Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Need for Gospel Consistency

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on August 16, 2008.]

Students of history know that there are two long-running debates among Baptist Christians that began in the mid-17th century and continue to the present day. The first debate has been common among many groups of Protestants: Calvinism versus Arminianism. The second debate is almost totally unique to Baptists: the relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This is a topic that I have written on in the past. While I do not believe this debate is the most important issue facing contemporary Southern Baptists, it is nevertheless an important question that is worthy of our attention. We might consider this a necessary excursus that develops from my previous article on baptism.

Until the rise of the parachurch movement during the mid-20th century, most Christians have argued that baptism is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. All agree that this is the order portrayed in the New Testament and makes good logical sense because virtually everyone believes that baptism marks the public entrance into the church, though obviously there is considerable debate about the proper mode and subjects of baptism. Until the late 1800s, a majority of English Baptists argued that baptism is prerequisite to communion. In North America, with the exception of the Free Will Baptists, most Baptists argued for the chronological priority of baptism until the mid-20th century. In some places in the American South and Southwest, this view is still almost universal. The idea that baptism is prerequisite to participation in the Lord’s Supper has been called a number of names, including closed communion, close communion, strict communion, and restricted communion.

But from at least the second generation of Baptists, there has been a minority report that has argued that regeneration alone is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. Over time, this minority report has become majority practice among Baptists in both Britain and (probably) America. The view that all Christians can participate in the Lord’s Supper, regardless of their baptismal status, is most often called open communion, though it is a modified form of open communion because the ordinance is still restricted to believers. Only liberal Baptists (and other Christians) invite all people to the table, irrespective of their spiritual condition.

There are many noble reasons for holding to an open communion position. Proponents argue that the ordinance is intended to signify the unity of believers in Christ, so to forbid some Christians from participating in communion puts a breach in Christian unity. Others argue that allowing unbaptized (non-immersed) Christians to participate in communion is a sign of brotherly love that may help convince some of them to eventually submit themselves to New Testament baptism. Some concede that closed communion appears to be the New Testament practice, but argue that since we live in a world where more than one practice is called baptism, the charitable thing to do is allow Christians who we believe are unbaptized to participate in communion. Open communion advocates often point out that it is the Lord’s Supper, so who are we to tell those who belong to the Lord that they cannot participate in the ordinance?

Though I am sympathetic to the desires behind these arguments, I think closed communion is the more consistent position. The Lord’s Supper is surely a picture of our unity in Christ, but advocates of non-New Testament baptism are the ones who severed that unity with the advent of infant baptism and other practices foreign to the biblical record. Baptistic Christians are not the ones who are sectarian in the matter of baptism, though we are (at the moment) in the minority among professing Christians. To quote the Baptist Faith and Message (2000):

Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people. Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.

The hope that inviting unbaptized Christians to the Lord’s Table may convince some to be biblically baptized is dangerous logic, in my opinion. This is the same logic used by colonial New England pastor Solomon Stoddard when he argued that communion could be a “converting ordinance,” so unbelievers should be invited to the Table. The result was not mass conversions, but a church filled with unregenerate members. I suspect that churches that practice open communion in hopes of changing the minds of pedobaptists will find that they make lots of pedobaptist friends, but few of them submit to believer’s baptism by immersion.

The argument that we should be charitable because we live in a world where a plurality of baptismal practices prevail seems particularly weak. The fact that there is one Lord, one faith, and many baptisms in our contemporary context does not change the biblical record. Obedience to Scripture seems more important than contrived unity, which would be the case with any unity that is based on a practice not commended in Scripture. I personally think open communion is such a practice. And concerning the idea that it is inappropriate to ban Christians from the Lord’s Table, I would respond by agreeing that it is the Lord’s Table, which is why it is of utmost importance that we practice the ordinance in the way the Lord has willed it to be exemplified for us in His Word, lest we find ourselves disobedient to the Lord.

This discussion is not exhaustive, and there are several other arguments that could be made (from both sides), but in keeping with the theme of this series, I think the most important reason to reject open communion is that it seems to make the ordinances inconsistent with the gospel. To be more specific, open communion severs the ordinance that marks our formal entry into the gospel community (baptism) from the ordinance that signifies our ongoing sanctification within the gospel community (communion). The picture of the gospel painted by the ordinances is smudged whenever we treat baptism and the Lord’s Supper as practices that are virtually independent of each other. Baptism marks the public beginning of the Christian’s life in the community of the gospel, the church. Communion marks the Christian’s ongoing identification with that gospel community and the Lord who formed her. For this reason, I prefer to call the view that baptism is biblically prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper consistent communion, because it is only in this practice that the ordinances are truly consistent with the gospel they portray.

In closing, I am not convinced that one’s view of the relationship between baptism and communion should be a bar to cooperation among Baptist Christians. Though I affirm consistent communion and am a member of a church that requires baptism before communion, I believe that my church can cooperate with sister churches that have a different understanding of this matter. But the fact that this issue is (in my opinion) secondary in nature does not render it unimportant. Baptists desire to be obedient to all that Christ commands, so it is incumbent upon us to discuss this matter biblically and charitably, in the hopes of one day arriving at greater consensus on this issue, for the glory of God and the health of our churches.

[Note: I have previously addressed this topic in a more substantial manner on behalf of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can click here to read that White Paper, titled “Baptism as Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.”]

Identification with the Gospel: Believer’s Baptism by Immersion

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on August 12, 2008.]

This is the fourth article in a series that explores the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. I have previously argued that the foundational conviction of Baptist Christians is a commitment to regenerate church membership. Baptists believe that a local church is a voluntary community of individuals who have embraced the gospel and covenanted to walk together in pursuit of common gospel ends. Though most Baptists embrace the concept of the universal church, we argue that the New Testament emphasizes the local body of Christ as the primary theater in which the gospel plays out.

Closely related to our commitment to a believer’s church is our most visible theological distinctive, believer’s baptism by immersion. Like Protestants in general, most Baptists argue for two ordinances (or sacraments): baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptists believe that believer’s baptism by immersion visually depicts the gospel, is the public, personal owning of the gospel, and identifies a believer with the community created by the gospel in both its local and universal manifestation. Baptism is the gospel portrayed in the life of a person who has embraced Christ as Lord and Savior and is the gospel proclaimed to the church of Christ and the watching world.

New Testament Baptism

Baptists desire to align our baptismal convictions with the New Testament, so we do not believe that every practice that is called “baptism” is necessarily a biblical baptism. Although nearly every Christian group claims to practice baptism, there are four elements of a New Testament baptism:

  1. The proper subject of baptism is a believer, who is the only type of person who has responded in faith to the gospel
  2. The proper mode of baptism is immersion in the name of the Triune God, which is the only mode recorded in Scripture, a literal translation of the Greek word baptizo, and the clearest picture of the gospel
  3. The proper meaning of baptism is a symbolic depiction of gospel realities such as the death and burial of the old self, the resurrection unto new spiritual life, the washing away of sin, union with Christ, and public identification with the gospel community both local and universal
  4. The proper administrator of baptism is the community of the gospel, normally a local church, except in missionary contexts, where baptisms are often administered in the hope of constituting a local church

Defending New Testament Baptism

Because believers alone are the proper subjects of baptism, any non-Christian who has been baptized, including an infant or other young child who is unable to understand and embrace the gospel, has not received a New Testament baptism. Furthermore, to baptize a non-Christian of any kind for any reason actually undermines the very gospel that baptism is supposed to represent. This claim sometimes offends our pedobaptist (infant-baptizing) friends, but believer’s baptism preserves regenerate church membership from the threat of pre-Christian membership in a way that infant baptism cannot do because of the very nature of that practice. When a church’s methodology departs from biblical theology, we must lovingly, but prophetically, call our non-Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ back to New Testament practice.

Because immersion is the only proper mode of baptism, Christians who have been sprinkled or poured with water have not received a New Testament baptism. This includes Christians who have been sprinkled or poured after they have come to faith in Christ. When this scenario occurs, the timing may be right, but the mode is wrong. As mention above, the word baptism literally means to immerse or dip. According to Romans 6:3-5, immersion visually depicts the gospel by identifying us with Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection. Furthermore, full immersion is also the practice that is recorded for us in the New Testament. Baptists simply want to do what the word baptism says and be consistent with the examples we have of apostolic baptism.

Because a visual depiction of the gospel is the only proper meaning of baptism, Christians who have been baptized with a different understanding of baptism in mind have not received New Testament baptism. The most common incorrect meaning of baptism is found among groups that believe in some form of baptismal regeneration or believe that baptism is a necessary step in one’s salvation. Although many Baptists believe that baptism is a means of sanctifying grace in the life of a believer, most Baptists have historically denied the ordinance is a means of saving grace. We reject a sacerdotal understanding of baptism wherein the grace of baptism contributes to salvation. Any group that embraces such a view, even if it immerses converts, practices a form of baptism that is as alien to the New Testament understanding of baptism as sprinkling infants or immersing an unrepentant sinner.

Because a local church is normally the only proper administrator of baptism, Christians who have been baptized without any reference to a church have not received New Testament baptism. This most often occurs when a Christian is immersed by a parachurch group, a random individual (often the person who has just led the new believer to Christ), or when a believer decides to immerse himself. Every baptism recorded for us in the New Testament occurs through the ministry of a local church or, as with the case of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, in a missionary context intended to result in the birth of a new church. Baptism is a Christian ordinance that is administered in connection with local churches. To say it another way, baptism is a church ordinance that should not be severed from the community of the gospel.

In sum, we might say that a New Testament baptism is a one-time event and only occurs when a genuine believer is immersed, after his conversion, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a symbolic embracing of the gospel, for the purpose of public identification with Christ and his church. There is much more we could say about baptism, and Baptists sometimes disagree among ourselves about some of the finer nuances of the ordinance, but this article should serve as a sufficient introductory understanding of what most Baptists believe about the ordinance. My next article will briefly discuss my understanding of the relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and how that relationship is related to the gospel.

What If He Can’t Be Baptized?

Recently, I received an email from a pastor friend asking advice about a dicey baptism situation. It’s not the first time a pastor has asked me about this issue. It’s also a question I get from students nearly every semester. What should we do if someone comes to faith in Christ and desires to be baptized and join our church, but she cannot be baptized due to some sort of medical condition?

I’m aware of at least four views held among different Baptists. There are probably others, but these are the ones I’ve heard over the years.

First, some Baptists argue that the individual should not be baptized and should not become a member of the church or receive the Lord’s Supper. After all, Baptists do not believe the ordinances and church membership contribute to one’s salvation; we are saved by grace through faith. To allow an unbaptized person to join the church and participate in communion is to act contrary to biblical precedent. (Some Baptists offer a variation of this view where the person can be invited to the Lord’s Table, but not join the church.) I reject this view because I believe all believers should be covenantally united with a particular local church for the sake of their own spiritual maturity and the health of the body they join.

Second, some Baptists argue that you should immerse the person anyway, claiming that there are no “real life” medical conditions that would prevent someone from being baptized. Yes, I’ve actually heard this view — several times. I reject this position because I believe it is medically ill-informed and lacks pastoral sensibility.

Third, some Baptists argue that you should “baptize” the person by sprinkling or pouring. Proponents admit this is without New Testament precedent, but argue that it is an exceptional circumstance and the person is still receiving an initiatory rite using water. Once the person has received this non-immersion “baptism,” they are of course free to join the church and participate in communion. I reject this view because I do not believe a practice other than immersion is ever a biblical baptism, even in exceptional circumstances.

Fourth, some Baptists argue that you should not baptize the individual at all, but should allow her to become an unbaptized church member with the full rights of membership (including communion). Should the individual reach a point where she could be baptized, she should be. But so long as the medical condition prevents it, the desire to be baptized is enough. As with the previous option, proponents admit this practice is without New Testament precedent, but argue that it is an exceptional circumstance. Unlike the previous view, proponents of this view do not believe that sprinkling or pouring is a biblical baptism, so they don’t advocate those measures — even in an exceptional circumstance. (Remember, I’m assuming a traditionally Baptist context that rejects other “modes” of baptism in principle.)

I hold to the fourth view as the least theologically objectionable, most pastorally sensitive practice in an admittedly exceptional circumstance. Perhaps there is another option I haven’t considered. But of the options I’m aware of, the fourth is the one I suggest to others and would practice if I were faced with this sort of scenario.

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