The belief and practice of a credobaptist minister who leads a baptist church with open membership. This is the third of four articles on the subject of Baptism as part of our All in the Family series.
The aim of the All in the Family series is to explore the breadth of belief and practice that exists amongst FIEC churches on matters that our Doctrinal Basis doesn't touch on and yet are important in church life.
For each subject we ask a variety of church leaders to respond to the same questions, with an emphasis on seeing how belief shapes practice in a local church.
In this collection on Baptism, the viewpoints are:
- a paedobaptist minister who leads a church with a mixed leadership and mixed membership
- a credobaptist minister who leads a dual practice church
- a credobaptist minister who leads an open membership church (this article)
- a credobaptist minister who leads a closed-membership church
You can download a combined PDF of the four papers above.
Name: Bill James
Viewpoint: A credobaptist minister who leads a baptist church with open membership.
Church: Emmanuel Church, Leamington Spa, was constituted in 1986. Our elders and deacons subscribe to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and this is the teaching standard of the church. While teaching a baptist position, and practising believer's baptism by immersion, we operate an “open membership” policy, welcoming believers who are convinced of a paedobaptist position.
Baptism is a command of the Lord Jesus Christ for all believers, not to be minimised or neglected. We need to understand the Bible's teaching on baptism, practice it faithfully and consistently, and rejoice in it as a demonstration of the salvation we enjoy in Christ. However, at Emmanuel we appreciate that there are godly believers with different convictions about this ordinance; some hold that believers should baptise their infants. While we disagree, we don't want to make our differences a stumbling block to Christian fellowship. If we were completely consistent about our baptist principles we would only welcome baptised believers to membership and the Lord’s Table. But if we did this we believe we would be inconsistent on the principle of Christian love and unity. So we operate an “open membership” policy.
1) What are your views on the meaning and significance of baptism?
The Lord Jesus Christ defined the mission of the church as making disciples of all nations, baptising them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, in obedience to Jesus’ command, and following the example of the early church in the book of Acts, we immerse believers in water as a sign that they have become disciples of Jesus Christ.
Baptism signifies that the believer has been united with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3), and thus enjoys the benefits of:
- Forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16 “be baptised and wash your sins away”)
- Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 10:47)
- Spiritual new birth (Colossians 2:12-13)
- Adoption as a son of God in Christ (Galatians 3:26-27)
- Union with the Body of Christ, the church (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 4:5)
Baptism is therefore a great celebration of the saving work of God in someone’s life. It has significance for the baptismal candidate as the means which God has ordained to testify to repentance towards God and faith in Christ. And it is a powerful demonstration to the church and the world of the benefits and blessings of salvation in the life of the believer.
At Emmanuel we have enjoyed many baptismal services as opportunities for the gospel to be preached, and visibly demonstrated in baptism. It is a reminder to believers of our own baptism, and stirs us to rejoice again in what Christ has done in our lives, and to recommit ourselves to Him. The apostles clearly expect that believers will be able to recall their own baptism and its significance, and that this will spur us on in our own discipleship (Romans 6:3).
Believer’s baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, points to the central importance of the gospel to the life of the church. Baptism reminds us that it is only through the Good News of Christ's finished work, received by faith, that we join God’s people. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that it is only through looking to Christ crucified and depending on Him that we persevere together until glory.
2) Who are appropriate subjects of baptism, and what mode of baptism would you practice?
Jesus commanded baptism to be administered to those who have become his disciples. The example of the early church was to baptise those who had come to faith in Christ, responding to the message of the Gospel, e.g. Acts 8:12 “when they believed... they were baptised.” It is a mark of those who have repented of sin and turned to Christ, e.g. Acts 2:38 “Repent and be baptised...”; it is for those who have “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
As seen earlier, baptism is inseparable in the minds of the apostles from the blessings of forgiveness, new birth, Spirit baptism, and adoption. It is a mark of those who have been united to Christ by faith. Indeed, so close is the association between baptism and Christian conversion that the apostle Peter speaks of “baptism that now saves you” (1Peter 3:21).
Paedobaptists would argue that the promises were made to Abraham “and his seed”, i.e. physical descendants, and so we should baptise the children of believers. But Paul makes clear that the seed of Abraham is Christ (Galatians 3:16), and we become the seed of Abraham not by physical birth, but by faith in Christ (Galatians 3:29). When households were baptised in the New Testament, it is because all members of the household had come to faith in Christ.
We therefore baptise on “credible profession of faith” in Christ. We ask if the candidate understands the message of the gospel, and has a love for Christ. We look for signs of a new attitude towards the Lord, and a desire to live for Him. It is not for us to determine if someone is “elect”. But we follow the biblical pattern of looking for repentance and faith, discipleship of Christ, as the marks saving grace. If we see those marks we seek to baptise without undue delay.
We do not baptise children until they reach at least their mid-teenage years. Scripture teaches us that children are immature in understanding, and will generally follow the lead of their parents. The children of good parents “believe” (this is a qualification for eldership Titus 1:6). So while we encourage faith from an early age, we wait until the child demonstrates some independence from parents before accepting a credible profession of faith. Just as we would not allow a child to marry, so we cannot expect a child to understand the commitment of Christian discipleship or to accept the responsibilities of church membership at an early age.
Regarding mode of baptism, the Greek word baptidzo means literally to immerse or dip. We therefore practise baptism by immersion, and it best expresses the significance of the ordinance: union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection; washing away sins; immersion in the Holy Spirit; and spiritual new birth, rising to a new life. It is a very powerful image. Just as God saved Noah through the waters of the flood, and the children of Israel through the Red Sea (the waters in both cases symbolising death and judgment), so the believer emerges from the waters of judgement by virtue of Christ’s finished work to live a new life (1Peter 3:21-22).
3) Does baptism mean automatic admission to the Lord's Supper and church membership?
As we have already seen, baptism is a mark of those who have been united to Christ. Having been united with Him, we are also united with His people, the church. We are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Spirit baptism (signified by water baptism) goes hand in hand with membership of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13).
So, at Emmanuel, when someone is baptised they automatically become a church member, and are welcomed to the Lord’s Table. This was also the practice of the early church (Acts 2:41) – to be baptised is to be added to the number of the church.
4) Do you require baptism for admission to the Lord's Table or church membership?
At the Lord’s Supper we give a call welcoming those who have been baptised according to their understanding of the Scriptures. So, while the call is broad enough to embrace those who have different views of baptism, we recognise the importance of baptism in coming to the table.
The Lord’s Supper is for believers; we gather to express our unity in Christ as God’s family, and celebrate what He has done for us at the cross. Baptism is the mark of those who have become disciples, united to Christ. If someone is unbaptised, are they unconverted? If they are converted and unbaptised, they are in clear disobedience of the Lord’s command to be baptised. To invite the unbaptised to the table would be contrary to both the Scriptures and the historic practice of the church through the centuries.
Sometimes it is suggested that we should welcome children to the table before they are baptised. Our response is that if they are able to make a credible profession of faith in Christ, then they should be baptised as their first act of obedience to Him. If they are unable to make a credible profession then they should not come to the table. The Lord’s Supper is not a “private” ordinance. It is a demonstration of our unity in Christ; we recognise the Lord’s body as we look around at other believers at the table who have testified to their common faith in baptism.
Just as we welcome convinced paedobaptists to the Lord’s Supper, so we also welcome them into church membership. While we hold a baptist understanding of the Scriptures, we do not want this to be a barrier to Christian fellowship for those who take a different view. Our practice is expressed in these words: “For the sake of spiritual unity, applications for church membership will be considered from those who have been baptised as infants, provided that they have been the subjects of infant baptism in a church with which we could expect to enjoy evangelical Christian fellowship.”
This does not mean that we accept infant baptism as valid, Biblical baptism. But we accept such members because we love them in the Lord and want to express spiritual unity. We ask paedobaptist members to respect the position of the church, and so not to propagate their views actively in the fellowship.
5) Would you ever “rebaptise”? i.e. Are there any forms of baptism you would regard as illegitimate and invalid?
We believe that the biblical understanding of baptism is by immersion for believers, and this is our only practice at Emmanuel.
Sometimes believers have been baptised as infants, and were convinced that this was a valid baptism. However, when they come to request membership, or perhaps some years after they have joined the church, they change their views. In these circumstances we are happy to baptise them. We do not consider this to be rebaptism, because we do not believe that their original “baptism” was biblically valid. Similarly, if someone has been “baptised” in a situation where there was a clear misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel, or of baptism, we would baptise them. This would be similar to the case of the Ephesians who had received John’s baptism but never heard of the Holy Spirit; Paul baptised them into the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts19:1-7).
If someone doubts whether they were truly converted when they were baptised, we would consider their situation. Perhaps they were baptised as a child or in a setting where they did not understand the nature of Christian faith or baptism. However, we would proceed with great caution in such cases; baptism is not to be repeated simply because we now have better understanding or greater assurance of faith.
6) How do you handle those who change their views on baptism?
If someone joined Emmanuel, but then came to paedobaptist convictions they would of course be able to continue in church membership. We would not baptise their infants. If a paedobaptist came to baptist convictions we would gladly baptise them.
7) Do you allow those with different convictions on baptism to join your church leadership?
Our elders and deacons are all baptist by conviction and practice, and subscribe to the Baptist Confession of Faith (1689).
To operate a leadership with mixed convictions on this issue or to operate “dual practice” is essentially a paedobaptist position – baptising both believers (converts) and infants. It involves a different view of the nature of the church.
In all of this we are conscious of our fallibility. But we seek, before the Lord, to be faithful both in following the biblical teaching on baptism, and in our expression of love and unity to those of differing convictions.