Getting baptized.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 July 2017

My nieces got baptized last month. Part of their church’s vacation bible school (if you’re not familiar with the phenomenon, it’s a weeklong church program meant to evangelize kids) to of course to get kids to choose Jesus. And of course after such decisions naturally comes baptism.

The girls had chosen to follow Jesus some time before. But one of the things about the Evangelical subculture—kind of a peeve of mine—is how it can sometimes takes years before new Christians finally bother to get baptized. We’re meant to do one right after the other, ’cause we’re supposed to make a solid mental connection between the two. Get saved, get baptized, ’cause baptism represents salvation. But many Evangelicals turn the sinner’s prayer into that thing we’re meant to mentally connect to salvation: “Did you ask Jesus into your heart? Okay, you’re saved.” Hence baptism becomes way less of a priority. Once you’ve confessed Christ, evangelists tell you to get plugged into a church, to read your bible, maybe attend a bible study; it’s not so often “Let’s get you baptized.” They do want you to get around to it someday, as a nice way to publicly declare your faith. But Evangelicals often figure it can wait. And the wait can turn into a long time.

For me there was a three-year gap between when I became Christian in 1975, and when I finally got baptized in 1978. Partly ’cause I had been baptized already.

See, my mom’s parents were Roman Catholic. Mom was lapsed and Dad was atheist, but the grandparents insisted I be baptized. Otherwise if I died unexpectedly, I’d go to limbo.

No, this has nothing to do with the under-the-bar dance, which is named for how limber you have to be to participate. Supposedly limbo is a state which is neither heaven nor hell; it’s on the limbus/“border,” hence the name. It’s a popular myth in Catholicism; few other Christians believe in it.

And not even all Catholics. The official teaching of Catholicism is grace: When unbaptized babies die, all things being equal, God graciously takes ’em to heaven. But limbo’s the unofficial teaching, and old-timey Catholics grew up hearing horror stories of parents who never baptized their babies, and now the kids are in limbo, if not burning in hell.

I should mention: I read Dante’s Inferno. According to him, limbo’s the first circle of hell. The nice part of hell, if any part of hell can be said to be nice. In it are all the pagans you kinda thought should go to heaven, but since they didn’t care for Jesus (or didn’t know about him; Dante was kinda unforgiving that way), they didn’t. So they spend eternity not in heaven, kinda bummed about their bad fortune. And apparently they get squalling unbaptized babies dumped on them on the regular. Maybe that’s what makes it hell.

Regardless, the grandparents wanted me baptized. So Mom shrugged and let ’em get me baptized.

This is why I’ve joked ever since that I’m Catholic. But a really lousy Catholic, ’cause I keep going to Protestant churches. Still, I’m just as Catholic as my so-called “Catholic” friends and acquaintances who never got confirmed, never go to Mass, and figure baptism means God’s gotta grant ’em heaven. Not wise to take God’s grace for granted like that, but they do.

Baby baptism.

Various Protestants, like Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Presbyterians, have no problem with infant baptism, or pedobaptism. Like the Orthodox and Catholics, they tend to think of baptism as the Christian substitute for the ancient Hebrew practice of ritual circumcision.

See, the LORD instructed Abraham and his descendants to circumcise their boys when they were eight days old. Ge 17.12 Jesus included. Lk 2.21 No, the boys didn’t recall their circumcision—and good thing!—so these Christians figure what difference does it make if we don’t remember our baptism? The important thing is we got baptized. And just as the Hebrew boys later personally committed themselves to a relationship with God, Christians can do likewise.

The first Protestants to make a fuss about this idea were the anabaptists, a term which means “rebaptizers”: They insisted baptism’s gotta be a conscious decision on our part. We gotta make a conscious decision for Christ; therefore we gotta make a conscious decision to be baptized, since baptism represents salvation. The practice of confirmation—where after you finally make that conscious decision for Christ, you declare your infant baptism to be valid—made no sense to them. Plus you don’t even remember your baptism. Shouldn’t you remember it?

The Calvinists started persecuting the Anabaptists, and the Puritans started persecuting the Baptists for later adopting the same idea. But nowadays a lot of Protestants—Calvinists included—agree with believer baptism, and insist on it. Me, I prefer the idea of getting people baptized as soon as possible after they’ve made a decision for Christ, so believer baptism seems the most natural idea.

But I also kinda understand where pedobaptists are coming from. When I got rebaptized in ’78, I was still a kid. How much does a kid really understand about what it means to follow Jesus? Heck, how much does any new believer understand about what we just got ourselves into? Oh, we’ll learn. But initially, even if we had to sit through several weeks of baptism classes, we don’t really understand what baptism and Christianity’s all about. It’s one of those things you just gotta experience for yourself. We all do.

So whether you baptize babies, sentient kids, or adults, the important thing is we obey Jesus Mt 28.19 and baptize newbies. If we recognize our own baby baptisms as valid, I’m pretty sure God does too. And if you don’t, go get yourself rebaptized. I don’t see it as a problem to make a fuss over. I know other Christians do; I say they need to get over themselves.

Of course, I didn’t think this way in ’78. Neither did my church. Which is why I got baptized a second time.

Getting baptized again.

When I was baptized the first time, my grandparents were designated as my godparents. Now yeah, in popular culture, “godparent” means all sorts of things. In Catholicism, godparents are the people whose duty it is to make sure you grow up Catholic. My grandparents were rubbish godparents. Not just ’cause they lived in Arizona and I in California: They never taught me a single thing about Catholicism. Not even the basics. Never gave me a bible nor rosary. Never encouraged me to pray. Never took me to Mass. Never tried to sneak me religious instruction behind Mom’s back, just in case she’d forbidden them to teach me anything. I’d heard of Catholic grandparents who tried to do that with their grandkids who were raised Protestant or pagan. Had they been more devout, I expect they’d have tried it. But in my grandparents’ case, they were already crummy Catholics. They had no real faith to pass down.

Anyway, my childhood church was one of those denominations which taught believer baptism: It’s only for Christians who can confess with their mouths Jesus is Lord Ro 10.9 before they get into the water. To their minds, my infant baptism didn’t count; it was a dead ritual. I believed ’em, so I wanted the real thing. So did Mom, who also decided to get re-baptized.

At the time, the church was building a new auditorium. Thus far all they’d built was the concrete foundation. They’d built a baptismal into it. So they were gonna baptize us out in the open, right on the street, where drivers could watch us getting dunked. Now that’s a public declaration of faith. Mom loved the idea. Me, I was just glad I didn’t have to wait till the auditorium was built first.

Yeah, there was a baptism class we had to attend first. I recall it was only two weeks long. The church I attended later had a four week class, which is really overdoing it: There’s not much Christians need to learn about baptism before going through with it. My church wanted to make really sure we knew this wasn’t something we were doing lightly. So we did the class. Then, one Sunday morning for all to see, we got dunked in our church’s new baptismal. Now we were really Christian.

Mom got rebaptized again 20 years later. We were taking a tour of Israel, and stopped at this tourist site at the Jordan River where you could get baptized. She wasn’t passing up the opportunity to get re-rebaptized “where Jesus was baptized.” (Which wasn’t the precise spot, but close enough.) Me, I figured it wasn’t a real baptism; it was a reenactment at best, and I didn’t care to do that for the novelty of it all, so I opted out. Twice was plenty. Besides, I got to ride a raft down the Jordan a few days before. There was no shortage of cool experiences on that trip.

Since I was the only one of my siblings to get baptized Catholic, all of ’em were just baptized the once. Well, unless you count Jordan River rebaptisms, which honestly I don’t think any of us do.