What do you look for before baptising somebody?

We have had the joy of hearing various testimonies of faith in the last week, all professing faith in Jesus. We are about to recommend these men and women from different countries to the church for baptism and membership. I wrote a little while ago about our process for doing that. Some people liked that (see here) while others really didn’t (if you have access to TwitFace you can see those sorts of comments there).

Of course, any process written down can seem more laborious than it is in reality. Some of the folks who got a bit upset about our process inferred a lot of things about it that just weren’t there. Though the process written down has 6 steps – with one stating a ‘set period of time’ – some people assumed we were taking years over this stuff. Doesn’t the Bible suggest there is a confirmation of a testimony and then – bish, bash, bosh (the assumed words of John the Baptist before every baptism) – into the drink they go? Doesn’t it only require a quick conversation to hear a testimony? Are we dragging out a process, looking for “fruit”, when the Bible doesn’t expect us to do that?

My gentle pushback is: what, exactly, do they assume we are looking for? When somebody recommends another person for baptism, they are doing so on the grounds they think this person has become a Christian because they have a credible testimony and understand the gospel (which they found out based on a conversation). When the elders speak to that person, we expect to hear a credible testimony and understanding of the gospel. We assume we will based on the recommendation we already received. When we give the church membership a bit of time (a week or two) to satisfy themselves that here is a Christian, they are looking to hear a credible testimony and understanding of the gospel. All of these things are discerned through basic conversations that don’t necessarily take ages.

The reason for our approach, as I explained in my previous post, is that the keys of the kingdom are given to the church. As such, we believe it is the church membership as a whole that affirms people as belonging to the visible church. It is, therefore, important for all members of the church to at least have the opportunity to hear a person’s testimony and understanding of the gospel so that they can meaningfully vote on whether to admit this person to membership. Church membership is, as Mark Dever helpfully put it, an assurance of salvation co-operative so the more people meaningfully engaged in the affirmation of genuine belief the better.

The means we have been given by Christ to affirm belief are the administration of baptism and communion. These are the marks of membership. To quote from my own church’s membership booklet:

Who belongs to the church?

All who truly believe by faith in Jesus Christ, the elect of God for whom Christ died, belong to the universal church. Scripture is clear that Jesus is the one who builds the church (Mat 16:18) and he died specifically for the church (Eph 5:25f); those chosen by God before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4f). This means salvation is entirely a work of God’s grace and is received by faith in Christ (Eph 2:8f).

By contrast, the local church is made up of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and have joined in membership through baptism. There are two reasons why baptism marks our entry into the local church. First, the Bible presumes that all Christians in the local church have been baptised (cf. Rom 6:3f). This presumption is rooted in Jesus’ universal command to be baptised as the visible sign of belonging to the church (Mat 28:19f; Act 2:38-47). Second, water baptism is the visible representation of the spirit baptism that has already taken place within the heart of the Christian (cf. Joh 3:1-8; 1Co 12:12f). Spirit baptism brings a person into membership of the universal, invisible church while water baptism brings one into membership of the local, visible church.

As such, the church affirms belief by bringing a person into membership of the visible church through baptism and re-affirms their ongoing standing in the visible church through the giving of communion. We do not see any biblical grounds to divorce baptism and communion from membership. Rather, we see baptism as the means of entry to the visible church and communion and the mark of ongoing membership of the visible church (see here). As Mike Gilbart-Smith rightly argues here:

Just as faith-producing Spirit baptism is the door to membership of the invisible body of Christ, so public water baptism is the door to the visible church.[1]

Christians across the centuries have recognised this. The question of “whom should we baptise” was identical to the question “whom should we admit to church membership”. So, when Thomas Shepard argues for infant baptism in seventeenth century New England, he entitles his treatise, “The Church Membership of Children.”[2]

Some suggested that the reason for my “problematic” position on baptism was because I “mistakenly” linked baptism with membership. But it is those who wish to divorce baptism and membership, treating them as two separate entities, who struggle to find any other example of entry to church membership other than baptism in either scripture or church history.

Which brings me back to our process. We have the process we do because baptism marks one’s entrance to the visible church. We, therefore, want to ensure that those entering the church are those the church has grounds to affirm as believers. Indeed, we believe it is the church to whom the keys of the kingdom are given, not just the elders or the pastor. Moreover, it is the membership, as a collective body, who are able to properly affirm belief because – as an assurance of salvation cooperative – the collective view of the entire church are affirming belief, not one individual. The grounds of affirming belief are: (1) a credible testimony; (2) understanding of the gospel message. Both can be easily and simply determined in a short conversation.

Does that, therefore, mean our process takes ages? It needn’t. Somebody in conversation with a person may come to the elders and recommend them for baptism. The elders may arrange – or have there and then – a follow up conversation which affirms the original recommendation. The elders can then give the entire church an opportunity to have any further conversations they wish to satisfy themselves (or to accept the recommendation of the elders on trust). Whilst we might need to give a short period of time for people to do that, we do not wish for baptismal candidates to be waiting an eternity. The whole thing can be turned around in a week easily enough, if we get our ducks in a row. The main thing that slows anything down is the availability of the baptismal candidate themselves to have any of these conversations!

In the end, we believe baptism follow a profession of faith. We believe those who profess faith are then added to the church in membership. The act of baptism brings one into church membership. If we believe (as baptists do) in regenerate church membership, it is important for us to protect the church by ensuring that we do not admit those who cannot credibly be considered believers. Further, it is deeply damaging to the unregenerate soul to be added to the church, affirmed as a believer, when they are not. We do not help anybody by letting them play church as an unbeliever. For these reasons, we believe it is important for the sake of the individual, and the church itself, that we are able to affirm someone as a believer based on their testimony and understanding of the gospel. It strikes me, if that takes a week or two longer than others, I believe we are only serving people better in the long run.