3 reasons why I would admit paedobaptists to membership

This post has, in part, been encouraged by the question asked by Jonathan Leeming – of 9Marks – via Twitter.

I am a baptist. I have pretty well always been a baptist. I am personally convinced of credo-baptism and I lead a church that practices believers baptism by full immersion. I genuinely believe baptism matters and I remain personally unconvinced of paedobaptist arguments to the contrary. Our church practice is that only baptised believers can be admitted to church membership and will only conduct believers baptism by immersion.

With that said, it bears asking why our church is willing to admit paedobaptists to membership? I have previously tackled the question of whether we can do that consistently here (I argued we could). However, this position leads to cries from some baptist quarters that we, therefore, don’t really believe in baptism as a criteria for membership. Alternatively, we may be charged with inconsistency in that we insist on baptism for membership, and only conduct believers baptism as a church, yet admit paedobaptists. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest 3 reasons why we admit some paedobaptists to membership (1).

Baptism is demanded by all churches

Throughout history, there have always been denominational differences and the issue of baptism is no different. There are those who will baptise babies (paedobaptist) and those who only baptise professing believers (credo-baptist). There are those who will baptise all infants (universal paedobaptists) and those who only baptise children of believing parents (covenental paedobaptists). There are those who baptise by sprinkling children and adults, those who immerse children and adults, those who sprinkle professing believers and those who only immerse professing believers. The reason for these differences has been picked over many times.

However, one thing remains clear: there are no Christian churches, no denominations, who do not see baptism as important. Whether Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist or Free Church baptism is seen as highly important and a measure of obedience to Jesus Christ. Almost no churches would argue baptism, in any form, is of no value or importance. Very few would say it bears no relevance to membership (though, undoubtedly, some exist).

Our church is very clear that only baptised believers can be admitted to membership. Those who will not be baptised in any way, shape or form are deemed to stand contrary to the commands of Jesus Christ. Those who openly flout Christ’s commandments naturally cause us to question their testimony (2). 

However, many who have undergone paedobaptism believe they have been obedient of Christ’s command and equally do not believe they can be “re-baptised”. Though we would continue to teach and encourage believers toward baptism by immersion (even those who have been baptised as infants), we do not want to force individuals to choose between their conscience (in light of the fact they truly believe they have been obedient to Christ on this issue) and joining the church in membership. This is not admittance of unbaptised believers, it is admittance of believers who have been baptised in an irregular way (3).

Paedobaptism is not without significance

As I argued here, paedobaptism is not entirely insignificant. Though it may have been done ‘out of order’ – in that it preceded, rather than followed, conversion – that does not undo the fact the later faith of the individual imbues it with some significance. Equally, though paedobaptism does not fully communicate the fullness of washing from sin, the dying/rising motif and union with Christ it is not totally bereft of such symbolism. It is therefore possible to consider paedobaptism – at the point one comes to faith – as retroactively imbued with some significance, though not full significance. It is, if you like, a partial or improper baptism.

Again, though the church would teach the importance of credo-baptism and encourage paedobaptists into full believers baptism by immersion, this does not undo the smaller significance of the paedobaptism itself. The individual has gone through the waters of baptism and is convinced such is an effective response to Christ’s command. We, therefore, do not want to disbar such people from membership. Nevertheless, we would still want to encourage them into the fuller significance of credo-baptism and would not consider this a “re-baptism”.

It is better than the alternatives

Faced with this question, we must assess the options available to us. As far as I can tell, we have three central options:

  1. Ignore baptism as a criteria for membership
  2. Refuse membership to paedobaptist brethren
  3. Find an accommodating middle way
Option 1 seems rather a poor position for a baptist church. It is evident from scripture, baptism preceded church membership. It is also an obvious matter of obedience to Christ. To admit to membership those who have made zero effort to fulfill this criteria (leaving aside subject and mode for the time being), is a bizarre position. There is little, if anything, else we would tolerate as openly disobedient to Christ without calling membership into question. Baptism, it seems, should be no different. Allowing folk to remain openly disobedient to Christ whilst admitting them to church membership seems irreconcilable with more than just the baptism passages of the bible.
 
Option 2 is certainly a more consistent position. It upholds baptism as important and makes a clear distinction between what is, and is not, meant by biblical baptism. In many ways, I am sympathetic to this position. Yet, it seems unfortunate (to say the least) to lock out of membership those who are obviously brethren in Christ and wholly in line with your stance as a church but for this one issue. It equally leads to anomalies such as Reformed Baptist Churches, standing firmly in the Calvinistic tradition, who themselves would lock Calvin out of membership. Is it right to disbar brethren, not due to disobedience to Christ, but because their conscience won’t allow them to be “re-baptised”, irrespective of how we may view that mode of baptism? This is not a matter of obedience but an issue of how obedience is interpreted.
 
I, therefore, end up leaning toward option 3. This may seem like something of a sop. In truth, were this current point the only one, I’d be inclined to agree. Yet, given the two (more important) points above, I think this is a legitimate position. It is a means of not dividing the church whilst maintaining believers baptism by immersion as important. It makes Christ’s command to be baptised of central importance whilst making allowance for improper, or irregular, modes. It recognises there is some value in paedobaptism without conferring on it the full value of believer’s baptism by immersion. It lets believers baptism by immersion be taught as proper, and even allows credo-baptists to encourage their paedobaptist brethren to go through believers baptism by immersion, without breaking unity in the church.
 
I write this not to knock other practices. Each of these positions seeks to be biblically faithful and, in some measure, hold unity together with truth. I don’t pretend this is anything less than a thorny issue in which each church must come to its own settled position. I merely offer my own here.


Notes

  1. We wouldn’t admit all paedobaptists to membership. Only those who can credibly (theologically) defend their paedobaptism
  2. That is not to say those who are unbaptised are necessarily unbelievers. It is simply to say, those who refuse to get baptised – especially when they agree such is commanded by Jesus Christ – cannot wonder why we are surprised by their lack of desire to do as Jesus commands and suggest it may reflect an unregenerate heart
  3. It’s worth saying, we would baptise some folk by sprinkling where full immersion would be a danger to life or limb. Sprinking is not fully significant, it is not the proper mode, but it does convey something (not least, a heart willing to obey Christ) and is therefore adequate for membership if not the most full and proper sign

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