You can’t set aside biblical teaching to be welcoming, and that applies to baptism

I saw the article on Desiring God yesterday titled Do Infant Baptisms Count? You can read it here. Of course, the whole article could have been reduced to a single word: no. But, to be fair, it probably requires at least a full sentence: no, and the folks at Desiring God need to ask themselves why they don’t demand of people in their churches something they sincerely believe Jesus demands of every believer in every church.

The two main points in the article centre around what is called the baptistic impulse and the catholicity impulse. Both can be dealt with straightforwardly and are not difficult issues really. The actual answer boils down, as ever, to this: what do we actually believe the Bible teaches and Jesus demands of his followers?

The Desiring God article insists that denying paedobaptists entry to membership in baptist churches leads to an inconsistency. It states my position effectively says, “We regard you as a believer, but we cannot receive you into membership in our church, nor welcome you to the Lord’s Table without your being (re)baptized as a believer. Your baptismal error is so significant that it bars you from membership, even though it doesn’t prevent us from being ‘together for the gospel.’”

But let’s be honest, we all recognise that Christians can exist without being baptised at all. These discussions would not be complete without a reference, at some point, to the thief on the cross. But even our paedobaptist brethren would (rightly) not welcome into membership somebody who has neither been sprinkled as a baby of professing believers nor baptised as a professing adult. But if we recognise that Christians can exist without being baptised at all (remember, thief on the cross), how are they not saying exactly this same thing that the Desiring God article accuses baptists of doing? No doubt the answer will come, but those people are not baptised in any form and aren’t being obedient to Christ on that issue. Well, what exactly do they think baptists are saying if it isn’t that? We don’t think paedobaptists have been obedient to Jesus on that issue. They may be sincere, they may genuinely believe it, but when all is said and done we do not think they have obeyed Jesus.

Isn’t there room for differences of opinion on this issue? Well, yes, in a sense there is. That is how catholicity works itself out. As I outlined here:

Isn’t the reality of catholicity that we acknowledge despite doctrinal differences, true churches still exist elsewhere? The point of catholicity isn’t that you can demand that my church agrees with all the doctrinal positions of your church. The point is that, though I cannot accept you as a member of this church, I nonetheless acknowledge you as a brother or sister who may belong to another church. We all place membership fences around more than kingdom essentials. Catholicity is not undermined by insisting on doctrinal distinctives, it actually finds its full expression in saying despite our doctrinal distinctives we can nevertheless acknowledge brothers who belong within different congregations whilst respecting their differing convictions. That necessarily includes not insisting they deny their view, because it is not your view, for the sake of catholicity.

This is not unlike the issue of the visible expression of the gifts in church. I don’t want to get into which is right or wrong here. I simply want to point out that you cannot have a church that both practices visible expressions of the supernatural gifts in church and somehow, at the same time, does not practice them. You either have people speaking in tongues and standing up to prophesy in your church or you don’t – there isn’t a way to do both. Let’s say you’re not a church that does those things. You can welcome those who believe they should be expressed into church membership – of course you can – but you can only welcome such people if they are willing to accept the gifts will not be on display and they are not to display them in your church. They have to submit to the position of the church.

By the same token, you can’t both insist that baptism by immersion upon profession of faith is the doorway to church membership and at the same time welcome in people who have not been baptised by immersion upon profession of faith. Those two positions are necessarily mutually exclusive. As soon as you welcome in those who are not so baptised, your position is necessarily undermined. The only way to welcome in convinced paedobaptists and maintain your position is to insist that they too must be baptised by immersion following a profession of faith to join. You cannot appeal to catholicity to resolve the issue because as soon as you welcome people in based on a catholic principle, you necessarily stop insisting on the baptist principle.

If we are being properly catholic, we will recognise that brothers and sisters who cannot abide by our baptist principles are still brothers and sisters. We may even – as we have recently done – help them plant their own churches in which they can abide by what they genuinely believe the bible teaches on these things. We can support them as brothers and sisters and work together in the gospel without compromising our belief that the Bible teaches the doorway to church membership is baptism upon profession of faith, and any water being applied before the existence of any faith is necessarily not baptism.

The Desiring God article also insists that we cannot welcome such people to the table unless they are (re)baptised. Of course, it really doesn’t take much to recognise that we don’t recognise that they have been baptised a first time! We aren’t refusing to welcome people to the table unless they are (re)baptised, we are refusing to welcome people to the table who have never been baptised and don’t believe they need to be. In exactly the same way as our paedobaptists brethren won’t welcome unbaptised people to the table, nor do we.

I am often surprised when baptists who make such arguments appeal to the conscience of the paedobaptist. They truly believe they have been obedient, they insist. Given their conscience, shouldn’t we – the stronger brothers – welcome them to church membership and to participate at the table? Except, that argument is never made the other way in respect to the conscience of baptist brothers and sisters who believe Jesus has clearly told us how baptisms ought to be administered, and to whom they should be administered, and it would be sin on our part to simply set that aside in the name of someone else’s conscience not feeling the need to do what we think Jesus says they must. As I argued more fully here, why does the conscience of the paedobaptist always have to override the conscience of the baptist?

Catholicity is frequently invoked as a guilt trip to set aside what we think the Bible teaches and Jesus demands on this issue. But there is nothing separating the logic of these arguments and someone insisting a church really ought to welcome an egalitarian minister on the same terms. They may genuinely believe egalitarianism is biblical. They may honestly think the bible is fine with women being elders and teaching in the church. But few complementarian churches would think catholicity means they must welcome them and include them on an eldership. Why? Because the church clearly believes the Bible teaches something else and welcoming others is not grounds to set aside the teaching of scripture. But if we accept the logic of welcoming paedobaptists into membership, when we are convinced the bible demands baptism by immersion following profession of faith, we have little defence against applying that same logic to other issues on which we believe the Bible speaks clearly. If we reckon the Bible to be our ultimate guide, and will not set aside lightly what we believe it actually teaches – no matter how unwelcoming some may believe it to be – we are on clearer ground elsewhere too.

Perhaps the final word should be left to a paedobaptist. When John Piper decided to take Mark Dever to task for his position on baptism and membership, he used Ligon Duncan as the live example. Would Dever be comfortable keeping Duncan outside of his church when he knows he is a brother in Christ? It was Duncan who replied. He said he would still rather go to Dever’s church over Piper’s because they were actually pressing in the direction they believe the Bible teaches whereas Piper was actively setting it aside. It was interesting that a paedobaptist could recognise the principle clearly enough. We either press into what we believe the Bible teaches, and wear the relational consequences, or we set them aside for the sake of welcoming others. But it doesn’t take a genius to see where setting aside the Bible’s teaching in order to welcome those who transgress it ends up – we have enough colourful flags on display in churches that have long since departed from gospel truth to give us a clue.