July 14, 2006

On Baptism: Round Three

I've been giving a lot of study lately to ecclesiology. When I started seminary, I focused a lot on historical theology -- the development of doctrine, especially as it was impacted by history and had an impact on history. I'd planned on teaching church history and historical theology at a seminary, after getting my M.Div and my Ph.D in fairly rapid succession. But God has other plans -- I'm meeting with the pulpit committee of a church in West Virginia on Saturday to talk about becoming their pastor. So matters of ecclesiology have become important to me, and I've been realizing exactly how much I've neglected its study.

Baptism as it relates to church membership has become a topic of interest to me lately, as well. Especially with all the controversy about the question of baptism as a prerequisite for church membership at Henderson Hills Baptist Church. I want to first affirm the autonomy of the local church. The elders and pastor at Henderson Hills are ultimately the only people who will stand to answer for what they decide (whatever they end up deciding). Their local association, their state convention, and the SBC as a whole do not tell them what to do. But we all have the responsibility as brothers and sisters in Christ to express concern when another Christian is making a decision that we think is not biblical. We also have the responsibility to discuss the matter as Christians, which I think has been done so far.

The elders at Henderson Hills aren't making the motion without thought and study. Their reports are all available on the church's web site. And there are a lot -- I certainly haven't had the time to read them all, so I won't be trying to respond directly to what they've decided. What I want to do instead is set out what I believe are the biblical motivations behind requiring biblical baptism for church membership, and a bit about why I think the Bible isn't as clear as we'd like for it to be in this regard. It will probably be a long post, and a lot more serious than I've been lately, but I think it will be valuable for all of us.
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July 01, 2006

On Donatism and Anonymous Comments

Donatism was the error taught by Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigrae that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the minister. In other words, if a minister who was involved in a serious enough sin were to baptize a person, that baptism would be considered invalid.
from CARM

It has been alleged that the Baptist practice of extending church membership only to those who have been baptised as believers is Donatism. Anyone who has followed the debate can see that it has nothing to do with the person who administers the baptism; rather, it has to do with the appropriate subject for baptism.

The question was raised as to whether Dr. Al Mohler's stance on baptism as a requisite of church membership makes him a Donatist. Ironically, the commentor who disputed this defines Donatism much as CARM does: "donatism was concerned with the validity of the sacraments administered by people who supposedly did not have the right to administer them. It viewed the sacraments not in an objective way, but as intrinsically dependent upon the qualities of the one administering them. It did not necessarily question the Christianity of those whom they denied could administer it, and it certainly did not question the Christianity of those receiving the sacrament." Compare this to Dr. Mohler's actual statement:

baptism has been understood by all major branches of Christianity, throughout the centuries of Christian experience, to be a requirement for church membership and the fellowship of the LordÂ’s table. Thus, for Baptists to receive into the membership of a Baptist church (or to invite to the LordÂ’s Supper) any believer who lacks such baptism, is to receive non-baptized persons as if they were baptized.

Any compromise of Baptist conviction concerning the requirement of believerÂ’s baptism by immersion amounts to a redefinition of Baptist identity. More importantly, it raises the most basic questions of ecclesiology. We must give those questions intent attention in these days. Otherwise, will there be any Baptists in the next generation?

Baptist ecclesiology defines the proper subject for baptism as one who has been regenerated -- thus, believer's baptism. Anything else is thus not considered scriptural baptism. The conflict we have, then, is whether scriptural baptism is required before someone is admitted into the fellowship of a local church. As the pastor of Henderson Hills reminds us, Baptist churches are autonomous, so the decision is made by that church. And the rest of us can agree, or disagree.

I happen to disagree.

Now, on anonymous comments. I don't allow them here. I don't care if you don't leave your name, but you have to leave a valid email address. Why? The main reason is accountability. The Internet is a place where we can shoot our mouths off without a thought of the implications of what we're saying. If a name is attached, the post or comment becomes our thoughts, and we have to face the consequences. Without that name, we can say whatever we want, portray ourselves however we want, and behave however we want without having to be concerned about what our actions say about ourselves.

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On Baptism, Round Two

I wrote on this subject quite a while ago, but recently there has been a lot of discussion and debate on the issue of believers baptism as a condition of church membership among Southern Baptist bloggers (I'll link to all the posts I've read at the bottom of this one, and will add more as I find them).

The cause of this round of discussion and debate is Henderson Hills Baptist Church. In short, they have decided not to require believer's baptism by immersion as a condition for membership in their church. From one of their supporting documents (HT to Wes Kenney):

We see that it would be a tragic mistake to exclude Christians from membership, solely on the basis of baptism, who may potentially have a great impact on the Kingdom of God. For example, under our current rules, great theologians such as John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Sinclair Ferguson, R.C. Sproul, and J.I. Packer would be considered unqualified for church membership

It should be made clear -- nobody who holds to believers baptism is implying that any of these great men were not born again. We may disagree with their ecclesiology, but we would never question their salvation or their committment to God. And I'd be inclined to agree with Wes that I wonder how their "impact on the Kingdom of God" would be lessened by their not being members of a Baptist church. I thought that ground had been covered pretty well by the Together For the Gospel meetings and blog. Ironically, Al Mohler is one of the people who are most in favor of cooperating with Presbyterians, and he's been accused of being a Donatist by some commentors at Reformed Baptist Thinker. He agrees that believer's baptism should be a requirement for membership in a Baptist church, but is willing and able to work with people who disagree with him (something the Donatists would never have done, by the way).

I'll have more on the Donatist comment later on, and will address the anonymous posters comments to me then. I think that part of the issue with believers baptism today stems from our lack of appreciation of what baptism is. If it really is just a symbol, then what difference does it make?

The very word sacrament that is used so often for baptism and communion is from a Latin word that was an oath of allegience. The oath that Roman soldiers took when they oined the army was a sacramentum -- they swore to obey orders and follow their commander. This is a perfect picture of what baptism is -- it is the oath of allegience that a believer makes to Christ. We are publically identifying with Him. Baptism is not salvific -- that's one thing that Baptists and Presbyterians can agree on. (I keep referring to Presbyterians since the main debate comes from conservative Presbyterians and conservative Baptists, who agree on most other things.) Throughout Acts, we read of those who received the word, and as a result of thier conversion were baptised, and as a result of these two things were received into the church. In the early church, baptism was immediate upon conversion -- so much so that the two seem to be one event. Membership in the church followed immediately thereafter, as much as a matter of survival as anything else. If someone wasn't committed enough to the faith to publically be baptised, to take that public stand, they weren't allowed into the church. They weren't committed.

Today, we look at baptism as something optional. It's pretty easy to be a Christian in the US, and our public stand isn't that hard to make. But if someone isn't willing to make that stand, that profession, should we let them join the church anyway? I think this touches on baptism as an act of obedience to Christ, a topic that has been covered in more depth by others.

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