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.

On The GCR Declaration, Part 4

Lord willing, over the next few days I will be blogging through the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the fourth article in the series. As you read, please remember that while Between the Time is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article VI: A Commitment to Biblically Healthy Churches

I love this article. The first paragraph rightly notes that Baptists care most about being “New Testament”. May this never change! It also mentions our churches are threatened by, “worldliness, laziness, faddishness, heterodoxy, arrogant sectarianism, and naïve ecumenism”. Agreed on all points, though I suspect we may have some intradenominational quibbling about each of them.

A few examples will suffice. I think one of the areas we are most “worldly” is in the lack of redemptive discipline in our churches, but others hear “worldly” and the first things they think of are alcohol and rock music. When I hear “faddishness” I think of much of church growth methodology, but others think of any music that’s not Southern Gospel. When I hear “arrogant sectarianism”, I think of any form of obnoxious Bapto-centrism and classically fundamentalist definitions of “biblical separation”, while others think any commitment to Baptist distinctives or separation from worldliness is sectarian. When I think of “naïve ecumenism” I think of the National Council of churches, but others think of the interdenominational evangelical movement or conferences like Together for the Gospel or the Gospel Coalition. Let’s hope our quibbling is Christ-like!

The second paragraph gives a good, brief summary of Baptist distinctives. With the sole exception of congregational church polity, which is opposed by some proponents of plural elders and some megachurch pastors, I doubt there would be much disagreement here. But–and this is a crucial “but”–we must not assume these Baptist distinctives, lest we lose them. And losing them would be tragic, not because of any unhealthy denominational narcissism, but because most of us believe these practices closely follow those of the earliest Christian churches.

The second paragraph also mentions a number of areas wherein our churches can improve: “a more responsible baptismal policy, the recovery of a redemptive church discipline, a healthier relationship between pastors and their people, and a commitment to an every-member ministry”. I offer a hearty “amen” on all four counts.

The third paragraph speaks of the missional nature of the church. This is a crucial mark of healthy churches that is absent in the vast majority of the congregations with which I am familiar. You could even argue that this very issue is why we need a Great Commission Resurgence. Too many of us simply do not see our churches, by definition, as both missionaries to our given regions and mission-sending agencies to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is a great tragedy and the direct fruit of the programmatic nature of SBC evangelism and the shallowness of so much of our gospel proclamation.

There is a lack of urgency in evangelism among Southern Baptist churches of every size, region, and theological persuasion. There is widespread confusion of “evangelism” with “program” or “visitation” and “missions” with “WMU” or “Cooperative Program”. (One pastor I know even argued last week that the key to a GCR is giving more money to the CP–as if the CP is itself missions/evangelism.) There are calls for us to have more “revivals” and use more “harvest evangelists” in our churches, as if a special meeting will make our churches more evangelistic and mission-minded. There are gripes that too many churches no longer do evangelism through the Sunday Schools, as if some strategy holds the key to missional renewal. There are complaints about all those Calvinists, as if a few hundred churches are the reason that some of our biggest (and decidedly non-Calvinist) churches hardly ever baptize anyone who isn’t in elementary school or an adult Methodist who wants to become a Baptist. Smokescreens, all.

I could go on, but I don’t think it would be that profitable. The bottom line is that Southern Baptists, generally speaking, are not an evangelistic denomination in the early years of the 21st century. There are lots of reasons for this, sin being the biggest. But our misunderstanding of the intersection between ecclesiology and missiology also plays a key role in this whole thing. We better wake up soon, or we will have much bigger problems than those oft-cited declining baptism statistics.

Article VII: A Commitment to Sound Biblical Preaching

There is some good stuff here. I note that the phrase “expositional” was not used, which I actually think is a good thing. Let me explain. It’s not that I’m opposed to expositional preaching–with very rare exceptions, it’s the only way I (attempt to) preach. The real problem is that almost everyone among us, with the exception of some of the seeker-driven guys and those with man-crushes on Andy Stanley, claim to preach expositionally, but don’t.

It is self-evident that relatively few of us actually know what an expositional sermon is. If you have any doubt about that, just attend virtually any denominational “preaching meeting”, whether it is the SBC annual meeting, a pastor’s conference, a state convention annual meeting, or an evangelism conference. You are almost as likely to hear an endorsement of the Democratic Party as you are an old-fashioned expositional sermon. There are of course some glorious exceptions to my generalization, and I expect this year’s Convention and Pastor’s Conference to showcase more expositional preaching than any such events in recent memory .

The term “expositional preaching” has become a denominational shibboleth, so I couldn’t care less if we use it. Defining good preaching is more important than labels. And I like the way the GCR Declaration defines good preaching:

Authentic preaching must develop systematically the Bible’s theological content. It should understand both the Old Testament and New Testament to be Christian Scripture that together communicates one grand narrative about the world’s creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, with the person and work of Jesus Christ as the climax of the Bible’s storyline.

I can’t say it much better, so I will let the document speak for itself.

I also appreciate that the GCR Declaration mentions the importance of application and invitation in preaching. Biblical preaching always applies the text to the lives of as many of the listeners as is possible (application can be the hardest part of sermon preparation because, Lord willing, there are loads of different types of people in the audience who need to hear differing types of encouragement, exhortation, or rebuke). Biblical preaching always invites–no, urges–sinners to turn from their sin and cast themselves upon the mercies of Christ. Whether this includes an “altar call” or not is adiaphora because the Holy Spirit does not convert through “public invitations”, but through the preaching of the Word. The point is that the sermon itself should be an urgent invitation to embrace the gospel or it is sub-Christian at best.