Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is Baptism Essential? A Response to Piper's Position

Three years after John Piper and his elders put the lid on the boiling issue of allowing unbaptized Christians access to church membership they have decided to revive the issue. John Piper has decided to preach three sermons on the issue. The first sermon was titled, "How Important is Church Membership?" and the second was titled, "What is Baptism and How Important is it?" I assume the third, not yet preached as of this blog entry, will be something like, "How Serious is it to Exclude Christians From Church Membership?"

Let me say at the very beginning that I have high respect for John Piper. His passion for preaching and his great love for Christ is not to be diminished. His ministry has been a blessing to many Christians. However, I believe his wisdom is flawed on this issue. To restate the issue, John Piper and his elders are arguing that if a person has been baptized as an infant and believes his baptism is valid, he should be not be denied membership into a baptist church (Bethlehem Baptist Church). They believe the issue of excluding a Christians from membership into the local church is of greater importance than the issue of baptismal correctness. Their premise is the local church should mirror the Universal Church. If a person is a part of the Universal Church he must not be denied membership into a local church.

Let me state just a few inconsistencies in Piper's reasoning and dangers in his position. In his first sermon he did a wonderful job in laying out the importance of the local church. He stated that church membership involves discipline, submission to the elders, and accountability. Submission, however, must include the acceptance of doctrine. We must understand that while the local church should seek to mirror the Universal Church, we must also understand that the local church will never be absolutely pure this side of glory. The local church does not perfectly mirror the Universal Church. This is why we have confessional statements and why we have associations of like-minded churches. A confession of faith states what a local church believes about the Bible. Local churches do not always share the same beliefs . Our church holds to a particular confession (The London Baptist Confession). We believe that our confession reflects the teachings of Scripture. We do not believe that the differing views of other churches have equal validity. This would be tantamount to relativism - that there is no absolute truth. While we believe that every believer has error mixed in with his theology we also believe we must stand upon what we know to be the truth. Trinity Baptist Church believes that Biblical baptism is to be administered to believers alone by immersion. A person cannot claim to come under submission to our church and at the same time refuse to submit to this baptism.

In his second sermon Piper correctly states that baptism is big, huge. He says, "When we talk about baptism we are not talking mainly about religious ritual. We are not talking about a church tradition. We're talking about Christ!" Baptism reflects the glorious Gospel of Christ. He states that baptism is "uncompromisingly commanded" by Christ, "universally administered" by the church and "uniquely connected to conversion." With these glorious statements about Biblical baptism one has to wonder how Piper can conclude that Baptism is optional for church membership. His position is that if a Christian is convinced that his infant baptism is valid he should be allowed membership and hopefully, at some point, come to an understanding of the truth. We must be absolutely clear here. A person who has been baptized as an infant HAS NOT been baptized, period. It doesn't matter whether he believes he has been baptized. According to the Biblical definition of baptism he has NOT been baptized. Piper makes two essential statements in his sermons. In his first sermon he states that church membership involves submission. In the second sermon he states that baptism is "uncompromisingly commanded" by Christ. If Baptism is uncompromisingly commanded by Christ then it is NOT improper for the local church to demand baptism as a prerequisite for church membership.

Piper's argument is that it is vile and heinous to exclude a Christian from church membership. I argue that it is more heinous to disregard the explicit command of Christ in order to add people to the local church. If Christ has commanded us to be baptized it is not only correct for our church to demand it, it is essential that we demand it. Baptism must be a prerequisite for church membership.


Anonymous said...

When someone joins a new church they are saying that they agree with the teachings of that church. They are saying that they are willing to enter into a covenant relationship with the other members of that church. And most importantly, they are saying that they will submit to the spiritual leadership of the pastor and elders of that church. So, by refusing to submit to Baptism their very first act as a new member is one of defiance to this leadership. That is hypocrisy! That is pride. I do not boast in my Baptism. I am not saved by my Baptism. But I am condemned by my pride. One of man’s chief sins is an unwillingness to submit to authority. Not to downplay the importance of Baptism, but as a Christian I am much more concerned about the pride and arrogance in my heart. As a new church member I would much rather be “re-baptized” than even appear to be prideful and defiant to the elders appointed over me. If the pastor is wrong in this matter, then let him be wrong. There is certainly no sin on my part by submitting to a second or even a third Baptism.


Anonymous said...

The scripture teaches that baptism is the very first act of obedience required of the new believer. The early converts in Acts understood this and professed a sense of urgency to be baptized. If a professing Christian does not submit to the scriptural authority of this command he/she is expressing a fundamental disobedience to Christ. This is what Baptist churches have historically believed. It is why they do not allow an un-baptized Christian to become a member of the local church or to partake of the Lord’s supper until after they have followed Christ in this first act of obedience. If Bethlehem Baptist decides to allow un-baptized believers to participate in these two things they are in effect saying that it is ok to remain in their disobedience to Christ as a member of their local church.

This is a subject that many Baptist pastors have been persecuted and even martyred for in the past. King James burned Baptist preacher Edward Wightman at the stake because he denounced infant baptism and believed that only baptized believers could receive communion. We cannot allow the sacrifices of godly men like Wightman to be made in vein by blurring the definition of what it means to be a Baptist.

Bethlehem Baptist should seriously consider the question, “What does it mean to be a Baptist church?” We respect that many other believers in the universal church hold a contrary view about the requirements of baptism, however, by historical definition a Baptist church upholds the viewpoint described above. If Bethlehem Baptist concludes that the historical Baptist position is unbiblical then they should remove the Baptist label from their name. At that point they will have ceased to be a Baptist church. My hope and prayer is that it does not come to that, as Dr. Piper and Bethlehem Baptist have brought great credibility to Baptist denominations to our generation through their pursuit of, and passion for the glory of God.

Massimo Lorenzini said...

I too deeply respect and have been blessed by Piper's ministry. But I also think he is wrong on the baptism issue. You wrote: "Piper's argument is that it is vile and heinous to exclude a Christian from church membership." He puts the onus on the church when it should be on the person who refuses to submit to the church's doctrine and practice.