Because of baptism, I almost was not ordained to the gospel ministry. In fact, December 29, 1968, the date of my ordination at the First Southern Baptist Church of Tallapoosa, Missouri, was almost a disaster.
The ordained folks of Black River Association took ordination very seriously. The ordaining council really did ask questions and based on the candidates answers, voted to recommend ordination or not to recommend ordination. For my ordination, the council was scheduled to meet at my home church that would be filled with my friends and family, including my fiancé and her family. The ordination, if it were to happen, would happen immediately after the council made its decision.
Bro. McClanahan, the Associational Missionary, was to chair the council. He had done a wonderful job of helping me prepare. We met on Saturday, the day before my ordination just to touch base one more time. I had known Bro. Mac all my life. He was one of God’s good gifts to the church. We had a pleasant meeting and I was about to leave when Bro. Mac commented, “Oh, you know some of the preachers from the southern part of the association will be there. They will ask you about ‘alien immersion.’” In Black River Association in 1968 “alien immersion” referred to any baptism done by any church or preacher that was not Southern Baptist. It didn’t matter if the baptism was by immersion of a person old enough to choose to be a believer. If it was not done by a “proper church and pastor,” it was “alien” and unacceptable.
“How will you answer that?” Bro. Mac asked.
“It seems to me that who baptizes you is immaterial. I do not support the concept of ‘alien immersion,’” I responded.
Bro. Mac’s face told me all I needed to know. “If you answer that way, you won’t be ordained tomorrow.”
“If I answer any other way, I will be lying.”
There we left it. When I got back to my parents’ home, I told my dad what had happened and warned him that Sunday would likely not be a glorious day. Early Sunday morning, Mrs. McClanahan called to say that Bro. Mac was ill and would not be able to be at the ordination. I’ve always suspected that his illness arose because he couldn’t stand being part of my non-ordination day. At any rate, it saved the day. Bro. Ted Thedford, a local pastor, was apprised of the situation and invited to chair the committee. This was arranged by my father and Mr. Perry Clark, a deacon of my home church, whose son Ben had already been ordained to the ministry. Bro. Thedford handled the questions about baptism, never letting “alien” enter the conversation.
I was ordained and my theology of baptism has continued to change. While I still believe that Baptism by immersion of believers is the better way, I am pleased to be pastor of a church that accepts any Christian baptism by any method. Over the past 32 years, I have baptized by immersion, pouring, and sprinkling. I’ve baptized in homes, swimming pools, hospitals, and nursing homes, as well as in our church baptistery.
One of the most meaningful baptisms was of eight year-old Sarah, who I was sure had no knowledge of what was happening.
Sarah, who was born with severe physical and mental handicaps, was mentally no older than a two year-old. She cried most of her waking hours. Her grandparents, who had taken over her care, lived in a storefront apartment in our community. They called this Baptist preacher to baptize their granddaughter “because doctors tell us she only has a few weeks to live and we don’t want her dying without being baptized.” I thought of all the reasons why I couldn’t and why it wasn’t necessary; and then I agreed to do it. In fact, I was ready to do it right then; but the grandparents asked me to come back two days later.
On the day of Sarah’s baptism, I arrived at the family’s apartment and found Sarah wearing a lovely new white dress. Her grandfather was sitting in a chair, holding her as she squirmed and cried. Beside them on a side table was a small silver bowl that her grandmother had filled with water. We read the story of Jesus’ baptism and the story of the disciples trying to keep children from bothering Jesus. Then I dipped my fingers in the bowl and made the sign of the cross on Sarah’s forehead. “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, I baptize you Sarah. You are a beloved daughter of God.” As I finished, Sarah’s crying stopped. She lay quietly against her grandfather’s shoulder and smiled.
Sarah died about two months later. At her funeral, her grandparents told me, “Sarah was so much calmer, hardly crying at all, after you baptized her.”
And to think, I had thought she had no knowledge of what was happening!
Baptism is not about water or who baptizes how. It’s about grace flowing to all of us, who apart from grace are aliens.
Read more from Michael R. Duncan at his new blog.