Since the latter part of 2005 there has been a debate among SBC conservatives, a sometimes not-so-friendly one, on the nature of Biblical Baptism. Birthed from the new baptism guideline adopted by the IMB's trustee board, this conversation has unfolded to include many fruitful and useful conversations about church membership, accountability, making disciples, church planting, and cross-cultural ministry.
While most of the conversations of which I have been a part have been affable and respectful, there have been a few remarks suggesting that those of us who oppose the new guideline are ignorant of Baptist history, or care nothing about Baptist identity, or even worse, are unconcerned about accurate theology. Today, I would like to clear up the true reason for my opposition to the IMB baptism guideline. Contrary to what many have said, I do not oppose this move because I don't believe in "alien baptism." I oppose it because I very much believe that "baptisms" occur that are anything but, which makes them Biblically invalid, "alien" acts. And I oppose the new IMB guideline because I believe it creates another "alien Baptism."
I firmly and proudly proclaim that I am Baptist, not because our history bears us out as the most faithful (the slaves of 19th century America would beg to differ, I think), or because my family is entrenched in this denominational stream (my loved-ones hail from Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and non-denominational backgrounds, as well as Baptist).
I am Baptist because as I examine our doctrinal beliefs and hold them up against the light of Scripture, I see a tradition that is, in my opinion, more faithful to the actual message of the Bible than any other I have seen or studied. Our view on regenerate immersion is but one reason that after a few years of searching during my high school days, I came back, willingly, to the SBC. I believe the Scriptures are very clear on Baptism. It is a picture of the Gospel, which means to alter it in any way from its Scriptural form is to distort the picture God aims to portray of the grace of God and the transforming power of the cross and resurrection. I take that seriously. And because I take that seriously, I have taken great care over the past 15 years of my ministry to ensure that "baptisms" that take place on my watch are those of which the New Testament bears witness.
In light of those 15 years, I have come to recognize four types of "baptism" which do not fit the Biblical pattern. My reason for opposing the new IMB guideline is because, regrettably, what they require misses the Scriptural mark as well. Let me explain by describing the four types of "alien baptism.":
1. An "Alien Baptism" is any baptism that takes place prior to regeneration and conversion. I love my covanental brothers, but they are simply wrong to draw so tight a parallel between baptism and circumcision as to assume the validity of "infant baptism." Certainly a parallel exists between these two rites, but so do some obvious distinctions. Circumcision, like baptism, was for the purpose of marking one as a member of the Old Testament community of faith. However, the community of faith in the New Testament does not include the children of the community simply by birth. The New Covenant states clearly that only those who have believed are its members.
Admittedly, this is a very simplified version of the discussion. But arguments expanded from the above synopsis reveal two views: one pedo-baptist and the other credo-baptist. While I love, respect, and admire my brothers who claim the former, my view is most definitely the latter. And the consequence of my conclusions is simple: I have no choice other than to reject the sprinkling of an infant. It is not baptism as described by the New Testament, which makes it "alien."
2. An "Alien Baptism" is one that occurs by any mode other than immersion. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule (For example, a quadrapalegic might have a bit of a time being "immersed"), but such exceptions should be granted in extreme cases only.
Even those who accept other modes of baptism admit that the etymology of the Greek term is abundantly perspicuous. In addition, both Luther and Calvin are on record in the annuls of history as stating that immersion was the mode practiced by the Apostles. If the fathers of the Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions respectively admit that the Baptists have it right, what does that say to their successors who remain in these traditions about sprinkling and/or effusion?
Text after New Testament text describes baptism as a metaphor for death and resurrection; the transition from a life of sin to a life of righteousness; the physical symbol of one's "immersion" into Christ and His body. Such texts have been the reason why for 15 years I have said, gently but firmly to those who have not been immersed and seek membership in a church I pastor, "you were never really Baptized."
3. An "Alien Immersion" is one that takes place among a "faith community" that is not made up of genuine followers of Christ. Simply put: The Mormon Church practices immersion after confession, but I do not accept what happens within their walls as "baptism." In a similar vein, other cult groups practice an immersion that on the surface looks exactly like what you would witness at your average First Baptist Church. But the body performing this rite does not believe the Gospel, denies the truth of Jesus Christ, and is therefore unregenerate. As the old saying goes; put an unregenerate person under the water, and they simply go down a dry sinner and come up a wet one!
4. An "Alien Immersion" is one that places the primary focus of the ordinace on anything besides union with Jesus Christ and His people. Scripture is clear in teaching that there is ONE baptism. With that in view, I am appreciative of the IMBs desire that all who go to the mission field under our banner have experienced this. The problem comes when they begin to tie baptismal validity to doctrines that while precious and essential to Baptists, are secondary in matters of salvation and the church. I am speaking of course of how the IMB ties baptismal validity to whether the congregation that performed the baptism believes in "eternal security." The outcome of such a guideline is that a candidate could be genuinely born again, immersed in the name of the triune God after this experience, as a testimony of that experience, among people who share our Gospel convictions and are themselves believers, and still be required to be "baptized" in a Southern Baptist Church.
Anyone from a Nazarene of Assemblies of God background would look at our statement on Baptism in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message and find himself in total agreement with its contents. Nevertheless, because those churches differ with us (and wrongly so, I believe) on the issued of eternal security, the New Testament-based baptisms that took place within their walls are now declared to be invalid by the International Mission Board. The result is a requirement that a missionary candidate be "baptized" in an SBC church.
But if the candidate has already been Scripturally baptized, and there is only one baptism, then what exactly is being required by the IMB?
I believe IMB trustees are honorable people, and like me, they simply want to guard our Biblical heritage and ensure the same of those who will represent us on the mission field. But this new guideline changes the focus of Baptism from Christ and His people to the doctrine of "eternal security." Such a move means that the above question can be answered in only one way: The IMB is now requiring "alien baptism," which ironically, is the very thing I am certain they were trying to avoid with the new guideline.
This is precisely the reason my opposition to this new guideline has been so strong. I love our International Mission Board, and I love its trustees. But as a pastor, I will never, ever, EVER place someone under the water and bring them back up for the purpose of identifying them with "eternal security." And I will never do it for the same reason that I will never sprinkle water on the head of an infant: both are misrepresentations of what God intended baptism to be!
So now you have it. Disagree if you want (and I know many of you do), debate the points delineated above. But please refrain from saying any longer that we who oppose the new guideline do so because we don't think as highly of baptism as do those who favor what has happened in Richmond. My opposition is for the exact opposite reason.
Several years ago, I remember Hershael York (who vehemently disagrees with me on this issue, and whom I continue to love and respect) say that God has certain "pictures of the Gospel." I remember this illustration vividly, and have even used it on occasion myself (crediting Dr. York, of course). Marriage, he said, is a picture of the union that exists between Christ and His church, which is why divorce, adultery, homosexuality, etc. are such serious sins. They "break God's picture." The Lord's Supper likewise, is a picture of the sacrifice that it took to secure our salvation. Such is why knowingly allowing an unregenerate person to partake, or one partaking with known and unrepentant sin in his or her heart would be a travesty. It would "break God's picture."
Baptism, like the other two events mentioned, is yet another "picture"--possibly one of the most important. It demonstrates the candidate's confession of Christ publicly (which is why it is for believers only). It illustrates the death of the old self, and rising again to walk in a new life (which is why it is by immersion only.) In short, when we tamper with baptism, we break the picture God intends to portray of the Gospel. I don't believe for a moment that IMB trustees intended to break this picture when they formed the new baptism guideline months ago. Still, the only conclusion I can reach is that they have inserted yet another "alien baptism." With respect toward them, I cannot recognize such as valid, nor will I pretend that "its no big deal."
The Gospel is that important, and therefore, so is Baptism!