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Thoughts on Baptism, Communion and Church Membership

August 23, 2007

Recently, there has been a debate circulating through the blogosphere in regards to baptism, communion, and church membership. Justin Taylor has provided a nice summation of the debate on his blog if you want to catch up. Ultimately, the debate boils down to this: Baptism is required for church membership. Baptists believe that biblical baptism consists of immersion after a mature profession of faith. Some baptists believe that those who have only been sprinkled as a baby have not received true baptism and shouldn’t be allowed to join a baptist church or partake in the Lord’s Supper (church membership being a prerequisite). Other baptists believe that while baptism is necessary for membership and communion, how or when a person is baptised isn’t as important as recognizing that person as a fellow believer. Therefore, they should be able to partake of the Lord’s Supper (at the least) and possibly join a baptist church without having to be rebaptized.

There are certainly many nuances within this debate, and I don’t care to rehash all of them here – the link above is sufficient for that. What I would like to focus on here is why there is really only one logical position in this debate – that paedobaptists (those who have been baptized as infants) should be barred from joining a baptist church and from partaking of the Lord’s Supper in that church.

My initial postition in this debate was to side with those who would allow all Christians – regardless of baptism mode – to join and commune. It is clear in the scriptures that the Lord’s Supper is to be observed by the church – the baptized body of Christ. It is clear that the church consists of both paedobaptists and credobaptists (those who are baptized after a mature profession of faith). That seems to be pretty easy, huh? But let’s take a closer look.

What constitutes a Christian in the bible? Well, there are a number of things that a Christian is recognized by: his walk, his participation in the body of Christ, his obedience to Christ, his profession of faith, etc… but ultimately, the bible looks to a person’s baptism into Christ as their Christian identity. While repentance and baptism go hand in hand, baptism is the objective, physical marker of becoming a Christian, and this is what the apostles pointed to when they addressed the church. That being said, then, it is clear that baptism is a necessary requirement for being a member of the church and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Now let’s take a look at the baptist view of baptism.

This is what the Baptist Faith and Message says about baptism –

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.

In a nutshell, if you want to join a baptist church and take communion, you must be baptized as a believer by immersion. Simple as that. In fact, if you notice, I highlighted the point about it being an act of obedience. This is the case that is made in the current debate: paedobaptists cannot join a baptist church because they have not been properly baptized, and they cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper because they are in direct disobedience to the command of our Lord.

So, you see the dilemma here, right? The bible clearly calls for Christians to feast together at the Lord’s Supper, but because of disobedience, some Christians can’t feast with other Christians at the Lord’s Supper. There is a lot to think about here. Everybody sins, so is this “sin” grievous enough to prevent table fellowship? If Christians are to partake of the Lord’s Supper, are those who are barred from the Lord’s Supper not Christians? Assuming you do allow paedobaptists to join and feast, how do you get around the clear baptist doctrine of baptism? Are you then sinning (as a pastor) by allowing others to sin?

We could go on. And other’s have. This is why many of our baptist churches practice closed communion – there’s just so many “what ifs” it’s easier to just keep it simple – if you’re a member of the local church, you can partake, if not, fuhget about it. So, as much as I commend those who support membership and communion regardless of baptism mode because of what they believe the bible says about the church, there really is no other way around it – something has to give. The other side is right. If you want to be a part of the baptist church, you must adhere strictly to their understanding of baptism and membership. If you don’t meet these prerequisites, then you shouldn’t be able to be a member. End of story.

 Baptist – It’s the new Roman Catholicism.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2007 6:19 am

    Hey Brian…

    Good thoughts man. I have a couple of things I would modify but overall I think you’re right. I understand why some Baptist churches practice “closed” (=members only) communion but I think this stems from these churches seeing themselves as more responsible for fencing the table than is necessary. It seems to me that the responsibility falls on individuals and churches to fence the table. I would have no problem opening the table to a brother or sister who had been baptized as a believer by immersion and was a member in good standing in an Evangelical church. This is different than “closed” communion but it’s not a communion that is open to all.

    I think that you are right to point out the main tension with Baptists, communion, and paedo denominations. It’s a tension I feel but right now I can’t go to a completely open communion table. I also am not sure that the unity you talk about which is demonstrated primarily at the table is the kind of unity Jesus expected.

    Look forward to the conversation.

    kb

  2. August 25, 2007 7:23 pm

    KB,

    Thanks for the reply. I think this is a conversation that needs to happen, and I’m glad it finally has. Have you read the other blogs that I linked in my post? I have to say, I’m in agreement with Sam Storms, although I’m probably a little harsher in my view. I feel like the whole Together For the Gospel thing is a bit hypocritical and I’m tired of hearing how there is unity when there really isn’t any. At the same time, I understand the Baptist position and I think Piper and Storms are going to have a hard time reconciling the two positions. Frankly, though, – and no offense to you and my other Baptist brothers that I dearly love – but the main gist behind my post is just to highlight how ridiculous I think the baptist view of these issues is.

    Much luf,
    Brian

  3. August 26, 2007 3:02 pm

    I’m not offended at all. And I knew you were trying to show the “absurdity” of the Baptist position. I’m just glad you represented it prety fairly. But (surprise surprise) I don’t think the Baptist position is ridiculous. I think it’s an issue of determining the amount and type of tension one is willing to operate under. If baptism is the definitive, unifying act of Christianity and baptism is for believers only then how one understands membership in a local church and who can come to the table is not easy to nail down. This is especially difficult sense no Baptists I’m aware of would argue that non-baptists aren’t converted despite a wrong understanding of baptism.

    I don’t think the paedo position is free of tensions. In fact I see more tension with it than the baptist position. I cannot square the paedo understanding of baptism with a NT that doesn’t have a category for a believer who isn’t baptized after conversion. I also would want to get you to describe the kind of unity you think Jesus is calling for and why it centers at the table. I just don’t see it. I’m not convinced that the kind of unity you think we should have is possible this side of heaven because of the wide difference of opinion over baptism as well as the presence of sin in the hearts of God’s people.

    kb

    ps. I’m typing this while trying to entertain emma (as well as keep her from falling off the couch) so if i come across terse I’m not trying to.

  4. August 26, 2007 4:32 pm

    KB,

    Lots of good questions and comments. I’m definately feelin’ ya on the “unity amongst fallen man” issue. That’s why its so important to hold these discussions in brotherly and sisterly love, remembering our inadequacies. I probably wouldn’t have even posted on this issue except that I feel strongly about it, given the controversy of it all.
    For the record, my views do not square with the Lig Duncan PCA types who are really baptists at heart – this is why he can defend Mark Dever’s statements about this issue.
    Personally, I have more in common with many of my Baptist brethern. In fact, I would even say that most PCAers are heretical in their baptism practices. Baptists, at least, are consistent and even though I was aiming at the absurd in my post, I really do believe that Dever is right in this issue – as opposed to Piper’s view.
    I’m headed off to church now, but there’s a lot more I want to say about it… perhaps I’ll post another blog – I don’t know. I’ll definately respond to some of your questions in one format or the other. Take care brother.

    Brian

  5. September 7, 2007 7:28 am

    Hello.

    As a self-contained argument, I think it holds. Where this gets blown is when we look at what Barth says on the subject (“The Teaching of the Christian Church Regarding Baptism,” 1948).

    Coming from the perspective of a robust covenant theology, Barth argues that baptism is the means whereby a believer enters into the covenant that God graciously extends to sinful mankind. Humans respond in faith to God’s offer to forgive sin. Baptism is the outward symbol of entry into this new covenant. And Barth is, not surprisingly, unequivocal in affirming that baptism is by the immersion of believers for forgiveness of sin, all of which is possible only by God’s inscrutable grace. (The fact that, as you know, I take issue with credobaptism ought to go without saying, closet Lutheran that I am.)

    Equally interesting is Barth’s hostility toward Anabaptist views of baptism (a feature he shares with his forefathers of the Reformation). He readily admits that infants are not suitable subjects for baptism and that affusion is not an appropriate substitute for immersion, but he refuses to consider that the grace of God is bound by or limited by the nature or fidelity of the human response to God’s offer. Despite the faults he finds in infant baptism and affusion, Barth holds that to re-baptize is to affirm that God is either unable or unwilling to extend grace except on the precise compliance of human subjects to a prescribed form. Such a denial of the adequacy of God’s grace is, in reality, an insult to God and a form of blasphemy. God does not predicate grace on the precise nature of the sinner’s response to a particular form, nor would he deny grace to sinners because their intention to respond to God’s gracious offer is done in an inappropriate manner. To Barth, re-baptism is not an option; it is an insult to God.

    In short, Barth would deem the implications of the “Baptist Faith and Message” (as you’ve unpacked them) to be forbidden.

  6. Gareth Williams permalink
    September 14, 2007 5:21 am

    Hi there,

    Interested to read your comments.

    I entirely agree with your stance on paedobaptism.

    What are you thoughts on someone who was credobaptised, but by sprinkling? Should they be barred from Baptist Church membership? For example, this could happen where a person is born again, is filled with the Holy Spirit and makes a conscious decision to follow Jesus. However, at the time they are attending a denomination that only offers sprinkling. Later they start to attend a Baptist Church and are refused membership. Are we really saying that that person should have waited to make their public confession of faith until they were attending a church that baptised by immersion?

    Gareth.

  7. September 14, 2007 4:27 pm

    Chris,

    Hey, sorry it took so long to respond. My computer has had “issues” lately. It’s good to hear from you.

    Well, I do agree with Barth’s conclusion on re-baptism, it’s everything up to that point that I disagree with. You describe Barth’s covenant theology as “robust,” but I believe it is rather weak in at least one important area: children. In fact, he is a good representation (and influence, although many of our baptist friends might wince at this accusation) of my biggest qualm with baptist theology: the necessity – or rather, exclusivity – of a cognitive response for saving faith. In fact, I might say that Barth’s conclusion on re-baptism betrays his baptistic views on baptism – his systematic “means” don’t quite lead to what he sees as the biblical “ends.” Same thing with this discussion on baptism and membership – the “ends” are evangelical, but the “means” smell like Roman Catholicism to me. The ironic thing is that a fear of looking like RC drove Baptists to the other extreme – where they also have extra-biblical standards for entering the church.

  8. September 14, 2007 4:46 pm

    Gareth,

    Thanks for your response.

    First of all, let me make sure we’re on the same page. I am a padeobaptist – although I tend to differ on some major points with many of my padeobaptist brethern. Anyways, the point of my post was to show the absurdity of the baptist position on either side of the argument. I’ve had a few comments from friends about my post who weren’t quite sure where I was coming from… my attempt at absurdity probably didn’t come across very clear, and many people probably missed the punchline at the end of my post. Anyways, I couldn’t tell from your response whether you really did agree with me or not. OK, now I’m confused.

    As far as your question goes, I still would say that a baptist church that holds to the Baptist Faith and Message defination of baptism would have to require immersion before allowing membership. While I prefer pouring to the other modes of baptism, mode is not where I would make my stand on the issue. However, mode is key to the credo-baptist position because of what it represents: it goes hand in hand with the idea that baptism is a sign that we have died to the old self and have been raised into new life. Also, because they believe this is how Jesus was baptised, there is the issue of obedience.

  9. September 19, 2007 9:38 am

    Hello, Brian. Good to read you.

    I anticipated your response regarding the actual lack of robustness with respect to Barth’s covenant theology. After all, I agree with your sentiments. And I’m perfectly comfortable with, for example, the Lutheran consistency on this issue (though inconsistency, it must be admitted, with repsect to their communion practices); they simply assert with Scripture that it is not a means of grace, but grace itself. Through the waters we are brought into God’s family.

    That said, I’ve got to give Barth his due. If I were to ever venture back into Baptistic waters, it’d be precisely because of how Barth (and Jewett after him) show, somewhat uncmofortably for us paedobaptists, that a robust covenant theology necessarily includes credobaptism. Of course, I remain as of yet unconvinced. But let’s be fair. What makes biblical covenant theology robust is not one’s view as to how children of believing parents relate to God’s covenant (I’m sure you disagree); it’s all about understanding the faithful, progressive and unfurling nature of God’s covenant with man, despite our whore-mongering. If Barth conludes that a biblical covenant theology demands credobaptism, then let’s give him the credit (once his argument is grasped) of saying that his covenant theology is robust.

    All that said, what Barth is really rejecting is the modern, Western (individualist and baptistic) legalsim of the contract concept of the plan of salvation (possibly implicit in the Baptist Faith and Message). This notion requires the believer is to meet the terms (a not entirely foreign concept in covenant theology, of course; the difference being between legalism and grace) of the contract by completing one’s obedience to Christ (just as you’ve stated in your original post). For Barth, those who would dare immerse a believer who had been baptized as an infant to provide a rationale that avoids the judgment that these believers are no different than pagans who come to Christ from a state of unbelief. And the rationale seems to always find its basis on some notion of a legalistic contract.

    This, by the way, ought to be the very charges we level toward those Baptists against Barth on this point. They trumpet grace but end up betraying it. The point that I’d like to make, along with Barth, is despite my strong opinions on the matter (that children ought to be baptized), I think a church can possibly allow for both practices. It’s either that or close both membership and communion.

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