Review: To Baptize or Not to Baptize by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is Associate Pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church in Japan. She has lived, served, and taught in multiple contexts throughout her ministry and brings her curiosity, humor, intelligence, and confessional insights to us through those lenses.  

This book is a compendium of results from a case study method that Wilson used in a two-week course on Lutheran theology she co-founded at the LWB-Zentrum in Wittenberg. To Baptize or Not to Baptize is a “deliberately provocative” title to synthesize all of what her students knew of the Bible, faith, and theology into one of the core functions of the Christian church on earth — the practice of baptism. 

Those who have worn the yoke of ministry know that it is a vocation full of grey areas. All the words students read in seminary, all the divisions present in our culture and community, and all the balls and strikes those pastors call each day makes ministry, as Wilson calls it, “a messy business.”   

This book is intended to disseminate the harvest of over ten years of reflections among a changing cast of students of theology. It includes a summa of Lutheran baptismal theology in 40+ pages that makes it worth the price of admission alone. The latter portion of the book is given over to a variety of case study examples from Wilson’s ministry as well as many supplied to her by former students and colleagues. 

The case studies are divided into three sections: Validity, Integrity of witness, and Safety and Permission. They range from the issue of conversions from other faiths or creeds all the way to secret baptisms performed at the risk of persecution or death. Thankfully, Wilson even includes a case study on baptism during epidemic conditions, a question that all churches have found themselves pondering since Spring of 2020.  

Wilson brings a sharp intellect, an “in the trenches” wit, and a resistance to one-size-fits-all answers to each case.  Wilson’s main goal in this book is to a) get the Church out of the business of re-baptizing people and b) take a moment to reflect on why a person may feel the need to be rebaptized in the first place! The old gibbet of re-baptism as a signal sign of the individualism present in Western Christianity must be put on hold; pastors must first ask themselves if they have truly treated the sacrament as the real promise and gift that it is.  

I highly recommend this book as a precursor to any serious discussions about baptism or even communion for that matter.  As Wilson points out, it is barely worth talking about open communion tables when we do not even have our theology of baptism ironed out. 



Chris Enstad

Rev. Chris Enstad is Lead Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Madison and Verona, Wisconsin.  He has served congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.