Posted by: larry | August 25, 2007

Baptism and Prisoner Rights

baptismBobby Ross Jr., in a recent Christian Chronicle article entitled; News-Prisoners Denied Baptism, discusses the problem of some inmates being denied the right to be baptized by Government paid chaplains. Some of these requests may be denied because the prison chaplain doesn’t believe in baptism as being an essential part of the salvational process.

Some questions:

  • Should prisoners have the same rights as other citizens when in comes to their obedience to God, and the right to worship as they understand His will?
  • There are tons of other religious beliefs in our prison systems; do all inmates have the right to follow their religious beliefs exactly as they would outside the prison walls?
  • Do government paid chaplains, just because they don’t believe in the essentiality of baptism, have the right to refuse immersion to an inmate who believes in its importance?
  • Would a baptismal process, other than immersion, be acceptable to God under these conditions, such as sprinkling, or partial immersion?
  • What is the spiritual condition of a believing prisoner who is refused baptism, and dies in prison without ever being baptized?


  1. Larry,

    I worked in prison ministry for two year.
    We must understand the justice system,
    and how how the prison system works.
    It isn’t like the local church. You set up studies with prisoners
    and you find out first why they want to be baptized. As we studied with pthe prisoners There are manydifferent reasons why prisons want to become a Christian.
    1. They have parol comming up soon.
    2. They have a hearing
    3. They want good behavior priveleges that they have lost.
    4. They want a different cell mate that had been been raping the because they had sexually raped a child. (The prisoners have their own form of justice and morality).

    The way that it worked is the warden would allow those who really wanted to and were sincere about becoming a Christian to baptized once a week. The church within the prison walls were 120 prisoners and all inmatates were welcome to attend on Sunday afternoon. The prisoners lead the singing (acappella), lead prayers, read scripture, when they did the lords supper they would confess faults(making their hearts right with God before they took it), they would serve the lords supper to each other, and I would get up and preach a message to them. It was me and 120-160 inmates and 1 gaurd. Praising God.

    Again we would baptized once a week. We need to remember as Christians prison is definately different than the free world. The prisoners don’t have rights. They were taken away when they were found guilty. Even when they are let go, they can’t vote, it is hard for them to find jobs, some are recorded as sex offender. That is way so many go back.

    We need to pray for our brothers and sister behind bars. Some of those prisons had more faith than I have seen in many of the Churches of Christ that I have ever attended. I met one inmate who had most of the Pauline letters memorized because he had nothing else to do but sit and read. As I left prison ministry we even had 2 brothers leave and go to Mexico and plant Churches of Christ in the towns they grew up in. The latest report is that those churches are growing and have elderships. God is blessing their works in a powerful way.

  2. preacherman…

    Thanks for the insight into prison life.

    My primary concern is with the power one person (prison chaplain) has to deny another human being (even if a convict) the right to obey God in baptism; especially if the chaplain refuses the request because he doesn’t believe in the essentiality of baptism.

    I realize there are many reasons prisoners might want to be baptized that are completely foreign to the purpose of baptism, but that would be between them and God to settle that account. This may be one of those things I had rather err on the side of allowing baptism, then not allowing baptism to someone who is honestly seeking God.

    Obviously prisoners give up much of their rights as citizens when they are convicted and sent behind walls, but I would never doubt the prisoners right to seek God, and having one man (prison chaplain) standing in that path refusing to allow a person to be immersed seems wrong, at least on the surface.

  3. I believe that is where the grace of God would come into play.

  4. I agree with preacherman, God knows their hearts if they are denied baptism but wanted it then in a way they still were baptized, who said you can’t use a shower to be baptized? If I were in that situation that’s what I’d use. I know us CoC folks like full in but you have to use what is provided.

  5. milly…

    Perhaps the same problems could occur in hospitals or nursing homes when a person is unable, for whatever reason, to be fully immersed.

    God’s grace certainly abounds when we believe in Him, and it would be presumptuous for anyone to create boundaries to contain His mercy.

  6. I believe that the un-immersed are – just like the rest of us – in the hands of a God whose judgment is perfectly righteous and perfectly merciful.

    Just because we can’t sort it all out and judge perfectly, doesn’t mean that He can’t!

  7. keith…

    I have absolutely no doubt that He can sort out everything we might consider difficult, and judge us perfectly with mercy far exceeding anything we could possibly imagine.

    We are truly blessed!

  8. Our internet preacher “friend” from NM wrote that he baptized a prisoner who was on death row by filling a large plastic laundry bag with water. Instant Baptistry!! It CAN be done if one is resourceful. One wonders though about someone who is bed-ridden and infirm, and is unable to be taken somewhere where they can be baptized.

    I had almost persuaded my brother to be baptized…I had been talking with him for months/years because I knew his time was short. I think I threatened to take him to church with a rope around his neck…but then he died.

  9. After reading all of this interesting comments, the original premiss, Do government paid chaplains, just because they don’t believe in the essentiality of baptism, have the right to refuse immersion to an inmate who believes in its importance? Is at the heart of the struggle.

    First, I am closely associated with the prison system where this problem exists. I am not providing my name, for fear of reprisal. There remains a serious flaw in the policy regarding baptism. I would like to present a conter arguement, based on the wording provided in the TDCJ chaplaincy manual, regarding baptism.

    One of the points in this policy centers on the issue of sincerity. (I am not presenting the policy, you who work as regular volunteers can ask to look at 11.11 on the topic baptism.)

    The content of this sincerity issue says, when an offender decides he wants to be baptized, he must send and I-60 to the chaplain, who will call the offender to his office and determine his sincerity. If the chaplain determines the offender is sincere, he will or is suppose to arrange for the offender to be baptized.

    Because of this policy the state of TExas is failing to allow the basic tenants (or as some denominational teachers would call them, creeds and doctrines – those tenants that are vital to the teachings of the church).

    In most mainsteam denominational churches, when a pagan sinner comes to an understanding of salvation, he stands and says the sinners prayer.

    In prison, the chaplaincy department does not want a chapel service to be full of men who are moved to make a decision to be baptized for fear it will cause a great emotional disruption. They feel it is much more orderly for men to sit in their seats and say the sinners pray, then return to their cells without all the trobule of providing them clean towels, briefs and in some cases a new set of clothes.



    If the Director of Chaplains is going to stop the process of salvation from taking place in a c of c, or disciples meeting (see this is the main argument that needs to be stressed) because they do not want the men to make an emotional response, then it is fitting that this standard be placed on those saying the sinners prayer. If they do not want an emotional response, then they must not let the men stand to quote the prayer of salvation.

    You see, I believe along with many of my brothers, that the sinners prayer is no different than the CoC position on baptism.

    In stead of fighting them with our doctrinal positions, lets start meeting them in the middle of their belief. It is no different than the C o Cs’. If the offender cannot stand after hearing a powerful moving sermon, and go forward for baptism, the same standard should exist for the offender who hears the same sermon, but instead of baptism, is asked to say his prayer.

    I truly believe, if this policy was changed, you would find baptism becoming a norm. To receive 100’s of I-60s a week asking to say the sinners prayer, the chaplain would not be able to keep up. The policy lays out the chaplains role in baptism, is the offender sincere, or as we would say, is he ready to put christ on in baptism?

    If all of this blog was a little confusing, please forgive me. I wrote this after being awake for 32 hours. If there are follow-up posts to this, I will take more time to provide more direction. I at the same time will do all I can to keep from know. I do not wish to create anymore problems than I am already in.

  10. photolab4fun…

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving such great comments.

    Appreciate your insights to the problems that can arise when prisoners honestly want to be baptized, but can become a problem when rules and regulations forbid the act.

    Any man-made laws and regulations that stands between God and a person honestly seeking to obey God just can’t be right. I’m sure there’s tons of reasons for such regulations, and surely many inmates use religious beliefs to gain earthly goals; it still bothers me that the inmates seem to be all lumped in the same category administered by a person that might not even believe in baptism.

    Your comments are not in the least confusing even after being awake 32 hours. I don’t make as much sense with a full nights sleep :)

  11. See the instruction from the Didache (also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles).
    Here’s a blurb from Wikipedia:
    The second part (chapters 7 to 10) begins with an instruction on baptism, the sacramental rite that admits someone into the Christian Church.[34] Baptism is to be conferred “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”[27] with triple immersion in “living water” (that is, flowing water, probably in a stream).[35] If that is not practical, in cold or even warm water is acceptable. If the water is insufficient for immersion, it may be poured three times on the head (affusion). The baptized and the baptizer, and, if possible, anyone else attending the ritual should fast for one or two days beforehand.

    Note the use of poured water when there is not enough for immersion.
    I would recommend that each church in prison (each fellowship) appoint their own elders, perform their own baptisms and not submit spiritually to the government appointed chaplain unless the local fellowship appoints that chaplin as an elder using the guidelines set in the Bible.
    I don’t think it is a good practice to have an outsider have a position of authority over a local congregation. But, each fellowship should be guided by God and He may tell you to appoint the chaplain as one of your elders.

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