Ecclesiology and Baptism

Greg Strand – July 23, 2014 13 Comments

The EFCA is comprised largely of those who would call themselves baptists with a small “b.” Proponents of this position affirm and practice believer baptism by immersion (credo), but they also recognize infant baptism (paedo) as a valid baptism (though not understood in any salvific sense). Those who have been baptized as an infant and are truly born again can be granted membership into the local church. We in the EFCA have determined that we will not divide over our differences regarding the time and mode of baptism.

In living out this doctrine in life and ministry together, we don’t consider these differences adiaphora, i.e. matters of indifference, or respond as if they don’t matter. We don’t claim that the Scriptures are so unclear that we equivocate on the true meaning of baptism. Rather, we affirm the truth of Scripture, and we base our doctrinal views of baptism on the Scripture. But we don’t believe this difference in interpretation ought to preclude our unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ that manifests in full partnership and fellowship in the local church.

Here is how we have explained this in Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America (p. 170, n. 40):

We recognize that the interpretations of Scripture on the relevant points regarding the two positions on baptism differ with one another and are in some ways incompatible. We allow different interpretations, not because we think Scripture is intrinsically ambiguous on the matter, nor because we think Scripture provides so little information that it is unwise to hold any opinion, but because some of us think the credobaptist position is in line with Scripture and that the paedobaptist position is mistaken, and some think the paedobaptist position is in line with Scripture and that the exclusively credobaptist position is mistaken. In other words, both sides hold that Scripture speaks to the matter, but each side holds a view that excludes the other. However, we do not believe that our differing views on this matter (among others) should prevent our unity in the gospel in full local church fellowship. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that the Statement of Faith “allows” both views.

But is our latitude with regard to the time and mode of baptism actually a reflection of a diminished view of baptism itself? In the recent Christianity Today, Roger Olson writes of the essential place baptism is to have in the local church in both belief and practice: “Water Works: Why Baptism Is Essential.” Based on the clear teaching of Scripture, baptism is not optional for the Christian.

In the course of the article, as an example of a deficiency in the church, Olson refers to the EFCA. He writes: the EFCA “provides latitude on whether baptism should be required for church membership. Based on the denomination’s autonomy, it’s a local church matter.” This, he contends, “stands in stark contrast with the NT and all of Christian history. For the apostles and faithful Christians after them, baptism was a necessary rite of passage for joining the church.”

On the one hand, we would expect such a statement since he is a Baptist with a capital “B.” But on the other hand, he is not making this statement only from the Baptist perspective, but from the New Testament’s teaching about baptism and from the practice of almost all churches through all of church history.

Have we so emphasized salvation (soteriology) that we have diminished the doctrine and practice of the church (ecclesiology)? Was this a response against the state church that elevated membership (ecclesiology) at the expense of salvation (soteriology)? Did our response result in an error in the other direction? Is this an important reminder/corrective to our response?

How do we respond? In Evangelical Convictions (p.172, n. 52) we state,

Both baptism and church membership are important for every believer, and in normal circumstances baptism as the biblically prescribed act of Christian initiation (in whatever form regarding time or mode) ought to precede church membership.

Yes, we affirm local church autonomy. But if what we say about baptism and church membership is true, what should be the practice in our churches?

 

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

13 responses to Ecclesiology and Baptism

  1. Greg, the EFCA could always adopt a position similar to either the Evangelical Covenant Church of the PCA or the OPC among confessional presbyterians. The ECC practices both types of baptism, but unlike the EFCA won’t rebaptize someone who has been baptized as an infant since they accept it as a valid baptism. The flip side of this is that, as I understand it, all Covenant pastors must pledge to do either type of baptism– credo or paedo– if requested. While this gives the recipient freedom, it does impinge upon the beliefs of the minister.

    Confessional Presbyterians will accept any form of baptism if it is done in the name of the Triune God as valid. We will not rebaptize any one who has had such a valid baptism. While we believe in, practice and encourage paedo-baptism, we allow anyone who has been validly baptized to join our churches. This is one thing which distinguishes us from some of the continental Reformed churches.

    While we encourage members to have their children baptized, we don’t disfellowship them if they don’t. We do have a vocal minority that would like to change that, but I don’t see that happening. We require baptism for membership and admission to the Lord’s table and in that sense we wouldn’t be guilty of what Roger Olson has accused the EFCA of being: a church that actually downplays the significance of baptism. Perhaps the EFCA could learn from us, even if it is handled primarily on the local level.

    As far as the EFCA is concerned, I think he might have a point as far as its history is concerned. The Free church that I was a member of years ago actually had an elder who was not baptized until he was in his 70s and he had served as an elder for years. Someone explained it to me that in addition to the desire to not split over the issue of baptism, there was also some influence of hyper-dispensationalism which did not believe baptism was for this dispensation among some older EFCA folks and the particular church I was a member of had a number of older folks who had been members of the Salvation Army which had done mission work among the Swedish immigrants and does not practice baptism of any sort.

    Again, thanks for letting me add my bit to this discussion.

    • And thank you for being a part of the discussion. It is clear you have thought long and hard about these important matters. I would add one thing, which you note. If the EFCA were to adopt the beliefs and practices of the Evangelical Covenant, then pastors would be mandated to perform both. Though they would remain congregational, they would not then be “baptistic.” If they were to move in the direction of a Presbyterian body, then they would no longer be congregational since it would change their polity. So, this belief and practice is not stand-alone but rather inter-related and organic such that it is determined by and affects one’s understanding of soteriology and ecclesiology. This is what makes the EFCA unique and also means we live with some tension. But then again, on this side of glory, most all of us and most all denominations do.

  2. Greg, here’s a suggestion. How about making the subject of baptism part of your annual theological conference and particularly bringing in some of the more Reformed type paedo-baptists who are in the EFCA or TEDS– W. Van Gemeren and Scott Manetsch come to mind from TEDS. Have them present their views and then discuss from the perspective of how to include paedo-baptists within the EFCA without losing the congregational distinctives of your polity or impinging on the freedom of your ministers. This might include discussions of how to implement what the Free Church that I performed the infant baptism in did– bringing in a guest minister if the local pastor felt uncomfortable baptizing an infant. This could all be done using the dual view on baptism that is part of the EFCA’s heritage as the focal point.

    I’m not sure how this would fly, but perhaps it would be useful. Issues such as those raised by R. Olson about the importance of baptism in the overall life of the church could be addressed as well. Perhaps you and others in the EFCA have thought about this, but I thought I’d toss out these suggestions.

    John

    • Great idea, John . . . but we have already done it! It would probably not surprise you to learn that our Theology Conference in 2005 addressed this very topic: Baptism and the EFCA. And the Reformed paedo-baptists you suggest/recommend spoke. As did Bill Kynes representing the baptist (small “b”) position. We also captured a summary of this conference in the Ministerial Forum 15/1 (Summer 2005).

      • Greg, glad to hear it. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I somehow remember seeing the papers from the Ministerial Forum. I’d be interested in hearing your personal take on how the majority of the EFCA ministers at that Forum reacted to the idea of greater inclusion of paedo-baptists in the EFCA, giving the strongly baptistic leaning of most of the local congregations.

      • It was a helpful and important interaction. It was also illuminating for many. Since you ask, I will share with you my sentiment, though this is certainly not the official EFCA position.

        Being who we are in the EFCA – baptist (with a small “b”) – we need to think this through more thoroughly, both theologically and pastorally/practically, and we need to move away from the practice of not requiring any baptism at all as it relates to ecclesiology, specifically membership and the Lord’s Supper. These issues have begun to be addressed in Evangelical Convictions.

  3. 1. I think I remember reading about a Scandanavian Lutheran group as being one of those united into what has become the EFCA. Was this one reason that paedobaptism was included?

    2. We should continually focus on Triune baptism. I would suspect that many “evangelical-sounding” crypto-modalists could be “smoked out” with this distinction.

    3. I believe that the model Constitution and Bylaws from the EFCA which our organizing group used to write our own back in the 1980’s said “baptism is encouraged”.

    4. We’re quick to criticize Lutherans for their belief in “baptismal regeneration”, but don’t many of us practice what amounts to a “decisional regeneration”? Walking down the aisle and saying the “sinner’s prayer” (which I haven’t been able to find in the Bible) has become for some a de facto “Ex opere operato”.

  4. 5. Isn’t it fair to say that the concept of someone who professes to be a Christian who remains for years unbaptized would have been unknown to the early church?

    6. J Gresham Machen in his Christianity and Liberalism bemoans the fact that Luther’s split with Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper did great damage to the nascent protestant church, but he points out that that was not the worst possible outcome.

    It was a great calamity indeed. But the calamity was due to the fact that Luther (as we believe) was wrong about the Lord’s Supper;and it would have been a far greater calamity if being wrong about the Supper he had represented the whole question as a trifling affair. Luther was wrong about the Supper, but not nearly so wrong as he would have been if, being wrong, he had said to his opponents: ‘Brethren, this matter is a trifle; and it makes really very little difference what a man thinks about the table of the Lord.’ Such indifferentism would have been far more deadly than all the divisions between the branches of the Church. A Luther who would have compromised with regard to the Lord’s Supper never would have said at the Diet of Worms, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, Amen.’ Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.

  5. 7. [Now I’m on a roll.] I find it frustrating that there is such latitude in the EFCA over baptism but not over, ahem, premillennialism. Encore Machen (op. cit.)

    It is therefore highly misleading when modern liberals represent the present issue in the Church, both in the mission field and at home, as being an issue between premillennialism and the opposite view. It is really an issue between Christianity, whether premillennial or not, on the one side, and a naturalistic negation of all Christianity on the other.

    • Thank you for your lengthy reply, Bob. 1. Yes. Not only were there Lutherans in our early days, but there was also a sense of the longer history of the church in which paedo baptism was practiced. This explains why we are not Baptist but rather ended up baptist. 5. Yes. One can read almost any New Testament scholar and that will be their conclusion. 6. I strongly agree with Machen. The sad reality is that for many in the Free Church this essential of baptism while granting charity on time and mode has led to the ordinances being considered an adiaphora, a matter of indifference. Machen appropriately responds to that nonsense. 7. Right. There is, however, some latitude regarding the specifics of premillennialism (Dispensational, Progressive, Historic) and the tribulation (pre, mid, pre-wrath, post).

  6. I’ve read the original statement and some of the comments. I’m not a theologian, but I am a life long Christian. Gladly I am not part of any denomination, but attend a large church that is non-denominational. A church that follows the word of God and stands alone before God. Also a church that plants many churches each year and trains pastors from all over the world.

    There is a debate here over baptism, whether infant baptism is spiritually accepted or not and whether a church should honor it or not for membership. I don’t get it and most Christians reading this theological debate will probably be lost trying to follow it. Jesus nor his disciples, nor Paul, or anyone in the New Testament taught infant baptism. I really don’t know who started it, but probably the Catholic church. Baptism is water immersion and comes after the profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. That is clear as a bell in scripture. Any thing else is made up by man. Jesus Christ modeled it for us, and He didn’t even need baptism.

    Jesus modeled the Lord’s supper for us and commanded us to do this in remembrance of Him. Every church including the Catholic church follows it with the breaking of bread and drinking the wine (or juice) in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But for some reason when it comes to baptism, it’s ok to deviate and allow infant baptism. I don’t get it. It’s clear in the Bible how it show be.

    While baptism isn’t necessary for salvation or even church membership initially, it should be taught as Jesus and Paul and the others taught it. It is the desire and will of Jesus Christ Himself that we be baptized publicly after our profession of faith as an outward expression to the world of our salvation. All churches should teach this and strongly encourage everyone to follow this. It’s really that pure and simple gentlemen.

    • Thank you for your comment, Victor. The Bible is the sole and absolute authority, not necessarily my interpretation, theology or practice. Although we can agree on the authority of the Bible, we can and will disagree on the other matters. Those matters are not always so “pure and simple.”

      • Not always, but with baptism it is. There are many things in the Bible that are pure and simple. Either they are or they are not…like being born again. There is only one way to heaven even though many theologians will debate the issue. Then there are issues left to some discretion as long as we don’t cause a brother in Christ to stumble.

        Infant baptism…no where taught in the new testament. Dedicating a new born to God before the church without baptism… fine with me. We did that when I was growing up.

        Baptism is an after salvation event…pure and simple. But as I said before, it won’t keep you out of heaven. And going to heaven is the number one issue.

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