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Baptism: the long road to mutual recognition

03 August 2004

By Mark Woods *

Throughout the Christian world, baptism is acknowledged to be a commandment of Jesus and the fundamental rite of initiation into his church. But the theology and practice of baptism in different communions is very diverse, and bringing these different understandings together is an enormous theological task.

A young woman, perhaps 18 years old, has been attending her Protestant church all her life. One Sunday, the pastor preaches a powerful sermon on the need to repent and believe, and she becomes a candidate for baptism. After a course of classes, she invites her family and friends to a morning service. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, she goes down into the baptismal pool. Her pastor asks her if she repents of her sins and believes in Jesus Christ as her Saviour and Lord, and if she promises to serve him faithfully in the fellowship of his church. The young woman says : "I do", and is baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

A young couple have their first child, and decide that they would like her to be brought up in the faith of their church. They speak to their priest, who explains to them what their decision means for them and for their child, and arranges a date. They choose godparents for their daughter, and when the time comes, the child is dressed in a white gown and taken to church. The group gathers around the font, and when the parents and godparents have declared their own faith and made promises about the child's upbringing, she is sprinkled with water, again in the name of the Trinity, and welcomed into the body of Christ.

These two baptisms look and feel very different. Those baptised have come to that place by different routes, and for each, the baptism has a different significance. Underlying the different rites are different understandings of the church, of conversion, of salvation, of Christian living and of sacraments.

And each church may harbour deep misgivings about the baptismal practice of the other, sometimes to the extent that they refuse to acknowledge such a baptism as valid at all.

But does this matter? According to those working on this issue at the World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order Commission, it matters very much indeed.

Problems and opportunities

Rev. Dr Peter Donald is a Church of Scotland minister. "I believe the enterprise is crucial," he says.

One of the main areas of difference on baptism is between those churches which baptise infants and those for whom infant baptism is invalid, because in their view baptism requires the personal expression of faith.

So if a Lutheran or a Catholic, for instance, joins a Baptist church, he or she may have to be baptised by immersion – though all would agree that baptism can only be performed once in a person's life.

While he acknowledges the work which has already been done to bring about greater understanding and acceptance, not least in his own church, Peter Donald says: "We may be less mutually recognising of baptism than we pretend. If we really are recognising it, that has huge implications for what we understand the church to be."

Baptism, he says, is "basic" in terms of ecumenical relations. "The Roman Catholics and us have a joint commission, and baptism is at the top of the list of issues. It's not terribly easy to get real agreement, because the implications are so massive."

How massive? "It's inherently illogical to recognise baptism and not recognise communion. Visible communion is the holy grail, and you get towards that by sorting out baptism."

In line with the seriousness of the issue, one of the key documents discussed at the Faith and Order meeting from 28 July-6 August in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is "One Baptism: towards mutual recognition of Christian initiation".

The mutual recognition of baptism raises the wider question of the mutual recognition of the churches themselves.

This mutual recognition, it says, is based on "acknowledging" the status of another body, as an equal, rather than "granting" it status, as a superior – implying a respect for other churches on the basis of "shared convictions and values".

In other words, mutual recognition follows from the churches' realisation that there is already a koinonia, a fellowship, between them. But if that's so, isn't that sufficient grounds for saying that a baptism in one church is just the same as a baptism in another? Isn't baptism just baptism?

Not quite, according to Fr Jorge Scampini, an Argentinian Roman Catholic University teacher. In a paper presented to the meeting, he identified problems such as how it's possible to speak of one baptism if it means different things in different communions, whether it's possible to ignore its implications for ecclesiology, and whether it's possible to lift baptism out of its theological context in each communion.

Nevertheless, for the Catholic Church, he said, baptisms administered with water in the name of the Trinity and "with the intention of doing what the church does" are valid, in whatever church they are conducted. And this provides a "momentum" towards full fellowship between communions.

However, with baptism as with other sacraments, there's also a relationship to the content of faith – what the person baptised, and the church which baptises them, actually believes, and how that faith is lived out. So while there's "oneness in grace", that doesn't necessarily require "the restoration of visible unity", expressed in eucharistic communion.

But, he concludes, "The journey towards mutual recognition of baptism is one step towards full recognition and communion."

Rev. Dr Michael Tita of the Romanian Orthodox Church agrees that baptism is only part of the issue.

"It's not just recognition of baptism that leads to Holy Communion," he says. "That's an initial step that can represent a stage on the way, but it's a matter of having a growing, deepening faith that is going through different stages."

This is symbolised in the Orthodox way of initiation into the church, which has three elements. Baptism (immersion in the name of the Trinity), chrismation (the anointing with oil, marking the seal of the Holy Spirit), and Holy Communion. "Once over seven years old, a person confesses every time he or she takes Holy Communion," he says. "It's a cleansing act of penitence and a recognition of their sins. The Christian life is a process – we're always on our way to greater union and a deeper relationship with Christ." In line with that, a convert to Orthodoxy from another communion might not be baptised, but would receive chrismation before being admitted to communion.

This means that accepting the baptism of another church doesn't automatically mean accepting that its ministry is valid or that the eucharist could be shared. Baptism, ecclesiology, ministry – "All these themes have to be inter-woven," he says.

He's in no doubt that mutual recognition is a desirable goal. "The question is, is it going to happen in the foreseeable future? I don't know, and nor does anyone except the Holy Spirit."

How hard can it be?

While the mutual recognition of baptism is clearly fundamental to the ecumenical endeavour and is high on the theological priority list of the Faith and Order Commission, it has to be said that, for some, its concerns are a little remote.

Hrangthan Chhungi is a member of the Indian Evangelical Lutheran Church, and one of a group of younger theologians in Kuala Lumpur. "It doesn't really touch my context," she says.

For Indians, the issues are felt not primarily in terms of the varying theologies of different churches but in terms of the social and economic consequences of being baptised at all. The Hindu caste system is hugely influential in Indian society. Christianity appeals mostly to the low-caste Dalits – 80 per cent of Christians are from that caste – but a Dalit who converts to Christianity, through baptism and accepting another name, faces the loss of privileges granted to his or her caste. For instance, they can no longer take advantage of the positive discrimination provided by the government, which allocates places for them in schools and colleges on a quota basis.

"In that context, many become Christians but prefer not to be baptised," says Ms Chhungi.

And the consequences are even greater for the high-caste Brahmins. "If they're baptised, they lose their social status. Baptism is costly, for Dalits and Brahmins alike. In India, and in Asia generally, we live very close to our neighbours. If you want to change caste or change your name, you lose that identity."

In this context, for most Indian churches, she says, inter-denominational transfers just aren't a serious issue for Christians. A far greater concern is caste, which is still a feature of life in Christian churches and is the result, she says, of a failure by Western missionaries to confront the issue in the early days.

Another Indian perspective comes from Rev. Dr James Massey of the Church of North India (CNI), a united church of six constituent denominations, one of them Baptist.

He tells the story of one Baptist CNI minister who was unable in conscience to baptise infants, but who regularly invited him to perform the rite himself. "The beauty of it was that even he, a Baptist, wore a cassock, and while I baptised the child he held the water in his hands. He recognised me."

Dr Massey is adamant that mutual recognition shouldn't be delayed. "You should not wait for 100% agreement," he says. "The consensus has to lie in respect."

"If you hold that together, that's the end of the arguments in Faith and Order. For the younger generation of CNI pastors, this sort of controversy has no meaning. We should listen to younger theologians."

For another participant in Faith and Order, too, the issue of baptism is simpler. Responding to Jorge Scampini's presentation, Miriam Baar Bush, a pastor in the Reformed Church of America, referred to his description of a two-fold "yes" – the universal "yes" of faith spoken in baptism, which makes us members of Christ's one church, and the "yes" of response to particular confessions, doctrines and traditions.

"Could we as Christians come together as children with our primary attention on God's 'yes', based simply on Christ's acceptance of each one of us?" she asked. "If Christ has accepted and welcomed us without a list of conditions, how can we not accept one another?" She concluded: "We can trust others because we trust in the very presence of God. As we accept one another in baptism, we bring glory to God, and we recognise the revealed presence of God among us."

The way ahead

Whatever the different perspectives brought to the discussion of baptism by so many people from so many different contexts, there's no doubt that, for each of them, these steps on the journey to understanding have been spiritually and intellectually exciting.

Rev. Neville Callam, a Jamaican Baptist minister and one of the framers of the revised "One Baptism" document, said: "For me, it's been a liberating experience to approach church unity on the ground of baptism and ecclesiology."

As far as the future is concerned, while he acknowledges the progress that's been made, he sees enormous obstacles ahead. "As long as some communions call into question the validity of ministry in other churches, we won't overcome these grave divisions. But we have to try to push the edges of the issues."

The World Council of Churches represents Christian communions all over the world. If it is to achieve its aim of visible unity, so that each church recognises in the others the fullness of the presence of Christ and the Spirit, the edges will have to be pushed for many years to come.


Lima - Faverges - Kuala Lumpur - Porto Alegre: milestones along the road

The Faith and Order consideration of baptism is built on the 1982 document "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry", adopted in Lima, Peru. While this document revealed a "remarkable degree of agreement" on the subject, it was clear that more work needed to be done.

Another statement, "One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition of Christian Initiation", was produced in 2001 by a Faith and Order consultation in Faverges, France.

The meeting in Kuala Lumpur considered a revision of this document aimed at clarifying what the mutual recognition of baptism means, explaining some of the implications, and identifying some of the issues preventing mutual recognition.

The document looks at biblical texts, ideas about sacraments, baptism and the church and church membership, and suggests ways forward, including practical ways of expressing recognition.

Following further revision in the light of responses received, the document will be presented at the WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2006.


(*) Mark Woods is news editor of the Baptist Times and an ordained Baptist minister from the UK.

Kuala Lumpur features: Although written according to the usual journalistic standards of accuracy and balance, since this article is intended for the general public it should not be read as a formal academic or theological text, nor should it be considered an official statement of the Faith and Order commission.

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