Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Grudem's Change of Mind regarding Differences on Baptism within a Local Church

While at a Christian bookstore today I noticed that Zondervan has retypeset Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, using the Minion font and a wider trim size. The result is quite attractive, with bigger margins for note-taking. (If you don't own the book, I'd highly recommend purchasing it right away. It's excellent.)

By and large the text (and pagination) are unchanged. But readers may be interested to know that Grudem completely rewrote section F1 (pp. 982-983) in the baptism chapter (ch. 49). Grudem previously argued for "allowing both views of baptism [i.e., paedobaptism and credobaptism] to be taught and practiced in denominations on both sides of the question." Grudem has since changed his mind. Here's the rewritten section:

Do Churches Need to Be Divided Over Baptism? In spite of many years of division over this question among Protestants, is there a way in which Christians who differ on baptism can demonstrate greater unity of fellowship? And is there a way that progress can be made in bringing the church closer to unity on this question?

Much progress in this regard has already been made. Christians who differ over baptism already demonstrate their unity in Christ through individual fellowship, Bible studies and prayer groups in their communities, occasional joint worship services, cooperation in city and regional evangelistic campaigns, joint support of many mission agencies and other parachurch groups, joint sponsorship of youth activities, pastors’ fellowship groups, and so forth. Although baptism remains a difference, that difference does not generally lead to harmful divisions. In fact, most Christians seem to realize that baptism is not a major doctrine of the faith.

A very few denominations have decided that they would allow both views of baptism to be taught and practiced within their denominations. The Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) does this, for example, as a result of a “compromise” reached in 1950 when the denomination was formed from two different groups that had different views on baptism. The EFCA allows ordination for pastors who hold to believer’s baptism and for pastors who hold to infant baptism. And they allow into membership those who had been baptized as infants in a Christian church, without requiring them to be baptized as believers before joining the church. If some parents want to have their infant child baptized and the local pastor does not hold to infant baptism, the local church invites some other Evangelical Free Church pastor who holds to infant baptism to come and baptize the infant.

Although the Evangelical Free Church continues as a strong, healthy denomination today, there still remain some difficulties inherent in this position. One is that there can be a tendency to minimize the importance of baptism: since members disagree on this topic, it is easier not to talk about it much or emphasize its importance.

But the most serious difficulty arises when people begin to think about what such a “compromise position” implies about the views of baptism held by the people who go along with this compromise. For people who hold to infant baptism, they have to be able to say that it is acceptable for believing parents not to baptize their infant children. But according to a paedobaptist view, this seems close to saying that is acceptable for these parents to disobey a command of Scripture regarding the responsibility of parents to baptize their children. How can they really say this?

On the other side, those who hold to believer’s baptism (as I do) would have to be willing to admit into church membership people who have been baptized as infants, and who did not make a personal profession of faith at the time they were baptized. But from a believer’s baptism position, genuine baptism has to follow a personal profession of faith. So how can believer’s baptism advocates in good conscience say that infant baptism is also a valid form of baptism? That contradicts what they believe about the essential nature of baptism – that it is an outward sign of an inward spiritual change, so that the apostle Paul could say, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).

For someone who holds to believer’s baptism, admitting to church membership someone who has not been baptized upon profession of faith, and telling the person that he or she never has to be baptized as a believer, is really giving up one’s view on the proper nature of baptism. It is saying that infant baptism really is valid baptism! But then how could anyone who holds to this position tell anyone who had been baptized as an infant that he or she still needed to be baptized as a believer? This difficulty makes me think that some kind of “compromise” position on baptism is not very likely to be adopted by denominational groups in the future.

However, we should still be thankful that believers who differ on the issue of baptism can have wonderful fellowship with one another across denominational lines, and can have respect for each other’s sincerely held views.


1. I realize that some readers will object to this sentence and will say that baptism is very important because of what the differing positions represent: differing views of the nature of the church. Many Baptists would argue that practicing infant baptism is inherently inconsistent with the idea of a church made up of believers only, and many paedobaptists would argue that not practicing infant baptism is inherently inconsistent with the idea of a covenant community which includes the children of believers.

I would encourage those who reason this way to consider how much they hold in common with evangelical believers on the other side of this issue -- not necessarily with those far from them on other matters as well, but especially with those on the other side who agree with them on most other aspects of the Christian life. Many Baptists do encourage and demonstrate a valued place for their children within their churches, and many paedobaptists do pray for the

salvation of their baptized children with the same fervency with which Baptist parents pray for the salvation of their unbaptized children. Regarding church membership, evangelical paedobaptists do require a believable profession of faith before children can become full members of the church (their term is "communicant members"; that is, those who take Communion). They also require a believable profession of faith before any adults are allowed to join the church.

When these procedures are functioning well, both 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.

2. I did not realize this difficulty when I first published this book in 1994. I have revised this entire section for the 2007 printing.