Wait! Let’s Look at That Again: Baptism

(Part of a sporadic series that takes another look at aspects of Adventism.)

Baptism, as Seventh-day Adventists practice it, does not appear to be biblical.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…and he was baptized at once.” —Acts 16:30, 33

“…he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?’ …and he baptized him.” —Acts 8:35-37

“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ…So those who received his word were baptized…that day…” —Acts 2:38, 41

Now, I am not one who believes that we have to do everything just like it was done in New Testament times. Practices and cultures and insights change over time. But in these three examples, we can infer some important things to consider.

First, little time passed between a decision on the part of the hearer to be a Jesus follower and their baptism.

Second, there was no dithering to study doctrine, prophecy, and/or praxis. There was no delay to determine whether the candidates had changed their life and habits. There was no determination made whether they were worthy or safe to baptize. There was no list of propositions to which to pledge allegiance. There was no denomination to join.

Third, in every case above, the call was to believe in the good news of Jesus. Period. In other words, the candidates believed and clung to the gospel of a Savior. And that was all that it took to be worthy of baptism in Jesus.

Occasionally, I attend a non-denominational church on Sabbath afternoon after attending my own church. It was a counterculture moment for me when the pastor said — Right out loud! — one Sabbath afternoon, “You don’t have to believe to belong. Just come join with us and we will grow together.” What? That can’t be right!

Then the pastor said, “We have baptism tanks set up. If you would like to give your heart to Jesus, please come let us baptize you.” Astounding! Now? Not later? Trust their decision on the spot? Do it now? Is that safe?

Apparently the practice is working; 18,000 people attend every weekend. They come from whatever circumstance exist in their lives to grow together. They come to drink up messages about Jesus and life with Jesus.

So, how is it that we have a wholly different form of baptism? How did we get to the place where baptism is at the end of a process of teaching, inquiring, observing, monitoring, quizzing, and consenting? Why don’t we seize the moment when someone says I want to be baptized, to be “buried and then resurrected” to live with Jesus? Why can’t we just baptize them at that point saying, “You don’t have to believe everything yet. But you are now a child of God. Come. We will grow together”?

What are we afraid of? What do we think would happen if we followed the biblical examples? Are our churches really hospitals for sinners, as some say? Or are they display cases for the saints? Are they places for saints to wear the Adventist mask regardless of what’s behind it? Are we afraid that a newly baptized person will show up and say, “Now tell me again why are we meeting on Saturday?” Would we be too embarrassed if they showed up smelling like tobacco smoke or booze? Would we be scandalized if they wore shorts to church?

It appears that we want to clean up folks to the point where you can’t detect too much difference between the fresh saints and the more saintly saints. Maybe we crave to have only colors in a restricted palette or only a musical monotone. Maybe our self-image can only stand a certain amount of variation in the stages of Christianity in our midst. Maybe we expect people to get up the ladder a certain number of rungs before we say, “Okay, now I’m comfortable accepting your decision to follow your Savior.”

In our three texts, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and Philip acknowledged decisions immediately. And I believe the angels rejoiced at that very moment, too. God doesn’t impose a waiting period for believers’ benefits. At the moment a person believes that Jesus is their Savior and turns to follow him they are covered by Jesus’ righteousness. Pronto!

But perhaps we are wiser than heaven is. We for sure know better than Peter, Paul, and Philip because we don’t follow their practice in the verses quoted above. We apparently have a better practice.

When we tell a person who has made a decision to follow Jesus that they must go through a process before baptism, we are in effect refusing to accept their decision. You know that old song, “Just As I Am?” Not true in our midst. The song should not be in our hymnal. Just-as-you-are is not good enough for us. It might be good enough for Jesus but not for us.

Who do we think we are to tell people they have to adopt a bunch of theology and clean up their lives before we recognize that most basic of all decisions a Christian can make? Jesus says, “Come to me just as you are. I will cover your sinful life with my pure righteousness.” We say, “Come let us teach you and observe you and then maybe we’ll decide to let you in.” Outrageous! And that may be the best we can say for it.

Jesus accepts the sinner who cries out to him. He says the sinner is now his adopted child. He says the sinner is now covered by his blood. There is no clean up period. We must follow the example and practice of Jesus.

Actually, our baptism practice is likely a form of legalism, perhaps a holdover from the days when people like the General Conference President, the Editor of the Review and Herald, and other church leaders during the 1888 controversy held that keeping the law perfectly was the objective.

“Legalism says God will love us if we change. The gospel says God will change us because He loves us” (Tullian Tchividjian, quoted in The God-Shaped Heart by Timothy Jennings). Our baptism ritual sends the legalistic message: the church will love you and accept you if you have changed.

The truth is that we practice baptism less like recognition of the saving grace of Jesus for the sinner, and more like the issuance of a ticket to the club. You know, the club of the saints who all wear the mask of the culture of Adventism. We only let people into the club after we’ve processed their application and they’ve passed muster with us. Lest you think I’m making this up, here is a quote from page 44 of the Church Manual.

“Candidates individually or in a baptismal class should be instructed from the Scriptures regarding the Church’s fundamental beliefs and practices and the responsibilities of membership. A pastor should satisfy the church by a public examination that candidates are well instructed, are committed to taking this important step, and by practice and conduct demonstrate a willing acceptance of Church doctrines and the principles of conduct which are the outward expression of those doctrines…” (emphasis supplied)

Nowhere in the above passage does it say a word about the candidate making a decision that Jesus is his/her Savior! It says things like “by practice and conduct demonstrate.” In other words, prove to us you have changed already and we will let you in the club. It leaves no room for the repentant sinner to come just as he/she is to be baptized, like the people in the opening Bible texts were.

I mentioned at the beginning that the way we practice baptism seems unbiblical. Truthfully, the quote above from the Church Manual seems unbiblical also. It sounds fearful and defensive, like Adventists are in a fortress and we have to guard the doors and windows from the barbarian hordes. Are we insecure?

I was heartbroken the Sabbath that a lovely new family in our local church, and attendees at my Sabbath School class, told me they were leaving our midst. They had attended for a year or so. When I asked why, they told me we made it much more difficult to be an Adventist than it is to be a Christian. Wow! I pondered whether I had unknowingly raised barriers in their minds. Their decision was in response to a baptismal class their daughter was taking.

But, wait! Let’s think about this again.

We don’t have to keep doing baptism the way we’ve been doing it. We too could choose, like Peter, Philip, and Paul, to baptize people the moment they put their lives in the hands of Jesus our Savior.

If someone says, “I believe in the saving blood of Jesus and want to follow him,” we should say, “Hallelujah! Let’s baptize you right now. You will be a new person. And then we’ll grow together. We love you!”

What are we afraid of? What do we think would happen if we baptize raw, baby converts? Well, we need to find out.

The truth is our Church is very hidebound. It is excruciatingly slow to even acknowledge the need for change, much less actually change. The bureaucracy of the Church finds it extremely difficult to alter beliefs and practices that existed when Ellen White died in 1915. Probably, changes in the practice of baptism will need to flow up from the bottom because it might take the bureaucracy 50 years (kind of like ordaining women) and still not reach a prudent decision on a new form of baptismal practice.

So, pastors, elders, church board members, just do it. Use scripture as your guide. Baptize people like Peter, Philip, and Paul did. But if you do that, you might need to rethink how you take newly converted people into your midst and nurture them. They will be babes in the woods; they will need tender love, friendship, and gentle influence to bring them along. How exciting a challenge for a congregation to exhibit the kind of loving acceptance that would help newly minted Christians grow in maturity!

Let’s just say, “Come. Join us. We will grow together!”

Up Next in the Series: “Wait! Let’s look at that again: Tithe.”

Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife, Janelle, live in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9878

Which church is this, if you don’t mind telling us. It sounds good. Is it Timberline Church?

I’m guessing that at this church there will be no doctrine or expectations of changing their diet, a prophet that they should believe, follow or read, or changing jobs so as to attend church only on Saturday. I’m thinking that this church has services on Sunday as well as Saturday, so there is a choice for the believer.

True, but even if you baptize a person because they want to be a Christ follower, they will be hit with legalism once they join. It’s part of the SDA package.

This is 100% true. Were you surprised that being an Adventist has a lot of rules and regulations not required of Christians?


Thanks, Edward. Spot on! We do, indeed, make salvation difficult and block up the way to salvation. I wonder how many of us oldies, if we were being prepared for baptism today, would pass muster. How many of the 28 could we confidently tick off? Do we still accept the narrow thinking behind Fundamental 6? Best that I not go through them one by one. We might be largely happy with most of them, but I doubt many educated Adventists agree 100% with them all.


David –
In the 1870s James White listed 5 Beliefs and stated “they were generally
Now we have 27,28. NOT “generally” believed by the baptized.


Edward, it had to be said and thank you for saying it. I wonder if we should even take it further in that water baptism is only part of the story. Is it not also true that a believer who has been born again, or converted as another way of saying it, has already experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism simply celebrates that spiritual reality.

It was John the Baptist who told us Christ would baptise in the Holy Spirit.


Interesting question. The implication of the wording is that Adventists are not Christians. You may not have meant it that way. Did you?

I don’t think it has that implication at all, but no, I’m not saying that Adventists aren’t Christians. But surely you realize that Adventists have a lot more rules regarding diet, days, entertainment, jewelry, etc. than most other Christians.

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I agree in principle with the sentiments presented. This list of rules is too long; i.e. remove the legalism from the church manual which will make church life easier. Communion according to the church manual also includes rituals not in the Bible.


Wow! Great article. I’ve tried to point these facts out to people at church, and got yeah that’s what the Bible says, but…
I have seen a person not be able to be baptized because she was still wearing earrings after the studies. She finally gave them up and was allowed baptism. I wish it worked in a way that a person could be baptized and accepted and learn and grow. Baptism shouldn’t even be tied to church membership, in my opinion. Baptism and membership should be separate events.


Thank you for this article. Refreshing. Preach Jesus and baptize the folks. Accepting Jesus and joining the church should be a joyful experience. Instead, we treat it like an upper division curriculum with a board-like exam that allows you to now be baptized (get credentialed) and then legitimately hold church office. We have issues!
Could you tackle our communion service next? It doesn’t resemble what Jesus had with the disciples. Why did we adopt the current style?


Within the Adventist context, of course candidates for baptism need to be taught and vetted. Afterall, on being baptised, they become members, with the rights to vote etc.

I would absolutely concur that it is not scriptural.

In my church we baptise anyone who wants to be baptised. There is no membership. We measure our “members” by the number who call our church their church home. So we have no inflated membership numbers. Control resides in the board of trustees, who self select new trustees as required. The church and its purpose does not get hijacked by the latest Flash Harry that comes along. And it is working well for us.

And yes, we also run with “You do not have to believe to belong”. And it is not difficult to believe that the statement is true, when one looks around the building at who is in attendance on a Saturday, or a Monday or any other day of the week for that matter.

Now moving with the times - I need to go and get that smokefree sign replaced with smokefree and vapefree. Setting an example for the little ones.

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Baptism within the Adventist context attempts to take seriously the meaning of baptism. Those being baptised are dispensing with the old way of life and embracing a new way of life in Christ. Undergirding this new way of life is a radically different worldview which needs to be taught. This worldview is inculcated best when people understand our pillar doctrines. In our radically secular societies the principles of living need to be taught and caught. They are so different from the world.

Before anyone is baptized people need to know how to study the Scriptures for themselves. They need to possess a faith which is often best illustrated by a growing prayer life. And they should have a testimony to share in their witness to others about the joy of new life in Christ.

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I have been away for a couple of weeks so only just getting into this topic and the first thing that struck me was this sentence. If you were to attend the church I do, particularly in summer it would be odd if you didn’t meet someone in shorts and/or sandals.

This all begs the question - how much of what takes place week after week in Adventist churches is a hold over from 19th century New England? The norms and practices of these times have been taken around the world by Adventist missionaries, much to the detriment of the local cultures.

Now these conservative practices are Christianity in many places. The engrained conservatism is now dragging on the church as it attempts to become more relevant to the world - East and West.


I do agree with you, with a “but” thrown in. I used to think baptism and membership should be two different things. Then I considered the message that would be sent by a two-tiered system. Is it “good for you, you’re saved, now try to become as saved as we are and we’ll let you in our club”? What is your opinion about that?

I am guessing that the woman you mention gave up her earrings at the prompting of a well-meaning leader or member, but I could be wrong. Maybe she became convicted about it, and if so, fine.

One can trace the route to Adventist baptism to the Wm Miller hysteria. Those that became Millerites were often disfellowshipped from their churches. That set the stage for vetting. I recall a testimony service during WWII, A recent baptized member stood and confessed that he and his wife had eaten a strip of bacon at her mothers table. There was a loud gasp from the congregation. Which was most likely the least sin of the week by the congregation. Yet the man went in to EMC to train for the ministry. The least amount of time in Adventist Bible Study is spent upon the Everlasting Gospel. Instead of Bible readings for the home circle the time should be spend on Salvation Unlimited.


I see your point, but that’s how it felt to me anyway, like we were in a club. I would cringe when someone said “church family” because it didn’t feel like a family to me. It already felt like I wasn’t as saved as “they” were, nor were others. I heard people say in nomination committee meeting: well you know they haven’t been Adventist very long…when deciding not to give someone a “job” for the year. If you aren’t born in, you’re already a lesser member. I know my experience isn’t everyone else’s, and every church is not the same.

(You’re right, she gave the earrings up because a member talked to her about it. )


Visiting other church groups here in the town I had planned to be in
for only 3 months [but now very much longer], I see practices I
One is the Baptismal Service of the Episcopalians and their Baptismal
Vows. And everytime there is a baptism, the whole congregation voices
out loud a renewal of these Baptismal Vows along with the candidate.
Baptism – the sign of accepting the Gift of God through Jesus Christ and
the Holy Spirit comes first.
At a later date, at the Cathedral in Atlanta, all new baptized persons in
the “conference” meet and are Confirmed as new members. There are
times when the Bishop–Conference President comes to the local
congregation and performs the ceremony of officially welcoming the
person into the church and giving their certificate of membership.
Baptism and Church Membership are two different events.

My personal feeling, growing over a number of years, is if a person has
accepted the Gift of God, it is acceptable for that person to be baptized.
Then encouraged to find a church home if they haven’t and continue to grow.
In my SDA church I see the “external trappings” still on some of the church
members – wedding bands, rings, pierced ears, once in a while a small
necklace. One young man has “diamond” studs in his ears. And not
everyone is vegetarian and anti-caffeine.
Christian Growth should be taught and encouraged, but how much does one
Legislate certain Growth issues? I guess THIS is the BIG question.


I see your point, but that’s how it felt to me anyway, like we were in a club. I would cringe when someone said “church family” because it didn’t feel like a family to me. It already felt like I wasn’t as saved as “they” were, nor were others. I heard people say in nomination committee meeting: well you know they haven’t been Adventist very long…when deciding not to give someone a “job” for the year. If you aren’t born in, you’re already a lesser member. I know my experience isn’t everyone else’s, and every church is not the same.

(You’re right, she gave the earrings up because a member talked to her about it. )

I have heard being a member compared to being in a club…ex: if you wanted to join a club, you’d agree to follow their rules/standards.

I gave my heart to Jesus when I was 9 at summer camp. My Dad was a pastor and I was so excited to go home and get baptized. I was told I needed to wait a few years to prove myself. Thus started my long laborious journey into legalism and perfection. It was a glorious relief when God showed me the door out of all this insanity. I’m glad to see articles like this and churches that live in love. It would be awesome to be part of a community such as that! :heart::heart::heart:


Very interesting point, Victor. How would one “take care?” Should I avoid all Biblical precedent? How would I differentiate when and when not? Isn’t the entirety of Christianity biblical precedent?