In support of John Piper and his elders...
Noticing the blistering and non-blistering attacks of Baptists being sustained by John Piper and his elders in response to their proposal to allow those baptized as infants to join their church without being required to be rebaptized as adults by immersion only, it occurred to me that it would be good to place this letter up on our blog as a means of defending John and his fellow elders. Of course I realize that Baptists feel betrayed by John's actions in a way that I, as a paedo-baptist, cannot identify with because I think they're wrong, biblically and theologically.
But the issue I want to address is the refusal of Christians who disagree over this matter to worship and live in love together within a local church when they do so in many other contexts including seminaries, conferences, larger church meetings (general assembly worship and communions services, etc.), and so on. We, the elders of Church of the Good Shepherd, believe this dishonors God and often is a refusal of believers to obey the biblical imperative of unity within the Body of Christ.
So from our founding almost a decade ago, Church of the Good Shepherd has been in every way (structure, officers, constitution, bylaws, etc.) a Presbyterian Church of America congregation with one critical exception: we allow our officers freedom of conscience in time and mode of baptism. This one exception means that, although I am myself a member of the PCA (Ohio Valley Presbytery), our congregation is not allowed to join the denomination because about half the men serving as teaching and ruling elders are credo, not paedo-baptists. In other words, they believe that the sign of the covenant ought not to be placed on children of believers.
Now, here's the scandal. I think credo-baptists are wrong, biblically; and I have no difficulty sharing with them the shepherding of our congregation and united worship services each Lord's Day. We disagree over this matter and we live together in unity.
There are any number of objections that will be made to our commitment by our good readers, I'm sure, but I think the following letter will anticipate many of them. And the ones not anticipated here may be taken up below.
Here, then, is the letter of response written to a former PCA ruling elder...
...who was considering joining our fellowship, but questioned our doctrinal tolerance of those with whom we disagree concerning the time and mode of baptism. (It seemed best not to identify the man and his wife in this letter so they are given the names, John and Jane Doe.)
* * *
November 3, 1999
Dear (John and Jane Doe),
Thank you for taking the time to write and question the elders and pastors concerning Church of the Good Shepherd's stance on the Biblical doctrine of the sacrament of baptism. Since you asked questions and numbered each one, we'll respond by number, also.
1. The Board of Elders does not believe our statement granting officers freedom to take exception to the Westminster Standards on the time and mode of baptism is "ideal," although we do believe it would be wise for a greater number of reformed believers and congregations to choose this same path for the sake of the unity of the Body of Christ. It is our conviction that, particularly in Bloomington at this time, it is imperative that reformed Christians demonstrate a love for one another and a commitment to living with one another in peace, most especially at the places where we have doctrinal differences. We grieve over the almost-perpetual division of reformed believers which has been watched by the world and the larger evangelical community during the twentieth century as it has been demonstrated over a whole host of secondary doctrinal matters. It's our desire to demonstrate unity amidst diversity at points where the system of doctrine taught by reformed standards such as the Belgic Confession, the London Baptist Confession, and the Westminster Standards, etc. is not at stake. We believe the time and mode of baptism to be such a place.
As you know there is significant precedent for matters such as eschatology, cessationism, creation (old vs. young earth), and time and mode of baptism not barring cooperative work among churches, denominations, and individual believers of reformed conviction. For instance, the Presbyterian Church in America allows its officers latitude in a number of doctrinal areas, including eschatology, cessationism, and the Sabbath. Similarly, there are a number of precedents for cooperation among those who differ over the time and mode of baptism--witness Al Mohler addressing General Assembly in Louisville this year, Westminster Seminary in California serving as the Reformed Baptist seminary on the West coast, Roger Nicole's faculty status at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, and the significant mixture of Reformed Baptist speakers and authors within the conferences and publishing ministry of Banner of Truth Trust.
We do not believe the specific matter of whether the children of believers in the New Covenant are to marked by the sign of the New Covenant, baptism, is anywhere close to either the doctrine of justification by faith alone (on the basis of which we are separated from the Roman Catholic Church), or the doctrine of male headship (on the basis of which the P.C.A. separated from the Christian Reformed Church).
Scripture allows believers freedom of conscience in some matters that must be recognized as doctrinal in substance. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, exhorts us not to divide from weaker brothers who don't eat meat (though they are clearly wrong). Paul also exhorts us not to divide from brothers who differ on the observance of 'the day' (Romans 14 - 15:13). Although we are to seek to grow into a more complete knowledge of the truth ourselves, and to lead others into the same, we will always be related in Christ to brothers who differ with us on Scriptural doctrines. If this weren't so, it would be impossible to fulfill Paul's exhortations in Romans 14.
After drawing together disagreeing brothers, Paul writes in Romans 14: "Now may the God who gives perseverance and the encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God." Need it be said that unity is not uniformity, and that Paul expects those he is calling to "be of the same mind" to do so precisely at their points of disagreement? At Church of the Good Shepherd, lest Christ be divided we seek to give visible expression to this exhortation.
2. Although we believe the doctrine of the sacrament of baptism is of central importance, we do not believe the matter of the time and mode of baptism is of identical clarity, emphasis, or importance. In fact, in many different areas of Christian doctrine the clarity and emphasis of Scripture varies.
Scripture has many passages which teach, by both precept and example, the Biblical doctrine of male headship. Here is the most precise and explicit statement of this doctrine:
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint (1Timothy 2:11-15).
Thus those who reject the Biblical doctrine of male headship may quite legitimately be said to be without excuse of knowledge. On the other hand, it must be recognized that Scripture nowhere states with perspicuity equal to that with which it deals with male headship that children are to be baptized. Part of the proof of this is that, even among the most convinced paedo-baptists, one will find regular laments concerning the implicit--rather than explicit--nature of their Scripture proofs. In fact, the differing level of perspicuity with which Scripture deals with both these matters might well cause some to be willing to divide over manhood and womanhood, yet not over the time or mode of baptism.
3. ...Our Board of Elders has closely scrutinized the question of to what degree pastors and elders will be free to teach and preach their conscience on the time and mode of baptism and on August 21, 1996, a discussion of this matter gave way to the following entry into the minutes of our Board of Elders:
(Concerning baptism) Tim B. mentioned that this might be an opportunity to encourage people to think through their belief on this subject and hence to get them in the habit of examining the theological reasons behind their beliefs. Also, we can stress the fact that, in our case, being neutral does not mean that we don't care about the issue, but that after much thought, we cannot decide upon a definitive viewpoint for the entire congregation.
Thus each time infants are baptized at Church of the Good Shepherd an insert is placed in the worship bulletin and read aloud, and that insert is intended to record for the sake of posterity the exact promises made by the parents and congregation in connection with the raising of the child, to present a short summary of the Biblical basis for the baptism, and to make clear to all present that the baptism does not save the child, but that as our Lord said, "...except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3)."
Back in October of 1996 (we) responded to another inquiry concerning our position on baptism. Although the letter (came from an individual elder), he wrote it in our behalf and it's representative of our thinking on some of the points you have raised:
...Let me also emphasize that it is not our belief that a member of the church should hold no opinion on baptism nor even that church members should agree that either mode is equally valid. In fact, I would say that we would prefer that each member study the Scripture to develop a fuller understanding of this issue and perhaps become convicted one way or the other themselves.
However, we also recognize that each position is defensible from Scripture and has been argued on each side by conscientious Christians throughout the ages. In adopting these statements, we essentially are saying that we do not believe we should draw the line of the bounds of our fellowship at baptism. Similarly, we do not believe, for example, that we should exclude people from fellowship with us dependent upon their view of millennialism or predestination.
Of course, there are some issues that we believe we must draw the line and about which we believe that fellowship would be severely hindered if not impossible given an alternate point of view, e.g. the divinity of Christ, the triune nature of God, or the inerrancy of Scripture. The questions that are included as part of the application for membership are designed to illustrate the boundary lines which we believe are essential.
4. We make every effort to guard one another's consciences in this matter. Therefore, we do not ask either pastors or elders to be the agents of the time or mode of baptism which they believe to be unbiblical. We do, however, expect our officers to participate in all worship services of the congregation, just as the Presbyterian Church in America expects all those holding membership within her communion to join in worship services during which their own consciences on this (and other matters) are not in agreement with the administration of the sacraments, the preaching of the Word, or the corporate worship and prayer. Of course, no fellowship this side of Heaven has such unity that this kind of charitable patience and self-control is not required.
Further, the dedication vows should be able to be made by all Christians:
Pastor: Our Lord Jesus Christ ordered us to teach our children. Do you the people of Church of the Good Shepherd, promise to tell this child the good news of the Gospel, to help him know all that Christ commands, and by your fellowship, to strengthen his family ties with the Household of God?
Congregation: We do.
Pastor: Do you as a congregation undertake the responsibility of assisting the parents in the Christian nurture of this child, so that in due time he may confess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?
Congregation: We do.
We do not think it would be a violation of conscience to make these vows concerning any child in the Household of Faith, unless one were unwilling to fulfill the vow.
5. We are in complete agreement with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards on this matter, although we freely affirm that there would be, in our own congregation as well as the congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Christian Reformed Church, etc., quite a bit of divergence concerning the exact nature and Biblical basis of this work of God among households.
Some time back, we distributed to the entire congregation a document written and adopted by the elders of another confessional reformed congregation sharing our conviction that differences among a congregation's officers on the time and mode of baptism ought not be allowed to divide that congregation. Here is the statement as we issued it to the members of Church of the Good Shepherd. ((One of our elders) is the author of this statement, but he spoke for the entire Board of Elders in what he here wrote.)
A PRELIMINARY STATEMENT ON BAPTISM
(Presented by the elders to the congregation of Church of the Good Shepherd on August 25, 1996)
In an attempt to reconcile the differing views of our congregation and to affirm that we strongly believe that baptism is commanded by God for each member of His Church; while also affirming that we believe that conscientious Christians can honestly disagree about the preferred mode of baptism; the elders have read and considered various statements on baptism from the documents of various church bodies and denominations from church history. Below are a set of statements on baptism that have been extracted from the Statement of Faith and the Constitution used by Community Evangelical Fellowship in Moscow, Idaho. (Some of you may be familiar with Credenda Agenda which is published by C.E.F.). Of all the documents we have read, this body of statements most closely expresses our interpretation as a board of elders of Scripture on the issue of administering baptism.
While some of the wording may ultimately be changed somewhat, we intend to incorporate these statements and the sentiments they express in some form into our own Statement of Faith and Constitution. We have decided to issue these statements now in their original form in order to communicate to the congregation the stance we intend to take on baptism. It is our hope that this will dispel any misunderstandings and remove the need for premature speculation about the elders' position on this potentially controversial issue in our church.
We would like to thank all of you who have expressed interest and concern regarding this and other issues related to our work. We sincerely hope that you will continue to feel free to express your thoughts to us as we endeavor to construct the foundational documents of our church. We also ask that you be patient with us as we take the necessary time to carefully consider the implications of each aspect of these documents, which include our Statement of Faith, our Constitution and Bylaws, and our Requirements for Membership and Leadership. May the mercy of our Lord be on all of us as we seek to do His will and to honor His name.
From the C.E.F. Statement of Faith:We believe the Lord commissioned His Church to undertake the discipleship of the world (Matt. 29:18-20). At that time, He commanded baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptism with water is therefore an ordinance of the Christian Church, and the elders of the church are responsible to ensure that baptisms are administered in a Scriptural fashion, and that the proper signification of water baptism is preserved and maintained. We affirm that water baptism signifies union with Christ (Rom. 6:3-7), the baptism of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:13), the washing away of sin (Acts 22:16), the washing of regeneration (Tit. 3:5), the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:6; Acts 10:44,47), and the circumcision of the heart (Col. 2:11-12).
We deny that water baptism imparts grace by means of water. God imparts grace to His saints to enable them to obey Him (2 Cor. 9:8), and strengthens them further by grace in that obedience (Heb. 12:14-15). The faithful observance of water baptism constitutes one part of that obedience.
We believe baptism in water and the Lord's Supper to be external signs of internal, spiritual and historical realities.
We deny that they are automatic means of blessing. Grace comes to us through faith alone. Any biblical means to build biblical faith is therefore a means of blessing and grace-including water baptism and the Lord's Supper.
We believe that legitimate modes of water baptism include immersion, pouring, or sprinkling in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We deny that the Scriptural meaning of water baptism is nullified by the mode of application.
From the C.E.F. Constitution:Because water baptism is required of those seeking membership, the following guidelines will apply. When an unbeliever is brought to a profession of faith in Christ, he should be immediately instructed on the subject of baptism, and subsequently baptized. When an unbaptized Christian moves to our church, he will be instructed on his responsibility to be baptized at the first opportunity, and subsequently baptized. He will not be admitted into membership in the church until he is baptized. When baptisms are administered by the elders of our church, the mode used (whether by pouring, immersion, or sprinkling) will be determined through arrangement with the person being baptized, or with his parents.
When a baptized Christian moves to our church, the elders acknowledge his baptism as Christian baptism in receiving him into the membership of the church. This will not be affected by whether or not the baptism was administered in infancy.
Those members of households who have not professed faith in the Lord, and have not come to the Lord's Table are recognized by the elders of the church to be non-communicant members of member households.
Members of households who have been baptized in water, have professed faith in the Lord, and have come to the Lord's Table are considered by the elders of the church to be communicant members of the church, and recognized as communicant members of member households.
When a child in a baptistic home comes to a personal profession of faith in the Lord, the parents should notify the elders, and confirm to them their child's profession of faith. The elders will arrange for the baptism of the child, and he will then come to the Lord's Table.
When a child is born into a paedobaptistic home, the elders will arrange for the baptism of the child. As a child growing up in such a home comes to a personal profession of faith in the Lord, the parents should notify the elders, and confirm to them their child's profession of faith. He will then come to the Lord's Table.
Please feel free to discuss these matters with us further. We do anticipate with great joy the prospect of you both joining with us in the work of the Kingdom of God here in Bloomington.
May the Lord lead and guide Church of the Good Shepherd into His perfect Truth in all matters.
In His service,
Timothy B. Bayly, Moderator
Board of Elders, Church of the Good Shepherd