Why do we have the baptismal process we do?

We are just talking with somebody about potentially baptising them. In fact, we have a series of people at slightly different stages of our process. Our process usually runs this way:

  1. Initial interview/discussion with a church member
  2. Follow up interview/discussion with church elders
  3. Commendation to the church
  4. Set period of time for the church to have personal discussions
  5. Ratification by the church membership
  6. Baptism & welcome to membership

Each step of the process must happen before anyone may progress onto the next step.

Some might look at this and think it all a bit unnecessary. But we always explain it the same way and most people recognise exactly why this is the process in the end. We are, as Mark Dever has helpfully put it, running an ‘assurance of salvation co-operative’.

For us, baptism is an affirmation on behalf of the church that here stands a believer. Whenever we are baptising someone, there is both a profession and an affirmation. First, there is the profession of the individual claiming to be a believer. Second, there is the affirmation from the church. The first is saying I have trusted in Jesus, understand the gospel and now believe it. The second is agreeing, and affirming, that they have trusted Jesus, understand the gospel and now believe it.

For this reason, we do not believe it is enough for a person to simply ask to be baptised and claim to love Jesus. It is very easy to delude ourselves into thinking we’re saved when we’re not. The Bible is full of warnings about our own self-deception. It is important that our faith is not merely a private thing, but is something that can be affirmed by other believers.

We believe Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to the church (cf. Matthew 18:18). Jesus has given the church the authority on earth to affirm and deny genuine belief. That is, fundamentally, why Jesus made baptism a church ordinance. He is calling the church to affirm belief in genuine disciples through baptism. He did not vest this authority in personal feelings, nor in clerics, but in the church itself.

As such, we believe it is the church’s task to affirm genuine belief. It is the role of the entire church to welcome people into membership through baptism (affirming the faith of the individual) and to remove people from membership when it becomes apparent they are not genuine believers (denying the faith of the individual). Baptism, being the one time affirmation of faith from the church, is followed by admission to the Lord’s table, the ongoing affirmation of faith by the church. Both are signs of belonging to the church; signs of membership.

Given this affirming role, when people join the church, we are serving to assure them of their faith. It is easy to convince ourselves we are genuine believers, when we aren’t. It is slightly harder, but not all that difficult, to convince another person too. But it is much harder to convince 25 or more individuals that you are a genuine believer if it isn’t true. Harder still when they are a church steeped in the gospel and busy in evangelism. For such a church to affirm your profession of faith should act as strong evidence that your faith is genuine.

This is why we have the process that we do. We want church members to affirm a profession of faith, sending it on to the elders for their affirmation who then – having commended this person – give the rest of the church opportunity to make whatever enquiries they deem appropriate too. The reason for this is so that they can affirm the faith of this particular person in reality. This means, by the time we come to vote on taking a baptism forward, the entire church should be in a position to affirm or deny the faith of this individual. It also widens the net of affirmation. There may be things in this person’s life that the elders may not see, but other church members do that may affect our perception. This process means the entire church need to be convinced.

There are two reasons for this. First, as discussed, it is for the assurance of the individual. The more people convinced of the genuineness of faith, the more credible their profession. It is harder to fool a larger number of people. But second, this is also for the protection of the church. We believe in regenerate church membership. Whilst we recognise that the church will makes mistakes and those found to have made false professions will be within our ranks, we want to minimise this. That is why the church wants to affirm belief before baptism and why we practice meaningful church discipline after baptism. Our goal is for local church membership to reflect universal church membership. Both the assurance of the individual and the integrity of the church are at stake.

So, we follow the process laid out above. We want the individual to be assured of their faith as the church affirms their belief and we want to the church to be protected from those who make false professions, so far as it is possible.

Of course, even where we say ‘no’ to people that is not the end of the road for them. It merely flags up that they haven’t yet understood the gospel and, in our judgement, come to know Jesus Christ. But it is our desire not to leave that person there, but to bring them to a point where they have understood it, trusted Christ and can be baptised and joined to the church in membership. In the end, our aim is to baptise and welcome everyone into church membership. We can only do that when they have trusted Christ personally. Nevertheless, we either affirm their belief and baptise them, or we don’t and seek to bring them to a point where we can.