Together for the Gospel? Thoughts on Baptism and Christian Unity

by | Aug 5, 2022 | Theological Issues | 3 comments

Recently Joe Rigney, president of Bethlehem Baptist Seminary, argued that infant baptism need not be an absolute bar for membership in a Baptist church. If Christians of various persuasions can get “together for the Gospel,” why can’t they get together in the church? By Rigney’s thinking and in the spirit of catholicity they can, if they are willing to accept the status of a second-class citizen in a Baptist church. They can be admitted into Baptist churches on the basis of their “valid but improper” baptism but they will be barred from leadership positions because they do not embrace “the whole counsel of God” or immersion as the proper form of baptism. This is essentially the view that John Piper proposed to his Bethlehem congregation nearly twenty years ago.

The crucial paragraph concerning the issue of baptism and membership was as follows:

Therefore, where the belief in the Biblical validity of infant baptism does not involve baptismal regeneration or the guarantee of saving grace, this belief is not viewed by the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church as a weighty or central enough departure from Biblical teaching to exclude a person from membership, if he meets all other relevant qualifications and is persuaded from Bible study and a clear conscience that his baptism is valid. In such a case we would not require baptism by immersion as a believer for membership but would teach and pray toward a change of mind that would lead such members eventually to such a baptism.

You will note from this statement that the ultimate determining factor for accepting the validity of one’s baptism is their own personal Bible study and a clear conscience. There is neither precept nor example of infant baptism in the New Testament. Nor is there any text that connects infant baptism to OT circumcision. How on, the basis of Bible study alone, would someone come to the conclusion of infant baptism? And a clear conscience? Our consciences are shaped by any number of things so that a “clear conscience” is no certain guide for action. The Scriptures should always inform and shape our conscience. One’s conscience can only be “clear” when one brings oneself into conformity with the Word of God—the whole counsel of God.

Joe Rigney is merely putting new wine into old wine skins. There is nothing new in his argument, only the same flawed reasoning without scriptural warrant that drove Piper to attempt to make this change at Bethlehem nearly two decades ago. Happily, it was rejected by the assembly, not by formal vote, but sensing it would not pass muster, it was quietly withdrawn. Piper made it clear in a letter afterwards that he intended to continue to pursue this change, but it never occurred under his watch. Now Joe has taken up the cause.

The debate over baptism has raged in the church for millennia for many reasons. All sides argue passionately for their view being the correct view and are quick to show why everyone else’s view is the wrong view. For example, R. Scott Clark argued recently that “the biblical evidence for immersion is rather thin.” Clark here is driven by his Presbyterian presuppositions rather than the text of Scripture. If it is the case that biblical evidence for immersion is “thin,” then it is certainly the case that biblical evidence for paedobaptism is non-existent. If you argue that infant baptism is the New Testament sign of the covenant, of which circumcision was the Old Testament sign, please show me anywhere in the New Testament that even hints at this much less clearly teaches it? Moreover, if you grant through theological gymnastics that infant baptism actually correlates to circumcision, pray tell me how infant baptism is applied to females? Only the male Israelites could be circumcised in the Old Testament. Yet the females were a part of the covenant relationship (I would presume). But there was no female circumcision or its substitute. So, our Presbyterian brethren who insist that infants be placed in the New Testament covenant via infant baptism make a blind leap over an infinite chasm to get from the biblical example of believers being baptized (Acts 8 and the Ethiopian eunuch) to infant baptism, including the baptism of females.

Now it matters to me not one whit what Joe Rigney wants to hold with respect to baptism as a Christian, but to claim to be a Baptist, while admitting those wetted as infants simply beggars the imagination. What does Rigney mean by the term Baptist if baptism doesn’t delimit the assembly? Open membership is the slippery slope into liberalism as this recent essay from 9Marks demonstrates. This is not to suggest that every church that embraces open membership is liberal, but the more biblical theology a church openly ignores, the easier it becomes to set aside other theological teachings. Those who hold open membership are de facto paedobaptists. Jonathan Leeman made this case a few years ago.

You cannot really claim to be pro-believer’s baptism and yet accept both kinds of baptisms. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s not, and either he commanded baptism for believers or he didn’t. You can only practice or accept both kinds if you’ve told yourself that paedobaptism is essentially okay. And that, I dare say, makes someone a paedobaptist, just like a pro-choicer is actually pro-abortion (even if they don’t practice abortion), and someone who claims to be neutral on slavery is actually pro-slavery (even if they don’t have slaves).

When Baptists have been challenged over the years that their obedience to Christ on the matter of strict adherence to credo-immersion was unloving, they met this objection with the obvious assertion that Christ gave us baptism and he was the one who decided what was to be practiced. When he gave the command to baptize (Mt 28:19), he had something in mind, he meant something substantive by that command. Nowhere did Christ say, “do something, anything—sprinkle, pour, believers, infants, you decide what you want to do—and call that baptism.” What right does any follower of Christ have to ignore, change, or set aside a clear biblical teaching? While Clark calls the biblical evidence for immersion “thin,” what is striking is that every time the ordinance is referred to in the Scripture, βαπτίζω is the Greek word used while two other Greek words for sprinkling and pouring— ῥαντίζω and χέω—are never used. As Tertullian declared so long ago, Baptismum quum rite non habeant, fine dubio non habent, which translates, “those who are not rightly baptized, are, doubtless, not baptized at all” (De Baptismo, 15, quoted in Abraham Booth, An Apology for the Baptists, 1778, 25).

Finally, something should be said of the absurd notion of a halfway covenant (a form of limited church membership in Congregational New England in the 17th century) in some Baptist churches. Those Reformed Baptists, “squatters in the Reformed house” (a pejorative description R. Scott Clark uses to argue that Baptists who deny infant baptism as a sign of the covenant aren’t really reformed) who attempt to placate Presbyterians, et al., by admitting the “validity” of paedobaptism, do their non immersed “members” a disservice by barring them from teaching because they do not embrace “the whole counsel of God.” First, who of us correctly embraces God’s whole counsel? Are we so arrogant to think that we aren’t possibly mistaken at some point? Granted that immersion isn’t a necessary belief for conversion, Baptists in the main have marked it as a necessary belief for church membership. How absurd would it have been for John Piper’s Bethlehem church to admit Jonathan Edwards into its membership (Piper used Edwards as an example—“he couldn’t be a member of Bethlehem and we love his theology!”) but bar him from the eldership or from the teaching ministry of the same church because Edwards didn’t accept “the whole counsel of God?”

Rigney and Reformed Baptists find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They wish to keep the name Baptist while jettisoning its essential identifying mark—credo-immersion. Baptist identity was in flux in the early 17th century but by the late 1630s, credo immersion was the settled belief among them. Someone will try to hoist me on the petard of John Bunyan, but he wasn’t really a Baptist. For Rigney and others, believe what you will, but to call yourself a Baptist while admitting into church membership paedobaptists is a non sequitur. As J. L. Dagg argued, “we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects (church order), and we cannot refuse to obey. Love prompts our obedience and love prompts also the search which may be necessary to ascertain his will.” (Manual of Church Order, 1858, 12). Baptists show their loyalty to Christ by careful obedience to his revealed truth. Under certain circumstances, we may gather with other believers “together for the Gospel.” But the Scriptures prescribe “together in the church” via credo-immersion.

He that hath ears, let him hear.

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. In 1990, the Lord gave Jeff and his wife a wonderful son who has special needs. Due to issues related to the pandemic, Jeff has had to curtail his travel plans to concentrate his energies on loving his wife and son. When things change, Jeff hopes to again travel internationally to train Christian leaders. He continues to publish in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, and freemasonry as well as Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; as well as Zambia and Kenya in Africa. He also speaks in US churches as the opportunities arise.

3 Comments

  1. Scott Paulson

    Thank you for the timely post. I recall reading about Dr. Piper’s proposal years ago. I didn’t realize it had never been adopted. At present, I am reading Adoniram Judson’s excellent sermon that he presented in Calcutta, India.

    Reply
  2. Dennis Eng

    Greatly appreciate this.

    Reply

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