Question 1. What is meant by the “mode” of baptism?
A. The “mode” of baptism refers to the way or manner in which baptism is administered. Three modes of baptism have been used by the church throughout history:
- Immersion—fully submerging a person’s body in water (e.g., in a river);
- Pouring—pouring water over a person’s head (e.g., using a cup);
- Sprinkling—sprinkling droplets of water on a person (e.g., with one’s fingers).
Immersion is also called dipping. Pouring is also called affusion. Sprinkling is also called aspersion.
Q. 2. My church has always baptized by immersion, why should I even consider that there may be other valid modes of baptism?
A. Every Christian should consider other modes of baptism because:
- All three modes have been used throughout church history.
- In the Western Church, pouring has been the preferred mode.
- Some theologians, including John Wesley, think that the apostles administered baptism by pouring or sprinkling rather than immersion.
- Those who are accustomed to “immersion only” tend to look with suspicion upon those who use other modes. This is uncharitable, especially if it is due to negligence to study the issue. Adam Clarke wrote, “Baptism, however administered, is a most important rite in the church of Christ. To say that sprinkling or aspersion is no gospel baptism is as incorrect as to say immersion is none. Such assertions are as unchristian as they are uncharitable; and should be carefully avoided by all those who wish to promote the great design of the gospel, glory to God, and peace and good will among men.”
- The “immersion only” view creates practical problems for the church. For example, unless the church has a large baptismal pool (which many churches cannot afford), baptisms cannot be performed during cold weather, causing baptism to be unnecessarily delayed for months. Clarke points out that poor churches in many parts of the world would never be able to safely baptize anyone. Furthermore…
- Baptism by immersion is difficult or impossible for some people, such as those who are afraid of being submerged under water, or those who are very overweight. This makes baptism, which should be a wonderful experience, a source of fear or embarrassment. Though baptism is a command of Christ, some people avoid it altogether for this reason.
Baptism by immersion is difficult or impossible for some people, making baptism, which should be a wonderful experience, a source of fear or embarrassment.
Q. 3. Doesn’t the Bible say that we should be baptized by immersion?
A. No, there is nowhere in the Bible that says we should be baptized by immersion. This is an inference that some draw from verses like Matthew 3:16, which says that “when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water.” There are several problems with this interpretation:
- Going “up from the water” may simply refer to going back onto the riverbank.
- It is by no means clear that Jesus was immersed. The Jordan is shallow at many places, and John the Baptist may have had people join him in the water, then sprinkled or poured water over their heads, according to the washing and cleansing rituals with which he was familiar under the law (see Question 6 and Wesley’s comments below).
- Even if Jesus was baptized by immersion, it doesn’t logically follow that immersion is the only valid mode. Does it logically follow that because Jesus was baptized in a river, we must be baptized in a river instead of a stream or pond?
Even if Jesus was baptized by immersion, it doesn’t logically follow that immersion is the only valid mode.
Q. 4. What about Romans 6 and the symbolism of baptism?
A. Romans 6 says that we are baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Some argue that going under the water is a symbol of being buried (i.e., in a watery grave), and coming up from the water is a symbol of being resurrected. There are several problems with this interpretation:
- Romans 6 is not describing the mode of baptism, it is describing the meaning of baptism. See John Wesley’s comments on Romans 6 below (Treatise on Baptism, Section 4).
- Even if Romans 6 is an allusion to baptism by immersion, it does not logically follow that every baptism must be by immersion.
- Both pouring and sprinkling also provide rich symbolism for what happens in baptism. For example, pouring water over the head is a sign of how the Holy Spirit (the one who unites us to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection) is poured out upon us. Water baptism and Spirit baptism are closely connected in the Bible, which makes pouring an especially rich and beautiful symbol of the Spirit’s work.
Pouring water over the head is a sign of how the Holy Spirit (the one who unites us to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection) is poured out upon us.
Q. 5. Doesn’t the word “baptize” mean “immerse”?
A. No, the Bible uses the word “baptize” to refer to things that were washed but not immersed. The simplest meaning of “baptize” is “wash,” which may include ritual or symbolic washings. Adam Clarke notes, “Both ‘dipped/immersed’ and ‘sprinkled’ are within the range of meaning of Βαπτω and Βαπτιζω.” See Wesley’s explanation below (Treatise on Baptism, 4).
The simplest meaning of “baptize” is “wash,” which may include ritual or symbolic washings.
Q. 6. Does the Bible give any support for baptism by pouring or sprinkling?
A. Yes, several passages give us reason to think that baptism by pouring or sprinkling was common practice in the early church, and this is confirmed by church history. For example,
- New Testament baptism is described as a cleansing and washing, and has its background in the cleansing and washing rites of the Old Testament. E.g., Numbers 8:7 says, “Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them.” Leviticus 15:13 says, “he shall bathe his body in fresh water and shall be clean.”
- Hebrews 10:22 is likely an allusion to baptism by sprinkling: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
- Many biblical baptisms occurred in places that almost certainly didn’t have enough water for immersion. See Wesley’s survey below (Treatise on Baptism, Section 5).
In the late first or early second century (just a few decades after the apostles), a document called the Didache summarizes the apostles’ teaching and records that pouring was a recognized form of baptism in the early church. It instructs, “pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (7).
The Didache summarizes the apostles’ teaching and records that pouring was a recognized form of baptism in the early church.
7. What did Wesley and our Methodist forefathers believe about the mode of baptism?
A. Wesley and the early Methodists wrote in defense of baptism by pouring and sprinkling, arguing that it was unbiblical, unreasonable, and uncharitable to insist on baptism by immersion only. Adam Clarke, the great Methodist commentator on Scripture, defended all three modes, arguing that “it is the thing signified, and not the mode, which is the essential part of the sacrament.”
Carefully read this excerpt from John Wesley’s Treatise on Baptism, which makes a biblical case against the “immersion only” view:
2. … Baptism is performed by washing [pouring], dipping [immersion], or sprinkling the person, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, who is hereby devoted to the ever-blessed Trinity. I say, by washing, dipping, or sprinkling; because it is not determined in Scripture in which of these ways it shall be done, neither by any express precept, nor by any such example as clearly proves it; nor by the force or meaning of the word baptize.
3. That there is no express precept [explicit command], all calm men allow. Neither is there any conclusive example. John’s baptism in some things agreed with Christ’s, in others differed from it. But it cannot be certainly proved from Scripture, that even John’s was performed by dipping [immersion]. It is true he baptized in Enon, near Salim, where there was “much water.” But this might refer to breadth rather than depth; since a narrow place would not have been sufficient for so great a multitude. Nor can it be proved, that the baptism of our Savior, or that administered by his disciples, was by immersion. No, nor that of the eunuch baptized by Philip; though “they both went down to the water:” For that going down may relate to the chariot, and implies no determinate depth of water. It might be up to their knees; it might not be above their ankles.
4. And as nothing can be determined from Scripture precept or example, so neither from the force or meaning of the word. For the words baptize and baptism do not necessarily imply dipping [immersion], but are used in other senses in several places. Thus we read, that the Jews “were all baptized in the cloud and in the sea;” (1 Corinthians 10:2;) but they were not plunged in either. They could therefore be only sprinkled by drops of the sea-water, and refreshing dews from the cloud; probably intimated in that, “Thou sentest a gracious rain upon thine inheritance, and refreshedst it when it was weary.” (Psalm 67:9.) Again: Christ said to his two disciples, “Ye shall be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with;” (Mark 10:38;) but neither he nor they were dipped [immersed], but only sprinkled or washed with their own blood. Again we read (Mark 7:4) of the baptisms (so it is in the original) of pots and cups, and tables or beds. Now, pots and cups are not necessarily dipped [immersed] when they are washed. Nay, the Pharisees washed the outsides of them only. And as for tables or beds, none will suppose they could be dipped [immersed]. Here, then, the word baptism, in its natural sense, is not taken for dipping [immersion], but for washing or cleansing. And, that this is the true meaning of the word baptize, is testified by the greatest scholars and most proper judges in this matter. It is true, we read of being “buried with Christ in baptism.” But nothing can be inferred from such a figurative expression. Nay, if it held exactly, it would make as much for sprinkling as for plunging; since, in burying, the body is not plunged through the substance of the earth, but rather earth is poured or sprinkled upon it.
5. And as there is no clear proof of dipping in Scripture, so there is very probable proof of the contrary. It is highly probable, the Apostles themselves baptized great numbers, not by dipping [immersion], but by washing, sprinkling, or pouring water. This clearly represented the cleansing from sin, which is figured by baptism. And the quantity of water used was not material; no more than the quantity of bread and wine in the Lord’s supper. The jailer “and all his house were baptized” in the prison; Cornelius with his friends, (and so several households,) at home. Now, is it likely, that all these had ponds or rivers, in or near their houses, sufficient to plunge them all? Every unprejudiced person must allow, the contrary is far more probable. Again: Three thousand at one time, and five thousand at another, were converted and baptized by St. Peter at Jerusalem; where they had none but the gentle waters of Siloam, according to the observation of Mr. Fuller: “There were no water-mills in Jerusalem, because there was no stream large enough to drive them.” The place, therefore, as well as the number, makes it highly probable that all these were baptized by sprinkling or pouring, and not by immersion. To sum up all, the manner of baptizing (whether by dipping [immersion] or sprinkling) is not determined in Scripture. There is no command for one rather than the other. There is no example from which we can conclude for dipping [immersion] rather than sprinkling. There are probable examples of both; and both are equally contained in the natural meaning of the word.