When I was first a curate, my vicar told me about one family he’d dealt with. After due preparation he’d baptised the toddler of the family. Sometime later he met the mother and the rather badly-behaved child in the street. “Ere, vicar,’ said the mother, ‘Can I ‘ave ‘im done again: it never took last time!’
And, of course, that’s the problem. You can’t ‘ave ‘im done again’, at least not in the Church of England. One of the signs of decline in a church is that primary issues become secondary and secondary issues primary. It seems that we can deny aspects of the creed which are clearly the teachings of Scripture. But start bending the rules over baptism and you’ll be for it. So the controversy over ‘re-baptism’ is a live issue in the Church.
Some people have been all but excommunicated for being ‘re-baptised’. Now I happen to believe that no-one needs to be ‘re-baptised’. If they have come to repentance and faith in Christ, and have been baptised in water in the name of the Trinity, that’s fine. I don’t believe it matters what order those events came in. But it is a secondary issue. If Paul could say ‘Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the Gospel,’ that’s good enough for me. Why do we have to get so worked up about it?
The people who do are often very much in favour of church unity. But how could we have such unity, given the historic differences of opinion on this subject, without adopting a live-and-let-live policy over baptism.
What some paedo-baptists (people practising infant baptism) fail to appreciate is that many Christians don’t regard infant baptism as a valid baptism. So, if they were christened as a child, they do not regard themselves as baptised. There is no question of re-baptism. They regard themselves as needing to be baptised for the first time. And I have to sympathise. If all I’d got to look back on was a hole-in-the-corner afternoon sprinkling, when my parents weren’t believers, I’d perhaps feel that way. (I was baptised as a 13 year old believer by immersion).
Having said that, it is clear from the New Testament that baptism is meant to be one-off. And it is a serious matter to repudiate what many Christians see as a valid baptism without careful thought, prayer and discussion. It is certainly unhelpful to get carried away with the emotion of a houseparty or the like and to be ‘re-baptised’ on the spur of the moment.
What some Christians need to do is not be ‘re-baptised’ but to make a public affirmation of faith – perhaps in a public testimony or renewing baptism vows. Bishop Colin Buchanan once advocated a renewal of baptism vows in water. He suggested immersing the candidate with words like “As you were baptised in the name of the Father . . . , so now I confirm to you the cleansing, forgiveness, new life and promised gift of God’s Spirit which are in his covenant” or “As into Jesus Christ you were baptised, so I pray God who began a good work in you, to bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus”. (See Grove Books 91 Adult Baptisms)
I am convinced that these differences over baptism should not divide the Church. We must accept that sincere, Bible-believing Christians come to different conclusions. And we must be pastorally sensitive towards those who, after prayerfully thought and discussion, decide they must, in conscience, go through what we might see as ‘re-baptism’.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction