Questions of conscience for Baptists and Paedobaptists alike

Yesterday, I published this post on the nature of conscience; what it is and what it means to sear someone’s conscience. One of the examples I landed on was that of conscience as far as it pertains to the question of baptism. I thought I would push that a little and ask some further questions of both paedobaptist and open Baptist brethren on that issue.

Just for clarity, let me define some terms. When I use the term Open Baptist, I am referring to those baptistic churches that, though they may practice believer’s baptism by immersion and no other form of baptism, they will admit convinced paedobaptists to membership of their churches i.e. those whom they do not recognise are properly baptised. When I refer to paedobaptists, I am speaking about those who gladly baptise non-professing infants. I would argue that the modern term ‘dual practice’ is, in point of fact, paedobaptist and make no distinction here.

So, to the respective questions on conscience.

To both the paedobaptist who would ask the Baptist church to admit them to membership, and the Open Baptist who would push to acknowledge the legitimacy of paedobaptism on the grounds of conscience, my question is this: why does the conscience of the one who believes they are baptised supersede the conscience of those who do not recognise it and cannot admit unbaptised believers to their church?

This is frequently how discussion on this topic is framed. The Baptist that believes the Bible demands a baptised membership is pushed to welcome the paedobaptist believer into membership on the grounds that they believe themselves to be baptised and their conscience will not bend to (on their view) being baptised again. The assumption is always that the church should bend to accommodate the one who will not be baptised. It is rarely accepted that the church – or the elders and members of that church – may have consciences held captive to the Word of God too, believing that it teaches credobaptism and that such is a requirement for entrance to the church of Christ.

If Paul’s comments on conscience have any weight in this discussion, Romans 14:22b-23 say:

Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever doubts stands condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith, and everything that is not from faith is sin.

In this scenario, the one who firmly believes it would be a re-baptism to be baptised by immersion now they are a professing believer has doubts about being baptised. According to Paul, to them it would be sin to be (on their view) re-baptised. But for the ones who seriously doubts that admitting unbaptised believers to the church is acceptable, it is a matter of sin for them to simply waive their concerns and do it anyway. If, as Paul seems to encourage us, forcing people to go against their conscience would be to force them into sin, can we reasonably resolve this standoff by insisting the Baptist does what they consider sin in order to avoid causing the paedobaptist to do what they consider sin?

For many, the church ought to bend to the conscience of the individual. But that seems to mistake that the church is made up of individuals who also have a conscience on this issue. Why should it be that the Baptist conscience must bend to accommodate the paedobaptist one?

The question has further implications for Open Baptists. In their case, their conscience appears to be okay with admitting paedobaptists to membership. They push baptism back to a question of ‘disputed things’ as per Paul in Romans 14:1.

The problem with this is that they don’t actually think it is a disputed thing. If they did, they would be dual practice (that is to say, actually paedobaptist) and conduct both. But they do take a position on what scripture says about how to do baptism and who it is for. And that being the case, how are they not acting in sin by admitting to church membership those who have not actually been baptised?

I should be clear that I am discounting those churches that, though baptistic, do not make baptism a criteria for membership at all. So, the paedobaptised infant who has grown up to believe, the credobaptised believer and the unbaptised new believer can all join the church on the same terms i.e. baptism is not relevant. That position is consistent on the question of baptism itself, but if they practice baptism at all, it begs the question how and why they admit people to membership who are openly disobedient to Christ in (at least) the third of those ways; disobedient in ways both paedobaptists and baptists would recognise as sinful? It also raises the issue of why no church – barring a handful of independent in the last few decades – have ever reached that understanding on the ordinances and the nature of membership? It also has lots of implications for their ecclesiology. But relegating baptism itself to a tertiary matter that has no bearing on membership – regardless of what problems that creates – does at least allow a consistent line across the board; that is, everybody can become a member if they wish.

But for the Open Baptists who believe in a baptised membership, and believe in a specific mode of baptism as legitimate, how can they consistently admit to membership those whom they do not recognise as baptised? How is this not acting against their own conscience on this issue?

Some would argue that we need to accept the possibility that we might be wrong on this issue and extend grace to those who sincerely disagree. Whilst that has the appearance of humility, it falls under the weight of its own illogicity. At the end of the day, despite what they claim, the Open Baptists (along with the paedobaptists and the Baptists) don’t think they are wrong. And, of course, if we extend that logic, where does that leave any of our theology? If we even admit the possibility that we might be wrong on any given theological issues, are we then obligated to set it aside even though we are almost certainly convinced of a particular position? The so-called humble stance drives a coach and horses through any stance we might take. If you believe baptism is by immersion following a profession of faith, how does an appearance of humility allow you to set that aside when that is specifically what you think? As Luther said, to go against conscience (that is, what we know to be true) is neither right nor safe.

For the paedobaptist who believes that children of believers ought to be baptised, whilst you might happily admit a baptised adult, how is it possible for you to continue to welcome a family who will not do this? If your conscience tells you that the children of believers should be baptised, how does your conscience permit into membership someone, like me for example, who would not baptise my children because my conscience – based on what I read in scripture – will not allow me to do so? How can I meaningfully join your church and not be immediately be put out of it for refusing to do what you believe the Lord commands; that is, continuing (on your view) in unrepentant sin? How is it not a matter of sin for you to allow me to continue in unrepentant sin (as you judge it) and yet not face any church discipline over the matter? It is particularly difficult for those of us who write such things into our confessions of faith (be it the XXXIX, WCF or 1644/89 Baptist Confessions) to relegate such things to the level of tertiary importance.

I maintain, as I briefly noted yesterday, that the clearest and simplest way for everybody to avoid sin (and that is what Paul explicitly says it is to go against one’s conscience) is to encourage each other to find churches that will affirm our particular stance. Rather than force a Baptist church to recognise, against their conscience, what is not a baptism, it is better for the one who believes they are already baptised to find a church that will recognise them as such. Rather than force a paedobaptist, against their conscience, to be re-baptised (as they judge it) we are better encouraging them toward a church that recognises their baptism. Rather than forcing a paedobaptist church to allow a family with unbaptised children to continue (in their view) to defy the Lord, we are better encouraging them to a church where that decision is recognised as biblical. It does not strike me as at all unloving to do these things. Indeed, in the final analysis, how can we consider it to be loving people well to comfort them in what we consider to be sin? How can it be loving people well to allow them to do what we firmly believe the Lord says the should not do?

A brief word, finally, on what happens when there are no such churches to which we can send people. We may not recognise their baptism, but there is no gospel preaching paedobaptist church to which we can send them or we may not want to affirm their unbaptised family but there is no baptistic church that believes the gospel where they can go. In such situations, we are forced into one of two positions (as individuals). We either accept that to be in membership of a local church, we may have to go somewhere sub-optimal and lump it. Or, we remain outside of membership in the church that cannot welcome us. In my view, the latter of those two is preferable. I would go to the gospel-preaching church who in conscience cannot admit me. I would rather receive helpful teaching out of membership than unhelpful teaching, possibly even submitting to sin, in membership. I would trust that the Lord would rather I went to a church I wanted to join, despite that it could not admit me, that honoured him in other ways, than he would have me go to a church that would teach heresy or lead me to sin as an active member. I do not doubt such situations crop up at times, but I am not sure they are quite as common as some would have us believe.