Mailbag #13: Baptism before Communion; Moderating Members’ Meetings; Cooperating with Other Churches in Church Discipline; How to Transition to Elders and Deacons
This question is a follow-up to an answer in a previous mailbag. I’m in agreement with your explanation on child baptism. My children (ages 14 and 12) give strong evidence of saving faith, yet we have decided to wait on baptism for some of the reasons you state. The struggle I have is how this affects the Lord’s Supper. Would you also say that only baptized believers should take part in communion? We began having our children participate in communion when my son turned 12 and my daughter turned 11. If this is improper (due to them not being baptized yet), are we not then withholding the blessing of the Lord’s Supper from our believing children?
The short answer is, I agree with the fairly traditional line that you will find in most Baptist statements of faith, namely, that baptism “is a prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper” (BF&M 2000). Baptism is the front door to the church through which you walk once; the Lord’s Supper is the family meal that you enjoy repeatedly and regularly. So, no, I would not give the Lord’s Supper to anyone who has not received baptism. And for what it’s worth, that’s not just a Baptist position, but something that every Christian tradition has historically affirmed (Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, etc.). Baptism, then the Supper.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two signs given to churches by Christ to mark off those who belong to him. Who are the people of God on earth? Those who are baptized into church membership and then receive the Lord’s Supper. They are public identity markers, and they are meant to go together. They are not just individual acts, but corporate acts. It’s not just the individual saying something in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it’s the church saying something as well.
In baptism, the church declares that someone is identified with “the name” of Father, Son, and Spirit (Matt. 28:19), such that those individuals can now gather “in the name” of Christ (Matt. 18:20). In the Lord’s Supper, every member of the church declares themselves to be a part of the one body, and the one body declares every member to be a member of that one body.
Paul writes this in 1 Cor. 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.”
In light of all this, I have two questions for you: (i) what blessing do you think you are withholding from your children? The unique blessing that the Supper offers is for individual and church to declare together that they are one body. But it seems like you deliberately mean to withhold that blessing by not baptizing your children. (ii) You refer to your “believing children.” If you are willing to confidently affirm them as Christians, why wouldn’t you ask the church to baptize them and affirm them as Christians?
In other words, what I hear you saying is, you’re willing to have the church affirm them as believers through the Supper, but you’re not willing to have the church affirm them as believers in baptism. I’d encourage you to give both of the ordinances to your children, or neither. The ordinances are not meant to be divided, where we give one but not the other. Most Paedobaptists do, I understand (giving baptism but withholding the Supper for a time), but you didn’t pose your question to a Paedobaptist! I hope this is helpful.
Does your senior pastor serve as moderator during member meetings? The chairman of elders? Just any elder?
—Chad, North Carolina
You might be surprised to know that I do believe there is at least one precedent for something like members meetings in the Bible (Acts 6:1-2). That said, I don’t think the Bible says anything about who should be chairman. It’s a question of prudence. There may be times when it’s good for a senior pastor to serve as the chairman, particularly if he’s attempting to establish the pattern for how members’ meetings should operate. But there may also be times when it’s good for some other elder to act as chairman.
In our church, either an associate pastor or one of the lay-elders acts as chairman for members’ meetings. The senior pastor deliberately pushed for this as a way of raising up other leaders in the eyes of the congregation. Plus, he would tell you the other men do a better job than he does, and some people would agree with him!
What do you do if people who request to join your church are “under discipline” from another church in your area? And what do you do if, after speaking to the other church’s leaders, you are not convinced they are in the right. Thanks.
If we discover that someone is under discipline from another church—and we always ask in membership interviews if they’ve ever been excommunicated by another local church—we start by asking the individual a lot of questions. What happened? Have you made attempts to reconcile to your previous church? And so forth.
If it is pretty obvious that the prospective member is at fault, we will encourage them to first reconcile to their previous church. In just about any case I can think of, yes, we will contact that previous church. And we will ask them a host of questions.
Since I am a congregationalist, I don’t believe any one church is bound by the decisions of another church. That means, if we become convinced the other church was in error in their act of excommunication, we will welcome the individual into membership. If we think the previous church was correct to excommunicate, we will encourage the person to reconcile with the first church.
Our church has encountered a number of occasions like this, both with people coming to us and leaving from us. What’s encouraging is how willing different churches have been to partner with us in figuring out what’s best. It is always a good reminder that we’re all on the same team, even if each congregation is formally independent.
My church is a very new church that currently does not have elders and deacons. We just have a leadership team that serves in function as elders and deacons. We are planning to officially install elders and deacons next year. How would you recommend a church go through this process? Thank you.
The long answer to your question can be found in Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker’s Elders in the Life of the Church.
Briefly, the three stages you want to move through are persuasion, education, and implementation.
Persuasion. Start by persuading people from Scripture that an elder-led and deacon-served model is biblical. You do this by teaching from the pulpit, by passing out books, by writing articles in the church newsletter or pastor’s blog, by beginning Sunday School classes devoted to the topic, and so forth.
Education. Similarly, you want to take all these same teaching opportunities to educate the persuaded about what an elder and deacon are in the Bible. You especially want to make sure your leadership team is on the same page. For instance, you might have an administratively savvy businessman on the leadership team who simply assumes he’ll be named an elder because he’s a vice-president at his workplace. But maybe he’s unable to teach, or maybe he has a pornography addiction. As you teach the church that an elder is “able to teach” and “self-controlled” and “a one-woman man,” hopefully he’ll come to the conclusion himself that he’s not qualified to be an elder (and that he probably should not be on the “leadership team” either). In other words, you need to help the church come to a clear and unified vision about what an elder and deacon are, what they do, how they work together, how their authority intersects with the congregation’s authority, and so forth. The more you can teach about this before people hold those positions, the smoother their operations will be.
Implementation. The next step is to nominate and then elect elders. Now, my own church is congregational, which means the congregation has the final authority to affirm who the elders are. But it’s the elders who nominate prospective elders. After all, it’s elders who will best know what counts as faithful teaching, and it’s elders who are best suited to assess the tricky character and moral issues that come up when considering a man for elder.
For instance, I have a friend in a Presbyterian church, where the people nominate elders, and every year they nominate a man in the church who gives all appearances of being an outstanding leader; but the elders know this man has a pornography problem. So year after year the elders have to have a series of awkward conversations when someone else formally nominates this man. Our Baptist church, ironically, doesn’t have this problem because the elders nominate potential elders. The congregation, as I say, then affirms (or denies) those nominations in a vote.
When our church transitioned to a plurality of elders, that meant the senior (and solo) pastor alone made all the nominations. He has since said that that was the most difficult public decision he has ever had to make. Yet I think it set the right precedent. Now, he did ask the church to let him know privately by email or conversation whom they thought would be good elders. But he explained to them that he was not receiving these as formal nominations, but as suggestions.
In your situation, I would do something similar. I assume you have a preaching pastor (and maybe one or two more pastors?). Have him/them make the nominations for elders. Then the church should vote. And you should give the church time between the nomination and the vote. We give them a couple of months. We also explain to the church, “If you are going to vote against an elder nomination, we would like you to speak with one of the elders so that we might know if there is some reason this individual should not be an elder.” All this gives the people time to pray and have conversations.
Once the elders are selected, I would move to nominating and electing deacons. In the Bible, the deacons don’t possess “oversight,” and so we made it clear from the beginning that they should not view themselves as a bicameral legislature relative to the elders. In fact, we didn’t see any need for them to meet together at all. Instead, each was empowered to get to work in their particular area. You want to make sure all this is clear in the nomination and election process as part of setting expectations.
There is so much more I could say about any of these steps, but I’ll leave it there. One last thing I haven’t mentioned: throughout the process, call the church to prayer and possibly fasting. That’s what Paul and Barnabus did when choosing elders (Acts 14:23), and a good pattern for us.