Baptism A Legitimate Church Priority

A Legitimate Church Priority

E. E. Cleveland
Retired Associate Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference

The hot sun shone brightly against the sparkling waters of the Caribbean. Ten thousand people lined the seashore singing hymns, awaiting the beginning of the baptism. History was made that day as 644 people were immersed in water in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. Four hundred eighty of them were brand-new Seventh-day Adventist Christians. The others were backsliders and Christians who sought a renewal of their faith.

Forty preachers stood for over three hours baptizing until this divine work was done. It was an occasion never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. As the slanting rays of the setting sun beamed their final benediction upon that day, heaven rejoiced, hell trembled, and the sons and daughters of God shouted for joy.

Baptism is a major part of the legitimate business of the church. "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19). By submitting to this God-ordained rite, the participant expresses faith in the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord (Rom. 6:4, 5). It is, therefore, a principal objective of our ministry to lead a man into this act of faith.

The apostles viewed baptism as being so important they felt everyone ought to have this experience. "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). Baptism is, therefore, legitimatized by the command of our Saviour, and by the common practice of the early apostles. But the problem today is that the church is so far removed from its early origins that some of its members and ministers seem to believe that it can exist without baptism. In fact, some members are uncomfortable when baptism time comes around.

This Laodicean attitude is epitomized by some rather familiar expressions, such as, "We don't want any evangelist coming in here and creating ill will in the community," or "These new people are not thoroughly grounded and are therefore not ready for baptism," or "Our minister is just rushing people into the water to make a record with the conference."

Parents sometimes show their lack of interest in the baptismal rite when they are approached by their tenand eleven-year-old children who wish to be baptized and tell them, "You're too young" or "You're not old enough to know what you are doing." (Where in the Scriptures are we told that it is better to give Christ our lives when we are old than when we are young?)

Some of our dear believers have been in the church so long that they have forgotten how they came in. Yes, that some man of God led them gently into the waters of the baptistry and immersed them in that name that is above all other names. They have become harsh and judgmental and would convert the church of God into a social club, accepting some and refusing others on man-made grounds.

Let all such remember that Christ called it "my church" (Matt. 16:18) and that therefore the temple of God is His, not ours, and we are privileged to be members of His body. Let no man, then stand between a man and the God he seeks at His altar. But let us stand aside in awe at the miracle of conversion and the work of the Holy Spirit upon the human heart.

Contributing to a Laodicean attitude

Contributing to this Laodicean attitude on the part of some of the laity is the attitude of some of the ministry. Believe it or not, there are some preachers who are not overly enthusiastic about having a baptism and who make little or no effort to achieve it. They have become so busy with the routine of running the organizational structure that this commandment of the Lord has completely eluded them.

You see, they have more important things to do like running committees and participating in board meetings and conducting the business of giant institutions. After all, the finances of an organization have to be monitored, salaries have to be paid, policies have to be set, slogans have to be dreamed up, and pronouncements have to be made. What does it matter if the baptismal pool is dry?

I think I can answer that question. If the baptismal pool were to remain dry there would be no organization to run, no decisions to be made, no one to man the committee indeed, no committees, no departments to function, no board members to assemble, no choir to sing. In short, there would be no church. One inevitable conclusion follows: The baptismal waters must be continually troubled, not only to maintain what we have but to be the aggressive force for which the church was intended when implanted in the earth.

Indeed, a part of our comparative paralysis is that we have substituted the secondary for the primary and in too many men's minds the conquest for lost souls personally entered into by the minister is secondary to one's status in the organization. In pursuit of a selfless ministry, the job must always supersede the position, and only a selfless ministry can receive the full endorsement of the Holy Spirit.

So the command to teach and baptize is the legitimate church priority and all else is tributary to this. We have seen the ultimate end of the authoritarian institutional approach exemplified in the papal church of the Middle Ages. We cannot be satisfied with any modification of this travesty. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, though organized, must never partake of the pomp and circumstance consequent to the hierarchal form. It must be a seamless-garment, sandal-shod, straight ministry that functions where people are, leading them where they ought to be; the constantly troubled baptismal waters must symbolize this spirit.

This must be said again and again in our churches, our conference offices, our schools where seminarians are trained that we may develop sound values and balanced judgments, and, above all, form perfect channels for the working of the Holy Spirit's power.

Clergy-oriented skepticisms

There are also clergy-oriented cynicisms toward baptism that need to be dealt with. First of all, there is skepticism about an organization that promotes baptism. Serious questions exist as to whether or not it ought to be externally encouraged. It is further pointed out that this tends to encourage preachers to "scramble to meet quotas." The opinion is expressed that the minister should just be left alone to work according to his internal lights and the church should be satisfied with the results. It is further pointed out that no statistics should ever be kept, for these tend either to pride or depression. And, furthermore, if a minister is converted, he will do his work on his own and does not need promotional "prodding."

In all honesty let us state that there is a grain of truth in all of this, but there is also a grain of error. Let us begin with this business of statistics. The disciples were not afraid of statistics: "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). It seems that the Holy Spirit inspired Dr. Luke to include that important statistic. I wonder why?

And in chapter 4:4, "Howbeit many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand." Now once again we are introduced to a statistic. I wonder why? Then in chapter 5:14 we read these words, "And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women." Then chapter 6:7, "And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith."

You will notice the words of the scriptures, "multitudes," "a great company," "about three thousand," "about five thousand," and so on. It seems that the Holy Spirit approves the statistical approach that encourages and that inspires. Statistics of themselves do not inherently tend to pride, and are, therefore, not sinful. Statistics monitor the operation. And while they do not tell all, they are vague indicators of the presence of God at work in His church and, as indicated before, have been with us since apostolic times.

Things statistics can't measure

Of course, there are some things that statistics don't measure. They can never reflect the time, energy, and prayerful concern expended over the conversion of one soul on the part of the pastor or the evangelist. Nor do statistics properly explain other variables such as extremes in climate, or the difficulty of preaching in countries that have restrictive state religious systems. Nor do statistics always tell of the sparsely populated areas that constitute some pastoral districts, so that five baptisms in Alaska may equal in significance 100 baptisms elsewhere. Or two conversions in Jerusalem may equal or excel 25 in Washington D.C.

There is also the historical record of missionaries who have labored arduously under forbidding circumstances over a period of years without realizing one convert, but they were laying the groundwork for the evangelistic explosion now taking place in some of those areas of the earth.

The statistician's pen could not possibly reveal Heaven's evaluation of these efforts, nor could cold figures anticipate the ultimate results of these initially nonstatistical efforts. But there are some things that statistics do tell. They tell us whether the work of God is heading in the right direction. They should inspire the individual minister to greater heights in evangelistic endeavor than heretofore. Statistics should encourage a field to lift its sights, taking into consideration past accomplishments, and statistics should encourage our hearts that God is at work in our midst.

Need for statistics

Of course, there are those whose sensitivities are offended by statistics. These conscientious, well-meaning brethren would not want the "right hand to know what the left hand is doing." They would simply "do the work" and "leave the results to God." There are, however, certain difficulties with the above suggestion.

There is a gas gauge on an automobile to let you know when you are low on fuel. There is a speedometer there to let you know when you are driving under or exceeding the speed limit. There are monitoring systems throughout man-made machines that serve as indicators as to the relative health of the automobile.

There are the oil gauge and the transmission gauge, all of these things serving a useful purpose. This, in my view, is the basis of the need for a statistical reading on the comparative health of the spiritual body of Christ.

In the field of medicine, doctors have stethoscopes, they have thermometers and machines to check the status of one's physical vital life signs. Many lives have been saved because of these monitoring systems. It is important that the body of Christ be monitored as to the status of its vital spiritual life signs.

The New Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that large numbers of accessions to the faith significantly revealed the work of the Holy Spirit in the church.

These statistics are encouraging and do not of themselves tend to pride some are forever caught up in the process with little concern for results. The baptismal command clearly indicates that Christ is interested in results.

The baptismal command clearly indicates that Christ is interested in results, and in the very last book of the Bible, in Revelation 14:1, "And I looked and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having this Father's name written in their foreheads."

While this statistic may be symbolic of a larger or smaller number of people, it is nevertheless there to denote the enormity of the scope of the ultimate gospel result. "After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the lamb, clothes with white robes, and palms in their hands" (Rev. 7:9). "And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? And whence came they?" (verse 13). "And I said unto him Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (verse 14).

Inspired by this immeasurable statistical projection, we must labor on as if the winning of a soul is our business, knowing all the while that it is God's, and we must resist the temptation of Laodicean pride in the knowledge of our growth, but in humility confess to God that things would be better if we were better, and in His name pledge ourselves to the task!

E. E. Cleveland wrote this article when was an associate secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association and associate editor of Ministry