Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Historical Reflections on Baptism and Church Membership, Part One

By Aaron Menikoff@ www.blog.9marks.org

Maybe it simply worth noting that there is a long history, first in England, then in the States, of Baptists addressing the question of whether the unbaptized should be accepted into the membership of Baptist churches. To put it in a less sterile way, should the church really be split over a difference in baptism?

The most famous account, and one that Mark has lectured on in academic circles, involved the famous tinker from Bedford, John Bunyan. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress defended his practice of allowing the paedo-baptists to join Bedford Baptist Church in Differences about Water Baptism No Bar to Communion (1673). Bunyan offered ten reasons to allow the unbaptized into membership. First, both the baptized and unbaptized are subject to Christ. Second, Eph. 4:1-6 points to one baptism that unifies all believers. Third, all believers share faith in the essentials—life, death, resurrection of Christ. Fourth, a church should not deny communion to someone with whom God has communion. Fifth, a lack of water baptism does not “unchristian” anyone. Seventh, love trumps division. Eighth, churches are wrong to separate over more serious matters than baptism (1 Cor. 3:1-4). Ninth, denying church communion is tantamount to denying the privileges and blessings of salvation. Tenth, it is contemptible to cast off a saint from church communion.

William Kiffin challenged Bunyan in his own day, but a hundred years later another Baptist minister, Abraham Booth, challenged Bunyan’s arguments in A Defense for the Baptists (1778). Not surprisingly, Booth lacked something of Bunyan’s flourish; Booth’s arguments are simple and straightforward. First, the New Testament presents Baptism as a necessary prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. Second, the necessity of Baptism ought not to be left up to the individual’s conscience (as Bunyan had argued). The church must retain the right to exercise God’s commandment in a matter as clearly prescribed as the subject of baptism. To prioritize an individual’s conscience over biblical teaching threatened the entire dissenting movement of which Booth was a part. This is very interesting. According to Booth, to allow unbaptized persons into the church on the basis of their convictions contrary to the congregation’s teaching threatened the very integrity of the church. His church might as well hang up its separatist credentials and join with the Church of England:

For if it be lawful to dispense with an appointment of God, out of regard to our weaker brethren; we cannot reasonably think it unlawful to practice the appointments of our National Church . . . And if we may safely connive at one human invention; why may not the Church of England make what appointments she pleases? (Defense for the Baptists, Baptist Standard Bearer, 50-51)

What observations can be made based on this discussion? Regarding the first question, Bunyan sought out certain themes in Scripture that seemed to contradict denying membership to a Christian: unity and love being the primary ones. Next, he traded on the emotional weight of these themes and prioritized them above other apparently contradictory ones: obedience [to the command to be baptized] and truth [regarding the necessity of baptism preceding communion]. Booth saw something greater at stake in the discussion than simply whether a few Baptist churches would become mixed. Churches prizing the conscience of the individual above the clear teaching of Scripture threatened leaving their young Baptist roots. This, of course, is eventually what happened to Bunyan’s church. Not during his time, but a few church splits later, Bedford Baptist became Bedford Congregationalist.

Time to bring this to an end. I'd still like to discuss in another post trends in America including two Baptists, Dagg and Dargan, an interesting event in the 1820s where a Congregational and Baptist association sought to become one for the purpose of evangelism in the Northeast, as well as Watts Street Baptist, a church in North Carolina that changed its baptism policy nearly forty years ago. After that, it will be a good time for me to offer some reflections on the current discussion.

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