The case against mass baptism

September 10, 2015

A high school football team recently made news for hosting a “mass baptism,” in which several players and at least one coach made professions of Christian faith and were baptized on school grounds. This incident has stirred some controversy since it appears to have been part of the football team’s scheduled practice day, raising questions about whether the ritual constituted a “state-sponsored” religious ceremony. On the other hand, many Christians have found the incident encouraging; video of the ceremony was captured and posted by a local church, with the caption, “Take a look and see how God is still in our schools!” 

As a Christian, it’s difficult to watch people make professions and faiths and be baptized with anything other than a worshipful gratitude. There should be no higher joy for followers of Jesus than to watch others testify of Christ’s presence in their lives. And as many Christian teens can attest, school is often not a place where open expressions of Christian faith are seen or even welcome. The sight of high school boys and staff being baptized as they proclaim to know Christ is a most welcome sight. 

However, I do think there is a case to be made that these “mass baptisms” are unwise, whether they are carried out for a football team or a group touring the Jordan river.  For the record, I don’t have any reason to believe that the school administration or the football coach intended to pressure or single out non-Christians. While there may be some prudential (and possibly legal) arguments against enjoining a baptism ceremony with a public school itinerary, my concern does not lie with where these kinds of baptisms happen. It lies with how they happen. 

The main problem with these kinds of “mass baptisms” is actually quite simple: They take what is, biblically, an ordinance of the local church and try to turn it into something else. 

Believer’s baptism is one of the most important things that a local church does. It is one of only two ordinances explicitly prescribed in the New Testament for local congregations to carry out (the other being Communion, or the Lord’s Supper). Biblically, the purpose of believer’s baptism is to proclaim, in the context of a covenant community, that a person has truly repented of sin and believed in Jesus Christ for salvation.

It’s crucial to note that in the New Testament, baptism is not the solitary, individualistic decision, but a covenant ceremony meant to occur in the context of a group of believers who are spiritually bound to one another. Thus, baptism is much more than a rite of passage that someone agrees to undergo when they are ready; it is a communal act that invites the rest of the covenant community to witness and affirm the reality of this person’s submission to the lordship of Christ. When a person is baptized upon a profession of Christian faith, they are submerged in water that symbolizes their death and burial in Christ, and then raised out of the water to signify that the resurrection of Christ is their own resurrection. And the most important thing that the local church does in baptism is affirm, by covenant witness, that they believe this baptism is true; that is, they endorse (within the limits of human knowledge, of course) the fact that the person baptized really has experienced death and resurrection in Jesus. 

The problem with “mass baptisms” like the one performed by this high school football team is that they cannot, by definition, do what baptism is intended to do. A football team is not a covenant community like a local church. Even a football team consisting exclusively of genuine Christians is not bound together by the same spiritual bonds that define members in a local church. This is exactly why, in his wisdom, Jesus appointed that baptism be an ordinance of the local church and not merely an ordinance of Christian culture. Baptism is more than a individualistic proclamation of Christian faith; it is a public vow—not unlike a wedding vow—intended to be shared by a community of believers who belong to one another in Christian covenant. 

Does this mean that Christian players on a sports team or Christian members of a book club cannot have meaningful spiritual relationships? Of course not. We are called not only to love the local body but also the body of Christ all over the world. If a group of Christian football players want to have a Bible study, that is wonderful and completely in line with Christ’s teaching about the church. If a group of Christian friends in a dorm hall want to sing hymns together on a Saturday evening, I believe Jesus is honored by that. But the ordinances of the local church were given to the local church for a reason. And many times, attempts to replicate the covenant functions of the local church are part of a larger effort to replace the local church in the lives of Christians. We must fight this tendency with all diligence. 

The local church is a precious gift from the Lord Jesus to all of us. Baptism is one of the most beautiful things that can happen in a local congregation. By keeping the two together, Christians can display for the unbelieving world a dazzling glance at what the Kingdom of the risen Jesus Christ looks like. Instead of trying to replicate the local church in our casual relationships, we should spur each other on to more faithful membership and service in our respective churches. We should indeed be glad to see God at work in our schools, but even more importantly, we must see God at work in our churches.  

Samuel James

Samuel James serves as Communications Specialist in the Office of the President. He received his B.A. from Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his wife, Emily, live in Louisville and have one son. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24