Response to Grudem on Baptism and Church Membership

Lots of people know that Wayne Grudem and I are the deepest of friends. We love to room together at conferences. We love to do things together with our wives. We were both in seminary together for a season. We have co-edited a book together. We taught together at Bethel College. And at this very moment I love him and would fly to his side in a crisis. But, Wayne, Wayne, Wayne, why did you rewrite page 983?

Justin Taylor drew our attention to the fact that Wayne revised section F1 in his new edition of Systematic Theology (pp. 982-983). The section is titled, “Do Churches Need to Be Divided Over Baptism?”

In the first edition, Wayne answered that question no. In the new edition, he does not answer it. He concludes, “Some kind of ‘compromise’ position on baptism is not very likely to be adopted by denominational groups in the future.” That’s probably true.

But, with that cautious comment on what is likely to be, rather than what ought to be, the new section has lost the prophetic, biblical force of the original edition. Evidently, Wayne is not so sure any more that we should make the effort to overcome the divisions among evangelicals for the sake of welcoming true brothers and sisters as members in the local church. I think his first edition was closer to the biblical balance.

In the first edition, he advocated finding a way to have conscience-persuaded paedobaptists and credobaptists as members of the same local church. He said,

This would mean that Baptist churches would have to be willing to allow into membership those who had been baptized as infants and whose conviction of conscience, after careful consideration is that their infant baptism was valid and should not be repeated. Of course, Baptist churches could be free to preach and to attempt to persuade prospective churches members that they should be baptized as believers, but if some, after careful consideration, are simply not persuaded, it does not seem appropriate to make this a barrier to membership.

I agree with this. And the main reason I do is that excluding a true brother in Christ from membership in the local church is far more serious than most of us think it is.

When I weigh the kind of imperfection involved in tolerating an invalid baptism because some of our members are deeply persuaded that it is biblically valid, over against the kind of imperfection involved in saying to a son or daughter of the living God, “You are excluded from the local church,” my biblical sense is that the latter is more unthinkable than the former. The local church is a visible expression of the invisible, universal, body of Christ. To exclude from it is virtually the same as excommunication. And no serious church takes excommunication as an invitation to attend the church down the street.

Wayne’s new considerations are less compelling than what he wrote in the first edition. In the new edition, he writes:

For someone who holds to believer’s baptism, admitting to church membership someone who has not been baptized upon profession of faith, and telling the person that he or she never has to be baptized as a believer is really giving up one’s view on the proper nature of baptism.

No, Wayne, this is not true. I would gladly admit Ligon Duncan or Sinclair Ferguson or R. C. Sproul or Philip Ryken to membership at Bethlehem (if I were allowed by our constitution), and in doing so I would not be giving up my view on the proper nature of baptism.

I would say to them: “Brothers, I think you are not baptized. But you believe on biblical grounds as you see them, with as much humility and openness to truth as God has given you, that you are baptized. Your understanding of baptism does not imply that Christ’s command may be neglected or that infant sprinkling is regenerating. You give good evidence of being born again and that you embrace Christ as your Savior and Lord and Treasure, and you manifest an authentic intention, on the basis of that faith, to follow Jesus as Lord and obey his teachings. Therefore, since there is good evidence that you are members of the Body of Christ, you may be members of this local expression of that body. But understand this: I will spend the rest of my ministry trying to persuade you that you and your children should follow through on the full obedience to Jesus and be baptized. In admitting you, I do not give up on my view of baptism. That is the whole point. We are finding a way to work on this disagreement from inside the body of Christ in its local expression.”

When Wayne says that admitting to church membership a biblically conscientious paedobaptist amounts to saying that “he or she never has to be baptized as a believer,” he is being (I am sure unconsciously) slippery. “Has to” implies a result that will not be achieved if one doesn’t do it. What goal does Wayne mean? “Has to in order to go to heaven?” He doesn’t believe that. “Has to in order to be fully obedient to Jesus?” Both he and I would agree with that. But that is precisely what I would say to any paedobaptist who joined our Baptist church.

Then Wayne continues: “It is saying that infant baptism really is valid baptism!”

No. Admitting a conscientious paedobaptist to membership in a Baptist church would not say that the infant baptism is valid. What it does say is: “Your mistaken understanding of baptism and the invalid baptism that follows from it are not the kind of disagreement, mistake, and failure that we are going to use in defining the meaning of the local church. We view you as a brother whose resting place is Christ alone, through grace alone, by faith alone, to the glory of God alone. You are in the Body of Christ. You may be in this body of Christ.”

Finally, Wayne says,

But then how could anyone who holds to this position tell anyone who had been baptized as an infant that he or she still needed to be baptized as a believer?

By saying: “You are wrong in your understanding of baptism. And your practice is wrong. You need to be baptized to be fully obedience to Jesus.”

Turning the tables, I would say that when a person looks a true and precious brother in the eye and says, “You may not join this church,” he is doing one of two things: Seriously diminishing our spiritual union in Christ, or seriously minimizing the importance of church membership. Very few, it seems to me, have really come to terms with the seriousness of excluding believers from membership in the local church. It is preemptive excommunication.

There are dozens of questions that need to be answered. When we walked through this several years ago, I did my best to answer as many as I could. I have hope that I will have Wayne back on this side of the issue eventually.

[Wayne Grudem has responded.]

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