OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–In three services over the weekend of July 29-30, members of Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla., will vote on a proposal to eliminate baptism as a requirement for church membership. Announcement of the vote has sparked a flurry of debate -– a discussion reflected on the pages of The Baptist Messenger, newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
In a column published on the newsjournal’s website, www.baptistmessenger.com, Henderson Hills pastor Dennis Newkirk explains that, while the congregation’s elder council believes “the New Testament commands every believer to be baptized by immersion, subsequent to salvation,” they are questioning whether baptism should be required “as an initiatory rite of church membership.”
The proposal, Newkirk writes, “is not intended to excuse people from the sin of refusing baptism. Instead, our concern is for Christians in two categories, those who physically cannot experience immersion due to a disability, and for those who are under the mistaken conviction that sprinkling is baptism.”
Like many Southern Baptist churches, Henderson Hills deals with people who would like to join but are members of churches that sprinkle infants, rather than immersing individuals who have consciously chosen to follow Christ. The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches would require such inquirers to offer evidence of salvation and submit to baptism by immersion.
Although Newkirk’s column says that “in 31 years of ministry, I have never met a believer who adamantly refused baptism,” he argues that the requirement of rebaptism is an obstacle to ministering to such people.
“We often sacrifice our opportunity to teach and influence those mistaken Christians by rejecting them or we unintentionally promote an unbiblical motive for baptism, making it little more than a rite of initiation into church membership,” Newkirk writes. “Why not allow them the blessings, responsibilities and protection of church membership, and then teach, pray, and influence them towards biblical baptism?”
The proposal coming before the congregation would strike the phrase, “has been scripturally baptized,” from a church bylaw that currently reads, in part: “Membership will be granted to anyone who offers a biblical testimony of salvation, has been scripturally baptized and agrees to accept the responsibilities of membership.”
Response to the Henderson Hills announcement has been passionate, such as a counterpoint from Rick Thompson, pastor of Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, Okla., published by the Messenger.
“Southern Baptist churches often encounter people who desire to gain membership in the church but do not want to be baptized by immersion because they were ‘baptized’ as infants,” Thompson writes in his column. “Some may view this requirement [of being rebaptized by immersion] as a stumbling block for Christians who want to be members of the (SBC) church. However, Southern Baptists have determined that this is a basic issue that we must get right. It is an issue of discipleship.”
In Christian traditions that practice infant baptism by sprinkling, “baptism is not seen as being a necessary requirement for obedience but rather a sign of the covenant promise [their] believing parents are under … a kind of new circumcision –- a sign of the covenant,” Thompson writes.
Scripture, however, offers no evidence of infant baptism or baptism by sprinkling, he notes. “Baptists believe the only baptism practiced in Scripture is believer’s baptism by immersion.”
Saying that the Bible does not explicitly teach that one must be baptized to be a member of the church “is like saying that the Bible never says you must be a Christian to be a member of the church,” Thompson adds. “Why link the two together? In fact, there is no single passage in Scripture that specifically gives us the requirements of membership into the church. But membership is certainly implied.”
MEMBERSHIP & BAPTISM
Church membership cannot be separated from baptism in the New Testament, argues R. Stanton Norman, an associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, in another column on the Messenger site.
“The New Testament clearly teaches that a local church is only to be comprised of those persons whose allegiance belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ,” Norman writes. “Baptism was the divinely, publicly instituted ‘point of entry’ into the membership of a local congregation of believers.
“The baptismal act publicly signified the transition of the individual from the old life to the new life in Christ; old allegiances were forsaken in order that new allegiances with Christ and His people could be formed. The believer gave testimony to this spiritual transition in the rite of baptism. By submitting to the public act of baptism, a person publicly joined with the church in its confession that ‘Jesus is Lord’ and expressed the intention to be considered a member of the congregation.”
The distinctively Baptist understanding of the church as a body of believers baptized by immersion has a solid foundation in Scripture, William B. Tolar, retired dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes in another column.
“Our Baptist forefathers defined the church as being a body of baptized believers because of their interpretations and high concept of the divine inspiration of Scripture and their serious regard for the Lordship of Jesus Christ,” Tolar writes. “They understood Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20 should be followed in the sequence in which it is recorded: ‘make disciples … baptizing them … and … teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.’
“The Greek word for ‘disciples’ (believers, students, learners) preceded the act of baptism, and being baptized (the Greek word means to dip, plunge or immerse) was also clearly a part of Christ’s command,” Tolar observes. “Because the risen Lord had commanded them to immerse believers (and not to sprinkle or simply pour water on them), Baptist scholars were convinced that was the proper sequence and immersion was the biblical mode.”
SYMBOL, NOT SACRAMENT
A complicating factor in accepting members from Christian traditions that practice infant baptism is the fact that those churches believe the sprinkling makes the baby a Christian. Another column on the Messenger site explains the contrasting Baptist conviction that baptism is merely a symbol of the change Christ has made in the heart of a person who has deliberately chosen to follow Him.
“The Southern Baptist understanding of baptism stands in conflict with the official doctrine of traditional Roman Catholicism and even some Protestant groups who teach that in the act of baptism, there is the impartation of grace ex opere operato, without preexisting faith,” writes Brad Waggoner, a former dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, now director of research at LifeWay Christian Resources. “Southern Baptists also believe that the proper subjects of baptism are those who have previously entered into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.”
‘STEP OF OBEDIENCE’
Baptism is a membership requirement in Southern Baptist churches because Jesus made baptism the norm for becoming a Christian in Matthew 28:19 and the apostles continued this practice in the early church, Rick Thompson writes.
“There is no question that baptism is the first step in our obedience to Christ and that obedience is the sign and signature of being a Christian,” Thompson writes. “The church is the bride and body of Christ, where people are challenged into discipleship. Making disciples is the primary role of the church of which baptism is the first step. This is why Baptists believe no one should be a member of the church who has not taken this step of obedience.”
On July 17, the executive board of the Capital Baptist Association, an alliance of churches in metropolitan Oklahoma City of which Henderson Hills is a member, adopted a resolution addressing the baptism proposal. The resolution affirmed the association’s agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message, the Southern Baptist confession of faith, which identifies immersion baptism of believers as a prerequisite to church membership. The resolution also resolved to “encourage the members of Henderson Hills Baptist Church to affirm and maintain their current bylaw requirements for church membership” and called on other Capital Baptist churches “to pray for the leaders and members of Henderson Hills Baptist Church as they seek God’s will in this matter.”
The complete package of Baptist Messenger stories, including pieces not mentioned in this article, can be found at http://www.baptistmessenger.com. The full text of Henderson Hills’ baptism study can be found at the church’s website, http://www.hhbc.com.