The belief and practice of a credobaptist minister who leads a closed-membership baptist church. This is the final 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
- a credobaptist minister who leads a closed-membership church (this article)
You can download a combined PDF of the four papers above.
Name: Mike Gilbart-Smith
Viewpoint: A credobaptist minister who leads a closed membership church.
Church: Twynholm Baptist Church is an inner city multi-ethnic church is Fulham, West London. It was founded in 1893 as a Church of Christ church, believing not only that believers’ baptism by immersion is the only biblical baptism, but also that it is necessary for salvation. In the 1920s Twynholm left the Churches of Christ and became a baptist church, but has possibly had stronger sentiments on baptism than some other baptist churches, though nobody in the congregation now holds to its necessity for salvation.
1) What are your views on the meaning and significance of baptism?
In our church’s statement of faith we highlight five elements symbolised by baptism:
- Fellowship with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5)
- Belonging to Christ (Galatians 3:26-27)
- Forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16)
- Entry into his church (1 Corinthians 12:13)
- Commitment to God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:5, 1 Peter 3:21)
We do not believe baptism effects anything that it symbolises; rather Spirit baptism effects all of the above, including membership of the invisible church.
However, we do see baptism as highly significant in bearing public testimony to the baptism of the Spirit already received, and as obedience to a command given to all believers. It is a means of grace for the one being baptised, and a witness to the world of what it means to be a believer.
We also see baptism as the moment at which a believer becomes a member of the visible church. Water baptism is therefore the ordinance that makes the invisible church visible and necessary for local church membership.
2) Who are appropriate subjects of baptism, and what mode of baptism would you practice?
When Peter preached at Pentecost “Repent and be baptised” (Acts 2:38) we believe that the order is important. This is in continuity with John’s baptism, which was a baptism of repentance for those who bore fruit in keeping with repentance. Only those who are already members of the invisible church are properly to be members of the visible church.
Our statement of faith puts it like this: “Only those who profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the proper subjects of baptism.”
We also think that it is both permissible and wise to allow time for evidence of genuine repentance to be shown. We therefore hold baptismal classes where the responsibilities that go along with baptism are laid out. Once someone has completed the classes we interview candidates to ensure that they understand the gospel, and have come to repent and believe.
We would want to hear of some evidence of a changed life. We do not think that the fact that baptisms were fairly immediate in some instances in Acts means that we ought to baptise immediately upon someone’s profession of faith. There are various reasons why the situation there is different. Most significantly those being baptised in a context where baptism identifies one with the Messiah who was crucified under Roman rule through the pressure of Jewish religious leaders would clearly understand the cost of discipleship. This is not the case in a context where baptism does not automatically make one subject to persecution.
In the case of young children, we do not baptise them. We see the locus of discipleship for the children of believers as being the family rather than the church. As we see baptism as being closely linked to church membership, we do not think it appropriate for young children to be subject to the discipline of the church, but rather to be brought up by their parents in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Also, we do not think that it is helpful for the discipleship of young children of believers for us to try to discern whether their profession of faith is genuine and personal, or whether they are merely echoing their parents’ faith. We prefer not to try to separate these with young children, but, while giving encouragement for every sign of faith, we would allow time to tell as the child approaches adulthood before sealing that faith with baptism.
We practise baptism by immersion. Our statement of faith says “Immersion in water is necessary to the right administration of baptism”. Personally, I do not think that the baptism of a believer by some other mode (such as affusion or sprinkling) is invalid, but merely irregular.
3) Does baptism mean automatic admission to the Lord’s Supper and church membership?
Being baptised into Christ demonstrates our status as children of God (Galatians 3:26-28). Our clothing with Christ is the basis of our unity with each other. We are baptised not only into Christ (Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27), but also into his body (1 Corinthians 12:13). Thus, baptism and church membership are very clearly linked. Our normal practice therefore, is to baptise only those who will become members of our church. This is not automatic, but would usually follow almost immediately. Admission to the Lord’s Table would be one of the privileges of church membership.
If candidates are to become members of some other church, it would be more appropriate for that church to baptise them.
For people who feel that they want to be baptised but don’t feel ready to become church members, I would reply that one of the ways in which we discern whether someone is ready for baptism is whether they are ready for the responsibilities of church membership.
There is, of course, one clear example of a New Testament baptism where the subject for baptism does not become a member of a church: the Ethiopian Eunuch; yet this must be seen as the exception rather than the rule. He cannot join a church precisely because there is at the time no Ethiopian church for him to join.
Similarly, in a missionary situation, or in a situation where someone is about to leave the country and go somewhere where it might take some time for them to find a gospel preaching church, we might consider baptising someone and not taking them into membership. However, this would never be because we didn’t feel that they were ready for church membership. Church membership would always have to have been appropriated had they stayed in the area.
4) Do you require baptism for admission to the Lord’s Table or church membership?
The biblical order seems to be baptism, then church membership, then the Lord’s Supper. So Baptism is the initial sign of publically belonging to Christ; church membership is the community of those who belong to Christ, and the Lord’s Supper is the ongoing meal of those who belong to Christ.
Therefore we require biblical baptism for church membership (and by biblical, we understand this to mean believers’ baptism). There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, we believe that biblical baptism is the entry sign into the visible church, and we may not admit those who have not received this sign.
Secondly, because our view on baptism defines our view on what the church is (is it a body of believers only, or a mixed body of believers and their children?) we think that it is important for us to agree on what a church is in order to be a church together. We therefore do not admit conscientious paedobaptists into membership, whether or not they have personally been baptised as believers. We will not baptise their children, and we think it important that they find a church where they may practise their beliefs on baptism with a clear conscience.
If someone is not ready to be baptised they are certainly not ready to take the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper has stronger warnings than baptism associated with taking it (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). It is also not merely an expression of one’s individual trust in Christ’s death, but also a corporate meal. Therefore, there needs to be a church that takes responsibility for admitting someone to the Lord’s Supper. In my opinion local church membership is by definition the body of people who take responsibility for one another’s discipleship including admission to the Lord’s Table.
However, we are happy to share the Lord’s Supper with people from other gospel preaching churches who are visiting us. They would be doing so under the discipline of their own church and not ours. That church’s baptismal practice and their own baptismal status would not be a bar to them receiving the Lord’s Supper as a guest at our church.
5) Would you ever “rebaptise”? i.e. Are there any forms of baptism you would regard as illegitimate and invalid?
We would only regard as valid believers’ baptism practised under the authority of a local church.
Thus, if someone was not a believer at the time when they were baptised, then we would be happy to baptise them.
If they had professed faith when they were previously baptised but had subsequently concluded that the profession was false, we would be very cautious, and careful to hear their reasons as to why they are convinced that they were not actually a believer at the time. But we would in the end leave that up to their conscience.
We would not accept the baptism of churches whose official teaching denies the gospel (e.g. Roman Catholic, Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness) or private baptism that was not under the authority of any church, though we don’t think that the baptism must take place within the context of a church service.
6) How do you handle those who change their views on baptism?
All members of our church on joining the church must sign the statement of faith, which is explicitly baptistic. Like any other statement in the statement of faith, if someone is struggling as to whether they still believe that statement, we would take a long time (months if not years) to meet with them and talk through their struggles. But eventually if they come to a settled conclusion that they disagree with our statement of faith on this or any other item, we would encourage them to find a church where they might be able to practise their faith according to their own conscience.
7) Do you allow those with different convictions on baptism to join your church leadership?
We have some differing opinions among our leadership on minor issues (e.g. should we admit to membership those baptised as believers by sprinkling) but only credobaptists can be in our membership, let alone in our leadership.