Historian tackles believer's baptism

Baptist historian Bill Leonard says those who debate believer's baptism should first examine what it means to be a believer.

By Jeff Brumley

Baptist historian Bill Leonard waded into the troubled waters of believer’s baptism June 28, but told his audience it’s really another issue that should be engaging them.

“We have to rediscover what it means to say we are a believer’s church,” Leonard told about 160 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship clergy and lay people gathered in an auditorium at the Joseph S. Koury Convention Center in Greensboro, N.C., during CBF’s 2013 General Assembly.

Leonard said congregations across the Fellowship and wider Baptist life are wrestling with the issue of baptism, both when very young children seek it and when Christians from other traditions join their churches.

Leonard asked for a show of hands for congregations who require re-baptism for those from non-immersion, non-Trinitarian or infant baptisms. Those who require full immersion slightly outnumbered those who do not, and about half the room indicated the issue causes some level of controversy in their congregations.

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But the answer to that question isn’t what makes Baptist identity, said Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest School of Divinity. Historically, he said, solid grounds can be found for both positions.

What’s been lost in many churches, Leonard said, is a sense of what it means to be a believer. The early Baptists held a firm belief that a person must have an experience of grace for membership in the Christian community. In the centuries since, other beliefs and practices have muddied the waters, such as revivalistic plans of salvation that translated God’s grace into once-saved-always-saved propositions, he said.

Figuring that out is imperative today, Leonard said, because of the rise of the ‘nones,’ the growing number of Americans, especially younger ones, who report having no religious affiliation. That demographic isn’t interested in church squabbles over baptism or communion, he said.

“I think we need to revisit the way we talk about conversion," Leonard said. "How do I know when the objective grace of God has come to me subjectively?”