“Was I Really Baptized?”, and Other (Quibbling?) Questions

September 25th, 2009

Over at the SBC Voices blog, they’re starting a new series of debates between fellow Baptists.  The mission statement requires that they be civil, biblical, non-personal 1000-word essays–enforced by the editors.  It looks to be interesting.

The first debate is over baptism and local church oversight.  Who performs baptisms?  Does it need to be done by a local church?  Can you baptize yourself?  Where the rubber meets the road: If you weren’t baptized by a church, should you be rebaptized?

I like the discussion.  Here are the links.  (I’ll try to add the rest, as they post more.)  As always, I comment under the name “Jugulum”.

  1. Diverse Voices Debate: Is Church Oversight Essential for Baptism?
  2. Diverse Baptists Debate: Church Oversight of Baptism- Foster’s Rebuttal of Miller
  3. A Response to the Baptism Oversight Debate


In my judgment, the case  for necessary church oversight isn’t strong.  But I want to make two “meta” comments about conversation itself, and one about the content of the debate.  (The specific observation is a quote from a comment I left at the first entry.)

The two general issues:

1.) Is it stupid even to be having this kind of debate?  Is it just quibbling?
2.) Even if we disagree with the other side’s final conclusion, we can still learn & grow from the principles & arguments they use.  (In this case: We can grow in understanding the symbolism & meaning of baptism, and think about how to preserve the richness of what God has given us.)

The specific comment:

3.) We should care about preserving & reflecting the symbolism of baptism in how we practice.  But “this preserves the symbolism better” doesn’t imply “it’s not valid without it.”  A comparison to the Lord’s Supper may help.

1. Is It Quibbling?

Many people will probably wonder why the debate is even happening–either because they think church oversight is obviously not necessary, or it obviously is, or because it’s silly to worry about how other people are doing it.  (When my friend Hannah saw the debate, she tweeted that it’s irritating & dissenting when “people quibble over stuff. It just doesn’t seem worth arguing about. You do it your way, I won’t. There. Solved.”)

If we haven’t thought through the issue specifically, we’ll tend to assume according to our background & tradition.  Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians…  Any high-church group will tend to think a church is necessary.  (And Baptists are high-church on baptism!)  Non-denominational groups or generic evangelicals will tend to go the other way.

The ways it doesn’t matter:

  • It doesn’t affect salvation.
  • It’s not worth splitting a church.
  • It’s not worth breaking friendships.
  • It’s not worth getting emotionally worked-up.

But you also shouldn’t dismiss the debate as meaningless.  It isn’t coming from a matter of preference.  It’s happening because someone has a biblical conviction.  They think that God’s word is teaching us, “Do things this way.”  They may be wrong, but we should give them a hearing.  A discerning, loving, civil, brotherly discussion.

The best of Christianity isn’t found in ignoring matters of disagreement.  It’s found in following Christ by the power of the Spirit, and working through disagreement as best we can–and it’s found in how we treat each other when we still disagree.

And yes, it’s also found in exercising discernment over the relative importance of different questions.  And there’s a place for “You do it your way, I won’t”, even on matters of some importance–but that comes after hearing each other, learning from each other, and exploring the Word together.

2. Hearing Their Valid Points

The meat of a debate often isn’t in the final conclusion.  It’s in examining the underlying principles.  It’s in the underlying values & truths that each side is trying to apply to reach their conclusion.

If you approach the debate solely from a “Did they prove their final point?” perspective, you might miss the growth & edification that the Spirit gives us through each other.  You might focus on the flaws & weaknesses in their arguments–which will probably be present even if they’re right–and you might gloss over the valid points that they make. Even if they’re wrong, they might see things that you’re missing.  (And if you recognize their valid points during the debate, then your criticisms are more likely to be sound & on-target.  And they’re more likely to receive your critiques.)

In this debate, Robin Foster is arguing that valid baptism is baptism into the church, conducted by representatives of a local church.  He’s arguing from the church’s role as the “pillar and buttress of the truth”, and he’s arguing from the particular truth of what baptism means–the symbolism of joining the body of Christ.

So: Take this opportunity to consider the meaning of baptism.  Appreciate the richness of the symbolism.  Consider the best way to preserve that meaning in how we practice it.  (Don’t just think about the minimum components of a valid baptism–think about the best way to practice it.)  And yes, consider whether there’s an actual requirement to follow.

3. Symbolism, “One Bread”, and the Lord’s Supper

In the comment section, I challenged Robin on how he was using 1 Tim. 3:15, that the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth”.  He clarified by referring to the symbolism of baptism, and how it involves the church as well as the believer.  (He did that further in his rebuttal.)

I replied:

The difficulty is following you to your application–that baptism isn’t valid without local church oversight. (I agree with David Miller–that our normal practice should be baptism in a local church context, but that it isn’t required for a baptism to be valid.)

I don’t see how you’re bridging the gap between “the symbolism is baptism into the body” to “an official local church representative is required”.

As a parallel: In the Lord’s Supper, the symbolism includes the Body of Christ all partaking of one bread. (1 Cor 10:17) Not individual crackers–a loaf broken and shared. One body, partaking of one bread.

Actually using one loaf preserves more of the symbolism. I understand saying, “Therefore, it should be the normal practice.” But can we really say, “Therefore, we have not actually participated in the Lord’s Supper if we use individual crackers”?

Perhaps you would say that. But if not, why? Why do you go from symbolism to application in one case, but not the other?

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