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 church?” Meanwhile, Presbyterians and other paedobaptists consider, “Should one who'd refuse to let his children be baptized be permitted to join?”
The renaissance of evangelical Calvinism today is a marvelous gift of God. Yet as many across widely varying denominations embrace the doctrines of grace, the tendency is often to downplay their distinctives as relatively unimportant. Especially as people move back and forth not only between local churches but denominations, often simply looking for a church that preaches the Word faithfully, there can be an impatience with honest scruples. It's often said that baptism is a “secondary issue.” Traditionally, both sides in the debate have wrestled over whether they can even accept each other's profession of faith as valid for membership. That's hardly secondary.
Baptism itself has become so secondary in evangelical circles that the most outrageous view in many minds is one that makes this issue decisive in church membership. However, Baptists and paedobaptists are stuck. If our conscience is bound by Scripture, then we can hardly consider as indifferent something Christ' ordained as essential in the Great Commission. So I respect Baptist brothers who would not admit me into membership or to the Lord's Table. They are following what they believe Scripture to teach in this matter and for that submissiveness I respect them.
Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have required professing members and their children to be baptized. In the former, arising from Continental Reformed sources, all church members confess the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) as the faithful summary of Scripture. What this means is that in Reformed churches historically, only those who affirmed the inclusion of children in covenant baptism could be members. Especially in the U.S., Presbyterian churches came to require only officers to subscribe the Westminster Standards. In Presbyterian churches, it has meant that all of the children of members should be baptized. What to do if they're not is a matter of some debate and variation.
I affirm, on the basis of Scripture, the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian view that it is “a great sin to condemn or neglect” baptism (Westminster Confession, Ch. 28.5) and that “also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized” (Ch. 28.4; cf. Shorter Catechism, Q. 95). The Belgic Confession adds,
Therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, who we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made unto our children (Belgic Conf., Art. 34; cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q. 74).
I'm a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America. Our Church Order requires, “The consistory shall see to it that baptism is requested and administered as soon as feasible” (Art. 56).
All of this entails, of course, that those who wish to become members must at least be willing and ready to present unbaptized children for baptism. Any who refuse to do so are in violation of what we are convinced is the express command of our Lord. Church discipline always begins with gentle admonition and instruction, usually in private, leading hopefully to repentance. However, it would be unwise to admit into full communion believers who are already in principle unwilling to change their mind on the matter.
Some in our circles have suggested that this disciplinary action pertains only to those who are actually violating Christ's will. In this view, someone who remains convinced of adult-only baptism (but is not withholding the sacrament from his or her own children) may be a member (though not an officer). I have heard good arguments on both side of that difficult pastoral issue and remain open on the point. The crucial concern is to ensure that members recognize their children as the Lord's heritage and not withhold the sign and seal of his covenant blessings. Baptism is not just an interesting doctrine we discuss, but a practice that shapes our life—-personally and corporately.
To some brothers and sisters (Reformed/Presbyterian as well as Baptist), all of this may sound somewhat jarring—-and exclusionary. However, there are a few things to bear in mind:
- Baptism either is or is not to be administered to the children of the covenant; if it is, then it is a sin not to do something God has commanded. The Baptist position at least historically is to consider it a sin to baptize infants (and to practice an alternative to immersion). Presbyterian and Reformed churches confess that baptism is a means of grace and that it is a sin to withhold the sign and seal of the covenant of grace from our children. Of course, it is not a sin of intentional rebellion. Nevertheless, both sides have regarded the rival decision as a transgression of God's will. That follows inexorably from the conviction that God does clearly reveal what we are to do on this question. My Baptist friends believe that I am not only doctrinally in error but am doing something against God's will when I baptize covenant children. Although I disagree, I applaud their consistency. It's beyond the scope of your question to defend covenantal baptism here (though I do in various places, especially The Christian Faith). However, if there is truly a parallel between circumcision and baptism as the signs and seals of the same covenant of grace, then it is a serious sin to withhold it from our children (Gen 17:9-14).
- The consistent Baptist view is actually more exclusionary. We accept as valid all baptisms performed with the Word and the water (whatever the mode) in the Triune Name. Those from a Reformed or Presbyterian church who wish to change membership to a Baptist church are required ordinarily to renounce their baptism as invalid. To reject the validity of one's baptism—-and, by extension, the validity of baptisms administered in another communion—-strikes at the heart of the church's unity.
- Of course, many Baptists as well as Reformed and Presbyterians today downplay the significance of these arguments on both sides. Doing so allows for more flexibility in the movement back and forth between different communions. However, it cannot fail to impress upon the actual members themselves that their baptism (whether as adults or as infants) is of little consequence. At least from my reading of the New Testament, that would be the most tragic position of all.
Recommended Resources: G. W. Bromiley, Children of Promise (Eerdmans); Danny Hyde, Jesus Loves the Little Children (Reformed Fellowship); Bryan Chapell, Why Do We Baptize Infants? (P&R); John Murray, Christian Baptism (P&R); Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (IVP); Michael Brown and Danny Hyde, Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons (Reformed Fellowship).
Also in the series on baptism and church membership:
- ”Sometimes Obedience Results in Painful Separations” by James Hamilton