8 October 2013

The Elephant and the Baptists

elephantNow, even though I’m a Presbyterian ex-Baptist, I try to stay out of debates on baptism. The arguments usually go round in circles, with people speaking past each other, defending positions, not usually seeking understanding. They’re not generally conducive to fruitful fellowship. However, two things make me wonder if this laissez-faire approach is the correct one.

First, some Presbyterians seem to find delineating a satisfying account of the practice of infant baptism alarmingly difficult. They take on board Baptist memes and try to incorporate them into their view, resulting in something of a dog’s breakfast. Second, some Baptists certainly do not adopt a laissez-faire attitude. They proselytise according to the Gospel of Believer’s Baptism. I don’t mean proselytise amongst the lost, the un-churched. I mean amongst the Presbyterians (or Anglicans), who they re-baptise into their own churches. Don’t get me wrong, over the past weeks I have enjoyed some wonderful fellowship with some wonderful Baptist friends in the unity of the Spirit – as it should be. But, some other Baptists seem to be very much on the attack.

Arguments tend to revolve around whether children should be baptised, or around how much water should be involved. But there is a more fundamental issue. An Elephant. In the Room. The apostle Paul expresses the foundation of Christian unity like this:

One Body and One Spirit…One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. One God and Father of All…    Eph 4:4-6

As Christians, we own the unity of God, the divinity and Lordship of Jesus as the Divine Messiah; we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ; we affirm the creeds of the church. We have One Lord and One Faith. And, we have One Baptism. There is one sign of entry into the Church; that is, the baptism practiced by the apostles themselves. One Baptism. Baptist theology has a different understanding of the baptism practiced by the apostles than do the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, Methodist or Congregational churches. The Baptists stand on their own in this regard. And most, if not all, of the former churches recognise each others’ baptism. This was certainly one of the fundamental tenets of the Reformers in their practice: they would not re-baptise someone who had been baptised in the Roman Catholic church. There is One Baptism. Presbyterians retain this tenet today.

And so we come to the Elephant. Baptists do not recognise One Baptism. Many of them would insist on re-baptising any professing Christian who had been raised in a believing family in any other (non-Baptist) church before allowing them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in their churches. This is essentially their declared judgement that these people are not, in fact, part of the Church of Jesus Christ. It declares other churches’ sacraments invalid, and comes close to declaring other churches themselves as invalid. With the Baptists, there is an ecumenical impasse. There is a fundamental problem. It’s not a problem of how much water you should use, or even simply a problem of whether children should be baptised. It is a fundamental problem of Christian Unity. To declare a church’s baptism as invalid, to insist on re-baptism, is to strike at the heart of Christian Unity. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism – this is not the view of the Baptists. And that’s why the Reformers regarded the Baptists in their day as a radical sect. Not a church, a sect.

My appeal is not for Presbyterians to change our attitude to the Baptists – we recognise Your Baptism, we count you as brothers and sisters. My appeal is to the Baptists – that we might receive the same respect from you, that you might recognise the validity of Our Baptism (and that of every other part of Christ’s church), the validity of our sacraments, the validity of our church itself (for it is that fundamental).

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.