On the Question of Baptists Rejecting Paedobaptism but Accepting Paedobaptists to Membership

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been in a debate on Twitter with Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks (and many others) that arose out of a discussion about Baptists and catholicity. The debate centered on the question of whether or not Baptists should require those baptized (washed) as infants to be (re)baptized in order to join Baptist churches.

I’ve been arguing that, even though Baptists believe credobaptism is correct, they should consider infant baptisms valid. This would make Baptists churches more fully catholic in that 1) they’d recognize the vast majority of Christians throughout history have, in fact, entered the visible church through baptism, and 2) they’d recognize in their practice that churches who baptize infants are proper churches.

Two Baptists, Joe Rigney and Gavin Ortlund, have both chimed in and argued this same way: infant baptism is valid yet improper. A Twitter conversation moved to the blogosphere at Mere Orthodoxy: Ortlund, Round 1, Leeman’s Response, and Ortlund, Round 2.

I am late to responding to Leeman’s response and Ortlund already posted his latest (Round 2) this morning, with which I largely agree. Leeman is wrong to suggest he represents the true and single Baptist position (faith is of the essence of baptism), and his argument opens the door to multiple rebaptisms and to Donatism.

I am a Presbyterian who baptizes babies, but being a former Baptist, this question has long held my attention because I have, for a long time, tried to work out a consistent view and practice of ecclesiology, church membership, sacraments, and catholicity (I was strongly influenced by 9Marks before finally becoming a convinced paedobaptist), and because I am surrounded by Baptists in my city and in my friendships.

I think there is a lot more to be said about the line of argument examining the “essence/accident” or “valid by not proper” distinction. Leeman himself thinks this should be the focus of the debate. I don’t think the verses Leeman cited prove his case. At best, they show baptism should follow faith, but they certainly don’t prove faith is of the essence of baptism. That argument is for another post.

However, I want to make one observation I think Ortlund only touched on in his post this morning. It won’t settle the issue, but I think playing out the implications of Leeman’s argument in this direction may cause him to look back further upstream at how he is piecing together his convictions.

The Unity Objection

Leeman admits he may not be taking church membership seriously enough. I don’t think he is because he excludes from church membership people he considers to be Christians. Excluding Christians from church membership is a serious problem because doing so is how a church communicates publicly that a person is not a Christian.

In short, he is saying in practice (by excluding them from membership), “This person is not a Christian” while saying verbally, “This person is a Christian.”

For example, Leeman says, “I am absolutely happy to affirm that many of my friends who were baptized as babies are Christians. Frankly, I might have more confidence in some of their conversions than my own!” This is good and right and perhaps even a picture of humble charity. However, he goes on to say that baptism is a command of Jesus and that the person who refuses to be baptized upon a profession of faith is refusing to obey Jesus. If it’s true that the person is “disobeying Jesus,” then to be consistent, he must conclude that the person should not be considered a Christian. Yet Leeman does not want to say this. He’ll deny that they can join his church (which communicates the person isn’t a Christian) but still claim they are Christians.

Leeman values consistency very highly, but this appears to be a blind spot.

If we were discussing any other sin, Leeman would consider ongoing refusal to obey as evidence that a person is not a Christian (read his book on Church discipline). For instance, a person who continues in adultery would not just be prohibited from joining Leeman’s church but would also not be considered a Christian.

Now Leeman tried to give himself an out here by raising the category of unintentional sin. But as Ortlund pointed out this morning, it is hard to see how a person can be refusing to do something they are unintentionally failing to do. Additionally, many paedobaptists are not refusing credobaptism unintentionally or ignorantly. They are intentionally, cognizantly, and willfully refusing to be (re)baptized.

If Leeman is correct that faith is of the essence of baptism, then the Christian identity of the person who refuses to be baptized as a professed believer should be up for grabs.

Leeman has suggested we Presbyterians also refuse to let Christians join our churches if they are unbaptized. But now we can see that isn’t true and that the Baptist is in a unique position. A person who refuses baptism would not be considered a Christian by a Presbyterian. However, Leeman wants to say a Christian can go on being unbaptized but cannot join his church.

Is Leeman willing to be consistent on this point both in practice and in what he says? I don’t think so. Thankfully, he wants to stop short of saying that all profession Christians baptized as infants are not really Christians.

The only option for him then is to accept what many other Baptists have acknowledged. Faith is not of the essence of baptism. Christians baptized as infants have been validly baptized, and they should, therefore, be welcomed as members in Baptist churches.






5 thoughts on “On the Question of Baptists Rejecting Paedobaptism but Accepting Paedobaptists to Membership

  1. Hey Derek,
    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks.

    First, I’d encourage you to look at my rejoinder to Gavin. He mis-identified what I’m calling “the” Baptist position. The connection between baptism and faith most assuredly is the Baptist position. It’s the very thing that makes baptists baptist. What he suggests is more complex is whether Baptists have excluded those who were baptized as babies from their membership. And that history—I agree with him—is more complex. In fact, you’ll have a hard time finding a Baptist in England who agrees with me on this one. Also, the Donatist thing is a red herring. Had to say it.

    I really appreciate your question about whether I’m contradicting myself, because it gives me the opportunity to flesh out something that’s crucial to this conversation: the difference between personal judgments and ecclesial judgments. You wonder whether I can personally say “he’s a Christian” and yet refuse him membership in my church, thereby suggesting he’s not a Christian. Isn’t this a self-contradiction? Good question. The short answer is, just because I might make a personal judgment doesn’t mean I have the authority to institutionalize that judgment ecclesially. My colleague Sam Emadi offers a wonderful illustration of this in an article 9Marks will be publishing soon:

    “Imagine you were the security guard at the gate of the US Embassy in Iran. One day, a man with a Texas drawl approaches you wearing an “I [Heart] USA” hat and a loud American flag T-shirt—replete with a bald eagle in the foreground and an F-16 fighter jet racing into the background. You know, one of those shirts you pick up at a small town rodeo on the Fourth of July. You spend several hours discussing the NFL, American movies, and shared childhood experiences. At the end of the conversation he says, “Hey, I don’t have my passport but I really need to get into the embassy. Would you mind letting me in?” In your private judgment, you have every reason to believe this man is an American. But without a passport you simply cannot let him past the gate. Your private judgment is not enough. You’ve only been given authority from the government to admit those people who have the official stamp of approval—possession of an American passport.”

    Sam continues: “So it is with regard to baptism and membership. Jesus has commanded us that we only admit believers into the church and then he told the church to identify believers by the act of baptism. Baptism is the passport into membership. Baptism is an authorized declaration of the credibility of someone’s confession, not just a private judgment about whether we think someone is a Christian.”

    Like I said, I’m glad you brought this up because I don’t think many evangelicals have much of a category these days for ecclesial judgments and how those are a distinct thing from personal judgments. Gratefully, I find that Presbyterians like yourself typically do. Yet the bottom line here is: just because I think something might be the case doesn’t mean I’ve been authorized by Jesus to act in a particular way. As I said in my very first reply to Gavin, I just don’t think I have the authority to override Jesus when he makes baptism the initiating ceremony for life in the church.

    On the matter of discipline, you write that I “would consider ongoing refusal to obey as evidence that a person is not a Christian (read his book on Church discipline). For instance, a person who continues in adultery would not just be prohibited from joining Leeman’s church but would also not be considered a Christian.”

    That’s not quite right. I argue in the book that disciplinable sin must be three things: outward (verifiable—see Matt. 18:16), significant, and unrepentant (ongoing). Consider that second sin for a minute. What is significant? I’d say it’s any sin that, if ongoing, makes it difficult for me to continue affirm you as a Christian. Suppose someone embellishes how many goals he scored in a soccer game, and suppose he refuses to come clean when confronted. You might recommend removing someone from church membership over that, but I don’t think I would. I’d say it doesn’t rise to the level of “significant.” Why? Because I can imagine an immature Christian—someone in whom the Spirit of God dwells—sinning in this way. Now what about your example of an adulterer? No, I cannot conceive of someone being a Christian and holding on unrepentantly to that sin. So, yes, I would recommend removing the adulterer. Is my category of “significant” subjective? Yes. In a way, all three criteria (outward, significant, unrepentant) are somewhat subjective, that is, subject to the judgment of the church. But that’s precisely the authority of judgment which Jesus has given to the church to exercise. It also requires us to handle each sinner on a case-by-case basis, asking God for pastoral wisdom with each one.

    Now, since you’re quick on your feet, I expect all this might raise one last question for you: Jonathan, if a person’s refusing to receive baptism does not count as “significant” enough of a sin such that, in your personal judgment, you would not consider him or her a non-Christian, why wouldn’t you let them into your church, acknowledging that they are in sin, but still admitting them?

    Hey, that’s a good question. Basically, there’s a difference between criteria for admission and criterial for dismissal by discipline. The first is clearly established by Jesus: baptism and repentance (I speak as a Baptist), and that’s where, as I said, my hands feel tied. The second is unrepentance (as defined by those three criteria above).

    Brother, I might be mistaken in all this. It’s the best I can do. Blessings!

    • Jonathan,

      Thank you for such a thoughtful response. The distinction you’re making about a private versus corporate/ecclesial judgment is completely valid, and I conflated the two in my critique. I agree with you there’s a difference, and membership is about the later, not the former. So I understand how you can personally affirm the Christian identity of someone who would be refused church membership.

      However, I don’t think this totally gets you out of the inconsistency, unless you are suggesting a Baptist church cannot ever invite a professing Christian baptized as an infant to preach at your church (I believe you’ve said this would be appropriate and a form of catholicity). Perhaps you see this differently, but I assume an invitation by a Baptist church to preach in the pulpit would be some form of an ecclesial judgment about the person’s Christian identity (albeit not the same sort of judgment as church membership). This case seems to put the ecclesial judgments at odds with one another.

      Now I imagine you may raise your other point about discipline being reserved for “significant” sins. Here, again, I think you make a good point with which I agree, but I confess I assumed you considered refusing baptism a “significant” sin which is why it was grounds for refusing church membership to said person. I think this is still problematic (refusing baptism is not significant enough to rule out a person’s Christian identity but it is significant enough to deny them membership), but I see how you are seeking to work this all out consistently.

      I’m grateful for your willingness to continue pressing into these questions with us.

  2. “Leeman has suggested we Presbyterians also refuse to let Christians join our churches if they are unbaptized. But now we can see that isn’t true and that the Baptist is in a unique position. A person who refuses baptism would not be considered a Christian by a Presbyterians.”

    I am pretty confident this just isn’t a fair assessment. In my experience (at a presbyterian seminary) there is very similar questions. Obviously it isn’t between a person baptized as an adult vs. an infant but whether a person who was baptized in another tradition can be admitted (example of Roman Catholic sticks out but what about Eastern Orthodox?)

  3. Pingback: On the Question of Baptists Rejecting Paedobaptism but Accepting Paedobaptists to Membership – Part 2 | Derek E. Radney

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