To Baptize or Not to Baptize: A Practical Guide for Clergy

by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Building on a firm theological foundation of the gift and grace that is baptism, this book walks pastors through almost fifty case studies drawn from real life around the world, from the run-of-the-mill to the marginal, from the everyday cases to the God-forbid cases. Honing their skills of discernment in this way, pastors will return to their baptismal ministry with a renewed sense of vigor, commitment, and joy in the task of baptizing all the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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About the Book

Every year since 2009 I have co-taught a two-week course on Martin Luther’s theology in Wittenberg, Germany, for Lutheran pastors from around the world. Theodor Dieter, my colleague from the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, initially proposed the idea for the seminar. Together we developed the course content under the auspices of the LWB-Zentrum (Lutheran World Federation Center) in Wittenberg. Our alumni, by now numbering well over two hundred, come from places as far distant as Greenland and Senegal, El Salvador and Myanmar.

We quickly discovered that, while our pastors arrived positively disposed toward Luther and his theology (hardly surprising!), overall they had read little of the reformer’s works. Sometimes the Small Catechism comprised the full extent of their reading. Those who came from countries with small Lutheran populations had usually attended ecumenical Protestant seminaries and so received little exposure to Lutheran theology in any form. For that matter, those who came from historically Lutheran countries rarely fared better. Perhaps their professors took for granted that Lutheranism was in the air, too old-hat and overfamiliar to be interesting.

What Dieter and I didn’t know, when we set out on this project, was whether Luther’s theology would have any purchase on either set of students. Maybe cultural conditions were just too different for his insights to be gripping, in the former case; maybe all of his riches had indeed been mined and the vein of ore had petered out, in the latter. To both of us it felt like a risky undertaking. We loved Luther’s theology, but we had to steel ourselves to the possibility that it was an idiosyncratic and non-communicable love.

Those who voluntarily attend a two-week seminar on Luther in Wittenberg are, to be sure, a self-selecting group. Even so, Dieter and I were startled at the level of enthusiasm that nearly all the students brought to their almost-first encounter with Luther’s writings. It’s not too much to say that a few of them underwent a conversion experience. For most, reading Luther finally connected the dots and wove together the dangling strands of practices, aphorisms, patterns, and instincts that they’d absorbed from their experiences in Lutheran congregations, and then repeated in their Lutheran ministries, without ever really understanding why.

But of all the aha moments that our seminar brought about, without fail the biggest aha was always elicited by the topic of baptism.

Dieter and I never started our seminars with baptism. He would kick off the seminar with a review of the Middle Ages, the rise of humanism and calls for reform, Luther’s early years, and the Reformation breakthrough. Most years we included a unit on the Ninety-Five Theses, if only because our students were curious about this rather inaccessible engine of historical change. From there we would press on into the heart of Luther’s theology with an extended study of justification by faith and the distinction between law and gospel as depicted in The Sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness, The Freedom of a Christian, A Brief Explanation of What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels, and How Christians Should Regard Moses. Good stuff, rich stuff, but a little abstract. The concepts were there, but the application was not.

And then—baptism. With baptism, everything fell into place. The various doctrines knit themselves together into a seamless whole. Baptism is how the gospel is enacted and how faith justifies, on the ground, in real time, in people’s actual bodies and lived histories.

In our earliest seminars I would set forth a handful of case studies—mostly recalled from my own Lutheran Confessions class in seminary—to engage the participants in a round of what I called “To Baptize or Not to Baptize?” The title was deliberately provocative. Once the students had grasped the grace and glory of baptism, they couldn’t fathom withholding it for any reason whatsoever. Rebaptism was not on anyone’s mind, of course. But the ministry is a messy business, as any pastor knows. Sometimes the issue is not, in the first place, whether to baptize, but figuring out if what took place beforehand even was a baptism.

The intense engagement of our seminar participants with these case studies stood out to me, year after year. Many participants contributed tricky cases of their own. I kept a list and added to it. Conversation with other pastor friends over the years gave me more. And these in turn prompted further thought experiments, building off the theo-logic that undergirds baptism. At last it seemed only right and good to share with a larger audience the fruit of this decade-plus set of communal reflections; hence, this book.

The case studies you’ll find here range from the all too real to the hypothetical, from the kind you are very likely to encounter to the kind that, God willing, you will never have to encounter. But added up all together, they will allow you to hold baptism up to the light and turn it, like a jewel, to see its many facets. By the end you should have greater understanding of and delight in the extraordinary gift of baptism, on which, as Luther says in the Large Catechism, “God himself stakes his honor, his power, and his might.”

Case Studies included in this book:

1.0 Validity
1.01 In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier
1.02 In the name of Jesus
1.03 In a substance other than water
1.04 Quantity of water
1.05 Doesn’t know and can’t find out if ever baptized
1.06 Layperson during emergency
1.07 Layperson during non-emergency
1.08 Self-administered
1.09 Denominational double duty
1.10 Apostate or immoral baptizer
1.11 Convert from the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
1.12 Convert from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
1.13 Convert from the Jehovah’s Witnesses
1.14 Convert from Unitarian Universalism
1.15 Convert from Oneness Pentecostalism
1.16 Convert from the Church of Christ, Scientist
1.17 Syncretistic baptism
1.18 “The first time didn’t count”
1.19 After “debaptism”
1.20 Convert out of and back into Christianity

2.0 Integrity of Witness
2.01 Inactive or unbelieving parents request baptism for their child
2.02 Godparents uncatechized, indifferent, or unbelievers
2.03 Private baptism
2.04 Special-request baptizer
2.05 Family pressure
2.06 Baptism required for employment
2.07 Instant baptism
2.08 Stunt baptism
2.09 Novelty baptism
2.10 Virtual baptism
2.11 Destination baptism
2.12 Special water
2.13 Renewal of baptismal vows

3.0 Safety and Permission
3.01 Secret baptism
3.02 Adult forbidden baptism by the state
3.03 Suspected insincere request
3.04 Adult forbidden baptism by parents or spouse
3.05 Parents disagree over baptism of child
3.06 Child forbidden baptism by parents
3.07 Teen forbidden baptism by parents
3.08 Caretaker other than parents requests baptism for child
3.09 Refugee hoping to increase chances of asylum
3.10 Jew seeking political protection
3.11 Stillbirth, miscarriage, and at-risk pregnancy
3.12 Intellectually disabled person
3.13 Comatose or insentient person
3.14 Household or tribal baptism
3.15 Acute medical risk from human contact
3.16 Epidemic conditions

Listen to a podcast discussion of this book here!

About the Author

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson writes, walks, cooks, and podcasts in Tokyo, Japan, where she lives with her husband and son. She’s associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church, a Visiting Professor of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and an Affiliated Faculty Member at the Johannelund School of Theology in Uppsala, Sweden.

Sign up for her quarterly e-newsletter Theology & a Recipe and follow her other work at

Listen to her new fiction podcast, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson Stories, and her long-running theology podcast Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad, with Paul R. Hinlicky (her dad—you guessed it!).

Praise for To Baptize or Not to Baptize

This important book throws new light on the why, what, how, and when of baptism from Lutheran and ecumenical perspectives for theologians, clergy, and laity alike. An original scholarly and pastoral synthesis of the theology of baptism and case studies, this book is a must read.
—Rev. Prof. Herbert Moyo, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is a faithful pastor, an astute theologian, and a superb writer. Rooted deeply in the Lutheran tradition, this book on baptism is filled with practical wisdom for all Christian traditions—including my own Baptist family. Thank you, Sarah, for this wonderful gift to the Lord’s church!
—Timothy George, Distinguished Professor at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and General Editor of The Reformation Commentary on Scripture

Drawing on her experience teaching and learning from Lutheran pastors around the globe, Wilson builds on a rich theology of baptism to examine sacramental practice in real time. The variety of case studies she presents is spectacular. She challenges you to think about right administration in concrete terms and provides clear guidance for all kinds of situations.
—Rev. Dr. Jane Strohl, Pastor of Community Lutheran Church, Enfield, New Hampshire

To Baptize or Not to Baptize is a fresh and innovative examination of the doctrine of baptism and its practice in today’s context. This book is understandable for readers of all levels and thus usable for teaching and learning baptismal theology in congregations and theological schools.
—Rev. Dr. Samuel Yonas Deressa, Assistant Professor of Theology & the Global South, Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota

From Zoom baptism to unbelieving godparents to the social dynamics of tribal households, Wilson untangles the wide-ranging issues that arise in faithfully administering the church’s first sacrament in this practical and theologically robust volume. Ordained leaders and seminarians of many denominations will find valuable counsel in its careful reasoning seasoned with pastoral warmth.
—Rev. Mark Michael, Editor of The Living Church and Rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland

Since the Anabaptist movement emerged, the issue of the baptism without full consent has divided the churches of the Reformation. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson focuses on these seemingly intra-Protestant discussions and situations as well as their much broader ecumenical implications. Both the baptismal theology and cases explored in this book are relevant to all traditions involved in ecumenical discussions on Christian initiation.
—Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, Professor in Ecclesiology, International Relations, and Ecumenism, University College, Stockholm, Sweden