A friend recently wrote asking for resources about the topic of rebaptism. One of the things I sent him was this little piece that I wrote for Reformed Perspective back in 1999.
WHY IS THERE NO REBAPTISM FOR EX-ROMAN CATHOLICS WHO JOIN A REFORMED CHURCH?
A good question! We could even extend this question to those who come to us from other false churches. This difficult question has a long history in the Christian church. Since the time of Augustine, the Christian church has recognized the validity of baptisms administered by heretics — with one condition: a valid baptism must be administered by an ordained minister of the gospel according to the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19.
However, an appeal to history is meaningless if we do not also show from the Scriptures why the church has always maintained this position. One thing we notice from the Scriptures is that it is always the role of God which is central. We see this for example in Colossians 2:12. We do not get the impression from the Bible that baptism depends upon the one who is baptizing, other than the fact that the administrator must also be one ordained to preach the Word. As long as the baptism is administered according to the command of Christ it is valid. We must look to what baptism signifies, namely the covenant promises of God which are signed and sealed by God to the one being baptized. God is the active subject in the administration of baptism, and thus a baptism is valid so long as it is administered by an ordained minister of the gospel in the name of the Triune God. For that reason we should accept the baptism of an ex-Roman Catholic (administered under those conditions), but we should not accept the baptism of an individual baptized in an evangelical church only in the Name of the Lord Jesus.
Tied up with this question is the question of what constitutes a church. Consider this: in our confessions we imply that the Roman Catholic Church is a false church. But note that we still consider it a “church.” It has gone drastically astray, but it retains some things which permit us still to speak of it as a “church.” It has vestiges or traces of what the church should be. It still confesses the Triune God and baptizes in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (although adding many unscriptural elements). It still maintains the Apostles’ Creed, although it is understood in often radically unscriptural ways. Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, we do not find traces of what the church should be. A baptism administered among the Jehovah’s Witnesses should never be recognized as valid. Of course, that leads right back to the conditions for a valid baptism.
For further study: Dr. J. Faber wrote his doctoral dissertation on this very subject: Vestigium Ecclesiae: De doop als ‘spoor der kerk’ (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1969). Although this book is in Dutch, there is an English summary by Rev. G. VanDooren: “Baptism as ‘Vestige of the Church.'” in Canadian Reformed Magazine, Vol. 18, Nos. 37-40 (1969). For the history of this issue, cf. “Baptism as Administered in Non-sister Churches,” by Rev. G. VanRongen, in Una Sancta Vol. 34, No. 26, and Vol. 35 No. 3 and No. 4.