Are Mainline Baptisms Valid?

A friend and HB reader writes to ask about the validity baptisms administered in mainline (liberal) congregations. Should a NAPARC  (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) affiliated congregation receive as valid a baptism performed by a minister in a denomination that has largely abandoned the historic Christian faith? After all, arguably, such a denomination has lost at least one of the marks of the true church (Belgic Confession art. 29), namely discipline, and if so does it have the other two marks? After all, Machen said that liberal Christianity is an oxymoron, that theological liberalism, Modernism, is not really Christianity at all. To make matters worse, baptism is now being performed by persons who do not meet basic biblical qualifications. If so, how could we receive the baptism from such a denomination or minister?

Let us define our terms. The adjective mainline refers to the old American Protestant denominations, sometimes described as the “Seven Sisters,” namely, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Churches of Christ, the American Baptist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church USA. These are historic denominations that largely adopted liberal theology, piety, and practice about the turn of the 20th century. There remain conservative congregations and ministers within them but they are mostly committed to being as inclusive as possible. In some cases, e.g., the PCUSA it is virtually impossible for a traditional, confessional Presbyterian to be ordained. One must affirm, e.g., the ordination of females, the Barthian view of Scripture, and probably other liberal shibboleths.


Despite the grave corruption in the mainline churches, we (NAPARC congregations) should nevertheless accept a baptism administered in a mainline church. Machen was speaking theologically, not ecclesiastically. It is true the theological liberalism Machen described in Christianity and Liberalism is not Christianity. Orthodoxy and liberalism are two distinct theological systems but there is some distinction to be made between the theological views published by individual authors and what is confessed by the churches. On that score the story is more complicated. The PCUSA’s Confession of 1967 is highly problematic and impossible to square with the Reformed confession at key points (e.g., Scripture) but the question remains whether the PCUSA is still a church even if corrupted by error?

This is not a purely subjective or individual decision. Has one’s (NAPARC) denomination spoken ecclesiastically to this matter? Has any NAPARC body declared any of the Seven Sisters to be apostate? Until a church acts officially to declare, e.g., the PCUSA to be a sect, a cult, or to deny that it is a church, then we receive their baptism in roughly the same way we receive a Roman baptism. After all, it is not unknown for a PCUSA minister to migrate into the ministry of the NAPARC churches. We do not treat such candidates for ministry as coming from an apostate church nor as coming from a sect/cult such as the Mormons. We do not baptize such a candidate on the grounds that he has never been baptized.

In the early days of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (from 1936) virtually all their members came from what today we know as the PCUSA. Machen and the old Westminster faculty,  board, and student body came out of the PCUSA. They were not, to my knowledge, re-baptized.

We accept mainline baptisms for the same reason we accept Roman baptisms: because they are Trinitarian. It may be that NAPARC denominations should take a look at what it means to accept the baptism of those who are baptized in a congregation where the minister openly denies the ecumenical faith. Still, we must be careful of not becoming Donatists. Since the time of Augustine (and arguably since Cyprian in the mid-3rd century) we have agreed that the validity of baptism is not contingent upon the character of the minister. The validity of baptism is contingent upon objective (not subjective) realities. There are limits. Should a PCUSA minister administer baptism in the name of Gaia, however, then it would be hard to see how such could be considered a Christian baptism, whatever the PCUSA confesses. Even though individual ministers do take heretical positions, the PCUSA et al still formally affirm the ecumenical creeds.

As grossly undisciplined as the mainline churches are, neither Rome nor the mainline churches today are any more wicked and corrupt than Rome was in the 16th century, when the Reformed were accepting Roman baptisms. The sixteenth-century Reformed congregations accepted Roman baptisms while they denounced the papacy as Anti-Christ and denounced the manifold abuses and corruptions of the Roman communion. They continued to accept Roman baptisms even after Rome condemned to hell all who confess the gospel as revealed in holy Scripture. I do not think we are more concerned about theological and moral corruption in the mainline than were our sixteenth-century forebears  about corruption in the Roman communion. If they accepted Roman baptisms as valid then we, on the same grounds, should accept baptisms administered in corrupted mainline congregations as valid, even as we denounce those corruptions and call for separation by those among them who still believe the historic, orthodox Christian faith and for repentance and faith where apostasy has occurred.

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  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for this post. I was baptized in 1956 as an infant by a United Church of Christ minister, after barely escaping being baptized by a Roman Catholic priest because of my father. I know the Reformed accepted Roman baptisms but I’m thankful for that never occurring in my life. Let me add that having been baptized as an infant keep me from becoming involved with charismatic, seeker-sensitive, evangelical churches….because I refused to even consider being re-baptized. It took a long time for me to discover confessional Reformed theology, but infant baptism was really important to me….I just didn’t understand why. Thank you for your series “I Will Be A God To You and Your Children.” It has brought me much comfort.

  2. Good article, and good points, Dr. Clark. When it comes to cases where there is a question as to the validity of a baptism, as long as the baptism is administered in the Name of the Trinity, within the ecclesiastical setting of a church that has historically confessed the Trinity, it ought to be regarded as valid. In my opinion it is better to err on the side of accepting the validity of a baptism administered in questionable circumstances, rather than to re-baptize without clear biblical warrant, lest the objective covenant promises of God be called into question.

    One distinction I have found to be helpful in working through this issue is the distinction between an invalid baptism and an irregular baptism. An “invalid” baptism is a pseudo-baptism, a baptism that is no real baptism at all. Examples of invalid baptism would include “baptism” administered in cult groups (like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals and other groups which practice anti-trinitarian “Jesus Only” baptism, etc.), and baptisms administered without the proper baptismal formula (for example, UCC and liberal churches which administer “gender neutral” baptisms — “in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” instead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Examples of irregular, but nonetheless valid, baptisms would include Roman Catholic baptism, Campbellite (“Church of Christ”) baptism, baptisms administered in an ecclesial setting but by non-ordained persons, etc.

  3. One pastoral issue in connection to the practice of baptism is what to do with individuals applying for communicant membership in the church who do not have a clear record of their baptism. For example, what do we do with an individual who thinks he was baptized as an infant, but has no baptismal certificate and no living relatives who can bear witness to the fact of his having been baptized?

    In your opinion, in circumstances such as the one above, should confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches consider administering a conditional baptism? I.E., “If you have not been previously baptized, I now baptize you into the Name of the Father….” etc.?

    • Hi Geoff,

      Thanks for the encouragement.

      This is a difficult question. My initial reaction is to be skeptical of a conditional baptism.

      I would tend to take the candidate’s testimony in place of records. In other words, if some tells me that they were baptized in such and such a place, I would accept that. Records are lost and destroyed. Who recorded the Ethiopian Eunuch’s baptism? Luke, of course, tells the story but was there paperwork? Who knows.

      I guess that, in most cases, someone (a family member, a social worker, a previous pastor, or the candidate himself) has a memory or note in a bible.

      Were there there no memory or testimony of any kind, I might baptize the candidate on the premise that there’s no reason to believe that a baptism has taken place.

      Yes, I too learned the regular/irregular distinction and it has helped me. There are a lot of irregularities in American frontier/evangelical religion.

      I think your list is helpful. If a minister refused to use the name of God in baptism, that would be problematic. What stubbornness!

  4. > We accept mainline baptisms for the same reason we accept Roman baptisms: because they are Trinitarian.

    This issue (accepting RC baptism, the question of mainline baptism is I think pretty much the same) is the subject of a debate for which audio can be downloaded:

    I agree with Roger Wagner when he asks, why is the line drawn merely at the trinity, when the bible draws the line in the sand at the gospel?

    WCF 27.4, sacraments may only be ‘dispensed’ by ‘a minister of the word lawfully ordained’. I don’t see how a RC priest would fit that definition, nor any protestant minister who is violating the Marks.

    • Rube,

      That’s a view, but it wasn’t the view of Augustine, the Reformers, nor is it the view of the churches. No one was clearer about the gospel that the Reformed churches in the 16th century but they didn’t re-baptize. They were well aware of Galatians!

      That’s why the Belgic calls Rome a “false church.”

      They drew the line where they did in order to avoid Donatism.

      If we’re drawing the line at the gospel, then Norman Shepherd is out, is he not? Just asking.

    • Yup. A huge number of church bodies would be ‘out’. I don’t deny the hardline position that makes sense to me would be extremely inconvenient.

    • To clarify though, to avoid the donatist controversy, while Shepherd was a minister in good standing of a big-E Evangelical church, he administered the sacraments validly. Baptisms performed by him after would be invalid.

    • The Reformers, while taking an apparently liberal view, were correct. Otherwise you will get to the situation of having another rebaptism every time you find fault with the previous church or minister. I always feel sorry for people who gave been baptised three or four times, like people who have been married so many times. The whole institution becomes uncertain and meaningless. Yes, I would look back to my baptism as an infant as a covenant from God, not man. I assume I was baptised by a liberal but I may well have been baptised in a church that was influenced by JC Ryle and his successors!

  5. Dr Clark, should the absence of the practice Reaffirmation of Faith have any bearing on infant baptism? For example, if a Reformed Church does not practice Reaffirmation of Faith, is that reason enough to not have a child baptised, so that when they are of age they can be baptised when they come to affirm their faith, and do so publicly?

    Obviously baptism is more significant than a Reaffirmation of Faith, but in the absence of such a practice of Reaffirmation of Faith, what mechanism is there for a child to later affirm their faith to the church community?

    • Hi Matt,

      The CRC has form that includes reaffirmation but I don’t know how widely such language or such forms have been used in the Reformed tradition. I would not think that not having such a form/practice is grounds for refusing to baptize. Perhaps I don’t understand your concern. Can you explain more fully?

      In a confessional Reformed church, a covenant child is ordinarily baptized, catechized, professes faith, and is admitted to communion. Where that pattern is disrupted somehow, e.g., the child does not make profession, then discipline begins. The goal of discipline is always restoration and re-admission to the table.

      What scenario are you assuming?

    • Dr Clark, thank you for your reply. In my own church there is baptism, Sunday School (no formal catechising), and membership – I think this is continental (?). Apparently admittance to communion is a matter of conscience, but is predicated on baptism. And a profession of faith is inherent in membership – that elders would “check” your faith and invite you to membership; which is conducted publicly in a Q&A during a service.

      It is presupposed that profession of faith and membership are categorically the same, and so the one process (membership) achieves both outcomes.

      I would argue that membership and profession are categorically the same, but distinct by type. Membership is received and profession is proclaimed. When you roll the two together, membership superimposes upon profession, as far as I can see.

      My concern is that profession becomes lost or downplayed in the process of membership. My question, then, is this: is it reasonable to postpone (infant) baptism, so that (adult) baptism later achieves the same function as a profession of faith? Or would that be re-categorising baptism into something else (i.e.: profession of faith), that it shouldn’t be doing? Is it better to just go ahead with infant baptism and not worry so much that a profession of faith is embedded (secondarily) in membership?

      I hope that clears up my concern?

      • Matt,

        Typically, Reformed churches have two kinds of members: baptized members and communicant members. One is a member by virtue of baptism and those who have been catechized and have made profession are admitted to the table.

        Why would a Reformed congregation not catechize their covenant children? Am I understanding you correctly? I think I’m still missing something, that there are still some unstated assumptions.

        If communion is contingent upon profession of faith, then it’s always significant.

        I wouldn’t delay baptism, the sign and seal of admission into the visible covenant community.

    • Dr Clark, thank you once again. You have essentially answered my question, regarding baptism.

      Yes you understand me correctly when you ask: Why would a Reformed congregation not catechise their covenant children? I ask that question myself. A number of parents do this as a matter of course, but there is nothing formalised within the church.

      As a Church we use the WCF, but when I ask about incorporating this and catechisms more in the service, (and catechising our covenant children) I am told we have the Bible. As I hold no office, my concerns are dismissed as trouble-making. I think our church is in need of “Recovering the Reformed confession.”

      I see all this as a sign of liberalisation. It concerns me. We seem to be Reformed in name only, much of the time.

      As a denomination we were planted by the World Presbyterian Missions, out of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, evangelical synod in the 1970s. This probably would mean more to you than it does me. If you follow the church planting from the original sister church, this sister church is much more incorporating of the WCF and the Catechisms than what my own church is.

  6. Dr Clark
    The issue of RC baptism is not cut & dry as you state – there is the famous 1845 General Assembly and subsequent debate between Hodge & Thornwell.
    Likewise a 1987 PCA study – majority position & minority position papers on line.
    and even RC Sproul adds his voice to the debate – The RC church is not just an apostate church – but a former church. (I’m with him on that one)
    Your colleague Dr Fesko has written extensively on the topic and falls on your side of the argument, but recognizes the heat of the debate.
    Pragmatically for both cases of RC and liberal churches – leaving it to the local eldership to advise and guide seems sensible – there are many local PCUSA churches for example which are faithful-ish, and many which are synagogues of satan. Local circumstances will feed the debate.

    • Ryan,

      The brevity of a short essay can be misleading. I’m aware of the 19th-century discussions but my job here was to answer a particular question, not to address all the subsidiary question entailed in the analogy.

      Andrew Duggan noted the same thing, in 2014, the last time this issue came up. He pointed us to the 1845 minutes of the GA. The dissent to the majority is a better argument. The majority view (beginning on p. 34) was arguably more the fruit of growing anti-Roman sentiment in the USA, partly in reaction to immigration patterns in the US and partly in reaction to growing sympathy for Rome within some English and American Protestant circles. The minority view, articulated briefly on p. 37 is right. The majority wanted to do what no Reformed church had heretofore done. Rome was no more corrupt in 1835 or 1845 than she had been in 1547 or 1647. The churches had never drawn the inference that the Southern Presbyterians and the Old School were then drawing. The orthodox Reformed, across a wide spectrum, were prepared to live with the tension between declaring the manifest corruption of the Roman communion and receiving her baptism as irregular but valid.

  7. Dr Clark,
    I agree fully that much cannot be said in a short paragraph or two – however what may be a foundational question for the baptism argument is :- is it possible to recognize the Golden Lampstand being withdrawn and actually leaving a “church”? – I believe that the Holy Spirit leaving churches is 100% revealed in scripture, but can we recognize where and when this occurs? Because if we can then we have certain duties , if we cannot ,then other duties.
    A corrupt church , after Trent, after VatI and VatII, reconfirmed magisterium in the Catechism published a few years ago, plus ECT and various Lutheran joint documents on Justification , the RCC may have fallen off the path named apostasy and dropped over the cliff to destitution, or have they, or can we judge?. Are they as corrupt? Worse! and not just localized but corrupt root and branch in every country – by their fruit etc…
    What about the mainline seven sisters? The trajectory is similar but the distance traveled is not comparable yet.
    We seem to be a little afraid of addressing the question regarding the work of the Holy Spirit, and notice that times they are a changing (as a nobel laureate once said).
    And maybe then we can review the question on baptism.

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