Leaders in India seek to elevate baptism’s spiritual meaning

Participants in “Walking in Newness of Life: Why Baptism Matters.” — Travis Duerksen/MMN Participants in “Walking in Newness of Life: Why Baptism Matters.” — Travis Duerksen/MMN

There are many reasons to get baptized in India, not all of them spiritual.

“To many of the candidates seeking baptism, [it] is a legal, social and religious requirement and not much more than that,” said Nishant Sidh, a Mennonite from Rajnandgaon, India, during a webinar for pastors and church leaders.

Baptism allows one to become a church member, with all the rights and privileges. Christians who want to get married in a church need to be baptized. Baptism makes getting a job in a Christian institution easier.

Because of these requirements, “many of the candidates are being baptized without the saving knowledge of Christ,” he said.

For others, the mode of baptism creates debate. The majority of Indian Mennonite conferences practice immersion. Seekers of baptism sometimes consider pouring and sprinkling inferior.

On Nov. 28-29, Anabaptist pastors and leaders in India — home to over 250,000 Anabaptists, spread across nine conferences — joined a virtual education series, “Walking in Newness of Life: Why Baptism Matters.”

The two-part webinar was born out of a collaboration between Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite World Conference and the Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India.

The webinar examined the theological significance of baptism and the ways it is practiced.

Elisabeth Kunjam of India, a 2004 AMBS graduate, helped organize and host the webinar. She wanted to share some of the theology she learned at AMBS with the church in India.

“I felt India’s need for Anabaptist ­education could be fulfilled through this initiative,” she said.

Kunjam reached out to two MMN representatives: Joe Sawatzky, training and resource specialist, and John Lapp, who at the time served as senior executive for international ministries. More people joined the conversation, including Pratik Bagh, a 2021 AMBS graduate who is a pastor at Hively Avenue Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind.

“The topic of baptism was a crucial one,” Bagh said. “I have seen conversations happening in our conference around baptism since I began to serve in the Bharatiyah General Conference Mennonite Church in India in 2009. . . . . While we all are baptized into Christ, the benefits and mode of baptism are distinct in different congregations, and its discussion has always been sensitive.”

The first session, led by Sawatzky, focused on the role of baptism and the connection between water and the Holy Spirit throughout the Old Testament and in Jesus’ life and ministry. Sidh and Paul Phinehas, chair of the Gilgal Mission Trust in Tamil Nadu, India, told about the Indian Mennonite experience.

The second session, led by Jamie Pitts, associate professor of Anabaptist studies at AMBS, examined the history of Anabaptism and how the act of baptism has been debated since the start of the movement in 1525. Bishop Shant Kumar S. Kunjam, a member of the Mennonite church in Rajnandgaon, provided the response.

Each session concluded with ques­tions and dialogue. Deacon Vikal Pravin Rao, executive secretary of the Mennonite Church in India, called the virtual gathering a blessing for all.

Bagh said: “I hope this event becomes a global Anabaptist practice, in which we respond and support each other on the different subjects we are currently facing.”

Travis Duerksen

Travis Duerksen is a writer and multimedia producer for Mennonite Mission Network.

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