Mailbag #59: Two Questions on “Re-Baptism”; The Importance of a Church’s Architecture

Mailbag
04.14.2017

What are some of the pastoral principles, pitfalls, and guidelines when dealing with church members who doubt their baptism took place after their conversion? »
A church member wants his daughter to be baptized twice, in two different churches. How should I respond? »
As a church considers planting or revitalizing, how much should they take into account a building’s architecture? »

Dear 9Marks,

What are some of the pastoral principles, pitfalls, and guidelines that elders and a congregation should be led by when dealing with church members who begin to doubt that their baptism took place after their conversion? How should the elders handle this? What dangers or opportunities are there for the congregation’s discipleship and unity?

—Brian

Dear Brian,

It’s tempting to retell my own experience of this. I won’t, except to say I’ve walked through this issue in my own life in addition to counseling others. You often hear it from people who grew up with a decisionistic, easy-believism understanding of conversion. Yet now they’re sitting in your church where they’re learning that conversion involves belief and repentance, and that we must follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. And they wonder, “Was I really following Jesus as Lord all these years, or did I just purchase some fire-insurance in a one-time decision and wasn’t truly trusting in Christ?” And maybe they did live for years merely as a nominal Christian. Or maybe they’re simply entering into a new and deeper understanding of the gospel.

What makes this dilemma even worse is that the decisionistic view of conversion heavily emphasizes the sincerity of that decision over and against the object of our trust. People wonder not “Was I trusting in Christ?” but “Was I really trusting?” I’m not saying the sincerity of our trust doesn’t matter. Of course it does. I’m saying that people can become foolishly navel-gazing and self-reliant, as if salvation depends on our ability to muster up a sufficient quantity of belief.

With all that in mind, here are a few principles:

First, baptism should take place after conversion. “Repent and be baptized,” said Peter (Acts 2:38; see also, Matt. 28:18–20). Let me affirm that basic biblical truth as a Baptist. Paedobaptists sometimes criticize this whole conversation. After all, when you remove faith from what’s necessary for baptism, you avoid the whole conversation. But that’s creating far bigger problems concerning the nature of the church (unbelieving children can belong) in order to avoid smaller, occasional pastoral ones.

Second, you should never re-baptize someone. Baptism in the New Testament is a one-time affair. It presents our public entrance into the faith. Some would even say that re-baptism is a sin insofar as it makes the testimonies given by baptizer and baptizee in a person’s original baptism a lie.

Third, however, if a person is convinced they were not a believer when they were first “baptized,” then you as the pastor should ordinarily treat the first baptism as a non-baptism, and you should baptize them. I’ll come back to this in my final point.

Fourth, among those who are uncertain, remind them that we can only act in faithfulness on the basis of what we know, not on the basis of what we don’t know. “Pastor, I was nine at the time. I know I believed in Jesus when I was baptized. But was I really trusting?” These are the kinds of stories you’ll often hear, and I’ll tell people (as one wise brother told me) that you cannot go back and do all the mental archaeology of what you really believed at age nine. Instead, ask them to look at their life since then. Are there evidences of repentance? Have they lived the last “x” number of years differently than they would have were they unregenerate?

Fifth, remind them that the ordinary processes of human growth and mental development mean that age brings deeper levels of human understanding. You will understand the gospel better as an adult than as a child. So too with spiritual development and growth. We spiritually mature in our understanding of the gospel, particularly as we step into new seasons of life. So of course you understand the gospel today better than when you first believed. Expect and praise God for that. But it doesn’t mean you weren’t a Christian before.

Sixth, be sensitive to those easily prone to doubt. I say that both for the person you’re counseling and for the congregation. Basically, I’m going to counsel someone who is easily discouraged and prone to doubt differently than someone who is less introspective. With the former, I’m going to lean toward discouraging baptism. With the latter, I might be more open to it. Plus, I want to be careful about tempting the whole congregation to self-doubt. Yes, we should “examine” ourselves to see whether we are really in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). Still, every time someone stands up and says, “I was baptized at ten, but I don’t think I was a believer. So I’m here today to…” you tempt dozens of doubt-prone Christians to enter that conversation afresh. And that’s not serving them spiritually.

Seventh and finally, I leave the matter to a person’s conscience, but my default posture is to discourage it. If I see them waffling, I remind them that baptism doesn’t save us and then say something like this: “You can trust Christ and I think you can assume you were being sincere when you professed faith and were baptized the first time. Therefore, unless your conscience is telling you pretty clearly that you were not a Christian, then I’d encourage you to stop mulling this over and move on.” In other words, I won’t baptize the waffling. If telling them to “move on” has the effect of increasing their conviction that they must be baptized, and they become more resolute, then I’d baptize them.

I pray this is useful, Brian.

Dear 9Marks,

A family in our church went through a divorce a few years ago. The husband still attends our church but the wife remarried and she and the kids moved to another state.  I just received a text from the dad asking my thoughts on his youngest getting baptized in the other church (which has no formal membership) and also in our church (which does). The baptismal candidate splits time pretty evenly between the two parents/churches.

I certainly understand the desire and empathize with the situation. I know baptism is to be a one-time profession of faith but what if there are two groups of believers before whom the profession is to be made? Should we baptize again, or figure out a way to acknowledge and celebrate with her?

—Jeff

Dear Jeff,

Let me refer you to points one to three in the previous answer. I would not baptize the person twice. The Bible treats baptism as something we do once. We then celebrate our inclusion in the faith and the faith community on an ongoing basis through the Lord’s Supper. Yes, we show up in different communities of believers through the course of the Christian life, but this occurred in New Testament churches, too. And nowhere do you hear the apostles commending “re-baptisms” every time people move from one church to another.

Certainly you should look for ways to celebrate a person’s new profession of faith! But let’s not step outside of biblical patterns to do that.

Hope that’s helpful.

Dear 9Marks,

As Capitol Hill Baptist considers planting or revitalizing a church, how much do you take into account a building’s architecture? Obviously, the feeling one gets in a great Medieval cathedral is quite different than in a modern mega-church refurbished warehouse. While there is certainly no “Christian architecture,” it does seem that some spaces promote a certain ethos that can be congruent or incongruous with the gospel.

—Scott

Dear Scott,

Let me affirm your instincts which recognize the significance of physical space. As embodied creatures, we must take space into account, and what we do with space reflects our theology. That’s why Roman Catholics have long designed their worship spaces to emphasize the Table and the Mass. Protestants, meanwhile, have always made the pulpit central because we emphasize the preached Word.

I’m a Protestant. So I would say, first and foremost, you want a space that allows the Word to be preached clearly so that people can hear it and not be distracted. To that end, a climate controlled space is preferable, at least for most people today. And semi-comfortable seating is useful. (Keep in mind, however, that sitting through church is an innovation of the Reformation. Since New Testament times, the congregation stood. There was also the bishop’s chair, choir stalls, and benches around the walls for the infirm and elderly.)

A well-lit space helps people to see their Bibles, and it works against the performance mentality that comes with theater-style lighting, where you light the stage but dim the lighting where people sit. What message does this theater approach to lighting send? It says that the people on stage are the performers, and that the attendees are there to spectate, maybe even to be entertained. No, no, no. The Bible tells congregations to address and sing to one another (Eph. 5:29; Col. 3:16). They’re present to hear from God’s Word, and to respond in music and in prayer. Every believer in the “audience” should see him or herself not as the audience but as a co-participant in what’s happening. So ditch the theater lighting, and maybe even angle the chairs slightly so they can see one another.

This theater-mentality also impacts how churches think through room acoustics and the high prices churches pay for acousticians. In goes the carpet and sound absorbing tiles which are used to soften the volume of heavy guitars, drums, and microphoned singers. As a result, the congregation’s singing becomes deadened. I’d say, lower the volume of everyone up front, remove the sound tiles, and let the sound of the congregation reverberate off hard walls and floors so that they can keep up with anyone leading by microphone. Hiring an acoustician might be a good thing to do, just make sure you tell them you’re not looking for a theater, but for something that amplifies the voices of everyone.

Finally, realize that nowhere does the New Testament tell us to achieve a certain “ethos” in our worship space for the sake of reviving the heart and giving life to the soul. The old covenant made a space—the Temple—crucial to worship. God dwelled there. But Jesus tells us we will now worship neither on the temple mount nor on any other mount, but in Spirit and in truth. We the members of the church are the temple, and God dwells in us.

Furthermore, God gives life through the Word (Rom. 10:17). Therefore, as much as I personally enjoy quiet and reverence-producing cathedral-like spaces, I believe the impulse among many Protestants to go searching for a high church liturgy and worship space, as if that’s going to fix the problem of shallow churches and nominal Christianity, is a fundamentally pragmatic impulse. Call it the Christian intelligentsia’s pragmatism. I don’t have a problem with high liturgy or big, quiet spaces. Use them. Fine. Whatever. My point is, such things don’t give life to the dead or change the leopard’s spots. The Word does. So preach, teach, read, and pray the Word deeply, profoundly, thickly, intelligently, demandingly, intensely, lovingly. And find a space that allows you to do that best.