By Gavin Ortlund
There are some great discussions happening on Twitter about baptism and church membership (for instance, Jake Meador started this one, which carried on for quite some time). I have enormous respect for people on different sides of the issue, and I am neither settled nor certain on every detail myself. This is a tough topic, and I think we should have grace on each other amidst differences.
I’ve wrestled with baptism a lot, including in how it plays out in relation to church membership and the Lord’s Supper, so here I share a few reflections in the spirit of seeking the truth together on this important topic. I don’t intend these as a comprehensive treatment of the issue, but instead focus on two points that I think could benefit from continued reflection:
- the category of “improper but valid,” which I think could serve the discussion if more visible
- the importance of Christian unity as expressed in church membership
But first, a brief point on the historical record as an entry point.
The Historic Baptist Practice
It is often said that closed church membership is the historic Baptist practice. There are notable exceptions to this, like John Bunyan, but we should grant it’s the majority view and widely represented in Baptist confessions.
It is worth pointing out, however, that it is also the historic Baptist practice, by and large, to require immersion. For instance, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 stipulates that “immersion—the dipping of the person in water—is necessary for the due administration of this ordinance” (29.4). Similarly, the historic Baptist practice of closed membership has typically been taken to require closed communion. For instance, in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, the statement of faith for the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Baptist denomination in the world), stipulates concerning baptism: “being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.”
Many Baptist churches today have softened regarding the mode of baptism, preferring but not requiring immersion (comparable to the first-century Didache, for instance, which envisions amidst water scarcity pouring three times on the head in the name of the Trinity). Similarly, many Baptist churches today are more open on the communion question, combining closed membership with an open Table. All to say, the historical record is complicated, and the appeal to historical continuity in favor of closed membership loses some momentum to the extent that it departs from closed communion and requiring immersion.
“Improper but Valid” as a Comprehensible Category
Advocates of closed communion/membership often claim, “there are no examples in the New Testament of unbaptized people being admitted to membership or the Lord’s Supper.” As I see things, this claim is true but falls short of settling the question at hand.
To explain this, let’s start with a positing basic distinction between (1) an erroneous view of baptism and (2) an erroneous view of baptism that is so erroneous that it causes the practice in question to no longer constitute “baptism.” We might call these an accidental error versus an essential error, respectively.
Consider an analogy for this distinction. You invent the game of baseball. You write a “baseball manifesto” on the rules. The manifesto stipulates, “there shall be 9 innings in a baseball game.” Later, people start playing 7-inning games. They argue that this is the proper practice and the best interpretation of the manifesto you wrote.
Now obviously you will disagree. But there are different ways to disagree. It’s one thing to say, “you are playing baseball wrongly.” Its another thing to say, “you are no longer playing baseball.” This is the difference between an accidental and essential error—or, as I will use the terms, between that which is improper (it shouldn’t be done) and invalid (it doesn’t count).
Accidental errors are not necessarily unimportant, of course. They simply don’t concern that which is definitional of the thing in question. Conceivably, you could hold the view that “7-inningism” is ruining the sport of baseball, is the worst thing that has ever happened to the sport, and will cause baseball to die out eventually—all without necessarily concluding that 7 inning baseball games do not constitute baseball.
Quotations from the baseball manifesto will fall short of determining whether 7-inningism is an accidental error or an essential error. The baseball manifesto was not written to settle this debate; 7-inningism was unknown when it was written; a further step of application and reasoning is needed.
By comparison, the New Testament does not ever address paedobaptism, since from a credobaptist perspective it did not yet exist to be addressed. What is needed to settle paedobaptism is therefore something more complicated than simply recounting New Testament passages about the purpose of baptism. What is needed is an effort of applying the principles of the New Testament teaching on baptism to a situation it never addressed: namely, the existence of sincere and godly Christians who believe themselves to be baptized but are not. Similarly, there is a danger of absolutizing certain images and language we might use for baptism (e.g., claiming it is the “entry door” to the church) such that this framework then controls all subsequent discussion.
There are different ways to be “unbaptized.” It is not self-evident that those unbaptized in the first century are in the same position with respect to church membership as those baptized as infants in the 21st. Applying the general dictum “baptism should precede entrance to the church/Table” equally to all different classes of unbaptized people equivocates on the difference between an unbaptized pagan in the first century and, say, contemporary Presbyterian minister.
If we insist that “in the New Testament no unbaptized person is admitted to the church,” we must also consider that, from a credobaptist standpoint, it is equally true that no non-immersed persons were admitted to the church. Pointing that out does not, in itself, establish that pouring ≠ baptism. We must show that the non-immersion is an essential error. If we can recognize improper but not invalid expressions of baptism with respect to its mode, perhaps its at least understandable how some of us want to recognize improper but not invalid expressions of baptism with respect to its subjects and timing.
I propose that it is possible for a credobaptist to consider infant baptism as improper but not invalid. I know that might seem like an overly fine-grained distinction. However, it will not be incomprehensible to strict Baptists who already call paedobaptist churches “true but irregular.” I do not go quite as far as Karl Barth’s terminology, who famously labeled infant baptism “true, effectual and effective baptism,” and yet claimed that it is “not correct; is not done in obedience, it is not administered according to proper order, and therefore it is necessarily clouded baptism.” And I’m not particular about the adjective “improper” (I’m open to suggestions). But it seems to me there can and must be some middle ground between affirming paedobaptism and rejecting paedobaptists.
Church Membership and Christian Unity
My mega-concern on this issue is the severity of barring someone from church membership and the Lord’s Supper. John Piper reflects this concern in his 2007 response to Wayne Grudem’s change of position:
Excluding a true brother in Christ from membership in the local church is far more serious than most of us think it is…. When a person looks a true and precious brother in the eye and says, “You may not join this church,” he is doing one of two things: Seriously diminishing our spiritual union in Christ, or seriously minimizing the importance of church membership.
It is one thing to say paedobaptism is an error. It is another to say that paedobaptism is an error best addressed at the level of church membership. Why not carry on the disagreement within the context of Christian unity as expressed in local church membership?
The purpose of church membership in the New Testament is to separate all those who have credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ from those who do not. It is not to separate those who are right and wrong on baptism from those who are wrong, but to separate Christians from the world. It is the gospel that unites us the level of church membership, not agreement on baptism.
A question I often ask people is this: if you would bar someone baptized as an infant from becoming a member, would you excommunicate someone you discovered to be baptized as an infant? If the issue is significant enough to stop them at the front, is it significant enough to show them out the back door?
John Bunyan reflected this concern in his 1673 Differences about Water Baptism No Bar to Communion. Responding to the charge that he “indulges the sins of the unbaptized,” he responded:
We indulge them not; but being commanded to bear with the infirmities of each other, suffer it; it being indeed in our eyes such; but in theirs they say a duty, till God shall otherwise persuade them. If you be without infirmity, do you first throw a stone at them: They keep their faith in that to themselves, and trouble not their brethren therewith: we believe that God hath received them; they do not want to us a proof of their sonship with God; neither hath he made water a wall of division between us, and therefore we do receive them (p. 20 of the above cited).
Similarly, in his classic defense of credobaptism, Paul Jewett reflected this concern:
The practice of closed membership is still widely insisted on in Baptist circles. This, to me, is very unfortunate; for though the defense of infant baptism may not be a good cause, it does not follow that the people make this defense are not good Christians and worthy members of the Christian church. (p. 5).
These appeals may help us appreciate that this debate is not a matter of strictness versus leniency. It is a matter of where one is strict, and where one is lenient—are we strict with respect to the proper expression of baptism, or are we strict with respect to a proper recognition of the unity of the church?
Conclusion: On the Boundaries and Objectivity of Baptism
I do believe that there are parameters to what constitutes “baptism.” Some practices are not only improper but also invalid. Paul baptized the Ephesian Christians who knew only the baptism of John (Acts 19:1-7). This was not “re-baptism” since the first one was not Christian baptism.
Charles Hodge had three criteria for Christian baptism:
- it is done with water;
- it is done in the Triune name; and
- it is done with the intent of obedience (his language: “ostensible professed design to comply with the command of Christ”).
Thus, (1) rules out those like the Albigensians who on occasion baptized with rose petals; (2) rules out non-Christians baptisms (e.g., Morman baptism); and (3) would rule out, for instance, mass colonial baptism for political purposes.
While Baptists will generally regard this as not going far enough, it seems to me that we can nonetheless learn something from Hodge concerning the objectivity of the sacrament. So often in American evangelical practice baptism is reduced to a matter of “showing one’s faith.” We must remember that the meaning of baptism—that of which it is sign and seal—is not our faith but Christ himself, and his saving benefits in the gospel. Faith is the instrument by which the sacrament is worthily received, not the content communicated by the sacrament. (This means that even when an unregenerate person is being baptized, those observing the baptism are seeing a visible demonstration of the forgiveness and new life that Christ offers.)
With the objectivity of the sacrament in view, it is perhaps easier to see why some see the baptism of infants as a serious though less-than-essential error, and how we might regard this practice as “improper” (or choose your adjective; somewhere else Barth called them “obscure”) without barring those who experienced it from the Christian church.
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Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is a husband, father, pastor, and writer. He serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. Gavin blogs regularly at Soliloquium. You can follow him on Twitter.