Before we answer this question, we will have to make a couple assumptions. The first assumption is that Berry’s wife converted to Christianity, as opposed to conversion to a Baptist from some other denomination. In some denominations and churches, many Baptist churches being on this list, there is a requirement that anyone who wants to join the church has to be re-baptized. The belief here is that other churches may not believe as they do, so their baptism isn’t valid. This is particularly true of those churches that teach baptism is a symbol of conversion rather than a sacrament, that is, an outward act of a mysterious work of God. Other churches require re-baptism if the former baptism was done by sprinkling or pouring, or if the baptism was performed at infancy. Again, the churches/denominations that require this re-baptism often believe that the any form of baptism other than immersion (dunking) is invalid and that infant baptism is unsound because the baby could not have made a commitment to Jesus. In other columns, I’ve written about each of these in some detail.
However, with the assumption that Berry’s wife converted to Christianity from either non-belief or from another religion completely, let’s look at the question of whether or not she “ought” to get baptized.
To begin with, Berry stands on pretty good ground in his assertion that baptism is not necessary for salvation, that is, to be in an eternal relationship with God. And yet, there are a number of denominations that seriously disagree with his assumption (Roman Catholic, Church of Christ, et al). Still, most Baptists concur with Berry. So, why the pressure for baptism?
First, because Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3; Mark 1; Luke 3; John 1), he commanded his followers to be baptized (Mark 16.16), and he commanded his followers to baptize others (Matthew 28.19). In other words, baptism was important to Jesus, therefore it ought to be important to those who choose to follow Jesus.
But it’s the second reason I really want to deal with. Baptism is important to the church because it is the rite of passage into the church. Almost every church has baptism as a requirement for membership. The reasons for this, I believe, are pretty much covered in the previous paragraph—Jesus was baptized, and so should all his followers. Further, the decision to become a follower of Jesus implies that one will do just that—one will follow Jesus. And the first thing Jesus did in his public ministry was to be baptized for all to see his commitment; therefore, baptism has become, in most churches, the act that seals membership.
There’s another reason for baptism in the church that is especially important in this culture. The church today is sociologically located in an era that is concomitant to the first century church—we live in what most cutting edge theologians are calling a pre-Christian era. What this means is that not only are we living in a culture that is predominantly unchristian, but we are living in an era that is as ignorant of Christianity as those living in the first century were. For over 1,800 years there has been an underlying fabric in our culture that included a base knowledge of the Judeo-Christian stories. Most people either knew or were aware of the stories of Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul. Today this isn’t the case. And so those converting to Christianity for the first time and coming into the church do not have the underpinning that previous generations had. This being so, baptism has become more important as a public profession of faith than as a mark of entrance into church membership. Indeed, in many churches baptism no longer necessarily means the person has joined the church, but indicates the person has made a decision to become a follower of Jesus, and this act is their public profession of that faith.
So, does Berry’s wife need to get baptized? I suspect she will have to if she’s going to join Berry’s church. And if she is a new believer, baptism would be an excellent demonstration of her faith. On the other hand, if baptism is being required because she was a part of another church and Berry’s church insists that her former baptism wasn’t “good enough,” well, that would be another matter. I’m not sure I could look into the eyes of the God-ordained minister who baptized me and say, “It didn’t really count, so I have to do it again.”