Easter has traditionally been a time for baptism, but this Easter was not like most Easters.
Millions of Christians spent Easter at home, and instead of seeing the highest attendance of the year, Easter 2020 was likely the highest online attendance in history. In the weeks leading up to Easter, there was much discussion about online communion, because it is a sacred and weekly practice for many traditions, and therefore required an immediate decision. But as we move deeper into the Easter season, questions will eventually arise about whether baptism should be practiced online, and if so, how does one perform an online baptism?
Even when it is legal to gather for worship, many will decline for a variety of reasons and social distancing will continue at some level for a long time. And yet, wonderfully, babies will still be born and people will still come to faith, and the practice of baptisms will need to continue.
The Theology and Practice of Baptism
Before exploring how baptism has worked online, let us review how baptism has been understood theologically and how is practiced in various traditions.
As with communion, Christians have come to a variety of different views on baptism, each with subtle nuances. Although these are too diverse to represent all traditions fairly, below are three broad, overlapping categories that can help orient us.
Baptism as Required (or Part of) Salvation: Several traditions emphasize passages of scripture that connect salvation and baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 1 Pete 3:21). Roman Catholic theology interprets these to mean that water baptism washes away all sins, including original sins and any personal sins. Baptism is, therefore, generally required for salvation in Roman Catholic theology, but there are exceptions of baptism by blood (martyrdom or faith and virtue) or by desire (otherwise unable to be baptized). Eastern Orthodoxy also sees baptism as causing the forgiveness of sins, but it emphasizes additional dimensions like a mystical communion with God. Martin Luther agreed partially with Rome that baptism is a means of forgiveness, but he stressed that baptism is a work of God and must be combined with faith the Word. Because of its salvific importance and Jesus’ embrace of children (Matthew 19:14), these traditions all practice infant baptism (pedobaptism) and require it to be performed be licensed clergy.
Baptism as Entrance into Community: Reformed theology also practices infant baptism, but for an entirely different reason. It sees baptism as a means of initiating a person into the community of faith, interpreting baptism as having a similar function to circumcision for the Hebrew people (1 Corinthians 10:2). It does not confer forgiveness of sins nor does it secure salvation, but to varying degrees it may provide nourishment to the believer and serve as a signifier of faith. Because of the emphasis on the covenant community, these practices usually also require ordained clergy.
Baptism as Signifier of Faith: The Anabaptists broke from not only Rome, but also Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, arguing that baptism must come only after a profession of faith. This made infant baptisms invalid, hence the name “anabaptist” which means “”one who baptizes again.” Today, many evangelical churches and large US denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention continue in this stream, arguing that the pattern in biblical stories is that baptism follows a profession of faith (Acts 2:41; Acts 8:36-38; Acts 18:8). Faith alone is what grants forgiveness of sins, and the baptism that follows is “an outward sign of an inward reality.” In contrast to pedobaptism, baptism after belief is sometimes referred to as credobaptism. These traditions also tend to baptize through full submersion in a body of water rather by sprinkling or pouring, and they may allow any Christian to baptize another without any formal training or recognition.
In addition to differences of belief about its meaning, the act of baptism has been practiced in a variety of ways through church history. For example, until the Middle Ages, baptisms were often performed naked with removal of clothing signifying the “taking off the old self” (Ephesians 4:22-24). This also meant that men and women were separated for modesty making baptism a less public ritual. There has also been debate about the need for full submersion or forms of immersion that involve pouring or sprinkling. Although the stories of baptism in the scriptures take place near bodies of water were full submersion was possible, there is some debate in passages where the Greek word baptizō may indicate a form of washing that did not involve submersion (Mark 7:3-4; Luke 11:38).
Baptism can also be seen as an official declaration of oneself as a Christian. For those converting from another faith to Christianity or living in countries where Christianity is a minority religion, this can bring severe persecution or death.
Broadcast, Virtual, and Online Baptisms
So, what happens when these diverse practices of baptism go digital?
Although the first online church services can be traced as far back as 1985 and there were experiments in the 1990s (Tim Hutchings’ Creating Church Online and Douglas Estes’s SimChurch are helpful for deeper research), video records of baptisms did not begin to appear until the mid-2000s when online video standards emerged (remember RealPlayer?) enabling sites like YouTube to be created. Using the vocabulary of broadcast, virtual, online, and local church the practice of digital baptism can be grouped like this:
Broadcast Baptism – video of a baptism is broadcast through the internet.
Many churches livestream or post video of their baptismal practices. This spans the range of theological views and practices, including baptizing 500 infants in a day, adult baptisms in rivers, and instructions for home baptisms. Whether baptism is understood salvificly, covenantally, or memorially, even through broadcast technology is non-interactive, it allows more of the community to share in the experience.
Virtual Baptism – baptism enacted in a virtual environment.
Virtual environments like Second Life and AltSpaceVR recreate the feeling of entering a church and seeing individual congregants as you move through the structure. In 2007, Life.church offered Second Life services that included a video feed of the sermon. Today, the most visible continuation of the virtual church is DJ Soto’s VR Church, which made headlines for its VR-based baptisms in 2019. First UCC Church also posted a video of its regulations for virtual communion and virtual baptisms. The anonymity of virtual environments allows Christians in insecure environments to share in community and faith practices while protecting their identity, but some virtual churches like First UCC require real names to be used for baptism.
Online Church – using interactive technology to perform baptism.
The claim of “first online baptism” goes to Flamingo Baptist Church’s Internet Campus, which baptized Alyssa Eason in early 2008. The pastors in Florida used video conferencing software to connect with Alyssa and her step-mother-in-law, Lisa, who performed the baptism as the pastors spoke and prayed. Later that year, another online baptism was posted online by Cornerstone UMC. In this case, Cindy Wall was a member of local church and she wanted to be baptized by her pastors, but they were away at a conference. The church community gathered a pool while the pastors used Skype to officiate her baptism and pray for her.
Similarities and Difference in Digital Baptisms
While the examples of broadcast baptisms above come from a variety of traditions, the virtual and online baptisms tend to come from free church or nondenominational evangelical traditions. This is the first of several things that the online and virtual baptisms have in common. They also all involved an adult Christian who had made a public profession of faith and wanted to be baptized, which puts them within the credobaptism theological stream. Finally, they all included the Trinitarian formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” derived from Matthew 28:19-20. (So far, I have yet to find instances of virtual or online baptisms from traditions which practice pedobaptism or that require ordained clergy, but please point them out if you find one.)
The virtual and online baptisms also have several important differences. In the case of virtual churches, the baptismal ritual does not use physical water, but instead involves the person’s avatar being submersed water in the virtual environment. If water baptism is a symbol of dying with Christian being reborn, virtual baptism can be seen as a symbol of that symbol or as an alternative way of enacting the symbol. In contrast, the two online churches used physical water, one in a bathtub the other in a pool. Note, however, that First UCC Church (a virtual church) has two additional requirements for virtual baptism; that the person being baptized use their real name (not an avatar) and that they also receive a water baptism while the virtual baptism is taking place.
A second important difference is that Cindy Wall had a connection to Cornerstone UMC as a local church before she was baptized by its pastors online. In contrast, it appears that those baptized by the virtual churches or by Flamingo Baptist Church’s internet campus were not previously part of those local church community. I draw attention to this connection with a local community, because Cindy Wall died four days after her baptism. Her request for an online baptism was rooted in her desire to be baptized by the pastors with whom she had a prior relationship, but who were physically unable to return before her illness progressed.
I’ve summarized these commonalities and differences in practice below:
|Virtual – VR Church||Online – Flamingo||Online – Cornerstone|
|Adult believer||Adult believer||Adult believer|
|Trinitarian Formula||Trinitarian Formula||Trinitarian Formula|
|Physical Water||Physical Water|
Guidelines for Digital Baptisms
Should your church practice a form of digital baptism?
This may depend on how your community understands the meaning of baptism, but there are some important guidelines that may help the practice to stay within the long-standing common tradition of the church through the ages.
- Be baptized by another Christian – however digital baptism is practiced, it should not involve self-baptism.
- The Trinitarian formula – the baptizer should declare, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
- Physical Water – water and technology don’t always mix well, but in the case of a valid digital baptism, both are necessary.
Beyond these three elements, there has been quite a bit of flexibility in the practice of baptism in the church. I might also recommend that online baptisms be an extension of a local church with existing relationships so that the baptismal ritual is both a spiritual experience and a public declaration of faith. And yet, even that is not a necessity for a new believer, just as it was not for the Ethiopian eunuch:
“See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”Acts 8:36