The Baptism Labyrinth: The Radical Reformation & the Anabaptist Tradition
Romans 6:1-11

            A man, a woman, and a redneck were scheduled to be baptized.  The man was baptized first. When he came out of the water, he shouted, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!” Then the woman was baptized. She came out of the water and exclaimed, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” Then it was the redneck’s turn.  He didn’t know any verses from the Bible, so when he came out of the water he yelled, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

            Indeed, there is a lot of confusion about baptism! Should churches baptize babies right after they’re born, or should they wait until they grow up and are able to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? Baptism is a complicated issue that has separated Christians throughout church history and it still a critical dividing line among Christian denominations today.

            For instance, Roman Catholics baptize infants to remove original sin inherent in the human soul. Lutherans baptize infants as a sacrament of grace by which eventually God grants faith and forgiveness of sins. Presbyterians baptize infants as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace and as a means of adoption into the covenant community of God. Methodists practice infant baptism as an initiation into a spiritual journey that hopefully leads to salvation.

On the other hand, Baptists, Brethren, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Churches of Christ, and most Free churches and Non-denominational churches only practice Believers Baptism. Sometimes this occurs in a baptistry in the front of the church or in an outside body of water. And then there are congregational churches, who acknowledge both practices, but leave it up to the individual local churches to decide.

            So, you may be wondering: How did we get into this baptism labyrinth? And how do we get out of it? Here is a brief history of baptism!

 

A Brief History of Baptism

            During New Testament times and for the first 250 years of the church, Christians practiced “believer’s baptism” where adults and/or adolescents would be fully immersed in a river, lake, or pool of water upon personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Then, during the third century, a plague swept through the Mediterranean world. Infants and young children were dying by droves and their parents were afraid that their souls might go to hell because of original sin. The plague put a lot of pastoral pressure on the priests, and some of them began baptizing these sick babies, to offer comfort to traumatized parents. This practice spread quickly, and it dramatically changed the church’s understanding and approach to baptism. Within a hundred years or so, Infant Baptism became the universal practice in the Christian church and the modes of affusion (pouring) or asperation (sprinkling) replaced immersion. The sacrament of Infant Baptism dominated the Christian church for the next 1200 years, until the dawn of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptist tradition.

 

The Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists

The Anabaptist movement began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525. It was the result of the Scriptural studies of three men: Ulrich Zwingli, Felix Manz, and Conrad Grebel. The German Reformation was in full swing by this time; Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to the castle church door in 1517, eight years earlier.

Zurich appeared poised to follow in the footsteps of the Germans. The city council supported the men, and they seemed quite willing to pull out of the Roman Catholic Church and begin their own Reformation in Switzerland. Then Manz and Grebel had a falling out with Zwingli. The issue was infant baptism. Manz and Grebel, became convinced the practice was unbiblical and they accused Zwingli of compromising to avoid getting in trouble with the city council.

Zwingli did not give in to his cohorts. Eventually, a public debate was arranged, and the city council sided with Ulrich Zwingli and commanded Grebel and Manz to repent under threat of arrest. They could not do it. Shortly after the debate, which occurred on January 17, 1525, several believers gathered in the home of Felix Manz to discuss what to do. Among them was a fiery young Catholic priest named Georg Blaurock, who was ready to make a sharp break with the Roman Church and its practices. After some discussion that cold night, Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him with a true Christian baptism upon his profession of faith. Conrad Grebel did so, and Georg Blaurock then baptized the remainder who were present.

So was established the first church of the Anabaptists, or “rebaptizers,” as they came to be known. This was because they rejected the infant baptism of the state churches and rebaptized all those who came to them to follow Christ. Because this was such a radical break from the Roman Catholic practice, the Anabaptist tradition got dubbed “the Radical Reformation.”

Anabaptism spread rapidly despite Ulrich Zwingli’s attempts to shut them down. By order of the city council, he had Felix Manz put to death by drowning in January of 1527. He also drove Georg Blaurock out of the area. The persecution would disperse and shut down that first Anabaptist church in Zollikon, outside Zurich. It would not, however, stop its spread.

Blaurock continued to preach wherever he went. The fire spread, and others took up the cause. By February of 1527, Michael Sattler, a former Catholic abbot, gathered representatives of numerous Anabaptist churches in the town of Schleitheim to discuss their future and the direction they wished to go. The result of that gathering was the Schleitheim Confession, to this day the most commonly cited confession among modern Anabaptist churches.

The Anabaptists were persecuted and hated by Catholics and Protestants alike. All three major branches of the Protestant Reformation persecuted them. On March 7, 1526, the Zürich city council had passed an edict that made adult re-baptism punishable by drowning. On January 5, 1527, Felix Manz became the first casualty of the edict, and the first Swiss Anabaptist to be martyred at the hands of other Protestants. While Manz stated that he wished “to bring together those who were willing to accept Christ, obey the Word, and follow in His footsteps, to unite with these by baptism, and to purchase the rest in their present conviction”, Zwingli and the council accused him of obstinately refusing “to recede from his error and caprice.”

At 3:00 p.m., as he was led from the Wellenburg to a boat, he praised God and preached to the people. A Reformed minister went along, seeking to silence him, and hoping to give him an opportunity to recant. Manz’s brother and mother encouraged him to stand firm and suffer for Jesus’ sake. He was taken by boat onto the River Limmat. His hands were bound and pulled behind his knees and a pole was placed between them. He was executed by drowning in Lake Zürich on the Limmat. His alleged last words were, “Into thy hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” His property was confiscated by government of Zürich, and he was buried in the St. Jakobs cemetery. It is as ironic as it is tragic, but many of the early Anabaptists, like Felix Manz, were executed by drowning.

Despite the persecution, the Anabaptist movement flourished. In less than a century, however, the zeal of the Anabaptists grew into legalism and doctrinal disputes, and they began to splinter rapidly. A major influence in this division was Menno Simons, one of the more famous of the 16th century Anabaptists. From his name comes the term Mennonite, whose churches continue to exist even to this day.

Menno Simons and others began to freely excommunicate other believers and other churches. That sort of division never really stopped, and to this day Mennonites divide over issues as silly as the length of the strings on the bonnets that they wear to church meetings on Sunday.

The Mennonites are not the only products of the Anabaptists, however. Alexander Mack began a movement that produced the modern Brethren Church and its various offshoots. Also, Jacob Amman began a movement that produced the Amish.

Most of our modern Baptist denominations did not directly descend from the Anabaptist tradition, but they were indirectly influenced by their embracing the doctrine of believer’s baptism and reject the practice of infant baptism. The Anabaptists, in the early 1500’s, were the first ones to return to the early church’s practice of believer’s baptism and continue to exert a vast influence on the Christian Church in the 21st century.

 

Believer’s Baptism (Romans 6:1-11)

The Anabaptists and their various descendants have traditionally defined Christian baptism as an outward symbol of an inward reality, or to say it another way, it is an external testimony of what has occurred inwardly in a believer’s life. Baptism illustrates a believer’s identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. In Christian baptism, the action going under the water symbolizes dying and being buried with Christ. The action of coming out of the water pictures Christ’s resurrection.
In addition to there not even being one example of infant baptism in the Bible, the Baptist tradition, among other places in the New Testament, looks to the Apostle Paul, in Romans 6:3-4, where he paints a beautiful picture of baptism as a symbolic act of identifying with Jesus Christ. It is obviously not meant to be understood literally because we are not actually crucified or resurrected when we put our faith in Christ. Standing upright in the water is a symbol of being “crucified” with Christ, being immersed in the water is a symbol of being buried with Christ, and being raise out of the water is a symbol of being resurrected with Christ. It pictures and proclaims the death of our old life to sin, and our resurrection to walk in newness of life. As Christ was raised up from the dead, by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

In this whole passage, Paul is answering the question: If God is always going to forgive us for our sins, why should we stop sinning? The answer is clear—why would we want to return to the very acts that brought about spiritual death in the first place. No! Since Jesus was crucified for our sins and overcame death through his resurrection, we proclaim our faith in baptism, which is a visual and symbolic gesture of dying with Christ and being raised to new life with him. Therefore, we live our lives for God out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us.

 

            As I conclude this sermon today, I must confess my personal appreciation for the Baptist tradition. Although I am an ordained and committed Congregationalist, I believe the Baptist tradition best represents the biblical teaching on baptism. Allow me to summarize the reasons:

  1. You can read the Bible from cover to cover and there is not a single example of infant baptism. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of adults putting their faith in Jesus Christ and immediately proclaiming that faith by being immersed in the waters of baptism.
  2. The historical evidence shows us that the practice of infant baptism didn’t develop until 250 years after the Christian Church was formed and it developed from a superstitious belief that baptism erases original sin. The Bible simply does not teach this!
  3. The practice of believer’s baptism through full body immersion is the most consistent practice of baptism in the Bible and it best symbolizes being crucified, buried, and resurrected with Christ.

 

Throughout history, the doctrine and practice of baptism has indeed been a labyrinth that every church and every believer has had to cross, and good Christians have come out on various sides. I don’t think baptism is an issue we should fight about or persecute each other over, but it is an issue that we all must make some decisions. I hope this exploration of the Anabaptist tradition has helped you navigate the baptism labyrinth!

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