Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Unavoidable Issue: Ecclesiology

I've posted on this before, but it is interesting to see how my Baptist brothers have continued efforts at re-tribalization in the aftermath of the SBC a few weeks ago. Part of this is the result of the failure of a resolution proposed by Tom Ascol (pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, FL), which essentially demanded that SBC churches remove non-active members from their rolls and bring integrity to their claims for a "regenerate church membership." This resolution never made it to the floor, having been rejected by the Resolutions Committee and then not receiving the necessary 2/3 vote on the floor to reconsider it.

As a result, some of my brothers have been blogging about the need for a regenerate church membership and restrict membership to those who have been "scripturally" baptized (i.e. "believer's baptism"). While I affirm that these are historically part of what it means to be Baptist (as Al Mohler rightly points out), these two issues were also a major reasons why I could no longer remain Baptist. Simply put, in my mind, Baptist ecclesiology is inherently sectarian (and that is not a good thing). Let me say also that, thankfully, most Baptists' hearts trump their doctrinal claims on this matter and they end up loving Presbyterians anyway.

For me, it was the ideal of regenerate church membership that broke down first. Being someone who specialized academically in American religious history and who has done work on Jonathan Edwards, I came to be convinced that it was impossible to peer into someone's heart to determine whether or not he was regenerate. All one could do was judge the "fruit" that accompanied his profession; and sometimes the professions are illegitimate. And if you have illegitimate professions of faith, that means you have hypocrites accounted as true members of the visible church. And if that is the case, then that means the visible church is a mixed body of believers and unbelievers (posing as believers). The end result was this: the Baptist claim for regenerate church membership was an attempt to make the visible church into the church that God alone can see (which is "regenerate" because it consists of the elect through time and space). Since this is clearly impossible (as the 1689 London Baptist Confession itself confessed), it is not an ideal that is biblically demanded for the local, visible church.

Once that principle fell, I was freed to think about the visible church in the way that I see it on Sunday morning (as well as the way I see it in the Bible): as professing believers and their children, who are set apart, holy, for God's purposes in their lives (1 Cor. 7:14). And since these children are admitted as part of God's visible people, they should receive the sign of entrance into that people, which in the OT was circumcision (Gen. 17) but in the NT is baptism (Acts 2:38, 39; Col. 2:11). God's purpose has always been for entire households to be identified with God's visible people (Gen. 17; Acts 16). The upshot here is that these two understandings--the visible church consists of believing households and the sign of admittance into the visible church should be applied to the entire household as a result of the household head's profession--made Baptist ecclesiology impossible for me. And so, I joined the Presbyterian church.

Now the reason Baptist ecclesiology is essentially sectarian is this: Baptists claim that they alone have genuine baptism because they alone "scripturally" baptize; hence, they alone represent the "true" (i.e. biblical) church. They claim this even though for at least 1850 years, there have been those who disagree with their claims abut baptism. They claim this even though most of the theological giants of the Christian tradition were baptized as infants (by sprinkling or pouring, but that is another matter). And so, with this claim (even though they don't want to do so), they essentially unchurch the majority of the Christian tradition. That represents the basic sectarian position--and as someone who studies the Christian tradition, this seemed to me to be an untenable claim.

Thankfully, as I've already said, most Baptists don't act on their basic principles and live out this sectarian position (although I am always concerned to see my friends defending Landmarkism, which would lead to real sectarianism). But the big reason why I became Presbyterian was that the doctrine of the church seemed to open the doors of the church as wide as Christ himself does--all those who believe in Jesus Christ for salvation and who are baptized in line with Matthew 28:19-20 (which only requires a Trinitarian baptism) are my brothers and sisters in Christ. This affirms the larger body of Christ (John 17:21) and seems to me to represent the best (and most biblical) position. It also allows me to affirm my Baptist friends as brothers in Christ (and even invite them into my pulpit), even if they might look a little sideways at me.


Nathan Finn said...

Bro. Sean, if I ever serve as a permanent pastor, you can preach in my sectarian pulpit anytime you want. You just can't preach about the ordinances. :-P

Richard A. Bailey said...

What about the sacraments? Can he preach about them?

R. Strauss said...

Bro Sean, your tact is appreciated but as a Baptist who loves my Presbyterian "family" I must respectfully disagree with your statement that Baptist claim they alone have a genuine baptism. Friend, you make us sound like a cult or something! ;)

Actually, most Southern Baptists simply hold to Believer's Baptism. And becuase of that, have and will accept many Christians of "like faith" into the local church's membership.

That said, there should be some specific clarification with the term Baptist. Whether we like it or not, there are over 400 "Baptist" denominations and they are increasingly disimilar. So, the phrase "most Baptists" is somewhat ambiguous and unfair.

By the way, R.C. Sproul is a favorite theologian of mine. Keep up the good blog!

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, R. Strauss:

I appreciate your comments. I guess I was reflecting on the posts that I linked as well as classic 19th century Baptist theology, about which I know a little bit. Also, if you read a bit in the blogosphere, I don't think my characterization is that far off.

Still, your point about the number of Baptist denominations is good; each has its own emphases and variations on open communion and open mode. Best, sml

Allen R. Mickle, Jr. said...

Dr. Lucas,

You can at least count this regenerate church membership/believer's baptism by immersion Baptist to still embrace conservative Presbyterians as brothers! Keep up the good work and looking forward to doing some reading of what you've written in Presbyterian history.

Allen Mickle

Eric F. Wakeman, Member Christ Church PCA in Grand Rapids, Michigan said...

Dr. Lucus,

You hit the nail on the head when you point out the ecclesiological issues bound up in our differences on baptism. A friend of mine has been studying Baptism (sort of trying to find himself) and has found it to be inextricably tied to one's view of the Church, which obviously colors one's view of many if not all other areas of one's theology. Particularly on the issue of covenant and the signs thereof, their efficacy as means of grace (they're indeed sacraments, not mere ordinances)and the continuity or discontinuity between old and new covenants.

This begs the question, at least in the mind of this hopelessly sectarian Presbyterian: Why would you entrust the teaching of your sheep to those whose views on such central issues are so different from our own?

Your comments about the Presbyterian view of baptism are right on, and I commend your willingness to maintain open dialog with those who hold such different theological positions. I come from a hyperdispensational background where I was taught that the Church began in mid-Acts, and that water baptism was a physical sign for the physical people of God, ie: Israel, and that the spiritual baptism of God's spiritual people is that of the Holy Spirit at conversion. I keep in contact with a few of those folks, and regularly maintain contact with GARB Baptists from my area, but maintain a critical attitude toward them for the their deep seated errors theologically.

At what point would someone from another theological perspective be too far away from the Southern OS Presbyterian tradition that was the founding perspective of the PCA before they'd not be allowed to occupy your pulpit?

I want to point out here that I personally applaud Baptists who are true to their convictions about immersion and regenerate membership. I applaud them for holding firmly to their convictions and not growing soft in an age that scoffs at dogmatic belief. I disagree with their position wholeheartedly, but enjoy discussing our differences with those truths in mind.

Grace and peace to y'all,