Can we reject paedobaptism and welcome paedobaptists? A reply to Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund has written an article on whether it is possible for baptists to welcome paedobaptists into membership whilst maintaining their opposition to paedobaptism. You can read his comments here. There has also been some back and forth on Twitter.

I have written previously on this. Whilst I would stand by some of those earlier comments, I would apply the principles much more narrowly these days and I have moved away a little from some of it. It is my view that there are grounds to admit paedobaptists into membership of your baptist church in spite of valid baptism, but these should be exceptional (what we might label ‘pastoral exceptions’ rather than standard practice that nullifies the significance of baptism).

For instance, consider an English Presbyterian. There are scarce few Presbyterian churches in England. By and large, if you’re Reformed, you either have to find a Reformed Baptistic church or you go to a CofE. Now, even my excellent Anglican pals would acknowledge the CofE is an ecclesial crapshoot and it is not at all uncommon to find yourself in an area where the local Anglican church is less than Biblically faithful. So, what is our Presbyterian friend to do in his area? Go to a church which, in his view, is less than Biblically faithful but would welcome him into membership; or, go to the Baptistic church who may share most of his theological convictions yet risk being unable to join in membership because they deem his baptism invalid?

Now, the Baptist inclination would be to insist that the Presbyterian should get baptised and then join the Baptist church as one who has, in actuality, been baptised. And, to a point, that is fair enough. It is entirely right and proper that a Baptist church is going to expect its members to be baptised in the only form that they recognise as baptism. What is more, it isn’t exactly unheard of for Presbyterians (and others) to actually hold their convictions on baptism a little less tightly when faced with the kind of choice above. Suddenly, what were firm convictions, become a little less firm. So, I don’t think it wrong at all for Baptist churches to press people – even in the circumstances above – to actually get baptised before joining the church.

But what if this particular Presbyterian’s conscience will not bend? What if, faced with such a choice, they believe it would be an act of sin to be (in their view) re-baptised? The Baptist church suddenly have a choice to make. Do they insist somebody goes against conscience, do they allow their view on baptism to push the man down to a theologically questionable paedobaptist church, or do they set aside their own convictions on baptism and membership to avoid a worse situation? In other words, does our Evangelical Reformed teaching take precedent over our views on baptism or not?

Naturally, if there were a solid Reformed paedobaptist church within striking distance, I would encourage the brother to head there. As it happens, in our current context, there is such a church nearby with whom we have an excellent gospel relationship. But if there was no such Reformed paedobaptist church, and the Presbyterian brother’s conscience refused to give way, what are we to do? Under such circumstances, I would welcome the brother as a pastoral exception. I would argue that, in those specific circumstances, other pastoral concerns take precedence.

The same would be true of, for example, a Reformed Anglican who has come to the conclusion that they can no longer remain in the CofE because (in their view) it has erred too far. If, like most bits of England, there isn’t another Reformed paedobaptist church to jump into, we can hardly encourage them to go to a credible Anglican church down the road when they are seeking to leave that communion for godly, gospel reasons (presuming that is what they are doing). I have been in membership of a Baptist church where an Anglican minister was essentially forced out of his church because he remained Biblically faithful to the gospel. There was much umming and ahhing back then when he wanted to join the Baptists but could not – for the sake of conscience – be baptised (and was, as a result, never permitted communion). In my view, this is an obvious case whereby other pastoral concerns take priority.

However, the reason I lead with these thought experiments is to say there are obviously times – which even the strictest of strict baptists tend to recognise – that we ought to set aside the way things should be because of the circumstances surrounding the way things are in actuality. But, as they say, hard cases make bad law. Just because we recognise there are some exceptional circumstances in which our usual practice might be set aside, does not give us license to then argue that such hard cases are grounds to set aside the regula and ignore what we believe to be the evident teaching of scripture on the matter.

Baptists believe that the univocal teaching of the Bible in respect to baptism is one of immersion upon profession of faith. The sign of baptism is for those in the covenant which, again, Baptists believe the New Covenant exclusively includes those who belong to Christ by faith. As inward Spirit-baptism brings one into membership of the universal, invisible church, water-baptism is the outward sign that brings one into membership of the visible, local church. Now, I’m sure none of that comes as a surprise to anybody reading this but it does help to clarify where several of the issues lie in both paedobaptists appeals to, ‘why won’t you let us have fellowship with you?’ and several of Gavin Ortlund’s questions.

In the case of the former, Baptists are being asked to violate conscience and deny their understanding of the very significance of the sign by those who – because of their own particular understanding of baptism – obviously have no problem with it. If (as just about all churches of all stripes agree) Jesus commanded his followers to be baptised, with entrance to the church marked by this rite, simply asking Baptists to set aside that teaching because you understand baptism differently is something of a problem.

In fact, I struggle to see the difference between this sort of request and that of egalitarians who asked for their view to be validated within churches who have, historically and confessionally, rejected that principle. Many of my paedobaptist friends were horrified that someone should ride roughshod over their complementarian principles. But the argument came back that we all believe in preaching the same gospel and egalitarians would gladly welcome complementarian preachers in their churches, so why not return the favour? It does feel like something of a disconnect to then advance exactly this form of argument in respect to baptism when it is apparent that it didn’t wash when it concerned a point of principle that my paedobaptist brethren hold. Apparently, appeals to understandings of the Biblical data are significant when it concerns complementarianism (for example) but not so much when it relates to baptism.

Gavin Ortlund isn’t making that sort of argument. He, instead, argues for a distinction between improper and invalid baptism. It is the difference between what shouldn’t be done but nonetheless has validity and what doesn’t count at all. Now, (I think) most baptists would assent to this idea in principle. There has to be an irreducible minimum that determines whether a baptism has taken place or not.

To take Ortlund’s baseball analogy, if playing 9-innings is essential to the game of baseball, it follows that 7-innings-onlyism is not baseball, no matter how similar it is to the original game. I know next to nothing about baseball but my (limited) understanding of the difference between it and softball is nothing more than the size of the ball and that it can only be pitched underarm in the latter (so bigger ball thrown slower thus easier to hit). Two tiny differences but recognised as two separate games altogether. In the same way, the point at issue re baptism is whether paedobaptism meets the irreducible minimum of baptism or not, no matter how similar it is to credobaptism.

Ortlund appealing to Charles Hodge to define an irreducible minimum doesn’t help. Given Hodge is Presbyterian, he will inevitably define baptism according to paedobaptist, Presbyterian standards. Given that Presbyterians also conduct credobaptisms, they just happen to baptise non-professing infants too, this isn’t going to take us any further forward.

Stranger still, Ortlund insists that we can’t appeal to scripture alone because ‘the New Testament does not ever address paedobaptism, since from a credobaptist perspective it did not yet exist to be addressed.’ Quite why we can legitimately appeal to Hodge to define proper baptism (even though, on the question of baptism, he is not an authority for Baptists who eschew his view altogether) but can’t appeal to the Bible, from which the view of baptism is drawn, feels a bit perverse. If we believe in baptism in any form, it is only because we see it scripture. As such, we have to determine what constitutes baptism from the only source that can ordain baptism; namely, scripture – appeal to any other is a denial of sola scriptura.

Ortlund concludes, ‘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.’ But I can think of no other doctrine on which we would do this. Where else would we set aside (what we understand to be) the clear teaching of scripture to accommodate those who want to continue in behaviours that we sincerely believe are errant?

We don’t give credence to those who insist they have no need for the church because scripture teaches that we are saved by faith alone. Most (rightly) say such a refusal to meet with the Lord’s people is an act of sin and don’t accommodate those who firmly believe it is unnecessary, even if we can affirm them as potential believers with a credible profession. Likewise, most paedobaptist churches wouldn’t admit to membership somebody who refused to be baptised by any mode at all on the grounds that they don’t believe it a necessary criteria for salvation or church membership, even if they can affirm that the person probably has grasped and believed the gospel. They would insist it is an act of sin not to obey Christ in this matter. But it is hard to see how these are any different when, in truth, we are faced with someone we think is a genuine believer but who will not (on our view) obey Christ on a given issue. We all draw the line somewhere as to which forms of disobedience rule one out of membership.

The question, then, comes back to whether paedobaptism amounts to such disobedience or so far a departure that it is no longer baptism. We can accept that nobody believes they are being disobedient. But have they so departed from the irreducible minimum of baptism that it is no longer baptism? It is here that the baptist inevitably says ‘yes.’ Only those willing to overlook baptism as a criteria to membership altogether can credibly conclude that it is not a bar to membership. But to do that is to depart from the historic position of nearly all Baptist churches, indeed, even the overwhelming majority of paedobaptist churches that insist baptism is a criteria for membership (even if some on all sides would admit folk to the table apart from baptism and membership).

It is generally deemed a Baptist minimum that true baptism requires faith on the part of the baptismal candidate, usually determined by a credible profession. If there is no profession of faith – for the Baptist – there is no evidence of the thing signified and thus it cannot be considered a proper baptism. Baptism marks entrance to the visible church because it signifies the prior existing membership of the invisible church. Unless there is an assumption that the children of believers are regenerate and have been baptised by the Holy Spirit (which stands at odds with Baptist, and wider-Evangelical, theology and is not the argument of most Reformed paedobaptists), it is difficult for a Baptist to affirm paedobaptism as valid.

Whilst I maintain that there are pastoral exceptions that mean we might admit somebody to membership who has not been baptised (the examples given above are indicative rather than exhaustive), it is nonetheless difficult to see how Baptists can consistently welcome paedobaptists into membership as a matter of course. The question that pushes back to my paedobaptist brethren is this: what teaching – the denial of which you consider disobedience or a significant departure from the teaching of scripture – would you be prepared to overlook in order to have fellowship with those who sincerely disagree with you?