Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
–Matthew 28:19 (NASB)
What level of importance should baptism hold in the Christian pantheon of doctrine? According to Jesus in Matthew 28, a pretty high level of importance. The fact that he chooses to include it in his final instructions to his disciples before his ascension is significant. To baptize the nations is one of the central commands that Jesus gives to his church.
So, how does this help us answer to question? Saying that baptism holds a high level of importance doesn’t actually tell us anything. What exactly is that level, and what is it about baptism specifically that clings to that level?
Well, that level is one of essentiality. Jesus says that the church is to baptize the nations. Therefore, the church must baptize the nations. There is no discussion to be had on whether the church should or should not. It must. Baptizing is essential; and if it is essential for the church to baptize, then it is also essential for the nations, more specifically the disciples who come from the nations, to receive baptism. And the fact that Jesus commands it is what holds baptism at that high level of importance.
However, one would do well to notice that Jesus says nothing of the mode, timing, or frequency of baptism. So, is there a logical link between the essentiality of baptism itself and the level of importance of the way it is done, when it is done, or how often it is done? In other words, is it also essential that baptism be done a certain way, either by pouring or dunking, or that it happen on a certain day of the week or at a particular moment in a disciple’s life, or that a person only receive it once?
Drinking water is essential. Man cannot live without it, but does that mean he must drink it a certain way or at a certain time or with a certain frequency? Of course not. Earning a living is essential, but does that mean that money must be earned in a certain way or at a certain time or with a certain frequency? Of course not. There is no logical connection between the necessity of an act and the necessity of that act being done in a certain way, at a certain time, or with a certain frequency.
While baptism itself is important, the mode, timing, and frequency aren’t. In fact, I would say that the mode, timing, and frequency have such a low level of importance that they really don’t even matter.
So, depending on which aspect is being discussed, baptism is either essential or irrelevant. It is essential in that it must be done; but it is irrelevant how it happens, when it happens, or how often it happens.
Now, think of all the arguments over baptism that have divided Christian brothers and sisters. How many have been about the essential aspect of baptism, and how many have been about the irrelevant aspects of baptism?
The answer is shameful.