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Monday, 26 September 2016

The Christadelphian baptismal examination (interview): a theological critique

1. The theological rationale for the Christadelphian practice
2. Robert Roberts' defense of the practice
3. A biblical-historical evaluation of Roberts' argument
3.1. Baptismal examination in The Apostolic Tradition?
4. The epistemological problem with baptismal examinations
5. Conclusion

In a previous post, I outlined the Christadelphian practice of baptismal examinations or interviews,1 focusing on purpose and content. In this article I want to offer some theological comments on this practice. Note that these comments are not directed at baptismal interviews per se, nor even at Christadelphian baptismal interviews per se, but rather at Christadelphian baptismal interviews as traditionally practiced and understood. As already discussed, the distinctive features of the traditional Christadelphian practice (as endorsed in recent Christadelphian literature)2 are:
  • The purpose of the interview, which is 'to make sure that candidates fully understand what they are taking on and have sufficient knowledge of the Truth to make baptism valid.'
  • The content of the interview, which varies considerably from one ecclesia or interviewer to the next, but seems to include, at a minimum, the following topics: God's nature and character; promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David; future kingdom of God on earth; regathering of Jews into land of Israel; the Fall and sin; the state of the dead (no immortal soul); Jesus shared our human nature, died, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven; Jesus will return to earth; Jesus is Christ, Son of God but did not personally pre-exist and is not co-equal with God; Holy Spirit is God's power, not a person; God is not a Trinity; devil is a figurative concept and not a personal being; resurrection of the dead and judgment; meaning and function of baptism; necessity of obedience after baptism; personal motive for wanting baptism. This list of topics is a 'lowest common denominator'; most interview scripts cited in the previous article covered numerous other topics.
Hence, the traditional Christadelphian baptismal examination practice is unique in relation to baptismal interviews practiced by other Christian groups both for the lofty theological purpose attached to it - ensuring the efficacy of baptisms - and for the very detailed and specific theological content covered and assessed.

We noted in the previous article that this unique practice rests on two core Christadelphian doctrines. The first is baptismal regeneration - the idea that a person is born again in Christ not through faith alone but in the physical act of baptism, which is consequently essential for salvation. This doctrine has an impressive pedigree from patristic times up to the present, so Christadelphians are by no means alone in professing it.

The second doctrine we might call baptismal validation by knowledge - the idea that for regeneration to occur in the waters of baptism, there is a prerequisite, namely knowledge of 'the Truth', i.e. the fundamentals of the gospel (as defined by Christadelphians).3 Ostensible 'baptism' in the absence of such knowledge has no more spiritual efficacy than a bath, despite the best intentions of baptizer, baptizand and congregation. Unlike baptismal regeneration, this second doctrine seems to be unique to Christadelphians in church history. The Christadelphians' forebears in the Stone-Campbell movement held a version of this doctrine, but for them the knowledge necessary for a valid baptism was simply that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The origins of the Christadelphian view, in which a comprehensive understanding of biblical doctrine is necessary for valid baptism, can be traced to a dispute between John Thomas and his fellow 'Campbellites' in the 1830s. Dr. Thomas began re-baptizing Baptists who joined the movement on the grounds that their previous baptisms had been invalid. As he explained in his periodical, The Apostolic Advocate,
My conviction is, that all among us, who have not been immersed upon the confession that Jesus is the Christ, and who did not understandingly appreciate the value of his blood, had better be re-immersed upon that confession - and that all, from this time forth, who may wish to join us from the Baptist denomination (a few excepted who can show just and scriptural cause for exception,) be required to make an intelligent confession and to be re-immersed.4
Complaints about this practice reached Dr. Campbell, who publicly rebuked Dr. Thomas, describing his practice as legalistic.5 Interestingly, one of Campbell's observations was 'that if Thomas were to be consistent, then some type of council ought to pass judgment on every one’s baptism to see whether he understood why he was baptized.'6 In this, Campbell virtually anticipated the later Christadelphian practice of the baptismal examination! A letter to Dr. Thomas from the elders of the church in Baltimore, printed in The Apostolic Advocate, also offered a gentle rebuke of his views on re-baptism. Some of their comments are so cogent and prescient that they are worth reproducing at length:
Those whom we receive from the regular Baptist churches did on a former occasion believe the message of salvation as taught by their preachers, and having believed the truth, they, on their knowledge of the facts, were baptised "into the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Therefore, we conclude (that although this profession was made in the way of experience) that their baptism was and is valid, and need not be repeated, although through the neglect, or perhaps the ignorance of their teachers, the profession was not at the time propounded to them... We SUPPOSE that before their immersion they knew the Lord, although they were, perhaps, unacquainted with the duty of publicly confessing with the mouth, and no doubt were ignorant of many of the duties, privileges, and blessings which belonged to them in the new relation, which they had formed, without, no doubt, their being able to decide, to their own satisfaction, whether the forgiveness of sins, through the favor of God, was obtained through faith, repentance, or baptism, or whether that blessing is conferred as the consequence of them all... We would also remark here, that perhaps not one half of the present number now in the reformation, had the question of faith on the Son of God, publicly propounded to them on the eve of their immersion, or understood that the forgiveness of sins was the special consequence of obeying. We would humbly ask, What you would do with such! Would you call their immersion invalid? Would you confine valid baptism to those who have obeyed within the last few years or, would you renew baptism on every additional accession of knowledge, which the Christian attains to, and should attain to!... It will not be asked in the great day of accounts, who enlisted you, or how much you knew of the blessing you were to enjoy, and of the bounty of the King at the time of your enlistment. It will be rather, have you been a good soldier all through, have you obeyed me at all costs, have you acknowledged me, defended my cause in good and evil report, have you been kind to your feeble companions in their distresses after my example, have you, according to your opportunities and ability, taught them my will, and have you, by your counsel and your example, encouraged them to do it faithfully! If you would re-baptize every one who knows less of the "one faith, one Lord, and one baptism" than you now do, it might so happen (for who is perfect in knowledge) that some years hence, some disciples may excel your present knowledge, and call on you to submit a second time to immersion, and in this way, we would, instead of the one baptism, have every one who is diligent in acquiring knowledge, immersed every year.7
Remarkably, these brothers inadvertently predicted John Thomas' own re-baptism that he would undertake just over a decade later in 1847, after changes in his theology caused him to doubt that he had been validly baptized before.

The position eventually adopted by Christadelphians - that a knowledge of the Truth (i.e. the fundamentals of Christadelphian theology) was necessary for valid baptism - has had radical implications for how Christadelphians have related to professing Christians outside their community, although we cannot explore this issue in detail here.8

These two doctrines, which are both clearly expressed in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith, are vital to understanding the traditional Christadelphian baptismal examination practice, because they provide the theological rationale for it.

Robert Roberts was, it seems, largely responsible for institutionalizing the baptismal examination practice within the Christadelphian movement. As noted in the previous article, he briefly explained the practice in The Ecclesial Guide, and referred readers to a possible template for such an examination in The Good Confession (1869). In a preface to the latter work, Roberts made 'a defense of the practice of examining candidates for obedience'. This remains, to my knowledge, the most detailed theological argument for baptismal examinations ever made in the Christadelphian community.

Roberts regards the need for a baptismal examination as self-evident from the two doctrinal premises outlined above (baptismal regeneration and baptismal validation by knowledge):
No one admitting that the validity of immersion depends upon a belief of the Gospel preached by the apostles can consistently deny the propriety and necessity of an endeavor on the part of those to whom the application for immersion may be made, to ascertain whether this pre-requisite qualification actually exists.9
Having provided the basic rationale for the practice, an important problem Roberts must address is the lack of explicit biblical precedent, i.e. the absence of evidence that the baptismal examination was an apostolic practice. He states, 'But some hold that examination is altogether unscriptural, & that it is a practice savoring of priestly arrogance.'10

Roberts' response to the second objection is straightforward: he stresses that 'the efficacy of the candidate's immersion' does not depend 'on the administration or sanction of the examiner'. Thus,
We cannot impart validity to immersion by compliance, nor can we vitiate it by withholding countenance. But, as a matter of the commonest order and self-protection, we are bound to ascertain whether a man applying for immersion believes the truth of the Gospel or not.11
To this issue of ecclesiastical authority we shall return. As to the question of whether baptismal examinations are unscriptural, Roberts' defense is quite ingenious. His argument hinges on the difference between the apostolic age and our own:
It is a mistake to draw a parallel between the apostolic era and our own time, as to the particular method of arriving at this knowledge [i.e., knowledge of whether the candidate meets the prerequisites for immersion]. The circumstances are so totally different as to preclude a comparison.12
In his construal of the first-century situation, Roberts emphasizes its simplicity: 'The apostles came on the ground with a fresh, and (among those receiving it) uncontested doctrine concerning Christ.' He argues that the earliest hearers of the gospel faced a simple binary decision: either Jesus was the risen Christ, or a dead impostor. For one who believed the former, 'few words were needed to define his position'; there was a 'guarantee' that 'the doctrines embodied in Christ' were received by such a person. Turning to the case of Pentecost (Acts 2), Roberts acknowledges that 'there was no examination on that occasion' but contends that 'it was not necessary', because these converts were devout Jews 'grounded in the elements of the Law and the Prophets', who 'looked for the Messiah, and in great part believed the truth concerning the Messiah'. Hence, 'the only question on which their minds had to be changed was the identity of the Messiah.' Furthermore, Peter taught them with 'many words', and 'His words were words of authority, and therefore the implicit reception of what he declared stood in the room of the examination'.13 Roberts further discusses the cases of Philip and the eunuch, and Peter and Cornelius. He summarizes:
In apostolic days, there was divine authority present in every case to direct, and perfect submission to authority on the part of those who were obedient. This constitutes the great difference between that time and our time.
Hence, Roberts argues, there was no need for 'critical examination' in the apostolic period.

A key paragraph in Roberts' biblical argument for baptismal examination reads as follows:
Jesus associates baptism with belief (Mk. 16:16); and it is our duty to him to see that this association exists, so far as we are called upon to sanction a profession of his name. Philip is recorded to have observed this precaution in the case of the eunuch (Acts 8:37). Paul at Ephesus re-immersed 12 men, on putting their faith on a right footing (Acts 19:3-5). In ALL recorded cases of baptism, BELIEF PRECEDED IT, and it is an outrage on common sense to suppose that the parties immersing took no steps to ascertain the existence of that belief. The dictates of common sense coincide with apostolic example and scriptural induction.
It is not entirely clear here what 'steps' Roberts thinks were taken to ascertain the existence of sound belief in apostolic times. He may be suggesting on the basis of 'common sense' that some form of baptismal examination must have taken place in those days, even though the practice is never actually mentioned. Elsewhere, however, Roberts seems to concede that baptismal examinations are a departure from apostolic practice - albeit a justifiable one.

In The Ecclesial Guide, Robert Roberts cites the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) as a passage that might be used to justify 'immersing a believing stranger at a moment's notice'. On purely rational grounds he then argues instead for the necessity of a baptismal examination 'as a matter of order and self-protection'.14 Essentially, Roberts is arguing that, given the contemporary circumstances of the Ecclesia, she is justified in modifying apostolic practice. As he writes elsewhere:
In apostolic days, there was divine authority present in every case to direct, and perfect submission to authority on the part of those who were obedient. This constitutes the great difference between that time and our time. And with a difference of circumstance, there is of necessity a difference of method of procedure in the matter, but the result aimed at and secured is THE SAME: the induction of men and women into Christ by the belief and obedience of the truth... The mode in our day found effectual for ascertaining whether an applicant for immersion is qualified by a scriptural apprehension of the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ is exemplified by the following [he proceeds to give a suggested pattern of interview questions]15
One could summarize Roberts' argument in four points:
  • The baptismal examination is logically necessary, given the doctrines of baptismal regeneration and baptismal validation by knowledge
  • Although baptismal examination is never explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, baptism is always preceded by belief, and 'common sense' requires that some method of ascertaining belief must have existed
  • Because our circumstances differ from those of the apostles, we have the right to modify their method, provided the same end goal is in view
  • The practice of baptismal examination is not a grab for ecclesiastical power, since no claim is made that the examiners have any special authority or powers of discernment

One can certainly concede to Roberts that the practice of baptismal examination is logically necessary, given the doctrines of baptismal regeneration and baptismal validation by knowledge. However, this being the case, if these two doctrines are both biblical it is all the more surprising that the associated practice is never mentioned in Scripture. Roberts' attempts to account for this silence are unconvincing.

The passages he cites as circumstantial support for baptismal examination are all problematic. Mark 16:16, which says 'The one who believes and is baptized will be saved', is part of the 'long ending' of Mark which is generally recognized by biblical scholars today as inauthentic. Acts 8:37, which is the only biblical evidence for something even resembling a baptismal examination (albeit consisting of just a single question), is not in the earliest manuscripts of Acts and is generally recognized by textual critics as an interpolation.16 And the 're-immersion' in Acts 19:3-5 is not simply a matter of knowledge; it is a matter of a different baptism: 'the baptism of John' versus baptism 'in the name of the Lord Jesus'.17

Hence, while it is true that belief and baptism are clearly linked as cause and effect in the New Testament, this makes it all the more telling that there does not seem to be any intervening diagnostic step to verify the doctrinal knowledge of baptismal candidates. The silence extends also to the Didache, a church manual probably from the late first century which specifically deals with procedures for preparing candidates for baptism.18

Roberts next argues that baptismal examination was not needed in the apostolic period as it is today, because 'In apostolic days, there was divine authority present in every case to direct, and perfect submission to authority on the part of those who were obedient.' Peter allegedly preached on the Day of Pentecost to Jews who understood the law, the prophets and the truth concerning Messiah; all they lacked was knowledge of the identity of the Messiah. This all seems a very simplistic and naive picture of the situation facing the earliest church at Jerusalem. It is well known that Second Temple Judaism was theologically diverse, so could it really be assumed that all the diaspora pilgrims listening to Peter at Pentecost had a pristine understanding of gospel truth apart from Messiah's identity? As just one quick case in point, is it not plausible that the 'Egyptians' in the crowd (Acts 2:10) might have believed in the immortality of the soul, given that the best known Egyptian Jewish writer of the first century, Philo of Alexandria, did? From a Christadelphian point of view, should the Hellenistic Jewish converts not have been screened for such ideas? And what about priests who believed (Acts 6:7, some likely from a Sadducean background), or Gentiles who believed from an Athenian philosophical background (Acts 17:34) or an Ephesian magical background (Acts 19:19)? Was there no need for a diagnostic baptismal examination practice in such cases?

As for 'perfect submission to authority', what of the case of Simon Magus? Soon after he believed and was baptized he showed himself to be 'in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity' (Acts 8:23). Surely he would not have passed a rigorous baptismal examination, so did Philip err in baptizing him?

We can also point out that the New Testament epistles rebuke the readers for major lapses in doctrinal understanding, but never express doubts about whether the readers are validly baptized, or recommend that they be rebaptized.19

One cannot, in the end, prove that baptismal examinations did not take place in the first century. However, there is no evidence that they did, and this practice thus highlights a serious inconsistency in the oft-repeated Christadelphian claim regarding the source of their practices:
'As Christadelphians, our aim is to recapture the beliefs and practices of the early church.'20
'We model our beliefs and practices as closely as we can on the first century church, which makes us different to most other Christian groups.'21
'Christadelphians follow the beliefs and practices of first century disciples.'22
Can a group claim to be following first century practices as closely as possible while simultaneously institutionalizing a practice for which there is no first century evidence? Robert Roberts apparently believed so, because he considered the modern Ecclesia to be at liberty to modify apostolic practice at this point to suit 'common sense' and changing circumstances. It is worth noting here the similarity between this line of argument and that used by John Calvin to justify sprinkling as a legitimate mode of baptism. Commenting on the encounter between Philip and the eunuch, Calvin acknowledges that 'the men of old time... put all the body into the water' but claims that 'the Church did grant liberty to herself, since the beginning, to change the rites somewhat'.

Christadelphians might recoil at this comparison: surely a change in the mode of baptism from immersion to sprinkling is far more radical than a change in pre-baptismal procedures. Or is it? Roberts himself used the word 'mode' to describe that which it was appropriate to change. And the addition of a completely new pre-baptismal practice which potentially restricts access to the waters of baptism altogether is arguably a much more substantial innovation than a change in the way water is administered. (And, interestingly, we do have evidence from within the first century that a non-immersive mode of baptism was permissible.)23

In summary, Robert Roberts' defense of baptismal examination does little more than highlight the anomalous nature of the case. Christadelphians, who are generally very scrupulous about grounding their beliefs and practices in the explicit teaching of Scripture, have in this case institutionalized a practice devoid of any such basis.
I would like to comment briefly on an early Christian text, The Apostolic Tradition, traditionally attributed to Hippolytus of Rome. Written in the early third century, it seems to preserve practices in the church of Rome that go back at least to the second century. Robert Roberts did not refer to it, but since Christadelphians have cited this text in connection with discussions on baptismal examinations, I want to preemptively address the possibility that it provides a precedent for Christadelphian baptismal examination practices.

The relevant features of the Apostolic Tradition are found in the description of catechetical and baptismal procedures in chapters 15-21 and the points that roughly parallel Christadelphian practice may be summarized as follows:

  • Those brought forward to hear the Word will first 'be questioned concerning the reason that they have come forward to the faith... They shall be questioned concerning their life and occupation, marriage status, and whether they are slave or free.'
  • People in certain occupations are to be rejected unless they cease their occupation.24
  • Catechumens are to hear the word for three years before baptism.
  • Before receiving baptism, the catechumens' lives are to be 'examined' for good works.
  • Upon entering the water, the baptizand is asked three questions beginning with 'Do you believe...' and corresponding to God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit respectively. The baptizand is to respond 'I believe' each time.
To be sure, there are certain correspondences between these practices of the early church and the Christadelphian practice of baptismal examinations. However, in other respects the baptismal practices described in The Apostolic Tradition show major theological differences from Christadelphians. For instance, each baptismal candidate is subjected to an exorcism and is required to verbally renounce Satan. The baptizand is immersed thrice. After being baptized, the baptizands are anointed with holy oil. The bishop lays hands on them and prays for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit. They then go to receive their first communion, which is clearly understood in a 'real presence' sense.

Moreover, even the practices described above are not as similar to Christadelphian practices as they may appear. The only explicit mention of an interview (being 'questioned') occurs before one begins the three years of instruction in the word. The 'examination' that occurs at the end of the three years appears to focus exclusively on moral conduct and seems to consist of testimony from third parties and not an interview of the candidate himself/herself. If they pass this 'examination' satisfactorily, then they are allowed to hear the gospel! The purpose of these practices seems to be to maintain the moral purity of the community but also to guard the church and its teachings against infiltration by unworthy or malicious persons. This would have been very important at a time when Christianity had no legal status and constantly faced threats of persecution.

Importantly, there is no evidence of practices intended to ascertain that the candidates had a certain level of doctrinal knowledge prior to baptism. Nor is there any indication that the validity of a baptism depended on the candidate's knowledge (although the document does presuppose baptismal regeneration).25 Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary. First, Apostolic Tradition 19.2 states that catechumens should not be afraid to receive martyrdom even while unbaptized because in such a case 'they have received baptism in their own blood'. Martyred catechumens were understood to have been validly baptized even though they had not completed the instructional process or even reached the stage where they would hear 'the gospel'. Second, concerning the confessions to be made during the baptism, Apostolic Tradition 21.4 states, 'The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.' This obviously presupposes the practice of baptizing very young children who were too young even to answer 'I believe.'

Hence, despite the long and rigorous initiation procedures of the Roman church attested by The Apostolic Tradition, there is certainly no parallel to the Christadelphian baptismal examination, i.e. a detailed dialogue about doctrinal subjects intended to ascertain that a candidate has sufficient knowledge for baptism to be valid.

Besides the lack of biblical and historical precedent, the traditional Christadelphian practice of baptismal examinations faces another major theological problem. The verbs Christadelphians attach to purpose of the examination, like 'ascertain', 'make sure', 'determine' and 'establish', carry great epistemological weight. But on what grounds can a Christadelphian rest assured that the examination has established the validity of his or her baptism? We have already seen Robert Roberts' admission that the examiners have no special authority or powers of discernment. In keeping with Christadelphians' low ecclesiology and hyper-cessationist pneumatology, the examination is viewed as a purely natural, human encounter without supernatural guidance. Yet what a huge task is placed on the shoulders of these fallible human examiners:
It is for the examining brethren to determine whether such an understanding [of the one Faith] and recognition [of the responsibilities of the step about to be taken] exists, because it is upon these that the validity of the immersion depends.26
Now consider the variables involved in 'determining' whether a candidate has sufficient understanding of the one faith to make baptism valid.
  • One must first determine how much knowledge is required for baptism to be valid. The Bible does not explicitly reveal this, so a complex process of biblical interpretation and systematization is required to arrive at an answer. The diversity of content across different Christadelphian baptismal interview scripts shows that there are differences of opinion on how much knowledge is required. To make this variable even more complex, one version of the Ecclesial Guide suggests the level of knowledge required is not a constant but rather a sliding scale depending on the candidate's 'age and intelligence'. Hence, determining how much knowledge is required for baptism to be valid not only requires a complex process of theological inquiry - the results of which are diverse within the Christadelphian community - but also an accurate appraisal of the candidate's intellectual capacity.
  • One must then determine how much knowledge the candidate actually has. While this might seem like an easier problem, there is much potential for errors in judgment to occur. For example, particularly in foreign mission settings, there may be a language barrier between examiner and candidate, not to mention cultural differences, making it difficult to appraise the candidate's level of understanding. It is also possible that a candidate may memorize stock answers to questions that came up in pre-baptismal instruction and 'parrot' these back to the examiner with little real comprehension. A candidate may have real doubts about the truth of a particular Christadelphian doctrine but may conceal them due to an eagerness to 'pass' the interview and enter the community. The examiner may accidentally omit a question on the interview script that would have uncovered a gap or flaw in the candidate's understanding. These and other possibilities show that assessing the candidate's level of doctrinal knowledge is not a trivial matter.
  • One must then compare the level of knowledge measured with the level of knowledge required and reach a yes-or-no verdict on the candidate's readiness for baptism. In many cases, perhaps the great majority of cases, the examiners will be satisfied without reservation that the candidate is ready (although this confidence may be misplaced, given the impossibility of determining the exact level of knowledge required for valid baptism). There may also be cases where it seems obvious that the candidate is not ready (although, again, this confidence may be misplaced). However, there will certainly be occasional cases where reaching a decision is difficult and there may even be different views within the examining team. In such cases, should one err on the side of caution and return a 'no' verdict to ensure an invalid baptism does not occur? Or should one err on the side of optimism and return a 'yes' verdict? These are very challenging questions, especially when a person's eternal destiny hangs in the balance. An example of a more conservative approach to the issue is that of Christadelphian writer F.G. Jannaway:
The brethren whose duty it is to examine candidates for baptism have a most serious responsibility, for they have in their possession, as it were, the keys of the Church, for with them is the power to admit to the fellowship of the Brotherhood the candidate before them... Unless the candidate has a clear understanding and appreciation, and a hearty belief in each and all of the foregoing, the examining brethren should not hesitate to postpone the baptism of the candidate (Acts viii. 12, 37). Far better both for the Truth's sake and the peace of mind of the candidate to delay baptism, than allow personal feeling to precipitate the most important step in one's life.27
Evidently, it is no easy task to 'ascertain' that a candidate has sufficient knowledge to render their baptism valid and effective. Does it make sense to suppose that God would leave this task to fallible humans? The consequences of an erroneous verdict would be disastrous. If the examining committee recommends a candidate for baptism whose knowledge is in fact insufficient, the result will be an invalid baptism. Hence, this person will in effect not be baptized, not be a brother or sister in Christ, but he or she will go through life thinking that he or she is baptized, and thus the mistake will never be rectified. This gives Christadelphians reason to fear as their knowledge of the Bible grows and they reflect on deficiencies in understanding they may have had when they were baptized. It is for this very reason that both Dr. Thomas and Robert Roberts underwent believers' baptism twice - twice as a Christadelphian in Roberts' case.28 Interestingly, Dr. Thomas' 1847 baptism (which arguably represents the beginning of the Christadelphian movement)29 was conducted by a friend at his request. There was clearly no baptismal examination, so his fitness for baptism was entirely a matter of his own private judgment. According to Christadelphian historian Peter Hemingray, Dr. Thomas still believed in immortal emergence at the time of his final baptism (an idea anathematized in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith),30 and his ideas about the nature of Christ and God had not yet fully developed.31

For Christadelphians to be baptized twice as Christadelphians seems to have been common in the late nineteenth century - at least Robert Roberts reports that it was.32 This is evidence that at that time, numerous Christadelphians wrestled with uncertainty as to whether they had been validly baptized. And it is no wonder, when their assurance was grounded in the fallible human judgment of an examining committee!

The Christadelphian baptismal examination practice, as traditionally understood, faces major theological problems. The first is that it has no biblical or historical basis, despite Christadelphians' claims to follow first-century Christian practice as closely as possible. The second is that the practice is not epistemologically viable. Specifically, there is no rational basis for Christadelphians to think that the verdict of an examining committee - devoid of Holy Spirit guidance - can 'make sure' that a candidate has the necessary knowledge to make his or her baptism valid.

In the early days of the Christadelphian movement, this epistemological gap apparently led to many rebaptisms as Christadelphians struggled with uncertainty over whether their initial Christadelphian baptism had been valid. It appears that such rebaptisms are very rare today. Perhaps this is the result of a less legalistic attitude toward baptism, in which divine benevolence is thought to make up what is lacking in the requirements for valid immersion. Certainly some Christadelphian ecclesias no longer imbue the baptismal interview with the lofty purpose which it had when originally instituted by Robert Roberts - in some contexts its function is now more social than theological (i.e., to ensure uniformity in doctrine and practice within the ecclesia but not to ensure the validity of a baptism before God).

However, the two doctrines on which the traditional baptismal examination practice is founded - namely, baptismal regeneration and baptismal validation by knowledge of 'the Truth' - are still in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith. And the pioneers rightly deduced - as did Alexander Campbell in his early critique of Dr. Thomas - that these doctrines necessitate some sort of examining procedure to verify that a candidate meets the prerequisites for valid baptism. Hence, in my judgment it is the conservative, traditionalist Christadelphians and not the liberal reformers whose baptismal interview practice is consistent with Christadelphian theology. At the root of the problem is the Christadelphian theological position 'that a knowledge of the Truth is necessary to make baptism valid.' This claim needs to be rolled back as part of any rethinking of Christadelphian baptismal examination practices.


  • 1 As previously noted, while many Christadelphians use the term 'baptismal interview' rather than 'baptismal examination', I will primarily use the latter term because it brings out the distinctive purpose and content of the Christadelphian practice in contrast to other groups that practice a baptismal interview.
  • 2 This demonstrates that the traditional understanding of the practice is still widely held in the Christadelphian community; hence this article is not critiquing an outdated straw-man.
  • 3 As Roberts put it, 'The validity of immersion depends upon believing the truth'. This is not Roberts' private judgment but a Christadelphian dogma: article 31 of the Doctrines to be Rejected in the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith rejects the belief 'that a knowledge of the Truth is not necessary to make baptism valid'. In Christadelphian parlance, 'the Truth' (with uppercase T) is neither an abstraction nor a general reference to the content of Christian faith, but refers specifically to the Christadelphian belief system as distinct from all other allegedly Christian dogma.
  • 4 John Thomas, The Apostolic Advocate, Vol. 2, p. 67. What Dr. Thomas meant by 'understandingly appreciate the value of his blood' can be recovered from his teachings at that time on the significance of baptism. Based on the etymology of the word βαπτίζω, he reasoned that the word baptism conveys not only the idea of immersion but also of dyeing in scarlet. Hence, he concluded that baptism entails being dyed in the blood of Jesus, the 'divine dye'. He writes: 'Immersion is but one-half of baptism. A man may be immersed and yet not baptized; a man, however, cannot be baptized without being immersed. The fluid into which he is plunged must be tinged of a bright scarlet color. Let me not be misunderstood; it is not supposed that this tinge is obvious to the natural eye, but the eye of faith can see the crimson dye flowing from the pierced side of Jesus into all the baptismal waters. If a man confess Jesus to be the Son of God, and apprehends his blood shed for the remission of sins, and he be immersed in the waters of the Potomac, Rappahannock, Mattaponi, Pamunky or James river, the eye of faith can see those waters dyed around him with the blood of Jesus. The eye of faith, however, must be open in the person baptized or dyed... the subject must believe and confess for himself or his dipping will be mere immersion and not baptism.' (Thomas, John (1834). The Apostolic Advocate, Vol. 1, p. 122). Hence, because Baptists did not understand that the very waters of baptism were the means of washing away sins in the blood of Jesus, their baptisms were invalid, and re-baptism was necessary.
  • 5 Accounts of the controversy from the perspective of the Stone-Campbell movement can be found here and here.
  • 6 These are not Campbell's words, but are taken from a summary of his response here.
  • 7 Quoted in Thomas, John (1835). The Apostolic Advocate, Vol. 2, pp. 97-99. Emphasis added.
  • 8 If one must understand and believe the gospel as defined by Christadelphians in order to be validly baptized, and thus be a genuine brother or sister in Christ, it follows that the vast majority of professing Christians are simply not Christians at all. They are deceived into thinking they are Christians but their standing before God is no different than an atheist's. Now some liberal, non-traditional Christadelphians reject this principle of exclusivity and prefer to consider themselves one Christian denomination among many. However, the principle itself follows logically from the Christadelphian Statement of Faith, so liberal Christadelphians must either reject the Statement of Faith or act inconsistently. Such a liberal approach would probably have been regarded by Robert Roberts as apostasy.
  • 9 Roberts, Robert. The Good Confession, p. 1.
  • 10 Roberts, Robert. The Good Confession, p. 2.
  • 11 Roberts, Robert. The Good Confession, p. 2.
  • 12 Roberts, Robert. The Good Confession, p. 1; emphasis in original.
  • 13 Roberts, Robert. The Good Confession, p. 3.
  • 14 'There is, of course, a need for ascertaining whether an applicant for immersion understands and believes the truth. The validity of immersion depends upon believing the truth. In apostolic times, the belief was evidenced by the simple admission that Jesus was the Christ. The case stands differently now when nominal believers in Christ associate with their historical belief doctrines subversive of the scheme of truth which centres in his name. It is no longer sufficient for a man to say he believes in Christ, unless the statement means that he believes the truth concerning Christ. The simple confession of belief in Christ does not bring with it the guarantee it did in apostolic times, that the doctrines embodied in Christ are received. The apostasy has held sway for centuries, and still reigns with undiminished power; and through its influence there exists around us a state of things in which, while, so far as words go, there is universal profession of belief in Christ, there is an absolute and virulent rejection of the truth of which Christ is the embodiment. We must, therefore, dispense with mere forms and phrases, and address ourselves to the work of gauging the actual relations of things. We must find out the truth of a man's profession when he claims fellowship with us; and the genuineness of his faith when he asks to be immersed; and this now-a-days cannot be done without crucial test; for words have become so flexible, and mere phrases so current, that a form of words may be used without any conception of the idea which it originally and apostolically represented.'
  • 15 Roberts, Robert. The Good Confession, emphasis added.
  • 16 After the eunuch asks what prevents him being baptized (Acts 8:36), the Western text includes this dialogue: 'Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”'
  • 17 Also, the main emphasis in this narrative is on how these disciples initially lacked the Holy Spirit and subsequently received it after submitting to baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus. This feature of the narrative is neglected in Christadelphian exposition, since in Christadelphian theology the coming of the Holy Spirit is not an essential feature of life in Christ.
  • 18 The Didache provides a body of catechetical teaching, almost entirely concerning ethics, and states that this teaching should be 'rehearsed' prior to baptism. It also states that the baptizand, the baptizer and ideally others are to fast before the baptism. While the 'rehearsal' of the moral teachings might have taken the form of a dialogue resembling a baptismal interview, there is no indication that doctrinal content formed part of this rehearsal. Nor is there any indication that the validity of the baptism rested either on the candidate's doctrinal knowledge or on the outcome of the 'rehearsal' of the moral teachings.
  • 19 Examples from 1 Corinthians were discussed in a recent post. We can also mention Heb. 5:12, the source of the term 'first principles', used in Christadelphian parlance to mean the fundamental doctrines of the Truth. In context, the writer is rebuking his readers for their deficiencies in understanding the 'first principles' - but he does not call into question their status as brethren in Christ.
  • 20 Adelphicare, http://www.adelphicare.org/Christadelphians/Christadelphians.html
  • 21 Introducing the Christadelphians, p. 1.
  • 22 The Decline of Christendom.
  • 23 Didache 7.3 permits baptism to be performed by pouring water three times on the head 'in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit' if running or standing water is not available for immersion.
  • 24 These included artists who sculpted or painted idols, actors, charioteers, gladiators, pagan clergy, military governors, rulers of cities, soldiers, prostitutes and magi.
  • 25 This is clear from the bishop's post-baptismal prayer, which states that God has 'made these worthy of the removal of sins through the bath of regeneration' (Apostolic Tradition 21.21), as well as the concern to state that catechumens who are martyred 'with their sins not removed' (i.e. unbaptized) are still justified, 'for they have received baptism in their own blood'. Note that translations from The Apostolic Tradition are taken from this online translation.
  • 26 Roberts, Robert (1889). The Christadelphian. Reprinted in The Berean Christadelphian, Vol. 52, No. 9 (September 1964), pp. 30-32. Here p. 31.
  • 27 Jannaway, F.G. Christadelphian Answers, p. 85. A similarly conservative approach is enjoined by Robert Roberts. He holds the 'accommodative' practices of examining brethren 'largely responsible' for the spread of heresy in the ecclesias, and instructs: 'In the gentlest manner, but with the firmness which the importance of the occasion requires, the examining brethren should deal with all the points of doctrine, and where there is deficiency let them show the way of God more perfectly. But if it is evident from the manner of the candidate that he or she fails to comprehend the import of the doctrine, there should be delay in admission.' (Roberts, Robert (1889). The Christadelphian. Reprinted in The Berean Christadelphian, Vol. 52, No. 9 (September 1964), pp. 30-32. Here p. 31.)
  • 28 Robert Roberts was originally baptized at age 14; a decade later he was re-baptized, 'on attaining to an understanding of the things concerning the name of Jesus, of which he was ignorant at his first immersion'.
  • 29 Hemingray writes, 'It also marked the true origin, if any one single event did, of the body of beliefs of Christadelphians' (Hemingray, Peter (2003). Dr. Thomas: His Friends and His Faith. Christadelphian Tidings, p. 147).
  • 30 See Doctrines to be Rejected 17.
  • 31 On immortal emergence, Hemingray writes that Dr. Thomas 'appeared to have begun changing his mind in 1854, but did not make it a test of fellowship until some years later' (Dr. Thomas: His Friends and His Faith, p. 268). On 'the nature of Christ and God', Hemingray writes that 'Dr. Thomas appears not to have fully developed his understanding of this subject until he came into contact with a group of Christian Jews in 1857' (op. cit., p. 267). It is certainly open to question whether the 1847 Dr. Thomas would be able to 'pass' a contemporary, conservative Christadelphian baptismal examination.
  • 32 'But there have been admitted to fellowship some who were practically deficient in a knowledge of the first principles of the Faith. This has been proved by many who subsequently came to see with increased knowledge that they had in the first place been immersed with a deficient knowledge of the truth, and without an adequate recognition of their responsibilities in becoming connected with Christ's brethren. With their new light and knowledge, these good and honest hearts were anxious to be placed in a proper relationship to Christ, and hence they sought re-immersion—an acknowledgement that their first immersion was invalid. These had gone on to perfection, but how many may be like them in their first experience, having need to be taught again what be the first principles of the oracles of God?' Roberts, Robert (1889). The Christadelphian. Reprinted in The Berean Christadelphian, Vol. 52, No. 9 (September 1964), pp. 30-32. Here p. 31.


Miles Stryker said...

I must admit I think the idea of an examine to see if the person who has requested to be Baptized, is worthy of some denominational sanction is terrible. Did the early disciples of Christ give everyone an examine to see if they understood the "theology" of how we must interpret God's love in Christ ? I somehow doubt it. The baptisms seem to have come very shortly in some cases between the hearing of the word and the Baptism of the seekers enthralled in their own relation to Grace and Jesus's message. I don't want to seem confrontational, I just feel so strongly that Baptism is about being Baptized into Christ in the most personal and intimate way, and is not about being Baptized into a church or denomination.

Tom said...

Thanks Miles. I agree - the church as the body of Christ should not be placing potential stumbling blocks in the way of those who seek baptism.