One of the most noticeable differences in churches is in the way they observe the sacrament of baptism. Some churches immerse the recipient under water while others only sprinkle or pour water on the head. At UPC, we recognize that Christians have different understandings of what the Bible teaches about this issue. Because of this, we accept as a true baptism any baptism done under the authority of any Christian church where water is used in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We do not believe that this is an issue that should prevent Christians from enjoying one another's fellowship. It is not an essential issue.
Our own doctrinal statement, The Westminster Confession of Faith, claims: "Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary. Baptism is correctly administered by pouring or sprinkling water on the person" (WCF, 28:3). While the Bible is not explicit in regard to the mode, leading to many arguments and divisions in the church, there are reasons for preferring sprinkling and pouring over immersion.
Many Baptists point to the root meaning the Greek word for baptism (baptizw - baptizo to dip) as proof positive that baptism must only be done by immersion. However, a word's meaning must not be determined by only its root meaning, but by its historical development and its usage at the time of the writing in question. All of that is to say that in order to understand what baptizo means, one must look at how it has been used historically up to its occurrence in the New Testament as well as how it was used in the New Testament itself.
Hebrews 9:10 speaks of "various ceremonial washings." The word translated "ceremonial washings is a word for baptism (baptismos). The ceremonial washings, or baptisms, that follow are rites of purification in the Old Testament (cf. Heb. 9:13-21). In all of these ceremonial washings, the method of application was sprinkling. In fact all Old Testaments purifications or washings were by sprinkling (Numbers 8:7; 19:19; Leviticus 14:7, Exodus 319:16-21). Clearly then, in at least Hebrews, baptism can mean sprinkling.
The word "sprinkle" or some form of it occurs 84 times in the Old Testament and seven times in the New. Of the New Testament occurrences, six are in Hebrews and one in 1 Peter. Most of the Old Testament examples are connected with ceremonial rites (sprinkling the altar, sprinkling the mercy seat, the sprinkling bowls, or cleansing by sprinkling).
Many people argue that immersion is a better symbol of baptism because it symbolizes cleansing in a way that sprinkling cannot. While that may be true in our cultural context, it ignores the context of the Scripture where all ceremonial cleansings were either by pouring or sprinkling.
Exodus 24:6-8, ff - Moses sprinkles the people with blood, initiating the covenant and purifying them before God.
Exodus 29:21 - The blood is sprinkled on Aaron and his sons, consecrating them as priests.
Leviticus 8:11ff-Oil is sprinkled on the altar, and then poured on Aaron, to consecrate him.
Leviticus 8:30 -Blood and oil are sprinkled on Aaron and his sons to consecrate them.
Leviticus 14:7 -Someone is to be sprinkled to be cleansed from an infectious disease.
Leviticus 14:51 - Blood and water are sprinkled on a house for its purification.
Numbers 8:7 - The Levites are made ceremonially clean by the sprinkling of water.
Numbers 19:13 - Speaks of the importance of the water of cleansing being sprinkled on someone before they enter the Tabernacle.
Isaiah 52:15 - The Messiah sprinkles many nations.
Ezekiel 36:24ff - In a discussion of the New Covenant, we read that God will sprinkle Israel with clean water and they will be clean.
Hebrews 9:13-14- Christians are cleansed because they have been sprinkled clean with the blood of Christ.
Hebrews 9:19, 21, and others - Sprinkling clean with blood.
Hebrews 10:22- We can draw near because our hearts have been sprinkled clean.
1 Peter 1:2 - We are sanctified by the sprinkling of Christ's blood.
Baptism in the New Testament
Often times, people say that they want to be baptized the way they were in the New Testament. Because so many pictures and movies depict the baptism of Jesus and other baptisms as immersions, people often assume that this is the way that it was done. However, in every case of baptism in the New Testament, nowhere is it required to believe that the baptism had to be immersion. Yet, in several of the cases, baptism could not have been by immersion. It had to have been sprinkling or pouring.
When John the Baptist was baptizing, the Pharisees thought that his baptism was a sign that he was the Messiah (see John 1:25). Why did they expect the Messiah to baptize? Because Isaiah 52:15 and Ezekiel 36:25 led them to believe that the Messiah would sprinkle the people. If John had been immersing people, then this would not have made sense.
Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in a desert (Acts 8:36). If there had been a river nearby, it would not have been a desert. It must have been a small oasis with a spring.
Paul's baptism in Acts 9:18 seems to indicate that he stood up and was baptized on the spot. If so, he could not have been immersed since he was inside a house. Apparently, Cornelius was baptized indoors (Acts 10:48). The Philippian Jailer was baptized indoors at night (Acts 16:33). Remember, this was a time before swimming pools and Jacuzzi tubs. The only water a family would have had in a house would have been in jars and pots.
Besides water baptism, two other types are mentioned in Scripture. Man baptizes with water, but God baptizes with fire and with the Spirit. When God baptized with fire, the fire sat upon their heads (Acts 2:3). When God baptized with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit "fell upon" (acts 10:44, 11:15-16) or "descended upon" (Luke 3:22; John 1:32), or was poured out upon (Acts 2:17; 10:45-46), or came upon (Acts 19:6). Baptism by sprinkling or pouring fits all of these descriptions much better than immersion.
Christians have disagreed about baptism for centuries and this debate will probably continue until the end of time. While this certainly is not a fundamental issue of the faith, nor is it an issue over which Christians should break fellowship, hopefully, you have seen that there are many sound reasons why UPC sprinkles rather than immerses in baptizing members.