08 September 2005

baptists and baptism

I see that John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist Church is in the process of considering a change in its membership practices regarding the issue of baptism. As is the case with most Baptist churches, Bethlehem has not historically accepted into membership those Christians who wished to join but had not been baptized as adult believers or by immersion.

The proposal before the church states, among other things, "Christians who have not been baptized by immersion as believers, but, as they believe, by some other method or before they believed, may under some circumstances be members of this church." The justification for this change (assuming it is approved) is that, while Bethlehem Baptist will continue to strongly maintain the biblical normativity of "believers' baptism" by immersion, they do not believe the church should "elevate beliefs and practices that are non-essential to the level of prerequisites for church membership."

As a convinced Reformed paedobaptist who has long thought that Baptist practice is incipiently Donatist, I see this as a very welcome move. Bethlehem's proposal could be construed as tantamount to accepting the sacramental validity of non-Baptist baptisms, thereby implicitly placing a greater emphasis on the objectivity of the sacrament as a sign appointed by God and not merely a matter of the expression of personal faith. As such, if approved, this will move Bethlehem towards more fully embracing a Reformed and catholic faith, a development that can only be a cause for celebration.

I wonder, however, if this is a correct reading of the proposed change. Will such members continue to be persuaded to be re-baptized by immersion?

Given Bethlehem's official understanding of baptism, this would seem to be so. If so, then the change will be more one of "concession to conscience" rather than a true embracing of the sacramental validity of non-Baptist baptisms (as Baptist theologian Beasley-Murray had urged). If so, then the proposal is perhaps more confusing than welcome, since it would seem to represent a compromise of biblical convictions in the face of individual freedom of conscience, treating persons as validly baptized when one does not, in fact, believe that to be the case.