
  • Obedience to God on the part of the person being baptized, just as Jesus obeyed God the Father.
  • A testimony to everyone – Believers and possibly The Lost (We suppose The Lost can witness the event.) – that the household or person being baptized would live to please God and that they joined a community of people who committed to do the same.

This is a brief outline of baptism.  For our purposes, however, I think it will work.  If you feel I left something out, please let me know in the comments.

Is Baptism Valid in Different Environments?

If we have the essential elements of baptism that I listed above, and if the reasons for baptism are good, then does the location, or environment, of the baptism matter?  Does it matter if someone is baptized in a church, a lake, a river, the ocean, a swimming pool or a bathtub?  If I’m correct in my assessment of the essential elements (and I am open for discussion on this), I don’t think we can say location matters.

If these things are present, why wouldn’t an online baptism be as valid as a baptism in a swimming pool?  Technology is such that someone can be discipled using online tools.  When they get to a point in their discipleship that they chose to follow Christ, baptism is natural.  Why can’t they set up a webcam and computer in the bathroom, climb into the bathtub, and have the person who discipled them online preside over their baptism in the presence of fellow Christians online?  Why can’t their baptism be recorded on YouTube and posted as a permanent testimony of their faith on their blog and Facebook?

If a change in location or environment doesn’t affect baptism, what makes baptisms online different?

Objections to Baptism Online

I’ve heard several objections to baptisms online, but they really all boil down to one issue – community and how the objector defines community.  If they don’t believe online community is real community, then it’s a no-brainer.  If I didn’t believe online community can be real community it would be a no-brainer!  We are baptized as part of community (household) into community (body of Christ).  If community cannot happen online, there is really no discussion.

Community is the linchpin for all discussions about church online.

Exceptions

Now, the exceptions most objectors allow to their arguments against online baptisms are interesting.   They have no problem making exceptions for persons with disabilities who cannot leave their home.  That makes sense.

They also have no problem with people who are baptized this way if they are in an area of high religious persecution.  But, they are careful to note, this is the exception, not the rule.

I have a problem with the idea that religious freedom is the norm while persecution is the exception.  First, the number of people living in countries that promote true religious freedom is less than the number of people living in countries that restrict freedom of religion.  And, if you read Revelation, this present reality will eventually be the future reality for most of the world.  The exception in this case will eventually become the rule.

An Acceptable Objection

Now, I have some Anglican brothers and sisters that cannot baptize people online without outright rebellion against the authority they recognize in their tradition.  I completely accept their reasons for avoiding the baptism issue in their denomination.  Baptism, for them, is a submission issue and a unity issue.  I know many who are trying to work this out within their tradition and I completely respect them for this – especially since they aren’t going around denouncing the baptisms of people outside their tradition (at least in my experience).

I’m perfectly comfortable if my Reformed brothers and sisters follow the Anglican example, as long as it is with the same spirit of submission to authority and a desire to promote unity within their emerging denomination. (I’m joking …sort of…)

Possible Responses to Baptism Online

If we have the essentials I outlined above and if baptism is out of obedience to Christ in presence of witnesses, I don’t have a problem with baptism online.  I see it as a change in environment, not practice.  I feel people in the church online group might agree with me in this, but that may be a big assumption.

I do outright and wholeheartedly reject people who say that baptism online, as I have described it, is not a valid baptism and therefore a person baptized in such a way must be re-baptized for it to count.  I don’t have the words to express my horror and anger at such a response.  I think God is the only one who can judge the validity of baptism (I am not even addressing the subject of infant baptism here.) and I don’t think we have the right to wrest that authority from Him.

For most, this whole conversation doesn’t even matter, and I think it is good that we don’t get too puffed up with our sophisticated arguments.  I think the best approach is to observe the fruit of church online and baptism online.  Maybe we’ll be surprised, as Peter was with Cornelius’ household.  Maybe we are wrong.  Time will tell and God will ultimately be the judge.

As for me, my conscience is clean.  But, that doesn’t mean I am right.  I will answer to God for what I do as I seek to reach the lost in communities online.  I know this, and I accept it.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen M. Young II September 16, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Good blog post.

Just to add what we know from the New Testament about Baptism. Some people were baptized again (Acts 12). This wasn't because someone told them that their baptism didn't count, but it was because something new happend in their faith and they fully trusted Jesus.

This might be an applicable example for someone who was baptized in a certain religion for cultural reasons (ie infant baptism, etc) but who now has a real and true love for God and faith in Jesus.

pauldwatson September 16, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Good point, Stephen! Glad you mentioned that example!

Jon September 16, 2009 at 6:49 pm

I think the issue might come down to the personal feeling of having a friend, pastor, or whatever baptize you (wherever the place might be) in person vs. having someone walk you through the steps via webcam. That is not to say that there will not be any emotion or personal feelings via the Internet. But there is something to be said for having two people, a faithful believer and a 'new born', sharing in an experience, both spiritual and emotional, that I do not think can be replicated over the Internet.

So to me the question of location isn't the sole issue, but rather is it biblical for one to administer a baptism without physically being, and sharing in the experience, in the same location?

pauldwatson September 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Good point, Stephen! Glad you mentioned that example!

Jeremy Young September 16, 2009 at 8:50 pm

I think you summed up your article by saying "I see it as a change in environment, not practice."

Good post.

NicCharalambous September 16, 2009 at 9:07 pm

This is the money quote: "I think the best approach is to observe the fruit of church online and baptism online." I'm comfortable letting results judge ultimately. The only issue of course is whether the church has EVER had a good way of evaluating the "success" of discipling its congregations?

Terry Dorn September 17, 2009 at 10:54 am

Baptism online, a clever new idea! I just published a book trying to awake the church and our society as to reaching the lost that have mental health issues. I have had great sucess in mentoring individuals who have fallen through the cracks of our great society and our modern day churches. Please read: (The Cross and the Pshchiatrist). See free video at http://outskirtspress.com/thecrossandthepsychiatr... – As christians we must never give up the fight for souls. Terry Dorn

Jim Rose September 17, 2009 at 12:11 pm

I'm new here and just learning how things work on your network so I'll withhold comments on this article. But I appreciate how you are wrestling with these kinds of topics in this "brave new world" we all live in.

stevej September 17, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Thanks for the article. I have to say that I have never ever given thought to whether or not baptism online is good and upright. I am leaning in the direction that it can be depending on the factors that you mention.

nolanshipman1 September 29, 2009 at 2:12 am

My pastor and I are involved in baptisms in Islamic countries where we could never go in person but God has allowed us an virtual presence so that with believers in those countries we have been able to be involved with actual baptisms. One in a hotel swimming pool and another at a resort with a swimming area. These Christians and new believers RISK THEIR LIVES to attend or be baptised. These are truly God honoring baptisms. To even suggest that these baptisms are not valid is pure insanity.

pauldwatson September 16, 2009 at 6:56 pm

I think it is, as you put it, a matter of personal feeling. If baptism online is acceptable to the one doing the baptism, the community (there is the linchpin again) observing the baptism, and the person being baptized, I'm not sure we can argue against baptism online from a Biblical standpoint – as long as the motive is obedience and testimony.

I prefer baptism in person and offline. But my feelings shouldn't dictate things in this matter. My comfort shouldn't dictate someone else's obedience. Especially since I don't think the Bible rejects this application of Scripture.

Will I baptize people online? Sure, if that is what they want.

pauldwatson September 16, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Thanks, Jeremy. I appreciate the feedback.

pauldwatson September 16, 2009 at 9:12 pm

We have a pretty good way of tracking fruit within our work in church planting movements offline in Africa and other places. We look at multiplication and obedience. Tracking fruit within the traditional church is more difficult because there is really less community and less accountability than many would like to admit. Even in our small groups in the USA, most are reluctant to live their lives as openly as it requires.

NicCharalambous September 16, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Right on the money again!

pauldwatson September 17, 2009 at 12:50 pm

I agree, Terry. We have to always run towards the Lost. Congratulations on your book!

pauldwatson September 17, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Jim! Thank you also for the encouragement!

pauldwatson September 17, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Yeah, I wish I didn't have to address it. I probably wouldn't have until I heard people declaring that baptism online was not valid and anyone baptized that way would need to be re-baptized. I couldn't let that one go.

Thanks for stopping by, Steve.

pauldwatson October 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm

I agree 100%!

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