On conscience clauses and valid baptisms: a reply to Dave Williams

Dave Williams has written an article here on having a conscience clause for paedobaptists in baptistic churches. He name checks something I wrote here. I thought I’d write a response to Dave and pick at a few holes I perceive in his argument.

Let me be clear about my position. I believe baptism ought to be by full immersion on profession of faith. I can accept that sprinkling a professing believer as an irregular baptism (that is, it ought not be done but isn’t totally invalidated). However, I believe the immersion or sprinkling of an individual who has not personally professed faith i.e. infant baptism or those who have professed a false gospel i.e. baptism in a Mormon church is an invalid baptism. So, sprinkling might be irregular whereas a lack of gospel profession always renders invalid. That is to say, professed faith is a Baptist bottom line.

I would simply define sin as anything that deviates from God’s commands in word, thought or deed. Sin remains sin whether committed or omitted, done knowingly or unknowingly, and irrespective of whether it is wilful, in full knowledge of sinfulness, or a result of sincere belief that nonetheless departs from God’s Word. By that definition, a wrong approach to the question of baptism is a matter of sin. We may recognise it is based upon sincerely held belief, not committed knowingly but honestly in line with considered theology. Nevertheless, someone who is not baptised in a way that God’s Word considers valid is rightly considered in sin. Just as somebody who doesn’t baptise their infant children, if that is what God’s Word demands, should rightly be considered in sin. If they have deviated from God’s command, we call it sin.

I wanted to be clear about those positions because what follows inevitably rests on them. If baptism is the God-ordained door to the church, we cannot allow anyone to enter who has not been baptised. That would be to deviate from God’s Word and commit sin. It is sinful for a person not to be baptised; the Lord will hold them responsible for their own refusal. However, it is sinful for churches to admit the unbaptised to membership and the Lord will hold the church responsible for its own faithfulness. So, defining baptism clearly, along with the question of sin, is really important because we don’t want to address sin with further sin. That is, the sin of an unbaptised person not being in membership should not be addressed by the sin of admitting them to church membership without their being baptised.

Dave argues that a lot of baptistic churches offer a conscience clause for paedobaptists. That is true. A number of churches that recognise believer’s baptism as valid – and who would not conduct paedobaptisms because they deem them minimally irregular – are happy to welcome paedobaptists into membership. They argue this is a concession on conscience grounds.

Dave offers an example from a previous church he attended, but insists ‘occasionally people were admitted to membership who had been baptised in infancy. We would not have welcomed into membership someone who had not been baptised at all.’ He goes on to highlight a church planted by one of Spurgeon’s students whose original constitution stated, ‘if someone agreed in all other matters but differed on paedobaptism then we would offer the right hand of fellowship.’ He goes on to state, ‘The question then becomes “on what basis are we willing to include people who have not received believers’ baptism.”’

Of course, the problem I have – based on my previous definitions – is that I do not recognise those people as baptised. Much as a I would love to welcome them into membership, and I can see that they might be wonderful members in many ways, they are not validly baptised. The question Dave poses is not the right one. He says we ought to ask, how do we include those who have not received believers baptism? But, if to not receive believers baptism is to not be baptised, then the question is – in point of fact – how do we include those who have not been baptised at all. That is a question Dave says would be inappropriate because unbaptised people shouldn’t be permitted into the church.

Dave states, ‘Steve seems to assume that it is always because we are willing to let people in that we consider not to be baptised and that this is in effect allowing the local church to be dictated to by one person’s conscience.’ But I haven’t ever quite said that. I have said Baptists do not consider such people baptised. Baptists are, by definition, those who only acknowledge credobaptism as valid baptism. This means either you are a Baptist church who is admitting people to membership whom you do not recognise as baptised; or, you are not actually a Baptist church (even if you call yourself ‘baptistic’) admitting people to membership whom are not credo-baptised, but you nonetheless recognise as validly baptised. Many of the Baptist churches I know, that insert conscience clauses, are the former. Many independent baptistic churches are the latter. Based on Dave’s own definition in his article, he would seem to fall into the latter camp. I don’t think this ought to be a controversial observation.

Dave spends the rest of his article pointing out how and why he does consider some paedobaptised people to be validly baptised. I don’t share his view and don’t find his case very compelling. In fact, his position looks self-defeating to me, even if it is sincerely and honestly held.

Dave acknowledges that, biblically, there is no case for paedobaptism. He calls the arguments ‘weak’ at best, going on to say they are ‘obviously very weak to the point of being non-existent’. Nevertheless, he says ‘I allow for the possibility that a paedobaptist is doing what they believe to be obedient to Scripture.’

The fact is, I also allow for the possibility that a paedobapatist is doing what they believe to be obedient to scripture. I acknowledge they are not wilfully sinning and baptising non-professing kids in direct contravention of what they believe the scriptures to teach. The problem is neither Dave nor I believe that is what scripture teaches. We believe they are sincerely wrong. Based on my definition of sin above, that doesn’t absolve the problem of unknowing, sincere sin on their part and, if admitting them to our church, knowing and wilful sin on ours. If it is sin to depart from what God’s Word teaches – and we as a church sincerely believe that God’s Word does not teach infant baptism – then it is, necessarily, sin for us to admit to the church those who have not (on our view) been baptised. Dave states, ‘it isn’t just the individual’s conscience that is at stake.’ Well, I agree. The church has to do what it believes scripture teaches. Simply allowing a conscience clause does nothing to overcome the objection that it rides roughshod over the church’s conscience on valid baptism. It does not overcome the issue of unknowing sin on the part of the paedobaptist and, worse, wilful sin on the part of our churches if we admit them in the face of what we believe the Bible teaches.

Again, Dave would shoot back that he would recognise this as a valid baptism. But he insists, ‘I am convinced both that believers’ baptism by immersion is the correct way to do baptism and that it is important.’ He goes on and say he would not conduct a paedobaptism and make his church dual practice. But if he really does believe paedobaptism are valid baptisms, there really is no reason why not?

If paedobaptisms are recognisable as baptisms at all, there must be some occasions where he would consider doing them. Take sprinkling as a counter-example. If sprinkling a professing believer ought not to be done, but is potentially valid yet irregular, there must be some occasion where I might be pushed to conduct a baptism that way recognising it isn’t what ought to be done in the ordinary run of things, but circumstances necessitate it and make it genuinely irregular. If I can’t think of any circumstances under which I would do it, then it is not only irregular, but invalid. I can see in some situations under serious persecution, for example, that a sprinkling or pouring on a professing believer might be an irregular but valid means of baptism. Indeed, if I sign off sprinkling every time, that conversely suggests I do not consider it irregular at all, but entirely acceptable. It cannot even be considered irregular if, in fact, I gladly sign it off regularly.

Unless Dave can offer a similar example of when he might conduct a paedobaptism, making it irregular but valid, he doesn’t actually consider it irregular at all. He is simply laying aside his position that it is an invalid baptism. If he happily allows paedobaptists into membership with regularity, he is in fact affirming paedobaptism itself as both regular and valid. He cannot simultaneously argue that it is a wrong mode of baptism, that he would never countenance conducting under any circumstances, whilst at the same time insisting this is a valid mode of baptism. It simply cannot be both.

The problem here is that this can only be justified by pushing it back to saying baptism simply isn’t important. But Dave wants to insist it is important and baptism really matters whilst simultaneously permitting into membership those he claims are baptised whilst repudiating everything about their baptism. That strikes me as a nonsense.

He goes on to try and distinguish the recognition of an Anglican paedobaptism from a Presbyterian one. Having made a slightly odd analogy to cake, Dave argues ‘our assumption is in effect that the baptism was incomplete and therefore invalid until the person professed faith but that this profession in effect retrospectively validates and completes the baptism.’ He, interestingly, argues that he would not recognise a Catholic paedobaptism because he does not recognise Catholic churches as true churches. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the Reformers largely did acknowledge Catholic paedobaptism. They argued that a trinitarian baptism made it valid and, despite the Catholic Church not being a true church, made a similar argument about faith catching up later. The Reformers used pretty much the same logic as Dave to welcome Catholics who had converted to Protestantism and accepted their baptism as valid. It is difficult to see how Dave can avoid this conclusion if the baptism is only invalid until the faith catches up.

His reason for rejecting Presbyterian paedobaptism suffers from the same issue. If paedobaptism is ever valid, why should the faith that catches up later not also be applied in their case? If Presbyterian churches are true churches – which seems to be the grounds on which Dave wants to argue their paedobaptism is valid – why should their faith coming later not also count? Similarly, why should that not also be the case for a Catholic who later professes faith and repudiates their Catholic teaching? Hasn’t their faith just caught up with the reality of their baptism? Their parents might have believed the water conveyed grace to their child, but now they have true saving grace, why should it any less act as a picture of what has now become the reality? That would at least have the merit of standing in the Reformed tradition.

One problem from Dave’s article is that he doesn’t actually define baptism. What, in his view, is the essence of baptism? What is the ground for recognising one baptism as valid and another invalid? As I define it, the fundamental bottom line of a baptism is personal professed faith. Without it, no baptism has taken place. As such, I cannot recognise any paedobaptism and do not see any grounds in scripture for recognising them either. Without a clear line on what baptism actually is – and some evidence from scripture that this can legitimately be set aside – it is hard to see how Dave’s case for accepting as valid what he otherwise says is not valid really makes much sense.