Can we get in the water again?

I was once told that maybe I was called to the academy since I tend to obsess over things nobody cares about. I’m still not sure how to take that. But despite my Quixotic tendencies, I am still fighting the good fight of faith this time regarding if God is ok with rebaptism.

It seems that I’m part of a larger movement of Pentecostals moving toward sacramentology. My first formal foray into these waters was writing on water baptism (pun intended). I have made a conscious effort to shift our view of water baptism from a salvation graduation celebration, toward an entrance into the church after a period of study but short of a full catechism.

Historically in my church baptism serve two purposes. The first was a public celebration of people choosing to follow Christ. They confessed, we cheered, they came up wet. The second purpose was for an encounter with God. I could spend the day telling the stories of divine encounters people had in the waters of baptism in my years of ministry. More often than not, at the end of the baptism we would ask if anybody else needed to get right with God. People would run toward the waters and jump in.

Now I’m all for giving people an opportunity to get right with God any time anywhere, but I now liken that to asking at the end of a wedding if any couple there would like to be married and then marrying them on the spot. It’s not a recipe for longevity or success and diminishes what should be a sacred moment.

In our most recent baptism, it was the first water baptism I have done where I did not give people an opportunity to choose to be water baptized on that day. I know some readers have never done such a thing. In my world that was historically celebrated.

Instead, we required people go through a class, read a more formal teaching that I wrote on the purpose and function of water baptism, and then question their agreement with the Apostle’s Creed. On the day of the baptism, we called forth those who wanted to be baptized. We questioned them publicly on renouncing the works of evil, their saving faith in Christ, and their agreement with the Apostle’s Creed.

I was worried that somehow this would keep the Holy Ghost from showing up. I know that sounds crazy to the average reader, but it was a real concern. I was overjoyed when people had powerful encounters with the Holy Ghost in the waters.

So we had a far more formal, sacramental water baptism with one deviation. We allowed people to get rebaptized. And it would seem that this tips some sacramental sacred cows.

In Daniel Tomberlin’s Pentecostal Sacraments, he’s pretty vehement that people should not get baptized more than once.[1] Instead he proposes foot washing for people who are re-dedicating their life to God / recommitting / repenting of being away / getting right again. Honestly, that sounds more revisionist than getting a second dunk.

Foot washing could be sacramental for the one doing the washing. It is an act of humility and service. But it holds no connection to our current cultural context where everyone wears socks and people do not wash their feet when entering houses. Also, no large body of Christians has ever received foot washing as a sacrament or an ordinance and its New Testament evidence is ambiguous.[2]

So here are three areas where I am studying to find a theological landing spot for rebaptism:

  1. Will Pentecostal sacramentology look any different? I have not fully read Chris Green’s work on it but he details the two directions of Pentecostal sacramentology. One is to follow the broader Christian tradition, the other is to develop a unique and authentic Pentecostal account of the sacrament.[3] I have had too many people say they felt / wanted to / were told by an inner witness / thought it was right to get rebaptized after a season away from following God. And there is the rub. I can’t dismiss the testimony of so many people who felt a conviction to be rebaptized.
  2. There is biblical precedent for rebaptism. The New Testament details several occasions where people were rebaptized. This always was when the post-resurrection apostles encountered people who received “John’s baptism.” This was always in response to lack of Spirit reception at baptism. Andrew Williams makes some accommodation for the possible rebaptizing those baptized as infants.[4]
    Is it possible for people to be baptized in the triune formula yet not receive the Spirit? Did the baptism of John only describe those baptized by John and his disciples or is it possible there are those who are only baptized today for repentance? What should I make of people who are baptized in the Spirit at a subsequent water baptism?
  3. Both Ephesians and the Creed confess one baptism but that is not formulaic, that is a confession of one Church to be baptized into. Could an initial baptism be likened to a briss (Jewish ceremonial circumcision), and subsequent baptisms be likened to a mikvah (ritual cleansing)?

Why is this a big deal to me and why spend all this time on something so inconsequential? My greatest frustration with Pentecostal theology is its disconnect from Pentecostal praxis. Classical Pentecostals believe that there are no sacraments yet believe that miracles can happen through the laying on of hands, anointed preaching, intercession, anointing with oil, prophecy, and many other practices both Christian and pagan. We won’t even touch if giving has been elevated to sacramental in the Pentecostal / Charismatic church.

I just want to say I believe in what we do. I’m not following folklore or witchcraft. These are the ways that I have seen God move and I believe it is neither forbidden by Scripture nor is Scripture proscriptive of some other function. And on this journey, I’ve started with water baptism.

If you have other thoughts, I would love to hear them.

[1] Daniel Tomberlin, Pentecostal Sacraments: Encountering God at the Altar (Cherohala Press, 2019).

[2] Robert Webber, The Sacred Actions of Christian Worship, vol. 6, The Complete Library of Christian Worship (Nashville, TN: Star Song Pub. Group, 1994), 343.

[3] Chris E. Green, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom (Cleveland, Tenn: CPT Press, 2012). My citation of Green here does not in any way denote his support of my thesis. I am fairly confident that he is against rebaptism.

[4] Andrew Ray Williams, Washed in the Spirit: Toward A Pentecostal Theology of Water Baptism (Cleveland: CPT Press, 2021). It’s important to note he is not a fan of the practice though.

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