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What Can Baptists Do?

Now I need to tread carefully in attempting to outline some things Baptists (and others who embrace the credobaptist vision) can do to foster greater unity in the church while maintaining their particular values on the subject of baptism. Great care is called for both because, in affirming the core of credobaptist teaching, I run the risk that anything I write will be considered insufficient, if not condescending, from the pedobaptist point of view. At the same time, what I am about to propose will no doubt challenge many (most?) credobaptists to cross a denominational line in the sand they may be unwilling to cross.

Given the potential pitfalls ahead, I want to be very clear about what is at stake here and what is not:

  • This is not a question of who is “really a Christian.” All who profess Christ are true Christians, regardless any other factors. We are saved by grace, through faith (Eph 2:8-9).
  • This is not a question of accepting the validity of baptisms performed in obviously heretical churches that, for example, deny the deity of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.
  • This is perhaps a question of Eucharistic hospitality. If one believes (as I do) that only the baptized may properly receive the Lord’s Supper, then consistency would require that if one judges infant baptism invalid, one must make this known when inviting Christians to the Lord’s Table. (Of course, if you’re a Landmark Baptist, this is a moot point; likewise if you don’t believe the unbaptized should be excluded from the Lord’s Table—but I personally would take issue with both positions on biblical, church historical, and sociological grounds.)
  • This is definitely a question of what is required for membership in a local Baptist church.

In this light, let me propose a few theses for consideration by my credobaptist brothers and sisters.

1. Baptists have the most clearly biblical baptismal practice. As we have seen, believers baptism is clearly taught as the normative practice in the New Testament period and is the basis for all New Testament theologizing about water-baptism. Even many pedobaptist biblical scholars agree on this point. Even so, as Paul states, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). Being right about something counts for very little if it leads to arrogance.

2. Rebaptism should be resisted in most cases. Some Baptist groups are worse offenders on this point than others, but I’ll bet every Baptist reading this post can remember the “testimonies” of people who thought they needed rebaptism because, later in life, they came to the conclusion that they “really didn’t understand” what their first baptism (usually in childhood) meant, or they “only thought” they were “saved,” or whatever. I would appeal to the Samaritans in Acts 8 and Apollos in Acts 18 as apostolic warrants that such rebaptisms are rarely if ever necessary: even if the original baptism was somehow lacking (e.g., it didn’t result in or follow from the gift of the Holy Spirit [Acts 8] or occurred in a state of relative spiritual ignorance [Acts 18]), in the New Testament it was mostly allowed to stand as sufficient when these deficiencies were later corrected.

Constantly rebaptizing believers every time they renew their Christian commitment or undergo a crisis of faith ceases to be anabaptism (“re-baptism”). It is more accurately called polyanabaptism! Those who are so quick to rebaptize definitely show an unwarranted optimism that everything will be okay if they just add water.

3. Humility is always in order. Infant baptism is not a first-century practice, but it almost certainly arose during the second century at a time when those taught by the apostles were still alive and active in the churches. It was definitely an acceptable practice by the beginning of the third century, although Beasley-Murray notes there was also appreciable hesitation about it in some quarters. Those who would oppose the idea outright must do so in appropriate humility. One aligns oneself against an age-old precedent only with great trepidation.

For example, I have already noted that the Bible is silent about what to do (or not do) with the children of those who have come to faith in adulthood. But is this silence restrictive or permissive? Can Baptists concede the pedobaptists may have a point when they reinterpret New Testament baptismal theology to address the situation of second-generation believers—a situation that does not seem to be addressed in the biblical text itself?

Furthermore, what of “open communion”? The biblical justification for welcoming unbaptized people to communion is even more tenuous than the justification for baptizing infants, and yet by and large Baptists are far more amenable to practicing open communion than they are to welcoming those baptized as infants into their membership. If infant baptism is sufficient for inclusion at the Table, why not for membership in the church?

4. Baptist values are not threatened by accepting the infant baptisms of other Christians. Baptists embrace believers baptism for two principal reasons: (1) we believe the Bible teaches water-baptism marks the initiation of a believer into Christian discipleship, and (2) we believe credobaptism promotes the vision of the church as an intentional Christian community. But are these values compromised by accepting the infant baptisms of believers who grew up in other Christian fellowships when they express a desire to join our churches?

  • Believers baptism can’t mark the beginning of Christian discipleship for someone who has been a disciple for many years already. We Baptists might wish it could, but it is too late for water-baptism to carry that significance in such a spiritual journey. To impose it at a later point point would be to perpetrate a fiction: that such a person is a newborn Christian when in fact he or she is not! I can only call such a procedure insulting to the faith of the person involved. Like Apollos, those who give evidence of faith and the Spirit should be embraced as brothers and sisters in Christ without rebaptism.
  • When a believer in Christ expresses a desire to join with a Baptist congregation, isn’t that in itself an indicator that we are being an intentional Christian community? Nobody is making that person join us! Nor are we being asked to accept his or her application for membership without appropriate pastoral evaluation of his or her spiritual condition. (In the good ole days, you couldn’t join a Baptist church without giving your testimony before the church body. I’m sort of glad we don’t put folks on the spot like that, but surely a private visit with a pastor or deacon would be in order for anyone seeking membership in a Baptist church.) What can an ex post facto rebaptism add to this that would make the prospective member even more intentional about his or her faith?

Finally, I would argue that because we believe as we do about water-baptism, Baptists should refrain from trying to make it into something else by imposing it on genuine believers long past the appropriate time for its observance, namely, when they first repented, believed, and received the Holy Spirit. Such restraint was commendable in the case of Apollos and should be so for us as well. Do we intend for baptism to mean what the Bible says it means, or do we intend for it to be a ceremonial hoop one must jump through to be a part of our local church?

5. Baptists are not without precedent for such a revision of traditional practice. John Bunyan, perhaps the most widely read Baptist of all time, was pastor of a church that practiced “open membership” such as I’ve described. Although Bunyan was in the minority in his time, many English Baptist churches have long since established such a policy. Even in the United States, some Baptist churches have come around to this position, some out of a theological conviction about the unity of the church; others out of a church-growth mindset of removing obstacles to membership. Both have somehow managed to affirm believers baptism as their particular custom without imposing it on others who join their congregation from faith traditions that practice infant baptism.

Beasley-Murray raises the further example of groups that have long practiced both forms of baptism (Baptism in the New Testament, 391). Although he is unwilling to accept the validity of infant baptism, he proposes that, for the sake of the freedom of conscience of our fellow Christians, Baptists embrace the idea of open membership:

[I]n respect for the conscience of our fellow-Christians and the like charity, which we trust will be exercised towards us, could we not refrain from requesting the baptism of those baptized in infancy who wish to join our churches and administer baptism to such only where there is a strong plea for it from the applicant? This would leave room for freedom of conscience for those who believe they should be baptized, despite their having received infant baptism, but it would involve a change of policy with respect to the majority who come to us from other Denominations. (392)

Such a policy, though open to misunderstanding by other Baptists and by pedobaptists, would at least provide for “a compromise in a complex ecclesiastical situation” (392). Although it would not ultimately resolve the issues at hand, it would at least be a step in the direction of Christian unity and perhaps open doors to more fruitful dialogue about the meaning and importance of baptism.

Postscript: I answer a final point by Weekend Fisher in this post on Jewish proselyte baptism.

technorati tags: baptism

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3 Comments

  1. This is similar to solutions to “the mess of infant baptism” suggested by Karl Barth, Geoffrey Wainwright and some others. I agree with most of it, but I would encourage those who were christened as infants to be scripturally baptized even if I didn’t insist on it. I do not consider that to be rebaptism–unlike the repeats that go on in SBC life.

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  2. Michael Bell says:

    Enjoyed reading your blog article on Baptism.

    Interested in how you might extend your comments to those who were sprinkled as believers as this is the situation our family is in when seeking to become members of a Baptism church.

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  3. D. P. says:

    Welcome, Michael. I personally would appeal to the fact that sprinkling or pouring rather than full immersion was the accepted practice among Baptists of the first generation (from 1609 up to around 1640). Smyth, Helwys, and their compatriots had the same theology of baptism that Baptists do today, but did not practice immersion! If it’s good enough for Smyth and Helwys, it ought to be good enough for any Baptist 🙂

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