Thursday, April 17, 2008

On Baptism and the Local Church

A recent post at SBC Today has generated significant conversation (yet again) about the proper relationship between the ordinance of baptism and the local church. No reason and no desire (on my part) exists to duplicate either their post or their comment experience over here—SBC Today is a great blog, and if you wish to jump into their discussion, then that's what the link is for

I do, however, always read with interest the differing perspectives that people bring to this topic every time it arises. It ought to be evident to the online world by now that I'm a guy with an interest in ecclesiology. So my ears perk up when I hear our missionaries describing themselves as living overseas bereft of any church with which to baptize their children. When I hear our missionaries describe themselves as baptizing several new converts in an area but being too far away from the "nearest church" to get "authority" to baptize them, the very sentiment is disconcerting to me.

Reading these things only reinforces in me the need for a renewed focus upon the teaching of sound ecclesiology among Southern Baptists. Might I offer a few basic thoughts here, tonight?

Every Christian Everywhere Always Needs to Be a Member of a Church. The Bible presumes that, whenever a Christian is living for any substantial time in one community, a Christian will be in fellowship with other believers in a church. Just as the Bible presumes that all believers will be baptized, the Bible presumes that all believers will be a part of a local body of believers.

And indeed, so much of what the New Testament presumes about the Christian life cannot take place apart from a church. How does a Christian fulfill the command to "bear one another's burdens" while remaining aloof from any church? Indeed, there are so many "one another" directives in the New Testament that presume a reciprocal covenant relationship with other believers! How can Christians relate properly to church leadership when they are not a part of any body of believers?

To be without membership in any local (to you) congregation of believers is a defective existence.

Any Christian Anywhere Can Start a Church. A great many of the blog comments on this topic seem to presume something akin to an Essential Mother Daughter Authority (EMDA) view of the church. Distilled to its essence, EMDA is the presumption that a church gains its "churchly" authority from the mother church that officially votes to start it. I believe that Christian baptism ought to be performed in connection with a biblical local church. Somebody somewhere reading those words thinks I mean that, if I were marooned in the Galapagos Islands and led one of the natives to Christ, I couldn't baptize them unless I could first build a boat and sail off to somewhere to gain permission from an existing church. They seem to presume that I'm talking about EMDA.


In such a case I'm going to start a church in the Galapagos Islands, and all of those who received Christ and were baptized in the Galapagos Islands would be added to that church. People point to Phillip's baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch. You know, the Ethiopian church claims that Philip's encounter was the birth of the church in Ethiopia.

In other words, the "authority" of a "mother" church is not necessary to the formation of a "daughter" church. If it is, then Roger Williams and his band in Providence is in trouble. As is John Smythe and his group in Holland. Indeed, both Williams and Smythe eventually endured personal spiritual angst over this very point—wondering whether they were wrong to form local churches without the authorization of an existing church. Those of us who remained Baptist concluded that they hadn't done a thing wrong and that any group of believers can form a church.

The Church Is Not the Building. Inevitably in these discussions, somebody makes the startling claim that linking baptism with the church is the same thing as requiring that you find a baptistry, a wireless microphone, and a water heater or you can't have a baptism. Nobody with a brain is saying any such thing. To say that baptism ought to take place in connection with a local church is to say absolutely nothing about WHERE baptism ought to take place. It is to say absolutely nothing about WHEN baptism ought to take place (although we ought to have a discussion about that sometime). It is merely to say WITH WHOM baptism ought to take place: with the people among whom a disciple will grow and by whom he will be held accountable to his profession if possible. And if there are no such people—if he is the first— then he is baptized as the disciple who will witness the baptism and discipling growth of others yet to be born into the church that he is forming.

Conclusion. When I read stories about people who have to baptize their children in swimming pools apart from the encouragement and support of any local believers, my very first thought is NOT, "Warning! Warning! Ecclesiological Error! Citizen's Arrest! Citizen's Arrest!" Rather, my first thought is, "How terribly sad! How unnecessarily isolated! How unlike the life of Paul, for example, who seemed to be right in the middle of a local church anywhere that he lingered for more than forty-eight hours."

Christ called me to Himself in 1975, just before I turned 6. I've been an active member of a local body of Christian believers continuously since that moment...32 years and counting, now. Cut off from the body of Christ, I think I'd feel completely disoriented to life. I'd be (not in the eternal, spiritual sense) profoundly lost. Anyone facing the presumption of ongoing, lengthy Christian existence without a church has my profound and sincere pity and my prayers.


CB Scott said...


One thing is a fact.

We (meaning you and me) are.. not..going.. to..fight..over..this

That of which this post consist, I, agree with, in every word.

That may mean nothing to you, but I think it is monumental.:-)


Wayne Smith said...

Bart and CB,


I totally agree, Bart thanks for this straight forward post on Baptistism and the Local Church.
In His Name

Anonymous said...

I am taking part in the discussion over there, taking what appears to be the unpopular position, but I find little to disagree with here. What "ought to be" is different that what "must be."

Christians who are not in regular fellowship with other believers do so in direct contradiction to Paul's instructions and rob themselves of the edification and accountability of the body and rob the body of his/her gifts.


Ben Macklin said...

Bart -

Amen. I cannot understand how people could place baptism in the "optional" category if they read their Bibles.


Ben Macklin said...

Bart -

That should say "also." I can "also" not understand . . . .


Ron P. said...


Excellent post! I know it is Friday, so there will not be as much chatter, but you bring up a point that surely must not be glossed over:

How could we have missionaries anywhere, who are not part of a local church? If one does not exist locally, why not start one? This seems to be Ecclesiology 101. It only takes two or three gathered in His name.

Ron P.

Les Puryear said...


Count me among those who agree with you on this post.


David Rogers said...


I totally agree with your 3 main points here:

1. Every Christian Everywhere Always Needs to be a Member of a Church.
2. Any Christian Anywhere Can Start a Church.
3. The Church is not the Building.

Beyond this, I think you have made a significant positive contribution to the on-going discussion with this post. If others on "your side" of the discussion could all agree to what you say here, in my opinion, we would really be making some significant headway.

That being said, I still am somewhere out there struggling with the "what ought to be" and "what must be," that Bill alludes to in his comment.

I believe in believers baptism.

And, I believe in the importance of the local church, for the very reasons you give here.

I believe that we should always seek to connect new believers with a local church fellowship.

I agree that baptizing new believers in the context of a local church fellowship can be a very positive thing, for this very reason.

But, I still don't get how all of this together NECESSARILY means that baptism, in order to be considered legitimate, must be done under the authority of a duly constituted local church. It may be a great idea, that makes a lot of sense, humanly speaking. It may help connect the dots within a certain ecclesiological system. But, I still can't, for the life of me, we where this is explicitly taught in Scripture. And, to be honest, I have trouble following the argument that it is implicitly taught.

As I just commented over at SBC Today, the various arguments I have heard seem to me to be adding 2 + 2 and coming up with 5. But, God help me, if I am just being stubborn about this, and refusing to see what the Bible really teaches, I pray He will somehow break through my blindness on this.

from the middle east said...

Brother Bart,

I am in agreement with you and Brother David here. This is a Jesus moment!!!!

His peace be with you,
From the Middle East

Dave Miller said...

It's going to be hard for you to get a long comment stream going when you say something we all agree with.

However, I have one question that might spur disagreement. I agree with your post in the ideal.

However, if a family came into my church, and they had all been baptized by the father without any relationship to any church, I would receive them into our membership on statement of faith.

If the baptism is by immersion, after conversion, and is seen as a testimony of the saving grace of Christ, not as an act that brings salvation, I will receive them.

The situation I described above is not ideal, but I would still consider the baptism biblical.

Strider said...

I have reread this post and I just can't understand it Bart, I completely agree with you. Oh, and our agreement doesn't end there- I too was saved and Baptized in 1975- but I was twelve.

Bart Barber said...


That just means that you are old (although not as ancient as C. B.).

To all,

I've been camping (yes, tent, sleeping bags, etc.) with my five-year-old. And tomorrow is Sunday. I don't know when I'll be back with something substantive.

Dave Miller said...

Bart, you need to examine your priorities!

Spending time with your kid and focusing on preaching - you have some thinking to do, young man.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for daring to enter the comment stream on Wade B.'s latest post. I am a Southern Baptist woman and was offended by Wayne Smith's remark. I'm not sure what he meant, but I do not believe the SBC is trying to make all wives into Stepford wives. It's more drama started from all mighty Wade trying to save the women..haha. Wade is stirring up women now for his own purpose. Those poor ladies don't realize they are being manipulated and used by him. The very thing they fight against. He's one smooth dude. His own associate pastor is one who degrades women by calling them babe and toots. Wade has tried to get the blacks in an uproar, now the women. The man will stop at nothing to destroy the SBC. I don't agree with Doug Phillips, but there are many S. Baptist men and women who would stand against that kind of patriarchy extreme in the SBC. Not just mighty Wade, defender of all. If people would open their eyes they would see Wade is into tearing down, not building up.

r. grannemann said...

The fundamental error here, in my opinion, is the notion that one is "baptized into" the local church. People enter the Kingdom of God by the NEW BIRTH (John 3), not baptism (so one is not "baptized into" the universal church either). The community of believers or its representative performs baptism (or if you are isolated on a desert island consider yourself that representative). Baptism SYMBOLIZES the new birth by which one enters the Kingdom of God (and may at the option of a local church be a requirement for church membership, a good idea in my opinion), but baptism is NOT a means of grace. IF YOU SOMEHOW DO IT WRONGLY (if we can ever come to a conclusion of what that is) IT IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. If you have a baptism that was done only 75% correctly you won't have a lower place in heaven from the guy whose baptism was done 99% correctly. "True baptism" is an invention of Catholics and Baptists (and is an erroneous concept since the notion highlights the idea of merit). Yes, don't make too little of baptism, but don't make too much of it either.