Is “Re-baptism” Always, Necessarily Wrong? (An Answer for Believer-baptizers)
One of the questions I am asked most frequently, always by believers in “believer baptism” (sometimes erroneously called “adult baptism”), is this: Is it wrong for a person to be re-baptized?
Here is what they mean. (This explanation is necessary especially for those who do not understand the meaning of baptism for so-called “credo-baptists”—Christians who reject “pedo-baptism” or “infant baptism.”) Should a person who was once baptized upon his or her personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord ever be baptized again?
The vast majority of orthodox Christian pedo-baptists, Christians who practice infant baptism, whatever that might mean in their particular ecclesiology, reject so-called “re-baptism.” In fact, well-known and very influential Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, in his 2002 book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, strongly implied that “re-baptism” after infant baptism is heresy.
This belief that re-baptism, even “believer baptism” of someone baptized as an infant, is heresy roots back at least to Augustine’s controversy with the Donatists who rejected the Catholic Church’s baptisms and “re-baptized” Christians with only Catholic baptism—whether infant or adult. Augustine condemned “re-baptism” and that caught on and has remained by-and-large a matter of ecclesiastical orthodoxy among most Christians—even those of us who baptize believers only. We baptists (small “b” to include those who practice believer baptism but do not call themselves “Baptist”) generally do not count infant baptism as real baptism. So we have for centuries baptized only Christians (often by immersion, sometimes by pouring) who are capable of personally expressing their faith in Jesus Christ. We do not call it “re-baptism” (or at least shouldn’t call it that because of our belief that infant baptism is no baptism at all).
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However, much confusion and some consternation has arisen among credo-baptists, believers in believer baptism only, over whether it is ever appropriate to re-baptize a person once before baptized upon confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
Now, just to deflect criticism and correction, I will make notice here of the fact that some credo-baptists do even require “re-baptism” of persons who were once before baptized in water upon confession of faith because these credo-baptists think only their church’s baptism is valid baptism. They are radical sectarians. I won’t name any churches or groups that do this here, but many of my readers will know who I mean.
Digging a bit deeper (again to deflect criticism and correction)—many pedo-baptists consider all credo-baptists who baptize persons already baptized (to use pedo-baptists’ language) sectarians. I have always been aware, at least since my formal theological education got underway, that I and my fellow baptists (of all denominations) are considered sectarians if not heretics by Catholics, Lutherans, many Presbyterians, most Reformed Christians and others who baptize infants. That is because of the Augustinian tradition that “re-baptism” is always wrong.
That belief that “re-baptism” is always wrong has filtered into baptist churches, too. So here is an example of the kind of question I often get in my mail or that comes to me from a student: What about a person who wants to be baptized again even though he or she was before baptized by immersion upon personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord?
The practice of re-baptizing among credo-baptists is sometimes called “casual re-baptism.” Some churches will not hesitate to baptize a second or third time (or even more) anyone who requests it—even when their first “real baptism” was a baptism upon personal confession of faith.
So when I get asked this question my response is always a question: Why does the person want to be “re-baptized” if his or her first baptism was believer baptism upon personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord?
The typical answer is that the person requesting re-baptism believes that his or her “believer baptism” took place too early, when they were too young, they don’t remember it, or it was before they really decided to follow Jesus.
For example, many baptist churches will baptize children as young as six or seven, certainly eight or nine, without batting an eyelash, when the child “accepts Christ” at the end of Vacation Bible School. Then, for example, that person, as a young adult, has a profound spiritual experience at “Bible camp” or “retreat” or even “revival” and believes his or her first baptism was not completely valid because he or she was not yet then truly, fully converted or truly, fully committed to Jesus Christ.
Many Anabaptist churches (e.g., Mennonite) will refuse baptism to anyone younger than sixteen for this reason—to avoid this problem coming up later. They look upon baptists who baptize little children as little different from pedo-baptists. What’s the difference, in terms of ability to understand and commit to a way of life, between a six week old child and a six year old child?
You see, baptist (believer baptism) theology is that baptism is a public act of commitment as well as an “outward display of an inward work” of the Holy Spirit. It is a symbol of death to an old way of life (sinful) and new birth to a new way of life (regenerated and committed to the way of Jesus Christ within his church). But my purpose here is not so much to explain baptist theology of baptism to non-baptists as to address the common question about “re-baptism” of a person already allegedly baptized as a believer.
So my advice to pastors who ask me for advice about this issue is to take an “ad hoc” approach rather than a “one size fits all” approach. Ask the person requesting re-baptism (who was already supposedly baptized as a believer) the following questions. First, “Do you believe you were born again and committed to following Jesus Christ as his disciple when you were first baptized?” If the person says “no,” then it seems the issue is settled. He or she should be “re-baptized” (which means really baptized for the first time). This is very often the case. And that’s because many baptist churches have fallen into a practice of casual first baptism—of very young children incapable of turning away from a life of sin and making a public commitment to Christ and his church. I have no problem “re-baptizing” such people. Nor should any baptist pastor.
But often the person says “Yes, but…I didn’t understand what I was doing, barely remember it if at all, and feel called to undergo baptism now as a mature believer who understands the meaning of baptism.” Then I ask the pastor (or other person approaching me for advice) “Do you believe ‘re-baptizing’ the person could do him or her any harm?” The answer is usually no. But they might be worried that doing this in one case would open a flood gate of church members baptized at six or seven (if not younger or a bit older) requesting re-baptism. It might present a problem about handling situations where small children request baptism or their parents ask for it for them. I think a lot of pastors don’t know how to explain baptism in such a way as to encourage children and parents to wait—wait until they are not only believers in a formal sense of having “prayed the sinner’s prayer” but also are mature enough to make a commitment to Christian discipleship within the Body of Christ.
My advice in such cases is to preach and teach the real meaning of baptism from within a baptist ecclesiology and then decline to baptize little children just because they prayed a prayer at the end of VBS (or whatever). But, ultimately, I do not consider re-baptizing such a person as described in the paragraph above heresy. I think it is a decision the pastor and the church leaders should make. I don’t see any real harm in “re-baptizing” such a person if they are very sincere and very desirous of water baptism as a mature believer.
Where I draw the line and say “no” is the case of someone who merely wants to be baptized again for no particular reason or a frivolous reason. I have heard of churches and pastors who have publicly announced that he or she will re-baptize anyone who asks for it. Then, in my opinion, baptism is being emptied of its true meaning. Some other means should be found or created by the church for “renewing vows”—to Christ and the church. People already married to each other don’t get re-married; they renew their vows. I have personally witnessed people being re-baptized in the Jordan River just because they are there and want a picture (for example) of being baptized where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. To me that’s trivializing baptism.
Finally, however, there is the case where someone says to the pastor “I was baptized as a believer, but I backslid so far away from Christ that I am convinced I lost my salvation. I have now repented and my relationship with Christ and the church has been renewed. I think I should now be re-baptized.” Of course the proper theological response to that will depend much on the church’s doctrine about apostasy (total loss of salvation)—whether that is even possible. But, again, I ask “What harm could it do even if you believe the person never really was totally separated from God and his grace such that his or her salvation was lost?”
I can imagine the pastor of a baptist church that believes in “once saved, always saved” saying “The harm it would do is to undermine our doctrine.” Well, then, explain that doctrine to the person, but if they persist explain to the congregation that this “re-baptism” is, from your perspective, not because the person was ever really “lost” after once being truly saved, but the person believes that and sincerely wants to renew his or her public commitment to Christ and the church. Again, what harm can it do?
So I am seeking a middle way between the Augustinian view which still persists even among many baptists and the practice of “casual re-baptism” that is growing (apparently) among many baptists. (As a reminder, by “baptist” here I include ALL Christians and churches that believe in believer baptism only and do not baptize infants. That includes Pentecostals, for example, even though they may never call themselves or want to be called “baptists.”)
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