September 2006 Issue
by Tom Elliff
In recent days, there has been an increase in debate among Southern
Baptists over the necessity of a believer's baptism by immersion
for church membership. SBC LIFE asked Dr. Tom Elliff, past
president of the Southern Baptist Convention and current senior
vice president for Spiritual Nurture and Church Relations with
the SBC International Mission Board, to address this foundational
Baptist distinctive and provide a Bible-based treatment of the
subject. His treatment is offered with full recognition of the
autonomy of each and every Southern Baptist church; it is presented
as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Our hope is that his
presentation of the biblical foundations of this historic Baptist
distinctive will serve as a valuable resource for pastors in explaining
and perhaps even defending Southern Baptist beliefs
on the matter.
By all rights, if any evangelicals should understand the doctrine
and practice of baptism, it should be Southern Baptists. Our name
itself speaks of a history rooted in this practice. Baptism is
even referred to by many among us as a believer's first step in
obedience to the Lordship of Christ. But perhaps we are not as
clear on the issue as we think. Given the recent focus of attention
on the subject of baptism, it certainly should help any individual
or congregation to look once again at this ordinance of the church.
The Source for Our Beliefs
As Southern Baptists we consider it of utmost importance to
be "people of the Book." This means, of course, that
we hold to a high view of Scripture, affirming its inspiration,
inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and sufficiency. We frame
our beliefs within the parameters of Scripture, considering it
a sufficient source for our faith and practice. We do not
take a position and then find Scripture to defend it. Rather,
we allow the Scripture to define our theological positions.
Our doctrine (or systematic statement of foundational beliefs)
is not born out of experience. We know that experience
can be quite subjective. Who doesn't know of someone, for instance,
whose testimony is of an earlier "salvation experience"
which, in fact, over time and with the conviction of the Holy
Spirit, was proven to be less than authentic? Experience is essential
for us all. However, given its subjective nature, it is not a
trustworthy source for doctrine.
Our doctrine is not born out of human reason, which
can often seem so wise one moment and so foolish the next. In
this era of rapidly expanding church planting movements, major
confrontations with cultures and religions antagonistic to the
Christian Faith, government suppression, house churches, mega-churches,
and a host of additional factors, one might suppose that we must
go outside the parameters of Scripture to accomplish the mission
of the Church. Sounds reasonable. Yet upon further thought we
are confronted with the reality that this was precisely the setting
in which the New Testament was birthed. Perhaps it faced even
more troubling issues!
Our doctrine is not born out of some new revelation
or prophetic word from God. Unfortunately, such practice
is all too common. Someone standing before a TV camera announces
to the "Church" that God has given him a new word for
this generation. Really? If that is the case, then the scriptural
canon must not be closed and we must be constantly adding pages
to our Bibles in order to accommodate this fresh wisdom from God.
Our doctrine is not born out of successful practices.
Who among us is not aware of the subtle dangers of pragmatism?
There has always been a tendency to adopt practices modeled after
the successes of others. In itself, that is often commendable.
But what happens when these practices become so imbedded in our
thinking that we begin to embrace them as doctrinal positions?
As you might suppose, at least part of the rationale for sprinkling
as opposed to immersion rests on the popularity of its inoffensive,
less humbling, and convenient nature.
Here is the bottom line: In the unfolding plan of God for the
Church, it is clear that we are neither the legislative nor the
judiciary branch of His government. God sets the parameters for
our beliefs, mission, and practice. And He is the Judge of all
the earth. The Church might more aptly be considered the "executive
branch" in the sense that we are given the responsibility
of executing, or carrying out, His mission on earth within
the parameters of the clear teachings and examples found in the
What About the Ordinances?
An ordinance is a practice that pictures some aspect of our
relationship with Christ and the completeness of His atoning work
in our lives. While participation in an ordinance does not save,
it does present an outward expression of an inward reality. Southern
Baptists, and indeed many other evangelicals, claim baptism and
the Lord's Supper as the only ordinances because they are the
only two practices which clearly have: 1) the specific command
of Christ that they are to be observed, and 2) the clear evidence
in the New Testament that they were subsequently practiced in
the churches. These two ordinances are pictures of past, present,
and future realities associated with our faith in Christ, His
atoning work, resurrection, and promised return.
Sometimes there is confusion as to the use of the term ordinance
rather than sacrament. In the early years of Christian
history the term sacrament was often employed to describe the
practices of baptism and the Lord's Supper. In more recent history,
however, Baptists have instead preferred to refer to these practices
as ordinances. The preference for this term stems from the fact
that many non-evangelical churches (churches which do not hold
to the sole sufficiency of Christ's atoning work for salvation)
use the word sacrament in reference to specific practices that
have saving efficacy. It is their belief that a person must add
something to the atoning work of Christ in order to be saved and
to remain so. Among those practices, but not necessarily limited
to them, are baptism and the Lord's Supper. Additionally, many
churches of this type hold that such practices are of a sacerdotal
nature and should only be administered by ordained clergy rather
than by individuals appointed by the local church.
Christian Ordinances ...
or Church Ordinances?
In the Baptist Faith and Message we state that baptism
and the Lord's Supper are both Christian ordinances and
church ordinances, exercised under the authority of the local
church by those whom each church appoints to administer them.
Sometimes, in our eagerness to embrace our individual responsibility
in carrying out the Great Commission, we fail to see that observing
the ordinances is not only a matter involving the individual but
the Body of Christ the fellowship of believers, the local
church as well.
The Scripture reveals a doctrine of the Church that gradually
unfolded during its early history. In the Gospels we find the
Lord speaking to the apostles about the foundation of the Church.
It is to be built upon Him. In Matthew 28:18-20, He speaks to
the eleven disciples, commissioning them and saying that all He
has taught and authorized them to do, they are to teach others
to do as well. Thus the commission remains valid right down to
In Acts we then see the advent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2)
who will now take up residence in every member of Christ's Bride,
His Church. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that the
Church becomes His Body, a representation of Christ Himself on
earth today. In that same book we then begin to discover both
teachings and examples for certain practices in the church such
as the establishment of deacons, the importance of giving, church
government, decision-making, and ordaining individuals for specific
missions and ministry. And it is here that we find early examples
of the oversight and authority exercised in regard to the ordinances
(See, for instance, Acts 10:47-48).
As the doctrine of the Church unfolds throughout the Book of
Acts, it becomes increasingly evident that the Lord's commission
is to be fulfilled, not outside or apart from, but rather through
our participation within the Body of Christ, represented by the
local church (lower case "c"). As Paul said, we are
all like different parts of a body, and it is when we are "fitly
joined together" that we experience increase in the church
(Ephesians 4:16). In other words, it is God's intention that,
with Christ as the Head, each member of His Body will play an
important role in the health of any local church.
Proceeding through the epistles we discover even more about
this remarkable body, represented in the church. We find that
it is to be primarily considered in its local sense for reasons
of accountability and doctrinal purity (note the references to
the church at Jerusalem, Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, and the
churches in Galatia). Here we begin to receive even more
detailed teaching and helpful examples of the ministries and practices
of the local church. We discover that the ordinances are exercised
under the authority of the local church, given as a means of insuring
accountability, enabling discipline, and protecting doctrinal
integrity. They are both personally and corporately significant.
Thus Paul can write that an individual should "examine himself"
on the occasion of "coming together" with the church
to the Lord's Table (See 1 Corinthians 11:23-31).
Like Faith and Practice
With sufficient scriptural example and precept, Southern Baptists
have affirmed that membership in our churches is a responsibility
to be exercised by those who observe the ordinances in a manner
befitting the concept of "like faith and practice (or order)."
This simply means that, in terms of "like faith," we
believe salvation comes by the grace of God alone and through
faith in Christ alone. Similarly, "like practice, or order"
refers to our belief that according to Scripture, salvation precedes
baptism (Matthew 28:18-19) and baptism precedes both the consequent
membership in a local fellowship (Colossians 2:11-12) and the
observance of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). Because
of this sequential emphasis, many Southern Baptists prefer the
term "order" rather than "practice," though
the latter term may include the sequential order as well.
Most Southern Baptist churches and each of our agencies use
"like faith and practice" (or, "like faith and
order") as the litmus test for fellowship, membership, and
service. This means that our members (and ultimately those involved
in ministry or missions through our mutually-supported entities)
have been baptized in Southern Baptist churches or under the authority
of churches of like faith and practice.
When is Baptism Properly
Using the Scripture as a guide, we find that the ordinance
of baptism is properly observed when five issues are satisfactorily
1. The proper candidate. This would be someone who has
already experienced the grace of God unto salvation and now desires
to make that a matter of open confession (See Acts 8:36-38; 10:47-48).
2. The proper mode. This is clearly immersion. The word
itself is a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo,
which means to immerse or plunge into. This is the manner in which
Christ was baptized (Matthew 3:16). It was the manner of the disciples'
baptism (John 3:22-23). In fact, the picture of death, burial,
and resurrection demands immersion (Romans 6:4).
3. The proper understanding. Baptism is a picture of
our total identification with Christ in His atoning work and glorious
resurrection. It is an expression of our belief that salvation
is His work and, like His resurrected life, complete and eternal
in nature. It does not affect or secure our salvation.
4. The proper authority. The ordinance of baptism is
a public expression; it preaches a message. The message is one
consistent with the beliefs of the church authorizing the baptism.
Thus, in the understanding of church authority that unfolds for
us in the New Testament, Peter could ask of the representatives
of the Jerusalem church who apparently accompanied him to the
house of Cornelius the Centurion, "Why should these not be
baptized seeing they have received the Spirit as did we on the
day of Pentecost?" (Acts 10:47-48). If a local church does
not feel that a candidate's beliefs are in concert with its own,
it should resolve that issue before granting participation. It
is obvious in the Scripture that, in addition to the profession
of the candidate, there is an obligation on the part of the church.
Otherwise Paul was overstepping his bounds in his instructions
to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11).
5. The proper life. Baptism is to be observed by individuals
who portray an appreciation of grace and a willingness to adhere
to the Scriptures. When the eunuch asked Philip if he could be
baptized, Philip responded by clarifying the eunuch's confession
of faith (Acts 8:36-37).
The Issue of "Re-Baptism"
It is interesting that so much attention is currently focused
on the issue of what some have called "re-baptism."
However, this is not without historical precedent. After all,
those who came to learn that we did not view this ordinance as
one that conferred salvation are the same ones who originally
gave the title of "Baptist" to us. They found it strange
that we discounted infant baptism and marveled that we "re-baptized"
individuals after their experience of genuine conversion. The
church's concern, however, was twofold: 1) the genuine nature
of an individual's salvation, and 2) the fellowship of the church.
A New Testament precedent for this practice is found in Acts
19:1-5. Here, Paul's question of some in Ephesus was "Into
what, then, were you baptized?" They replied, "Into
John's baptism." After explaining that true Christian baptism
was different than "John's baptism" (which was by immersion
but for repentance and looking toward Christ's coming), they were
subsequently baptized in the Name of the Lord Jesus." Their
new understanding of the salvation/baptism issue did not make
their previous baptism, though by immersion, an appropriate Christian
baptism. Scripturally speaking, there is no such thing as "re-baptism."
Therefore, Southern Baptists generally refer to this act as one
of being "scripturally baptized."
Baptism is a public testimony. It preaches something to an
audience. While it is personal, it is not private. As a result,
one's baptism takes on the meaning of the church authorizing it.
If a person comes to faith in Christ after a previous "baptismal
experience," or if a person realizes that an earlier immersion
did not appropriately convey the idea of an eternally-secure salvation
by grace through faith in the forever-resurrected Christ alone,
then the example above argues for "scriptural baptism."
Such an act of obedience actually then clarifies their testimony
and opens the door for ministry in the church and through the
entities supported by the church.
Why All the Fuss?
The issues surrounding the ordinances, particularly baptism,
are not new. They have surfaced periodically throughout the two-thousand-year
history of the Church, seemingly revisited by each succeeding
generation. Such interest is healthy insomuch as it forces us
to turn again to Scripture for the purpose of reviewing those
things most surely believed. A serious examination of the doctrinal
positions addressed in our Baptist Faith and Message will
reveal that in days past people have literally sacrificed their
lives rather than surrender or compromise key issues of the faith.
Even today, in many arenas antagonistic to the Christian Faith,
the act of baptism invites persecution. Several years ago I was
a guest preacher to a congregation of over two thousand people
in just such a setting. At the close of the preaching service
the pastor announced that the church would then observe the Lord's
Table. With that announcement, over one thousand people promptly
stood and walked away! Stunned, I asked through an interpreter
just why these people were leaving. "Oh," responded
the pastor, "these people are not yet willing to die."
My pastor friend, a victim of persecution himself, then explained
matter of factly that once a person believed in Christ, the next
act of obedience was baptism. Such a public exposure of faith
had already led to the death of several and could easily cost
the lives of even more. Unwilling to die, and therefore unbaptized,
they were not considered qualified for either church membership
or the observance of the Lord's Table. People such as those mentioned
above would find strange many of our discussions regarding baptism,
especially those in which concern was expressed over the embarrassment
or inconvenience such an act might cause.
But there is another reason for us to consider seriously the
role of baptism, especially in its relation to the local church.
Permit me to share one other personal experience. While I was
preparing to write on the subject of the church and its ordinances,
a missionary couple stopped by to visit with me. I was intrigued
by the purpose of their visit. They are not Southern Baptists,
but do work in the same region as some of our personnel and know
of our work. As we discussed their ministry, I asked them how
they "did" church and the ordinances. They replied by
saying that they did not understand how the church was to be involved
in the ordinances. When they personally led people to Christ,
they baptized them and then encouraged the new converts to do
the same with others whom they might lead to Christ. Similarly,
they each would then share the Lord's Table with these new converts
and encourage them to do the same with those whom they might win
to Christ and baptize.
I shared with the couple that it was apparent they considered
the ordinances to be "Christian" ordinances but not
"church" ordinances. When they agreed that this was
indeed their understanding of the ordinances, I responded by saying,
"Then your work will ultimately unravel and fail, because
you have no means of insuring doctrinal integrity. It's like passing
a message from one person to another. With each telling, it changes."
I explained to the couple why, in God's sovereignty, He had
obviously invested the practice of the ordinances in the local
church so that the testimony might remain firm and unwavering.
I further used an example of how a person's perverted view of
salvation, for instance, could be clarified as he gave witness
to his church, using the Book of Acts as an example.
This couple looked at each other in disbelief. Then they said
to me, "This is exactly what we see taking place in our work.
We have just been busy leading one after another to Christ and
encouraging each new convert to do the same. We have not been
clear on the importance and involvement of the local church. Yet
with each new generation we have seen subtle but dangerous changes
in very important doctrines. In fact, now we see leaders beginning
to assert an ungodly type of authority."
That couple's testimony demonstrates that seeking to understand
the doctrine of the church and its ordinances is not an inconsequential
exercise. If our desire is to plant churches that will succeed
in multiplying disciples until Jesus comes, we must insure that
they are founded solidly upon Christ and grounded in the Word
of God. That's why it's so important to understand baptism.
Tom Elliff is senior vice president for
Spiritual Nurture and Church Relations with The International
Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention.
What Does The Baptist Faith and Message
Say About Baptism?
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in
the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an
act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified,
buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial
of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life
in Christ Jesus. 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.
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