Mailbag #19: Baptismal Regeneration; What Makes a Legitimate Baptism; Relationship Between Baptism and Membership; Relating to a Registered Sex Offender
Over the last few years I’ve been surrounded by a growth of churches centered around the Restoration Movement (aka Church of Christ, Christian Church). Much of the difficulty in understanding where these churches are doctrinally comes in their often vague positional statements on their websites and by their leaders. How would you suggest interacting with people who attend/join these churches and the leaders of these churches? Any good resources that you could recommend that speak to the doctrinal and practical issues with these churches?
I don’t want to comment on the Churches of Christ as a whole. Let me say just one thing regarding their doctrine of baptism that I hope will be broadly useful. Anytime someone comes to join our church having been baptized in a Churches of Christ church, our elders ask whether the particular church that baptized them teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation. Historically, the Churches of Christ have believed that “baptism by immersion [is] a necessary part of conversion.” (I admit I’m quoting Wikipedia here!) Yet our elders always ask because different Christian churches “differ over the manner in which baptism is administered, the meaning and significance of baptism, [and] its role in salvation” (again, Wikipedia). Some of these churches seem to teach the necessity of baptism for salvation, and some don’t.
You can see the ambiguity in how one Christian Church scholar summarizes their own view:
If by baptismal regeneration the accusers mean that the act of immersion inherently regenerates or converts or saves a person, then the charge is not true. From the earliest days of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the teaching has been that the only proper subjects for baptism are those who have faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and who repent of their past sins. It is the blood of Jesus that cleanses people from all sin by his grace. Baptism is not a ritual act that has inherent redeeming power. It is not true that when people “get baptized,” they are automatically “born again.”
The most common understanding among Churches of Christ is that it is in the act of baptism, this culminating act of surrender of one’s life to God in faith and obedience, that God, by the merits of Christ’s blood, cleanses one from sin and truly changes the state of the person from an alien to a citizen of God’s kingdom. Baptism is not a work, at least not a human one. It is the place where God performs His work—the work that only He could do. If this constitutes baptismal regeneration, then we are guilty of the charge. It certainly is a sacramental view of baptism.
The first paragraph I find comforting. The second paragraph I find problematic, especially this: “it is in the act of baptism . . . that God . . . cleanses one from sin and truly changes the state of the person. . . . It is the place where God performs His work.” The second paragraph differs from the first paragraph in that he ascribes power to God and not to the act of baptism. Baptism is not some sort of magical act that automatically changes a person, he seems to be saying. Yet when it comes to the necessity of baptism for salvation, it’s not clear to me how the second paragraph differs at all from the first, since God performs his cleansing and changing work there.
Whether or not this scholar is broadly representative, our church’s elders ask all members joining the church who were baptized in a Christian church what their particular church taught. If their church taught that baptism is necessary for salvation, we don’t accept their baptism as a true baptism. Whatever they personally believed about their baptism, the church was publicly teaching something contrary to the gospel through their “baptism.” We do not count their baptism as a baptism. Therefore, we ask them not to be RE-baptized, but baptized. If their church does not teach the necessity of baptism for salvation, then we accept their baptism.
How do we know what a specific church teaches? Yes, we’d check the website. But if it’s vague, as you say, we would probably just make a phone call to the church and ask.
Now, you didn’t ask me about someone joining our church but leaving it. All the same principles apply. We would ask about and maybe investigate the individual church in order to ascertain what it believes about the relationship between baptism and salvation. I don’t think we’ve ever had someone leave our church to join a Christian Church that teaches the necessity of baptism for salvation. If someone did, we would first warn them that this church denies the gospel through their doctrine of baptism. If they persisted, (I assume) the elders would eventually recommend excommunication, just as we do with anyone who leaves our church to join another church that teaches or practices a false gospel.
I recognize this is a very difficult issue. And when you’re dealing with individual believers coming from (or going to) these churches, it gets harder since they often have a better doctrine of baptism than their churches did because their churches didn’t teach very clearly on baptism. You might call that a saving grace! Nonetheless, it’s our job to teach and act clearly on these issues precisely so that confusion does not continue.
When someone comes for membership that has been baptized by immersion, what beliefs do you look for in the church that performed the baptism?
Assuming that the church has an ordinary sounding name (First Baptist, Second Presbyterian, Grace Community), we probably wouldn’t ask much about what that church believes. Only if they said something that raised an eyebrow would we ask.
Essentially, we want to make sure that a person was baptized in a church that affirms the gospel and says nothing else that undermines the gospel. So if they teach that baptism is necessary for salvation (some Churches of Christ) or they deny justification by faith alone (a Roman Catholic Church) or they deny Nicene Orthodoxy (a Oneness Pentecostal church), we would not accept their baptism as a true baptism. You might say that we’re nothing more or less than good ole’ historic Baptists.
Hope this helps.
Is it biblical to baptize a new believer while withholding membership until a later date? Or should baptism and church membership be treated together?
I remember one occasion where a pastor friend of mine (who I hope reads this post!) shared the good news of how his church had just baptized a 70-year-old man with whom they had shared the gospel for months. I rejoiced with him.
Then, unexpectedly, he threw out this comment: “Yeah, and hopefully at some point we’ll bring him into membership, too.”
“What?!” I said.
Consider what his church did: it affirmed someone as bearing the name of Christ and joined to Christ, but then it left him out in the wild, unprotected by the accountability of church membership. Suppose that man decided to stop attending the church, or to start teaching heresy, or to begin living in unrepentant sin. The church would have no mechanism for clarifying the official record. They could warn him, yes, but being unable to excommunicate him, their baptism would still stand as the public record (I don’t believe you should excommunicate non-members). This is why Jesus conjoins “baptizing and teaching everything” in the Great Commission. Churches baptize those whom they continue to teach. It’s also why Luke says, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). People in Jerusalem were baptized and added.
Or let me put it like this: when you begin to separate church membership from the ordinances, you turn membership into something unbiblical and programmatic. The ordinances, among other things, are signs of our membership in the body of Christ (universal and local, the latter manifesting the former). So Paul assumes that everyone in the church in Rome had been baptized (Rom. 6:3-4), and he tells the Corinthian church that “we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf,” meaning that it’s their participation in the Lord’s Supper that reveals them as a church.
In short, the ordinances are signs of our membership. It therefore makes no sense—ordinarily—to separate them from membership.
I say “ordinarily,” however, because there are exceptional situations in which there is no church, and yet someone may need to be baptized. Phillip baptized the Ethiopian Eunuch, but didn’t bringing the eunuch into any church’s membership because there was no church there. And our church baptized a young man without bringing him into membership right before he left for a two year stint with the Dutch Navy. There are no churches on Dutch Navy boats! It’s inevitable that a missionary religion that pushes out into new frontiers will have to make these sorts of exceptions
But, in short, I think we must conclude from Scripture that baptism is ordinarily into church membership.
There is an issue at our church in which our elders are working through related to a man pursuing membership who is a registered sex offender for child pornography. Does your church have any policies for such an occasion?
Good question that brings us right into the nitty gritty of affirming the marvelous power of the gospel while also practicing assiduous pastoral care. A registered sexual offender recently applied for membership in my church. The situation pitted the goal of protecting a segment of the church from possible harm against the goal of affirming what appeared to be the man’s genuine, Holy-Spirit given repentance. By bringing the matter to the gathered congregation openly, the elders were able to walk the members through these complexities. This taught them to glory in the gospel’s work while also exercising protective care against sin.
Ordinarily, the elders present the testimonies of member candidates to the whole congregation, ask if there are any questions, and then ask the membership to vote immediately. In this situation, we presented the man’s (remarkable) testimony, asked if there were any questions, and then delayed the vote for two months, just to give the church the opportunity to absorb the news and ask more questions in private. Two months later, the church voted him into membership.
Aside from telling the whole church, we put other precautions in place. First, we told the church the man is not allow on the children’s ministry floors under any circumstances. Second, the man had to agree to a permanent escort whenever he is in the church building—indefinitely. What’s encouraging is how much the men who serve as his chaperone have viewed the occasion as an opportunity to minister to the man, and good relationships are being built. Third, we told the church that, should he join a community group, he should not be left alone with the children. Fourth, we contacted his parole officers to verify the terms of his probation. Fifth, we reviewed the court documents to verify the offender’s past offenses (people often lie about their past, so we wanted to verify). Sixth, we had him agree to and sign a code of conduct that was defined by our elders.
Some of this is laid out in our children’s protection policy. If you don’t have such a policy, or if it doesn’t cover these kinds of things, you might want to write this stuff down.
I pray God gives you wisdom in these challenging matters, which, remarkably, can redound to God’s glory.