Baptism and Church Membership.

About a week ago, some controversy stirred in the reformed world(nothing new there) on the delicate issue of baptism.  Baptism is always a topic of contention, especially amoungst those who share a reformed soteriology and a covenental view of the Bible.  The debates between infant baptizing Presbyterians and believers only Baptists are notorious, and seemingly endless. Some on both sides tend to take a more hard line, while others take a more ecumenical position. Last week on The Gospel Coalition website, there was a discussion between the two more adamant sides of the debate.  It was not the typical “Baptist V.S. Presbyterian” debate on the objects and mode of Baptism. In fact, it was not a debate at all. It was more like a respective “drawing the line in the sand”. Each side wrote an article detailing why one must hold to there viewpoint if they wish to be apart of the respective Church.

James Hamilton wrote from the Baptist perspective in an article called “Baptism and Church Membership: Sometimes Obedience Results in Painful Separations.” Michael Horton wrote from the Presbyterian/Reformed perspective in an article called “Membership Requires Affirmation of Infant Baptism: A Padeobaptist Response.”  I will provide a link to both articles at the end of the post.

Briefly, I want to go over what the articles say and then provide some quick thoughts. Nothing extensive, just food for thought.  You should keep in mind, however, that I am a Presbyterian, I attend a PCA church and a firmly convinced on the subject of Infant Baptism.

First, the article from the Baptist perspective by James Hamilton. James Hamilton is a professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He has written numerous books that include a Biblical Theology around the topic of God’s Glory in salvation through judgement, and a commentary on the book of Revelation. I have never read any of his books, however I have seen him participate in John Piper’s “Evening of Eschatology”; in which he represented Historic Premillennialism. Even though I don’t agree with his position, I think he performed the best by far and was very impressive. So James Hamilton is a man I respect, he is up and coming in the Reformed Baptist world (he is still rather young).

In the article, rather than dwelling soley on an abstract discussion on the value of Baptismal Theology as it relates to Church Membership, Hamilton starts off with a real world example to demonstrate the practical nature of this doctrine ; “This question hurts. It’s personal. Let me briefly explain. A great family with a quiver full of kids began to visit our church—wonderful people with exemplary kids older than and near the ages of my own. Everyone, not least yours truly, was encouraged and eager to spend time with them. You can imagine how much we wanted to have them join our church, and, by God’s grace, they wanted to do so.” He goes on to say, “The only problem was that they were convinced Presbyterians.”  Why would this pose a problem for joining a Baptist Church? Hamilton explains: ” If someone is not repenting of all known sin, trusting Christ for salvation, and submitting to all his commands and teaching, we don’t welcome him or her into church membership. Since we view baptism as a matter of obedience, we understand unbaptized people to be disobedient on this point.”  Certainly there was no doubt, insofar as can be seen, that this Godly family was repenting of all known sin and trusting in Christ for salvation by faith alone.  But according to the Baptist view, this family was not submitting to all of Christ’s commands. In fact, they were not even submitting the most basic one, Baptism; sense from a Baptist perspective the family had never actually been Baptized.As Hamilton put’s it: “Our Presbyterian friends believe they have been baptized, but here the definition of baptism comes into play. As our statement of faith indicates, we are convinced that baptism is the immersion of a believer in water.”

Hamilton, anticipating the objection that this should not be a cause of division, says , “John Bunyan agreed that baptism is the immersion of a believer in water but felt that he did not have the right to deny church membership to someone who gave evidence of regeneration and believed he had been baptized. William Kiffin’s response was that he did not have the right to disregard, and thereby overrule, a command of Jesus. As baptists we’re not denying that paedobaptists have a right to their own perspective, we are simply maintaining the integrity of our own convictions. Our consciences will not permit us to welcome into membership and communion those who have not obeyed Jesus at the point of baptism.”

Hamilton proceeds to point out of the obvious, if Baptism really is nothing to divide over, then why did Baptists ever separate? He says, “This is the whole reason there are Baptist churches at all. This is why baptists don’t commune with Presbyterians…If this issue were not big enough to divide over, to deny membership over, then why did the baptists ever separate from the presbyterians?”

Hamilton concludes by saying that unity has to be based on the truth of Scriptures, and for Baptists that means obeying Jesus in Believers only Baptism.

Secondly, the article from the Presbyterian perspective by Michael Horton. Michael Horton is a professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, he is one of the most prolific authors today and biggest defenders of the Reformed Faith. Some of his many books include a Systematic Theology, 5 books on Covenant Theology, several books on American Christianity, the Christian Life, The Law of God and Calvinism.  He is one of my favorite theologians and one the the biggest impacts on my life,  in influencing my theology.

Baptism is often viewed as secondary to views to Perseverance of the Saints or The extent of the Atonement. However one does not go before the Church and get a “Perseverance of the Saints”, one does however go before the Church to be Baptized. Differences on Baptism directly affect our actions sense Baptism is a actual event that takes places rather than just a doctrine. Horton makes this point by saying ” It’s often said that baptism is a secondary issue. Traditionally, both sides in the debate have wrestled over whether they can even accept each other’s profession of faith as valid for membership. That’s hardly secondary.”

The issue becomes very frustrating when one contemplates a Baptist and a Presbyterian that agree on EVERYTHING EXCEPT Infant Baptism, but would be unable to determine what should happen in a Church and remain in the same fellowship. Horton says on this matter, “However, Baptists and paedobaptists are stuck. If our conscience is bound by Scripture, then we can hardly consider as indifferent something Christ’ ordained as essential in the Great Commission. So I respect Baptist brothers who would not admit me into membership or to the Lord’s Table. They are following what they believe Scripture to teach in this matter and for that submissiveness I respect them.”

Horton goes on to give this description, “Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have required professing members and their children to be baptized. In the former, arising from Continental Reformed sources, all church members confess the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) as the faithful summary of Scripture. What this means is that in Reformed churches historically, only those who affirmed the inclusion of children in covenant baptism could be members. Especially in the U.S., Presbyterian churches came to require only officers to subscribe the Westminster Standards. In Presbyterian churches, it has meant that all of the children of members should be baptized. What to do if they’re not is a matter of some debate and variation.”  There is some difference between what typically happens in Churches coming out of the Dutch Reformed tradition (typically called Reformed Churches) and those coming out of the Scottish and English Presbyterian tradition (typically called Presbyterian or Reformed Presbyterian). Reformed Churches that subscribe to the 3 forms of unity, such as The United Reformed Church of North America, require there members to affirm EVERYTHING in the confession’s. While Presbyterians such as The Presbyterian Church of America (of which I am a member) and The Orthodox Presbyterian Church simply require a profession of faith and reliance on sovereign Grace and Mercy for salvation alone for membership, but not necessarily affirming all the beliefs in the Church Confession. So a baptist could join a Presbyterian Church, but not one from the Dutch Reformed tradition.

Horton goes on to say that he affirms what The Westminster Confession says, that it is a great sin to neglect Baptism of Children. If it is a great sin to not Baptize Children, then Baptists in the congregation would be subject to Church discipline for not giving there Children for Baptism. Horton finishes up his article by reiterating the situation. Baptists and Prebyterians, though they agree in most cases in a great many things, simply do not agree on the way to do Baptism. Baptists do not recognize Presbyterian baptisms, while Presbyterians think Baptists are sinfully withholding Baptisms to there children. They are at a tragic impasse.

Now that I have given an overview of what’s in the article, I’ll give a few of my thoughts.

Over the last 20 years, there has been an unprecedented renaissance among Reformed Baptists, Calvinism has grown dramatically in Baptist churches, and there has also been a great deal of cooperation between Reformed Baptists and Reformed Presbyterians in groups like The Gospel Coalition, and The Alliance of Confession Evangelicals. In many ways, Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians make up one Reformed family. They speak at each others conferences, write the forward’s for each others books, and work together in a variety of ways. But despite all this doctrinal agreement, the issue of Baptism (and the differences on the Covenant that come with it) keep them divided. I can’t speak for the Baptist Church, they are going to do what they think is right. Many, like James Hamilton, will insist that all members must be Baptized in the Baptist sense of the word. Others, like John Piper and John Bunyan of old, have held that they should not deny membership to those who think they have been baptized. John Piper, when speaking on this issue, noted that to him it would be absurd to say Godly men like John Calvin, R.C. Sproul and Ligon Duncan could not be members of his Church. But I can only speak for myself, being a Presbyterian.  There have been many Godly Baptists that have had a huge theological impact on my life, most of all John Piper, who’s impact on my life could hardly be overstated. In addition to others such as Steve Lawson, Al Molher and Paul Washer; and Reformed Baptists of old such as Charles Spurgeon, John Bunyan and John Gill.  Not to mention all the Reformed Baptists friends I have, more than even Presbyterian friends.

But despite all the affinity and unity, as the articles show, the impasse remains. Some would lament this as a silly doctrinal novelty, dividing over a silly issue and a man made denomination. But what would you have them do? Should Baptists and Presbyterians forget what they believe and just be quiet? and if so which group? Or, perhaps, we could go back to the Pre-Denomination period where we killed each other instead of simply going separate ways in different denominations. As for the issue of allowing Baptists to join Presbyterian Churches, I clearly understand what Horton says, How can somebody be in our Church and not have there Children Baptized? But equally it begs the question how we can require such doctrinal purity to be a member. In the end I believe I favor the Practice of the PCA, but I would say one must have his Children Baptized if he is a member in a Presbyterian Church.

In the last analysis, as painful and heartbreaking it is, despite all the doctrinal affinity, it seems separation must happen. Baptists and Presbyterians cannot allow there conscious to be violated on this subject of Baptism. Two views of Baptism cannot be accommodated within the same congregation.  Despite the demoinational separations, Baptists and Presbyterians should continue to work together to forward the cause of the Gospel through the various para church organization, and to fight against the enemy’s of the Gospel, like they have done so well the past 10 years.

In conclusion, we can only look forward to the day when our sinfully clouded views of Scripture will be swept away, and we will all dwell, all the redeemed Children of God, in perfect fellowship with Christ and each other, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and all those redeemed by Grace alone though Faith alone in Christ alone, in the New Heavens and New Earth. Where there will be no more sin, no more death, and no more division. Only perfect unity in fellowship with our triune God. Then Baptists and Presbyterians alike will exclaim with a Loud voice:

““Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”


““To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”


James Hamilton’s Article:

Michael Horton’s Article:


One comment

  1. Michael Kearney

    I really appreciate your comments on how church membership plays into the baptism debate. It seems unfortunate that my Reformed Baptist friends can’t become members of my URC church without compromising their beliefs, but that may actually be a good thing. Better to have a peaceful division between denominations than an all-out war within a congregation. And I had to laugh at your very good point that we could just go back to killing each other like we did before the denominations were established.

    Thanks for discussing these topics!

    Michael Kearney
    West Sayville URC
    Long Island, New York

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