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Do Infant Baptisms Count? Reconsidering Open Membership

I’m a baptist — a very happy baptist — but you don’t need to capitalize the b for me. First and foremost, I’m a Christian, identifying primarily with Christ, and only secondarily with my dear baptist brothers and sisters.

We baptists sometimes encounter a tension created by our baptistic convictions: How do we, as baptists, orient to those whose baptismal belief and practice differ from ours? In particular, how do we relate to paedobaptist individuals and churches?

Paedobaptism (from the Greek root paedo for “child”) is the practice of baptizing the children of believers in infancy, in anticipation of their profession of faith in Christ. Rather than baptizing after someone professes faith, as credobaptists do (credo for “faith”), paedobaptists regard baptism as the New Testament counterpart to Old Testament circumcision. Therefore, they administer the visible, public sign of the covenant to children of Christians.

Now, we baptists believe that paedobaptists err in their baptismal theology and practice. We think they’ve got it wrong. At the same time, we don’t believe that rightly understanding and applying baptism is essential for someone to be a true Christian. We regard sincere, Christ-loving paedobaptists as our brothers and sisters, and we want to celebrate our common confession of faith in the triune God and our salvation in Jesus Christ.

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Two Impulses

This creates a tension between two impulses. First, there’s the baptist impulse — we want to teach and practice according to our credobaptistic convictions. We believe that baptism is a visible sign of invisible realities. Baptism is public and objective, like a wedding ceremony. And like a wedding ceremony, in baptism God makes promises to us, we receive those promises by faith, and we also make promises to him. God promises to forgive our sins and transform our lives, and we promise to trust Jesus and follow him as Lord, Savior, and Treasure. In baptism, we publicly identify with Christ, and he publicly identifies with us. We say, “You are our God,” and God says, “You are my people.” And as credobaptists, we believe that only those who have made a credible profession of faith should be baptized.

“Christians ought to have a holy instinct to recognize and welcome all genuine Christians as visible saints in the Lord.”

On the other hand, there’s what we might call the catholicity impulse. The word catholic here doesn’t refer to the Roman Catholic Church, but instead means universal. This is the recognition that the people of God, Christ’s church, is bigger than our local church, bigger than our denomination, bigger than our theological tribe. As the Apostles’ Creed says, “We believe in the communion of saints.” As professing saints, we seek to maintain holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God with other Christians. Such communion ought to be extended to all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus. Thus, Christians ought to have a holy instinct to recognize and welcome all genuine Christians as visible saints in the Lord, despite the various disagreements we may have with them on matters of secondary or tertiary importance.

These two impulses create a tension in how we regard the baptisms of paedobaptistic traditions. Are such paedobaptisms valid baptisms? Or are they not baptisms at all? Can we welcome those baptized as infants into church membership? Can we welcome them to the Lord’s Table?

Different Aspects of the Church

Let’s begin with the church and its government. Theologians often consider the church under different aspects.

The church as universal and invisible is composed of all those, in every time and place, who are chosen in Christ and united to him through faith by the Spirit in one body. The church as universal and visible is composed of all those who are baptized in the triune name and do not undermine that profession by foundational errors or unholy living. The church as visible and local is composed of all those in a given area who agree to gather together to hear the word of God proclaimed, engage in corporate worship, practice the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, build each other’s faith through the manifold ministries of love, hold each other accountable in the obedience of faith through biblical discipline, and engage in local and world evangelization.

Many aspects of local-church government are matters of biblically informed prudence. Such matters are to be ordered by the light of nature as informed by the general principles of God’s word. Prudence enables us to take these general principles, derived from general and special revelation, and wisely apply them in concrete settings.

Two areas of church government that are to be ordered by biblically informed prudence are, first, the requirements and expectations for membership in the local church, and second, the requirements and expectation for leadership in the local church. Membership in the local church is an inference from biblical passages that assume an identifiable body of believers (such that individuals may exercise and be subject to church discipline) as well as the pastor-elders’ responsibility to oversee a particular people.

The Scriptures teach, both by precept and example, that the requirements for leadership in the church are higher than the requirements for membership in the church. In keeping with that expectation, it is prudent to expect a greater degree of theological knowledge and clarity from leaders than members.

Thus, it seems prudent for membership in the local church to be extended to all those who profess faith in Christ and apprehend the foundational truths of the gospel. Likewise, it seems prudent for leadership in the local church to be restricted to those who are able to teach the whole counsel of God. For example, in my own church, while members are not required to be Reformed in their soteriology or complementarian in their anthropology in order to join, leaders are required to hold these convictions in order to teach and govern.

Baptism and Church Membership

How then does baptism factor in? As the Desiring God Affirmation of Faith puts it,

Baptism is an ordinance of the Lord by which those who have repented and come to faith (Acts 2:38; Colossians 2:12) express their union with Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3) in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3–4), by being immersed (Acts 8:36–39; Romans 6:4) in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). It is a sign of belonging to the new people of God (Mark 1:4–5; Romans 2:28–29; Galatians 3:7), the true Israel, and an emblem of burial and cleansing (Hebrews 10:22), signifying death to the old life of unbelief, and purification from the pollution of sin. (12.3)

Baptism marks entrance into the universal and visible church and is a prerequisite for membership in the visible, local church. Expressing it this way accounts for the fact that Christians are not re-baptized every time they join a new local congregation. Instead, like a passport, their one baptism is recognized by all subsequent congregations as meeting this requirement for membership.

This definition of baptism includes four elements:

  1. water
  2. in the triune name
  3. by immersion
  4. after repentance and faith in Christ

Essentially all Christians regard the first two elements as essential for a baptism to be valid. Many baptists regard the third element as important, but not essential. In other words, many baptist churches accept sprinkling and pouring baptisms of professing believers as “valid but improper” or “true but irregular” baptisms. The question concerns the fourth element. Is the administration of baptism after repentance and faith an essential element of a baptism?

Some baptists say yes. These baptists (so far as I’m aware, the majority of current baptists in America) deny that paedobaptisms are baptisms at all. Because they believe that baptism should be applied only to professing believers, those who have had water sprinkled on them as infants have not been baptized. At the same time, nearly all of them also believe that there are genuine Christians who have wrong baptismal theology and wrong practice.

However, this position creates a number of confusions and inconsistencies. For example, this position sends conflicting messages to non-baptists. It says, “We regard you as a believer, but we cannot receive you into membership in our church, nor welcome you to the Lord’s Table without your being (re)baptized as a believer. Your baptismal error is so significant that it bars you from membership, even though it doesn’t prevent us from being ‘together for the gospel.’”

Moreover, since a right administration of the ordinances is a necessary mark of a true church, such a position seems to deny that paedobaptist churches are churches at all, since they fail to baptize their members. And because they fail to baptize their members, it would seem that they are likewise unable to eat the Lord’s Supper, since the family meal requires the presence of a proper family.

In contrast, I would argue that while water and the triune name are essential to baptism, the other two elements are important for the proper administration of baptism, but not essential for the validity of baptism. In other words, the proper mode of baptism is immersion, and the proper timing of baptism is after one has believed. Nevertheless, one can err on these elements and still administer and receive a valid baptism.

Valid but Improper

Paedobaptisms, then, may be regarded as valid but improper baptisms. The use of water in the triune name (or the name of Jesus, Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5) to mark entrance into the visible church establishes the baptism as valid. Sprinkling or pouring the water (rather than immersion), as well as the application of water to infants, renders the baptisms as improper.

“Paedobaptisms may be regarded as valid but improper baptisms.”

The result is that we are able to duly honor both the baptist impulse and the catholicity impulse. As baptists, the leaders of the church teach the biblical meaning of baptism and practice the proper administration of baptism. At the same time, we are able to regard paedobaptist churches that embrace the foundational truths of the gospel as genuine churches, despite their error on baptism. Indeed, recognizing their baptisms as valid is one of the fundamental ways we acknowledge them as true churches.

Guided by biblically informed prudence, then, we might regard all valid baptisms — including those that are improper with respect to mode and timing — as sufficient prerequisites for church membership, provided there is a credible profession of faith. What’s more, we might consider such valid baptisms sufficient as prerequisites for participation in the Lord’s Supper, provided the Table is guarded as being only for those who trust in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of sins.

Credit: Joe Rigney

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