Some clarifications on Strict& Particular Baptist ecclesiology: a reply to John Stevens

At the risk of prolonging this discussion further than I ought, I felt it worth replying to a recent blog post by John Stevens. John kindly answered some questions I posed in response to his Facebook comment. You can read that here. John has fleshed out his view on open communion and membership here, in an article which is both clear and irenic. So, I’m really grateful to to him for engaging with this.

The reason I wanted to respond wasn’t to try and get the last word. I am quite happy to let John have that (if he wants it). But there were several things in John’s article that seemed to misrepresent (I’m sure unintentionally) the view of Strict and Particular Baptists like me (we’ve really got to change that name). Just so that we’re actually engaging with the views we really hold, I thought I’d just offer some points of agreement and disagreement.

Church governance

John claims a lot of the view on closed membership stems from attempts to maintain a pure congregational polity. But most S&P Baptists affirm the kind of polity (or something close to it) that John outlines in his post. Here, for example, is Jonathan Leeman (a closed membership/communion advocate like me) on this very question.

The congregation in most S&P Baptist churches vote on the election of officers (elders and deacons), who are subsequently to lead, and the admission and removal of members (the latter of which is the final step in church discipline).

Incidentally, John says his view is closer to the Brethren model. I grew up in the Brethren (that’s right folks, Brethren by birth, Strict and Particular by conviction!) and the model really isn’t all that different to what you see in S&P churches. The members elect (and, should circumstances require, deselect) their elders. They also affirm who should and should not be in membership of the local church (just, as John says, they are involved in matters of church discipline). So, I’m not sure the model of church governance John advocates is that different to that of most S&P churches.

As a result, John goes on to misrepresent, certainly my view, and I think that of many S&P Baptists. He states, ‘I find it unconvincing that the newest and least taught new Christian can have in effect an equal ruling role in the church to the elders.’ But, of course, nobody argues that they do. They have specific roles in electing officers (with which John agrees), church discipline and removal from membership (with which John agrees) and admission to membership (which John doesn’t specify exactly who he sees involved in this).

This leads John to then claim:

The classic congregational model of church government would prove highly problematic in contexts, such as revival, where the church is growing rapidly through conversions of people from a pagan, as opposed to Christianised, background. A mass of newly converted and untaught members would all too easily lead the church astray. This is what happens around the world as new churches with inadequate leadership fall for heresy and prosperity teaching. One of the inconsistency I see in the approached of my stricter Baptist friends is that they tend to delay baptism so that it does not follow immediately on conversion, so as to provide time for converts to be minimally discipled into basic doctrines that will enable them to function as church members who will bear a governance responsibility.

But, of course, in our FIEC church, he well knows that we are seeing significant numbers of people being saved in Oldham from “pagan” backgrounds (for which read, former Mulsims). We don’t delay baptism for them. Those who give a credible testimony and go through the waters of baptism are admitted to membership, receive access to the table and may vote in members meetings immediately. This is precisely the ‘mass of newly converted and untaught members’ that John fears might lead the church astray. As we’ve not yet been thrown out of the FIEC for departure from its core doctrines, I think we can safely say such fears are not well grounded.

For these reasons, John is wrong to suggest that we do not carry our governance to its logical conclusion because he misrepresents our polity. Of course, he is right that paedobaptists may not join in membership at the front door. But he is wrong to presume this stems from our polity. Indeed, should we waive that and welcome them into membership (as I outline here, there are reasons to do this on occasion), they would vote as full members of the church like anybody else.

The reason for exclusion stems not from our polity but our view that baptism is the means by which we bring people into membership of the church. We do not believe we can set aside a clear command of Christ as pertaining to the church. Indeed, this is the view of all mainline churches throughout church history. Paedobaptist churches, likewise, will insist upon a baptised membership. The only question at issue, then, is whether paedobaptism can legitimately be called baptism. If it can, then there is no reason not to welcome them into membership. If not, then it cannot be right to welcome them into membership. This is, in reality, the sole issue at play.

Closed membership

John offers his view on why he would admit paedobaptists to membership despite rejecting their baptism as valid. He states, ‘In my view this is respecting their conscience before the Lord, as Romans 14-15 requires us to do in matters that do not pertain to salvation.’ The problem here is that this then falls back onto my original question to John, and the point of consistency at issue in his arguement, why does he contend that other non-salvific issues – such as scriptural inerrancy and infallibility – are grounds to reject a person for membership?

He answers this further on in his post:

Stephen is right to highlight the apparent inconsistency that all churches impose criteria for membership that go beyond mere faith in the Lord Jesus. However, I would argue in favour of a church membership that is defined by adherence to the core gospel doctrines that are said to be primary in the New Testament. I would regard a commitment to the authority of Scripture as included within this. However, we are all guilty of a degree of pragmatism here as to where we draw the lines of what is required.

Of course, I was originally pointing out John’s inconsistency on this point (naturally, I think I am thoroughly consistent). I did argue that all churches go beyond mere faith in Christ in their membership criteria. However, I am not inconsistent in doing so because I am not making the case that faith in Christ is (or should be) the sole criteria for membership.

John states we are all guilty of a level of pragmatism here, but I just don’t think that argument holds. For example, he asserts (rightly), ‘I would argue in favour of a church membership that is defined by adherence to the core gospel doctrines that are said to be primary in the New Testament.’ It is hard to imagine that the Great Commission – in which the disciples are called to make disciples and then baptise them – doesn’t render baptism fairly key. The historic witness of the church – regardless of one’s view of proper baptism – affirms this.

When it comes to pragmatism then, paedobaptists are consistent on baptism itself – anybody they deem properly baptised (which is pretty much any trinitarian baptism involving water) may join their church in membership. S&P Baptists are consistent on this point – anybody they deem properly baptised (which is any trinitarian baptism by immersion conducted on profession of faith) may join their church in membership. The only pragmatic position is one that says those who have not been baptised (or, at least, not baptised properly) may join the church in membership despite not recognising their baptism and acknowledging the historic teaching of every mainline church in respect to membership on this point.

Closed communion

It is on closed communion where intramural Baptist discussions really hot up. The historic doctrine of almost all Baptist churches was that of closed membership. The picture in respect to closed (or, close) communion is much more mixed. Spurgeon, for example, was not a closed communion advocate despite being in favour of a strict baptist membership.

John views communion as ‘the fundamental act of unity between brothers and sister in Christ’. I disagree with this view and consider it a local church ordinance recognising the unity within a particular fellowship. John goes on to argue, ‘To refuse to eat the Lord’s Supper with someone is ultimately an act of church discipline.’ On any view, I’m not sure that’s true. To refuse admittance to the table can be an act of discipline, but it isn’t necessarily. We all, for example, refuse admission to unbelievers but are we placing them under church discipline? Evidently not, they aren’t a member of the church. How can you discipline somebody who never submitted to your disciplinary procedures or your authority as elders?

Instead of viewing the Lord’s Supper this way, I see it as the visible sign of membership. Baptism brings one into membership of the local church while communion affirms your ongoing standing as a member of the church. As such, it is a category error to call it church discipline to withhold communion – the sign of membership – from a non-member. This is only a disciplinary measure for one who is in membership. However, as John rejects the view that the Lord’s Supper is a local church ordinance, we will inevitably differ on this point.

The reason this matters is that John claims those who hold to S&P doctrine are logically inconsistent because, he asserts, we reject the the unifying function of the supper. But, of course, that isn’t how S&P Baptists view the table. The table has a unifying function for the local church. We believe the local church is constituted by the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, affirming those in membership of the church through an affirmation of unity within the local church given for the local church is entirely consistent with an S&P view of the Lord’s Supper. Now, I appreciate that is not John’s view of communion (he has openly rejected this here). But this means only that S&P practice is inconsistent with his view, rather than logically inconsistent on its own view.

Catholicity

Finally, and where much of these discussions have centred, is the issue of catholicity. John asserts:

I find it hard to see that there can be any true unity with other churches. It seems to me to be convenient, but lacking in biblical support, to shift the problem of how to deal with divergent views on valid baptism within the evangelical church to one between local churches rather than at the level of an individual local church. I don’t think it is logical, or biblical, to want to maintain Catholicity only at an inter-church level rather than an intra-congregational level. This is to place too high an importance on the local church rather than the Universal Church of which local churches are meant to be an expression. It is a position made possible only pragmatically when there are enough believers to form separate credobaptist and paedobaptist churches in the same area. In many contexts this may be practically impossible.           

But, of course, churches do this all the time. There are churches with whom we may partner in a gospel outreach but whom we wouldn’t invite to come and speak in our churches. We recognise they are believers with whom we may work in the gospel but, due to varying doctrinal issues to which we take exception, do not wish to invite their preachers into our pulpits. Is that holding at arms length those we recognise as brothers and sisters in Christ? Or, is working in the things we can work together – whilst recognising there are boundaries to how far we may work together – a legitimate outworking of catholicity that respects different doctrinal positions of the church?

Of course, John’s view here stems from his particular view of the Lord’s Supper being the primary expression of catholicity. I reject that view of communion but I can see how that would consistently push you to the view that S&P Baptists reject catholicity. However, John must contend with the counterpoint that if catholicity does demand acceptance of those with whom you deeply disagree on key doctrinal questions, what is to stop any church with members he affirms as believers from entering into membership of his church on the same terms (e.g. let’s take infallibility of scripture again as an example)?

I do take seriously John’s point regarding different churches in particular contexts, and feel the force of it, but I addressed this in my initial post here.

Update: I was contacted this morning by somebody detailing how they were not permitted to join their local Presbyterian church because they will not baptise their children. Despite John’s argument to the contrary this is frequent practice because to not baptise children is seen as a disciplinary matter. This is, again, entirely consistent on paedobaptist views (and the Baptist who contacted me on the matter made a point of saying he recognised and understood so too.) I have also been contacted by paedobaptist advocates to say this practice is frequent. This is consistent and logical on the view but it very much undercuts the “generosity” John says so pushes him to welcome paedobaptists into his baptistic church.