A small “b” baptist perspective on the rebaptism of mature believers

BaptismLast year The Gospel Coalition ran an interesting series, in which they asked pastors and theologians why they changed their mind on baptism.

Bill KynesMore recently, a piece by Bill Kynes, senior pastor of Cornerstore Evangelical Free Church, describes what he calls his “small ‘b’ baptist” perspective, and it is a view for which I have significant sympathy. At Cornerstone, they practice the baptism of believers, so Kynes acknowledges that they “might be considered ‘Baptists.’” But they also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants, and this runs directly counter to the Anabaptist tradition out of which Baptists emerged.

Three dimensions of the gospel

Kynes describes their church’s understanding of three dimensions of the gospel:

The gospel has an objective dimension—it involves something outside of us. The gospel is first of all an objective declaration of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It is the good news that God sent in his Son into the world, he lived a sinless life, he died for our sins, he rose from the grave, and he will come again in glory. In love he came to conquer sin and death and to redeem us for himself.

Second, the gospel has a subjective dimension—it involves something in us. The gospel involves a (Spirit-empowered) subjective response to that good news. A person must personally entrust himself to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord as he commits to follow him in faith as a disciple.

But the gospel also has a social dimension—it involves something among us. The gospel creates a new community, united in Christ by the Spirit. A person joined to Christ is also joined to other believers into a new family, the body of Christ. Consequently, a third aspect of the gospel involves a recognition and affirmation of a person’s faith by the church.

All three of these aspects of the gospel are displayed in a visible and tangible way in the baptism of a believer. Objectively, baptism is a declaration of the action of God in the gospel. When a person goes into the water, we see a picture of Christ’s death for us as he died for our sins and was put into the grave. And when a person is raised up out of the water, we see Jesus risen from the grave to new life—that person is washed clean of his sins by Christ and is now given new life in the Spirit.

Subjectively, in baptism believers make a personal profession of faith. They say “Yes” to this gospel truth in their own life. They confess that Christ died for them and that in him they have new life. And they pledge by God’s grace to follow him in faith.

No one baptizes him- or herself. You must “be baptized”—and that is done through the church. So baptism has a social dimension—in baptism the church affirms the faith of the one who is baptized and welcomes that person publicly as a fellow member of Christ’s visible body in the world, expressed in an ongoing manner through participation in the Lord’s Supper.

So Kynes recognizes himself as a Baptist, in that he believes that “the New Testament is best understood to unite all three of these aspects of the gospel in the one act of baptism—the objective declaration of the gospel, the subjective response to it, and the social aspect of the church publicly recognizing and affirming that response of faith and welcoming that person as a fellow believer into the visible body of Christ.”

Requirements for church membership

Where Cornerstone takes a different direction from most Baptist churches, however, is in regard to their baptismal criteria for church membership. Traditionally, Baptist churches have insisted that if people were not believers in Christ when they were baptized, their so-called baptism was invalid and so they need to baptized upon their own profession of faith. Those who were baptized as infants are required to be baptized again, but technically this is not “re” (or ana) baptism, it is a first genuine baptism.

Kynes accepts the baptism of a believer who was baptized as an infant as a valid baptism for the purpose of church membership, for three reasons:

Humility. I recognize that paedobaptism has been the practice of the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout most of church history. This includes the practice of the Protestant Reformers to which I owe a great theological and spiritual debt. I humbly recognize that I could be wrong about paedobaptism (and the conclusion that the great majority of Christians through history were never really baptized), and for this reason I am hesitant to insist upon my position on baptism as a grounds of church fellowship.

Charity. Even if the baptist position is correct, I still want to receive my paedobaptist brothers and sisters as fellow believers based upon our common understanding of the gospel. Evangelical paedobaptists recognize the three aspects of the gospel I have outlined, but in their practice of baptism they separate them in time. They baptize the infant children of Christian believers—objectively declaring the gospel to them before they can understand it. They do this with the prayer that their subjective and personal response of faith will come at some point in their life (whether it occurs at a clearly recognized moment in time or not). And then later, at some public act of confirmation, the social aspect of that personal faith is recognized as, upon their profession of faith, that person is received as a communicant member of the church. Our unity in the gospel outweighs our differences in the practice of baptism in relation to the timing of those three aspects of the gospel. Charity in the gospel calls me not make those differences a barrier to church fellowship.

Theology. Baptism presents a visible and objective declaration of the gospel, and its validity as such is not nullified by the absence of the proper subjective response of faith. In those cases in which that subjective response is not present at the time of baptism, it remains a valid baptism, though not an effective and completed one. This is similar to the preaching of the gospel. Its validity is not nullified by a failure of the hearers to repent and believe. But when they do, that preaching achieves its appointed end.

Since Kynes believes that all three dimensions of the gospel are expressed in baptism, he only baptizes people as believers, but he can “accept the paedobaptism of someone who has come to faith as a valid baptism, though only their subsequent response of faith and the recognition by the church of the reality of that faith complete that baptism and make it effective.” Furthermore, he  “will ‘re-baptize’ those previously baptized as infants who so request it,” because he believes that this “is a matter of personal conscience of the believer and is not required.”

Personal reflections

I believe that the New Testament teaching regarding baptism is best implemented in the baptism of only those who (1) know themselves to be sinners in need of salvation, (2) believe that Jesus died in the place of sinners, to deliver them from the power and penalty of sin, and (3) personally trust in Jesus as their savior, whose commands they are committed to follow. I also think that immersion is the most vivid public testimony to a believer’s identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. But, being a Baptist, I do not attribute to baptism the salvific efficacy which Roman Catholics and Lutherans give to it; baptism does not save its recipients. Nor is the mode of baptism essential to its validity. So, at the very least, it is unnecessary to rebaptize those who were baptized, as believers, by effusion rather than immersion. In regard to the acceptance into church membership of people who had been baptized as infants, I think that their experience of faith is the critical consideration. If people who were baptized as infants grew up in Christian faith and have appropriated the symbolism of their baptism for years, it seems incongruous to me that they should be asked to be baptized before acceptance into the church.

On the other hand, if someone who was baptized as an infant did not sincerely confirm or appropriate that identification with Christ, and has only recently come to believe in Jesus as their savior and Lord, then I think it wise to give them the opportunity to publicly profess in water baptism their trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection and their reception of the Spirit who unites us with Christ. The “b” with which I am a Baptist, may be a little larger than Kynes’, but I think that he has taken a healthy direction, and one which coheres well with the apostle Paul’s conviction that there is only “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism” (Eph 4:5).

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5 Responses to A small “b” baptist perspective on the rebaptism of mature believers

  1. Stan Fowler says:

    You expected a comment from me, didn’t you? I wish I could follow you all the way, I really do. I can understand the appeal to Christian charity–in fact that has historically been the common basis for open membership in British Baptist churches. But the affirmation of the validity of infant baptism in spite of principial objections to it is harder to accept. If the essence of baptism is to serve as a sacramental seal of both God’s offer of grace and human response (as Calvin himself taught), then it does not seem that infant baptism can do what baptism is all about. I am also not sure what to make of your final paragraph. You speak of people who were baptized as infants who did not confirm that but have just now become believers, and you encourage their baptism as believers. I assume that you refer to people baptized as infants who did not confirm that in their youth, but who have now become believers as adults. But why does the difference in the temporal gap make a difference? Whether as a youth or an adult, their confession of faith confirms their baptism. So if affirmation of “one baptism” is a major concern, I’m not sure why you would encourage the rebaptism of anyone who was baptized as an infant.

  2. Stan Fowler says:

    You knew that I would comment, didn’t you? I’m a bit confused as I read the final paragraph. In the interest of affirming “one baptism,” you are prepared to admit to membership those who were baptized as infants and later “appropriated” what their baptism symbolized (penultimate paragraph). But in the last paragraph, you seem to be stepping back from that. It appears that the people in view are those who did not appropriate their baptism in their youth but have now come to faith as adults. Is the difference in the temporal gap between baptism and faith really that important? If appropriation of infant baptism is delayed until adulthood, does that invalidate their baptism?

  3. Terrance Tiessen says:

    Hi Stan,

    I hear your point and can see why I sound a bit confusing. (Incidentally, I suspect that your second comment was triggered by the fact that the first one had not appeared. My spam blocker held it for approval for some reason and this can generate anxiety.)

    In retrospect, I probably took a bad turn with my reference to Eph 4:5, because that puts a weight on the validity of another church’s theology and practice of baptism which was not actually a large factor in the rest of what I had said before. That begins to confuse even me.

    Where I wanted to come from is a view of baptism that emphasizes its function as the testimony of a believer. When a child’s baptism meant nothing to him as he grew up, its symbolic usefulness gets lost, it seems to me. If the infant baptism had been in a Reformed context, it would have been deemed a sign and seal of God’s grace. Where the saving grace of God had been apparent and active in a person’s life afterwards, that baptism looks meaningful to me. To ask a mature, long term believer, who may even have been a leader in another church, to be baptized again is what looks peculiar to me. It seems to ignore the way in which that person had effectively appropriated personally the symbol of his union with Christ in death and resurrection.

    In the case of someone who had only recently come to faith, with years of life as an unbeliever in between their infant baptism and their trust in Christ, on the other hand, it looks peculiar to me to tell that person: “That is OK; you were baptized as an infant and there is no need for you to publicly confess your faith in and allegiance to Christ now.” That seems to me to be ascribing to the infant baptism a sacramental efficacy that pertained regardless of whether or not there was evidence of a person’s union with Christ in faith. I suppose I’m saying to the first person: “your baptism took” but to the second person: “your baptism didn’t take.” I am not sure I can articulate very well the theology of baptism that informs these judgments.

    In short, Stan, there appear to be two problems here. The first one was the sudden surprise that my citation of Eph 4:5 triggered. I’m prepared to retract that sentence, because it is, at best, misleading. What I want to communicate to people who have been living intentionally with Christ throughout their lives, but worshipping within a congregation whose theology of baptism was not Baptistic, is that we acknowledge the Christian identity of that congregation, even though we think they practice baptism wrongly. On the other hand, when a person has not lived Christianly in any church until a recent experience of personal faith in Christ, then they have become new creatures in Christ and deserve the opportunity to give public testimony to that fact, with the spiritual encouragement that this entails.

    The second problem may well be more serious. Even I am finding it a bit difficult to explain the theology of baptism that informs this distinction between two people who had been baptized as infants, only one of whom is deemed needing to be baptized anew. I need to ponder that a bit more, Stan. Generally, I think that we do best to formulate our theology on a biblical basis, and then to apply that formulation in practice. But I’m wondering if the direction might not also go the other way sometimes. I have spoken about things that “seem peculiar” and things that “do not seem peculiar.” What is the source of this peculiarity? It looks as though it follows from an unformulated theological position, so that I am being led to formulation through my intuitions about what is right in practice? I think that is possibly the case. Is this is a valid process in theological formulation? It sounds rather existentialist, and I’ve always been rather more of an essentialist, without great appreciation for Kierkegaard’s methodology. Is something new happening in my theological method, or am I simply yielding ground to pragmatism? These are big questions, and I’m feeling rather uncertain about them, in a way that surprises me.

    As I try to examine a bit further the intuitions that I discern to be at work in my proposal, my mind goes to the situation of someone who had been baptized as a morally mature young adult, but whose succeeding life was not Christian. In principle, I would discourage the rebaptism of a person who had lapsed from faith and simply wanted a new start. But where a person now looks back on his supposed “believer baptism” and acknowledges that he really didn’t have faith at that time, I can see merit in allowing him now to testify publicly to his allegiance to Christ. He might, for instance, have been a teenager who was interested in a girl who refused to keep going out with him if he didn’t get baptized, but he acknowledges now that his motives in being baptized were thoroughly insincere and that he did not really know Christ at that time. Here then, we have an analogy between a person who was baptized as an infant and one who was baptized as a professed believer, and I think the latter case shines light on my rationale with regard to the former.

    After 24 years on the fringe of a Mennonite congregation where I was only an associate member because I was not a pacifist, it has been a long time since I was involved closely in church leadership. I’m pondering issues at a distance from the position of one who is actually contributing to policy formulation in a congregation. That is probably less than an ideal standpoint for dealing with this issue.

    Thanks for raising these questions, Stan. They have helped me to pursue a bit further just what it is that informed my “policy” proposal. I am now in the position of being still favorably inclined to that policy, but feeling a bit shaky about the theology that informs it. I’m not used to finding myself in that position, and so I’m not doing very well at extricating myself from the confusion I’ve generated. Sorry about that. It looks like this is still a work in progress.

    • Wm Tanksley Jr says:

      Fascinating questions. I’m at rather the same place myself, and it turns out that my pastor would also accept the infant baptism of a person who believes that they received Christian baptism.

  4. Stan Fowler says:

    Terry, I’m sorry for appearing overly aggressive by sending two virtually identical posts! I thought that neither one had been received, and now I see otherwise. I am not unsympathetic to where your thought is going, because I recognize that the adult baptism of someone who has been following Christ for many years does not do what baptism does in the NT. But neither did their infant baptism do that, so that creates a bit of a dilemma. I don’t see any straightforward answer in Scripture, because in the NT there is no concept of an unbaptized believer. So I am open to the kind of theologizing that you are doing.
    What you are suggesting is not dual-practice, but it approximates it in some ways. Bill Kynes is, of course, in the EFCA, which is dual-practice in principle. But I have read articles by EFCA leaders who admit that what tends to happen in that context is that baptism becomes trivialized in a way that is foreign to the NT.
    I fear that there is no easy solution, and I do wish that my fellow Baptists would be a bit more willing to admit that.

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