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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Baptist Theology: A Short Review

I recently read Stephen Holmes’s new book Baptist Theology (T&T Clark, 2012). Holmes, who teaches at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is one of my favorite theologians writing today. Baptist Theology is part of T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series, which offers brief accounts of various ecclesiastical traditions for students or outside observers. I’ve been looking forward to reading this particular book for months, and it did not disappoint.

Holmes divides his book into an introduction and seven short chapters. As a general rule, he does a fine job of summarizing Baptist history and interacting with many of the most influential interpreters of the Baptist tradition (though Tom Nettles and Walter Shurden are curiously absent.) Holmes notes the wide diversity among Baptist theologians and the impossibility of advancing anything approaching a definitive summary of Baptist theology. All projects such as Baptist Theology are provisional, to some degree constructive, and necessarily nuanced and caveated (to invent a term) because of the wide array of Baptist beliefs and practices. Holmes writes from a perspective informed by evangelical convictions about Scripture and salvation, British Baptist sensibilities concerning ecclesiological matters and ecumenism, and a broadly Barthian read on the wider Reformed tradition.

I don’t agree with everything Holmes advocates—not surprising, since we’re both Baptists. I think he misunderstands nineteenth-century Landmarkism, ascribing to them a soteriological exclusionism to which they did not hold. I also disagree with his egalitarian views of church leadership, particularly his argument that Baptist polity should inevitably lead us to full inclusion of women in pastoral leadership. (I remain a convinced complementarian for exegetical and biblical-theological reasons.) I also articulate the meaning of baptism somewhat differently than Holmes. I’m less sanguine than Holmes concerning the British Baptist “recovery” of evangelical sacramentalism, which I see as being a mixed bag that varies from interpreter to interpreter. I also reject the open membership position that is common among churches affiliated with the Baptist Union of Great Britain.

Having registered some disagreements, let me say that I agree with Holmes far more often than I disagree with him. I very much resonate with his discussion of the Baptist vision of the church, especially his emphasis on a covenantal understanding of church membership (a common theme among British Baptists that I heartily affirm). I find his theological accounts of congregational freedom and liberty of conscience to be quite compelling. I especially appreciate his balanced approach to the tension between individualism and community in the Baptist tradition. It seems to me that the Baptist tradition, when at its healthiest, emphasizes the individual-within-community rather than a (too-common) democratic individualism or a (über-trendy) postmodern communitarianism. His discussion of Baptists and ordination is also very interesting; Baptists have never quite figured out how to approach ordination, though, in an arguably ironic twist, those of us in America appreciate the tax benefits that ordination brings.

I love Holmes’s discussion of mission and holiness in the Baptist tradition. I like his reading on the centrality of mission to Baptist identity and history, a point I also make in my own teaching and writing. His point that Baptists have had a far more significant impact on missiology than systematic theology is well-taken (though he mistakenly identifies the Dutch Reformed missiologist David Bosch as a Baptist). His discussion of the holiness of the church is also very helpful, particularly since it addresses a serious area of neglect or confusion in many contemporary Baptist churches. I especially resonate with his emphasis on the corporate nature of sanctification and the role that the church plays in conforming us to the image of Christ.

I think Baptist Theology is a helpful volume for Baptist pastors and other ministry leaders in North America. While the British provenance of the book will mean that Holmes (perhaps) misunderstands some aspects of Baptist life on this side of the pond, it also provides him with a location to (perhaps) offer some helpful perspectives that we Yanks don’t always consider. For seminary classes that emphasize Baptist identity, I think it provides an insightful middle position that should elicit some stimulating conversation among students who are used to reading similar volumes by SBC-affiliated conservatives or ex-SBC moderate Baptists. A fruitful assignment might include asking students to write a comparative review of Baptist Theology, Stan Norman’s The Baptist Way, and Bill Leonard’s The Challenge of Being Baptist.

Book Notice: “The Church: The Gospel Made Visible” by Mark Dever

“For too many Christians today, the doctrine of the church is like a decoration on the front of the building. Maybe it’s pretty, maybe it’s not, but finally it’s unimportant because it bears no weight. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The doctrine of the church is of utmost importance. It is the most visible part of Christian theology, and it is vitally connected with every other part” (p. ix). Thus begins the new book by Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (B&H Academic).

The Church, the most recent publication to bear the imprint of Dever’s 9Marks ministry, is intended as a popular introduction to the doctrine of the church for evangelicals in general, and for Baptists in particular. This book began as a chapter in A Theology for the Church (B&H, 2007), edited by Danny Akin. Dever utilizes the same structure as he did in that chapter (biblical, historical, systematic, practical), while refining and expanding the content.

For each section, Dever uses a question-and-answer format. The questions include: “What should churches do?” “What should churches believe?” “How should churches worship?” “How should churches live together?” and “Should churches have multiple leaders?” These answers to these questions take on a unique and powerful significance when one realizes that “. . . Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34–35). The church is the gospel made visible” (xi). In other words, the local church is “Christ and the gospel on display.”

I recommend this book as a biblically sound, clearly articulated, and compelling treatise on the church. It is written in lucid prose and is accessible for any thoughtful Christian, as well as undergraduate and seminary students.