If we are called to ‘welcome one another in love’ (cf. Rom 15:7) shouldn’t we be admitting to membership those who we can affirm as believers, even if they haven’t been baptised? You may not agree with paedobaptism, but if these are your brothers and sisters in Christ, ought you not to welcome them into membership because, to do otherwise, undercuts Paul’s instruction in Romans 15:7. So goes one of the arguments against the Baptist position. But there are several reasons why this argument doesn’t hold water. Here are a few.
Paul writes Romans 15 to people already in the church
The biggest problem with the argument stated above is that it fails to recognise the context into which Paul writes the instruction. He is not writing to separate churches but to believers within one church. He is calling on the believers, within the fellowship, to bear with one another. Paul is not making an argument for essentialism as the ground for entry to the church, he is talking about disagreement on secondary matters among those who have already been admitted to the local fellowship. If Paul is writing to a local church regarding relations within a local church, it would seem contextually problematic to then apply this text to those who – for whatever reason – are currently outside the local church fellowship.
Paul’s ‘welcome’ does not extend to matters of actual sin
Even if we think Romans 15 does apply here (and, per my first point, I’m not sure it does), Paul is not telling us to ‘welcome’ those we believe are not obedient to Christ. Paul is calling us to welcome those within the fellowship with whom we disagree on matters that we do not ourselves consider sinful. His basic position is that the one who thinks something is not sin, should act in such a way as to not offend the conscience of the one who believes it is sin. In other words, we are to exercise our gospel freedom NOT to do what we think is OK for the sake of our brothers whose consciences tell them the thing is not OK. What Paul is categorically not telling us to do is extend a welcome to those who are doing what scripture leads us to believe is actually sinful.
Now, when it comes to the issue of Baptism, the Baptist position is that Jesus commands his people to repent and be baptised. He calls us, in the Great Commission, to make disciples and then to baptise them and teach them all that he commanded. In Acts, the Apostles do exactly that. They share the gospel and as people come to believe it, they baptise them and then welcome them into the church and meet to listen to the Apostle’s teaching. It is, therefore, the Baptist position that is sinful to admit to the church those who have no obeyed Christ in this matter.
Two things bear saying. First, if Paul wasn’t calling us to simply set aside what is actually sin in order to welcome people, it is hard for the Baptist to set aside what they consider to be actually sinful for the sake of welcoming someone. I would not expect a convinced covenental presbyterian to welcome me into their church when I will not, in conscience, “baptise” my children. Many would, understandably, not welcome me into membership only to put me under church discipline and remove me from membership when I don’t, in their eyes, repent of what they (but not I) consider sinful. It would be as wrong for me to expect them to sear their conscience as it would for them to expect me to sear mine on the matter of membership.
Second, what other matter of sin do we insist this should happen over? What other sin issue would we set aside for the sake of welcoming another believer into membership? If we cannot think of an example other than baptism, how are we not special pleading over this issue? If the only matter on which you would countenance letting somebody into membership, despite your belief they have not been obedient to Christ, is baptism, you need a strong Biblical reason for that anomaly. To push it a bit further, when Christ clearly makes it a central command for the church, we cannot simply brush it away as a matter of tertiary importance to the local church.
Paul writes Romans 15 in the context of weaker/stronger brothers
The immediate context of Romans 15:7 is that of weaker and stronger brothers. Typically, when Paul speaks of weaker/stronger, he is referring to those who believe a thing to be sinful but, in actuality, is not (weaker) and those who reckon a thing not to be sinful at all (stronger). Romans 15:1 spells out the solution to such differences of opinion: ‘We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.’ That seems clear enough. If we are to insist that Romans 15:7 holds outside of those who are already in fellowship (and, as I’ve already said, I’m not conviced of that), this leads to a problem.
The Baptist position has always been that it would be a matter of sin on their part to admit to membership those who have not been obedient to Christ’s call to be baptised. Typically, they define baptism (among other things) as predicated on credible profession of faith. If an individual did not express faith at the point of their baptism, Baptists have historically considered that invalid i.e. not baptism. To admit a paedobaptist to membership, then, would be to admit a non-baptised person into membership.
Now, the paedobaptist may not consider it sinful to admit a paedobaptised person to membership. They may object that the Baptist is calling ‘sin’ what, on their view, is manifestly not sin. This places them, on their view, in the stronger brother category. The Baptist, who does consider such a thing to be sin (whether rightly or wrongly), is therefore the weaker brother on the paedobaptist view. And Paul’s instructions on such matters is clear enough: the stronger is to give way to the weaker. It may please the paedobaptist to be admitted to membership because they see nothing wrong with it, but to do so would be to force the Baptist to sear their conscience, and he is clear that such would be very wrong.
If Romans 15:7 does apply under such circumstances (and, per the first point, I’m not wholly convinced it does), we do more to undercut the view that paedobaptists should be admitted to membership of Baptist churches than anything else.
Low fences & shaking hands
So what of interchurch relationships? As I commented here:
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… 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.
We do not want to demolish the fences that exist between churches. We do not want to deny our doctrinal distinctives for the sake of unity. That is the very error that leads to all sorts of ecumenical liberalism. At the same time, we want to acknowledge that – even if churches would affirm what we cannot affirm – there are, nevertheless, brothers and sisters there. It has been described by some as wanting low fences over which we can shake hands.
For all the scorn that gets poured on this position, it really isn’t all that different to the Theological Triage that Al Mohler proposed and was widely shared by people across denominations. We would place Baptism and membership in the second-tier outlined by Mohler. Of itself, it doesn’t constitute a denial of the faith but it does represent a problem for us sitting together in the same church. We may recognise each other as being believers in other ways than welcoming one another into our respective churches, over against our specific distinctives.
As Mohler says:
A structure of theological triage does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.