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July 14, 2006

On Baptism: Round Three

I've been giving a lot of study lately to ecclesiology. When I started seminary, I focused a lot on historical theology -- the development of doctrine, especially as it was impacted by history and had an impact on history. I'd planned on teaching church history and historical theology at a seminary, after getting my M.Div and my Ph.D in fairly rapid succession. But God has other plans -- I'm meeting with the pulpit committee of a church in West Virginia on Saturday to talk about becoming their pastor. So matters of ecclesiology have become important to me, and I've been realizing exactly how much I've neglected its study.

Baptism as it relates to church membership has become a topic of interest to me lately, as well. Especially with all the controversy about the question of baptism as a prerequisite for church membership at Henderson Hills Baptist Church. I want to first affirm the autonomy of the local church. The elders and pastor at Henderson Hills are ultimately the only people who will stand to answer for what they decide (whatever they end up deciding). Their local association, their state convention, and the SBC as a whole do not tell them what to do. But we all have the responsibility as brothers and sisters in Christ to express concern when another Christian is making a decision that we think is not biblical. We also have the responsibility to discuss the matter as Christians, which I think has been done so far.

The elders at Henderson Hills aren't making the motion without thought and study. Their reports are all available on the church's web site. And there are a lot -- I certainly haven't had the time to read them all, so I won't be trying to respond directly to what they've decided. What I want to do instead is set out what I believe are the biblical motivations behind requiring biblical baptism for church membership, and a bit about why I think the Bible isn't as clear as we'd like for it to be in this regard. It will probably be a long post, and a lot more serious than I've been lately, but I think it will be valuable for all of us.

My main resource for this is Dr. Sam Waldron's paper on Baptism and Membership. Dr. Waldron is Professor of Systematic Theology at Midwestern, and pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. His paper answered a lot of questions I had, and started me thinking about a lot of other things -- some of which I'll share in this post, some of which I haven't quite finished sorting out yet.

Romans 6:1-4 (ESV):

1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Baptism is a visible sign of our allegience or identification with Christ. As Waldron says, it's the "visible sign of union with Christ." Union with Christ means union with His body, which is the Church. The universal, invisible Church becomes visible in the local, visible church -- local assemblies of believers.
To become a visible Christian through baptism is to become a visible member of the body of Christ. To become a member of the visible body of Christ is to become a member of the visible church. To become a member of the visible church is to become a member of the local church.

If baptism is the visible sign of our union with Christ, it must be our visible sign of identifying with the visible representation of His body -- the local church. Someone who has not been Scripturally baptized has not visibly identified with Christ, and thus cannot be visibly identified with His Body. It doesn't mean that an unbaptised person is not saved -- it means that they have not made their identification with Christ public. Baptism is a very public profession of Christ -- churches must expect their members to make this very public declaration of their faith before allowing them to join the local fellowship.

Part of the problem in this discussion is how differently we do church now, compared to the way it was done in the first two or three centuries AD. We see in the Bible people who were baptized immediately upon being saved. Immediately after this, they became part of the local assembly of believers. They did this out of self-preservation, among other things. Churches were real communities of faith then -- they lived together, they pooled their resources, they ate together, etc. It wasn't a Sunday/Wednesday experience for them. The progression was almost instantaneous -- salvation, baptism, membership in the local church.

Now, on the other hand, we have multiple churches in the area that we can join. There's a "searching" period when we're looking for just the right church. There's often some time between when someone is saved and when they're baptized. But the order remains -- salvation, baptism, membership.

Posted by Warren Kelly at July 14, 2006 10:49 AM | TrackBack
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