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Bethlehem Baptist Update

Awhile ago, Andrew and I wrote about how Bethlehem Baptist (John Piper's church) was considering dropping their requirement of being believer-baptized for becoming a member of the church. Apparently, that proposal has now been withdrawn. Here is a link to John Piper's explanation of the current situation and the reason for withdrawing the proposal.

Mostly, the congregation greatly disagreed with the concept, and because of this, some of the elders who had previously agreed to the proposal changed their mind. Although there are no hard feelings, Piper still hopes that, at some point in the future, his church might implement this policy.

Personally, I find this unfortunate. I really liked the idea that Baptists would begin a policy where they insisted that their elders and pastors affirm their distinctive theology of baptism, but that they would also allow like-minded (in all other things) Presbyterian types to join their congregations. To my understanding, the Presbyterian Church in America insists that its elders, pastors, etc..., affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith (which includes provisions for infant baptism), but nevertheless allows people with a Baptist theology of baptism to join their churches. (Am I wrong about this?)

Hopefully, our brothers and sisters at Bethlehem Baptist will soon implement this idea and begin a trend among Baptist--especially Reformed Baptist--churches. Even more so, I genuinely hope that Baptists and Presbyterians will increasingly unite for the cause of the gospel in the coming decades. I see John Piper's proposal as a concrete way to jump-start that process.

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You're not wrong. These are the only things you have to affirm to join a PCA church:
* Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
* Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
* Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
* Do you promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
* Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

Of course I do not disagree that theologically like-minded Baptists and Presbyterians should unite for the cause of the gospel in the coming years--or immediately for that matter--and not just Baptists and Presbyterians--but anyone else who is Biblically/Theologically conservative and genuinely evangelical. However, I would disagree that it is a good thing (or more importantly a right thing in the eyes of God) for leadership to knowingly admit to membership people who are opposed to them in regard to such a distinctive doctrine as baptism. What is it that makes a Baptist church Baptist? And likewise what makes a Presbyterian church Presbyterian? Especially if they are "like-minded(in all other things)?" The reality is that the two, where they differ on baptism, differ on a very deep level. And though I may frankly like and have a personal affinity for a theological conservative--whether he be presbyterian, anglican, or whatever-and perhaps even identify with him/her more strongly than many people in my own tradition--I cannot have the sort of fellowship outlined in Scripture for members of a local assembly with that person. The fusing of the baptist and presbyterian traditions will bring reproach upon them both and ultimately the demise of each. In the end it will be the now "ultra-conservative" elements of each--those who maintain the "denominator"--who truly carry the gospel-not another one-into the coming years. And we will do this unified as the Church Universal because that is the will of God--but rather than minimize our differences and open our assemblies up to subversive attacks from within, we must recognize and embrace our differences. Both denominations must stand as we are--unified in purpose, but fundamentally and drastically different in philosophy. As for everyone else, I see most of contemporary Christendom simply unraveling into various expressions, either more liberal or more conservative, of Unitarianism. Most of which has been brought about by a seemingly healthy desire to minimize differences and maximize unity.

Good points. I guess the question is, How much of a church's stated theology must a person believe before that church would be able to admit that person to membership? Certainly, both extremes should be avoided. It shouldn't be that anybody and everybody should be able to join a church. At the same time, to require a person to understand and believe every jot and tittle of a church's profession of faith doesn't really leave room for growth. It almost demands that only the very advanced and theologically astute would be able to join a local church.

Now, where you and I differ would be where the doctrine of baptism plays into this discussion. John Piper's point was that, if a Reformed Presbyterian whose conscience would not allow rebaptism came to his church and wanted to join, the similarities in their beliefs (in this case) should outweigh the differences. So, their mutual agreement with the Doctrines of Grace, the complementarian view of men and women, and the passion for the supremacy of God over all things would outweigh a difference of subjects and mode of baptism as those issues relate to membership.

Piper makes no secret that he disagrees with the doctrine of infant baptism as held by Presbyterians; however, he thinks that the door to local church membership should be roughly as wide as the door to heaven. So, instead of refusing membership until a Presbyterian changed his/her view on baptism, he would admit that person to membership, and then preach to, counsel, and pray for that person to help them grow into the church's understanding of baptism.

The way to maintain the distinctives, then, would be to set the bar higher for becoming an elder, deacon, or pastor. In such a setup, Piper sees it as very important to require the leaders of the church to profess a higher, stricter, and more uniform standard of theology. In this way, the leadership of the church would be unified, helping all their members (who may have some dissimilarity on theology of baptism or other things) to grow into the church's official position.

I understand the possibility that this could devolve into a theological free-for-all, but I think that, if proper steps are taken, that possibility could be avoided. I, for one, find Piper's suggestion a very helpful idea. I think that our theological distinctives in the church are important, but I also think that denominations distrust each other a lot. I think Piper's thoughts and rationale would be a good way to move forward on a lot of fronts, without sacrificing anybody's theology.

So, lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing that churches should water down what they stand for; rather, I think that church's should simply be more willing to admit to membership--although certainly not to leadership positions--genuine Christians whose views differ from the church's official position. I see this as a maximize unity/maximize differences venture, rather than one that would maximize unity and minimize differences.

Here are some more questions. Are we talking about new converts or a person who is theologically advanced enough to have a conflict of conscience over the doctrine of baptism? Is it not precisely the "advanced and theologically astute" that are in question here? Also, whichever position you hold, is not baptism an issue of personal holiness? If so, wouldn't it be irresponsible to play it down? Finally, are the respective professions of faith necessarily dogmatic? In a "jot and tittle" sense.

My reading of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message allows wiggle room in numerous areas--even ones which a "Reformed Baptist" might wish there to be less. But this is not necessarily bad. In fact it is for the reasons that you seem to be in favor of that Baptists are "non-confessional." Ultimately, there are whole ranges of interpretation that allow people to position themselves variously on different points of doctrine--while still maintaining orthodoxy. And so the issue is not exclusive to baptism.

In fact, I would say that it is just as--if not more--important that members of the local assembly agree on baptism than that they agree on the doctrines of grace. So while I affirm that your question is the right one, the question alone does not show that baptism should be relegated a non-essential for membership.

To answer the question, we must find not only whether both positions are Scripturally plausible--but which one is accurate. I think the answer to that lies in our hermeneutics.

The new questions:
Are we talking about new converts or a person who is theologically advanced enough to have a conflict of conscience over the doctrine of baptism? Is it not precisely the "advanced and theologically astute" that are in question here?
Well, I was mainly trying to make a general statement to show that extremes in requirements of doctrinal belief of members would not be a good thing in the church.

So, to answer your specific question, I do not think that only the theologically astute are those in question here. It may be that someone has grown up in a Presbyterian church always knowing infant baptism, himself being infant baptized, not necessarily having weighed the arguments of Baptists and Presbyterians carefully, but simply never having had a reason to question and wholly discount the Presbyterian doctrine of infant baptism. This sort of person might well be not very theologically astute at all, but still be a believer with conscience set against being rebaptized. In fact, I imagine that the "theologically astute" Presbyterian would probably stay away from a Baptist church in favor of another church that agreed with the Westminster Confession of Faith. (Ironically, the one exception here might be John Piper's Baptist church, which, because of Piper's doctrine, leadership, and fame, might draw Presbyterians from PCA churches. I will address that more later.)

Also, whichever position you hold, is not baptism an issue of personal holiness? If so, wouldn't it be irresponsible to play it down?
Yes, I think that baptism is an issue of personal holiness, but not in the way you are arguing. In other words, I think that baptism is a command of our Lord Jesus, and we would be disobeying him by ignoring the command.

My only point would be that Presbyterians are obeying Christ's command to baptize according to how they interpret its proper administration. This is key: Piper wouldn't allow Quakers, who disregard the command to baptize, to join his church. He finds infant baptism and baptism done through other modes than immersion "defective," but he still sees that they making every effort to fulfill Christ's command and are doing so within an otherwise correct theological framework (i.e., not propounding baptismal regeneration or anything else that discounts the notion that salvation comes only by grace through faith), and therefore that they should qualify to be admitted to membership, but not to leadership positions.

Finally, are the respective professions of faith necessarily dogmatic? In a "jot and tittle" sense.
Yes and no. Certainly, a church should not admit to membership someone who has some sort of vague idea that Jesus might be kind of important to salvation. There are specific things that a person must believe in order to be actually saved. In a "jot and tittle sense." However, I would be greatly alarmed if we started to say that people who affirmed infant baptism were therefore unsaved precisely because of their belief on the matter.

But, based on your next paragraph, this is not what I think that you are arguing. However, based on your third paragraph, I think that you and I simply have a fundamentally different idea on where baptism fits into all of this. You seem to agree more with those in John Piper's church; I seem to agree more with John Piper. (By the way, I didn't mean that to be an appeal to John Piper, because he suffers from Total Depravity just like the rest of us. It wasn't an argument from personality, but simply pointing out who agrees with whom.)

In fact it is for the reasons that you seem to be in favor of that Baptists are "non-confessional."
Actually, I am very much in favor of confessions, but I see real value to a difference between requiring adherence to confessions for attaining leadership positions, and requiring orthodoxy for membership. It seems to me that it is the church's role to have consistent, robust theology in the leadership (who would be the ones teaching, preaching, and counseling), but that church membership should be open to all Christians.

One of the things we haven't yet considered (but, which, I think naturally arises at this point in the conversation) is the reality that it would simply be unlikely that Presbyterians would attempt to join a Baptist church (or vice versa) en masse in order to get them to change their theology of baptism. Rather, if you care that much about a specific baptismal theology, it makes much more sense to me that you would simply join a church of your particular theological persuasion.

As I mentioned earlier, though, the one exception might be John Piper's church. Presbyterians who find what he says on the Doctrines of Grace very helpful might want to join his church to sit under that teaching week after week. Still, though, I have a hard time believing that they would do it with a goal of modifying the Baptist theology of the church. I could be wrong on this, but I think that if they join a Baptist church, they understand that they will be getting Baptist theology because that will be the belief of the leadership.

So, I understand your position and your concerns, but I simply don't think that doctrinal purity would be compromised by allowing people to join a church with different beliefs if that same church requires a high standard of doctrinal unity among its leaders. The congregation of Bethlehem Baptist disagreed, though, so I suppose that we will have to agree to do so as well.

Wow! This is heavy stuff. I wonder if there is room for someone to grow or to become more informed, or to deepen and broaden one's understanding of God and Scripture. Must we always know everything - and all at once - so that we can be sure that we are fully and unwaveringly in the right. Maybe those who are not completely settled on each and every doctrinal matter should not even be in the church. Of course this is silliness. Having each and every matter settled is rather an idolatrous position.

The doorway to the church ought indeed be as wide as the doorway to heaven. Great comment, Jacob.

Well, thanks, but that comment about "the door of the church..." wasn't mine--that has kind of been John Piper's mantra from the beginning as he has been explaining his rationale for this kind of a shift.

As for your comments on growth, I really do think that it is every Christian's joy and privilege to grow in his/her knowledge of who God is. However, it is a more difficult issue when Christians try to figure out how to balance the need, on one hand, to contend for what they believe to be "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) and, on the other hand, the need to allow younger believers (or believers from a different denominational background) to go through growth in their development as Christians.

I'll allow what I have already written to stand as my best attempt to explain how to achieve that balance. :)

This is interesting: http://theologica.blogspot.com/2006/12/grudem-on-rethinking-his-compromise-on.html

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