Baptist sectarianism vs. Reformed catholicity
During my previous pastoral charge I was actively involved in an area evangelical ministers’ fellowship. I was the only Presbyterian in this group of mostly Baptist (or baptistic leaning) pastors. Despite the fact that I was the oddball in the group (I believe I was the only pastor in this group who accepted the practice of infant baptism), nevertheless these brothers in the ministry were a source of great encouragement to me. While in our conversations we would sometimes humorously discuss our differences on the baptism question (I used to get some laughs when I would joke with them by saying, “You guys think our view of baptism is sprinkled with error, but we think your view of baptism is all wet!”), I was always welcomed and regarded by these brethren as a fellow servant of Christ. Once I was even invited to participate in an ordination council, where a young man in one of the independent churches whose pastor was involved in our ministerium was being examined for ordination; and I was privileged to participate in asking theological questions at this young man’s ordination exam. (I found it interesting to observe how the pastors in this ministerium who pastored independent churches behaved virtually like presbyterians in their ordination council; indeed, in spite of their professed independency they felt the pull of and saw the wisdom in a quasi-presbyterian connectionalism when it came to examining men for the gospel ministry.)
I bring up this bit of autobiography at the beginning of this post to stress the fact that I love and esteem my Baptist (and baptistic) brothers and sisters in Christ, and count some of them as my friends and fellow servants in the gospel. I want the reader to understand that this post is not intended as a personal diatribe against my baptistic brethren. Many of them are fine Christians and faithful servants of Christ. I also want the reader to understand that when I speak of “Baptist sectarianism,” I am not implying that all Baptists are personally guilty of displaying an exclusive, narrow or sectarian spirit. (Indeed, as noted in the first paragraph, most baptistic believers that I have had the privilege of getting to know have treated me with the utmost of respect, viewing me not only as a fellow believer, but as a fellow servant of Christ.) I am not speaking of Baptist people as being sectarian; rather, I would suggest that the Baptist position on “believers only baptism” is inherently sectarian, and hence contrary to the biblical catholicity of the visible church. (I am using “catholic” here in the positive sense of “universal,” referring to that which pertains to the church universal.)
The sectarianism of the Baptist position is that, when taken to its logical end, the Baptist doctrine of the church logically “unchurches” everyone who has not received “believers only baptism” (“credobaptism”), thereby (in effect) excommunicating them as well. Since the consistent Baptist position regards those who were “baptized” only as infants to be, in reality, unbaptized (Baptists regarding infant baptism to be invalid baptism, and hence no genuine, biblical baptism at all); and since the consistent Baptist view would exclude from the Lord’s Table those who are not (from their viewpoint) properly baptized (since in Scripture only the baptized are invited to the Lord’s Supper under the new covenant, just as only the circumcised could partake of the Passover under the old covenant); therefore the effect of the Baptist position, when taken to its logical end, is to excommunicate (= exclude from holy communion) all Christians who were “baptized” only as infants. Not only that, but the Baptist position, when carried out consistently, also “unchurches” all Christian “churches” which do not practice credobaptism (= “believers-only baptism”) but which instead practice paedobaptism (= “infant baptism”). Since baptism is an ordinance of the visible church, and since (from a consistent Baptist perspective) paedobaptist “churches” do not practice valid baptism (or, by implication, valid communion, as explained above); therefore gatherings of paedobaptist believers that call themselves “churches” should not be regarded as real churches at all by those who wish to be consistent Baptists. Now, certainly many baptistic believers would not go so far in their ecclesiology (= “doctrine of the church”). Many would not hold to such a consistent Baptist doctrine of the church or seek to apply it to its logical end. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if the Baptist position is carried out to its logical extreme the result would be to: (1) Excommunicate the vast majority of professing Christians throughout the vast majority of church history (most of whom have been paedobaptists holding membership in paedobaptist churches); and (2) Unchurch the vast majority of Christian “churches” throughout the vast majority of church history (most Christian “churches” up until recent centuries being churches that practice infant baptism).
The sectarianism of the Baptist position came out in the very ordination council that I mentioned in the first paragraph. I seem to recall that during this ordination exam one of the Baptist pastors who was participating in the ordination council asked the candidate for ministry if he thought that believers who had not received believers-only baptism should nonetheless be permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper. When the candidate answered in the negative, the Baptist pastor who had asked him the question commended him for his answer, and stressed the need to receive believer’s baptism before being welcomed to the Lord’s Table. (Of course, I kept my mouth shut, since I was a paedobaptist guest in a baptistic church which was interviewing a baptistic candidate for ministry.) The irony of this scenario struck home to me: Here I had been granted the privilege of participating as a minister of the gospel in this ordination council, but some of my fellow brothers in the ministry would have deemed me to be disqualified for church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper in their churches if I had been “baptized” only as an infant. (Actually, I have been “baptized” three times in my life — once as an infant, once in college after my conversion, and once in another baptistic church, so that might make me OK in some of their churches; but that’s another story for another time.) This is the kind of thing I am referring to when I speak of “Baptist sectarianism.”
In contrast to Baptist sectarianism, most historically confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (like the OPC) have been very “catholic” on the issue of baptism. As long as you have been baptized with water in the Name of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) by a professedly Christian pastor/clergy, most confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian Churches will accept your baptism as valid, whether you received that baptism as an infant or later on as a professing believer; whether you got sprinkled or poured or immersed. Indeed, most confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches will accept the validity of your baptism, even if you received your baptism in a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or even liberal mainline Protestant church. (Most of us recognize that baptisms administered in irregular circumstances or by unworthy ministers are still objectively valid; an irregular baptism may still be regarded as a valid baptism, as long as water is applied in the Name of the Trinity. Irregularity does not, of itself, negate validity. God’s covenant promises are still objectively true, even if the covenant sign of baptism is administered by an unregenerate, heretical or morally degenerate minister.) Furthermore, while some Reformed churches require confessional membership (that is, they require candidates for membership in the church to subscribe to the church’s confessional standards), churches like the OPC only require candidates for membership to make a credible profession of faith in order to be admitted into membership. What this means is that it is possible for someone with baptistic convictions to join as a member of the OPC, as long as that person makes a credible profession of faith in Christ as Lord and Savior and agrees to submit to the biblical government and discipline of the church. (Of course, one cannot serve as an ordained church officer in the OPC if one holds to baptistic convictions; but baptistic believers are welcome to become communicant members of the church, as long as they do not make their baptistic convictions a point of contention in the church.) These are examples of what I mean by the “catholicity” of the historic Reformed and Presbyterian chuches.
Of course, in this post I have not gotten into the biblical and theological arguments in favor of the practice of infant baptism (perhaps in a future post I will get into this). I understand that my baptistic brothers and sisters sincerely believe that their view is taught in Scripture, and I respect the fact that they are only trying to be faithful to the teachings of God’s Word as they understand those teachings. If the Baptist position of “believers-only baptism” is indeed taught in the Word of God, then they are correct to exclude us paedobaptists from the membership and communion of the visible church; they are correct in their “sectarian” stance. Ultimately it is the infallible Scriptures, rather than the historic practice of the church, which must decide this issue, as it must decide any issue where there are strong differences within the Body of Christ. At the same time, I would gently challenge my baptistic brethren to consider the implications of their position if it be the correct one. If they are correct, then the vast majority of professing Christians and the vast majority of the faithful Christian pastors and theologians and biblical scholars and heroes of the faith throughout the vast majority of church history have been unbaptized (by Baptist standards). If they are correct, then the vast majority of Christian “churches” throughout the vast majority of church history have been lacking in one of the vital “marks” of a true visible church of Jesus Christ, namely the pure administration of the sacraments (since the vast majority of such “churches” have practiced paedobaptism). (The Reformed have historically recognized three essential marks of a true visible church: 1. The faithful preaching of God’s Word; 2. The right administration of the sacraments; and 3. The exercise of loving, biblical church discipline.) Indeed, if they are correct, then we must judge that there was no faithful visible church of Christ for more than a millenium until its presence on earth was finally restored through the rise of the Baptists. If they are correct, then God did not preserve throughout all ages a visible “catholic” (universal) church; instead, He let that church virtually go out of existence, only to be revived in recent centuries. (So much for the gates of hell not prevailing against Christ’s church!) I could be wrong, but I find such a “sectarian” position to be difficult to accept. I would instead urge the reader to consider embracing the more “catholic” position found in the Reformed confessions.