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Church Membership and the Definition of Baptism

January 4th, 2019 | 11 min read

By Jonathan Leeman

(1: Gavin Ortlund’s Initial Post, 3: Gavin Ortlund’s Response, 4: Jonathan Leeman’s Final Response)


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.

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 paedobaptist 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 insist 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 line 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 seven innings or nine. 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.

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. I even asked your better-Christian-than-me paedobaptist father to write a 9Marks’ book called The Gospel, for goodness’ sakes.

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 historic baptist position. You can be offended, but you shouldn’t be shocked. I’m saying nothing new here.

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 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 view 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.

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