Last month, the hip-hop artist Lecrae got baptized for a second time in the Jordan River. Afterwards, he posted a picture of the event on Instagram. From CT’s reporting:

The Grammy winner responded to one follower who suggested that since Lecrae already has new life in Christ, the Jordan baptism was just a “weird bath in a very significant place.”

“1. It’s Mikvah,” Lecrae replied, referencing the Jewish ritual bath that predates Christian baptism and also represented new life. “2. Jesus was God already and still was baptized. 3. Celebrate the heart vs. criticizing the information.”

But despite Lecrae’s response, many on social media made it clear that they were still theologically uncomfortable with the hip-hop artist’s decision.

Baptism has long been a divisive sacrament in church history. The argument over Lecrae’s Jordan River baptism stem from a debate over the action really means, says Matthew Knell, who teaches historical theology and church history at the London School of Theology.

“[Today], we talk about 'I'm going to get baptized. I want to get baptized,' said Knell. “But the church would say that baptism is something that happens to you, rather than you being the initiator.”

In other words, “It's not my initiative, it's the divine work in me that's happening in baptism.”

Knell joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss why disagreements over baptism have led Christians to persecute other Christians and how the church has sought unity even in their disagreements over the sacrament.

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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #180

What did you make of this story about Lecrae and his second baptism?

Matt Knell: It's a fairly common thing for groups who visit the River Jordan for some people that go and get baptized. I think what Lecrae said about seeing the heart is important. I can see his heart in the action. He's in the place where Christ was baptized, and he wants to in some way replicate that. I think it's an act of faith that he's doing, and it's coming out of his current faith understanding.

As with a lot of re-baptism issues, those who actually undergo the re-baptism are doing it in good faith based on what teaching they've received. My issue would be much more with the teaching that they've received, and therefore the church's understanding of baptism and the issue of re-baptism.

And I think with this issue, at the core of it is the concept of the sacred, and whether we've lost the sacred in seeking to break down the sacred-secular divide that has existed in the Church.

What important historical context do you think we need to know to understand this discussion better?

Matt Knell: We do need to go back to the Bible, because that such should always be our source book for discussing any area of theology. And in the Bible, I think there are two major headlines regarding baptism. Starting with the Gospels and Acts, you can see the universal practice of baptism in the early church. It's in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, and it's an automatic factor in a person's coming into the people of God in the book of Acts.

So the universal practice of baptism is very clearly established, but those books don't do a lot of talking about what's happening in baptism. You see that much more in the letters. Of course, Romans 6 is the classic text, but in a lot of Paul's letters and even in 1 Peter, you get a sense that there is something special happening in baptism. That it is sacred as an event. And what's more than that, it's a divine work rather than something that I'm doing. It's not my initiative, it's a divine work in me that's happening through baptism.

I think that's one of the things we've kind of lost in our language about baptism. We say, "I'm going to get baptized," "I want to get baptized." Whereas the early Church would say that baptism is something that happens to you rather than you being the initiator.

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The church historically did get too focused on the sacred. We've struggled with the phrase, "In the world, but not of the world" and in seeking to be in the world, I think as we've made that transition a lot of our practices have shifted into being of the world, and we've lost that sacredness. And baptism for Paul seems to be a sacred, divine act. And certainly in the early church, baptism is always upheld as a sacred act. And therefore you have this focus on one baptism.

Going back to re-baptism or a second baptism, Ephesians 4 is the most explicit: "We believe in one faith, one Lord, one baptism." And so the idea of multiple baptisms losses that sanctity of the event.

Many Protestant denominations—Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodist—would put the emphasis on God doing something in us when we get baptized, that something is actually happening to us. Do Baptists traditionally believe that? And how do these beliefs about baptism compare to the early Church's?

Matt Knell: I think generally speaking the Baptist have had very strong links with Calvin's teachings. They are a bit of a blend of evangelicalism or puritanism Calvinism with some Anabaptism. And therefore, the Calvin element would still highly commend the practice of baptism and say it is important. Calvin was interesting the sacramental; he's not like Luther, but there's a core sacramental theology.

As the Baptist church has developed, they began to ask questions and begin to be influenced more by Huldrych Zwingli's symbolic language, which takes away some of the divine work. They start getting anti-sacramental and I think that's where through the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries, the Baptist church actually ends up splitting within itself on this issue. So you'll start find some Baptist churches that are still really quite sacramental, but others who question whether baptism is necessary for salvation.

I grew up in Baptist churches and grew up thinking of baptism as simply a public declaration of my faith. I was baptized as an adult under that understanding. But as I've gone into theology, is I've learned from other traditions, and I love the variety. I love my Catholic friends' spirituality because they have so much to teach me. Likewise, I take my students to another Greek Orthodox church every year, where they still baptized three times as the early church did—baptizing in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I have my Pentecostal students who focus more on baptism in the Spirit rather than water baptism and prefer talking in that kind of area.

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But I think when you go into the references, Paul is explicitly stating that something is happening in baptism. He's loading it with meaning about their identity in Christ, about them dying with Christ, about the lives that they live as a result of it. 1 Peter actually says "you're saved through the waters" when he's making the point in his letter. And the early church will always load it with meaning: it is vitally important, this is your identity in the people of God, it's a cleansing, it's that new birth into the people of God.

So while the practice of the early church actually is quite variable, they certainly hold to the sanctity of baptism, the necessity of baptism, the sacredness of baptism and this unity of baptism. It's in Ephesians 4, that passage on the unity of the body, which focuses on one baptism. And the Church simply holds to this.

One of the great differences between Protestant churches today and the reformers is that we have taken tradition out of our theological method or deemphasized it massively. Whereas if you look at the great reformers—Luther and Calvin and Zwingli—their writings are saturated with the church's tradition. They wanting to reform the Church, not to restart the church. They wanted to get back to the faith of the Church. And tradition has a major role. It doesn't govern them, and they were going to always test everything under scripture. But in terms of baptism, they absolutely follow the teachings of the Church.

How was the baptism practiced before Jesus and the church started?

Matt Knell: You do have in the pre-Christian times various forms of baptism. The one we know most about is John's baptisms, but John's baptism seems to be a type of Jewish baptism that had started to become popular.

It’s an interesting one for me because it should be more shocking than we think it is. John was saying that to be baptized was an act of repentance for your sins. And as a Jew, if you want to cleanse yourself of your sins you go to the temple, you follow the Torah, you follow the sacrificial rituals. And contained in that, God will forgive your sins.

So the fact that people are baptizing to given assistance outside the temple, they were basically saying that what's happening in the temple has lost its power, lost its efficacy. It is a strangely challenging spirituality, when you think about the context of the land of Israel. These people would encourage Jews to come to the River Jordan to be baptized when they've got the temple right there, where they could go and do the sacrifices.

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But there is a clear distinction between the baptism of John and the baptism the Christian church will be doing afterward.

Jesus' baptism, we have to say, stands apart. There is no need for Christ to be baptized in terms of the washing of his sins. He had this wonderfully ambiguous phrase—"to fulfill all righteousness"—which sounds cool, but I have no idea what that means, and I can't come across anyone who genuinely tells me what that means.

I know that the early church, when it's writing about Jesus' baptism, say there was no need for him to be baptized because he's not a sinner himself. And so whatever is happening in Jesus' baptism is something that I think we need to be very cautious talking about. The Bible doesn't give us enough indications to be confident about what Jesus is doing in His baptism.

We know that the experience connect with His baptism acted as the commissioning for his ministry, but I don't think we can, therefore, say you've been baptized as a commission. That's stepping beyond where the text is allowing us to go.

Let’s go back to the early church and their beliefs around baptism.

Matt Knell: In the New Testament, we don't have explicit infant baptisms, but we have implied infant baptisms from the household baptisms in the book of Acts, and to a certain extent in Paul's considerations of children of believing parents being considered holy for their parents’ sake. But within scripture, it's not absolutely clear.

The early church practice was variable. Infant baptism was certainly an aspect by the middle of the second century. But you also had people who felt you should wait until a child was at an age where they can clearly understand what's going on. Others felt Easter was a good time to be baptized because of the dying-rising metaphor. And there were some who would wait until their death bed to be baptized.

You've got this highly revered practice—it is something that's very special in the history of the church—but it is very varied in its practice from location to location.

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The church was not particularly unified until the Roman Empire, but even for centuries after that it's still quite patchy about exactly how uniform the practices are. And there's a very clear difference between Western and Eastern Europe.

Let's fast-forward to the past 25, maybe 50 years, to get a sense of where we are in this conversation today. Can you talk about some of the newer or fresher theological understandings of baptism? Or even some more of the polemic ones?

Matt Knell: There are a couple of events in the last 50 years that I think I would highlight.

One is the Catholic reaffirmation of their historic position in the Vatican to Council in the 1960s, where in their document on the church they talk about Christians outside of the Roman Catholic church. And they affirmed that we are one body, with one faith, and one baptism. And so they very explicitly acknowledged the baptisms of other Christian groups, even though it is not their baptismal practice. It was simply their historic position reaffirmed, but it was good to have it in the modern context.

The other happened in 1982. There was a very important meeting led by the World Council of Churches in Lima, Peru on baptism, eucharist, and ministry. And in this meeting the World Council of Churches, which has under its umbrella a massively wide range of Christian denominations— there are very few major denominations who aren't part of the World Council of Churches—the goal was for each of the different traditions to come and to present their practice and the biblical theological foundations that inform that practice.

And it was a task of listening to each other and saying there is only one body of Christ. Therefore we need to try and honor ourselves, recognize that we come out different contexts—historically, culturally, linguistically, philosophically, experientially. And maybe we can't practice everything together, but we can recognize and have an understanding of why each does what it does.

This was a healthy event for the church, in seeking to listen to each other and seeing to affirm each other, while also not bowing to each other. Too few churches are asking questions these days. They're assuming that what has been done in previous generations is sound. And there's too little reflection. We should be asking, what is the basis of this? Which scriptures are affirming this?

And this is a key point for me because whenever I find scriptures affirming one thing about God, or about salvation, or about the church, or about humanity, I see that this other thing is also true. And they don't fit into my box that I'm trying to construct around anything. Scripture doesn't want us to constrain it into our understanding, it wants to expand our experience and our understanding.