In a recent comment a friend of mine raised the issue of whether the requirements for membership in the local church ought to be the same as the requirements for membership in the universal church. I take this to mean: we think that someone is saved if they make a profession of faith and show evidence of regeneration. Why are these not also the requirements for church membership? Why should one have to be baptized as a believer by immersion in order to become a member of a church?
Some other friends have sought further discussion as to why a Baptist would only welcome believers who have been baptized as believers by immersion to partake of communion. So here is my attempt to explain why Baptists don’t commune with Presbyterians—in other words, here is my attempt to explain why Baptists and Presbyterians form separate churches.
Baptists are convinced that when Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . .” (Matt 28:19), he meant for people who have become disciples—people who have been born again and voluntarily associated with other believers to obey everything he commanded (28:20)—to be baptized. Historically the Baptists separated from state churches, into which all persons born in the state were baptized as infants. No infant voluntarily associated with other believers. Today, I do not believe that infants are born regenerate or born disciples, so I don’t believe infants should be baptized. Infants are not united to Christ by faith, so infants should not be baptized (see Gal 3:26–29). I do believe that I should raise my children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, that I should tell them every day that they need to believe in Jesus, that I should help them memorize Bible verses, but only the Spirit can give them the new birth (John 3:3–8).
The words of Jesus are paralleled by the unbroken example of apostolic practice. Every time you see someone baptized in the New Testament, the person confesses faith in Jesus before they get baptized. Pointing to “household baptisms” does not provide evidence that there were infants in those households who got baptized. After the whole family gets baptized in Acts 16:33, the next verse, 16:34, says the whole household rejoiced having believed in God. Translations render verse 34 differently: the ESV and RSV make it sound like only the jailer believed, while the HCSB, KJV, NAS, NET, NIV, and NKJV all render the verse as though the whole household believed. Even if the ESV and RSV have it right (and I don’t think they do), the text does not explicitly say that there were infants in the household who were baptized. The household might not have included any infants.
The command of Jesus and the unbroken example of the apostles together indicate that those who believe should be baptized upon their profession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Since the infant who is sprinkled was not baptized upon profession of faith, the infant was not baptized as a believer. Since the infant was not immersed in water, which is what the word “baptize” means, the infant was not baptized. I know my paedobaptist friends won’t like this, but infant baptism is no baptism. Those “baptized” as infants have in fact not been baptized at all.
This means that any believer who has not been baptized upon profession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord is failing to obey the authoritative instruction of the Lord Christ and follow the apostolic pattern.
Many Baptist churches will welcome any believer who happens to be present when the church takes communion to partake. But if the occasional visit turns into regular attendance, and if this means that one who has not been baptized as a believer by immersion is regularly present when the church takes communion, the unbaptized should not be allowed to continue to take communion—because we love them. Baptists believe that church membership is important, and many Baptist statements of faith say that baptism is prerequisite to church membership and participation in the Lord’s supper (see the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, art. 7, for example). This means that Baptists are going to urge all regular attenders to become members, and before one can become a member, one must be baptized by immersion. If a regular attender refuses to become a member, stating that they have been baptized as an infant, because we love people and want them to obey Jesus, we will urge them to bring themselves into line with his words in Matthew 28:19.
If people refuse the loving instruction of the church and refuse to come into line with the words of Jesus and the unbroken example of the apostles, as much as we Baptists may love this person, we cannot allow them to become members of the church and take communion. They have refused to follow Christ and the apostles on this point, they have not submitted to the church’s love and instruction, and the church does not have the right to bypass the instructions of Jesus and the example of the apostles because of concern for people. We love people enough to tell them what we believe to be the truth.
Church membership is important. We only allow people to become members of churches if they confess faith in Christ as Lord and give evidence of having been born again by repenting of all known sin. We Baptists believe that people who refuse to be baptized as believers by immersion are sinning by not being baptized in accordance with the Bible’s teaching. We are not saying they are not Christians—only God knows the heart. But we are saying that because we submit to the Bible, and because we love them and want what is best for them, we cannot allow them to become members of the church. We believe they are in disobedience on the point of baptism, and we are calling them to repent and be baptized.
I love non-Baptists. Some of my favorite theologians, past and present, are non-Baptists. I am thrilled to see the cooperation between Baptists and non-Baptists at things like “Together for the Gospel.” But I can’t join a Presbyterian church. My convictions on what the Bible says and means won’t let me. And people who have not been baptized as believers by immersion can’t join Baptist churches. This is why we have Presbyterian and Baptist Churches. We must pray and work for unity, but unity has to be unity in the truth. Unity must be found in obedience to the Scriptures.