Two questions for Baptists who admit paedobaptists to membership

I don’t want to rehash everything I’ve said about baptism and membership again. You can read my view on whether I would admit paedobaptists into membership of my baptistic church here. If you can’t be bothered to read that, the basic answer is that we shouldn’t welcome paedobaptists into membership as a matter of course, recognising there may be some exceptional circumstances where this is waived. But I did want to address a couple of arguments that have cropped up recently.

The first comes from our redoubtable, intrepid National Director, John Stevens. Here is his comment:

The question for John, if this is his position, is whether he has enshrined affirmation of his own FIEC statement of faith as an entrance requirement to his local church? For the record, my own church holds to the FIEC statement of faith as our doctrinal basis. But John will be aware that the FIEC statement of faith enshrines a number of clauses that – while important for the life of a local church and obedience to Christ – are non-salvific secondary (yet important) matters.

Let me highlight an example. Point 2 in the FIEC statement of faith concerns the Bible. It affirms both the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture as originally given. Now, I gladly affirm both those doctrines. But I also recognise that somebody who doesn’t affirm them doesn’t necessarily prove they belong outside of Christ, even if I think it may well lead them to other serious errors. Evangelicals tend to affirm that we are not saved by assent to scriptural infallibility and inerrancy. Yet, we gladly enshrine it in our doctrinal basis and (I presume) would struggle to welcome somebody into membership of our church who openly denied these things.

If our basis for welcoming paedobaptists into membership is because ‘Jesus has accepted them’, what ground have we got for denying those who reject the inerrancy of scripture? Unless we are arguing that a rejection of inerrancy means Christ cannot have saved that individual, we have something of an inconsistency on our hands, don’t we?

But what about those who have been saved from other errant traditions? Consider a former Roman Catholic, whom you believe has been soundly saved, but nonetheless retains a belief in transubstantiation. They reject that the elements impart grace but they believe in a change to the bread and wine. If you can’t cope with that, what about a Lutheran who affirms consubstantation? In both cases, this is a non-salvific issue yet Article 8 of the FIEC doctrinal basis insists such people cannot enter membership. Again, if our ground for welcoming paedobaptists into membership is that ‘Jesus has accepted them’, how do we square the circle that Jesus has also accepted, and united to himself, these believers who hold to other errant, non-salvific issues?

The point I am coming round to is that we evidently don’t believe that those whom Christ has accepted is the only criteria of membership. Indeed, if we make baptism a criteria of membership at all (even if we say we are dual-practice or won’t make mode a barrier to entering the church), are we not locking out those whom Christ has accepted? We all recognise the dying thief beside Christ was saved by faith alone in Christ alone and, despite not being baptised, is in glory with Jesus. From this, we reason, baptism is not a ground of salvation or acceptance by Christ. So insisting on baptism at all, even if we willingly admit paedobaptists to membership, still locks out some whom Christ has accepted. The point is that acceptance by Christ is not the only ground of membership and no church thinks so.

The other question that needs to be addressed is this: in what way are we affirming baptism as significant at all if it means absolutely nothing in relation to membership? In what way are we treating it as a foundational command of Jesus present in the Great Commission if, in fact, we are happy to make disciples without insisting upon their being baptised?

Now, to be fair, some independents are entirely up front about that. I remember one discussion in which a minister said openly that they didn’t make baptism a membership requirement at all. The reason was, why have some baptised people in membership and some not while pretending it is a criteria? I admire the honesty and removing baptism as a membership criteria does circumvent the question of inconsistency. It doesn’t, however, do anything to address the fact that it is a command of Christ or the fact that it is a departure from the historic position of pretty well every denomination throughout church history.

For those who do still insist on baptism as a criterion for membership, we are pushed back to the question of consistency. How is it consistent to claim baptism is essential for membership while happily admitting those who have not been baptised into membership? The current discussion concerns what should happen during the ordinary course of things. If we readily admit to membership those we don’t accept as having been properly baptised, in what way is baptism remotely significant to your church? It is, de facto, not an entrance requirement at all.

The point that keeps circling back in favour of admission is one of catholicity. The argument, or so it goes, is that by rejecting this person from membership we are rejecting the existence of the universal church. But, if it is not a rejection of catholicity to deny membership to someone who denies the infallibility of scripture even though they are a believer when another church down the road would accept them, why does this only become true on the issue of baptism?

In fact, isn’t the reality of catholicity that we acknowledge despite doctrinal differences, true churches still exist elsewhere? The point of catholicity isn’t that you can demand that my church agrees with all the doctrinal positions of your church. The point is that, though I cannot accept you as a member of this church, I nonetheless acknowledge you as a brother or sister who may belong to another church. We all place membership fences around more than kingdom essentials. Catholicity is not undermined by insisting on doctrinal distinctives, it actually finds its full expression in saying despite our doctrinal distinctives we can nevertheless acknowledge brothers who belong within different congregations whilst respecting their differing convictions. That necessarily includes not insisting they deny their view, because it is not your view, for the sake of catholicity.