Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont once practiced covenantal infant baptism (paedobaptism). There are currently members of the church who were baptized in the church as infants, and there are families in the church who already hold to covenantal paedobaptism. When the previous pastor assumed the pastorate of the church, the practice of paedobaptism ceased because he is a “believer’s baptist” (credobaptist), as am I.
When I assumed the pastorate in 2009 this information came to my knowledge, and I became aware of families in the church who are paedobaptists but remain in fellowship believing the unity of the body around the gospel of Jesus Christ and the foundations of the Christian faith were more important than differences in modes of baptism. I was convicted that the church may have been maintaining a type of “second class” citizenship in the church for those who aren’t credobaptists. Full fellowship could be enjoyed, but if a baby was born — and one was — I struggled with the idea of having to tell them to go elsewhere to have their baby baptized.
This conviction led me to researching the notion of dual practice. Middletown Springs Community Church membership stipulations already allowed/allows both those baptized as infants (in a covenantal understanding) and those baptized as believers to become members provided a credible profession of faith, agreement with the church’s Statement of Faith, etc. So one hurdle that many churches are moving toward had already been leapt. But in 2010, as part of the church’s revamping of the bylaws, I preached a message titled Baptism Matters, which was my defense of credobaptism but also an invitation to the church to pass the proposed new bylaws, which call for the allowance of covenantal paedobaptism in the church.
Several weeks later the proposed bylaws passed unanimously. There were no nays and no vocal abstentions.
This post will serve to revisit the why’s and what’s of our adoption of dual practice, as questions will continue to arise. The FAQ below attempts to answer questions I have received and continue to receive, mostly from those outside the church who are curious as to how we reached this decision and what it all means for the life of our church and mission. (What you will not find below is a defense of paedobaptism or argument for credobaptism, or exegetical work on the biblical texts on baptism.) Aside from my sermon linked above, you can look elsewhere for that. My point has never been to change someone’s mind about credobaptism, but to change their mind about whether this difference should divide us.
While this post was precipitated by the discussion online that ensued from Twitter comments of mine, I write it first and foremost as a reference for the people of Middletown Springs Community Church, whom I love dearly and find it a deep, deep privilege and honor to shepherd. To my brothers and sisters of my local body, I pray this will be helpful to you.
What is covenantal paedobaptism?
In short, covenantal paedobaptism is the baptism of an infant or small child with the understanding that baptism is the sign of God’s promise of salvation to the child, if he will repent of his sins and believe in Jesus Christ. The baptism does not save the child. This sets covenantal paedobaptism apart from, say, Catholic christening or other types of infant baptisms found in some traditions. Covenantal paedobaptists view baptism as the sign of the new covenant of Christ, replacing the sign of the old covenant, which was circumcision. As in the old covenant faith justified a believer, but all male infants were circumcised, so covenantal paedobaptists believe baptism applies to the same objects: infants.
Covenantal paedobaptists, like all evangelicals, believe that no one is saved until they repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Isn’t this just baby dedication with water? Why don’t they just let their babies be dedicated and then get baptized later after they profess faith?
Covenantal paedobaptism is sort of like baby dedication, but not really. A baby dedication is not the covenant sign; water baptism is. This question would be akin to asking a credobaptist if believer’s baptism was just like rededication with water. The issue is not: What do we do with our kids? The issue is: What is baptism?
Will our church still practice baby dedication?
Yes, we will continue to administer dedications of infants to the Lord for believing parents, whether they be credobaptist or paedobaptist.
What is the reasoning behind allowing covenantal paedobaptism in the church?
The reasoning is several-fold:
1. It honors the heritage of our church which practiced covenantal paedobaptism at one time.
2. It honors families/members already in the church who are paedobaptists, and whom we’d have to ask to take their precious little ones born into our community elsewhere to be baptized.
3. It honors Christian families who are covenantal paedobaptists who may move to our town. We are the only evangelical church in our community, and I personally believe if we are to be an evangelical community church — which is still an integral church form in rural New England — we should attempt, as best we can, to provide a place of unity for evangelicals in our community.
4. Most importantly, by erasing a division over baptism, we create greater unity around that which is most of first importance: the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
The question I continued to ask myself is this: If Jesus himself welcomes paedobaptists into his arms based on their profession of faith in him, who am I to be stricter than Jesus?
Of course, all churches create “extra strictness” for local church membership, but my conviction is that these extras should be minimal. (See below on “Jesus +.”)
John Piper writes (on this issue), “[E]xcluding a true brother in Christ from membership in the local church is far more serious than most of us think it is.”
My goal as the shepherd of the church is to cultivate greater gospel centrality in our church. This is one reason why, although I am a Calvinist and an amillennialist and believe the charismatic gifts are still in operation today, I would never be in favor of making Calvinism or amillennialism or the charismata (nor their opposites or alternatives) prerequisites for membership or fellowship in the church.
I believe we will honor Jesus’ prayer for unity (John 17) and the New Testament call to be “likeminded” if we can unify our local body around that which unifies us in the spiritual Body of Christ: our great salvation in the resurrected Son of God. Every local church establishes a “Christ +” for membership. Our duty is to reduce as much of the “+” as we can.
What is in our “+”? What are the requirements for church membership?
Directly from our new bylaws:
This church will welcome into its membership any person who has;
a. given evidence of his/her love for Jesus Christ and can wholeheartedly accept the Doctrinal Statement (article III) and Covenant (article IV) of this church, and
b. has been baptized as a believer or has confirmed his/her personal faith in Christ after having been previously baptized as an infant.
I have pasted the Membership Covenant in the first comment under this post.
Again, the requirements for membership have not changed under the new bylaws. We have just taken the next step consistent with allowing membership to those baptized as infants.
All candidates for memberships must:
a) meet with me to demonstrate credible profession of faith and basic grasp of the gospel. This interview process also involves questions about unrepentant sin, previous church membership and involvement, etc.
b) have been baptized, either as a professing believer or as an infant in a covenantal understanding
c) agree with our Statement of Faith
d) agree to our Membership Covenant
e) be presented before the congregation.
As to point (b), I would reiterate that this means if someone was christened or baptized as an infant in a church that teaches that baptism is salvific, etc., they would not meet our baptismal requirements for membership.
(In my dialogue with many curious parties about this issue via Twitter, I mistakenly said that one must be 18 to become a member of the church. This is not true. One must be a member and 18 to exercise voting rights. One can be a member younger than 18; he or she just would not be able to participate in congregational votes until they are.)
What resources got you to this point?
I was moved originally by the efforts of John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, Minnesota to allow membership in the church to those baptized as infants in a covenantal understanding. (This effort has yet to pass the elder approval at Bethlehem.) We have already embraced allowance of membership to those already baptized, but I believe stopping there, for our church at least, creates a second class membership for paedobaptists, because we would have to insist they take their infants outside our community to be baptized.
I was also influenced by Wayne Grudem’s section titled “Should We Divide Over Baptism?” which appeared in the original edition of his Systematic Theology. Grudem is a credobaptist but argued in that section that believers could healthily enjoy unity without dividing over baptism.
I know that Grudem removed this section from later editions of his work, but I am encouraged by Piper and Grudem’s own wife chastising him for doing so.
I also enjoyed plenty of works by covenantal paedobaptists like R.C. Sproul and Michael Horton, et.al., and while I was not convinced by them to embrace paedobaptism, I was convinced that covenantal paedobaptism is a sincere and thoughtful and traditional and evangelical interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on baptism.
Does anyone else do this?
As I researched this subject, I asked myself the same question. I was surprised to find more churches than I expected that are credobaptist officially but allow membership to paedobaptists. These are conservative, evangelical, Bible-devoted and gospel-centered churches. But I further wanted to know who practices both types of baptism.
The Evangelical Covenant Church is probably the largest denominational body that practices both credobaptism and paedobaptism without officially endorsing one over the other. You can read their position paper here (pdf).
There are also other individual evangelical churches that have incorporated dual practice to better unify their communities around the gospel and strengthen the giftedness and fellowship of evangelicals inside their congregations.
In addition, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which is the 2nd largest Presbyterian denomination in the US and one of the fastest growing denominations period, allows dual practice in their congregations, although the official stance of the PCA is covenantal paedobaptism. In fact, all covenantal paedobaptist churches administer credobaptism to professing believers who have never been baptized. They don’t say to new converts and the never-baptized, “Well, you should have had it when you were an infant; guess you’re out of luck.”
What if someone baptized as an infant in our church later grows up to change their baptismal view from that of their family and wants to be baptized as a believer?
As with all baptismal candidates, an interview process would sort this out on a case by case basis. There is no one-size-fits-all template for re-baptisms.
I am generally opposed to re-baptisms. But here are some general parameters I work with:
If the candidate for believer’s baptism is a minor and their parents are opposed to their re-baptism, I would probably not baptize them.
If the candidate for believer’s baptism is a minor and their parents support their change of position while maintaining paedobaptism themselves, I probably would baptize them.
If the candidate for believer’s baptism was baptized as an infant in a Catholic context or other non-covenantal church, I probably would baptize them.
If the candidate for believer’s baptism had already received believer’s baptism, I probably would not baptize them.
In every case, I would confirm as best as I’m able that the candidate for believer’s baptism understands credobaptism.
And in every case, I would confirm as best as I’m able that candidates for infant baptism have parents who understand covenantal paedobaptism.
No one will walk in and just say “Please baptize my baby” and have me say “Okay.”
Would you administer the baptisms to infants?
No. As a convinced credobaptist, my conscience would not allow me to administer the infant baptisms myself.
Per the bylaws, paedobaptisms will be administered by a person that I select and who has been approved by the deacon board. The likely suspect is our deacon who is a covenantal paedobaptist.
If you want paedobaptism in the church but you won’t administer it, doesn’t this make you a hypocrite?
(Yes, I have been asked this.) I am convinced this position does not make me a hypocrite, because it is neither right nor safe to go against conscience — to quote Luther — and my conscience is convinced before God that I can shepherd paedobaptists without administering their baptisms.
In the same way, I will pastor Arminians without becoming or “practicing” Arminianism, pretribulationists without believing in pretribulationism, etc.
What will be the church’s official teaching on baptism?
The official teaching of the church on baptism is articulated this way in our Statement of Faith:
9. We believe baptism is an outward visible sign of God’s covenantal faithfulness to his people. It does not bestow salvation but represents the saving work of Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. (Colossians 2:11-12; Romans 6:4; Acts 10:47-48; 16:31-33)
This is our official stance on what baptism is, designed in such way to maintain biblical fidelity while allowing evangelical unity among credobaptists and paedobaptists.
The official teaching on baptism will be credobaptism, because I am the lead pastor of the church and credobaptism is my conviction. While we may strive for unity in our membership and fellowship around the essentials, I cannot strive for personal neutrality on matters of doctrine because like all individuals, I have individual opinions, flaws, perspectives, and understandings. In the same way, we will not make Calvinism a requirement for fellowship or membership, but I am going to preach from a strong Calvinistic perspective, because I am one. I am going to preach from an amillennial perspective on eschatology and a covenantal understanding of history (as opposed to, say, dispensational) and a non-cessationist view of the Spiritual gifts, etc. Preaching will always reflect the flavor of the preacher.
This is similar to the practice of the PCA, which practices both credo- and paedobaptism, while officially teaching paedobaptism. In our context, we will practice both while officially teaching credo-baptism.
Won’t this cause confusion? As an example, being a complementarian, would you allow women to hold pastoral positions in the church, assuming they were evangelical?
No. We of course allow fellowship and membership to evangelical egalitarians but women could not hold pastoral positions in our church. The general reason for this is that our church is made up largely of families who hold to the traditional (and biblical, we would argue) view of gender roles, which is evidenced in our Statement of Faith. But the operative reason this wouldn’t happen is again connected to my conscience and exercise as an individual with convictions. As a complementarian, I can “easily” pastor egalitarians. As a complementarian, I could not pastor alongside women or recognize women as authorities over men in my congregation, as that would violate my conscience.
What will we tell our children? We have raised them to believe in believer’s baptism. Won’t this confuse them?
It might. I believe this could be a great opportunity, however, to teach our children about the utmost importance of the gospel and the foundational beliefs of Christian orthodoxy.
I plan to explain it to my girls like this: Our family believes that baptism is for those who are able to say they have received Jesus for salvation. But some other families in our church believe baptism is for babies in Christian families, as a sign of God’s promise to save them if they will later believe. We disagree with them about baptism, but we agree with them that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose again, and because we agree on the most important things (like the Trinity and the infallibility of the Bible, etc.), we are happy to be a part of the same church. What we agree on is better and bigger than what we disagree on.
There are likely more questions not addressed here. You can leave them in the comments or email me via jared AT gospeldrivenchurch DOT com, and I will respond as I am able. (Questions from people in my church will take priority.)