Should we allow paedobaptists (those who were “baptized” as infants) into membership at Reformation Church?
This question is set before us as we lay a foundation for ministry and membership in our new body. We are decidedly credobaptistic in our convictions; that is, we fully believe that baptism by definition is by immersion and should be applied only to those who profess faith in Christ. We wholeheartedly disagree with the paedobaptist understanding of baptism and think that it undermines what is distinctively new about the new covenant. But does this mean that we should exclude Presbyterians and other Reformed brothers and sisters who might wish to join the church?
For some Baptists, this might seem like a novelty – a capitulation to culture or a rejection of Baptist roots. Depending on your previous church involvement and level of study, this might be something you’ve never considered or even heard debated. Therefore, even asking the question might reek of a lack of courage or a soft commitment to baptistic conviction.
To those who feel as such, take heart! Rather than being innovative, this question actually stretches back for centuries. In fact, the debate between open and closed membership (closed requires members to be baptized by immersion while open does not) stretches back almost as long as the Baptist tradition itself.
Writing in 1673, in a treatise called “Differences about Water Baptism No Bar to Communion,” John Bunyan (the Baptist author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”) endorsed the open view:
We indulge them [paedobaptists] not; but being commanded to bear with the infirmities of each other, suffer it; it being indeed in our eyes such; but in theirs they say a duty, till God shall otherwise persuade them. If you be without infirmity, do you first throw a stone at them: They keep their faith in that to themselves, and trouble not their brethren therewith: we believe that God hath received them; they do not want to us a proof of their sonship with God; neither hath he made water a wall of division between us, and therefore we do receive them. (John Bunyan)
In other words, though disagreeing with paedobaptism, that disagreement is not of the nature as to forbid fellowship and communion. Now, to be fair, some theological errors are certainly that grave. A Mormon or Muslim or Jehovah’s Witness could not join the church or take communion at Reformation. But paedobaptism is not the type of error that should create a “wall of division.”
But again, this is not a new debate or one without differing opinions. After all, any good question is worth spilling some ink over!
A quick search online reveals that in the relatively recent past such voices as John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Sam Storms, Jonathan Leeman, Jim Hamilton, Joe Rigney, and Gavin Ortlund have all weighed in with helpful thoughts on this very conversation. Though the conversation was charitable and clarifying, no consensus was reached. Many of the voices argued for an open view in which Baptist churches allow paedobaptists to join while others remain convinced of the closed position. But neither can be deemed “THE Baptist position.” As evidenced from the historic and contemporary discussion, Baptists have different approaches on the subject.
Those who have read our Constitution and By-Laws and/or Membership Covenant might have noticed that Reformation has taken the open membership view. In other words, the elders have not made the mode and timing of baptism an issue that defines the boundaries of membership. Therefore, in certain cases the elders might be willing to allow for a paedobaptist to join the church.
I say “in certain cases” because there are exceptions. We aren’t saying that anyone who was sprinkled as an infant might join, but rather that we are willing in certain cases to not make believer’s baptism by immersion a pre-requisite for membership. In short, here is who would potentially be eligible.
- Someone who otherwise generally agrees with our theological convictions. In general, this means that we are talking about paedobaptists from Presbyterian, Reformed, and some Anglican traditions. Many if not most Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists would probably stumble over other aspects of our theology.
- This person must be willing to have occasional conversations with the elders of the church whereby we discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of each position and try to persuade them of the biblical merits of credobaptism.
- This person must agree to not promote paedobaptism or otherwise be a source of division or distraction on the topic.
Even in cases where someone meets all three conditions, affirming members will be at the discretion of the elders. Our position is not that paedobaptists are guaranteed admission, but just that paedobaptism won’t necessarily prevent membership. We want to be charitable, but also discerning, and thus our commitment is to carefully assess all prospective members.
Again, to be clear, this is not because we are unconvinced of the credobaptist position. This is not because we believe that paedobaptism is valid. We are not at all open to practicing infant baptism because we think it seriously misrepresents the very meaning of the sign. We wholeheartedly believe that baptism is, by definition, only for those who profess faith in Christ.
So why open membership?
To answer that, we must determine what membership is and what it signifies.
In effect, membership is a way of saying that we affirm that someone is a believer in Christ. It is our stamp of approval on the profession of faith of the candidate. We are affirming that we believe that they have met at least the minimum requirements of the gospel and that we take responsibility to disciple them to grow beyond the minimum. Thus, the entry doors of the local church should be about as wide or as narrow as those of the universal church.
Here is the fatal flaw of closed membership in my (admittedly fallible) opinion. Most Baptists who hold to closed membership would readily admit that RC Sproul, John Calvin, Ligon Duncan, Tim Keller, Jonathan Edwards, Augustine of Hippo, and other Reformed and Presbyterian luminaries are/were regenerate Christians. They would have no problem sharing a meal with these men and many would even welcome them to preach at their church and share in communion. And yet, they would not allow them to join their local churches. Why not?
Well, because they believe that such men are in unrepentant sin (namely the sin of not being baptized). Now, with this latter point, I am in agreement. Baptists have always held that Presbyterians are in sin and Presbyterians have always believed that Baptists are in sin. If you are surprised that I would say that those who were sprinkled as infants have not been baptized and are thus in sin, then I would encourage you to have a deeper conversation about the meaning of baptism and discipleship. It is the historic position of credobaptists and paedobaptists alike that those who hold the contrary position are in sin.
So Baptists think that paedobaptists are in sin and vice versa. But what is the nature of that sin?
That’s the crucial question. Is it the type of sin that would merit excommunication? Is it egregious and unrepentant? Or is it something else?
The Bible itself speaks to a distinction between intentional and unintentional sins. In light of that distinction, God commanded Israel to treat each one differently (compare Leviticus 4:2-3 to Numbers 15:30-31). Might that provide a healthy paradigm for thinking through the question of open and closed membership?
If a closed membership Baptist were being consistent, then it would seem like they would need to go much further than saying that the late great RC Sproul couldn’t join their church. They would also have to say that they could not share a meal with them. After all, if the nature of the sin of paedobaptism is so severe as to forbid membership, then it must be equivalent to the type of sin that Jesus is talking about in Matthew 18 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 5. In other words, it is high-handed unrepentant sin and thus worthy of excommunication.
But in the case of excommunication, we are forbidden to associate with or even eat with a so-called brother in unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:11). In fact, we are to keep away from him (2 Thessalonians 3:6) and have nothing to do with him (2 Thessalonians 3:14).
Now obviously very few closed membership adherents would go so far as to say that Presbyterians and Anglicans and other paedobaptists are to be treated as unbelievers. But why not? That seems to be the logic of the position unless you admit that there is a distinction between types of “unrepentant sin.”
So it seems inconsistent to say that the sin of paedobaptism is so egregious as to divide over when it comes to membership and yet still allow a Presbyterian to share communion at your church or preach a sermon at your church or share a meal in your house. In other words, if an error is not so serious as to negate fellowship, then it doesn’t seem so serious as to negate membership.
For this reason, I respectfully disagree with the closed membership position (though I have previously held and even taught it). After further reflection, I now think a better response is to say that paedobaptism is another category of sin like that of “unintentional sin” in the Old Testament. It is not justified, it is not something we overlook (thus we would continue to try to disciple a paedobaptist to understand and embrace credobaptistic theology), but it is also not so severe as to divide over.
If it sounds like a theological compromise or that we are downplaying the error of paedobaptism, consider the fact that faithful theologically-serious Christians actually operate with this kind of distinction all of the time. Let me give you a few examples that come to mind:
- The gifts of the Spirit: If you are a continuationist who believes that the gifts of the Spirit continue today, then you necessarily believe that cessationism is a sin. The cessationist is despising prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21) and forbidding speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39), both of which Scripture commands Christians not to do. If continuationism is correct, then cessationists are in sin. And yet cessationists and continuationists can worship together and hold that particular distinction as a matter to not divide over.
- Head coverings: In our church some women choose to wear a physical head covering out of obedience to 1 Corinthians 11 and others do not. For those who do, they logically believe that those women who are not wearing a head covering are in sin. Indeed it is unrepentant sin in that it is ongoing (every single week they sin afresh). But they don’t believe that it is high-handed egregious sin and thus do not fight or divide over that issue.
- Eschatology: Suppose that amillennialism is correct. In that case, anyone who holds to or teaches premillennialism or postmillennialism is in sin. After all, they are misrepresenting God and His word. But is it egregious hard-hearted sin? Certainly not.
In each of these cases, we can see that Christians operate with some sort of innate understanding that while all theological error is sin, not all theological error is worth dividing over. The deity of Christ, His resurrection, justification by faith and so forth are certainly worth dying and fighting and dividing over. To deny those is to so compromise the gospel that it calls into question your profession. But other doctrines are less central and thus should be treated accordingly.
When a proponent of closed membership allows a Presbyterian to preach at their church or take communion at their church or even share a meal at their table, they are acknowledging that this particular error does not fit the type of unrepentant sin being addressed in Mathew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. Furthermore, by allowing someone to join who disagrees on the gifts or head coverings or eschatology you are acknowledging that some theological errors are not worth dividing over and people with different perspectives can be members of the same church.
By allowing a paedobaptist to potentially join the church, we are not validating their baptism. Indeed we remain committed to the charge to make disciples by teaching them to obey all of Christ’s commands, including the command to be baptized. It is our conviction that someone who was sprinkled as an infant has not been “baptized” in the biblical sense of the word. So allowing them to join is not to deny our credobaptist conviction nor to assume paedobaptism is legitimate.
Rather, what we are doing is saying that the prospective member’s mistaken understanding of baptism is not the kind of disagreement and sin that makes healthy communion and fellowship impossible. We are intentionally trying to draw the boundaries of the local church as closely possible to the boundaries of the universal Church.
As W.Y. Fullerton recounts in his biography on the esteemed Baptist Charles Spurgeon:
“He once told me with appreciation how he was worsted in argument by an American divine. During a drive, the visitor made a number of inquiries, and discovered the practice of the church . . . how it admitted people to the Lord’s Table who were not baptized, and refused them membership unless baptized. “Which means that they are good enough for the Lord, and yet not good enough for you!” said his guest. And Spurgeon had to admit that the logic was not on his side.” (W.Y. Fullerton)
So, is this inconsistent? We don’t think so. We realize that there is certainly a degree of theological tension in saying that baptism is by definition something that is applied to believers and that only baptized members can become members and yet allowing for paedobaptists to join. We acknowledge that tension and yet think that it is worth it for the sake of unity.
Consider the example of how Paul treats eating meat sacrificed to idols in Romans 14. Paul clearly believes that those who refuse to eat meat are the “weaker brothers.” A strong view of the gospel allows someone to eat whatever is set before them without questions of conscience. And yet Paul says that what is more important is the cause of unity. Therefore, he says that there are times where it is better to sacrifice that freedom for the sake of unity. I think that applies in this case as well.
In other words, we believe that it is significantly more serious and grave to exclude a genuine brother or sister from membership than it is to tolerate their errant view of baptism as we work to disciple them toward a more biblical view on the topic.
In the end, many of our Baptist brethren would not advocate for our position. And we might certainly be wrong. This is certainly not as certain as something like the resurrection or even God’s grace in election. However, it seems reasonably clear to us that this is the appropriate response to the question of open vs. closed membership. That said, members with strong reservations are encouraged to reach out for the purpose of mutual edification!