Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Baptism and the Local Church — Pray for This Pastor and Congregation

The Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmund, Oklahoma had been set to vote on a policy change that would have allowed persons to join the church without baptism. Then, just as the church was poised to vote on the bylaw change, the pastor and elders of the church decided against going forward with the vote [see Baptist Press news story here].

Pastor Dennis Newkirk reflected on this move in his Weblog in an entry dated July 31, 2006. After tracing events that led to this decision, Dr. Newkirk explained:

The concern now exists on the Elder Council that we have not addressed some of the unique aspects of the issue of baptism and its relationship with church membership in our proposed bylaw change. We do not believe that the intent of the bylaw change is wrong but the concern exists that we may have been incomplete and we are out of time to even begin to discuss and possibly adjust it and meet the announced schedule. Because of this, we are not going to ask the church to vote on the proposal. We simply are no longer in consensus as a council.

The pastor’s entire Weblog article deserves a close reading. One other aspect of his concern has to do with what he has characterized as a “violation” of his church’s autonomy and independence. In another posting he reflected:

Frankly, I am so shocked to this week’s events and the unprecedented assault against this local church that I do no have the wisdom or energy to respond in grace. Please give me a few days to seek the Lord’s face before I make any comment about the onslaught and infringement. Godliness, humility, understanding, and speaking the truth in love are much more important than retaliation or winning. I have no desire to strike back in anger or seek revenge. Please pray for grace and wisdom.

I assume that the background to this statement of frustration has to do with a series of articles published in the denominational press, including both Baptist Press and the Baptist Messenger, offering both news coverage and analysis.

I do understand the pastor’s frustration. No one desires to debate an issue of this importance in the white heat of public censure. Nevertheless, the denominational press had no choice but to deal with an issue of this importance. Furthermore, Baptist leaders had no choice but to speak in defense of the biblical convictions at stake — convictions central to Baptist identity and ecclesiology.

Henderson Hills Baptist Church is truly autonomous. No external Baptist body can coerce any action or prevent any action undertaken by the Henderson Hills church. Nevertheless, autonomy does not mean isolation. The Baptist principle of congregational associationalism means that we, as Southern Baptist churches, are united together in faith, mission, and convictions. The local Baptist association, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and the Southern Baptist Convention are also autonomous, and each has the right to establish its own criteria for membership.

As Baptists, we belong to each other and must pray for each other. In times past, churches would often petition associations and other Baptist churches for advice, seeking a common mind and seeking to be united in biblical conviction and practice.

I have heard wonderful reports about Henderson Hills Baptist Church and Dr. Dennis Newkirk. I am certain beyond doubt that this is a godly pastor seeking to lead his congregation in truth. As brothers and sisters in Christ, and as fellow Southern Baptists, we owe this church our testimony, our encouragement, our counsel, and our prayers.

We will watch for further developments with care and prayerful concern.

Here is the text of the article I submitted at the request of the Baptist Messenger:

The Baptist vision of the local church is well summarized by “The Baptist Faith and Message” as “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers.” Those two last words are crucial to this definition – the congregation consists of baptized believers who are drawn together by a common faith and a common witness through the waters of baptism.

Until recently, this has been axiomatic among Baptists, and the concept is directly connected to the Baptist insistence that the church be composed of regenerate persons – those who have experienced the new birth through faith in Christ Jesus. As The Baptist Faith and Message reminds us, baptism (defined as “the immersion of a believer in water”) is “prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.”

In the New Testament, baptism is presented as an ordinance (an act commanded by Christ) that is reserved for believers only, and is understood as the Christian’s act of public testimony and as the believer’s profession of faith in Christ. The link between baptism and the experience of conversion is clear, for example, in the book of Acts [see Acts 2:41-42, 8:35-39, 16:30-33].

The common experience of believer’s baptism is central to the unity and identity of the church. In Ephesians 4:5, Paul writes of the church as constituted by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul reminds us: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

Thus, baptism is presented as a necessary act of obedience to Christ that marks the believer’s incorporation into the church as the Body of Christ. Put simply, the New Testament has no concept of an unbaptized Christian, much less an unbaptized church member. When all this is put together, the consistent biblical witness to baptism as the immersion of believers leads Baptists to see no other act as true baptism, no matter how it may be conceived by other churches. Then, when baptism is understood to mark the believer’s primary profession of faith in Christ and his or her incorporation of the believer into the Body of Christ, an unbaptized church member then becomes a truly foreign concept.

For Baptists, the experience of believer’s baptism by immersion is a source of unity and a powerful affirmation of the church as a local body of regenerate believers, united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. To compromise this principle is to lose something precious to our Baptist faith-and to the New Testament vision of the church.

See additional coverage at Baptist Press here. Additional coverage by the Baptist Messenger available here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Further see KTEN-TV, KOCO-TV, The Oklahoman.