The two primary rites of the Baptist tradition are baptism and communion, or the Lord's Supper. There are other ceremonies practiced in some Baptist churches, and the most prominent of these will be briefly identified at the end of this sub-section. That said, believer's baptism and the Lord's Supper are clearly the two that are both most common and most important.
Reflective of the centrality and importance of the life and work of Jesus Christ, baptism and Lord's Supper, particularly the latter, are almost universal among the many traditions of Christianity. Yet, there are significant differences among Christians regarding the nature, significance, and mode of these two rites. Thus, before turning to a discussion of each of the rites, one needs to understand the Baptist view of ordinances.
Many Christian traditions regard baptism and the Lord's Supper as "sacraments," often described as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. The Baptist tradition is among the Christian traditions that have a different understanding, often denoted by the term "ordinance."
This term reflects an emphasis on the belief that these two acts, and these two acts only, were instituted--or ordained--by Jesus Christ. As such, the notion of an ordinance carries with it an emphasis on obedience--that is, Christians are to perform these acts because Jesus himself ordained or ordered them. Furthermore, the term ordinance is associated with a symbolic, rather than a sacramental, understanding of the nature of the rites. For Baptists, baptism and communion are not mystical rites through which the grace of God comes to human beings. Rather, they are expressions of grace that has already been received from God. And, while the grace is received by individual persons, testimony to this grace is to be made to and with other Christians; thus, these are rites to be celebrated with and by the Church.
In recent years, some Baptists have begun to use the term "sacrament" and have developed a modified understanding of baptism and communion. In this revised understanding, grace or "graces" are thought to come to God's people through baptism and communion, but they are not saving graces (such as, being born again). Rather, they are blessings such as a refreshed or renewed spirit as the result of contemplating the life and work of Christ or as a result of a special time of fellowship with other Christians.
As the name "Baptist" suggests, baptism is of central importance to this Christian tradition. However, that importance must be understood in context. The Baptist tradition did not emerge as a result of debates over baptism. Rather, the Baptist tradition emerged as a result over concerns with respect to the nature and character of the Church or churches. It was subsequent to and in conjunction with these concerns that the study of baptism and subsequent baptismal practices arose.
Fundamental to the Baptist tradition is the belief that the Church consists exclusively of persons who have been spiritually born again through knowingly and intentionally entrusting themselves to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Thus, everything possible should be done to see that the membership of local churches corresponds to this reality; that is, only genuinely, consciously born-again Christians are to be acknowledged as members of the local church. This understanding of the Church undergirds, both historically and theologically, the Baptist view of baptism.
Baptism is the rite through which a person who has been spiritually born again testifies to this fact. It is an expression of and testimony to God's saving grace already received as the result of a conscious choice to entrust oneself to God in Christ. Pedobaptism (that is, the baptism of infants) is thus seen as invalid--indeed, not as baptism--and baptism, in the Baptist tradition, is often referred to as "believer's baptism" or even "adult believer's baptism." Keeping in mind the Baptist view of the Church described above, one can understand that baptism is important because the Church, particularly the purity of the Church, is important. The Church is for spiritually alive Christians only, and baptism is the testimony to and of individuals for whom this is a reality.
Though the earliest Baptists did not baptize by immersion--that is, submersing the entire body--this came to be the practice, as the result of study of the New Testament, within two or three decades. Particular Baptists adopted baptism by immersion in the 1630s, and shortly thereafter General Baptists followed. Thus, baptism by immersion has been the essentially universal practice among Baptists since the mid-17th century. Immersion is thought to be consistent with the terminology and language of the New Testament, which associates baptism with "going down into" and "coming up out of" water (Acts 8:39, Matthew 3:16), as well as symbolically consistent with the new Christian's identification with the death (going down) and resurrection (coming up) of Jesus Christ.