Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. discusses current issues facing the SBC

Wednesday, June 28, 2006
The Unavoidable Issue — Ecclesiology

I will be dealing with these questions at greater length in coming months, but recent developments raise inescapable issues for Southern Baptists. Do we really believe in believer’s baptism by immersion? Are we really committed to a regenerate church?

In a recent report from Associated Baptist Press, recent controversies concerning baptism and church membership were brought to light [see report here]. Ken Camp suggested several developments that raise a basic question about Baptist commitment to the baptism of believers by immersion as essential to membership in a Baptist church.

From his article:

A variety of reasons may cause some modern Baptists to downplay believer’s baptism by immersion said Bill Pinson, Director of the Texas Baptist Heritage Center and Executive Director Emeritus of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Possibilities include the influence of “ecumenical evangelism” that stresses commonly held beliefs over denominational differences; the influence of Calvinism in some Baptist circles; a desire to be non judgmental and tolerant; a postmodern worldview that questions exclusive claims of truth or “right” methods; and a lack of understanding about distinctive Baptist beliefs, Pinson noted.

Dr. Pinson is essentially correct in pointing to several of these influences. For some churches, it may be reduced to a question of marketing. The requirement of baptism by immersion as an act of the believer’s public profession raises the social “cost” of church membership, leading some churches to compromise a commitment to believer’s baptism as a prerequisite for membership in the church (and fellowship in the Lord’s Supper). Ideologically, the relativism inherent in the postmodern worldview plays right into this. If doctrine is a mere language game, why not change the game?

In mentioning Calvinism, I assume Dr. Pinson to be pointing primarily to the influence of Dr. John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Dr. Piper is a dear friend, and his vision of the Christian life is centered in the enjoyment of God and His greater glory has been transformative for an entire generation of young (and older) Christians. For his personal friendship and his friendship in the Gospel I am profoundly grateful.

Furthermore, as friends who love the truth and respect each other for that commitment, we can disagree without rancor or insecurity. That said, I am in profound disagreement with the proposal put forward by the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church concerning a change in their requirements for church membership. I do not believe that we give best witness to our unity in Christ by diminishing to any degree a Baptist commitment to believer’s baptism by immersion as a prerequisite to church membership. I cannot affirm a position that leads to the judgment of the believer the question of his of her baptism and its meaning.

The elders of BBC and Dr. Piper are to be commended for being so open and honest in calling for Christian brothers and sisters to respond to their proposal before the church takes action (an action delayed at the present time). I know of no other congregation that has been so open in its call for response from fellow believers.

With all respect for my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, I do not believe that the “baptism” of infants is any baptism at all. I can say that with great love and respect, knowing that Presbyterians who love the truth in their own confessional standards will respect a Baptist who does the same. As I often remark to evangelical Presbyterians, we may be the last people on earth who can have a real disagreement.

That said, baptism has been understood by all major branches of Christianity, throughout the centuries of Christian experience, to be a requirement for church membership and the fellowship of the Lord’s table. Thus, for Baptists to receive into the membership of a Baptist church (or to invite to the Lord’s Supper) any believer who lacks such baptism, is to receive non-baptized persons as if they were baptized.

Any compromise of Baptist conviction concerning the requirement of believer’s baptism by immersion amounts to a redefinition of Baptist identity. More importantly, it raises the most basic questions of ecclesiology. We must give those questions intent attention in these days. Otherwise, will there be any Baptists in the next generation?