When it comes to pastors and theologians who stand strong on the Word, strong against the world, and strong in their wise dealings with complex issues, few compare to Joe Rigney. When it comes to contemporary theologians, therefore, I consider his writing some of the best.
When I visited Minneapolis a number of years ago, I had an enjoyable lunch with him and a few other faculty at Bethlehem College and Seminary. And when he took the reins to lead that school I rejoiced. I am thankful for Joe Rigney and will continue to read his works and point people to his writing.
Yet, for that very reason, when he writes something that not only stands against my theological convictions, but something that confuses some of the sheep in my congregation, it is necessary to reply. In what follows, I will offer a three-point engagement with Joe’s recent piece, “Do Infant Baptisms Count? Reconsidering Open Membership.” To be clear, I am not responding point by point to Joe Rigney, but offering three substantial arguments for rejecting open membership.
While Joe spells his Baptist identity with a lower case B, and I spell mine with a capital B, the point of difference between us is more than grammar. The issues raised by his article range from the local to universal church, from the nature of the new covenant to the membership of new covenant church, and how churches differing on baptism should relate to one another.
These are important matters which have spawned books, pamphlets, and shorter articles. In what follows I won’t offer a comprehensive reply to Joe’s arguments, but I will offer a substantial one. Again, I write this as a friend and admirer of Joe and his labors. But as a pastor and a seminary professor of a school that seeks to affirm the confessionalism of Presbyterians and Baptists, without muddying the waters between them, I offer this rejoinder.
Three Points of Theology
As I see it, there are three main differences between Joe’s approach to baptism and membership and my own. These differences are not superficial, but deeply theological. And in estimating whether or not to receive non-baptized Christians into membership (what is known as open membership), Baptist churches should work hard to understand the theological commitments that undergird the practice of baptism.
In brief here are the three main reasons, I reject open membership.
- The newness of the new covenant requires the new covenant sign of water baptism, not the ongoing sign of old covenant circumcision.
- The command of Jesus to baptize believers is mark out the church in the world, and cannot be changed without editing Jesus’s commandment.
- The new covenant requires a church membership that is fully regenerate.
Put these three points of doctrine together, and the difference between credobaptists (those who believe in believer’s baptism) and paedobaptists (those who believe in infant / covenant baptism) is large enough, in my estimation, to require separate gatherings on Sunday mornings. Even as credobaptists and paedobaptists affirm the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ and both practice “baptism,” credobaptists and paedobaptists speak different languages when it comes to baptism. Accordingly, and with a genuine measure of sadness, these two true churches require a secondary level of distinction (i.e., distinct local churches). Let me try to explain.
First, the new covenant is distinct from the old covenant.
I suspect many credobaptists are open to open member (the admittance of un-Baptized Christians into local church membership) because they do not appreciate the way that believer’s baptism confers membership in the local church and the way membership requires obedience to the biblical command to be baptized. As a committed Baptist, I have written on these matters here, here, and here.
At the same time, openness to open membership may also come from ignorance of the covenantal differences between Presbyterians and Baptists. I don’t say this to suggest that Joe Rigney is ignorant of the differences, but I do believe many Baptists who read his piece will believe that the differences between infant baptism (paedobaptism) and believers’s baptism (credobaptism) are superficial more than substantial. And this is the first issue to address.
There is a large theological difference between Baptists and Presbyterians. That difference shows up in baptism, but its roots go back to the biblical covenants. If we let the two reformed confessions of Westminster (1646) and London (1689) guide us, we can quickly see the way the Presbyterian and Reformed assembly (Westminster) and the Baptist assembly (London) understood the biblical covenants.
As Pascal Denault (The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology) has described it, Westminster Confession of Faith conceived of one, unchanging covenant of grace that spanned both Testaments, while the 1689 London Confession saw the Old Testament covenants a series of covenants anticipating the covenant of grace in the new covenant. In both confessions, there is one way of salvation and one church composed of Jew and Gentile, but what is different is the way biblical covenants work in redemptive history.
At the risk of oversimplification, Westminster argues for a single covenant of grace that begins with Genesis 3:15 and God’s promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3). In the new covenant, the promises made to the offspring of Abraham are extended to the nations, and the Spirit of God now dwells in the church, not the tabernacle. Put simply, the blessing of Abraham is spiritual in nature, but also physical, in that the believers and their biological children are part of the covenant of grace, by virtue of the father’s faith. Baptism under the new covenant, therefore, is the way children are entered into covenant with God. Accordingly, their covenantal position puts them in range of salvation when they are regenerated by the Spirit and brought to repentance and faith.
By contrast, the London Baptist Confession adjusts the covenantal thinking to make a distinction between the new covenant and the covenants of promise in the Old Testament. To put it most sharply, credobaptists do not believe that the blessings of Abraham are passed on to the children of believers. Rather, the blessings promised to Abraham are for the children born of God. Accordingly, baptism is withheld until these children of God bear the fruit of repentance and faith. This is the theology undergirding believer’s baptism.
Comparatively, paedobaptists see the new covenant as a renewal, expansion, and intensification of the covenant grace, while credobaptists see the new covenant as something new and distinct from the old covenant. For credobaptists, all the previous covenants are anticipatory for the new covenant, and the new covenant is the covenant of grace.
These interpretive differences are nuanced, but they are important. And they explain why Presbyterians change the mode of covenant entry from the circumcision of the flesh (in boys) to sprinkling of water (in boys and girls). The covenant with Abraham is the same covenant of grace available today, and it is for believers and their children.
Baptists, by contrast, believe that circumcision in the flesh, which began with Abraham, was intended as a type which was later fulfilled by the circumcision of the heart (cf. Deut 10:16; 30:6). While paedobaptists also believe in the circumcision of the heart, credobaptists restrict new covenant circumcision to the work of the Spirit. There is no genealogical principle for the children of believers.
In practice, therefore, only those who have been circumcised in Christ (Col. 2:11–13), by means of the Holy Spirit’s gift of the new birth, are qualified for water baptism and entrance into the local church. In this way, water baptism must follow the baptism in the Spirit, and any “baptism” devoid of the Spirit (i.e., the baptism of an unbeliever) misses the standards of the New Testament.
When Baptists open their membership to non-baptized Christians, they are, please excuse the pun, watering down the spiritual nature of the new covenant. They are admitting that the practices of the old covenant, carried forward in infant baptism, remain valid. And they (unintentionally) confuse their witness about the work of the Spirit. Is circumcision, which marks someone out as covenantal heir of God, carried forward by the Spirit or by the flesh (i.e., infant baptism).
Based on their understanding of the covenants, Baptists have always said it is only the work of the Spirit, who circumcises the heart. Such circumcision of the heart is what qualifies someone for water baptism, and water baptism of the believer is therefore the sign that makes visible the new covenant work of the Spirit. To open membership to those without this sign forgets or confuses the theological differences between paedobaptists and credobaptists.
Second, believer’s baptism is a command that comes from Christ, to the church, and cannot be edited.
In Matthew 28:18–20, we find Jesus’s instructions for baptism. First, he says that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 18). This cosmic authority, as promised in places like Psalm 2 and Daniel 7:13–14, is a result of Jesus’s exaltation following his crucifixion. In other words, what follows in the Great Commission was not possible before his death and resurrection. By means of his coronation and heavenly session (Psalm 110), a new state of affairs has occurred in the world. Accordingly, he commands his disciples to make disciples of all nations. This is a seismic difference between the Old Testament and the New.
Importantly, when disciples are made, Jesus says that they are to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and the Spirit. In other words, baptism follows belief (i.e., being a disciple of Christ). At least that is how credobaptists take this command to “make disciple.” In accordance with the new covenant and the promise of the new birth, we apply “make disciples” to individuals who are born, one-by-one, by the Spirit. In order, baptism must follow individual belief.
Historically, paedobaptists have been more open to the interpretation of discipling “nations.” This is especially true of Theonomists (think: Doug Wilson), who believe the Great Commission is aimed at producing nations who have Christian values, even if those nations are not regenerate in nature. This does not deny the need for individuals to be born again, but paedobaptism is doing something different than credobaptism.
As we look to the past, the baptism of infants has often been associated with countries who have a national church (e.g., the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, etc.). Indeed, paedobaptism has often run parallel to an understanding of national covenants. That is, God makes covenants with historical nations like he did with Israel. There is a diversity of understandings here, but credobaptists clearly see baptism as doing something different. National renewal may be an entailment of Christian witness in a country, but those nations are not in covenant with God, nor should the children of those nations be baptized, just because they are born in a Christian nation.
As credobaptists understand it, the nature of the church is independent of nations. The church alone is a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9–10), and therefore, baptism can only be granted to those who demonstrate faith. Again, this goes back to the difference in covenants and the way Old Testament types are fulfilled in Christ. In Israel, God’s nation was composed of regenerate and unregenerate citizens alike. In the Reformation, many Christian nations adopted this way of thinking too. Hence, you find state churches all throughout Europe.
Baptists, however, understood the new covenant to create an entirely separate people whose membership in the church was not in any way related to the state. In other words, the independence of the church from the state is a deeply Baptist idea. In America, the Founders were in conversation with Baptists (think: James Madison and John Leland), and the First Amendment sought to protect churches from the tyranny of the state, not the influence of churches on the state—that misunderstanding of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists came later.
Today, it is not surprising that when Baptist leaders like Russell Moore, Ed Stetzer, and Rick Warren have failed to stand for the church against the state, that many Baptists have followed the stronger arguments Doug Wilson and other Theonomists. We need a political theology that catalyzes Christians to be salt and light in their respective countries. Yet, when Baptists are finding the best arguments from non-Baptists, they should be aware that they are getting a healthy dose of Presbyterian ecclesiology along the way—a view of the church that does not match the covenantal convictions of their Baptist forefathers.
Going back to Matthew 28:19–20, we find Jesus commanding his disciples to make disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Credobaptists understand this commission to establish churches, independent of the state. These local assemblies of the new covenant are only made up of baptized disciples, not disciples and their baptized-but-yet-unbelieving children.
To suggest, therefore, that Baptist churches open their membership to Presbyterians and other un-baptized believers is not as simple as it sounds. There is a wealth of biblical-theological commitments that must be swept aside to do that. As Proverbs 22:28 counsels, we should not remove the ancient landmark of baptism, or at least not until we understand their historical and theological significance. In today’s boundary-less society, reducing baptism seems appealing, but in so doing, it invites Christians to skip over what Jesus has commanded. As Caleb Morrell has recently shown in his historical work on Harry Emerson Fosdick and Open Membership, Bible-believing Baptists have always rejected open membership because they do not feel the freedom to “edit Jesus.”
Thus, to reject Open Membership is simply to stay the course of Bible-believing Baptists.
Third, a commitment to regenerate church membership is the reason for rejecting open membership.
Finally, a theological appraisal of open membership leads us to see that regenerate church membership, not baptism by immersion, is the theological dividing line between Baptists and Presbyterians. The latter is an entailment of the former, but the former (regenerate church membership) is the reason why the latter (baptism by immersion) has any weight.
Baptists believe that the new covenant church should be composed of believers only; paedobaptists believe that the new covenant church should be composed of believers and their children—believing or not. Paedobaptists hold a view where the covenant community is larger than God’s elect, while Baptists strive to let the covenant community be coterminous with God’s elect.
This does not mean that Baptists believe that membership in the local church absolutely secures eternal salvation, nor do Baptists believe that every member of a local church is one of God’s elect. That said, because the new covenant is different than the covenant made with Abraham, we do believe that the new covenant is only made up of the elect. And by means of believer’s baptism, we attempt to mirror the truths of heaven in the church on earth.
If we receive un-baptized Christians into the local church, credobaptists believe that we are sinning by denying the Lord’s command. This is why a call to open membership is a call for Baptists to lower the standards of their conscience. While some churches, like Grace Community Church, admit unbaptized Christians into their membership, they do this by prioritizing the individual’s conscience over the biblical convictions of the local church.
Again, history is helpful to evaluate our current practices. In the case of Harry Emerson Fosdick, it was the impulse to prioritize the individual conscience over the church’s doctrine that resulted in a strong push for open membership. Bible-believing Baptists pushed against this practice, however, because they saw how it placed the authority of the individual over the authority of Scripture and the command to baptize believers.
In our hyper-individualistic culture, such catering to individuals is so normative as to raise little concern. In fact, the call to maintain the standard of baptism is what raises concern. It seems like a cruel and unusual ecclesiology, Yet, it is important to see that in admitting Christians on the basis of their personal testimony instead of believer’s baptism, we are taking a step away from Christ’s commandment and towards individual expression. Moreover, in admitting unbaptized members we are diminishing a commitment to regenerate church membership.
For Presbyterians, this is not a theological problem, as their understanding of the covenant is mixed—believers and their children. But for Baptists, who are committed to a regenerate church membership (i.e., all members are believers), the admittance of non-Baptized Christians does great harm to the way Scripture is obeyed in the life of the church. Again, for Baptists to admit unbaptized Christians, instead of calling those individuals to submit to Christ’s command of believer’s baptism, is to place personal preferences over the Lord’s command.
This again is the step that credobaptists, who understand the new covenant as establishing a born again people, cannot take. Even more, it is misleading to demand Baptists to open their membership without dealing specifically with the subject of regenerate church membership. Again, the mode of baptism is important and discernible from Scripture, but the most important part of credobaptism is the way in which it makes the universal church visible. Credobaptism is the sign by which members of the universal church (i.e., the born again elect of God) go public, as Bobby Jamieson puts it. And churches maintain their allegiance to Christ and his universal church by means of receiving into membership those who have believed and made their belief public through the sign that Jesus commanded—immersion in water.
This is why I take this issue so seriously. The call to open borders in the church is not as simple as recalculating the tensions between baptism and catholicity. It is a matter of biblical and theological interpretation; it is a matter of covenantal clarity; and it is a matter of local church fidelity. Accordingly, I cannot accept Joe Rigney’s argument as good and healthy step for Baptist churches to take. Again, such a step of downplaying believer’s baptism will only devalue regenerate church membership, and if history teaches us anything, it may for some churches loosen their grip on Scripture too.
The Babel of Baptism
At this point, I can imagine someone saying: “But are you denying the faith of paedobaptists or the validity of a Presbyterian Church?” And my answer is simple: No.
I whole-heartedly believe that Presbyterians are my brothers in Christ and that their churches preach the gospel. For this reason, when I teach Presbyterians in my theology classes, I encourage them to be wholly and completely Presbyterian, just as I encourage Baptists in class and in this post to be wholly and completely Baptist.
What I am arguing, therefore, is that Baptists and Presbyterians have a fundamentally different way of understanding the biblical covenants and Jesus’s command for baptism. Again in the context of my seminary, when my fellow faculty at Indianapolis Theological Seminary talk about baptism, they do not all speak the same language. The credobaptists speak one way and the paedobaptists another. Indeed, as heirs of shared Reformation heritage, we can talk close enough to understand one another, but for reasons of interpretation and tradition, we cannot agree. And the best way I can comprehend this is to compare the situation to Babel.
When God divided the nations, he put barriers of language in place. This was part judgment and part prophecy. God divided the world, so that from the divided world he would later redeem a people for himself (Rev. 5:9–10). In the coming of Christ, he has gathered people from every tongue (see Acts 2). But even with the coming of the Holy Spirit, language barriers remain. Accordingly, we have Mandarin-speaking, Spanish-speaking, Swahili-speaking, and English-speaking churches. And while there can be general agreement between them, with the aid of translators, the languages continue to uphold boundaries and create separate local churches.
If we are honest, the same can be said within languages. There are different styles, education levels, and ways of communicating that make one church different from another. This is where I would place doctrinal divisions as well. Considering only those churches who affirm biblical orthodoxy, there are plenty of secondary issues that divide. Rightly understood, they divide churches because they speak and think and interpret Scripture differently. This is the analogy with Babel.
Truly, who has not lamented this fact? There is not time to describe all the ways I have watched genuine Christians come to and leave from our church because they could not agree on a point of doctrine. And often, it is language that fails them (or us!). Such doctrinal division is painful, but it is also the way the church goes, as long as divisions in language remain.
Comparing baptism with Babel: I understand the division between paedobaptists and credobaptists as a product of diverse tongues. Paedobaptists talk about baptism in one way; credobaptists another. Both think they are right and the other wrong, and for over four hundred years, the two sides have not yet agreed.
Therefore, for the sake of ordering local churches (1 Corinthians 14), I am of the mind that we should let this difference in speech result in two different kinds of churches—those who practice covenant baptism (i.e., the baptism of infants) and others who practice believers baptism (i.e., the baptism of the born again). Held in this way, I whole-heartedly believe we can work together for the gospel with other believers and churches who differ on baptism.
In fact, our local church, by refusing to admit Presbyterians, has actually blessed and benefitted multiple Presbyterian churches who are in our area. To be sure, this means our church is smaller, but it means that other Presbyterian churches are larger and stronger. Is that not a fruit of gospel-togetherness? I believe it is, and actually it is one way credobaptists and paedobaptists can stand together, even as their differing theological languages require them to assemble apart.
A Final Word Against Lowest Common Denominator Christianity
Thankfully, there is coming a day when these divisions will be no more. And all of us will rejoice in that day. But until then, I find it best to let the divisions regarding baptism stand. Such a division reminds us that the eschaton has not come, but perhaps the division will keep local churches more focused on holding firm to their confession, instead of watering it down and finding the lowest common denominator for baptism.
In our day, the last thing we need is lowest common denominator Christianity. On this point, I believe Joe Rigney would agree. Even if we continue to disagree on baptism and its application, we can thankfully agree that the gospel is a greater unifier. But that unifier, in my estimation, does not overturn the wisdom of holding baptism strongly in different congregations.
This has been the experience of the church for generations, and when we look at the deeper theological reasons for the divisions we can begin to understand why. Ultimately, Baptists and Presbyterians are not debating the volume of water for baptism. The debate is biblical-theological, covenantal, and interpretational. And for these reasons, it is neither safe nor wise for Baptists to open membership for the un-baptized.
To that end, may the Lord continue to build his church and to give his saints the courage to hold their convictions.
Soli Dea Gloria, ds