Baptism, paedo-baptism and the conscience clause

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I’ve been writing a few blog posts about baptism and paedobaptism over the past few days and of course, this brings us to the question about what to do when there’s disagreement within a church on Baptism.

My friend Stephen Kneale is very clear in his mind on this. He writes about it here. Steve’s view is that because baptism is something that believers do, anything else is invalid. Someone who has been sprinkled as a baby has not been baptised and therefore until they are baptised, they are disobedient and in sin. We should not accept them into membership. 

Now, the reality is that a lot of Baptists and baptistic churches do provide in some way for people to become members who have been baptised as babies.  First of all, my previous church had a clause in its constitution which said that people would be encouraged to be baptised if they wanted to become members. That could have pointed towards one of the options Steve describes where baptism is seen as simply not important at all to membership. In practice. Whilst I was an elder it meant that occasionally people were admitted to membership who had been baptised in infancy.  We would not have welcomed into membership someone who had not been baptised at all

I was previously a member of a reformed Baptist church that had been planted by one of Spurgeon’s students. The original constitution stated that whilst the church held to believers’ baptism that if someone agreed in all other matters but differed on paedobaptism then we would offer the right hand of fellowship. However, the person would have to recognise the Baptist position of the church, not teach/promote paedobaptism and would not be able to become an elder or deacon.

The question then becomes “on what basis are we willing to include people who have not received believers’ baptism.” Steve seems to assume that it is always because we are willing to let people in that we consider not to be baptised and that this is in effect allowing the local church to be dictated to by one person’s conscience.

However, I think he hasn’t allowed for some other possibilities. You see, it isn’t just the individual’s conscience that is at stake. This is about our relationship to other churches. My personal view is that the arguments for infant baptism are pretty weak.  In fact, I’ve probably made it clear in the last few weeks that I think that those arguments deployed are obviously very weak to the point of being non-existent.  To be honest, the only argument I can see from Scripture for infant baptism is the description of household baptisms in the NT. Now again, it’s a bit of a thin argument as it assumes and infers that there were babies included in this. However, I recognise that this may mean there is a case to answer. So, I allow for the possibility that a paedobaptist is doing what they believe to be obedient to Scripture. This affects our attitude to churches that disagree with us.

It means that whilst I am convinced both that believers’ baptism by immersion is the correct way to do baptism and that it is important, not a mere peripheral issue but something we should have a position on as a local church, at the same time it means that I don’t treat it as an essential gospel issue. I wouldn’t attempt to have a dual practice church but nor would I break fellowship with evangelical Anglicans and Presbyterians. I consider them brothers and sisters in Christ and I consider their churches to be true churches.

This is important because historically we have said that the marks of a true church (not necessarily a healthy one) are twofold. First that God’s Word is taught and secondly that the sacraments are observed. This means incidentally that we don’t recognise Roman Catholic Churches as true churches (different to recognising individual Catholics as possibly believers). You see, the Catholic mass is clearly doing something very different to The Lord’s Supper.

So, my position on baptism is saying something g about my view of other churches and our unity with them as well.  That’s the basis on which some of us have concluded that we are willing to consider the baptism of a child as imperfect but valid. It’s imperfect because of its timing and because it is incomplete. True baptism needs to include:

  • The inner belief of the recipient
  • Clear outward profession of repentance
  • The sign of water.

Infant baptism only has one of the components. The question then is whether other components can be added later. Now, there are some recipes where you can’t add things in, once you’ve baked a cake, you can’t add the sugar and eggs in later if you forgot them. Sometimes it’s possible to add ingredients at any time and the food tastes fine. Sometimes you can add things in later and its oka but its not brilliant.  The presumption here is that we find ourselves in the last category.

Notice two more things that are important here. This position in effect assumes that there are only baptised Christians, that how you profess faith is by being baptised and therefore that ideally baptism should be contemporary with faith – or as soon as possible afterwards. I’m not happy about people having been baptised for years without coming to faith but nor am I happy wither about people saying that they have faith but not being baptised.  Ideally I want the two to happen together.

Secondly notice that this approach does depend also on how that infant baptism is viewed.  You see, our assumption is in effect that the baptism was incomplete and therefore invalid until the person professed faith but that this profession in effect retrospectively validates and completes the baptism.

This line of reasoning works if you are dealing with what seemed to be the dominant Evangelical Anglican approach to baptism. From that perspective, the parents made statements on behalf of the child and the child was baptised in the hope that one day, they would make those statements for themselves. In that sense, I don’t think that Anglicans do baptise babies. Rather, they start off the baptism ceremony with the child and complete it about 12 years later.  The baptism is not then seen as saying that the child is regenerate/saved/a member of the church until there is belief and profession as demonstrated in the confirmation. That is in effect the basis on which baptistic people have been willing to tolerate Anglican baptism

However, not all paedobaptists think like that. Indeed, the English experience which has led to conscience clauses is probably the minority one. Presbyterians hold to a view sometimes referred to as covenant baptism. The child through baptism is welcomed into the covenant. In its full blown form this leads to some of the problems we have observed with Federal Vision theology.

I think that as that view becomes stronger and more prevalent that it becomes harder for us to hold a conscience clause. We are beginning to deal with different views about what it means to belong to the church. So, I don’t think it is as simplistic as to say “We will just generally recognise all baptisms whatever mode or timing.” We do need to talk carefully with people who want to join us about their understanding of baptism and of their own specific baptism.

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