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Legalism: Baptism – Public, Private, or of No Matter?

Posted by Curt Wildy on August 24, 2010

Baptism: Public or Private?

While listening to sermons and reading material that pertained to Baptism, something stood out heavily to me. Yet, the more I listened and read, the more I realised that no one was really addressing the matter. What I had noticed was that in many places, Baptisms were held publicly and outdoors. As a result of this realisation (real or perceived), I wanted to research the matter and to explore whether this was indeed the norm, and if so, to see whether we likewise ought to be baptised publicly outdoors.

The basic aim of this post is to try to determine whether baptisms should be public (e.g. in a river, lake, or outdoor pool), private (e.g. indoors, within a house or chapel, but nonetheless before the saints), or whether it is simply a matter of choice and/or necessity. Said another way, is this a matter of real importance or is it a matter of no real importance at all. 

One aspect that should be deemed important is the aspect of legalism, tradition, and show. Whenever we do something of a religious nature publicly, we need to be mindful of certain realities. We know that we are not to pray, or to fast, to be seen of men; nor are we to give our alms to be seen of them. However, the issue is whether we are to be baptised to be seen of men. I know all things must be unto God; we should not do anything for show or outward displays of religiosity. Nonetheless, the question arises as to whether Baptism is an open, public, confession of Christ; whether, when one is baptised, they are confessing the Lord Jesus Christ openly, before men. If it is an open, public confession, then a second issue arise. If we are baptised indoors, inside the chapel in a baptismal pool, are we publicly confessing Christ, or are we confessing Him before other believers in the privacy of our own assembly?

Public Baptisms

In II Kings 5:14, we read of Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria,”Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” Now this was not a Baptism as we know it in our day, but it appears to me to be a foreshadowing of it. I bring it up nonetheless, because Naaman dipped and washed openly before men — it was no private ceremony.

In Matthew 3, we read concerning John the Baptist “5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, 6 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

We see in this passage that people gathered to be baptized of John in a public place. Though this is not the Baptism of our day, being instead the Baptism of Repentance, perhaps we can still learn a valuable lesson from it. We see that the people came to the river Jordan, and there they were seen of the Pharisees and Sadducees. These men and women were being baptized in front of those who could very well end up ridiculing them, scorning them, ostracizing them, or otherwise making their lives difficult. Yet they were baptized of John openly, willing to face the prying eyes of the religionists.

A bit further down in Matthew 3, we read “13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? 15 And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer [it to be so] now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. 16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: 17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Here we see the example of the Lord Jesus being baptized openly, in the river Jordan, for all present to see. Jesus did not seek John the Baptist in some private meeting-house; He went to Jordan. Now we know that His being baptised in Jordan has necessary spiritual application, so I do not want to make more of this than I ought; yet, I still will note that this was a public, ‘open air,’ baptism.

God declares in John 3:23 “And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.”

Although it is not specifically stated, I think we can infer that John the Baptist was baptizing people outdoors, publicly, in Aenon — and that the much water referred to a large, outdoor, body or source of water.

In Acts 2:41 we read “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added [unto them] about three thousand souls.”

Here we see that three-thousand people were baptized in one day as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in light of the Gospel being preached. For this many people to be baptized, the baptisms had to most likely have been very open (public) and near a significant body or source of  water (or bodies or sources of water). Again, I cannot go beyond what the Bible states; it is possible that they were not baptized on site and that they went off to private sources of water to be baptized. Nonetheless, given the numbers, it just may well be that these saints of God were baptised publicly and openly.

In Acts 8 we read concerning Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch “35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. 36 And as they went on [their] way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, [here is] water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39 And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.”

Notice that Philip and the Ethiopian came unto a body of water; it was in this body of water that Philip baptised him. This too appears to be an outdoor, public act. However, one could easily argue that it was of necessity, being the only body of water around, and that no one else is mentioned as being (or was likely to be) around in the Gaza desert region where they were. Be that as it may, it was still outdoors and for all to see (if there were people there to see it).

Baptisms in Past Times

It seems that for quite some time, public baptisms were more or less the norm. Consider the following from John Gill:

The manner of administering the one and the other is very different; the one is by blood, the other by water; the one by an incision made in one part of the body, the other by an immersion of the whole body in water; the one was done in a private house, and by a private hand; the other, for the most part, publicly, in open places, in rivers, and before multitudes of people, and by a person in public office, a public minister of the word. Now, ordinances so much differing in their subjects, use, and manner of administration, the one can never be thought to come in the room and place of the other.


Karl R. Hagenbach stated in his History of the Christian Church:  

“That baptism in the beginning was administered in the open air, in rivers and pools, and that it was by immersion we know from the narratives of the New Testament. In later times there were prepared great baptismal fonts or chapels. The person to be baptized descended several steps into the reservoir of water, and then the whole body was immersed under the water.  Hagenbach, History of the Christian Church, chap. 19, p. 324:”

In “A GENERAL HISTORY OF THE BAPTIST DENOMINATION IN AMERICA, AND OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD” by David Benedict (1813) we read the following (http://www.reformedreader.org/rbb/benedict/baptism.htm):

From writers of unquestionable authority, it is evident, that the primitive christians continued to baptize in rivers, pools, and baths, until about the middle of the 3rd century. Justin Martyr says, that they went with the catechumens to a place where there was water, and Tertullian adds, that the candidates for baptism made a profession of faith twice, once in the church, and then again when they came to the water, and it was quite indifferent whether it were the sea, or a pool, a lake, or a river, or a bath. Such are the accounts given by Justin Martyr in his Apology, and by Tertullian on baptism as quoted by Robinson.

In a work titled “The Decline in Chapel Worship” (http://www.herefordshire.gov.uk/htt/719.aspx) we read:

By the 1840s it was becoming more and more usual for the Baptist Church to construct indoor baptismal pools as their previous practice of baptism in rivers and ponds was discouraging the more “genteel folk”.

Private Baptisms

Although we have all of the information above concerning public, outdoor baptism, what we lack is a biblical commandment on the matter. As we progress through Scripture, especially in the book of Acts, nothing in the baptism of Paul; Cornelius and his household; Lydia and her household; the Philippian jailer and his household; Crispus and his household; etc, suggests that a public, open air, baptism was, or is, required.

Some sects within Christendom have invented a requirement that baptism must be outdoors; however, the Bible knows of no such requirement. There is no commandment in Scripture requiring baptisms to be performed either indoors or out. 

As for the issue of ‘whether being baptised indoors, inside the chapel in a baptismal pool, means we are not publicly confessing Christ, but only confessing Him before other believers in the privacy of the assembly of saints,’ I would point to Philip and the Ethiopian once again. Since the baptism of the Ethiopian appears to have been witnessed by no one else, it would seem evident that it was enough that he was baptised by a fellow-saint, unto God. The confession appears to be a public one, unto God, even if only one believer is present. Thus, I see no requirement that a baptism be performed before unregenerate men in order to be valid.


Open air, public baptisms may have both personal appeal and historic appeal as well. It may be the preference of some who want to make this public confession more noticeably public. However, since no biblical mandate exists concerning the public or private nature of baptism, I would think it a serious mistake to declare that baptisms need to be public and open. I would think it an even bigger mistake to question the validity/legitimacy of indoor, baptismal-pool baptisms (as some in religion do). If the person being baptised is a regenerate child of God, that baptism is unto the Lord and no one ought to question it.

5 Responses to “Legalism: Baptism – Public, Private, or of No Matter?”

  1. Chris Hedemark Sr. said

    Well done writing. I have been going to churches that only perform indoor baptisms, and on a schedule. This is why I still haven’t been baptised sincein making my confession of faith in 1991. The “genteel folk” as you describe them want to be comfortable in thier pews and within the timeframe of the regularly scheduled church services.

    I respect the various forms that baptisms have taken, in the tradition of men, but seek to follow the example that Jesus gave in his own baptism: public, outdoors, moving water.

    • Curt Wildy said

      Thank you for your response. There are so many doctrines, and variations in the application of doctrines, that I think the best option is to really study the matter from a biblical point of view to the fullest degree that God enables. Concerning water baptism, at this time, I am unable to do that. Water baptism, as you described, definitely appears to have been primarily outdoors, in the public, with moving (what they called living) water. However, the overall issue is a complex one and I do not feel qualified or able to comment on it beyond what I have already written. Lord willing, God will grant me further clarity on it and I hope to be able to write about it (or post faithful writings about it) in the not too distant future. Until then, thank you for your response and to God be the glory.

  2. Jeannie said

    Thank you so much for your writing. My concern is more to the aspect of the requirements of Baptism done within the church community, on their set schedule, or after taking their classes or only to those who are members of that church itself. It is difficult for us, who recently moved, to find a church that we feel is a true Bible based church in our area, with sound and depth of teaching, without the ‘tickle your ears’ fluff – yet that isn’t legalistic and dogmatic with rituals – and commit to that. However, my teenage daughter and I would love to be baptized, in an open area, or not, inside or outside, with a true representative of God. For us, it is a private decision that we are unashamed to declare in public, but do not want the strings attached of committing to membership of a certain church at this time. We are considering saving our pennies and plannig a cross country flight, to be baptized by our former pastor, as we listen to his sermons via internet each week and are studying the word of God together at home. In researching the idea of ‘private’ baptism, the question for me is not regarding the connotation of public or private as above, but in ‘private’ as meaning without membership to a particular church itself. Perhaps, if we could locate a pastor with sound teaching in our area, we would locate that church we seek as well. Unfortunately, we attend many as visitors, and find what they now call ‘seekers churches’ – with watered down feel good self esteem sermons, or strict dogmatic ritualistic churches in our area, forcing us to the internet and our own Bibles in our own home to worship and praise and learn about our Lord.

    • Curt Wildy said

      Hello Jeannie, I hope all is well with you and your family. Over the last two years or so, starting not long after writing the article to which you replied, I began to study (off and on) the matter of baptism rather intensely. The more I did, the more I realized that I am currently in no position to write much upon it. Suffice to say that, in response to your words above, I do not believe that water baptism has anything to do with becoming an official member of a local assembly. For more details on this position, see my article titled Legalism – Is Church Membership Biblical?

      As I stated in the article, I am not against informal memberships, those used to keep a list of individuals who are currently attending the assembly. Instead, I am specifically speaking of those churches that make water baptism the means by which one can partake of the Lord’s supper and that use water baptism as a means of officially joining some corporate body (other than the body of Christ -as a whole- which the Holy Spirit causes you to join when you are quickened and baptized into Christ) and that require you to go through something akin to a mild inquisition to “prove” to the other “members” that you are worthy to join them.

      Also, as JC Philpot and other esteemed Baptist pastors and preachers have noted, water baptism does not require a Pastor to perform it. Any faithful Christian can perform a water baptism though it is normally (traditionally) the pastor or deacon who does it when a faithful congregation is available. If I was without access to a faithful pastor or assembly but a true Christian friend was nearby and he had no qualms about performing the water baptism, there is no biblical prohibition keeping him from doing so. What would hinder one from it if one truly believes and a true believer administers.

      However, I say this from a past / historic point of view and not from my current point of view. At this time, I am still in the midst of uncertainty concerning baptism. Having read much of the excellent series of books by J.W. Dale (Classic Baptism, Judaic Baptism, Johannic Baptism, and Christic Baptism), amongst other books that both agree and contradict, I am at the point where I believe that (1) Water baptism is heavily misunderstood in our day; (2) the definition often given for the word baptism –from both sides– is overly simplistic (for instance, I cringe when someone says that baptism simply or primarily means immersion or dipping — it absolutely does not); and (3) I do not see either side (dippers, pourers, sprinklers) as having a monopoly on the “correct” mode. Yet, when in Rome, do what the Romans do. If you are a Baptist, then be immersed. If you attend a Baptist church, then be immersed if that is what you feel you ought to do. At this time, until God gives me further clarity on the matter, I will leave off commenting beyond this. I have much to say on the matter but if I cannot be 100% certain that my thoughts and views are completely biblical then it is best that I remain silent at this time.

    • Curt Wildy said

      I finally completed what I have held off on for so long; your comment was the catalyst. http://lookuntothelord.com/2013/12/11/the-cup-and-the-baptism-part-two/

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