I absolutely love a baptism service! Some might imagine a quiet version of “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the soundtrack to baptism, but I hear rousing, triumphant versions of “How Great Is Our God” or “Crown Him with Many Crowns” in the background. I get a little excited! Just ask my church. They have laughingly said, “Bro. Ben doesn’t immerse. He body slams people in the water!” One time I even sloshed water out of the baptistery onto the top choir pew. I can’t help it. I’m overcome with enthusiasm by the reality that the person standing in the water with me is announcing to the entire world that Jesus is their new Savior and Lord. They’ve just been brought from death to life, and they’re unashamedly making their profession public through the ordinance of baptism. Yeah, we should get excited!
However, there is a troubling baptism trend that has recently come to my attention. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has stated here and here that he believes as many as 50% of baptisms in our Southern Baptist churches are rebaptisms. Although his figures are based on anecdotal evidence and informal polling, even if the rebaptism rate is more like 30% or 40%, rebaptism is a serious problem any way you look at it. We’re already seeing baptisms declining across our convention, but given the insight from this statistic, the reality is probably even bleaker.
Why are so many rebaptisms happening? By rebaptisms, we mean the act of being biblically baptized more than once. A biblical baptism has these three criteria:
- Baptized by immersion
- Baptized after a profession of faith in Jesus
- Baptized as a symbol and not as a requirement of salvation
So, what we’re seeing is people doing this more than once, and we want to know why. I believe the blame can be laid on these four things:
Many churches operate under Landmark doctrine and probably don’t realize it. That’s the way it was when I came to West Main Baptist. Here’s the test: does your church make somebody from another denomination get rebaptized in order to join your church, regardless of the nature of their first baptism? If so, your church is most likely practicing Landmark doctrine. This idea is to not accept what is called alien immersion (ie, being baptized under a denomination other than Baptist) and stems from the belief that only baptisms done in a Baptist church are valid because the Baptist church is the only valid church. Therefore, many Baptist churches are rebaptizing people. They might not realize the theology behind the practice but continue it out of tradition. Again, this is the way West Main Baptist was when I first arrived, but I have since led them away from this practice.
Landmarkism arose in our Baptist churches here in the South around the 1850s through the leadership of James Robinson Graves, James Madison Pendleton, and Amos Cooper Dayton. In this time of great spiritual growth and frontier spirit following the Second Great Awakening, there arose a strand of Christianity led by Alexander Campbell that we know as the Church of Christ. Campbell and his Churches of Christ began to teach that their churches were the only true churches. In fact, they went as far as to teach that salvation was only possible through the Church of Christ.
Baptists desired to not be outdone, so they developed the Landmark doctrines, one of which is that Baptist churches are the only true churches. Basically, they told the Campbellites, “Nuh-uh, we’re the only true church!” To add weight to their claim, Landmarkers began to trace the history of the Baptist church all the way back through the centuries to John the Baptist himself. This idea, called “Baptist successionism,” has been explained famously in a booklet called “The Trail of Blood” by James Milton Carroll but is pseudo-history at best. Nevertheless, those who hold these doctrines are convinced of their teaching. Therefore, they make all who desire to join the Baptist church from another denomination be rebaptized.
The residue of Landmark teaching is still prevalent in Tennessee and Kentucky, probably due to the fact that these two states were ground-zero for the Landmark controversy. The headquarters of Landmark teaching was Nashville, TN. Bad habits die hard! Therefore, many churches in my home state and my current state add to the problem of rebaptism in our convention due to their Landmark practices.
2) A low view of conversion
People with the right heart have undoubtedly led many to believe that they are saved when in fact they are not, particularly with children. They use methods based on or similar to Charles Finney’s “new measures,” which sought to manipulate people into making a “decision” for God or to, at least, make it as easy as possible. Methods like “every head bowed and every eye closed,” “just repeat this prayer and you’re saved,” and “ask Jesus into your heart” invitations are good examples. Conversion becomes less about repentance and faith and more about praying a prayer and walking an aisle. Many invitations and evangelistic efforts are prone to false conversion. I would encourage you to read my blog called 10 Surefire Ways to Fill Your Churches with False Converts for further insight into what I’m talking about.
I recently witnessed a very good example of what I’m talking about at the 2010 Hearts on Fire conference. The speaker told a heartbreaking story about how he’d been abused and mistreated as a child. Admittedly, it was a very sad story. He told us how Jesus had healed his hurts and how Jesus wants to heal our hurts. He said that Jesus would heal our hurts if we would simply pray a prayer to get saved. He then led the entire assembly—about 4,000 people in our session—to repeat a prayer salvation after him and invited all of those who prayed that prayer and meant it to come forward. Honestly, he never touched the gospel, but many young people left their thinking they had responded to the gospel and had been saved. I’m not saying that nobody was genuinely saved. I’m just saying that this moment was pregnant with the opportunity for false conversion.
Undoubtedly, those who prayed that prayer and went forward that evening have been baptized by now in their respective churches. But I’m guessing that many of them will be baptized again somewhere down the road when they hear the true gospel, and God begins to deal with them. A low view of conversion, which systematically leads to false conversion, is undoubtedly raising our rebaptism rate in the SBC.
So, what’s the answer? We cannot deviate from the biblical gospel call. The gospel calls us to understand that we are sinners. The gospel doesn’t say, “You’re a victim. Come to Jesus for healing.” The gospel says, “You’re a perpetrator. Come to Jesus for forgiveness.” In fact, I fully believe that a person cannot be saved unless they understand that they are a sinner deserving Hell. The gospel calls us to repent of our sin, which means to hate and turn from that sin. The gospel calls us to place our faith in Christ alone, which means that we set our hope for Heaven only on what Jesus did at the cross. The gospel must have the cross and the reason for the cross in it! The gospel calls us to a lifetime of faith evidenced by obedience. In other words, Jesus is your Savior only if Jesus is your Lord. We must rid ourselves of a low view of conversion. Otherwise we will continue to bring into the water those who are not really saved.
3) Baptizing children at very young ages
It’s clear that we as Baptists are not for the baptism of infants, but in many instances, we’re not too far away from baptizing toddlers. Many children from godly homes make professions of faith at a very early age, and they follow this profession up with baptism. However, we are finding that as these children grow older, we are seeing a couple of things happen. One is that sometimes they desire to be baptized again because they don’t really remember their baptism. They were so young and didn’t have the fullness of understanding that they now possess. They desire for the occasion to be memorable and meaningful. Hence, they seek to enter the water again.
Two is that sometimes as they get older, children who made professions of faith when they were younger come to realize through the preaching of the Word and the conviction of the Holy Spirit that they are not actually saved. At that younger age, they had no conviction of sin. They had no moment when they really actively wanted to follow Jesus. And now the Holy Spirit is dealing with them and calling them to salvation. After they truly repent and trust Christ, they want to get back into the waters of baptism and rightly so. This testimony is shared by many Christians I know.
The baptism of young children is always tough for pastors because we know the Scripture teaches that we should baptize only those who are converted, but it’s so hard to discern true conversion in children. It’s for this reason that some congregations have a policy of putting off baptism of children until they are older. Perhaps the most famous example of this policy comes from First Baptist Dallas under the leadership of W. A. Criswell, who would not baptize a child under the age of 10. I have to admit that I’m uncomfortable setting an age but see great wisdom in putting off baptism for young children, especially given our Baptist belief that baptism is not necessary for salvation. By putting off their baptism until they can further mature will certainly cut down the number who would desire or need to be rebaptized.
4) Biblical ignorance
Unfortunately, many simply do not understand what baptism is. Therefore, they get into the water repeatedly. We especially see rebaptism happening when a person backslides for a period and then repents and returns to the Lord. Baptist churches usually call this “rededication.” I personally don’t like that word and simply prefer the biblical word “repentance,” but whatever you call it, people sometimes feel like they need to get into the water again and be rebaptized. Unfortunately, churches are allowing them to be baptized again, which totally confuses New Testament baptism.
We as Baptists are really good at arguing about the mode of baptism, but we’re poor at teaching what baptism really is. Baptism is a symbol and proclamation of salvation, and that’s it. Biblically speaking, baptism is the Christian’s public profession of faith. Therefore, you should be baptized only as many times as you get saved, which is once. One salvation equals one baptism. It’s just not a symbol of ongoing repentance or “rededication” as some try to use it. If we will properly teach what baptism is, I believe our rates of rebaptism will decrease.
I pray that pastors and churches everywhere will think seriously about the problem of rebaptism. First, I pray that they would agree that it’s indeed a problem. Second, I pray that they’ll take steps to be as biblical as possible and thus honor the Lord Jesus Christ in baptism. May our rebaptism rates rapidly decrease and our true baptism rates explode in increase!