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Two Alternatives to Rebaptism in Brazilian Lutheranism

Two Alternatives to Rebaptism in Brazilian Lutheranism


by Claus Schwambach

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from LF Fall 2013

Debates regarding baptism and “rebaptism” recur again and again throughout church history, as seen in the Donatist controversy in the early church and the conflict between Luther and the enthusiasts in the days of the Reformation. The issue has also troubled the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB)[1] from the 1980s to the present.[2] Internal discussions on the matter[3] have involved the church’s board, communities, and synods with charismatic groups in them, as well as diverse internal “movements”[4] that characterize much of the life and work within the IECLB.

The difficulties were occasioned, specifically, by the practice of rebaptism in some communities under influence of leadership linked to the charismatic movement, which peaked in the IECLB in the 1980s. Assorted dialogues with representatives of the charismatic movement took place, leading to the formulation of church documents condemning the practice of rebaptism and exhorting its practitioners to cease and desist.[5] The dialogues intensified in 2004 and 2005. According to the President Pastor of IECLB at the time, Walter Altmann, the “main polemic surrounded the distinct theological comprehensions of the relation between grace and faith, above all, in the understanding of baptism. Baptism is an offer of God’s grace received by faith but does not enable faith to be constituted as a condition for the baptism. Thus, the practice of rebaptism presents a self-exclusion from the confessional foundation of the IECLB.” Nevertheless, the dialogues hoped to “lead to a larger identification of the charismatic movement with the confessional foundation of IECLB,” that the “charismatic movement would halt radicalizations,” and that it would be possible for the two parties “together to find alternative forms for the legitimate desires by the charismatic movement.”[6]

These dialogues, unfortunately, did not result in consensus, despite the e orts on both sides. According to Altmann, the “process resulted in requests for release from the board of employees and in a limited number of members leaving the IECLB’s congregations, due to doctrinal divergences,” something registered with “much regret” by the Board of the IECLB, “for, if a member suffers, we all suffer with it (I Corinthians 12:26).”[7] The leaving of members occurred above all in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and in São Paulo, but there were also difficulties and tensions in Santa Catarina and Mato Grosso do Sul, causing resentment, division, and confusion, the consequences of which are still perceptible today in the congregations that went through a charismatic renewal.

One of the most frequent practical questions that has been raised, especially in the years of the conflict with the charismatic movement but also today, is whether the IECLB would recognize a “new” baptism of people who move from other churches to the IECLB or participate in its movements. This pertains to situations where the baptism of infants as such, or the baptism of infants and adults alike in other Christian churches or sects, is considered by the new IECLB member as invalid or dubious. The main reasons offered are: 1) the infant baptism had no personal value whatsoever and occurred without the faith of the infant or quite often of the parents, either; 2) the baptism occurred in a syncretistic context, normally meaning folk Catholicism, and was followed in many cases by the consecration of the baptized to Mary and/or the saints or even to other deities of African-Brazilian belief systems; 3) the infant baptism was seen to be a merely external ecclesiastical ritual, a rite of passage, whether in the IECLB or other churches (again mainly the Catholic church); or 4) the new IECLB member had never lived out the infant baptism through faith or participation in church life but later experienced a conversion experience and thus desired to testify publicly to the renewal of life and faith in the rite of (re)baptism. Normally the people that came with such requests wanted a profound existential but also public event to correspond to their conversion experience, or they had been instructed by charismatic leadership to understand that the only adequate form to validate their newfound faith was a “new” baptism.

What can a Lutheran church propose to people who request a “rebaptism,” claiming the need to give existential, public, and visible expression to their new adherence to faith in Jesus Christ on account of a conversion experience or their (re)entrance into the Lutheran church? While representatives from the charismatic movement were sometimes inclined to give in to the desires for such baptisms, claiming pastoral and missionary reasons, the IECLB directed its ministers and communities toward other practices that did not harm Lutheran confessional standards.[8]

In August 2004, amidst the most heated debates between the IECLB’s and the charismatic movement’s representatives, the board of the church requested the elaboration of a proposal of a rite of reaffirmation of baptismal vows.[9] While articulating afresh the theological reasons for the Reformation theology of baptism,[10] various liturgical proposals for ceremonies and liturgies of baptismal remembrance emerged.[11] One of the main liturgical proposals for those who have been influenced by the charismatic movement or have come to the IECLB from other churches where rebaptism is accepted is the “Baptismal Remembrance Service for Joining or Rejoining.”[12]

This liturgy is distinguished from the basic service of baptismal remembrance by the addition of the following elements: “entrance procession of the people joining or rejoining, together with the presider; presentation of them for reception; commitment of the people joining or rejoining the community; welcome.”[13] Here are the key elements of the liturgy.

Baptismal Anamnesis

Presider: [to all the reunited community] Sisters and brothers! Through baptism we receive liberation from sin and eternal death. Through baptism, we were received in God’s love. Through baptism, Jesus Christ made us his own. For this, we now remember our baptism with immeasurable gratitude and worship God with enormous joy, singing: [“Washed in Christ”; “Let Us Praise All Together”; “Graces, Many Graces”; “Gracious Lord”; or “Give Praise to the Lord”]
Renunciation of Evil
Presider: Sisters and brothers, baptism takes place once in a lifetime. But we can and must reaffirm our baptismal promises, for daily there is a fight between our old nature and the nature that we have as sons and daughters of God. Our life is each day subjected to dangers, seductions, hopelessness, injustice, and oppression. Jesus’ cross has already won over all of this. Let us now repeat our renunciation of the powers of evil and of death. If this is your firm decision, answer each of my questions by saying: We renounce them, by the help of God.
Presider: Do you renounce the forces of evil, slavery to sin, and all forms of oppression, to live the freedom of the sons and daughters of God?
Congregation: We renounce them, by the help of God.
Presider: Do you renounce selfishness, greed, injustice, and exploitation, in order to live as brothers and sisters and to assume the commitment that this represents?
Congregation: We renounce them, by the help of God.
Presider: Do you renounce the illusions of this world, which are presented to you in the most diverse forms, and the temptations of the evil spirit, to follow Jesus Christ alone, who is the way, the truth, and the life?
Congregation: We renounce them, by the help of God.
Declaration of Faith: Apostles’ Creed
Symbolic Act with Water and Flood Prayer [Water is distributed. As a sign of Christ’s presence, people can make the sign of the cross on themselves or on others’ foreheads or on their open hands];
OR Symbolic Act with Candle and Prayer [Candles are distributed and lit from the paschal candle as a remembrance of baptism; prayers give God thanks for His Son Jesus Christ, the light of the world, and ask God for strength and courage to live according to baptism];
OR Flood Prayer
Commitment of Those Joining or Rejoining the Congregation

Congregational Representative [to those joining or rejoining]: You join us in the remembrance of our baptism. Together we remember what God has done for us, together we renounce evil, together we profess our faith, together we give thanks to God in prayer. Now I ask you, in the name of the congregation: Do you wish to be faithful members of this Christian congregation? Do you want to share in this congregation’s life of service and ministries through your prayers, your gifts, your study, and your service? Do you wish, in this way, to exercise your vocation as disciples of Jesus Christ?
Re/Joiners: Yes, by the help of God.
Presider: Let us pray. Faithful God, by water and the Spirit you have taken us in baptism as your own. You have made us members of your body, calling us to be your servants in the world. We thank you, merciful God, for you have brought these sisters and brothers in faith [back] to the life of this congregation. Grant it that, together, we live in your Spirit and love each other, to your honor and glory.
Congregation: Amen.
Welcome of New Members
Sharing of the Peace
Prayers of the Church
Communion Liturgy

Such a liturgy offers people the possibility of recollecting and living their one baptism and remembering that the words and works of God are valid even when people have been unfaithful, abandoned the faith, or worshiped false gods and idols. It attests that God’s faithfulness to His covenant with human beings in baptism is not broken by false commitments or lack of faith. The liturgy makes it clear that faith does not make or constitute baptism; only the word of promise constitutes it. The liturgy also shows that faith is the way to receive baptism in order to enjoy the gift of salvation that it offers.

Although this official liturgy was meant to be flexible and shaped according to local needs as long as the indispensable elements were included, it has nevertheless not always been welcomed in all the contexts of such a large and pluralistic nation as Brazil. Given Brazil’s general preference for the informal, the service has been criticized for its “liturgical formalism.” How then should the church acknowledge the desire for greater informality, more opportunity to express feelings, and freeform liturgical experiences that are existentially and publicly relevant, while avoiding any practice of rebaptism or confessional compromise?

It was representatives of the Pietist tradition within the IECLB[15] who developed a second proposal at conferences for members of the various movements in the church.[16] Its purpose was to give space existentially and publicly to a person’s recent experience of faith, conversion, and new walk with the congregation by making a public testimony before the church as a sign of gratitude and worship toward God for His great acts in one’s personal life. The testimony generally takes place after the sermon to allow people to convey to the whole congregation how the word of God touched them personally and what transformations it provoked in their lives. Despite the freer form, such events generally include the following elements.

First, there is an introduction by the presider, emphasizing that the gospel and the preaching of the word of God have a concrete impact on the lives of the people who hear them, causing confession and repentance of sin, abandonment of acts contrary to the gospel, and transformation of life. Because of this, some of the brothers and sisters wish to tell of the mighty acts of God in their lives.

Second comes the testimony itself, accompanied by the (re)entrance of the person into the congregation. The testimony must magnify the transforming work of God in one’s life, as previously instructed by the pastor or missionary. The intent is to avoid subjective and anthropocentric accounts. The usual paradigm of testimony starts with “my past life away from God and the Christian faith,” followed by “my personal experience of conversion after contact with the gospel,” and concluding with “the changes that the gospel is provoking in my life.” Such accounts are not infrequently filled with emotion and tears. Many times the testimony takes on the form of a public confession of past sins and of faith in Jesus Christ and of how the gospel of forgiveness frees, heals, and restores life and relationships. This opportunity for free expression of a christocentric testimony has a powerful personal but also a communal impact.

Third, the pastor takes the opportunity to explain and reinforce that the responses of faith and conversion experiences of people who were properly baptized in the past are, actually, the result of that one baptism into Christ. Brief catechetical instruction establishes the connection between baptism and repentance/conversion, magnifying the importance of baptism. God’s faithfulness is emphasized through the parable of the father who waits with open arms for the return of his prodigal son (Luke 15).

Finally, the congregation is invited to pray with and for the person who testified. There are prayers: 1) of gratitude for God’s action and the effect of the gospel in the life of the person and the congregation, which has been strengthened by the testimony; 2) of intercession, asking for the work of God to continue and be fulfilled in the life of the person; 3) of blessing over the person, now and always. Many times these prayers are said with the laying-on of hands, either of the presider or members of the congregation. Then the service resumes its regular course.

In both these practices, the profound desire for a personal and public expression of new life in Christ, initially articulated in the form of a request for “rebaptism,” is answered but without the rebaptism itself. Lutheran baptismal theology is joined with contemporary conversion experiences, edifying the community and upholding the confessional foundation of the Lutheran tradition. While these practices originate in Brazil, they can contribute to other Lutheran churches across the globe experiencing similar difficulties.

Claus Schwambach holds the Chair in Systematic Theology and Ethics and is the Dean of the Faculdade Luterana de Teologia of the IECLB, as well as being Editor of Vox Scripturae: Revista Teológica Brasileira. This essay was translated by Raphaelson Steven Zilse and edited by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson.
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1. The IECLB is one of two large Brazilian Lutheran churches, the other being the Igreja Evangélica Luterana do Brasil.
2. Batismo: diálogo com o movimento carismático na IECLB/Igreja Evangélica de Confissão Luterana no Brasil (Porto Alegre: IECLB, 2006). The text is available online in Portuguese and English.
3. Ademir Trentini et al., Movimento de Renovação Espiritual: O carismatismo na IECLB, 2nd ed. (São Leopoldo: EST, 2002); Eldo Schreiber, Enchei-vos do Espírito Santo: O Espírito Santo, O Consolador, um ser real que age e vive em nós! (Florianópolis: Edição do autor/Coan Indústria Gráfica, 2003); Martin Weingaertner, Vem, Espírito Santo, Vem! (Curitiba: Encontro, 2000).
4. Among the movements within the IECLB are the Pastoral Popular Luterana; the Comunhão Martinho Lutero; the Movimento Encontrão; the Missão Evangélica União Cristã; and the Movimento de Renovação Carismática.
5. Batismo, 9. This volume records the main correspondence between the church president and the leadership of the charismatic movement between 2004 and 2005, along with other texts related to the topic.
6. Quotes in this paragraph are from Batismo.
7. Ibid.
8. For more on Lutheran confessionalism in Brazil, see Wilhelm Wachholz, “Becoming Confessional Lutherans in Brazil,” Lutheran Forum 47/2 (2013): 32–37. The intent of the present article is not to evaluate the theological arguments in this debate but only to present the liturgical proposals that arose in response to the request for “rebaptism.” The theological discussion can be found in Batismo, 14.
9. Batismo, 10.
10. Claus Schwambach, “Batismo—Promissio—Fides: observações sobre a compreensão luterana do batismo,” in Batismo: teologia e prática, ed. Wilhelm Wachholz (São Leopoldo: Escola Superior de Teologia, 2006), 51–106. See also in the same volume Nelson Kirst, “Batismo—fundamentos e balizas para a prática da iniciação cristã,” 107–28, and Erli Mansk, “Liturgia e educação—uma relação de complementaridade e interdependência: reflexões a partir das catequeses batismais de Cirilo de Jerusalém,” 152–63.
11. See the “Liturgias de recordação do batismo” in Livro de batismo, ed. Nelson Kirst, 2nd rev. ed. (São Leopoldo: Oikos, 2008), 99–120. The “indispensable” elements are “the anamnesis, the renunciation, the confession of faith, and a thanksgiving prayer (which will normally be the flood prayer),” 99.
12. Ibid., 108.
13. Ibid., 108.
14. Ibid., 109–13.
15. In this case, the Missão Evangélica União Cristã. This movement follows the tradition of classic European Pietism and its leaders Philip Spener, Ludwig von Zinzendorf, and August Hermann Franke. It maintains the option of being an internal “movement” in the church of a non-separatist character with emphases on mission, evangelization, diakonia, and the promotion of fellowship and Bible study groups. It is different from so-called Neopietism, which tends in the direction of constituting (new) free churches with a more separatist attitude toward the Lutheran, Reformed, or United churches. The history and emphases of this movement, which has existed in Brazil since 1927, are found in Diga ao povo que ande! Missão Evangélica União Cristã—80 anos, ed. Lodemar Schlemper, Commemorative Edition (São Bento do Sul: Editora União Cristã, 2007). The movement has been overseen by the Direction for MEUC’s Activity in the IECLB since 2005, which states that, as a fellowship movement from the Pietist tradition, it explicitly affirms the IECLB’s confessional standards.
16. I represented the MEUC in the National Forum on Unity (May 4–7, 2004, in Araras in the state of Rio de Janeiro) and in the Consultation on Baptism and Rebaptism (May 5–6, 2005, in Porto Alegre in the state of Rio Grande do Sul), where I verbally presented the proposal. It was not officially accepted by the IECLB but was nevertheless distributed as a liturgical and ritual alternative in keeping with the Lutheran Confessions and at the same time sensitive to the need for public validation of personal experience in diverse ecclesial settings. The proposal was recommended for missionary situations likely to encounter requests for rebaptism, and it is kept as an option in one of the IECLB’s internal movements.

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