If you haven’t tangled much with fundagelicals, that weird fusion of evangelicals and fundamentalists, chances are good that you’ve never encountered this weird side alley in their culture. Most people have likely heard of the Bible verse advising that people must be born again in order to avoid the monstrous Hell that the Christian god created. To be sure, most Christians know about it. Fundagelicals take that idea more seriously than most other Christians do, though. I’ll show you what that phrase means to them, why they tend to do it way more than just once, and what re-baptisms mean in the grand scheme of things.
Say what you want. My life motto is GO BIG OR GO HOME, AND EAT CHEESE EITHER WAY.
A Quick Lesson in the Relevant Christianese.
Under the water is the believer’s old, dead, heavy, suffocating life. Out of the water, cleansed by the blood of Christ, is the believer’s new, fresh, purposeful life.
Crosswalk, quoting John Shore, who is usually better than this
What I’m about to share is basic Christianese 101. It applies to most of the religion’s adherents, but keep in mind that because nothing in the religion is monolithic or universal, I’m only speaking generally here.
When a person decides to convert to Christianity, that person must engage in a ritual that demonstrates their conversion in a tangible way. Some Christians think that the ritual is simply a prayer to recite that announces their embracing of the religion’s claims. Sometimes they call this prayer the sinner’s prayer, but it has other names. However, most Christians think that water baptism must accompany the prayer at some point.
Some Christians think it’s okay to sprinkle the convert with the water. Other flavors of Christians require a full immersion.
Once the newbie Christian comes out of the water, most flavors consider them a full member of the religion. According to the religion’s tenets, they are now “white as snow.” They think that now Jesus sees not one single unforgiven sin on their conscience. If they were to die right then, they would go to Heaven–without question. Hooray Team Jesus!
Alas, it’s rarely ever that simple or easy for the extremists in the religion.
Infighting About Baptism.
Christians hold many differing opinions about baptism, just as Batman fans all have different opinions about which version of the character is the best one. (Animated Batman is my personal current pick.)
Some flavors of Christians go in for infant baptism, like Catholics. Such groups typically sprinkle, rather than dunk, for obvious reasons. Other flavors of Christians don’t like the idea of baptizing babies because the babies couldn’t decide to do that on their own. They only baptize adults–or kids who seem to understand the decision. As we’ll see in a minute here, that ideal has stretched thinner than su filindeu pasta.
The further right you go, the more Christians you’ll find who prefer dunking in water to sprinkling. They think sprinkling doesn’t count.
Different Christians squabble over all sorts of other particulars. They argue about everything involved. They discuss earnestly what prayer ought to be recited over the baptize-ee during the ritual, and who the baptize-er should be. Nor can they agree when it should happen along the conversion process, or even exactly what water should be used.
In fundagelicalism, Christians also argue about the baptism of the Spirit and what that entails. In my denomination, that phrase meant speaking in tongues. Other denominations think that such practices are fleshly at best (the term means something people are doing themselves without supernatural aid), demonic at worst.
I’ve noticed lately that the more hardcore fundagelical groups and sites have begun rejecting the very idea of baptism as a requirement for being born again. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has even had that discussion. That said, I doubt SBC leaders will reject it, particularly in light of the fact that they use water baptism counts as gauges of denominational success. (We’ll get to them next time.)
In truth, I see only one place where Christians almost all agree. They almost all agree that some kind of renewal is necessary. And they usually think that baptism is important to that renewal process, even if only symbolically.
Before and After.
Once the conversion ritual finishes, whatever it is, the new Christian can say that they are born again, or a new creation. Typically this announcement accompanies expressions of great relief and joy. In Chick tracts, for example, we often see these expressions juxtaposed with expressions of great sorrow and concern during the reciting of the prayer beforehand. (Jack Chick doesn’t usually go on to depict the baptism itself. Seeing as he was an Independent Baptist who went in for Rapture and Endtimes fantasizing, we may assume fairly safely that he thought baptism was necessary.)
We see another example in the Chick tract “Adopted.”
And here’s a somewhat more profane example from the cartoon series King of the Hill, when Luanne Platter gets dunked:
In churches’ slight defense, most of them buy thick, opaque baptism gowns. I’ve never seen this situation happen. It probably does sometimes, but I’ve never seen it.
On YouTube, Christians have uploaded a great many baptism scenes. In many of the people being baptized, you can see that same expression of catharsis and euphoria. On others, the people being baptized seem mildly bewildered or even disappointed–likely the experience didn’t quite live up to their expectations.
In my experience, many people profess very loudly that they feel very different after going through this ritual. I’ve even heard people claim to have been “cleansed” of addictions and vices through a dunking. They might even stay away from those addictions and vices for a few days or weeks. My then-boyfriend Biff was one such claimant, and he maintained that claim long after resuming on the sly the vices he claimed were buried “under the water.” Phil Robertson claimed much the same.
However, while I was Christian, I never met anybody who achieved lasting change through baptism. Nor have I encountered anybody afterward who was really markedly different in personality or proclivities before.
Weirdly, no peer-reviewed studies I’ve ever seen have turned up any support for Christians’ claims about any tangible long-term effects of baptism, either.
You’d think Christians would want to study something like that. It’d sure be an intriguing support for their supernatural claims. But no.
The Problem With Infighting.
Despite baptism’s lack of mystic powers, many Christians believe that a lot rides on the ritual being done correctly! They get really squirrelly about it all, fearing that if they haven’t been properly born again, they’ll go to Hell despite a lifetime of service and good faith.
Taken too far, Christians’ fears around baptism can approach religious scrupulosity levels. Someone who suffers that condition never feels like they’re doing enough to express and practice their faith. They spend more and more time at their devotions. Worse, they often adopt more and more extreme doctrinal stances.
These Christians chase a dragon that they will never catch. This dragon is the feeling of safety and certainty. Whoever promises such Christians those two things will own them–at least until their victims think someone else’s approach sounds better.
As with every single doctrine in Christianity, no one Christian has any way of checking a claim. Whoever uses the fanciest arguments, the most Bible verses, the most original Greek and Hebrew, as the Christianese goes, and is the most sincere-seeming wins. But if someone’s really set on their quirky take on the matter, they’ve got all of those things themselves already–unless they’re chasing that dragon.
The situation can leave believers very skittish.
The Problem With Lacking A Tether To Reality.
This skittish feeling manifests in many Christians as a desire to become baptized again, and again, and again. I know of no studies about just how many Christians have done this, but it seems like a lot of them have.
Sometimes a Christian leaves the religion for a short while, then returns to it. Afterward, they might feel that they need to be washed clean after this period of rebellion.
In other situations, a Christian might transfer from one church to another that has a different way of handling baptism. To stay in line with their new church’s doctrines, they might decide on another baptism. (Some churches actually request re-baptism in this situation, as this 2014 paper from Baylor University reveals.)
And, too, a Christian might be a lifelong member who got baptized early in life. Now they think that they maybe weren’t completely on-board with the decision. It didn’t take properly. Now they want to do it again, armed with their better understanding of the process and greater feelings of piety.
Tragically, other people simply feel so terrorized by the fear of Hell that they become frequent fliers at the baptism fount.
Seriously, it’s a mess.
Christians are so frightened of the consequences of errors in their conversion that some apologist has written a book addressing the whole problem. In Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, J.D. Greear seeks to reassure such believers. (Oooh, and the book bears the Paige Patterson stamp of approval!)
Again, and Again, and Again.
Myself, I was baptized three different times.
The first time, my mother had me baptized as a baby in the Catholic church.
After I converted to the SBC when I was 16, I needed a second baptism. The minister overseeing my conversion told me that my first baptism hadn’t counted. I needed to choose baptism for myself. So I did.
Then, when I converted later that year to Pentecostalism, I needed yet another baptism. That time, the minister overseeing my conversion told me that my first dunking hadn’t counted. The ritual prayer was all wrong. I hadn’t used the Oneness formula in the name of Jesus, instead going with the Trinitarian formula, which was in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Jesus apparently had very poor hearing! He hadn’t noticed my baptism!
Distressingly–for my new tribe, at least–I didn’t speak in tongues. Of the Pentecostals I personally saw baptized, most spoke in tongues right there in the baptism fount. Others had already done it before baptism. I didn’t, though. This outburst of babbling formed part of the three-part conversion process (Sinner’s Prayer+baptism+speaking in tongues) they believed every Christian must perform to avoid Hell.
My church was never exactly sure how to categorize me. Had the baptism taken properly without tongues-talking? I sure thought so, but I could tell that my fellow church members felt rattled.
And Then No.
After Biff converted and I re-joined the Pentecostals, many of the folks at that church pressured me to have a fourth baptism. I’d rebelled! I’d been wandering the wilderness accruing who even knew how many unconfessed sins! I needed a full cleansing and detox with Jesus Power! Biff, in particular, pushed for the idea.
However, they reckoned here without their hostess. I flat refused. I wouldn’t even entertain the notion. Someone only needed to be born again once. At the behest of ministers, I’d undergone baptism a total of three times. I felt perfectly serene in the knowledge that I’d done it correctly at least one of those times. If that wasn’t good enough for Jesus, then he wasn’t worth worshiping.
Eventually, people dropped it. But I’m positive that when my churchmates found out I’d deconverted, at least a few of them thought back to my stubbornness about baptism! Biff sure did. To him, my refusal had constituted a thorny seed in my faith, one that flowered into apostasy eventually. He berated himself for not pushing harder.
I don’t think there was a single thing he could have done to persuade me to be baptized yet again. I hadn’t reasoned out exactly why I wasn’t afraid about skipping it. All I knew was that I wasn’t afraid.
(I also wasn’t at all afraid of demonic attacks, which had every other person in my church dampening their drawers. It’s probably all related somehow.)
So no, I would not perform this ritual a fourth time.
Churches Don’t Mind Much.
I know of vanishingly few pastors who flat-out forbid the practice of re-baptism (barring doctrinal disputes, of course). Some discourage it, but pretty much all of them allow it.
Other pastors don’t mind re-dunking people at all. Here’s a site discussing why that flavor of the religion encourages re-baptism. The Gospel Coalition (TGC) stands on record as being perfectly fine with the idea. As far as they’re concerned, those earlier baptisms probably don’t even count. Therefore, someone who gets re-baptized is really only being baptized “for the first time,” as their writer puts it .
In real life, as well, I’ve heard pastors discussing those frequent fliers I mentioned above. They wished that they could soothe these Christians’ terror. The problem is, they couldn’t jolly well withdraw or soften the teachings that inspired such fear and dread. So they resigned themselves to re-baptizing those folks all the time. That was in real life, just a chance encounter at some social event for Pentecostals that Biff and I attended.
At the time, it made me think immediately of my then-pastor Gene, who was a very good person who lamented how slowly his little church plant was growing. He was too honest to game the system and too guileless to try. I’m guessing he wasn’t the only pastor like that.
Gee, It’s Just Too Bad.
When I look back at how scared so many Christians are about Hell, I get sad. I start thinking about something that religion’s leaders probably don’t want any of their flocks to think.
Gee, it’s just too bad Christians don’t have some kind of book that tells them exactly what to do. It’s too bad they don’t have a way to check who’s right and who’s wrong, so they know better than to tangle with charlatans and conjobs. Then they wouldn’t need to be scared. Christian leaders could then make sure that every Christian got a copy of that book, and nobody’d worry about stuff like their baptism being perfect.
But the masters of this system certainly know how to end the fear. Like those pastors I overheard, they just don’t want to do it. They need adherents to be confused and scrabbling for footing.
What Re-Baptism Ultimately Means.
To me, the re-baptism situation speaks very loudly to two signal truths about Christianity.
First, it means that the prediction in John 17:20-23 is still as false as false can be.
We have Neil Carter to thank for bringing that absolute crushing failure to our attention. In these verses, Jesus assures his followers that their unity will be a sign to non-believers that Christians are the real deal. But in the almost 2000 years since Christianity was created, its followers have only splintered further and further apart from each other. Literally the only time that this splintering slowed down was when Christians seized temporal and legal powers enough to coerce followers to obey their leaders’ every whim. Once that power broke just a little with the Reformation, the splintering continued.
Now “unity,” as a goal, seems laughably out of reach for Christians. The numerous competing views of baptism only speak to that total disunity.
Second, it means that Christians have literally no way to tell what’s true or false in the religion, and only their subjective feelings to go by in determining what doctrines to follow.
Now, some Christians are fine with that. They’re not bothering anybody, and they know that subjective feelings aren’t a persuasive argument for anything. I don’t mind them. The moment a Christian tries to assert that some real-world fate awaits me for not playing along with their rituals and pretendy games, though, they need to have a very good reason for me to accept it. Threats they can’t verify are not a good reason. Neither are apologetics arguments. And neither are emotional manipulation tactics.
But that’s literally all that they have when it comes to any of their claims, especially about baptism. Most Christians would say that baptism is one of the most important things a person can possibly do during their lifetime. But none of them can agree on exactly what it should look like.
With all of the varying arguments and squabbles about something this important, I’m not inclined to trust anything else the religion’s adherents try to claim. The more competing claims there are, the more it seems to me like none of them are actually right. And since that’s where the evidence actually leads as well, I feel quite safe in rejecting the entire religion.
To those reading my words who struggle still: Be not afraid. You were born just fine the first time. Anyone who tells you anything different is trying to sell you something you don’t actually need.
NEXT UP: How churches use re-baptisms and other tactics to falsely inflate their stats and game a broken system. See you next time!
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