Mark Dever has thrown in his thoughts concerning the baptism discussion between John Piper and Wayne Grudem from last week [and Aaron Menikoff has provided a helpful post of some historical matters]. Dever’ s post illustrates the reason why I do not agree with him concerning this issue of baptism. Anything related to church membership is also related to the Lord’s Table. In other words, if you forbid someone from membership because their baptism is not valid, then you must also forbid them from the Lord’s Table because you cannot come to the Table without first being baptized.
This means that Dever cannot allow anyone who was baptized with a different mode than immersion, or at a different timing than after a profession of faith, to the Lord’s Table. The question of membership and communion go together.
Now that we have that clarity, let’s rephrase the question: how many of you who claim to follow this position for membership [only allowing those who were immersed after a profession of faith] follow it also for the Lord’s Table and bar anyone who was not immersed as a professing Christian?
In Wayne Grudem’s response to John Piper, one of the central things I want to focus on is in point # 3 and the discussion concerning whether baptism is a requirement for church membership. Grudem first explains that he assumed this because it is normally the practice of every major denomination in history. The church has historically held that baptism is necessary to be part of its membership. On this basis, Grudem goes on to say that when a church that holds to believer’s baptism allows someone to be a member who has not had that baptism, then that church is allowing an unbaptized person into membership.
The problem with this is that every other church tradition except the believer’s baptism tradition allows all forms of baptism. It is the unique posture of the Baptistic tradition that makes this issue so difficult. Other Protestant churches will not make you get “re-baptized” even though they believe that baptism by immersion of an adult may not be the best practice. This is because those traditions recognize a broad understanding of the validity of baptism even though different forms may be more or less faulty.
Grudem goes on to say that by admitting someone who was baptized before the profession of faith contradicts what we believe about the essential nature of baptism: that is an outward sign of an inward spiritual change. What he is not taking into account here is the other problem in Baptist churches concerning people who were baptized and later came to faith, or people who were baptized and later moved away from Christ only to come back again. Those people, myself included, never know exactly when they were “regenerated.” I would say over half of the Baptist church would be in this situation. I cannot tell you how many people I have talked to in my office who have struggled with their Christian life and whether or not they were saved before their baptism or after their baptism.
What do I tell those people? Do I say, “Well, we are Baptists and in order to do things properly we better baptize you again because your baptism has to come after your profession of faith to be completely valid.” I can assure you I have not only never said that but I normally never rebaptize a person in that situation. What do I say? I encourage them to look to Christ and the gospel for their assurance and hope, and leave the hidden things in the hands of God.
Ultimately as Baptists the logic falls back on us. We do not have to discuss other traditions. We need to talk about what happens in our tradition and whether or not all the people in the situation described above are in fact truly baptized with a valid baptism. At the end of the day, I am willing to admit to a valid baptism that is faulty. I have no problem with a position like that. And if we are going to move in the direction of unity, Baptists have to take the first steps.
As I previously noted, Mark Dever has now brought the baptism discussion up for the 9 Marks blog. Dever brings up the next point that I was going to consider in terms of unity: the Lord’s Supper. We cannot talk about membership and baptism without also talking about the Lord’s Supper. It is fundamental that one is baptized before partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
Dever points this out in his post, and he argues that not only should Baptists not open membership to those who have been baptized in a different manner, but we also should not open up the Lord’s Table to them either since they have not been baptized. This means that Mark Dever’s friend and fellow brother in the “Together for the Gospel” movement, Ligon Duncan, cannot be a member at Capitol Hill Baptist church, nor can Ligon take communion with them.
Now the irony of this is that Dever has so narrowly defined the gospel to be only about preaching that he will allow Ligon Duncan to preach at his church. Why? Because they are “Together” for the sake of the gospel. Tell me, what excatly is the Lord’s Supper? Doesn’t Paul say that it proclaims the death of the Lord until he comes? Are we really “together” for the gospel if we cannot sit together around the Lord’s Table?
From my perspective, we all have inconsistencies in our theology. Our theological work will never be accurate until we see Jesus. That being the case, we have to decide what is primary and secondary. I believe it is of primary and ultimate importance that we view this issue concerning baptism and communion in terms of eschatology, partly because eschatology is primary and precedes soteriology.
We must view this issue in terms of what will be true on that day when we all see Jesus. On that day, I will sit down at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb with Mark Dever and John Piper and Ligon Duncan, with John Calvin and Martin Luther and St. Augustine. We will all feast together on that day because of the gospel, and if our doctrine of the Table does not reflect this eschatological reality, a reality that we are sure of because of the gospel, then we have missed a fundamental aspect of unity, and we are not really “together” for the gospel after all.