A few days ago Justin Taylor alerted us to a slight change in Wayne Grudem's view on baptism, to which John Piper then responded. Wayne then posted his response to John's response, and one needed only to wait for the ripple effect. By the way, you can read these articles on Justin's blog in the archive section (http://www.theologica.blogspot.com/).
Recently (August 16, 2007), Mark Dever posted on this issue at the 9Marks blog (http://www.blog.9marks.org/). My primary concern is less with the question of the relationship between baptism and church membership (as important as that is) and more with a related topic that emerges in the course of discussion.
Let me take you back to the Together for the Gospel conference that was held in late April, 2006. It was hosted by Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and C. J. Mahaney, who also invited three others to deliver plenary messages: John Piper, R. C. Sproul, and John MacArthur. Registration for next year's conference is now open and I strongly urge you to attend. I will certainly be present.
After the conference was officially over, on Friday afternoon, there was a small gathering of some 75 people in one of the adjoining rooms at the Galt House Hotel. The purpose of this meeting was to address an issue that was raised last year by John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
To be brief, John has come to the conviction that the terms on which one enters the membership of the local church should be, generally speaking, as close as possible to the terms on which one enters the membership of the universal church. In other words, he grew increasingly unsettled by the fact that conscientious, born-again, Christ-loving, Bible-believing Christians who were only baptized as infants could not join his local church. It has been the policy of Bethlehem Baptist Church, a member of the Baptist General Conference, that in order to become a functioning member one must, among other things, be baptized as a believer. On this scenario, Ligon Duncan and R. C. Sproul, being Presbyterians, could attend but would not be permitted to join Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Piper's desire was to make it possible for individuals who had been baptized as infants, and believed it would be a violation of their conscience to be baptized as adults, to join his church. They would not, however, be permitted to hold a leadership position as an Elder in the local body. As of today, the issue at Bethlehem has been temporarily put on hold, pending further discussion and prayer.
Now, back to Louisville. Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and John Piper each began with a brief statement concerning their view on this proposed policy. Both Dever and Mohler, who are Southern Baptists, oppose it, while Piper and Duncan support it. But my primary concern is not with this policy per se, but with what happened in the course of discussion.
Let me be clear on one thing. I am a credo-baptist, not a paedo-baptist. That is to say, I believe that only those who believe in Jesus Christ should receive the ordinance of water baptism. I also believe that the proper mode of baptism is by immersion. Ligon Duncan, on the other hand, is a Presbyterian paedo-baptist. Because of this, both Mark Dever and Al Mohler made it clear that if Duncan were in attendance at either of their churches they would not permit him to partake of the elements of the Lord's Supper.
Let me repeat that. Because of Duncan's paedo-baptist convictions, both Dever and Mohler would prohibit his participation in the Eucharist. They would deny to him partnership in the table of our Lord. They would withhold the bread and the cup from him because of his disagreement with them on who are the proper recipients of Christian baptism.
As best I can tell (and I'm open to correction on this point), since Jesus clearly commanded (believer's) baptism, a paedo-baptist (says Dever in his recent blog post) is guilty of "disobedience" and "unrepentant sin" (however unintentional it may be) and is thus disqualified from participating in the Lord's Table.
Duncan believes that when an adult comes to faith in Christ he/she should be baptized in water (he prefers by effusion, but would acknowledge the validity of immersion). But he also believes that the infants of Christian parents should be brought to the baptismal font. I disagree with him on this latter point, but I'm disturbed that anyone would deny him access to the Lord's Table on such grounds.
I have tremendous respect for both Mark Dever (whom I count as a good, personal friend) and Al Mohler (although I don't know Dr. Mohler personally). Truly I do. They are both an incalculable blessing to the body of Christ. I also agree with them concerning the proper subjects of Christian baptism. But I find it remarkable that they would turn away Ligon Duncan from that ordinance of the church that above all else signifies and expresses the unity of the brethren in the body of Christ.
This may be offensive to some, but the claim to be "Together for the Gospel" rings a bit hollow to me when some would decline to fellowship with others around the Lord's Table because of their disagreement on the proper recipients of baptism.
Let's be sure we understand what the Eucharist is designed to communicate. Aside from differences of opinion concerning the nature of Christ's "presence" (whether physical, spiritual, or merely symbolic), there can be no mistake that this ordinance signifies, embodies, and expresses the foundational essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Before us are the elements of bread and wine that unmistakably represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ given on behalf of sinners like Ligon Duncan, John Piper, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and myself.
Jesus himself made it clear that the cup represented or pointed to or in some sense embodied "the forgiveness of sins" that would come from the saving efficacy of his atoning death (Matthew 26:28). In 1 Corinthians 11:26 Paul echoed this truth by telling us that every time we celebrate the Lord's Table we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." In other words, the Eucharist is a dramatic, visible, vocal enactment of the gospel itself. It stirs our hearts to meditate on Christ's redemptive work and is designed to stimulate the mind to reflect on the significance of all that he achieved on behalf of those for whom he died.
My question, then, is this: How can we claim to be "together" or "united" for the sake of the gospel and turn away a brother or sister from the very expression and proclamation of that gospel that is so central to the life and testimony of the church? What does this prohibition say to the world around us? What must they think of our professed "togetherness" or "unity" when the elements of the Eucharist would be withheld from a brother such as Ligon Duncan?
In effect, this is the message that is sent: "Ligon, we agree with you on the nature of the gospel. We agree with you that we must faithfully proclaim and preach the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and salvation by grace alone through faith alone in what he has accomplished on Calvary. But you cannot share with us the table of the Lord or the elements that represent and proclaim that gospel."
I'm sorry, but that doesn't sound to me like "together" or "united" or any such thing for the sake of the gospel. It sounds rather like a narrow sectarianism that fails to consider the unity of the one body as represented by the one bread (1 Corinthians 10:17). It sounds like the colossal loss of an excellent opportunity to deepen and strengthen Christian fellowship and bear witness to a lost and dying world both of the gospel itself and our unity that is grounded in it.
For some brethren to look at Ligon Duncan (or others in his camp) and say, "We believe the same gospel, we preach the same gospel, but we refuse to express that belief and proclaim that gospel with you by means of the ordinance that Jesus commissioned as an expression of our unity and our confident hope in its capacity to save," calls into serious question the significance of the word "together".
I hope none will conclude from this that I think the conference was a failure or was not beneficial to those in attendance. As I said, I plan on attending again in 2008. I hope none will think that Al Mohler and Mark Dever do not love their Christian brother, Ligon Duncan. Indeed, they would no doubt contend that it is precisely because of their love for him (among other reasons) that they feel compelled to hold firmly to their position. True love is never served by compromising the truth. There is no greater expression of love for another than the willingness to make painful and unpopular decisions for the sake of bringing an errant brother into the light.
One more thing should be noted. In his recent post, Dever indicated that he planned on having an Anglican and a Presbyterian preach from his pulpit in the near future. In the comment section of his blog, one person said: "The implication . . . is that there are people whom you are happy to have in your pulpit but not at the Lord's Table. That seems a little odd." Yes, it does.
In a similar vein, another comment asked: "why would you let someone in unrepentant sin be teaching the flock at Capitol Hill?"
Finally, more directly to the point of this article, the question was asked: "If your Anglican . . . friend were preaching in your pulpit on a Sunday where the Lord's Table was observed, would you exclude him from participating?" The answer, clearly, is that Dever would indeed exclude him from participating.
In fact, let's suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the Lord's Table is celebrated every Sunday at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (although I don't think it is). This would mean that Dever's Anglican or Presbyterian friend might conceivably preach a profoundly biblical message on the gospel of the dying and rising Christ and salvation through him alone, only to be told (if not in words then surely by the actions then taken) that he must sit to the side and refrain from receiving the elements that symbolize and embody the very dying and rising Christ whom he only moments before so faithfully and biblically proclaimed.
In this not unlikely scenario, the visiting paedo-baptist might even reinforce the truth of the gospel message by pointing to the elements on the table before him, articulating with passion and humility how the sacrifice of Christ's body and blood, here symbolized by the bread and wine, have secured for all Christians forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He would then, I suppose, be led away from the elements and told that although he is no less trusting in what they represent than are his credo-baptist brothers and sisters, he cannot partake with them in the supper.