Although I have been away from Oneness Pentecostal circles for about seven years I continue to receive emails from people on this movement on occasion. Usually they come from people who have recently departed from Oneness Pentecostalism who seek to understand their new identity outside the sect. Sometimes they remain within the movement, but they are entertaining doubts about its teachings and practices. I do not reveal the identity of people who contact me because I know for many their decision to leave will have/has had a major impact on their family relations, their friendships, and even their identity as Christians. It can be a turbulent time when you leave a group that shares such an “us-against-the-world” identity. If you leave you are part of “the world.”
One of the most common questions I receive is “Should I be rebaptized?” There are two common reasons given: (1) Oneness Pentecostals baptize “in Jesus name” according to Acts 2.38 as a polemic against the Trinitarian baptism of Matthew 28.19. The sectarian motivation of this baptism concerns some when they begin to embrace the catholic church. (2) Some sense that they were coerced into being baptized. Maybe they were told that if they died that night without having been baptized ‘in Jesus name’ (and sometimes if they have not yet ‘spoke in tongues’) they would go to hell, so they got their ‘fire insurance’ and submitted to baptism without fully understanding its meaning. For others this previous reason may have applied as well, but they add the nuance that they were baptized very young without a full understanding of what was happening.
For some “high-church” types this second concern may not make sense, but you have to remember that Oneness Pentecostals affirm “believer’s baptism” so technically this is the paradigm many former Oneness Pentecostals embrace. The idea of being baptized as a child and confirmed later in life is foreign to them. Since “believer’s baptism” emphasizes individual commitment and an understanding of that commitment you can see why someone who was baptized out of fear or ignorance may sense that their baptism is invalid.
When I am asked whether someone should be rebaptized you must remember that I am an evangelical answering this question. I imagine my Catholic co-blogger JohnDave Medina may have a different answer. I tell people “no” you do not need to be rebaptized, but I can see value in doing so.
I don’t affirm the dichotomy between baptism “in Jesus name” and baptism “in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit” since the “name” has to do with authority and identity and I think Acts 2.38 and Matthew 28.19 are speaking of the same source of authority: the God revealed through Christ. It is apparent from Acts and the Pauline Epistles that being baptized “into Christ” was an early and important idea. Likewise, Matthew and documents like the Didache show that baptism into “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” was important as well. Obviously the nature of doctrinal conflict in the church influenced the emphasis on “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but I don’t think that nullifies baptism “in Jesus’ name.”
When I received an email on this subject yesterday I replied as such:
I was baptized in Jesus name as a pre-teen for many of the same reasons as you. I have had friends who share our experience who decided to get rebaptized, but I chose not to do it for a few reasons.
First, I think God is bigger than our constructs of time. He doesn’t have an order of salvation like we do. I believe someone could be baptized for all kinds of wrong reasons, come to more real and mature faith later, and God is not worried about which came first. God sees our whole life, not isolated events.
Second, faith doesn’t have to be pure and well-informed to be genuine faith. You may have had an immature ‘I don’t want to go to hell’ faith, but it was in Christ, and it was innocent even if ignorant.
Third, several years from now you will have matured even more in Christ. Will your baptism now need replacement then? Of course not.
That said, if you sense that being rebaptized now would allow you to confess some things (eg, the Trinity, the catholicity of your faith over against Oneness sectarianism) by all means do it, but do it for the present benefits, not because your first baptism was imperfect.
And that about sums up my views on the matter. I have not been rebaptized because I think that my baptism was biblical, it had orthodox meaning (even if it lacked orthodox intent), and God is not limited in time to the moment I was baptized nor to my spiritual maturity or lack thereof. Yet I do understand why being baptized with a fuller understanding could be an experience worth pursuing. I have friends who have done it and being baptized was a refreshing and enlivening event.