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Should Orthodox Churches Re-baptize Individuals and Re-ordain Ministers Coming from Mainline Denominations?

What constitutes Christian baptism and ordination?  This question has arisen in a new way in our day as the once orthodox, mainline denominations have turned away from the true convictions of the historic, Christian Church.  To put the matter bluntly, if orthodox ministries, missions, denominations, and churches do not recognize the baptism and ordination of persons received into cultic groups such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and Christian Science Church, we might well ask whether we should now accept once-orthodox groups that have jettisoned their beliefs and practices for new-fangled teachings that deny both Scriptural and Church authority.

To be sure, the Church has had various reasons to ask this question throughout its history.  Ulrich Zwingli addressed the issue of ‘re-baptism’ in response to the arguments of Anabaptists in the 16th century.  The Anabaptists called for adult baptism and did not recognise the baptism of infants as baptism.  (Thus, they did not really advocate re-baptism but called for true baptism, in their understanding of Scripture.)  Ulrich Zwingli took up the argument against Anabaptists and wrote Baptism, Rebaptism, and Infant Baptism in 1525, A Reply to Hubmaier (1525), A Refutation (1527), and Questions Concerning the Sacrament of Baptism (1530).  Indeed, the issue of orthodoxy and baptism was raised in a major way in the 16th century, even to the point that, in their opposition to ‘rebaptism,’ supposedly righteous defenders of the faith were willing to kill persons like Hubmaier—persons thoroughly orthodox themselves in their Christian views but on the wrong side of power and tradition in a matter such as baptism.  Those were truly sad and deplorable days for the Church.

Yet, the 16th century was not the only time that such issues were raised.  What, the orthodox Church asked, should be done with heretical persons who wished to renounce their theological errors in the schisms of the early Church?  Bishop Severus of Antioch, writing in the early 6th century, addressed the specific cases of believers and ordained ministers who abandoned their Christological heresy that Christ has two, separable natures (human and divine) and accepted the orthodox teaching that Christ has one nature (fully God and fully human).  At first, Severus followed Christian practice on such matters, saying that the matter should be treated as other matters of repentance are, but not by re-ordaining or re-baptising or re-anointing the person (Letter I.60).[1]  Yet, Severus later, in the same letter, says that ‘healing is not applied to converts from heresy in one way only, but according to the nature of the error: perfection and the cure of the disease being granted to some through baptism and ordination, to others through chrism [anointing with oil], to others through their anathematizing the heresy in writing, and repudiating it and showing fruits of penitence’ (I.60).

Indeed, this is where the matter lies in our day as well.  The mainline denominations that have abandoned various orthodox teachings and practices are a mix of orthodoxy and heresy, and there is no single approach that can be applied to the healing of such errors.  In them, one will find the denial that Christ has risen bodily from the grave or the denial that he was incarnate of the virgin Mary.  Some deny the deity of Christ, the sacrificial efficacy of His death on the cross, or some other, standard, Christian doctrine.  Many in the mainline denominations have jettisoned the ethical teaching of orthodox Christianity on matters of sexuality.  One might find sound believers in the pews of a church while, in the same denomination or even the same church, find someone openly living in sin or advocating Western cultural sexuality in regard to marriage, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and transgenderism.  Should someone renouncing such errors and wishing to associate with orthodoxy Christianity be rebaptised, re-ordained, received with a renunciation in writing of his or her errors, and/or be anointed with oil?

The answer to such a question, as Severus appreciated, lay in the nature of the error, not in some general approach to the matter.  This calls for a church enquiry.  It may be that the error is such that, as in the case of cults, a baptism was not Christian in the first place.  Thus, baptism in an orthodox, Christian church is not re-baptism at all but Christian baptism.  Such is the case with well-known cults, such as Mormonism.  But is this now the case with the once-orthodox churches that have, as denominations, embraced heresy or, at least, permitted it through heterodoxy?  What should be done with someone coming to an orthodox church after being baptized or ordained in, for example, the Evangelical Church of North America, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, the Episcopal Church, or the Congregational Church—once orthodox denominations that now tolerate and even promote error?

I would suggest, firstly, an assumption that these are not Christian Churches—an assumption that might be overturned upon examination in particular cases.  As denominations, they have affirmed heretical teachings on sexuality and become advocates of sin.  We are hardly in a position to recognize baptism—the putting away of sin—as practiced by those about whom Paul says, ‘They know God's decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die-- yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them' (Romans 1.32).  Yet, given that these denominations once taught the truth and that one still finds believers in them, since wheat and tares always grow together in this age, individuals will need to be questioned to determine the extent of the error that they now renounce.  Was it their own, or was it their denominations’?  Was it on an essential matter of doctrine or ethics, or was it a peripheral matter about which orthodox Christians may charitably disagree?

In the case of uncertainty, we might take an example from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which allows for a service for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.  The Church has long held that one’s baptism does not depend on the righteousness or orthodoxy of the minister, yet we now have to ask whether one was actually baptized into a Christian Church even though churches in this or that denomination were, at one time, the very definition of Christian orthodoxy.  Thus, the ambiguity we now have calls on us to determine whether to baptize a person into a Christian church despite their ‘baptism’ in some other form of church, or whether to renew baptismal vows.  Suppose an openly homosexual priest living with his partner in the Church of England were to come to Christian faith and wish to be recognized by an orthodox Church?  Would this be a matter of penitence or a matter for Christian baptism and, possibly, ordination (at some later stage, of course)?  Or suppose the weasely Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, were to come to recognize the error of his ways in opposing orthodoxy and encouraging error in the Church of England on such matters as homosexuality.  His inclusion in an orthodox body of believers depends not only on his own journey of faith but also on whether we still believe the Church of England to be a Christian Church.  It may even involve our decision about whether the Church of England was a Christian Church when he was baptized, despite its present embracing of various heretical teachings.

Perhaps it is worth noting that a similar practice might be followed in other grey areas in our post-Christian culture.  Marriage, for example, is a union recognized by Christians to apply to those outside the Church.  It is part of the creation mandate and not a particular Christian practice—even if some Christians (Roman Catholics) have understood it as a Christian sacrament.  Yet, in our day, there are those who have confused the general understanding of marriage held in a great variety of cultures and who now advocate a novel fancy of the impossible—same-sex marriage.  Such confusions over marriage make it all the more relevant for the Church to practice a Christian celebration of marriage even if a couple had already been married before coming to Christ, or if only one partner had been a Christian.  This would not be a re-marriage or a ‘marriage for the first time,’ as the Church recognizes the initial marriage.  Yet, the Church can ‘Christianize’ the marriage through a renewal of wedding vows and a Christian blessing of the marriage.  This is not the same as the earlier case of baptism, which is distinctly a Christian practice, yet there may be similarities in the idea of the renewal of vows in certain cases.  However, there are now Churches, such as the Church of Scotland, that define marriage in an anti-natural way even over against many non-Christian cultures, to say nothing of orthodox Christianity, and it is imperative that, upon coming to faith outside of such a ‘Church,’ the marriage be sanctified by the Church.

Ordination is yet another case at issue.  Orthodox churches understand ordination differently.  Some believe in an ‘ontological change’ in the person being ordained while others see ordination more functionally—the church recognizes the gifting of the person to do certain ministry within the community.  The various views inevitably lead to a variety of attitudes and practices in regard to an ‘ordained’ minister who turned out not, in fact, to have been a practicing Christian, who had slipped into significant error, or who had engaged in some terrible sin.  Rightly, churches investigate such matters on a case by case basis.  However, those ordained into ministry in denominations that, as denominations, have rejected Christian truth should all be required to be ordained as ministers in an orthodox church as though they had never been ordained.  Their renunciation of error should come, as Severus notes, after an appropriate time of penitence and an examination over time of character.

In conclusion, this article has sought to address the issue of baptism and ordination in the difficult situation of heretical communities.  The problem—one addressed in various ways in the history of the Church—has reached new levels of concern as once orthodox denominations have come to embrace theological and moral errors.  The main purpose of this article has been to raise the question of what should be done with those coming out of heretical ‘Churches’—how should they be received by the newer yet orthodox denominations?  The answer offered here is that decisions will need to be made on a case by case basis, and yet there will be times when baptism or ordination must not be recognized as, in the first instance, Christian.

[1] The Sixth Book of the Select Letters of Severus, Patriarch of Antioch, Vol. II, Part I, ed. E. W. Brooks (Works Issued by the Text and Translation Society; Oxford: Williams & Norgate, 1903); accessed online: (30 April, 2018).