New Testament scripture describes four distinct baptisms related to a life which is Christ-centered. Years ago I wrote a book titled Elementary Teachings of Christ (available to read on this website) discussing teachings in Hebrews 6:1,2 including plural “baptisms.” Immediately after printing, I realized the first baptism had been inadvertently omitted, a baptism taken for granted in one sense yet often ignored in terms of practice. As a consequence, witness to a lost world is severely hindered. For it is my experience that many find themselves drawn to a church by a need for community with others if not by trials. Yet Christianity as is usually practiced in America often fails to meet their need, be it help in an affliction, comfort in time of trial, or simply a need for fellowship. Such is where programs such as for grief or addiction recovery can readily serve as vehicles for leading those lost to Christ. But such programs commonly put bandages on cancers instead of meeting a far deeper need for reconciliation with God through His Son Jesus Christ.
Held for an hour or two weekly, these programs often bear little authentic witness to what should be practiced by those who experienced God’s grace leading to their having been brought into the body of Christ through conviction of sin, repentance, and receiving the gift of faith to believe unto eternal life. Use of the words eternal life here refers to that which is described by Jesus: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). The Greek ginosko translated “know” is not ‘knowing about’ but rather is a highly personal relationship that comes by the work of Holy Spirit. One can ‘know about’ food and starve to death. And so many who profess Christ in America only know about Christ by having been exposed to a form of cheap grace that ignores true repentance by turning from one’s own ways and turning to the ways of God (Acts 3:19). As a result, they’ve never received the first baptism which takes place upon receiving new spiritual life and baptism into the body of Christ:
“For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member but many…and if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12:13,14,26,27).
The apostle uses the analogy of the human body with its many parts to describe the body of Christ. Many parts make up a body, and Paul says God arranged the parts as He pleased (12:18). The word “body” as used in scripture refers to an individual being a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) as well as for the corporate body of the church being God’s temple (1 Corinthians 12:27). The body of Christ is the ekklesia or “called out ones,” the meaning of the word translated as “church” in our bibles. Paul goes on to list various ministry gifts, saying Christ appoints certain members to serve the body of which He is Head (12:28). Those so appointed are to be servants for equipping and edifying others until all come to maturity in Christ, and are never intended to control the lives of other members of the body.
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Is this a picture the world sees today? Scarcely is such the case! Individualism and self-centeredness that reflect a fallen nature are more typical in the body of Christ. Paul says that if one suffers, all suffer, but how often is this really true? And many placed in leadership positions are not only exalted by others but exalt themselves. Senior pastors strive for control and attempt to play multiple roles in ministry while excluding others in their congregation who are blessed with different gifts. Such was never the intention of Christ for those who comprise His body. Gifts of different types are given to different persons as God determines, not according to an individual person’s desires in most cases (1 Corinthians 12:11). As a result we seldom see the corporate body blessed by gifts existing within the body because those in leadership do not accept the manner in which the body of Christ is meant to operate, instead striving to protect what they view as their leadership ‘turf.’
The idea of baptism into the body of Christ as one of many parts connected to each other has been virtually lost in today’s church. After centuries of church structure which rested primarily on home fellowships, there was increasing concentration of power assumed by the ordained clergy instead of the Holy Spirit. However the new covenant consists of a priesthood of believers, all with direct access to God through Christ (1 Peter 2:9) in contrast to the OT where belonging to the royal priesthood was restricted to Aaron’s descendants. But especially after Constantine, increasing division developed between clergy and laity and persisted through the Reformation until these present times. In substantial part, Christianity has become a building-centered and clergy-led practice of religion unlike what scripture says about being sons of God.
“Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).
Being led by the indwelling Spirit of Christ is not even considered by the average believer in America. Even less so is the idea that believers in Christ are baptized into one body wherein what happens to one affects others, positive and negative alike (1 Corinthians 12:26,27). There is little sense of mutual responsibility if not caring for one another where there is true suffering when others suffer, let alone rejoicing if others are honored. Such is especially the case when congregations are large. Believers identify with which auditorium (denomination) they attend rather than with other members of Christ’s body. And in many megachurches, spiritual leaders live in castles while their sheep struggle to meet the basic essentials of life. The law of Christ is simply not fulfilled in these situations: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Those in huge assemblies cannot possibly know most with intimacy if meeting together is limited to joint worship and instruction on a weekly basis.
Scripture is specific that people are to meet in relatively small groups as practiced in the early church during the first centuries. Many scriptures support this, such as the following passage: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:26). It isn’t possible for such to take place when hundreds if not thousands join for corporate worship and instruction. Nor is there transparency where people confess sins and pray for each other so they may be healed (James 5:16). Those not in intimate fellowship seldom share their struggles and sinful failings with one another, at least in the Western world.
Present day communities of believers have gone astray from biblical principles as espoused by Paul in Ephesians 4 regarding five-fold ministry set in the church by Christ. The purpose of these ministry gifts is to equip and edify, not direct others in projects and missions. When directed if not controlled by the five-fold ministry, freedom of the Holy Spirit to guide is impeded and what is “good” is so frequently substituted for what is “best.” There are any number of examples in scripture of people being directed by the Spirit as when Paul was led through a vision over to Macedonia (Greece) as opposed to his own inclination to enter Asia or Bithynia. I have experienced similar leading by the Spirit when leaving a successful medical practice to enter prison ministry as an unpaid volunteer chaplain.
I believe it fair to suggest success in ministry is considered a large congregation with an impressive building. With few exceptions, such ministries are clergy-led and rarely is there evidence of the presence and power of the Spirit in valid signs and miracles on a regular basis. There may be efforts to promote the power of God but there is no evidence Jesus or His disciples ever engaged in emotionalism as the gospel of the kingdom was preached. The evidence of authenticity were miraculous signs and wonders following the preaching. Paul tells his preaching was not with “wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). Such has been my experience when the gospel of the kingdom was preached; signs and miracles followed to confirm the truth of what was said.
When the writer of Hebrews exhorted believers to continue meeting together, it could not have applied to people sitting in rows of chairs listening to worship on a stage followed by a message. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” (10:25). No large churches existed when these words were penned. People gathered in homes and there was encouragement to “one another” in small groups where there was recognition of baptism into one “body of Christ.” Told to greet those next to you in large groups is a pathetic substitute for encouragement in small groups. This does not dismiss the small groups being part of a larger group, or regularly meeting with other groups. But the core of meeting must be in small groups where Holy Spirit has freedom to operate as we are exhorted in scripture.
In 83 years of life, I’ve experienced participation in a range of denominations, yet in no instance did I find what we are admonished by scripture, namely Spirit-led small groups as opposed to clergy-orchestrated assemblies. Nor did miraculous signs and wonders confirm the teaching. It is no wonder attendance has declined to where only 18% of those 60 years of age or younger attend church at least once monthly in America. And 3000 leave the ministry monthly by their own choice if not dismissed. The exception is development of megachurches where milk is fed instead of meat to ears itching to hear words that do not challenge one’s comfort. This contrasts to the past twenty-five years when we’ve had small groups meet in our home mid-week in addition to attending a variety of fellowships on Sundays.
It has been at these home meetings that sharing of struggles has taken place with prayer and deliverance. Some have come to a saving knowledge of Christ and still others have received baptism in the Holy Spirit. People in bondage to addiction have been set free and many with serious medical problems were healed including diabetes, blindness, autoimmune disease, and depression requiring psychiatric drugs. Supernatural words of knowledge and wisdom have flowed by the Spirit of God and love and encouragement have manifested in the name of Jesus whose presence has been experienced in these small group gatherings. Baptism into the body of Christ is meant to be experiential, not a theory, and small groups open a door for God to manifest in ways far exceeding all we can ask or imagine.