Yesterday, I announced that I would be posting a forum of Romanian Baptists on the problem of “rebaptism” in the United States. Today, the forum begins with these pastors/theologians diagnosing the deeper problems of which “rebaptism” is merely the symptom.
Trevin Wax: It has been estimated that 40% of the baptisms reported in Southern Baptist churches are “rebaptisms.” Why do we see this problem in the United States? What is your diagnosis?
Paul Negrut: I do not know all the details regarding the situation of evangelical churches in the USA, so my perspective may need to be corrected at times. But I think that there are two theological currents that have swept evangelical churches into dangerous waters.
The first is Charles Finney’s belief that man can take an active role in converting other people through well-tuned evangelistic services.
The second is the Church Growth Movement, which has put a major emphasis on sociological and cultural factors of church growth.
Both of these currents have diminished the conviction of believers that we must be totally dependent on the sovereign work of God in spiritual conversion and growth. Prayer and fasting, preaching the whole counsel of God, systematic study of the Scriptures for those newly converted – these activities have been replaced by services of religious entertainment designed to please the average man on the street. Superficial conversions and rushed baptisms, without true repentance and faith that is based on knowledge of the Scriptures, have been reported as a way of demonstrating church growth.
Numbers have become the fundamental criterion for evaluating success in ministry. The truth is that fruit that does not remain is not true fruit and brings no glory to God.
Corneliu Simut: Re-baptism is a problem in the U.S. because the goal is rapid results. A large number of people baptized is what justifies the work of the pastor and confirms his efficiency (so-called) in ministry. Because the average stay of a pastor in a Southern Baptist Church is just a few years, there is an acute sense on the part of the pastor to prove his worth by seeing quick results.
Marius Cruceru: I was shocked the first time I heard someone in America testifying in the baptismal waters for a third time. It seems to me the differences are theological.
- In Romania, because of the Eastern Orthodox background, baptism is seen as sacramental, as a very unique event, and in covenantal terms.
- The folk language of the Romanian people has given rise to the idea of baptism as a covenant. I don’t think this language is biblical, but I also don’t think you can diminish the significance of baptism by saying it’s just a personal “dedication.”
- Baptism represents the symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ. These are unique, once-for-all events.
- The difference between the two symbols (Lord’s Supper and Baptism) is that baptism represents a repetitious action. Baptism takes place once.
- Both Communion and Baptism are viewed by Romanian believers in a semi-sacramental sense. Romanian believers say that something is happening during the Lord’s Supper, and tend to reject the purely Zwinglian understanding of Communion.
- It is true that the Eastern Orthodox influence may be what pushes us into these ideas, but I’m not sure that is a bad thing. Devaluing these actions is most assuredly wrong. (I remember a Campus Crusade group of Americans who came and had the Lord’s Supper on the beach in their bathing suits, with cookies and Coca Cola, in an attempt to be relevant, which actually proved to be extremely offensive to Romanians.)
- I have observed that some American preachers and missionaries in Romania tend to minimize the significance of the ordinances.
Doru Hnatiuc: I am not sure why this problem is so widespread in the U.S. I tend to think it is because of the church’s view of baptism.
Likewise, I believe that Americans eventually question the legitimacy of earlier spiritual decisions. Perhaps they question their decision because they made it at a young age or made it for primarily emotional reasons. Whatever the reason, some people come to realize their earlier decision was either too hasty or too shallow.
Sometimes, all it takes is to meet someone else who has been re-baptized (and it is easier to find this phenomenon in the U.S. than in Romania).
Another reason is that, in the U.S., baptism does not cost a person as much as in Romania (the price of being rejected by family, by society, openly mocked, etc.). Therefore, Americans find it much easier to hop from church to church or even denomination to denomination. Salvation is a personal decision that others respect.
Trevin Wax: Why does the problem of “rebaptism” not take place in Romania?
Paul Negrut: The beginnings of the Baptist movement in Romania were marked by persecution on the part of the state authorities and the Orthodox Church. Then, the Communist persecution followed.
In a time of persecution, the gospel is clearly defined over against the culture. In a context of persecution, faith is not simply a theoretic acceptance of a religion, but a profound action that involves the total consecration of a person to the lordship of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit over the mind, feelings, and will.
Repentance and faith are two wings with which a saved person follows in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus. Obedience to the Lord involves the supreme price of life and freedom. The difference between believers and non-believers is clearly visible.
Religious freedom within the context of a culture in which faith does not require such a high cost can quickly turn into a context which favors superficial and false conversions.
Doru Hnatiuc: The first reason why rebaptism does not take place in Romania is because the proclamation of the doctrine of baptism emphasizes the action as an unrepeatable identification with the death and burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as we are not born again on multiple occasions, neither should we be baptized on multiple occasions.
Scripture does not recount one case of rebaptism. (In Acts, we read of the baptism of the disciples of John, but that is not a case of reapplying the same Christian baptism.) In the case of those who fall into sin, the teaching of Scripture directs us toward church discipline. We are to correct and support those who repent of sin, but never to rebaptize them. The adulterer in Corinth was received again into fellowship, not rebaptized.
If someone says that the act of baptism meant absolutely nothing, that the whole experience declared at baptism was a lie and that the declaration of faith in Jesus was completely false, we would probably consider rebaptism after a very long and profound time of thought and observation. The risk would be that a great number of believers, under emotional pressure, might think that whenever they are facing spiritual depression, attacks from the evil one, besetting sins or doubts about salvation, they would ask for rebaptism.
It’s interesting that we Baptists (and other evangelicals in general) are accused of re-baptizing those who come from Orthodox or Catholic backgrounds and consider themselves already baptized. Our response to this accusation is that an act that takes place before the act of personal, testifying faith is invalid.
Corneliu Simut: One of the reasons we do not see “rebaptism” is because we refrain from baptizing children.
Marius Cruceru: The significance of baptism is raised to the level of “covenant.” It is seen at the level of a wedding. The action is viewed as extremely important, something that splits your life into two sections (before baptism and after baptism), and it has a sacramental weight to it.
Trevin Wax: Tomorrow, we’ll look into how Romanians view the baptism of small children.