As one of the two biblically mandated sacraments, baptism merits an architectural manifestation just as the preached Word and the Lord’s Supper do. But how this sacrament finds architectural expression must flow from a theological evaluation.
Roman Catholic churches often placed (and still place) the font at the back of the sanctuary, reflecting their theological position that baptism is required in order for “entrance” into the church. Baptism is the symbolic door by which babies and adult converts to Catholicism join the body of Romanism, and so it makes sense to place the font at the physical door of the nave. There, private ceremonies often mark the christening.
The Reformation brought fonts from the back of the sanctuary to the front, often beside the communion table. This not only rightly made baptism part of the public worship of God; it also indicated the equality of the two sacraments. Baptism is no longer the sacrament celebrated in private at the back of a building; it is a means of grace to be celebrated and marked in corporate worship. It is not something the priest does for a family, but a blessing that God bestows on His covenant people.
As such, the baptismal font, like the communion table, should be visible at the front of the sanctuary, architecturally and theologically under the authority of the Word – probably beneath the pulpit, perhaps to one side, as is common in traditional Methodist, Presbyterian, continental Reformed, and low Anglican churches. This customary placement is no accident, but flows from a theological perspective. Baptism is a public, not private event, and it must not be divorced from the public worship of God’s people. This for two reasons: it must be administered by an ordained minister, witnessed by the body, and must flow from a right understanding of the sacrament, primarily coming through the exposited Word. The theology of baptism cannot be divorced from Scripture, and neither should the actual practice of the sacrament be divorced from public preaching and worship. Calvin argued that the sacraments were to “aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel” (in Bruggink and Droppers, 127), and so the table and the font are to be in proximity to the pulpit.
Church history is full of writings encouraging believers to improve upon their baptism. John Willison, the 18th century Scottish theologian, gives an explanation of this phrase in his Sacramental Catechism , which was republished by Protestants of many stripes on both sides of the Atlantic: “Q. How is it that we ought to improve our baptism? A. Be sensible of the greatness of the privilege and dignity conferred upon you, in being baptized in the name of Christ, and sacramentally sprinkled with his blood for the remission of sin; and think much on it…make use of your baptism as a strong argument for [pardon of sin], say, ‘Lord, have I not thy seal as well as thy promise for pardon? Got I not a pledge of it from thee at my baptism?’…improve the seal of your baptism, in order to your growing up to the comfortable assurance of your pardon of sin, and adoption into God’s family…”
A visible font at the front of the sanctuary is a weekly, visual reminder of these vital truths. We are creatures prone to forget – one of the reasons why Jesus gave us the Lord’s supper in remembrance of Him. We need no less reminding when it comes to the second sacrament, and the presence of the font aids us in this.
Baptists, and other congregations that hold to baptism by immersion, face a special challenge here: how to give architectural expression to their theology without allowing it to dominate the front of the sanctuary. Victorian churches often constructed a baptistry behind the pulpit, with a curtain to be drawn in front when it was not in use. Modern buildings tend to neglect this aspect of their theology in their architecture, and have no visible baptistry. Some Baptist congregations outsource the baptisms to an outdoor venue, some even head to a member’s pool for a “baptism and barbeque”. This divorces the sacrament from public worship and is at best a theologically weak expression of belief.
Other congregations are constructed so that the baptistry can appear when needed, and be tucked neatly away the rest of the time. At Parkside Church, where Alistair Begg ministers, the floor opens up, and a pool of water appears where the pulpit was. This may be a logistically viable option, but ignores the theology of the situation. Aside from the questions that might come from a baptistry displacing a pulpit, even temporarily, a baptistry that is only visible upon use robs the congregation of a constant reminder of a defining aspect of their theology. The irony is that of all churches, it is Baptist sanctuaries that have the least common architectural manifestations of the sacrament.
Regardless of the stream of Protestantism to which we adhere, the sacraments play a vital role as means of grace which Christ instituted for the church’s use, showing His great love to us. We have one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). And baptism demands as much an architectural manifestation in our congregations as the Lord’s supper does, as we seek to obey Scripture’s pattern for us, drawing comfort and spiritual strength from this ordinance, and walking in newness of life (Romans 6:4).