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?