Though all Christians practice baptism, there’s a lot of variation in how it’s done. In some Christian communities, the standard is a total dunking in a stream, pool, or tub. In others, water is poured over the head. Other times it is only a light sprinkling or a dab on the forehead. Why is there this kind of variation? Does it matter?
The reasons for the wide variation in practice are partly rooted in culture and traditions, but also reflect differing understandings of what baptism signifies. The earliest Biblical reference to baptism occurs when Jesus was Himself baptized by the itinerant preacher known as “John the Baptist.” Even though this was such an important event that it’s one of the few incidents of Jesus’ life to be recorded in each of the four Gospels (Matthew 3, Mark 2, Luke 3, John 1), about the only detail we know for sure is that it happened in the Jordan River – so it involved a lot of water! In His last instructions to His disciples (Matthew 28:16) Jesus commanded them to both preach the gospel (“good news”) to all mankind and to baptize, but there were no instructions about the mechanics. In other parts of the New Testament we do have numerous mentions of baptism, but again without detail. In some cases it seems likely performed in a stream (Acts 8:36-39) but in other cases in a residence (Acts 9:18, Acts 10:46-48, Acts 16:33) which, since private homes didn’t have bathtubs in those days, is unlikely to have involved immersion. So, given the scriptural evidence (and lack thereof), we can conclude that the specific technique of baptism isn’t really all that critical.
It’s probably fair to say that the “emotional gold standard” of a baptismal experience would be to be baptized in the river Jordan like Jesus was (as attested to by the many pilgrims who still go there for this purpose). However, Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and other denominations with a sacramental understanding of baptism rarely do it outdoors or by immersion because we typically baptize infants. We do this because we understand baptism to be an act by which God washes away our guilt and adopts us into His family – a “means of grace” that is motivated by God’s pure love without any worthiness or active participation on our own part. Faith of the individual is involved, but we understood this faith to be also part of the gift of Grace which baptism conveys – a planted seed that grows with nourishment.
By contrast, churches with roots in the Baptist tradition understand baptism to be something that is chosen by an individual who is capable of making a conscious decision to serve Christ – i.e. not an infant. Consequently, baptism by total immersion is not only practical, but a public demonstration of this commitment.
This isn’t the place to get into a doctrinal discussion, other than to state that we are comfortable that there is sound scriptural basis supporting our Lutheran understanding of Baptism as a rite of God’s pure outpouring of grace, rather than a sign of our personal decision. Consequently, we are pretty flexible about just how baptism is administered because we recognize that the power of God is not constrained by our limitations or enhanced by our own efforts. As Martin Luther states it in his Small Catechism (a book for teaching children):
“How can water do such great things? It is not the water indeed that does them, but the Word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts this Word of God in the Water. …”
In other words, though water is the visible symbol of the sacrament, it’s what God is doing, not the way we do it that matters.