My Thoughts on Baptism and Church Membership

Wayne Grudem just released an updated edition of his Systematic Theology.  Apparently, the pagination is relatively unchanged, however; the newer format is more attractive than the previous edition and provides wider margins for note taking.  However, Grudem has apparently rewritten chapter 49 section F1 (pp. 982-983) which is titled, “Do Churches Need to Be Divided Over Baptism?”  This rewrite is quite controversial and as such, I have decided to add my two cents worth here.

Justin Taylor: Grudem’s Change of Mind regarding Differences on Baptism within a Local Church 

John Piper: Response to Grudem on Baptism and Church Membership 

Wayne Grudem: Wayne Grudem’s Response to Piper 

My response is going to be short and sweet.  First, it is clear both symbolically and semantically that the baptism of which Scripture speaks is baptism by immersion.  Symbolically in that it pictures the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  The dead are not sprinkled with dirt and then left to rot in the open air, nor are the dead buried and then confirmed to have died years later; the dead are submersed in the earth and Christ was submersed in the earth.  Semantically the normal use of the word baptism (βαπτισμός) or any of its derivatives is immersion.  Second, Piper’s remark that required baptism “is preemptive excommunication” is completely unfounded.  The Scriptures clearly define excommunication in Matthew 18:15-20, however; here it is presented as a result of church discipline upon sinning church members, and not upon non-members as a means of rebuke.  This is not a denial of fellowship but membership.  I share a common faith with individuals who attend other churches and I can and do fellowship with them.  Honestly, I would not allow some of these individuals to serve in or become members at a church where I was pastoring but that does not prevent us from fellowshipping with and encouraging one another.  Third, if an individual desires to become a member of a local church, is unwilling to submit to that church’s authority, and would willingly choose to attend another, possibly less Biblical, church then that individual has a problem with pride.  Ultimately, the problem lies not with the local church but the individual’s unwillingness to submit to that church.

What do you think about this?

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13 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Baptism and Church Membership

  1. Last year, I had a friend who was denied membership at an SBC church because upon conversion he chose to be sprinkled rather than have his rural church bring in a cow trough to immerse him in. The SBC church wanted him to be immersed, but he felt that lessened his experience.
    I didn’t have a problem with the church’s decision, and defended their position. Some of my seminary friends in Waco disagreed, arguing that I was arguing for “form rather than function.” There’s always the “what if you live in the desert and there is no water to be immersed in” argument, as well as the “then why do we use grape juice and crackers rather than wine and bread as Jesus did?” argument. (would drinking coke and eating frito’s be an okay substitute for wine and bread when taking the Lord’s Supper?)

    In the end, I felt my friend simply was unwilling to submit to that church’s authority. The problem was that several staff members told him “we disagree with those rules,” and showed some disunity among themselves. That put the senior pastor in the position of being the “bad guy.” However, he felt that the SBC church was saying that the Methodist church of his youth wasn’t really a church because they sprinkled. Sok pointed out to me that the Baptist Faith and Message essentially does say that.

    Anyways, I agree with your post.

  2. “Sok pointed out to me that the Baptist Faith and Message essentially does say that.”

    Yeah, Jonathon and I were talking about that a while back, I am not sure if he posted on that or not, but the BF&M does say that.

  3. Keith,

    I believe Piper makes a good point. However both him and Grudem disagree on the issue. So, I believe we are wise to look closely at both sides and let our initial presuppositions fade into the background.

    For me the issue is sin. Dr. Gregg Willis, professor at Southern, gave a lecture dealing with some of these issues. He mentioned that if a person has not been baptized then they were “in sin.” We have to realize that being sprinkled or anything other than immersion is not baptism. It is not that we don’t accept any form of baptism except immersion but that anything other than immersion is not baptism. So the language of re-baptism is unfortunate and if you have never been immersed you have never been baptized and thus in disobedience to the Lord’s command. To clarify further, even if a person believes they have been baptized and are sincere that doesn’t change the fact they have not followed the teaching of Scripture. Sincerity does not cover sin, a person can be sincere and kill his cancer stricken mom because he wants to put her out of her misery, but that is still murder. Having said that, there is also throughout the history of the churh, not one main-line denomination that believes in membership apart from baptism. Problem is a lot get baptism wrong. So you are allowing a church member to join, someone who is in open and unrepentatnt sin and telling them it is ok. We would excersie church discipline on someone in unrepentant sin, so why would we let them join in unrepentant sin?

    Since baptism is the “initiatory rite” (Erickson) for the church it only follows that it be a prerequiste for membership. There is zero evidence in the NT for an unbaptized church member. And if we are going to follow the NT example on this issue, having said that anything other than immersion is not baptism, then we must conclude that those who have not been immersed cannot join our local communities.

    However, I still struggle with the fact that this position would exclude some hereos of the faith from membership at my church. Edwards, Sproul, Lig Duncan…etc. That is hard to deal with.

  4. Jonathon,
    “It is not that we don’t accept any form of baptism except immersion but that anything other than immersion is not baptism.”
    I think that is a fantastic point and I agree that excluding some heroes of the faith makes the problem hard to deal with.

  5. Mark Dever has also called this an issue of sin. I am curious however on how he would respond to those who ask how he can let an unrepentant sinner preach in his pulpit but not let him join the church?

  6. “Having said that, there is also throughout the history of the churh, not one main-line denomination that believes in membership apart from baptism. Problem is a lot get baptism wrong.”

    I think some people might take issue with that. I’m not up on my early church history, but I know that some people have told me that as early as Justin Martyr people were being sprinkled and not immersed.

    Agree that there is not a Biblical example of a non-baptised church member (though the thief on the cross was an un-baptised believer). The disciples of John the Bapt. that Paul ran across had to be essentially re-baptised into the baptism of Christ… so, that’s one example of having importance put on scripturally-correct Baptism.

    I don’t know that I’d say it’s a “sin issue,” though I understand the argument. Those disciples of John the Baptist weren’t in sin, they just didn’t know the difference between Scriptural and non-Scriptural baptism. But they were repentant nonetheless.

    But, I think the form vs. function is a good question to ask. Example: what forms the Lord’s Supper are acceptable and what aren’t? I think it’s up to the individual church to decide, following the light of Scripture.

  7. Jtapp,

    The part of baptism being used by almost every main-line denomination to define baptism is that they view sprinkling as baptism. So, even Justin Martyr would have said there was no membership apart from baptism, he simply gets the form of baptism wrong.

    Does that makes sense? I actually talked live with Dr. Mohler about this issue last year, and he made that point.

  8. So what if someone said ‘the prayer’ when they where 9 and got baptized (immersed), and then years down the road they realized they were not true believers. I think you would have to get re-baptized for it to be genuine but I could be wrong.

  9. Nick,
    I completely agree. In fact I was rebaptized because when I “walked the isle” and “prayed the prayer” as a youngster I had no idea what I was doing. You will find this out in church history but the Anabaptist were named such as they would rebaptize individuals who were previous baptized when they were unregenerate. I did a couple of posts on this a while back here is the main post on Anabaptism: https://keithwalters.org/2006/11/21/a-brief-history-of-churchstate-relations-part-3/

  10. The language of re-baptism is unfortunate. There is no such thing! If we say that baptism is by immersion only after conversion then anything short of that is simply getting wet. I think we do well to leave the language of rebaptism at the door and in the past.

    Keith is right. Nick you are correct in saying that thier time in the baptismal pool was not genuine. The need to be baptized is still there, after conversion has taken place. You never see a reverse order in the NT and we are wise to follow that pattern.

  11. Jonathon,
    “The language of re-baptism is unfortunate.” I concur and althought they were known as “rebaptizers,” a derogatory term, I doubt the Anabaptists would ever consider themselves as such as their baptism was the only legitimate baptism.

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