Baptism Then and Now. Did Early Christians Connect Baptism to Church Membership?

I read a tweet today. I don’t know the man who tweeted it, but I’m afraid I know well the situation he describes.

He writes,

“I worked at a multi-sight church once where a goal for baptisms for the year was set at the start of the year. The constant pressure to get people to sign up, was real! The fear of not meeting your designated # each week/month, was real! The constant dread of the “Help me understand why” conversation because you didn’t baptize anyone that week, was real.

I hate to admit this… But there were a few Sunday mornings I would send a text to my staff and ask if there was ANYONE we could get in the baptismal because the pressure too baptize was that real. Sadly and regrettably, we put people, kids even at times in that baptismal who shouldn’t have been there. They weren’t ready to be baptized, didn’t even know what they were doing.”

I have sat in many conversations with potential church members who are confused about their own spiritual history and their own baptism story because they had no idea what they were doing when they were baptized. They were a number to be counted, but for them, their baptism had not counted. Their baptism was not connected to faith and repentance, nor did it plunge them into a new life with God’s people. This has not always been the case. From the earliest testimonies of church history, baptism was a very meaningful step into the covenant community of faith. It was understood to be so significant, that within just a generation of the apostles, church leaders began to take careful steps to ensure that baptismal candidates understood what they were plunging into.

Early in church history, Christians recognized a necessary connection between genuine faith, baptism, and new life in covenant community with a local church.

Baptism on Day 1

Peter’s presentation of the gospel in Acts 2 did more than simply bring a message of forgiveness to individual converts. The preached gospel created a vibrant and identifiable community. This new community would be called the church and it would be known for and shaped by the message they had received. The message preached would permeate both how they related to one another and what they did when they gathered. This new people were a set apart people.

Acts 2 set a precedent for the way people publicly became recognizable members God’s new community. Baptism was the public profession of faith in Jesus and the identification with his people. It was the visual way into the new covenant community of faith. It’s easy for the modern reader to forget how costly baptism could have been for these early believers. Baptism was public identification with a man who had claimed to be God and was opposed by the most powerful leaders in Jerusalem. Baptism identified the person of faith with a religious leader who had just been beaten, mocked, and crucified. Such a step was not likely taken by many apart from genuine faith. Baptism, thus, served as a doorway of initiation, as well as, an opportunity for the whole congregation to praise God for the power of his saving work.

Baptism in the 2nd Century

The earliest documents outside the New Testament describe baptism as an initial right of Christianity to be followed by participation in the Lord’s Supper.[1] For example, the Didache, also known as the Teaching, is a document written in approximately 120 AD. It gives us a glimpse of some of the church practices being implemented within a generation of the Apostles. Clayton N. Jefford argues that not enough attention has been given to this second century document. He writes, “Despite its brevity of length and paucity of theological development, the text of the Didache has inspired a disproportionate degree of attention from biblical scholars and early church historians alike.”[2] Professor M.B. Riddle outlines the Didache into chapters: 1) the duty of the Christian, 2) a directory for worship, 3) advice for church officers, and, 4) a conclusion which encourages watchfulness for the return of Christ.[3]

In the Didache, we find both continuity and development of thought from what is seen in the Acts 2:42 description of church life. As to the weekly meeting of the church the Didache instructs, “Every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”[4] Concerning baptism, the Didache encourages both the baptizer and baptismal candidate to engage in fasting as way of preparation for one or two days before the baptism.[5] Further emphasizing the weightiness and the necessity of baptism, only the baptized were permitted to participate in communion. The Didache teaches, “Let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord hath said, give not that which is holy to the dogs.[6] The prerequisite of baptism by immersion therefore transforms the individual from being an outsider to becoming an insider.[7]

Baptism in the 3rd Century

As circumstances changed across the Christian landscape and the church became a legal institution, many churches began to insist that baptism alone was no longer an adequate pre-requisite to the Lord’s Supper. Allison suggests that this was a result of the large influx of new people joining churches, and not always for the right reasons.[8] Some influential voices in the early church taught that baptism should be delayed for the sake of catechism. One of those voices came from the 3rd century theologian, Hippolytus. As an influential personality among Roman presbyters, even Origen is recorded to have attended one of Hippolytus’ sermons. Hippolytus advocated that baptism be delayed for as much as three years for catechesis.[9] He writes, “Let him, therefore, who is to be taught the truth in regard to piety be instructed before his baptism in the knowledge of the unbegotten God, in the understanding of His only begotten Son, in the assured acknowledgment of the Holy Ghost.”[10]

Application to Today

While there is much to be disagreed with regarding the patristics’ view of baptism, a couple things are clear from first, second, and third century writings on baptism. Firstly, baptism is important. There seems to be no category in the New Testament or in church history for someone who claims to be a Christian yet refuses to be obedient in this initiatory right. Secondly, the fellowship of the church and the participation in the Lord’s Supper was guarded by baptism. Thirdly, baptism should only be permitted for those who are truly born again. These early followers of Christ paid careful attention to those who were being admitted into the church fellowship by way of baptism. They assumed that genuine conversion was required for church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper. While perhaps not known by this name, the early church practiced regenerate church membership as guarded by baptism and symbolized by the ongoing celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Though three years of catechism may be an extreme measure, it does show the eternal significance of salvation, assurance, and participation in the body of Christ as symbolized by the act of baptism.

[1] Allison, Historical Theology, 612.

[2] Clayton Jefford and Jonathan Draper, eds., The Didache: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle in Early Christianity (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015), 1, accessed January 27, 2020,

[3] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325., vol. 7 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 374.

[4] Ibid., 7:381.

[5] Ibid., 7:379.

[6] Ibid., 7:380.

[7] Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. (New York: Newman Press, 2003), 268.

[8] Allison, Historical Theology, 617.

[9] Ibid., 616.

[10] Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7:475.

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