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I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

When I was about twelve years old, I went through a phase when I was terribly afraid of hell. Like, wake-up-screaming scared of hell. Shouting-at-the-ceiling-because-God-won’t-answer afraid of damnation. My parents probably thought I was mentally ill, but that wasn’t quite right. I was living in a persistent state of spiritual terror.

Somewhere along the way (maybe at the church summer camps that tended to be run by the more fundamentalist-leaning folks in our denomination) I had come across the idea that my eternal soul was in peril. There was a deep, dark abyss of fiery torment waiting for me the moment I died, and there was nothing I could do to save myself. Nothing, except say a prayer inviting Jesus into my heart and asking God to forgive my sins.

So I did that. A lot. I can’t even remember how many times I invited Jesus into my heart. Asking God for forgiveness for my sins became a compulsive ritual, lifelessly recited several times a day, just in case I might die in the next few hours. My relationship with God was basically robotic. I just kept hitting save on my spiritual Word document, praying that when my physical computer crashed God would be able to recover the data.

I felt so empty, so distant from God. I was desperate to know that I was acceptable to him, and that I would not face unspeakable punishment when I died. I wanted the constant, gnawing anxiety to stop. Eventually, I became so desperate that I asked my mom to baptize me in a swimming pool.

This was a strange thing for me to ask of my mother, and perhaps even stranger that she agreed to it. You see, we were Quakers, and baptism is just not something that Friends do.

The Quaker church teaches that traditional Christian rituals, called sacraments by most groups, aren’t the true religion instituted by Jesus. You don’t have to eat bread and wine to commune with Jesus. You don’t have to get dunked in a river to experience spiritual conversion. Real faith comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ, not from masses, baptisms, and suppers.

Following this logic, Quakers normally eschew the mainstream Christian rituals. Our understanding of Scripture leads us to believe that these practices are not only unnecessary, but can actually be harmful if they are allowed to take the place of the substance of Christian faith. There’s good reason to believe this is true: How many people have been burned, hanged, drowned, and tortured because they baptized by dunking rather than sprinkling, or baptized adults rather than children? How many communities have been ripped apart by disagreements over how the Lord’s Supper should be performed, and whether the wafers and wine are really the body of Jesus, or just symbolically so?

Jesus didn’t come to establish a particular way of eating bread or washing ourselves. The church’s historic obsession with these rituals has caused more harm than good, often even serving as tools of oppression. As one of the most radical Christian groups of the already revolutionary 17th-century England, Quakers did away with the iconic ceremonies of the historic church.

My parents being Quaker pastors, I was well-aware of our tradition’s rejection of sacramental rites. At this point, though, I didn’t really care. I had had enough of the torment. If dunking me in the chlorine-filled swimming pool would make the pain stop, I was for it. If my pastor mom (a former Baptist, conveniently) could impart some grace to my life, I was ready to give it a go.

I came up out of that water expecting to feel something. Anything. Some kind of shift in my mental state. A feeling of deeper communion with God. Relief from the burden of sin and the fear of hell.

I waited for it. Pretty soon, I realized I’d be waiting a long time.

It would be years before I would finally experience the connection with God that I longed for. When it did come, it was not the result of any ritual or rote prayer. I would have to learn that the grace and power of God is not a magic trick to be controlled, but a relationship to be received.

Before that, I would pass through a period of deep despair. I renounced God and religion, certain that the faith of my upbringing had nothing to offer me but daily fear and spiritual burden.

When I did come back to faith, it was through direct, personal experience of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit led me back into the Quaker community (though, admittedly, a very different corner of it). Even after becoming a Quaker again, I still found Christian theology and language offensive and threatening. Fortunately, the Spirit kept working with me. I eventually discovered the real Jesus, first in the pages of the New Testament and later in my own direct experience of him as risen Lord.

I finally realized that I had become a Christian in early 2007, when I was able to say with integrity: Jesus is Lord. Since that time, I have been growing in my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. My deepening experience of his life has been both beautiful and painful, teaching me that relationship with God is not only about feeling the Spirit’s presence, but also involves significant periods of spiritual dryness and doubt.

I am so grateful for the space that the Quaker community has given me to develop as a follower of Jesus. The rich and radical theology of the Quaker tradition has provided me with a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to name when I see Jesus alive and at work in the modern world.

As time has gone on, I have also felt myself drawn to other Christians, from different traditions. There is a radical stream of Christianity – found across denominations – that takes the Sermon on the Mount literally and experiences Jesus as alive and present to lead us. I’m inspired by Anabaptists, radical Catholics, charismatics, and rowdy believers of all kinds. I long for unity and collaboration with these other radical disciples. I want to be together with them, following the leading of the Holy Spirit and sharing the good news, just like in the New Testament church.

But my joy turns to sadness when I realize that my Quaker conviction about the sacraments may prevent me from entering into full fellowship with others in the radical church. It’s startling for me to realize that I actually can’t become a member of most non-Quaker congregations without being sprinkled or dunked with water. Even in relatively radical circles, where most ideas are up for debate, the necessity of certain rituals for group membership (if not salvation) is a core assumption.

I wish I could let this thing go. I really do. It seems silly to block ecumenical unity on the basis of arguments about water and bread and wine.

But it’s not silly. Sacraments don’t really matter. And that really matters.

It’s a question of whether my path to God and relationship with Jesus Christ are valid. It’s a question of whether I’m really a child of God, even if I didn’t do a certain ritual when I came to trust in Jesus as Lord. It’s a question of whether God’s power is greater than the human need for orderliness and rules to follow.

I am a baptized believer. I was baptized that night I stayed up late reading CS Lewis and was visited by the Holy Spirit. I was baptized on the campus of Lancaster University in England, when God called me into a life of service. I’ve been baptized in ecstasy, and I’ve been baptized through suffering. I’ve been baptized into the agony of God’s absence from my life, and into the joy of his presence. I’ve been baptized and re-baptized so many times, I’ve lost count.

I can’t throw all of that away for a false unity around water baptism. I can’t renounce my faith that God does whatever he wants to do, human rituals or no. I can’t forget that God saved me while I was still an unwashed sinner, and that no amount of outward washing can improve upon the inward work of Christ’s spirit in me.

In spite of the barriers that these convictions present to so many of my brothers and sisters, I still long for unity.

I accept you. I embrace the work that God is doing in your lives. Can you accept what God is doing in me?

Whether we have all passed through the same rituals is unimportant. What matters is the power of God at work in us. Clearly, God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the Anabaptist and the Quaker, the Baptist and the Catholic. Who are we to question the saving work of Christ in our midst? How much longer will we grieve the Holy Spirit with our human disputes?

Related Posts:

A Baptism of Humility

What is Real Faith? Actually Doing What You Believe

  • Jon-Phil Winter

    As a former Pentecostal church member and now a Salvation Army officer I have discovered that as nice and comforting as the sacraments might be for many, they really do not matter (The Salvation Army does not practice the sacraments either). It is sacramental living that makes the difference, not taking part in individual sacraments. I know that many do find connection with God through them, and that is all well and good, but I wonder if they don’t begin to become a little self-indulgent for many. If they bring people into closer fellowship with God and others that is great, if they become a barrier then they have lost any sense of purpose. I am able to live a spiritually rich life with a deep relationship with God and my community without them.

  • Mark Russ

    A very moving and passionately written post Micah, thank you! I have that same longing for a varied ecumenism. I have experienced such welcome among radical Catholics (mainly nuns) in Birmingham. They don’t care that I’m Anglican-sprinkled, Quaker, gay or whatever, they just want me to hop on their wagon of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger.

    • Thank you, Russ. I’m glad you’re finding such excellent welcome!

  • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

    Amen

  • Keith Saylor

    Thank you for this piece Micah. Your words carried me back to my youth, in the Baptist Church, when the Spirit came upon me and the Life itself was transforming and experienced as sufficient. I am so thankful for the fellowship of one Baptist minister who shared Quakerism with me. I really thought there was no gathering of people that affirmed the Spirit within in the way I was experiencing it. Amen Micah. Your words touched me and increased the manifestation of the Light within.

  • broschultz

    I’ve been sprinkled and I’ve been dunked. It’s all about “Now Faith”. There was a big difference between being slapped by the Bishop at my confirmation in the Catholic Church and having the spirit hovering over me as I received the Baptism in the Holy Ghost. Since I don’t remember being sprinkled I can’t speak to that but when Jesus touched me it was in an empty auditorium not a pool. However there was a time I felt led to be water baptized just as there apparently was a time for Jesus to be water baptized by John, not for any forgiveness or cleansing but because it was a rite of passage undertaken in “Faith”. Making a rite of passage a required “Sacrament” is counterproductive to a life of faith. Learning to walk by Faith takes practice and desire. Practicing doesn’t work well in the absence of desire, except for the times tables and the alphabet and even there a little desire goes a long way.

  • mikeylabelle

    I am a bit confused as why being a “member” of some other congregation is so important to you. You can still have deep fellowship with people and not be a member of their community. People are called by and attracted to different paths. Some value rituals and require rituals for membership. It’s just the way the world works.

    • I’m having a tough time not finding your comment dismissive, but I’ll seek to answer the question of why being a “member” is important to me.

      For me, being a Christian is not primarily about an individual path or experience, but instead about being invited into a community, a movement, a body. This ultimately calls us into shared discipline – a mutually agreed upon way of believing, living, and acting in the world. I’m attracted to communities that take their discipline seriously, where we hold one another accountable to the beliefs and practices that we trust are true.

      It makes me sad that being sprinkled with water a required part of the discipline of most Christian communities, including some that I would like to go deeper with.

      • mikeylabelle

        Did not mean to be dismissive. In retrospect I think that I should have left off that last sentence. I think that was likely what bugged you as it could appear to be condescending. That was not my intent. Sorry. I hear what you are saying about the “sadness” factor and it makes sense. But I try to look on “differences” as strengths as well. Many analogies come to mind… different color patches make for a beautiful quilt, a rope made of many chords is stronger than a single thread, etc…
        I am a not trying to be argumentative here, but to suggest that Baptism is just a “sprinkling of water” and should not be a big deal could also be seen as being dismissive. Baptism IS a big deal to many communities. It is a dearly held sacred ritual.

        • Thanks, Mikey. I think that’s fair. I didn’t consider that my post could be considered dismissive of those who practice water baptism, but I can see how it could be read that way. That’s not my intention.

          My objection to baptism is not to its potential as a significant spiritual practice, but rather as a gatekeeper ritual for membership in the body of Christ. So as long as me and mine are able to be one of those colorful threads in a strong rope, I’m totally for that.

          What’s tough for me is feeling like I have to be dyed the same color on a matter that – however beautiful, sacred, and meaningful it is for many – is not an essential of being a disciple of Jesus.

  • Ruth Dyke

    Yes, I can accept what God is doing in you and agree with what you say in your article, especially that a relationship with Jesus is more important than the so-called sacraments. I am not a Quaker, I was brought up in the City Mission and a Methodist Mission, have been part of an Anglican church, a Baptist church, a charismatic house fellowship, a Vineyard church and now an affiliated Pioneer church. We are all on a journey, following where the Spirit leads us. We should encourage and affirm each other, rather than judge each other. Thanks for the article.

  • Joe Snyder

    The smart ass response to your question is: If you want to follow Jesus you WILL be baptised, as your experience demonstrates. I want to share with you all my sense of what John’s original baptism was about. Imagine yourself in 1st century Palestine, in a semi desert environment. You’ve never been in water above your knee. You go out to see this crazy man who has found a deep pool in the Jordan. He grabs you by the scruff of the neck, shoves your head down into the water and holds it there …………… for a looong time. Do you remember as a child at your first swimming lesson how terrifying it was to put your face under water for even a few seconds? When he finally let your head back up and you took a gasp of fresh air, it must have really felt like death and reintroduction to life: a powerful way of getting one’s attention. This happened to Jesus and it seems to have been important. But Jesus offers us instead the baptism of the holy spirit and fire, a much more profound experience of inward death to the world and rebirth “up through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. I hope we can find words to share this message with those concerned with the letter of John’s baptism.
    Thank you, Micah.

  • Art Bucher

    Thanks for de-institutionalizing and exposing the rote ritualization of what could otherwise be an important step for a person’s faith. Besides what baptism is for the believer, it is a whole body public act for others to see. Not just a decision in your mind to talk about or on a piece of paper to show, it’s for others to see you standing with a church and declaring that what you decide to do in following Jesus as a grown person, you are doing with your whole being. That’s why I still appreciate Jesus’ baptism and invite people to make themselves followers of Jesus that way. But if it’s just that thing that Christians do to brand others as Christians, well I can see why you might not be that interested.

    • I can definitely understand water baptism as a public commitment to follow Jesus. At the same time, I think there are many other public actions that are far more tangible in demonstrating the proclamation of the reign of God. Healing the sick, raising the dead, and sharing good news with those who are most marginalized by Empire.

      I think the biblical witness – particularly the prophetic stream, which Jesus identified himself with – is very clear that the most important testimony we can give is not one of ritual, but of substantive action for justice.

  • Micah, you have packed so much into this post! Well done! You hit so many things I’m passionate about, such as unity, community, diversity, and the Holy Spirit. Plus you taught me more about Quaker perspectives.

    I have a dozen thoughts and questions buzzing around in my brain. But permit me to go off on a bit of a tangent: Given all this, are you glad your mom baptized you?

    • To be honest, I don’t think that my experience in the swimming pool was very meaningful. I was in a spiritual crisis, and I would have done anything to get some relief. The experience of God’s presence I was looking for came later, and independent of any standard ritual.

  • isaiahfromKW

    I enjoyed reading this – as someone who is a member of a Mennonite congregation and attends a Quaker meeting I am always trying to reconcile the traditional Anabaptist understandings of Baptism and Lord’s Supper with both contemporary practice in my congregation and the different understanding Quakers bring.

    The Anabaptist understanding has traditionally not been sacramentalist, at least not in the ex opere operato understanding of more mainstream Christian traditions, but has leaned more heavily on local, covenanted membership. In this understanding water baptism is both a public witness of baptism of the Spirit while simultaneously being an entry in local membership with its commitments and accountabilities and Lord’s Supper becoming a-kind-of covenant renewal meal where such commitments and accountabilities are tested and renewed.

    I am wondering – what would happen if we shifted the sense of Baptism and Lord’s Supper away from a sacramental Grace perspective to a local covenant perspective? Would that move towards reconciliation and unity in a very practical sense?

  • magnummysterium

    I’m going to push back a little bit on your definition of sacrament as ritual. The Quaker divorce from rituals is understandable, and their subsequent persecution is an understandable reason to see ritual as potentially negative. But the Quaker reactionary response shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of the actual intention of sacrament. It was reactionary to a particular cultural circumstance, but its critique misses the mark when considering the larger importance of sacrament. It threw out the baby with the bathwater. Maybe the question isn’t why does the rest of the church still hold onto the sacraments, but rather, why haven’t Quakers rediscovered their beauty?

    Sacrament in actuality is about the communal experience of the overlap of heaven and earth. As Christians, we are called to work towards the reality of God’s kingdom and earth being one and naming places where those things are. Similar to the idea of the temple–it was the place where heaven and earth came together. What the church came to believe very early on is that the sharing of certain practices that Jesus himself encouraged them to do led one to the experience of heaven and earth together. Baptism and the Lord’s supper, primarily. Somehow, the ordinary things of water or bread or wine became something special in the sharing of them in community, something greater than the sum of their parts. Sacraments are meant to be these continual kissing points, that no matter what else is going on, what evil surrounds us, we can return to a touchstone reminder that heaven is invading earth.

    Are there other ways to experience heaven and earth meeting? Absolutely. Feed the hungry, care for the orphan. House the homeless. These are a kind of sacrament too. But there is something unique about baptism and communion that forms us. The problem with your baptism in the pool is that it wasn’t a part of a communal commitment, and your expectation was more like a magic trick, not the ordinariness being transformative in and of itself. So much of sacramental theology is about the idea that we are shaped by things *despite* how we feel when we do them. Returning to Eucharist even when we don’t “feel” it is good for us. Read Dorothy Day–her writing on the Lord’s supper is phenomenal. The familiar is vital to our formation. That is what sacrament means, not simply the performance of a ritual.

    Quaker rejection of sacraments has a historical/cultural context which makes sense, but continuing to insist on a reactionary viewpoint seems unfortunate. Yes, membership in a particular community means committing to the practices which shape that community,and for most Christian denominations, Eucharist, the touchstone of heaven and earth, is at the center of everything, and baptism is the communal profession of faith to God and commitment to the community. Your “baptism”-reading CS Lewis, feeling God call you to service–wasn’t communal. It was personal and rather private, which is significant. It was conversion–also significant. It influenced how you related to others. But it wasn’t baptism. Are you less a Christian because you haven’t experienced baptism? No. But should you be surprised that other communities have such a high value on them that they’d expect you to share to formally join them? No. Maybe it’s you who is missing out.