By Gavin Ortlund

(2: Jonathan Leeman’s Response, 3: Gavin Ortlund’s Response, 4: Jonathan Leeman’s Final Response)

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:

  1. the category of “improper but valid,” which I think could serve the discussion if more visible
  2. 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:

  1. it is done with water;
  2. it is done in the Triune name; and
  3. 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.

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  • Ben Thorp

    As someone who was baptised by sprinkling at 12 years of age, I always find these discussions interesting. My biggest issue with paedobaptism (in the UK context, certainly) has been that it seemed primarily a social rite-of-passage rather than an expression of belief. Thus it would fail your third point.

    My biggest issue with credobaptism, particularly in stricter baptist circles, is that it ignores the status of belief in favour of doubling down on practice – my own baptism, not being from immersion, would be regarded as incorrect and I would not be granted membership. This, I feel, is disingenuous.

    The other issue that I think is often glossed over is that the 2 types of baptism are not just two expressions of the same theology, but rather quite different theologies, particularly in the idea of covenant.

    However, as someone training for ordination in a denomination that has traditionally practised paedobaptism, but as someone who probably leans more towards credobaptism, my biggest concern is more over whether or not those coming for either type of baptism are doing so in genuine belief in Jesus (and, indeed, a genuine belief in that mode of baptism).

  • What about people who were baptized as infant in the Roman Catholic Church ?

  • Craig P. Hurst

    Thanks for the article. This issue is something I am wrestling with myself. I was raised a Baptist but am now a member or an Evangelical Free Church. The denomination itself is a mix of mostly Baptists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Our church doesn’t require baptism for membership which I am really struggling with.

    One issue: you said “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”

    I understand the baptism-required-for-membership position to believe that it is baptism that separates credible professions of faith from non. I suppose both could but in the context of the 1st century, the social consequences of public baptism in Jesus’ name are very high. Why would a non-believer take that step in that social setting? Church membership would still have consequences but less so than baptism. Plus, membership is not the sign of the New Covenant, baptism is. It seems counter to what baptism and membership are to not require baptism for membership.

    The best book I have read so far is Bobby Jamieson’s “Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership”. He argues for profession of faith > baptism > membership. Plus he groups baptism in with profession of faith as a catchall phrase that includes other aspects of salvation. You’d have to read the book though.

    • Cal P

      I’d challenge you to tell me where “church membership” is in the NT. I’d argue it’s not, and that the bonds of communion form around participation in the Supper. I can understand your frustration though. Membership without Baptism sounds like nationalism without citizenship.

  • Jonathan Leeman

    Gavin,

    Thank you for the opportunity to interact with you on this matter. I’m grateful for you and our partnership in the gospel, and I remember your time in DC fondly.

    As I understand it you raise two basic objections to the baptist practice of excluding people baptized as infants from church membership—what I call the definitional objection and the unity objection. You know me well enough to probably predict why I don’t find either objection finally persuasive, but let me go ahead and lay out why.

    1) Definitional objection. You want to say that paedobaptism fits inside the definition of a true or valid baptism, even if it’s not orderly or proper. To make this work, you have to remove subjective faith from the essence or definition of baptism, which you do at the end of the article. In so doing, I would argue that you effectively adopt a paedobaptism view of baptism. That’s fine. You can do that. But let’s be clear: you are defining baptism differently than baptists do (whether denominationally affiliated or not; hence, small “b”).

    A baptist like me, together with our paedobaptist friends, does affirm the objective nature of baptism—that it’s a sign and seal, as you and others have said. But we also insist on the subjective role of faith at the moment of baptism in order for that sign and seal to objectively “speak” and “seal.” This is why the New Testament uses baptism metonymically—or as a stand in—for conversion.

    – “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).

    – “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:2-4)

    – “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:11-12).

    – “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).

    Each of these passages both assume the presence of conscious faith and appeal to baptism as the confirmation of that faith. With the Galatians, Paul appeals to baptism as the sign and seal of “putting on Christ.” With the Romans, he appeals to baptism as the sign and seal of the fact that they died to sin and should therefore be living to righteousness. With the Colossians, he refers to the Holy Spirit-given circumcision of the heart (“made without hands”), which was then symbolized in their burial and resurrection in “baptism…through faith.” Then Peter even says baptism “saves you”! Either we need treat baptism as saving in ex opere operato fashion or we can understand that he’s using baptism metonymically for faith, which is what the rest of the verse suggests (“as an appeal to God for a good conscience”).

    Our paedobaptist friends might want to dispute my exegesis on any of these verses. My point for you and anyone else listening is that baptists of every stripe and shade have always taken from these verses that subjective faith at the time of baptism is a necessary element of the essence of baptism. It’s definitional.

    Charles Hodge, on the other hand, does not agree with us. And if I’m not mistaken, Hodge didn’t think a right understanding of the gospel—either by baptizer or baptizee—was a necessary part of baptism. Hence, he argued for accepting Roman Catholic baptisms. Again, some of my paedobaptizing brethren might agree with him on this point, but what I’m trying to convey here is that this is a different view of baptism.

    Verses like the ones referenced above suggest that a true or valid baptism requires a right understanding of the gospel by the baptizee and a right proclamation of the gospel by the baptizer. Hence, most baptists I know would not accept an infant baptism by virtue of the first criteria. And most (all?) baptists I know would not accept a Mormon baptism, a Jehovah’s Witness baptism, a Churches of Christ baptism, or a Roman Catholic baptism—even if all of these baptisms occurred in adults—by virtue of the second criteria.

    Instead, we argue that a true baptism depends on (i) a right understanding of the gospel by the baptizee; (ii) a right proclamation of the gospel by the baptizer; (iii) water. As you point out, many, maybe most, baptists would also insists on the mode of immersion, too.

    Now, let’s pretend for a moment that I personally don’t insist on the mode of immersion as definitional of baptism (in lines with the Didache). From that perspective, yes, I very much like the distinction between true/valid and proper/orderly. As Bobby Jamieson has put it, a broken ankle is still an ankle, and we as baptists could decide that aspersion or effusion count as true but broken ankles—kind of like a 7-inning baseball game.

    But just because the distinction works in one place doesn’t mean it works in every place. A knee is not an ankle. And cricket is not baseball, whether with 7 innings or 9. Yet your article basically says that since these categorical distinctions work with mode, they must work with subjective faith too. You don’t explain why it should work with one as well as the other. You just assert their equivalency.

    My suggestion, brother, is that if you write another version of this piece, you need to spend your time making this argument: why baptists like me are wrong to include subjective faith in the definition of baptism. Your entire article just assumes it, but that’s the whole ball of wax.

    2) Unity objection. While I don’t think your definitional objection ever gets off the ground, I do think your points on unity are more persuasive. Piper’s challenge is a good one: to exclude someone baptized as an infant from church membership either minimizes the significance of church membership or it diminishes our spiritual union in Christ. And it may be that someone like me is underestimating how serious this is, as you both suggest.

    After all, I am absolutely happy to affirm that many of my friends who were baptized as babies are Christians. Frankly, I might have more confidence in some of their conversions than my own! And my church would probably invite some of these men to preach in our pulpit, to share prayer requests in our church, and to partner with us in evangelism.

    In fact, that, right there, is an example of how we would express our “spiritual unity” with our paedobaptist friends, even while excluding them from membership. And I guess that’s a tension I’m willing to live with.

    Here’s the bigger picture. (And to my paedobaptist friends, remember you’re watching one baptist respond to another. So be patient with us!) On the one side, we have the command of Jesus to be baptized (Matt. 28:19). And you and I cannot say, “You don’t have to do what Jesus commands you to do in order to represent him as a member of the key-wielding church.” The paedobaptist might insist with all her heart, soul, and mind that she has been baptized (referring to what happened as an infant). But like the transgender conversation has been teaching us, just because we think something is true doesn’t make it true. From my understanding, the woman baptized as a baby has not been baptized. Period. If she is a Christian, then, she is disobeying Jesus. It is sin (there is such a thing as unintentional sins—see Lev. 4:2f). Some readers might be shocked to hear me call it sin, but they only show their ignorance of church history by doing so. This is the traditional baptist position. I’m saying nothing new here. You can be offended, but you shouldn’t be shocked.

    On the other hand, we have the demands of Christian unity and catholicity. Baptist Christians like me should feel the burden to affirm our spiritual (not institutional) unity with Christians and churches around the world. My church is not the only church on the planet, and baptistic churches are not the only true churches on the planet (here I would employ your valid vs. proper distinction; I’d say paedobaptist churches are valid, if improper, churches).

    In short, there’s a tension between obedience to Jesus’ baptism command and the New Testament’s clear emphasis on unity. I don’t understand myself to have created that tension. I believe the theological and implicitly moral error of paedobaptism created that tension, leaving baptists like me stuck with trying to figure out how to best negotiate that tension.

    So what do we do with this tension? You and Piper and Bunyan want to say that people like me don’t properly feel the weight of our call to unity and catholicity. I guess I’d respond by asking you to feel the weight of saying someone doesn’t have to obey Jesus or follow the uniform practice of the New Testament. As I know you’ve heard Mark Dever say, I simply don’t have the authority to tell someone they don’t have to obey Jesus.

    In fact, it’s not just baptists who talk this way. It’s everyone: baptists, presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and beyond. Everyone for 2000 years has insisted that baptism must precede membership and admission to the Lord’s Table. Put this question to your paedobaptist friends: “Would you admit someone into your church who has not been baptized and who refused to ever be baptized?” Mind you, this is precisely the situation a baptist like myself finds himself in when someone who has been “baptized” as an infant asks to join my church:

    “When were you baptized?”

    “As an infant.”

    “We don’t believe that’s baptism. Are you willing to be baptized in obedience to Jesus’ command?”

    “I have obeyed. I have been baptized. So, no, I don’t think I need to do it again.”

    At the risk of driving my paedobaptist friends bonkers, a baptist like me would classify such a person as not having been baptized and as refusing to be baptized—even though they may be godly and pious in all of their motives. I just think they are misguided, and sinfully culpable in their mistake. Still, even if I’m mistaken in this, when I have put that same question to paedobaptists, TO A PERSON, they have said, “No, I would not admit such a person into my church.” To a person, they would do exactly what I do. They simply have a different definition of baptism.

    Strangely, Gavin, the only people I have ever heard say that baptism should not be a pre-requisite for church membership are baptists. And all of you remind me—if I can say it with a brotherly wink—of the kid who kicks the soccer ball into his own goal. I trust some non-baptists will jump on Twitter and say that they would do the same, but let’s just say I’ve never seen such an argument made by a non-Baptist in a book or heard it in a seminary classroom.

    To be honest, I get a wee bit frustrated when my paedobaptist friends push this conversation. They are frustrated because they cannot join my church. I get it. That makes sense. I’m frustrated because they ask me to bend my conscience in a place they would not bend theirs. My only “ask” of them is to recognize this reality for Baptists like me.

    Last comment: some elements of my theology I’m absolutely confident in, like the resurrection. Other elements I’m less confident in, like my views of the millennium. My conviction that we shouldn’t admit well-meaning unbaptized people into our churches falls somewhere in between those two things. Which is my way of saying, I know I could be wrong. It’s also a word of gratitude to any paedobaptist readers for forbearing with baptists like me on this topic where, admittedly, we could be wrong. I don’t think we are, but until Jesus show us all the answers at the back of the book, I’m happy to continue affirming our partnership and affection in the gospel in other ways if you all are.

    Grateful for the conversation, Gavin.

  • Cal P

    An additional problem is that of paedocommunion. Here Presbyterians are practically speaking Baptists who get their children wet. If my baptized child won’t be given communion, then there’s a functional statement that she is not actually a Christian (or some sort of half-way or pseudo Christian).

    But on the flipside, I do wonder about Baptist ecclesiology when it comes to people with “special-needs”. When could they ever be baptized and/or be “members” of a given church? Or for PresBaptists, when would they ever be confirmed? When could they ever take the Supper? All in all, it seems the boundaries of Christianity are formed in concentric tiers, and that full Christian-hood (to make up a term) is something defined through intellectual capacity (which is how Thomas Aquinas did it through his “age of reason” viz. Aristotelian anthropology).

  • Daniel

    This debate has always struck me as fascinating but also as extremely alien. It seems so characteristically American – from the viewpoint of an Australian Protestant, the Baptist movement has always looked like a fringe American thing, a marginal, indeed somewhat crank-ish group well outside the Christian mainstream. As such arguments over the baptism of infants have always seemed a rather obscure issue for theologians not to debate, not an issue of live practice.

    Seeing the debate in America, I have always wondered if the relative success of adult baptism traditions there has less to do with formal theology and more to do with contextualising cultural assumptions. In particular, because adult baptism elevates the status of individual moral choice and of conscience, while rejecting the idea that you can be born or initiated into a community without making a conscious choice, it seems well-suited to a highly individualistic culture that values self-determination.

    I do believe theology matters, perhaps more than anything else – but there is no issue like infant baptism that so much makes me wonder if the theology we see is just an epiphenomenon, and the real decisions were made several steps up in a culture.

  • Chris R. T.

    As a credobaptist who is a member of an Anglican Church, I found this article very well-thought out and insightful. That’s putting it mildly; I thought this was a great piece. My position is, of course, rather the inverse of the focus of your article: I attend (and am quite involved in) a denomination that I believe has an “improper” understanding of baptism, and yet that misstep forms no (impenetrable) impediment to my joining with them as fellow members of the Body of Christ.

    A few comments—I appreciate your terminology of “improper but not invalid” and will continue to ponder it; I’ve formulated it to myself as “valid but not efficacious,” which has some historical oomph as a category, and may put me closer to Barth than your position…although, as you appear to do, I hold on loosely to my own understanding of such divine mysteries. It may be that I lack anything quite like a fixed position. In any event, I mean by this that I do think infant baptism “counts” as baptism, even if it is improper, but that it doesn’t in fact “count for” anything until saving faith enters the mix (or, if it counts, it is for nothing other than what a Baptist dedication service counts for, with the added potential for greater future effectiveness).

    As to other points in the comments, I can certainly see how credobaptism appears “alien” for someone from a different tradition, and absolutely agree with Daniel that there are cultural impulses involved from both directions. There is no neutral ground on which to evaluate such traditions. But I would like to point that this view is by no means outside of the Christian mainstream: it is found in the very headwaters, at the baptism of our Lord Himself (if the flow was largely diverted a couple hundred years subsequently, well, it wouldn’t be the only popular, longstanding, yet mistaken trend represented throughout the history of the Church). Our first reference to infant baptism, as far as I’m aware, was a rejection of it (Tertullian). A bit earlier, the Didache suggests that, at the very least, it is not the standard; it is, of course, the only form of baptism clearly attested in the New Testament. This is by no means proof that later Christians did not develop another valid form, but it at least puts those who emphasize the original form on rather comfortable ground.

    As to Cal’s comment “about Baptist ecclesiology when it comes to people with ‘special-needs’” and the existence of tiers of Christianhood based on intellectual capacity…well, I’m certainly not speaking for all Baptists, but I do not believe that, if there are any such tiers, they are defined via intellectual capacity. I’m resisting an off-the-cuff discourse on childlike faith, but I will simply say that this particular credobaptist doesn’t think his capacity for faith is any greater than that of a Downs (or other) individual. And I’d have a great problem attending a church that excluded such folks from baptism (or communion, or membership) solely on the basis of intellectual capacity. Intellectual capacity (or capacity for a particular display of reason, for the Thomists) is not a measuring stick of the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Again, I’m not speaking on behalf of Baptists anywhere, but I think the critical ingredient is volitional, not intellectual. That is, there must be a response to the faithfulness of Christ and the call of grace (leaving aside whether that call is irresistible or not). There does not need to be comprehension—for what eye has seen, or ear heard, or heart imagined?

    This understanding, which I believe is supported by the New Testament, explains why I think infant baptism is improper, yet would be fine with a young child or special needs individual being baptized. If someone turns to Christ (because Christ calls to him), then they may be properly baptized, even if they don’t have the ability to give catechetically satisfying explanations. To paraphrase Frodo, I think the response must be something like “I will take my heart to Christ, though I do not know the way.” Since Jesus is the Way, of course, that initial step is all that’s required (ok, don’t let my childish references derail the thoughts). To sum up this line of reasoning, what Baptists do about those with special needs should be what they do for everyone else, since the sin trait we all share puts us more in need of grace than an extra chromosome can.

    I’ll finally wrap up by quoting perhaps my favorite line from the article, one which, I think, expresses the proper heart behind such debates better than I have seen: “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?” Great stuff Gavin!

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