Baptism, Faith, Rebaptism and the Roman Catholic Church

Greg Strand – May 29, 2013 13 Comments

Kenneth J. Stewart serves as Professor of Theological Studies in Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA. He has Free Church roots. In fact, Rob, his brother, serves as a District Superintendent in the Lower Pacific District of the Evangelical Free Church of Canada (EFCC).

I have appreciated much of what I have read from Kenneth. He is currently writing Evangelicalism Navigates the Past (to be published by IVP). As he works on that, he leaks out certain writings upon which he is reflecting. One of those that he released recently was titled “Should Evangelical Churches Re-baptize Catholics?: An Irenic Proposal.”

Here is how he introduces this topic:

“On what terms might persons who had been baptized, reared, catechized and confirmed into Catholicism be received into Protestant churches?”

Today we return to this question because of two profound demographic shifts: a) Catholic immigration (now chiefly from Central and South America) and b) a Catholic migration including (but not confined to) Hispanics, into our churches. In cities such as Houston, Chicago, and Atlanta former Catholics now gladly associate themselves by the thousands with evangelical Protestant churches. These new allegiances involve vastly more people than the often-highlighted reverse process: the “going home to Rome” phenomenon. The crux of the question is: “Should re-affiliated Catholics be required to be re-baptized?” How one resolves this issue is determined by the way one answers collateral questions.

In theology and practice, the EFCA is primarily believer baptism by immersion. But this is also one of those areas of doctrine and practice in which we will “debate but not divide,” which in the EFCA is referred to as the “significance of silence.”

How then would you respond to the question raised by Stewart? If one is truly a Christian, if one is truly converted, if one has truly been born again (and other ways that can be described), would you require that person to be rebaptized before becoming a member in the local church? This is not having experienced no baptism at all, but one who has experienced infant baptism who is now a true believer.

Here is Stewart’s conclusion:

We have accommodated ourselves both to considerable lapses of time between believing and being baptized (among credobaptists) and to similar lapses of time between being baptized and believing (among paedobaptists). As a result, we have in many cases only approximations of the baptismal ideal. Still, our two evangelical understandings do succeed in preserving the importance of both believing in Jesus Christ and being baptized. In the end, since baptism belongs to Jesus Christ who received it (Matt. 3.13-17) and authorized it (Matt. 28.19, 20), since the church Jesus founded affirms but “one baptism” (Eph. 4.5) and since our own personal spiritual biographies regarding Christ and baptism are non-uniform, we ought to extend the charity we grant to one another to persons who received Catholic baptism. At their professions of faith, we should welcome them unreservedly into our churches.

A few questions to ponder.

  1. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of such a position?
  3. Would you allow a non-baptized believer to become a member?
  4. How do you apply this “significance of silence” in the local church where you serve?

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

13 responses to Baptism, Faith, Rebaptism and the Roman Catholic Church

  1. . David Viland May 29, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Yes, I agree with Stewart. As baptism has heretofore been considered a “non-essentials” category, then it should be no different when considering former Catholics for membership. In fact, is that any different than the myriads people coming from mainline protestant denominations, most who also were baptized as infants?

    I, in fact am one of them. I was baptized as an infant in a Lutheran church. As an adult I became part of an EFCA church, and was accepted into membership without question of my baptismal status. Some years later, however, when seeking membership in a Baptist Church (NAB) I was required to be “re-baptized” before being accepted into membership.

    Though it is a non-essential, it is my belief that the act of pouring water over an infants head – even though in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – really is not baptism at all. I believe that for that action to be a true act of baptism the components of both “believe” and “baptize must be present – which they obviously are not in an infant.

    Therefore, I believe we should actively encourage all believers, whether never baptized at all, or baptized as infants to follow the Lord’s command to 1. Believe, then 2. be baptized. But, we should also apply grace to this non-essential and not require it for membership, which in my experience is the practice of most EFCA churches.

    • Thank you, David, for your response. Your experience is the experience of many in the EFCA.

      I will quibble just a bit, however. It is not a matter of no baptism at all but rather what type/kind of baptism experienced.

      If the question is “would I want those who were baptized as infants to be (re)baptized as believers?,” I would want to nuance my response. If we are going to be consistent with our EFCA roots (and the free church movement more broadly), the key is 1) are these individuals who are becoming members truly converted, and 2) how do they understand their baptism. If they understand it in a salvific way, that would be problematic because then they would not truly be saved now! But that does not mean that they must be rebaptized before becoming a member.

      Because of the vital importance of being truly converted, and that being the one and only expectation of the local church (in many ways, flattening soteriology [the doctrine of salvation] and ecclesiology [the doctrine of the church] such that they become one and the same), I believe that, sadly, more in the EFCA would allow a non-baptized believer to become a member of the local church than would an infant baptized believer to become a member.

      Not only does the New Testament know nothing of an unbaptized believer, the church does not either. This ought to be reflected in our membership in the local church.

      Does this then mean that we ought to become Baptist (note the capital “B”) in practice?

      No it does not, as Baptists require believer baptism by immersion before becoming a member of the local church. That is not what I am arguing. I am, however, saying that the norm throughout church history has been that those who are members of local churches are baptized. You will not find in church history, except among schismatic groups, where membership has been granted without any baptism whatsoever. Baptism is one of the marks of a local church. Without it, it becomes more like a parachurch than a church. But it must be remembered that these sorts of things almost never occur in a perfectly hermetically sealed container, so the actual practice becomes very messy. But even acknowledging that, it does not obliterate what is considered the norm.

      Actually, I think requiring no baptism at all has been a weakness of the free church in general. The strength has been an openness to both paedo and credo baptism. That I celebrate!

  2. As an evangelical Presbyterian who graduated from TEDS and was a member of an EFree congregation (in fact I interned there) with a brother who is an elder in the EFCA, I still follow what goes on in the EFCA. I can say that there is really often quite a difference between the EFCA practice and what is the stated policy (as often explained at TEDS). In practice the EFCA is often either a defacto baptist congregation or baptism is relegated to such a peripheral place as to be of no consequence in the life of a Christian. In fact in the Free Church congregation that I was a member of one of the elders was in his 70s before he was baptized at all– he said something like he thought he ought to get it done, but wasn’t too bothered by it.

    On the other hand, a local Free Church congregation where I live here in Iowa is very explicitly baptistic on its web site and those with other convictions really don’t have options to practice the diversity that is often hailed as an EFree distinctive.

    The only denomination that really seems to PRACTICE dual types of baptisms consistently that I’m aware of is the Evangelical Covenant Church which will practice either adult or infant baptism using any of the historic mode. However the ECC also has the caveat, as I understand it, that every Covenant pastor has to pledge to actually perform those baptisms. That means that credo leaning pastors will perform infant baptisms in the ECC.

    In my own Orthodox Presbyterian denomination we have had discussions as to whether a credo baptist can be a member of one of our churches without having their children baptized and the consensus, with a strongly vocal minority, is that they can. The upshot of this is that, along the lines that Ken Stewart has argued for in the above article, in reality it is churches like the OPC and the PCA among evangelical Presbyterians that really end up having the broader view of baptism. Where we draw the line is we don’t rebaptize someone who believe has been legitimately baptized as an infant.

    I wish the EFCA would really practice the dual approach to baptism that I was told was a hallmark of the EFCA at Trinity. It is possible that the EFCA could lead the evangelical world to greater unity on this doctrine if the practice matched what is claimed. We Presbyterians wait to see what you might do.

    • John, thank you for your response. As I stated, the EFCA constituency is primarily believer baptism by immersion (baptist with a small “b”). Of those who would be sensitive to paedo baptism, though they would not mandate rebaptism prior to membership, they themselves would not perform paedo baptisms.

      The distinction between the stated principle and the practice is true. The reason for that is that in the EFCA we value highly the autonomy of the local church. Being congregational means a local church affirms both autonomy and interdependence. Without becoming more hierarchical what you explain is the tension with which we live.

      This is different from the other denominations you mention that are a bit more hierarchical in matters of polity. And though the Evangelical Covenant also values highly the autonomy, on this matter they have required a stronger position.

  3. The question raised, “If one is truly a Christian, if one is truly converted, if one has truly been born again (and other ways that can be described), would you require that person to be rebaptized before becoming a member in the local church?” and in this context we are talking about those who have specifically been baptized as infants in the Roman Catholic tradition, then I think we should compare the definition of baptism that Catholicism holds to and the definition the EFCA holds to.

    In the Roman Catholic Catechism it states about the sacrament of baptism, ” This sacrament is also called ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,’ for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one ‘can enter the kingdom of God.'” (Vatican.va) I believe there to be a difference in the way that the EFCA defines this rite, “The Lord Mandated to ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s supper, which tangibly express the gospel.” As something that actually confers grace in the Roman Catholic tradition, baptism hold soteriological significance, while in the evangelical tradition, baptism holds more of an ecclesiological emphasis. As Evangelicals we would more quickly define baptism as symbolic of the death and resurrection of Christ that we identify with, but this symbolism does not “actually bring about” salvation. Peadobaptism has been defined as a safety step taken to more than dedicate an infant to Christ, but to begin it’s sanctification. In this way, Peadobaptism has heavy Justification significance, which most evangelical churches would reject.

    The two views of baptism between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, are inherently different in light of there ecclesiological and soteriological significance. To go from Roman Catholicism to Evangelicalism, there also needs to be a re-understanding of what baptism means. As an identification tool, re-baptism is necessary to show a new understanding of how grace is conferred, which is through faith. In this sense it may be wise to re-baptize, or in the least, instill in the local church the need to educate theological significance and differences between these two traditions.

    • You identify one of the critical matters in this discussion and practice, Caleb. This is why I stated in one of my replies that it is dependent on how one understands their baptism. If it is understood as salvation, that would be problematic. As I wrote, “the key is 1) are these individuals who are becoming members truly converted, and 2) how do they understand their baptism. If they understand it in a salvific way, that would be problematic because then they would not truly be saved now!” I appreciate your input into this dialogue.

  4. Greg, having spent a fair amount of time around the EFCA, I’m aware of all that you say. I just wish it was different, as I believe if the practice came closer to matching the principle, that the EFCA could really have a positive influence

  5. The issue of (re)baptism is a difficult knot to untie. For the Overseers at my church (an EFCA church), we try to determine if the first baptism was valid. In other words, we are not trying to determine if a person needs to be baptized again but if a person needs to be baptized for the first time since the initial baptism is invalid.

    That is a difficult and serious issue to determine because it questions the authenticity of the local church that baptized the person. John Calvin, for example, believed that a characteristic of a true church is that the church rightly administered the sacraments. Our local church believes that infant baptism is one of the ways a church can administer the ordinance of baptism to the children of believing parents as well as waiting until the child can make his or her own profession of faith. In short, our church affirms a “plural practice” view of baptism but we only practice “believer’s baptism” when it comes to the children of OUR believing parents (for the sake of unity in experience, among other reasons).

    This stance gets complicated when people come to our church from different denominational backgrounds and local churches that may or may not be healthy. We have done (re)baptisms when it is clear that the gospel was not preached or church discipline was not practiced in the previous church. However, I have also talked some candidates out of getting baptized again. Why? Because they came from a church where the gospel was clearly preached (rather than, for example, baptismal regeneration) and where both parents faithfully catechized them. For good reason, the candidates from such a healthy background are uncomfortable saying to their previous church and faithful parents that their baptism is not valid.

    Greg – I do have one question. Let me give you a case study. Let’s say a person comes from a Catholic background and grew up thinking baptism saved them. Later in life, that person does come to believe in justification by faith alone. However, the person desires to affirm the previous baptism rather than getting baptized again. The rationale is not an affirmation of baptismal regeneration but rather an affirmation that the baptism was done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Would you affirm this person’s position or would you attempt to convince him or her to get (re)baptized?

    • Bryan, I appreciate your thoughtful interaction. The practice of the local church where you serve as pastor is common among many EFC churches. Though they practice believer baptism by immersion, they do not mandate/require those true believers who were baptized as an infant to be rebaptized. They may instruct in what they believe would be a “more excellent way,” but they press on together in ministry.

      To your case-study, because I affirm believer baptism my immersion, i.e. baptist with a small b, I would encourage a person to be baptized – note I did not say rebaptized. It depends on how you understand what happened earlier. But, I am also sensitive to this understanding of baptism and in this case, because the person believed that his/her baptism was not salvific, it would not be considered that the person had not been baptized at all. So because of my belief, I would encourage a “more excellent way,” but because this person is a true believer, and they had been baptized in the Trinitarian name, and they did not believe it was salvific, I would not press the issue and I would welcome them fully!

  6. This interchange is a helpful discussion tool. I am forwarding to some folks at our church (an EFCA).
    Thanks Greg & all for a gracious dialogue.

  7. Your comments reflect a major misconception that evangelicals and the Reformed have of orthodox Christians. Lutherans do not believe that baptism is necessary (mandatory) for salvation. Not even the Roman Catholic Church believes this. All the saints of the Old Testament, the thief on the cross, and thousand of martyrs down through the centuries have been saved without Baptism. Baptism is not the “how” of salvation!

    Lutherans believe that baptism is one of several possible “when”s of salvation, it is not the “how” of salvation. The “how” of salvation is and always has been the power of God’s Word/God’s declaration of righteousness.

    A sinner can be saved by the power of God’s Word when he hears the Word preached in a church, preached on TV or radio, reading a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room, or reading a Gospel tract that contains the Word. Salvation is by God’s grace alone, through the power of his Word alone, received in faith alone. In each of these situations, the sinner is saved the instant he or she believes. Baptism is NOT mandatory for salvation to occur.

    However, the Bible in multiple passages, also states that God uses his Word to save at the time of Baptism.

    It is the work of the Holy Spirit, using the Word of God, that works salvation in the sinner’s spiritually dead soul, according to the second chapters of Ephesians and Colossians, and the third chapter of Romans. Your “decision for Christ” does not save you, neither does your decision to be baptized.

    God saves those whom he has elected, at the time and place of his choosing. Sometimes God saves them while hearing a sermon in church, sometimes at home reading the Word, and sometimes by the power of his Word spoken during Baptism.

    God does 100% of the saving. The sinner is a passive participant in his salvation. There is no passage in the New Testament that asks sinners to make a decision for Christ. The Bible states that God quickens sinners, gives them faith, and they believe and repent.

    The sinner does not decide to be saved. God decides to save the sinner!

    Gary

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