Must Baptism be by Immersion

ASK THE CATHOLIC PRIEST CORNER -Question Of The Day (19-09-2016). Question: I am a Methodist and was baptised and confirmed in the Methodist church so many years ago. During my confirmation classes the then reverend minister took us through the issue of baptism. Here in school in China there is a fellowship we all attend which is nondenominational. The same issue came up and I explained to them. But the leader was saying the word “baptizo” which is Greek or something means to dip. And as such the origin of the word indicates the act. Meaning the word itself describes the act which must be immersion.

Kindly help me with any information on what the Bible says about baptism and the origin of the word. Thanks Fr. (Tommy, China)


Thanks a lot for the question. It’s always a joy to receive questions from non-Catholic Christians who genuinely want to know more. It’s true the Greek word for baptism is “bapitzo” meaning to dip, to plunge, to dive into or to immerse. The truth is that it does not mean we should take it literally because baptism is truly a dip but a spiritual dip into the death of Christ. You see if we take Baptism as just a physical act then how can physical water wash away sin which cannot be seen or touched. It is a spiritual immersion of our sins into the death of Christ so that we rise (come out) to new life. In fact all the water in the sea cannot even wash away our sins because sin not a physical dirt on our bodies. That is why in the Catholic Church we explain a sacrament (baptism is a sacrament) as an outward sign of inward grace instituted by Jesus Christ by which grace is given to our souls. The water being poured on us or the water we are dipped into is only a sign of what happens to us inwardly, spiritually. So it is correct to say Baptism means an immersion but not a physical immersion, rather a spiritual immersion. When we are baptised it is a sign that as the water runs down on us so is our sin running down; we are spiritual being cleansed.

After Jesus’ instructions to the apostles to baptise (Matt. 28:19), the first time we hear of them actually baptising after Jesus had ascended into heaven was on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The passage begins by saying that the disciples  were together in a house when the Holy Spirit came (Acts 2:2) and then we hear that Peter preached and some 3000 were baptised that day (Acts 2:14, 41). Now since Peter preached from the house they were gathered (waiting for the Holy Spirit) it is clear that the baptism of the first 3000 Christians was done in front of that house or around where they were gathered and not in any river. Archaeologically, at least,  we know that there was no river inside Jerusalem itself so we are very sure the method the apostles used to baptise the 3000 was not by immersion into a river (there was no river there). So you see even the first to become Christians were NEVER  baptised by immersion according to Acts 2.

Another example is found in Acts 9 which talks of the baptism of Paul, the great apostle. Acts 9:17 tells us that the man who prayed over Paul to recover his sight entered the house where Paul was. Then in Acts 9:18 we read that Paul got up and was baptised. Baptised where? In a river? Of course not. Rivers don’t flow in private houses. So again we are very sure that even Paul was not baptised by immersion according to the Bible (Act 9). This is another biblical proof that Baptism is not always by immersion.

As much as these two great examples do not tell us how the baptisms were done, we know for sure that Immersion was NEVER used in those cases because they were not baptised in rivers. This means then that the disciples had had other forms of baptism other than immersion. Immersion is never a wrong form of baptism. No. It was actually used in some conversions like that of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:38,39). So we are never against Immersion as a means of baptism. All that we are asserting is that other forms of baptism apart from Immersion were also accepted and used as we have seen in Acts 2 and Acts 9.

From the two scenarios and many others we read in Acts of the Apostles like the conversion of the Jailer and his household which also took place in a house (Acts 16:22,23), it is plausible to conclude that Pouring or even Sprinkling as a means of baptism was possibly used in those instances since there were no rivers (or water bodies) mentioned in such episodes. That is why in the Catholic Church we don’t accept or limit baptism to only by Immersion but also accept and use Pouring (pouring water over a person’s head) or Sprinkling (when there are very large numbers sprinkling water to touch each person) as alternative forms of baptism. We use all three forms in the Catholic church. We do this because the apostles and the early Christians did not limit Baptism to only Immersion as we have seen (Acts 2, Acts 9).

The most important elements for Baptism are water and the words used…in the name of the Father etc. If we think that a cup of water poured over a person’s head cannot wash away his/her sins (which cannot be seen), then not even the whole water in the sea can wash away one’s sins when he/she is dipped into it. But because sin is spiritual and not physical, the amount of water used does not count at all. The Immersion, Pouring or Sprinkling is only a sign that we are spiritually been washed of our sins. And let me ask, if Immersion was the only way to baptise a person, how will you baptise someone dying at the hospital (has only some few minutes to live) who has asked to be baptised? Will you carry him/her to the sea?

Because the apostles and early christians understood Baptism as a spiritual washing of sins that is why they could baptise 3000 people in front of a house (Acts 2) and baptise Paul in a house (Acts 9). Yes Baptism is “baptizo”, a dip, an immersion but a spiritual dip, a spiritual immersion into the death of Christ which gives us forgiveness of our sins. Though Paul was never baptised by Immersion into a river we all know how much he worked for Christ and the early Church. The amount of water used for your baptism or the place you were baptised does not make you a better Christian.

Very sorry for the rather long reply. Hope you find some time to read. God bless you and please pray for me too.

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