Some might think my view on baptism is quirky, but I have it for a good reason. I was baptized as an infant, and in 6th grade, I went through a confirmation process, that was, frankly, rather lame. So, when I finally came to a genuine awareness of having faith in Christ in high school, and I started attending a Baptist church, I really was not sure what to do with baptism.
My Baptist friends kept telling me, “Now that you are a believer in Jesus, you really should get baptized as an adult.” They would cite to me passages like Acts 2:38, arguing that those who came to faith in Jesus at Pentecost were told by Peter to become baptized. Heartfelt faith and water baptism go together. The practice of being baptized as a believing adult is known as credobaptism.
That made a lot of sense, when I first heard it.
But it also confused me, too, the more I thought about it. After all, I still had the certificate that my parents gave me, telling me that I was already baptized as a child. The Bible clearly stated that “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). If I was already baptized as a infant, a practice known as paedobaptism, then to get “re-baptized” as an adult essentially served to de-legitimize my first baptism. There are not two baptisms for a Christian. Only one. “Re-baptism” would effectively make my infant baptism improper at best, or false, at worst, …. and that really bothered me.
After all, for most of church history, paedobaptism has been the standard practice throughout the centuries, for those raised in Christian churches. It has only been within the past few hundred years that there has been a shift towards credobaptism, among evangelical, Bible-believing people. Does this really mean that for the bulk of church history, that most Christians growing up in Christian families; that is, millions of them, received a “false” baptism? Perhaps my own baptism as an infant was “improper,” just as the disciples of Apollos in Ephesus needed to be properly baptized by Paul (Acts 19:1-7), but I could not bring myself to think of my baptism as a baby as “false.”
I went back and forth on the question for years.
Coming to Grips Personally With the Baptism Controversy, In Evangelical Christianity
When I had an opportunity to go to the Holy Land, and a really good friend, who was a Baptist pastor, was going to go with me, it seemed like this was the breakthrough I needed. So, I asked my Baptist friend if he would baptize me, as a thirty-some year old adult, in the Jordan River. He felt really honored to do that, and I felt privileged that he would participate. It would be an act of obedience, resolving to follow the teachings of the Bible, as best as I knew how. I had a peace in my heart and mind about that decision.
I remember talking with another companion on that Holy Land trip, relaying the above story to him, of my theological struggle with baptism, along with my decision to go ahead and get baptized as an adult. I told him that I was not completely sure about the validity of my infant baptism, but out of an act of obedience, though I did not understand it all, I would go forward with an adult believer’s baptism.
My companion’s response shocked me. He was quite honest to tell me that my reasons for getting baptized in the Jordan River were “rather lame.” In his view, my reasoning was theologically unsound.
Well, I have to admit that I did have some bizarre, inappropriate expectation that it would be some cool, spooky experience to be baptized in the Jordan River. After all, Jesus Himself was baptized there!
If you have been to Israel/Palestine, you will probably know the spot where most baptisms in the Jordan are performed, for American visitors to the area. It was indeed a special moment in my life. Any anxiety about not being properly baptized before was removed, at least at that moment. But it was not all that spooky. Experientially, nothing spectacular happened, as far as I could tell. The water in the Jordan River was just as wet as it is in any American baptismal pool or river.
The popular baptismal site at Yardenit, along the Jordan River, where I was baptized as an adult in 1994 (credit: Maranatha Tours)
When I got back to the States, after the trip, I got some chagrined looks on the faces of my paedobaptist friends, when I told them I got “re-baptized.” For those paedobaptists, baptism is a sign that signals identification with the New Covenant in Christ, just as circumcision has been a sign that signals identification with the Old Covenant. Just as circumcision was for infant males under the Old Covenant, so is baptism for infant male and females, under the New Covenant (Acts 2:39). Infant baptism does not automatically lead to faith, anymore than circumcision necessarily leads to the inward circumcision of a person’s heart, though that is what these outward signs point inwardly towards. I had never understood that before.
Mmmm. Had I done the right thing? I still was not completely sure. My friend’s judgment, that my decision to be baptized was “rather lame,” and theologically unsound, stuck in my head. As a result, I began to have doubts. Nevertheless, it was all water over the bridge now. At that point, the deed was done.
Sometime later, I began thinking about some of my credobaptist friends, who were baptized as older children, through a form of believer’s baptism. They later on fell away from the faith, only to come back to faith years later as older adults. Some of them wanted to get re-baptized, because now their faith really meant something. They simply had no idea what they were doing being baptized at 9-years-old. Therefore, now they wanted to get baptized… for real.
I know a few credobaptist pastors who would gladly baptize (re-baptize?) someone who was baptized as an infant. Why? Because that infant baptism was either improper or not a genuine baptism, since there was no genuine faith exercised by that infant. But I have to ask such credobaptist pastors a followup question: What would you do if a credobaptist person, baptized at age 9, were to come to you years later, perhaps at about age 20-30, saying that now they really understand what faith is about, and requesting re-baptism? Would you perform the baptism?
To make it even more complicated, what if that person had also been baptized as an infant? Would her baptism be a third baptism, or would her latest baptism cancel the previous two “improper” baptisms?
Is there some statute of limitations involved as to how many times you can get rebaptized? How do you distinguish between an improper or proper baptism, or even a false versus genuine baptism? Where is the cutoff on the age limit, if there is one, and who decides, and on what basis?
When such analysis extends down to this level, it all gets rather silly, if you ask me.
Baptism and the Conscience of the Christian
These are thorny questions that lead me to think that the question of baptism is one that is best reserved to take place between the person requesting baptism (or re-baptism), and the pastor or other person performing the baptism, or between parents, with their newborn, with their pastor. If families are already members of a particular church, that takes a definite stand on the issue, then they should naturally follow with what that church teaches.
But what if, like me, you are not so sure about all of this? Perhaps you lean a particular way, but you do not want to exclude being in fellowship with another believer who thinks differently? Perhaps you do have a strong conviction, but that you are trusting the work of the Holy Spirit that the Spirit might change the hearts and minds of your fellow believers, and that God might be calling you to be in a community of faith, as an instrument of change, where such introspective reflection is deemed permissible. In other words, while we can surely affirm that there is but one baptism, publicly signaling our initiation into Christian faith, the particular manner of one’s baptism, its mode, and its timing should be a matter of conscience.
Water baptism is the outward expression corresponding to the inward reality of a heart washed by the cleansing blood of Christ. Stressing out too much over exactly when someone really first experiences that inward reality and when you should get baptized can be counterproductive to spiritual growth. The timing of baptism with respect to when someone comes to actual faith is a matter of prayer, the study of Scripture, and having a sense of peace in your mind and heart.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of churches that take partisan approaches to baptism, that are not particularly helpful. Though I have never seen this personally, I have heard of some paedobaptist churches that look down judgmentally upon someone who was baptized as an infant, but then re-baptized as an adult. Perhaps such re-baptisms are improper, upon further reflection, but this is ultimately a matter of standing alone before God.
More often, there are credobaptist churches that will refuse membership to a person, if they only received infant baptism. Moreover, such churches might even allow a paedobaptist preacher to speak at their church, but then refuse them to become members. Even more extreme are those credobaptist churches that would refuse to serve communion to a paedobaptist. Some credobaptist churches, in some branches of the Churches of Christ tradition, even teach a kind of “baptismal regeneration” doctrine, insisting that unless you have been water baptized as an adult, you can not even be saved.
Some of this type of thinking just seems insane, if not outright wrong.
This is why I desire to worship in an interdenominational church, that takes an “agree-to-disagree” posture on the question of baptism. In a biblically-balanced, interdenominational church fellowship, the question of what constitutes genuine baptism is left as a conversation between the one with their question and their pastor, with Bibles open and hearts open with prayer.
Baptism was originally meant in the Bible to publicly signify our identification with Christ, and our profession of faith, a sign of unity of the one, true faith we have in Jesus. It is sad to see how so many churches mistreat baptism as a cause for division, instead of seeing it as a cause for rejoicing for the unity we have in Christ. Some believe that being a part of an interdenominational church, that stresses the principle of “agree to disagree” on non-essential issues of faith, is simply an excuse to avoid “taking a stand” on important issues facing the church.
I view it differently.
It is more about recognizing the complexity of how growing Christians develop in their understanding of Scripture, even changing their views over time, like I have. There is but one baptism, and one faith, not separate paedobaptist and credobaptist faiths, or baptisms, plural. Nevertheless, different Christians can approach issues, like baptism, and come to different conclusions, all under the supervision of Scripture. What matters most is the meaning of baptism, not the mode or timing.
We have come a long way from the early debates over baptism in the 16th century, among Protestant evangelicals. In those years, Protestants sought to settle these debates by actually putting to death the lives of those who held different viewpoints on baptism. I am so glad that those days are behind us. Thankfully, in our day and age, we can rely on a robust theology of conscience, to help us navigate what can be a confusing issue for at least some Christians. Thank the Lord!!
Addendum: Applying a Theology of Conscience to Other “Disputable Matters”
If I had enough good sense, I would have ended this post at the previous paragraph. But in view of a lot of things that I have been thinking about, this past year, I need to tie up some loose ends.
Specifically, the inner questions of how baptism works should fit within the category of “disputable matters,” that the Apostle Paul addresses in Romans 14. As an example, I see a parallel here between the question of “women in ministry” and baptism (I could also add topics like the age of the earth, specific views of the “End Times,” the gifts of the Holy Spirit, etc., but for this discussion, I will just stick with the “women in ministry,” question that seems so utterly divisive among believers today). As I wrote about in my 20-post series on “women in ministry,” there is a sacramental character about church eldership, as well as baptism, whereby we have a physical act, that serves as a visible reminder of an invisible reality.
God has mercy towards us humans, who need physical, visible reminders of spiritual realities. With respect to “women in ministry,” the church needs to exhibit a physical, visible reminder of the invisible differences between men and women, in the corporate life in the church. Likewise, water baptism serves as a physical, visible reminder of what in means to be invisibly washed clean inwardly, by the precious blood of Jesus.
In that 20-post series, I made the case that an all-male eldership, exercising spiritual authority within a local church (as opposed to an eldership mixed with men and women), serves as that outward, sacramental reminder of the differences between male and female. Secular society today is very confused about gender; that is, we continually debate as to whether being male or female is essentially a characteristic defined at birth, or is it merely a social construct? In response, Christians who hold to an historic view of orthodox faith need to bear witness to the invisible reality that being male and female is more than just biology. Admittedly controversial for some, I contend that an all-male eldership, committed to listen to and serve men and women in a local church, empowering women to use of all of their God-given gifts for service in God’s Kingdom, has been a remarkably consistent expression of that spiritual reality, for 2,000 years of church history.
Why we need sacramental reminders, like all-male eldership and water baptism, is a great mystery. But God knows why we need these things. The problem is that we often get hung up, as Christians, on the physical, visible characteristics of the spiritual realities, which can dangerously obscure the precious inward meaning of those spiritual realities.
One more thing about this idea of conscience, with respect to baptism, and its connection to the “women in ministry” issue: We must be careful not to impose something that violates the sensitive conscience, of other Christians, in these matters.
In other words, if someone is being compelled to believe that women should not serve as elders or pastors in a church, when they are not convinced by this, then that would be a violation of conscience to impose such a belief, through something like a church doctrinal statement, to that effect. Likewise, to compel a person to submit to an eldership community, where women exercise spiritual authority, when such a person does not believe that the Scripture allows for such practice, would be a violation of their conscience.
Likewise, with baptism, having a good conscience, for me, is essential. Compelling a person to get re-baptized (??) as an adult, when the person believes that their baptism as an infant was perfectly valid, now that they have a professing faith, seems to me to be a violation of conscience. Furthermore, compelling a Christian to have a particular view of baptism, whether that be paedobaptist or credobaptist, when someone does not hold such a particular view, is also a violation of conscience.
Of course, there are plenty of churches that take definite theological positions on “women in ministry,” and baptism, that further divides the Body of Christ into particular factions. If a Christian can accept such a definite theological position, with a clean conscience, then surely, they should become (or remain) members of such a church (or churches). At the same time, such a Christian should be aware that a defined theological position, in such an area, puts one at risk of being isolated from other believers, to a certain degree, in the Body of Christ.
Yet if a person is not completely persuaded as to what they believe is the most biblically faithful view on such matters as “women in ministry” and/or baptism, then being in a community, where there is the freedom to “agree to disagree,” where one is given the freedom to work out the theological difficulties, in their own heart and mind, is a good and proper thing, that demonstrates the respect of a person’s conscience.
The surrounding secular culture, that seems so divided today, needs to see churches that display this type of community, where the principle of “agree to disagree” is lived out, where love for one another is paramount.
Nevertheless, could I worship in a church that takes a “hard line” on a particular stand about baptism? Well, it depends, but I would hope so. That is something that I would have to discuss with the elders of that church, if I am not personally convinced of that church’s view. Otherwise, I would have to register the view that I have, due to my conscience, that I am just not completely sure of the proper mode and/or timing of baptism, and see if the elders of that church would still find me as an acceptable candidate for membership in that church, if God were to lead me, in that direction.
In the end, issues like these come down to maintaining a posture of theological humility, in the Body of Christ. It is also this respect for the conscience of others, who do not necessarily accept my views. And this posture of theological humility, and respect for conscience, are things worth striving for.
That is why I desire to worship in an interdenominational church, if such an interdenominational church really exists.
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For more on baptism, see these other blog posts.