Baptism and Catholicity

Over the last few weeks, we’ve done a series of exhortations focusing on our church’s practice of baptism. We’ve said that baptism is a visible sign of invisible realities. Baptism is public and objective, like a wedding ceremony, and like a wedding ceremony, in baptism God makes promises to us, and we receive those promises by faith, and we also make promises to him. God promises to forgive our sins and transform our lives, and we promise to trust Jesus and follow him as Lord, Savior, and Treasure. In baptism, we publicly identify with Christ and he publicly identifies with us. We say, “You are our God,” and God says, “You are my people.” And last week, Pastor David emphasized that we are credo-baptists, which means that we only baptize those who have made a credible profession of faith in Christ.

In this morning’s exhortation, I simply want to introduce a challenge or tension created by our baptistic convictions. It’s this: how do we, as Baptists, orient to those whose baptismal belief and practice differs from ours? In particular, how do we relate to paedobaptist individuals and churches? Paedobaptism (from the Greek word for “child”; think “pediatric”) is the practice of baptizing the children of believers in infancy in anticipation of their profession of faith in Christ. Rather than baptizing after someone professes faith (as we do), paedobaptists regard baptism as the New Testament counterpart to Old Testament circumcision, and therefore administer the visible, public sign of the covenant to children of Christians.

Now we believe that paedobaptists (Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox) err in their baptismal theology and practice. We think they’ve got it wrong. At the same time, we don’t believe that misunderstanding and misapplying baptism is essential for someone to be a true Christian. There are genuine believers in all of those other traditions, and we want to celebrate our common confession of faith in the triune God and our salvation in Jesus Christ.

And that creates a tension between two impulses. First, there’s the Baptist impulse—we want to teach and practice according to our baptistic convictions. On the other hand, there’s what I call the Catholicity impulse. The word “catholic” here doesn’t refer to the Roman Catholic Church, but instead means “universal.” This is the recognition that the people of God, Christ’s church, is bigger than our local church, bigger than our denomination, bigger than our theological tribe. And at this church, as at many churches, we have both impulses. We are Baptists, but we know that the church is bigger than us.

And those two impulses create a tension in how we regard the baptisms of other traditions. For example, some Baptists (the majority of current Baptists in America) deny that paedobaptisms are baptisms at all. Like us, they believe that baptism should only be applied to professing believers. And they believe that baptism should be by total immersion in water rather than by sprinkling. And because of that, they say that those who have had water sprinkled on them as infants have not been baptized at all. But nearly all of them also believe that there are genuine Christians who have wrong theology and wrong practice. And so the question is, can such people join our church? “We believe that you’re a genuine Christian. But your theology and practice of baptism is mistaken. So can you join this church?” Or, what about the Lord’s Table? We believe that baptism is the public, formal entry into God’s visible family, and that the Lord’s Table is the regular family meal. And you should publicly join the family before you share the meal. You should be baptized before you come to the Table. So what do you do with someone who was sprinkled as an infant? Can they come to the Lord’s Table?

The pastors have wrestled with this tension for a number of years. We want to faithfully teach and practice from our convictions, and we want to welcome all genuine Christians in Jesus’s name. And in the last year, we’ve come to some clearer convictions about how to honor both the Baptist impulse and the Catholicity impulse. And we’re planning to discuss those clearer convictions at the Congregational Meeting on May 15. So the exhortation this morning is twofold. First, if you’re a member of this church, the pastors want to exhort you to be there on May 15 for this important discussion. Second, and more immediately, I want you to feel the force of both impulses. Feel the importance of believing and practicing your convictions, in living according to the truth, when it comes to baptism, or any other biblical teaching. And feel the importance of welcoming and embracing all genuine Christians in Jesus’s name, recognizing that the people of God extend beyond this local church, our denomination, and our theological tribe. Feel both of them deeply.

This reminds us of our need to confess our sins, so let’s seek him together.

Prayer of Confession

Our God and Father, we come to you to confess our failures. We confess that we have failed to live out and practice our convictions, not mainly about baptism, but about many aspects of the truth. We have heeded the temptation to compromise and water down the truth in order to fit in, in order to be liked, in order to avoid rocking the boat. There are true things that we won’t say or practice because we’re afraid. Rather than fearing you, we have feared men. Forgive us for our cowardice and our hypocrisy. Father, we have also failed to welcome and embrace your people in the name of Jesus. We have wielded our convictions as a weapon against fellow brothers and sisters, not for their good, but for our gain. Forgive us for our impatience with those who differ, for sinfully dividing from other Christians when such division is unwarranted, for refusing to extend the right hand of fellowship across the denominational divide. Both of these, Lord, are great evils.

Father, we know that if we in the church regard sin in our own midst our prayers will be ineffectual. So we confess our individual sins to you now.

Father, we thank you that your mercy meets us in our failures and lifts our heads. Thank you that your church is still one flock with one shepherd, and Christ is that shepherd. By your Holy Spirit, renew our hearts so that our thoughts, desires, loves, words, and deeds align with your own. Through Christ we pray, Amen.