Should Reformed Churches Recognize Rome’s Baptisms?


Leaders of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ (UCC), together with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), have approved this week a common agreement on baptism. In effect, these four Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church will recognize each other’s baptisms.

Although I have not examined in great detail the summary of the agreement below, I see a few good things here at first glance. Points 1-3 affirm baptism as the initiation of a person into the church (although I don’t agree with the “visible unity” thing). This is a much better statement than the Baptist view of baptism as “personal testimony” before a congregation. Point 4 affirms a once-for-life baptism rite, again, a rejection of Baptists’ innovation of multiple re-baptisms.

Points 5 and 6 need to be commended with their affirmation of what is “valid” baptism: (1) water is used; (2) in the name of the Holy Trinity (as codified in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds); and (3) administered by and “according to the apostolic witness by the church and its authorized ministers.”

In this regard, I note a couple of things:

First, this is the position of most (if not all) URCNA pastors, noting that historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have recognized RCC baptism. For a good position paper for the validity of RCC baptism, see the “Minority Report of the Ad Hoc Committee to Study the Validity of Certain Baptisms,” from the 1987 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

What if the RCC is not a true, but an apostate, church? The Minority Report argues,

It is therefore instructive to note Calvin’s comments on the parallelism between the apostate Church of Rome and the apostate Israel:

the covenant of the Lord continued there (among the Israelites) and His faith could not be obliterated by their perfidy [unfaithfulness]; nor could circumcision be so profaned by their impure hands as not still to be a true sign and sacrament of His covenant … baptism which, consecrated by His lips, retains its power in spite of human depravity.

Second, unlike Baptist churches, Reformed and Presbyterian churches do not regard other churches’ baptism based on the doctrine and practice of baptism, but on the three qualifiers above. Point 7 below affirms, “At the same time, we affirm our responsibility to respect the integrity of the distinct baptismal practices of the communions in which the rite of Baptism is administered.”

We don’t reject immersion, but as the Minority Report above says, “a baptism administered by immersion is improper, yet valid” (WCF 28:3). And if a person has been baptized multiple times, we recognize all those baptisms, as long as they meet the above requirements. Again, the Minority Report argues, “The church has historically not rebaptized those who have fallen away from the faith, been excommunicated, and subsequently repented. Historically, the church has not required rebaptism for those who were baptized by ministers who subsequently proved to be apostate.”

Below is the text of the summary of the Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism.

Roman Catholic-Reformed Church dialogue

  1. Together we affirm that, by the sacrament of Baptism, a person is truly incorporated into the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:13 and 27; Ephesians 1:22-23), the church. Baptism establishes the bond of unity existing among all who are part of Christ’s body and is therefore the sacramental basis for our efforts to move towards visible unity.
  2. Together we affirm that Baptism is the sacramental gateway into the Christian life, directed toward the fullness of faith and discipleship in Christ.
  3. Together we affirm that incorporation into the universal church by baptism is brought about by celebrating the sacrament within a particular Christian community.
  4. Together we affirm that Baptism is to be conferred only once, because those who are baptized are decisively incorporated into the Body of Christ.
  5. Together we affirm that baptism is a sacrament of the church, enacted in obedience to the mission confided to it by Christ’s own word. For our baptisms to be mutually recognized, water and the scriptural Trinitarian formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28: 19-20) must be used in the baptismal rite.
  6. Together we affirm that the validity of Baptism depends on its celebration according to the apostolic witness by the church and its authorized ministers.
  7. Together we affirm, as a sign of our unity and as a witness to ecumenical commitment, the practice of inviting the presence and, where appropriate, the participation of members of our respective communions in the celebration of Baptism. At the same time, we affirm our responsibility to respect the integrity of the distinct baptismal practices of the communions in which the rite of Baptism is administered.
  8. Given our mutual recognition of Baptism, we encourage using baptismal registers in the local church community and, when requested by another church for a pastoral need in the life of an individual, providing written attestations of Baptism, including the liturgical formula used. Such cooperation and mutual accountability honors the dignity of the sacrament of Baptism.

Read the Minority Report, then tell us what you think: Should Reformed churches recognize Roman Catholic baptisms?

For another good article on Protestant-Catholic unity, read Michael Horton’s “Can We Be Confessional and Catholic? Prospects for Christian Unity Today”



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