Some Thoughts on Southern Baptists, Baptism, and Communion

When I teach Baptist history, I argue that there are three perennial debates among Baptists. The first (and oldest) is soteriological: where should we fall on the spectrum of beliefs historically identified as Calvinism and Arminianism? The second is related to the application of a key Baptist distinctive: what is the best way to articulate and defend liberty of conscience for all people? The third is ecclesiological: what is the relationship between baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and (sometimes) church membership? All three are alive and well among contemporary Southern Baptists.

LifeWay Research released a study yesterday demonstrating that a slight majority (52%) of the Southern Baptist pastors they polled believe that any professing believer can participate in communion. Only about a third of those polled (35%) believe that baptism is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. Still others advocated other positions, which are less relevant to this post. (The poll also had some interesting statistics about how frequently Southern Baptists celebrate communion, but that’s another topic for another day.)

What is interesting about LifeWay’s findings is that they suggest a disconnect between what the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) affirms and what is practiced by the majority of our churches. The BF&M says of baptism that, “Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.” This language is present in all three versions of the BF&M and is similar to language used in most Baptist confessions except the Second London Confession and its daughter confessions, all of which are silent on this issue.

So according to LifeWay Research, a majority of Southern Baptist churches practice some form of open communion, even though the BF&M affirms close communion. Frankly, I’m not surprised by these findings. I’ve long argued that most Southern Baptists, whether by conviction or apathy, practice some form of open communion. This was not the case two generations ago, but the momentum has been in the direction of open communion since at least the 1970s.

There are probably many reasons why so many of our churches have moved in this direction. Bart Barber suggests some on his blog (see also the comments by Malcolm Yarnell, David Rogers, and Ben Stratton). Steve Weaver offers a brief defense of close communion, urges churches to consider taking their confessions more seriously, and pleads with Southern Baptists of different views to work together. Dave Miller at SBC Voices reported on the study and offered his own support for open communion, though the comments section demonstrates the variety of perspectives on this issue.

I think I have an interesting vantage point on this debate as a professor who teaches Baptist history courses. As best as I can tell, a sizable majority of my students have never thought about this issue prior to my class. Once we start talking about the debate, most of them lean towards open communion and have a hard time believing that close communion advocates would restrict the Lord’s Table to a particular group (i.e. baptistic Christians). Some, however, hold to close communion and have a hard time believing that open communion advocates would depart from the New Testament example of conversion, baptism, membership, communion. I actually think LifeWay’s statistical breakdown (52% open communion, 35% close communion) is fairly close to what I’ve observed in my classes among students who offer their opinion on these matters (I’d guess my students who speak up are 60/40 in favor of open communion).

The elephant in the room, of course, is the Baptist Faith and Message. Some will argue we should revise the BF&M because the majority is out of step with the confession. Others will argue that the BF&M is descriptive rather than prescriptive and local churches are autonomous anyway, so nothing should be done with the confession at this time. Still others will argue that the BF&M offers the more biblical position and suggest that open communion churches need to revisit this issue. I would agree with the latter two positions.

I do want to mention one word about our denominational ministries, however. While the BF&M is descriptive in terms of our churches, it is prescriptive in terms of denominational servants such as missionaries and seminary professors. In other words, denominational employees are expected, in theory, to believe the entirety of the BF&M. I think it is at least worth asking if trustee boards should be allowed to grant exceptions on this issue in light of the fact that a majority of Southern Baptist churches practice communion differently than the BF&M affirms. I’ve actually argued, in print, that trustee boards should have the freedom to allow exceptions on this very issue, since it seemed to me at the time (and has been verified by LifeWay Research) that the BF&M is out of step with what most Southern Baptist churches practice.*

For what it’s worth, I’ve written fairly often on this issue in the past. I wrote a descriptive essay for Between the Times titled “Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Southern Baptists: Some Options.” I’ve also written a prescriptive white paper for Southwestern Seminary’s Center for Theological Research titled “Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.” I’ve also written a prescriptive blog post for my personal blog titled “Consistent Communion: Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.” I would also refer you to Russ Moore’s excellent essay “Table Manners: The Welcoming Catholicity of Closed Communion.” See also the positions defended by Mark Coppenger and Paul Chitwood in “The Lord’s Supper: Who Should Partake?

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* See Nathan A. Finn, “Priorities for a Post-Resurgence Convention,” in David S. Dockery, ed., Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (Crossway, 2009), pp. 277-279.

Some Thoughts on the Baptism of Children

Earlier this week, Trevin Wax wrote an interesting blog post titled “Should We Baptize Small Children?” A couple of days later, John Starke of The Gospel Coalition responded to Trevin’s article with his own article, titled “Should We Baptize Small Children? Yes.” I would commend them both to you for your careful consideration.

For what it’s worth, my own thoughts on this subject have evolved in the past couple of years. I used to be a strong advocate of artificially delaying baptism until the teenaged years. For example, in 2008 I gave an interview with the late Michael Spencer and argued the following:

Baptizing small children is an innovation in American Baptist life. I think that this is a clear area where we have been influenced by some of the fundamentalists, though it worked in tandem with our home-grown programmatic emphasis on enlistment. The average age of baptism increasingly declined during the 20th century. In 1995, the old Home Mission Board published a study that showed the only age group where baptisms were increasing was the “under 5” category. I have a hard time seeing how this makes us very different than pedobaptists. A perusal of church records and associational minutes will show that our American Baptist forefathers did not regularly baptize pre-teens, though there were occasional exceptions when a child gave extraordinary evidence of both genuine conversion and an understanding of the cost of discipleship as entailed through meaningful church membership.

The practice of baptizing pre-teens has affected church membership in a number of ways. First, it has contributed to the growth of our membership roles-the majority of our baptisms are of elementary aged children and preschoolers. Second, it has contributed to the phenomena of multiple “baptisms” and rededications as teenagers and adults have to assess the validity of childhood spiritual decisions that they can sometimes hardly remember. Third, when coupled with an inadequate view of eternal security, it has led to millions of inactive members who are convinced they are Christians because they walked the aisle as a kindergartener during Vacation Bible School forty years ago. Finally, it has greatly contributed to the decline in redemptive church discipline: what church wants to discipline an eleven year old for having premarital sex, vocal racism, or habitually getting into fistfights with his classmates?

I do want to offer one clarification before moving on. I think it is very possible for small children to be regenerated. There are many people I know who can clearly remember being converted at a relatively young age. But being able to understand the basics of sin, judgment, redemption, and faith and being able to maturely covenant in membership with a local church are two different things, in my opinion. Some will argue that virtually all of the New Testament baptisms happen almost immediately after conversion. This is true. I would respond that almost all New Testament examples are clearly adults who are older than even teenagers. Furthermore, we have absolutely zero examples in the New Testament of when to baptize children who are raised in Christian families. Our pedobaptist friends address this situation by baptizing infants. Most Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists address this by baptizing anyone who can articulate a prayer for salvation. I am an old-fashioned Baptist who believes we should withhold baptism until a child is old enough to publicly identify with a local church through covenant, meaningful membership, though I would be reluctant to arbitrarily set a particular age requirement for baptism.

I stand by my first paragraph, but would articulate each of the latter two paragraphs somewhat differently today. To be clear, I have not become an advocate of rushing every small child who can “repeat-after-me” into the waters. But I’ve come to believe the problem isn’t with baptismal ages per se, but rather with our evangelistic methods; we are often far to incautious when it comes to pressing children to profess faith. Almost any kindergartner who is being raised in a Christian family and/or is involved in church activities is ready to repeat-after-me, whether under the Spirit’s conviction or not. In fact, I’d be worried about a churched kid who wasn’t interested to some degree in spiritual things, even if superficially or simplistically so.

If we were more careful in how we articulate the gospel and press for a response (and I do believe we should do the latter), I suspect the average age of baptism would go up a bit, for churched kids at least. While the average baptismal age may not rise to pre-20th century levels, I don’t see this as a problem, for two reasons. One, church history isn’t our only trustworthy and sufficient guide for faith and practice. Second, it is just as possible that earlier Baptists artificially postponed baptism as it is contemporary Baptists are too quick to dunk someone; I believe they did just that.

I believe we should baptize anyone who can articulate a credible profession of faith, regardless of his or her age. This seems to match the New Testament pattern. John Starke pretty much perfectly articulates my own view (which, BTW, I think is essentially Trevin’s view as well). This puts the burden on parents and pastors to shepherd and counsel in such a way that, with the Lord’s help, they can discern with some level of confident hope a credible profession of faith. And when they get it wrong–and sometimes they will–that’s when church discipline comes in. To say it another way, we don’t baptize someone based upon assurance of regeneration, but rather based upon what seems to be a legitimate conversion testimony. This seems to be exactly what they did in the New Testament.

(Cross-posted at One Baptist Perspective under the title “More Thoughts on the Baptism of Children“)

Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?

Several years ago, Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” In that essay, Mohler argues that a key to spiritual maturity is being able to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith-you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Mohler’s examples include such matters as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith, and the full authority of Scripture.

Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even congregation. Mohler’s examples of second-order doctrines are gender roles and baptism.

Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches. Mohler’s cites disagreement about the finer details of eschatology, presumably the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture, as textbook tertiary doctrines.

Southern Baptists have responded in a variety of ways to Mohler’s paradigm. Some argue it is a helpful way to think about the nature of Christian cooperation. They claim we all do theological triage, even if subconsciously and without using the label. Others voice concerns that Mohler’s views, or at least some possible applications of his views, lead to a downplaying of important theological convictions. They claim that theological triage results in our picking and choosing which biblical commands we will obey and which we will fudge on for ecumenical purposes.

For my part, I am firmly in the camp that agrees that theological triage is a helpful term that describes what all Christians already do, even if they don’t know it. I reject the notion that in principle categorizing doctrines as either primary, secondary, or tertiary necessarily leads to some sort of inappropriate compromise. When I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on secondary or tertiary convictions, I am not endorsing their convictions-I’m simply recognizing that what I believe to be their error doesn’t preclude us from working together in certain matters.

I think one reason the idea of theological triage raises concerns for many Baptists is because ecclesiological distinctives, and particularly baptism, are almost always considered second-order doctrines. Mohler himself uses baptism as one of his examples as a secondary doctrine. How should Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, think of the doctrine of baptism (and ecclesiology in general)? Is baptism a second-order doctrine?

I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which baptism is most certainly a secondary doctrine because a certain form of baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

But as Southern Baptists, it is important to recognize that a particular understanding of baptism-the full immersion of professed believers-is a core distinctive of our churches and our denomination. While every Southern Baptist I know would agree that baptism doesn’t contribute to our salvation, almost every Southern Baptist I know would argue that confessor’s baptism by immersion is the explicit teaching of the New Testament and that other Christians who sprinkle babies and call it baptism are in error, even if they don’t know it.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom. 6), missions (Matt. 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For the record, I think Mohler would likely agree with my argument (though he’d no doubt make it more eloquently were he writing this). I don’t see anything in his essay that hints at the idea that baptism-or any other secondary or even tertiary doctrine-is unimportant. In fact, he argues that disagreements about secondary doctrines help define denominations and churches. Baptists give special emphasis to the secondary doctrine of baptism, which necessarily helps distinguish us from other types of Christians.

Southern Baptists should not retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism. But neither should we act as if an erroneous view of baptism necessarily calls into question one’s regeneration and/or his gospel usefulness. We should speak prophetically to our brothers and sisters in Christ when it comes to baptism (and ecclesiology in general), but we should also humbly recognize that God is working among those who are wrong on baptism, sometimes to a much greater degree than he is working among Baptists. I hope we will work with them in every way we can without sacrificing our baptismal convictions.