On Baptism, Lord’s Supper & Membership

Tomorrow night, we will have a very important Church Conference at 6pm in the Chapel.  I strongly encourage you to be there to discuss some very important items in the life of UBC that could eventually set in motion an important direction for the body.

First, we will discuss and vote on the refinancing of our building loan.  Now, this is something we’ve had to do every 2-3 years.  However, we have a very strong proposal for refinancing that will be for a 5 year fixed period, including principle.

Second, we will discuss a proposal to allow the University of Arkansas to use the Chapel for a temporary period for lecture space that could potentially bring thousands of students to our campus over a 2 year (or so) period of time.  There are huge implications here for potential ministry, but there are also some real accommodations we’d have make in order to make this happen.

Lastly, and potentially the most lasting, item for discussion is the proposed Constitution.  The major changes in this Constitution are the Confession of Faith and the inclusion of Elders into the polity structure of the church (and all the necessary changes in light of their inclusion).

Regarding the Confession of Faith, the only significant change is the fully adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as the whole of our Confession.  Now, that sounds major, but our current statement actually states agreement with the BFM2k and includes much of its language.  The more the Council examined the language of the two statements, the more convinced we were that the BFM2k was stronger.  With that, however, comes an additional sentence that is significantly different…

“It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.”

Our current Confession includes the same language in this article EXCEPT the above sentence.  First of all, it was the conclusion of the Council that if we are to accept the BFM2k as our Confession, then we should not alter its language.  Therefore, this sentence has to be included and, therefore, has to be understood.

On the formative side, this statement strengthens our conviction as a church that baptism is an act of obedience upon confession of faith in Christ.  Jesus commands this as part of being disciples and Peter commands it in that earliest church sermon on Mars Hill (“repent AND be baptized” – emphasis mine).

With this statement tying baptism in with Lord’s Supper as a prerequisite, the relationship between membership and Lord’s Supper is strengthened, but not exclusive.  What I mean is that the Lord’s table at UBC is not “closed” in the sense that only members of UBC can take the Lord’s supper.  However, we would be saying that only those who have been baptized as believers can take the Lord’s Supper.  Currently, it is open to those who are believers but have not yet been baptized.  The goodness in this is that the Lord’s Supper is a strongly communal ordinance, therefore associated with our understanding of what it means to live in obedience to Christ in community.

Now, honestly, I feel the rub here like many of you.  We know that baptism is not a prerequisite to being a Christian, therefore it is not a prerequisite to being a member of God’s universal church.  So, should the local church emulate that?  Well, there is a sense that we must understand we live in a fallen world, and that understanding the nature of membership is regulated on a local church level more so than a universal level.  At some glorious point we will be known as we are known and we will be like Christ for we shall see Him as He is.  Until then, the protection of the community of saints is put into the hands of the local church.

So, although we would like to extend as much grace and fellowship to as many as possible, we are first responsible to edify, build up, encourage, strengthen, equip, mature those in our fellowship (or wanting to be part of our fellowship).  Now, let me say this.  I would be fine keeping the article the way it is, because I believe we teach the meaning of Lord’s Supper at it’s core even now.  However, I believe this new sentence makes the meaning of the baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) even weightier.

On a corrective side, historically guarding the Lord’s table has related, not only to forming Christ more into the mindset of the believer, but also to church discipline.  Disfellowship from the Lord’s table would be part of discipline for those members of a local church who were living in public sin, rejecting admonition, and refusing to repent.  While certainly not everyone who has yet to be baptized is not necessarily living in public, unrepentant sin, they are charged, however, to follow through to the Lord’s command to obey.  That may be more in the course of formation, but it seems to fit on the corrective side a bit more.

As well, children are the regularly encouraged to consider baptism and its seriousness long before they consider taking communion.  Did you know that all the language of baptism in the New Testament is to adults?  There is implication for children when Jesus or an apostle would say that an individual “and their entire household” would be saved, but it’s never explicit in its inclusion of children.

I’m not saying children should not be baptized.  I do think it’s troubling that the number of young children baptized has been increasing in SBC life for years as has the number of re-baptisms.  Is this a coincidence?  The frank truth of it is that we like to rush children into the baptistry because it bolsters our numbers and secures in somebody’s mind the salvation of the child.  But are these biblically valid reasons?  No.

However, we must evangelize our children.  We must lead them to understand that repentance is turning from the world and trusting in Christ.  In doing so, they must understand what they’re turning from, namely sin.  We must teach them that those who trust in Christ obey Christ, and that includes (of primary importance) baptism.

So, how old does a child have to be in order to understand these things?  Well, there’s no magical formula to ascertain the age of acceptable baptism.  We just know they have to understand the basics of who God is (in nature and work); who they are as sinners against a holy God; who Christ is and what He has done in their place; and what repentance and faith are according to the New Testament.  Again, no certain age.  We must know the gospel well enough to determine fruit.  The ordinances are incredible pictures of these truths that we should teach our children with every observance.

On the other hand, if there’s been a faithful gospel witness, and credible confession, I believe it’s appropriate to baptize more quickly, adults.  The Scriptures have a pattern of this being more immediate for adults, but with good reason.  Baptism was the public profession of the faith of the adult, and it was most regularly in front of the community of believers.  It was public.  It was costly.  It was not culturally okay to celebrated with a pretty white Bible and nice meal at Outback.  It very well may cost them their jobs, homes, spouses, inheritance, and lives.

Additionally, the early church understood that making disciples only began with baptism, not begin.  We too often celebrate wrongly.  We should celebrate, don’t get me wrong.  But we should celebrate as a journey that’s begun by God’s grace, and administered by the church in communal discipleship.  Our hands will get dirty.  Our feelings will get hurt.  There will be some who will not persevere and will break our hearts.  However, we are to be faithful…baptize, teach/train, for obedience EVERY believer.

So, I’m in favor of the change.  I understand that even friends, colleagues, and theologians I greatly admire would not be able to take communion in our fellowship because they are (mostly) Presbyterian in practice.  However, I would not seek membership in their church because of my convictions about baptism.  Do we break fellowship?  No.  Do we promote the same essential gospel?  In these cases, yes.  But our interpretation of how the gospel is imaged in the ordinance of baptism is different, and so goes living in a fallen world on this side of heaven.  One day, it will not be an issue, because the gospel that we see in the ordinances will be joyfully realized in the actual present of Jesus Christ our Savior!

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