This post is about a long-standing debate in churches of a credo-baptist persuasion about whether you can accept those baptised as infants into membership, and I approach this as someone standing in the Reformed tradition, in the baptist tradition, meaning I believe that the Bible’s teaching on baptism gives no justification for infant baptism, and as an elder of my local church.
My position is that, if the person has a credible profession of faith, then their lack of believer’s baptism must not block their membership, and we would be sinning in a grievous way against the Lord Jesus if we failed to accept them into full membership.
The argument for the contrary position seems to go something like this:
Only believer’s baptism is valid baptism.
Baptism is how you become a member of local church, and we require baptism of other people before membership.
Therefore it would be inconsistent to allow those not baptised as believers, but only as infants, to be members.
As it stands, this argument is mostly fine – I think there are some potential logical problems with it (we could argue about improper vs invalid baptisms etc), but they are mostly irrelevant given what follows. In the absence of overriding concerns, the argument would probably convince me.
But, there are overriding concerns! And very large ones.
Ultimately, we can’t be 100% consistent with everything that God requires all the time. In fact we can go further: consistent Christian living requires us to be inconsistent with some of the commands or principles in God’s word some of the time. Reality ensures that dilemmas will come – in a broken world, it is not possible to simultaneously obey all God’s commands. The only question is this: will we resolve the conflicting requirements we find ourselves under according to God’s own priorities or not?
If you believe that, in theory at least, you can obey everything with no inconsistency all the time, then I don’t think you’ve been paying attention, and you are in fact much more likely to be simply resolving the tensions in a way that it is very out of line with God’s priorities and demands.
I realise that this may be a surprising way of speaking, perhaps especially for those from a reformed background like myself, so I need to spend some time on that. Despite growing up with Bible teaching every week and even every day, it wasn’t until Bible college that I was clearly exposed to this teaching.
Disobedience to some of God’s commands, some of the time, is a Biblical duty
Let’s imagine the situation: you are an Old Testament Israelite believer, on your way to Jerusalem to make a required sacrifice at the temple. You are not hugely wealthy – you have an animal with you, but not a lot of spare money. On the way, you meet a destitute family close to starvation. Do you:
Kill the animal to give to the starving family as food, or
Carry on to Jerusalem to make the sacrifice as God requires?
If you have even a small understanding of scripture and God’s character, this should be fairly easy, but I’ve made a second example, for those struggling with the first:
You are a Levite or priest travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem, in order to do the temple duties required of you in God’s law. You come across a man who is unconscious and bleeding. Do you:
Take whatever time is necessary to look after the man, potentially missing your duty turn at the temple, or
Carry on to Jerusalem to do your duty as God requires?
Hopefully I don’t need to further labour the point. But we should look at the important passage that directly handles this general topic, Matthew 12:3-8:
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
The issue here is not first of all the Sabbath, but the broader principle “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. God himself, who commanded both the sacrificial system and having mercy on our fellow human, says extremely clearly that one is far more important to him than the other.
In the real world, we will hit situations like this, and we will have to make a choice. If we fail to prioritise God’s commands as he himself prioritises them, we are in danger of doing something terrible, like leaving a family to starve for the sake of a religious ceremony.
This is not a “lesser of two evils” theology. The passage is clear that you can break some of God’s laws, some of the time (the priests “profane” the Sabbath, and David did that which “was not lawful”), and yet still be “guiltless”.
The implications of this are important, and need to be restated: if you are not living inconsistently with some of God’s commands, some of the time, you are doing it wrong. The idol of the perfectly “consistent” position must have its head and hands smashed, and bow before God and his priorities.
Or, put another way: treating less important matters as if they were of primary importance will eventually lead you into grievous sin against the Lord Jesus at some point.
The good news is that if you were attempting to literally do the impossible and obey all the different conflicting commands simultaneously, you can relax: God just wants you to work out which is most important, and do that one. He usually makes it pretty clear.
Priorities in the church
So much for the general principle, let’s come to what God’s priorities are in the church.
Let’s start with John 21:15-17:
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’
‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’
16 Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’
He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’
17 The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’
Jesus really hammers Peter here. The threefold repetition of “Do you love me?” was emphatic enough in itself, but was also deliberately echoing Peter’s threefold denial, and Jesus’ point was not lost: “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” This is classic NT understatement – it means that Peter’s heart broke and the tears started to flow down his face, it means he related this conversation over and over and over to his fellow apostles, it means the memory of this conversation drove everything he did to the end of his days.
Jesus was interested in a full reconciliation and re-instatement, so he didn’t hesitate to put his finger on the matter of Peter’s denial, though it was extremely difficult. At the same time, he gives Peter three opportunities to say “I love you”, but in each case, Jesus wants to make it painfully clear what love for Him means: looking after His people.
It is almost as if Jesus is promoting the command to look after God’s people spiritually to the level of the greatest commandment – the commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This fits with the heightened priority Jesus gives to loving our Christian brothers and sisters in other passages (e.g. John 13:34, 1 John 2:3:11, 1 John 3:16).
That duty did not fall on Peter alone, but comes to every believer, and especially to every elder. The passage in Acts describing Paul’s farewell words to the elders of the Ephesian churches is one of the most emotionally charged texts in the New Testament, and includes these words:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
The gravity of these words can’t be overemphasised, and they are words that haunt – or should haunt – every elder of a church. When you press home your point with talk about the blood of God – words that make theologians squirm – then you are laying it on thick.
If you are an elder of a flock, and God sends you a sheep, your job is to welcome and shepherd them – to feed and nurture and care for them. That includes providing them with all the “means of grace” – everything that God has provided to help nourish his people spiritually and bring them safely to glory. Perhaps most important is the preaching of God’s word, but others of huge importance are communion and all the privileges of membership, including opportunities to serve, accountability and the necessary bonds of church discipline.
If God sends you someone who shows every sign of being a sheep, you don’t have the right of refusal – at least, not without some excellent reasons, reasons of which God himself would say “You are right, that is more important”.
The duty to look after God’s flock is not one command among many given to elders – it is the command. It is the summary command of all the other commands – as demonstrated by both the passages mentioned above. This doesn’t mean that none of the other commands matter – they give shape to what feeding the flock means – but they must not be applied in a way that subverts the great command.
So, what is there in scripture on the other side of this argument?
We have the command to baptise – but this is not particularly relevant to the question, as it’s pretty clear that we are not supposed to be baptising anyone against their will. The issue here is not elders unwilling to baptise, but sheep who are unwilling to be baptised because they believe they already have been.
We have the command to be baptised – important, but again not directly relevant to this exact question, as it is the business of the believer to obey this, not our responsibility as leaders.
We have a duty to teach and maintain right doctrine. But the Bible clearly differentiates quite starkly between primary and secondary (and tertiary) matters (e.g. compare Galatians 1:6-9 with Romans 14). And the debate between paedo- and credo-baptism is clearly not a primary matter.
We have to ask, how much of scripture is devoted to commanding elders to have 100% baptismal purity in their churches? Or to maintain absolute standards regarding how we teach disciples on any secondary issues? It’s pretty difficult to find any Biblical material on this, let alone anything expressed with close to the priority given to the elders’ duty to minister to the sheep that God sends them.
In general, we can see the lower priority of baptism in a number of ways:
It’s a bodily ritual, and Christianity isn’t in general about that kind of thing, but about “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
People can be saved without being baptised at all.
As a once-for-all entrance rite, it’s not something we are supposed to be doing continually. We don’t re-baptise those who have been previously baptised when people become members, but to some degree have to trust that those who baptised were careful in how they did it.
The ordinances (baptism and communion) exist for the good of the sheep; the sheep do not exist for the good of the ordinances. The ordinances are temporary; the sheep, and God’s love for them, are eternal.
So I struggle to see how anyone could look at the Biblical data and conclude that ensuring 100% adherence to credo-baptist practice would ever trump the command of Jesus to feed his sheep.
Another way of approaching questions of relative importance like this is to ask, “what would be the consequences of the different actions we take?”
If we have a position in which we tolerate less than absolute adherence to believer’s baptism amongst our membership, what are the negative consequences?
Short term, there is very little. For the person themselves, there are positive benefits they are missing out on, but we can’t do anything about that (see section on “Positive consequences” below).
Regarding others around, is some already baptised or yet-to-be baptised person going to be encouraged to be baptised as an infant? Since no-one has a time machine, this is impossible. With baptism being a one-time act that happened (or didn’t) in the past, there is no ongoing, in-your-face active example that has a bad influence on others.
Will someone be confused about what we are teaching about the nature of valid baptisms? There is certainly some danger, but 1) it is not of primary importance and 2) it is easily countered: we teach people what we consider to be the right understanding of baptism, and we also take the perfect opportunity to teach them about God’s own priorities regarding loving and caring for those who give every indication that they are true believers.
What about the longer term impact – will we erode belief in the importance of believer’s baptism? If it has an exaggerated position in people’s hearts, then yes, we will be demoting it, and that will be a good thing. We will be helping to establish the correct position of this doctrine and practice in the hierarchy of what God is looking for in a Biblical church. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy go hand-in-hand, and right practice here will support right doctrine regarding which things are primary, and which are not.
I also have to point out: if we are seriously that concerned about a longer term impact and dilution of what we consider to be right doctrine, then we have to purge our bookshelves of paedo-baptist authors, cut off contact with paedo-baptist believers and disavow the baptisticly-mixed conferences and ministries we are involved with. It is one of the great ironies that the position that prioritises consistency over compassion, and cannot countenance having even a single non-credo-baptised member, is often fine with having our bookshelves, our supported missionaries and even our pulpits full of such believers!
On the other side, what are the negative consequences of sending away evident believers because of their paedo-baptist position? Here are some of the more serious ones:
We would be embedding significant errors into the hearts of the flock: that the matter of credo-baptism vs. paedo-baptism is one of primary importance, while the obligation to love and protect God’s flock is a matter of relative indifference.
We will entrench the sad and scandalous divisions that plague Christ’s church, by refusing membership and welcome to those who come from the paedo-baptist side of God’s family. (There is a much bigger argument from the principle of Christian unity that I have not enlarged on here, because, while I think it ought to be a major factor, is slightly more involved in application).
If we fail to feed a sheep God sends us – that is, we deny them the God-ordained means of grace – it could result in spiritual disaster or malnourishment for that person. The Lord puts an infinite value on every one of his lambs, and he will not hold us guiltless. John Piper rightly said:
…excluding a true brother in Christ from membership in the local church is far more serious than most of us think it is.
And there is one perhaps less serious consequence we can add: we will be denying paedo-baptists the benefit of actually being a part of the very churches where they might hear what we consider to be the Biblical position on baptism!
We can look at this the other way: what are the positive outcomes we could conceivably hope for in insisting on an absolute position regarding baptism?
For the person who simply rejects Christ’s command to be baptised, there are multiple. By insisting that they must be baptised, we are teaching them that Christ is both Lord and Saviour, and his commands are not to be set aside. We are teaching them that they have a grossly inadequate view of scripture and that they must change. If we succeed in our aim, we’ve brought them into a position of humbled obedience and a happy conscience before Christ. And if we fail to persuade, and we therefore refuse membership, we do so on the basis and with the explicit explanation that they appear to be still unsaved, and still not in submission to Christ. We are thereby enlightening them about their true, lost spiritual state. In both cases, we do them great spiritual good.
But what for the convinced paedo-baptist? Assuming we have tried and failed to persuade them of credo-baptism, the very best we can hope for by continuing to insist on baptism is to do them zero spiritual good:
If they submit to baptism only because the church requires it, how are they better off spiritually? They have the same view of Christ and his Lordship before and after. They have the same view of scripture – it is abundantly evident from the ways we engage with reformed paedo-baptists that we don’t consider them to be heretical, and our statements of faith often express our position on scripture in identical ways. Their conscience is unchanged – they believe that before and after they were in identical states of obedience. From their position, they have been re-baptised – they have completed an essentially empty and unnecessary ritual, which in fact contradicts God’s own wishes for that ceremony. God is interested in heart obedience, and all of the spiritual benefits that flow from baptism require both understanding and heart submission, and not mere outward conformity. So the only thing we have achieved is to give them a bath.
If they still refuse baptism, we don’t teach them anything – we haven’t revealed their lost condition to them, because we don’t believe that. They have learned something about how stubborn we are, and nothing more. We’ve again done them zero spiritual good. In this case it will also lead to the negative consequences described above.
Baptism as an entrance rite to the visible church of Christ exists only for the spiritual good of the flock – God is not interested in outward rites for their own sake. We don’t merely do baptism “just because Christ says so”. That’s crucial, but not sufficient. If that’s all we have, we will be unable to weigh up different commands and their relative priority. We’ll be unable to apply “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, and we’ll make huge mistakes.
If we insist on absolute adherence to Christ’s commands in ways that pay no attention to the purpose of those commands, we demonstrate that we have lost the plot. We’ve got the priority of those commands all wrong because we have forgotten to ask why the commands were given.
“This opens the way to completely unbaptised people being accepted”
If someone refuses baptism completely, and cannot be corrected by appealing to Christ’s commands, then they give strong evidence that they are not a believer, since they do not have a heart attitude of submission to God, and you would legitimately refuse them membership on that basis.
The same is not true of a believer who considers their infant baptism to be valid, and believes that they are obeying Christ’s commands. While I’m not at all convinced by the paedo-baptist case, it is a reasonable case based on a reasonable approach to scripture. When paedo-baptists argue on the basis of household baptisms, the model of circumcision and a certain view of covenant continuity, I cannot conclude that they must have unregenerate hearts to have come up with such an interpretation. I just think they’re wrong, and not doing justice to what the Bible actually says. There is a difference between wrongly understanding God’s word and refusing to understand God’s word.
For my intended audience, this is a point I don’t need to labour. We already demonstrate in a thousand ways that we not only regard many convinced paedo-baptists as believers, but in fact hold many of them in high regard in the faith.
“If a person refuses believer’s baptism, they are the one refusing membership”
The flaw in this argument is that they are not actually refusing membership – they want membership – but refusing what they see as an unbiblical hurdle, one that would go against their understanding of what scripture requires of them. We cannot put any terms on membership and say “We welcomed you, you’re the one who refused to come”.
Rules about church membership only exist because of a more important goal: to protect the flock from spiritual danger and ensure their spiritual health and growth. If we design and apply membership rules so they function as a mechanism for excluding from protection the very sheep that they were supposed to protect, we’ve turned their entire purpose on their head.
“We exclude people on the basis of other secondary matters, why not this?”
The argument here is that there may be other reasons why someone we believe to be a genuine sheep might be rightly excluded from membership of a church – for example, those who reject some important doctrine in our basis of faith. If that’s allowed, shouldn’t the same be applied those who differ in the secondary matter of baptism?
As with the previous objection, the issue to remember here is that membership criteria do not exist for their own sake, but for the sake of the flock and for the flock’s protection. As well as feeding the flock, we are to protect them from wolves e.g. Acts 20:29-31. We must be willing to draw a sharp line between those who must be protected and those we are protecting from.
This is normally done on matters of primary (salvific) importance. Someone who denies a key part of the gospel must be excluded not only because they demonstrate that they are (most probably) not a true believer, but because of their influence on others.
However, sometimes there are cases where we might judge a person to be probably a genuine sheep, but whose behaviour and influence is sufficiently wolf-like that we are forced to exclude them. One example might be infallibility of scripture.
The decision will usually depend very strongly on other factors: Are they are a new believer with lots of inadequate views because they just haven’t had chance to be discipled yet, or someone confirmed in their opinions? Will they take every opportunity to convert others to their view, or will they show respect for the church’s position? Just how dangerous is their doctrinal stance, and how likely are they to influence others?
In regard to paedo-baptism, I can certainly imagine cases where someone could exhibit sufficiently divisive behaviour that would result in them being excluded from membership. But in general, we are already agreed that the error, while an error, is on a secondary matter, and not in itself pernicious enough that we need to purge its influence from our congregations.
The basis of these decisions is not the rules for rules’ sake, nor consistency, but the end goal of taking care of God’s people. If we forget that, if we forget why we doing all this, we will commit all kinds of horrors in his name.
“They can go to the church down the road”
First, the existence of a good, nearby church that is willing to look after the sheep that we refuse to care for is not an excuse for disobedience. The existence of that church may significantly lessen the seriousness of the consequences of our sin, but it does not lessen the sin itself.
Second, the existence of such a church can by no means be taken for granted. In one of the places where I have served the Lord, the next nearest church to our own (baptistic) church was several hundred miles away. If your policies only work where you have the luxury of many nearby churches, you will need to pray that those are policies are not copied, and that they don’t spread to other less fortunate places. I, for one, will join you in that prayer.
It is striking to me as I’ve read some of the positions on both sides of this debate, how few people even considered the possibility that there might not be an alternative church for people to be members of. The relative luxury of western countries in this matter has made us fat, instead of taking the full weight of the awesome responsibility we have as ministers of the means of grace. When you are the only church in a city of more than a million, the only light in the darkness, the only place where starving lambs will get spiritual food, the only people with the keys to the kingdom, you cannot get away with the lazy thinking and lazy attitude that says “other people will do my job so let them”.
“Church members should submit to the elders’ views”
This objection is based on an overreach of the authority of the eldership. We as elders don’t have the right to override people’s consciences, nor insist that they take our doctrinal views on board. We have the right to the chance to persuade people of what we believe scripture teaches, but not to insist that they say “I agree with you”. There are matters of practical application where we do expect submission from members (e.g. if we say “we’re going to have our members’ meeting at 7pm”, we would not expect some people to decide on a different time), but we are not local popes on any doctrinal matter.
Our aim is not to establish our own authority, but that of Christ’s. If we do achieve the aim of getting people to do what we say, but only by threatening them with spiritual starvation and without having persuaded them that it is what Christ wants, we’ve achieved nothing or less than nothing. Submission of the heart is not achieved by twisting of arms.
“This makes things messy”
Sometimes church life is avoidably messy because of poor decisions or leadership, and we make life hard for ourselves. But sometimes, it is unavoidably messy, because flocks are made up of sheep. That’s just the way it is, we didn’t choose it, but we have to live with it, and respond according to God’s character and expressed priorities.
The Lord Jesus has made himself abundantly clear on this matter. We simply need to ask, “what is more important to Christ, his sheep being fed, or 100% outward conformance to a religious ritual?” The failure of many baptistic churches to get the right answer to this simple question can be attributed only to their sinful refusal to prioritise his wishes above their own historic divisions and distinctives, and because of a lack of clarity on the doctrine of God’s own hierarchy of commands and priorities.
When faced with the dilemma of what to do with the convinced paedo-baptist who has not been baptised as a believer, but gives every sign of being a sheep and not a wolf, I cannot see room for any conclusion other than this: it is our duty to “profane” baptism, and accept them into membership. If we fail to do so, on the day of judgement Christ will say to us “I sent you a sheep, but you refused to feed them. Why?” And we will have nowhere to hide.