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All in the Family – Baptism 1

The belief and practice of a paedobaptist minister who leads a church with a mixed leadership and mixed membership. This is the first of four articles on the subject of Baptism as part of our “All in the Family” series.

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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.

The other articles on the subject of Baptism are from the viewpoint of…

You can download a combined PDF of the four papers under the image on the right hand side.

Introduction

Name: Richard Hagan

Viewpoint: A paedobaptist Minister, in a church with mixed leadership and mixed membership.

The church: Emmanuel Church Canterbury was planted in October 2009 by myself (a paedobaptist) and eight other adults (who differed in their views on baptism). From its beginning the church has sought to keep the gospel front and centre in its teaching and mission. The church has grown in part through conversions as well as through Christians uniting from different church backgrounds under the straightforward preaching of the gospel. The church has sought to avoid excluding anyone from membership or leadership because of a particular view on baptism. Almost half of the church is students (who make up half of the city’s population during term). They come from and will return to churches that hold different positions on baptism. It is not the ambition of the church to turn people from one view to another.

One retired Grace Baptist Minister who was at Emmanuel Church in the early days remarked how most of the Reformers and Puritans were paedobaptist and that he had much respect for them. Only in heaven, he said, would we know which of us was right, and at that time our hearts and minds would be taken up with the higher and greater privilege of worshipping Christ!

1) What are your views on the meaning and significance of baptism?

Water baptism was instituted by Christ in his Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. Membership of the visible church is to be marked by the outward sign of being immersed or sprinkled with water. The visible church is to be distinguished from the invisible church, the latter being only those who are elect, regenerate and will persevere to the end. Only the LORD knows those who are his, however credible someone’s profession of faith might seem to others. In Matthew 13 our Lord Jesus reveals what the visible church in the last days will look like. The parables of the Weeds and the Net show that the Kingdom of heaven on earth in the last days will be a mixed bag – there will be weeds mixed in with good plants and bad fish in the same net as good fish. Only when he returns with his angels in glory will the wicked and the righteous be distinguished unmistakeably. So, even under the new covenant, the visible church will be mixed.

Baptism is the sign and seal of entry into the visible church. It gets someone wet, but does not make someone regenerate and decide their eternal destiny. When done correctly, it acknowledges someone to be a member of the visible church.

2) Who are appropriate subjects of baptism, and what mode of baptism would you practice?

Appropriate subjects for adult baptism are those who show a credible profession of faith in Christ. The candidate is assessed for a clear understanding of the gospel message. This is done by asking them to write down their testimony without any help or guidance. We also look for a noticeable response in repentance and faith, and a counting of the cost. We would be swift to baptise after this, following the practice in the Book of Acts. Adult baptisms are conducted by full immersion in a paddling pool of the church car park. If there was for some reason a shortage of water (through a hole in the paddling pool or a hosepipe ban- [we have had both!]), the baptism would go ahead by sprinkling instead. We do not see the amount of water as essential to the meaning and purpose of baptism.

Unbaptised children can also be brought for baptism upon request. As they move from infant to child, a credible profession of faith suitable to their age would be expected. As a child grows from infancy, so does their responsibility to articulate and appropriate personally the faith of their parents.

The baptism of infants

Infants of believing parents would be welcomed for baptism on the basis of the unity of Scripture and the enduring covenant the LORD has with his people. In Genesis 17 the LORD gave Abraham and successive generations of faith an everlasting covenant. Each new generation was to be recognised as part of the covenant community by the circumcision of baby boys a week old. The child was presumed to be ‘in’ the covenant unless as they grew up they showed themselves to be ‘out’. At the time of Christ the outward sign of membership changed from circumcision to baptism as smoothly as the day for corporate worship moved from Sabbath to Lord’s Day.

The vast majority of Reformers and Puritans were paedobaptist and wrote extensively on this subject. John Calvin famously wrote:

“The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation [or administration]” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.10.2, p 429)

When Peter closed the deal in his Pentecost speech to fellow Jews he specifically mentioned that the offer of salvation and invitation to baptism extended to the children of his hearers (Acts 2:38-39). If the LORD had changed his attitude to children so that children of believers were now ‘out’ unless they were ‘in’ we would expect such a radical change to be discussed in the New Testament. Instead we find the opposite: entire households were baptised in the early church in a similar way that Abraham’s whole household was circumcised in Genesis 17. In Acts 16 both Lydia’s household and the Philippian jailer’s household were baptised. When Paul and Silas answered the jailer’s question “Sirs what must I do to be saved?”, their response is jarring to individualistic ears. As well as answering that he must believe in order to be saved, they state that through his faith, salvation would extend to his whole household. That same night he and all his family were baptised without any mention of the faith of others in his household. This is not strange at all when compared to Genesis 17:23. The Apostle Paul was keen to tell the Galatians that the promises to Abraham where unchanged by the later covenant with Moses (Galatians 3:17). It is no surprise then that his Corinthian readers would know of the holy status of the children of believing parents (1 Corinthians 7:14). A true understanding of paedobaptism reflects the Bible’s teaching on the corporate as well as the individual. Infants of believing parents are included alongside their parents in the church membership list. As children grow up and reach the age of majority, they appear as a separate entry.

It goes without saying that the infants of unbelieving parents are not admissible to baptism because faith is not in the parents and the covenant promises do not apply to them. This would be an abuse of infant baptism yet is a sad reality in some churches. Yet the abuse of infant baptism is not a reason for its cessation any more than the Catholic abuse of the Lord’s Supper is a reason for us not to administer the Lord’s Supper.

Parents who do not have paedobaptist convictions would on request be given the opportunity to have a Thanksgiving/Dedication, where the parents are dedicated, and the children are given thanks for – the parents dedicated to God in their responsibilities to bring the child up in the training and instruction of the LORD and public thanks are offered for the child’s safe arrival.

3) Does baptism mean automatic admission to the Lord’s Supper and church membership?

Children who believe are not automatically invited to receive the Lord’s Supper. They need credibly to profess faith in Christ (whether baptised or not) and articulate the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. I liaise closely with the child’s parents, recognising that in a church with mixed membership, parents will take different views on when their children should take part.

4) Do you require baptism for admission to the Lord’s Table or church membership?

Emmanuel Church allows all who repent of their sin and have faith in Christ to receive the bread and the wine. Baptism is encouraged as a precursor to this, but it is not a condition. This rests on the conviction that we are saved by faith plus nothing and we can be in the body of Christ without being baptised. Because the Lord’s Supper involves recognising the body of believers, the only reasons for excluding people from the Lord’s table would be unbelief, church discipline, or voluntary exclusion through the need first to be reconciled to a fellow Christian.

5) Would you ever “rebaptise”? i.e. Are there any forms of baptism you would regard as illegitimate and invalid?

When a paedobaptist changes in conviction to believer’s only baptism and asks to be rebaptised as an adult, that is allowable.

6) How do you handle those who change their views on baptism?

When members or leaders change their views on baptism (as I did from credobaptism to paedobaptism a number of years ago), there is no issue on membership or leadership.

7) Do you allow those with different convictions on baptism to join your church leadership?

Yes. In our church membership course we teach on what it means to be a ‘gospel centred’ church, distinguishing between matters of salvation and secondary matters. Any paedobaptist or credobaptist is capable of making baptism into another gospel by saying that someone is not truly saved unless they are baptised in a particular way or that their past baptism has some saving power. One week of the course we look at Galatians and teach how secondary issues can quickly interfere as primary and gospel issues unless our unity in the gospel of grace is taught clearly. We note how Paul got Timothy circumcised in Acts 16:3 to win the Jews, yet was rightly utterly inflexible in Galatians where Judaisers were compelling others to become circumcised. Anything can become a ‘gospel plus’ issue – even particular views on baptism! Another week we teach on Ephesians, explaining the doctrine of the universal church and its implications for how unity is preserved in the fellowship.

Our ambition for the church was characterised by a recent Sunday evening series on ‘hot potatoes’ where the Bible’s case for both views on baptism were laid out. The aim of the evening was to get people understanding the opposite view of baptism that they currently held, being able to articulate it so well that someone who held that view could agree entirely with their summary. It was revealing how great the misunderstandings were on both sides as we began, but refreshing to end the evening understanding each other better.

Click here to see the other articles in this series.

Footnotes

This article is not intended to represent the official FIEC belief on any matter outside of our Doctrinal Basis and accepted theological statements. Rather it has been written to draw attention to contemporary theological issues as well as stimulating theological engagement and healthy discussion.