Editors' Note: How do baptism and church membership relate? What are the biblical bounds? Baptists debate, “Must one be baptized as a believer in order to join a local church?” Meanwhile, Presbyterians and other paedobaptists consider, “Should one who'd refuse to let his children be baptized be permitted to join?”
This question hurts. It's personal. Let me briefly explain. A great family with a quiver full of kids began to visit our church—wonderful people with exemplary kids older than and near the ages of my own. Everyone, not least yours truly, was encouraged and eager to spend time with them. You can imagine how much we wanted to have them join our church, and, by God's grace, they wanted to do so.
The only problem was that they were convinced Presbyterians. There was even a willingness to “go through the motions” of being baptized as a believer, but there was also a settled conviction against what our church's statement of faith, the Abstract of Principles, says about baptism:
Baptism is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus, obligatory upon every believer, wherein he is immersed in water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, as a sign of his fellowship with the death and resurrection of Christ, of remission of sins, and of giving himself up to God, to live and walk in newness of life. It is prerequisite to church fellowship, and to participation in the Lord's Supper.
As a Baptist church, we believe that baptism is a matter of obedience. Jesus instructed his followers to baptize disciples (Matt 28:19), so we baptize those who have become disciples because we want to obey Jesus. We also believe that only believers are united to the body of Christ by faith (cf. Gal 3:26-28), so only believers should be welcomed as members into the visible expression of the body of Christ, the local church. If someone is not repenting of all known sin, trusting Christ for salvation, and submitting to all his commands and teaching, we don't welcome him or her into church membership. Since we view baptism as a matter of obedience, we understand unbaptized people to be disobedient on this point.
Our Presbyterian friends believe they have been baptized, but here the definition of baptism comes into play. As our statement of faith indicates, we are convinced that baptism is the immersion of a believer in water.
Another pastoral anecdote: a few years back a couple that had been sprinkled in water as believers wanted to join the church I was then pastoring. Could they join, or did they need to be baptized? This question forced me to examine all the baptism language in the New Testament: baptize, baptist, baptism, you get the idea (see the resulting table on p. 441 of GGSTJ). The word means plunge or immerse. Every time it is used in the New Testament, it is either talking about an immersion in water or assuming that reality and using immersion as a metaphor. That couple was convinced and baptized—they saw that though they had been sprinkled in water as believers, they had not been baptized.
Baptists believe that those who have not been immersed in water as believers to symbolize their union with Christ by faith have not been baptized. Presbyterians and other paedobaptists think they have been baptized, even if they have not been immersed in water as believers.
John Bunyan agreed that baptism is the immersion of a believer in water but felt that he did not have the right to deny church membership to someone who gave evidence of regeneration and believed he had been baptized. William Kiffin's response was that he did not have the right to disregard, and thereby overrule, a command of Jesus.
As baptists we're not denying that paedobaptists have a right to their own perspective, we are simply maintaining the integrity of our own convictions. Our consciences will not permit us to welcome into membership and communion those who have not obeyed Jesus at the point of baptism.
This is the whole reason there are Baptist churches at all. This is why baptists don't commune with Presbyterians, though it doesn't close down the possibility of cooperation in gospel efforts that are wider than local church ministry (such as T4G and TGC). If this issue were not big enough to divide over, to deny membership over, then why did the baptists ever separate from the presbyterians?
They separated because the baptists became convinced that for the sake of their own consciences, they had to practice what they were convinced was required in order to obey Jesus. They had to obey Jesus and be baptized as believers, and they had to refuse communion to those they were convinced were unrepentant on the point of baptism. The unity of the church is so important, as John 17 teaches, that anyone who does not view the matter this way should seek to reunite the credobaptists and paedobaptists.
Unity has to be based on the truth of the Scriptures and a joint commitment to obey the Lord Christ. Baptists are those who unite together in the conviction that those who believe are united to Christ by faith, joined to his body by virtue of their belief in him. This spiritual union with Christ by faith is depicted in the immersion of the believer in water as a testimony that when Jesus was “baptized” on the cross (Mark 10:38-39), he was overwhelmed by the floodwaters of God's wrath. We who are united to Christ by faith are united to him in his experience of the floodwaters of God's wrath, which he took for us, in our place, and this is symbolized when we are buried with Christ in the baptismal waters then raised to walk in newness of life. For more on these issues, see these posts on the typological interpretation of baptism reflected in 1 Peter 3:20-21, on the way baptists are orthodox evangelicals in the reformed tradition who hold to baptist distinctives in a confessional context, and on wider issues having to do with continuity and discontinuity.
It was painful to part ways with that wonderful family who disagreed with us on baptism, and we miss them still. But our affection for them personally, our affinity with them theologically, and our emotional desire to welcome them into membership do not change the fact that Jesus gave instructions that we must obey. The separation from paedobaptists we love may be painful, but it is separation to obey Jesus. The surpassing greatness of knowing him is worth whatever it costs.
R. B. C. Howell, The Terms of Communion at the Lord's Table (1846)
Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright, ed., Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (B&H, 2007)
Russell Moore, “Table Manners: On the Welcoming Catholicity of Closed Communion” (Touchstone Magazine, Sept/Oct 2011)