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Immersed in a Baptism Brouhaha

Changes of heart renew centuries-old divisions.

Few noticed when in June presidential candidate Sen. John McCain talked with McClatchy Newspapers about his faith. Every candidate gets these questions, and McCain has never previously effused on Christianity. At the time, McCain said he was an Episcopalian, though he and his family have for years attended North Phoenix Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation. So you can forgive reporters if they were a little surprised to hear McCain finally describe himself as a Baptist during a recent campaign stop in South Carolina.

McCain said he enjoys North Phoenix Baptist because he considers "the message and fundamental nature more fulfilling than I did in the Episcopal church." There's just one catch: McCain has so far refused the eponymous Baptist symbol. His wife and two his children have been baptized, but McCain has not. "I didn't find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs," McCain explained. Nor did his pastor regard baptism by immersion to be a requirement for church membership.

However, for many Baptists, baptism is a critical threshold to church membership. Capitol Hill Baptist senior pastor Mark Dever, writing about baptism in the context of the local church for the book Believer's Baptism, simply states that infant baptism is flatly unbiblical. So potential members must submit to adult baptism. Writing from the opposite (paedobaptist) perspective in The Promise of Baptism, James Brownson rejects altogether the idea that baptism must wait for professed faith. He directs readers away from connecting baptism to faith and points them to God's covenant promise. Thus, he tells churches to recognize any baptism conducted in the name of the Triune God.

You can see how these important theological differences affect church practice. Will Baptist pastors confront potential members baptized as infants and insist upon immersion? Writing as a Baptist, I can attest to seeing some angry Christians who believe a second baptism would betray their upbringing. Meanwhile, will Presbyterian or Methodist or Anglican pastors recognize infant baptisms from any other church? If not, where do they draw the line?

Writing in his Systematic Theology first published in 1994, Wayne Grudem urged both sides "to come to a common admission that baptism is not a major doctrine of the faith, and that they are willing to live with each other's views on this matter and not allow differences over baptism to be a cause for division within the body of Christ." Grudem considers disagreement over baptism to be a greater problem than division. In this view he draws upon the example of the Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA), which does not endorse one view over the other. Grudem continues in a footnote,

[B]oth Baptists and paedobaptists use very similar procedures as they seek to have a church membership consisting of believers only, and both love and teach and pray for their children as most precious members of the larger church family who they hope will someday become true members of the body of Christ.

Or at least Grudem formerly believed compromise could work. This summer blogger Justin Taylor observed a major change in the most recently published edition of Systematic Theology. Grudem now admits that the EFCA's compromise can result in de-emphasizing baptism. And of course compromise causes believers on both sides to endorse views of baptism they believe to be contrary to God's Word. Grudem's change resulted in what Taylor described as Baptizoblogodebate. The brouhaha drew in John Piper, a close friend of Grudem's who has unsuccessfully tried to convince his church to admit some members without requiring adult baptism.

It could be the most recent baptism spat has developed precisely because of increased church cooperation. When Christians huddle in their own camps, there is little need to debate those views that have divided them for so long. Not so when other affinities draw them close together, as with groups such as Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition. The camaraderie of these groups may lead some Christians to wonder what kept them apart in the first place. Now they know.

Paul Wasn't Cool

If no one has planted a church named Mars Hill in your community, just wait a few years. But apparently Russell Moore has had it with what he believes to be poor interpretations of Paul's visit to Athens, recounted in Acts 17. Rather than understanding Paul to baptize any use of cultural cues, Moore says Paul spoke polemically to demolish barriers to the gospel. "Paul's discourse on the Areopagus is strikingly different from many Christians' attempts to be relevant to popular culture," Moore explains. "He points to the Athenians' culture not so much to bring out what they know as what they deny."

Christians chase an impossible dream if they expect to be cool, Moore argues. But that doesn't mean we can ignore culture. He writes, "We must remember to listen beneath the cynicism to men and women who experience longings that can only be fulfilled in the reign of a Galilean Carpenter-King."

Quick Takes
  • Mavis Leung defends Carl Henry in Trinity Journal. Leung contends that younger evangelicals know little of this important theologian and his vision for cultural engagement. This vision has been obscured, Leung writes, by critiques of Henry as a "rational apologist" and foundationalist, nasty titles in a culture desperate to shed "modernist" notions of knowable truth.

  • Scot McKnight wonders who does more harm to the church: kind leaders who teach questionable theology, or harsh leaders who know their stuff? (Don't Christians who deal unkindly with others necessarily have bad theology?)

  • David Gushee challenges complementarians with four questions that he believes "expose weaknesses in complementarianism that cannot be mended from within that paradigm." Denny Burk responds to the ethicist: "Can you imagine if someone said the following: 'Civil laws are constantly broken by those who otherwise say those laws are just. Therefore, the hypocrisy of the lawbreakers invalidates the laws'?"

Verse for the Fortnight
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.' And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:14-15)

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns include:

What's Not Coming to a Bookstore Near You | How competition to publish celebrity Christians crowds out theology. (September 14, 2007)
From the Seminaries to the Pews | The 'new perspective on Paul' gets the popular treatment. (August 31, 2007)

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