Monday, September 18, 2006

A Reply to Nathan Finn's "Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord's Supper"

For some reason, the BaptistTheology.org site, run by Southwestern Seminary, seems to be directed especially at defending supposed Baptist "denominational distinctives," and, consequently, discrediting the views of those, like myself, who take a more open view of interdenominational cooperation among evangelicals, on various topics.

The most recent article, or "White Paper," to appear on BaptistTheology.org is "Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper," by Nathan Finn. I am somewhat familiar with Mr. Finn, by way of his blog, The Fullness of Time. I have found Mr. Finn to be, in general, a gentleman and a scholar, and appreciate the objective and irenic tone present in his writing. I would venture to say that I would be in total agreement with 95% of his views on theological issues, and am quite confident I could have wonderful Christian fellowship with him. However, it just so happens that some of the topics on which he chooses to write are those on which I happen to differ with a certain segment of Baptists, who, in my opinion, are attempting to make a certain definition of so-called "denominational distinctives" a rallying point for a further narrowing of parameters of cooperation in Baptist life, both in the States, and on the international mission field.

Earlier on this blog, I took a public stand indicating my belief in what I would call "semi-open communion," which is the view that sincere believers, who have never been baptized as believers by immersion, but who, on the basis of their study of Scripture, have come to the conclusion that infant baptism is biblically justified, may be admitted to participation in the Lord’s Supper, as long as they, on the basis of a self-examination of their conscience, feel they are being obedient to the Lord’s commands. This would not include those who have been specifically excluded, by way of legitimate church discipline, from participation in the Lord’s Supper.

Lest anyone misinterpret what I am saying, let me make crystal clear here my unreserved commitment to the biblical doctrine of "believers' baptism by immersion."

Since Mr. Finn’s paper on "Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper" is 15 pages long, I will not copy the whole text here. In order to understand the full context of both his points, and my answers, below, I would recommend reading here the entire paper first.

Without drawing this out more than I have, it would be impossible for me to comment on every detail of what Finn has written. Also, I have not bothered to comment on a great deal of the content of the paper, because I have no substantial disagreement with many of the points covered. There are also a few points that I have bypassed, because I did not consider them to be of relative significance in relation to the rest of those on which I do comment.

Having said that, here are some excerpts of what I consider to be some of Finn’s most significant points, and my answers to them…

Finn: While many Protestant denominations also refer to these practices as sacraments, most Baptist churches prefer to call them "ordinances," emphasizing Christ’s command that each be an ongoing practice in local churches.

Rogers: While I would agree that the term "ordinance" is appropriate, and even though, at this point, it does not seem to me to be a major point worth arguing over, I would point out a slight discrepancy here, in that, I do not see where in the Bible it ever indicates that these "ordinances" are to be an ongoing practice specifically in "local churches." In my opinion, this is, at best, an inference, and at worst, eisogesis.

Finn: In fact, many have argued that the major difference between Baptists and the great Reformation traditions is the Baptist emphasis on a believers’ church versus a "territorial" church or "tribal" church.

Rogers: I definitely agree that biblical teaching seems to favor a "believers’ church" ecclesiology. At the beginning of the "Baptist" movement, those publicly identified as "Baptists" (along with other Anabaptistic groups) almost certainly took the lead in promoting the concept of a "believers’ church." However, in today’s more diverse ecclesiological landscape, I do not see that it is fair to imply that "believers’ church" ecclesiology is in anyway the sole domain of those who answer to the name "Baptist."

Finn: Proper baptism must be performed under the auspices of a true church, and the proper administrator of baptism is a representative of a local church.4 (footnote references "What Makes Baptism Valid?" by Dr. Thomas White)

Rogers: I am not ready to concede this point quite yet. Dr. White himself has admitted that his paper was not "focused on defending Scripturally that the ordinances do in fact belong to the local church," and has indicated his intention to write another article in which he further develops this point. (see the comment section on this post).

Finn: First, baptism represents the Christian’s initiation into the church.

Rogers: I do not necessarily see Mr. Finn arguing differently here, but just in case, I would point out that this is "initiation into" the Universal Church, and not the "local church." I would agree, however, that by logical deduction, when we are baptized into the Universal Church, we simultaneously become members of the local expression of the Church, or the "local church" if you will, in the locality in which we live.

Finn: Second, communion represents the unity of the church. Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread."

Rogers: Once again, I would counter that the reference to the "church" here, from a biblical framework, is primarily to the "Universal Church," rather than the "local church." That is, in communion, we are primarily celebrating our essential unity with the Body of Christ around the world, and through the ages, not just our unity with the other members of our particular local congregation.

Finn: Third, notice also that these verses indicate that communion, like baptism, represents our union with Christ. But whereas baptism represents our initial union with Christ at conversion, the Lord’s Supper represents our ongoing identity with the Savior as his committed followers.

Rogers: I would add here, that our union with Christ, as head of the Church, necessarily implies our union with all those who share a common relationship with us as part of the Body of Christ, recognizing the same Christ as Head of that Body.

Finn: Many scholars believe that the term "body" is not referring to the individual but rather the entire congregation—the corporate dimension.

Rogers: For this very reason, I believe it is important that we "discern the body" correctly in its extent. For me, the "body" we are "discerning" is made up of all of the saints throughout all of the ages.

Finn: Finally, the Table looks in anticipation toward the end of the age and the coming marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6–9).

Rogers: Because of this point, I also believe it would be ironic, if not tragic, to systematically exclude from the Lord’s Table here on earth those with whom we believe we will share it at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Finn: This practice of requiring immersion before communion has been variously referred to as "close," "closed," "restricted" or "strict" communion. Because all of these terms communicate the practice negatively—and Baptists certainly do not like to think of following biblical precedent as a negative act—I have opted to normally refer to this practice more positively as "consistent communion."

Rogers: In my opinion, this position is not "consistent" with biblical teaching, and thus, I take exception to this term.

Finn: The fact is almost all Christian traditions require baptism before one can participate in the Lord’s Supper. The quarrel does not concern the practice itself, but concerns the fact that Baptists do not recognize sprinkling, pouring or even some biblically irregular immersions as valid. The difference is not in the practice of restricting communion to the baptized, but in not recognizing other modes of baptism as biblical.

Rogers: For me, whether or not other denominations or traditions require "baptism" or "sprinkling" or "christening" for church membership, is relatively irrelevant. The question is does the Bible require it or not. I would agree, however, that those who are living in a continued state of unrepentant sin and open disobedience to the Lord’s commands should not be considered as legitimate participants in the Lord’s Supper.

Finn: What I am claiming is that consistent communion has been the majority practice in Baptist history.

Rogers: Once again, for me, what Baptists of other times may or may not have practiced, is relatively irrelevant. The crucial question is what does the Bible teach.

Finn: We can attribute this move toward open communion to a variety of causes. Among moderate/liberal Baptists, consistent communion is rejected out of a desire to be ecumenical. Many moderates also claim that consistent communion is associated with Landmarkism, a view of Baptist life that refuses to recognize non-baptistic churches as true churches. Many Reformed Baptists reject consistent communion out of a desire to allow other Reformed Christians (most of whom are Pedobaptists) to participate in the ordinance… Conservative Southern Baptists sometimes reject consistent communion because of a desire to be welcoming to other Christians who are visiting their church. It seems likely that many others practice open communion out of either theological ignorance or methodological laziness.

Rogers: I myself believe in what some may term "open communion" and others, upon truly understanding it, might prefer to term "semi-open communion." But, I do not at the same time "plead guilty" to any of the above five motives adduced for holding to this view. My sincere reason for holding to this view is quite simply because I believe that it is most consistent with biblical teaching.

Finn: If the universal practice of the New Testament was believer’s baptism by immersion, then it only stands to reason that churches practiced consistent communion; there were no "baptisms" by sprinkling or pouring.

Rogers: Precisely because of this point, I believe we are stretched to find any example of how the leaders of the Early Church would have handled the question of someone who was genuinely convinced of the biblical legitimacy of infant baptism. Although I can very well imagine them attempting to convince them of the error of their belief, I believe the evidence is inconclusive that they would have excluded them, as a result, from participation in the Lord’s Supper.

Finn: The case for consistent communion can also be made from specific texts. In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20, the proper order of the ordinances is implied in Jesus’ Command… the order is baptism before observance; baptism precedes communion.

Rogers: I believe this interpretation of this verse "proves" more than what Mr. Finn would be comfortable with. If I understand him correctly, by the same token, we should not continue to "make disciples" of those who have already been baptized, since "disciple-making" precedes baptism in chronological order. Or, perhaps Mr. Finn equates "making disciples" with "making converts."

Finn: Acts 2:41–42 states the proper order even more clearly: "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."

Rogers: Once again, I have no problem admitting that baptism before participation in the Lord’s Supper was the normal New Testament practice. The problem is the New Testament historical references do not deal with how the New Testament Church might have responded to someone who was convinced that the Scripture taught "infant baptism."

Finn: Only immersion truly communicates the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. This means in Baptist churches that practice open communion, a Pedobaptist may be adequately representing his ongoing union with Christ by participating in communion, but he has never had his initial union with Christ properly represented through immersion. As a result the theological relationship between the two ordinances is at best disjointed, and at worst it is entirely overlooked. Only consistent communion churches adequately represent the believer’s union with Christ in their observation of both ordinances.

Rogers: While I would agree that, by failing to submit to believers’ baptism, the Pedobaptist has not adequately represented his/her union to Christ, I would argue that we would symbolically be denying the reality of his/her essential spiritual union to Christ by not admitting a sincere, though mistaken, Pedobaptist, to the Lord’s Table with us.

Finn: The Argument from Baptist History

Rogers: Once again, the practices and beliefs of Baptists in other times are for me, relatively irrelevant. The question is: Were they biblically justified in the position they took or not?

Finn: Objections to Consistent Communion. First, as noted earlier in this paper, unity is only one theme present in the ordinance. The supper is as much about growth in grace, commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection, and mutual accountability as it is the unity of the body.

Rogers: While I would agree that the Lord’s supper is about "growth in grace," "commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection," and "mutual accountability," it is still also about "the unity of the body." It is not biblically consistent to act as if "three out of four ain’t bad."

Finn: Second, consistent communion is practiced by most Pedobaptist churches (excluding the liberal/ecumenical churches), at least as they understand the ordinances. In other words, Baptists place no more restrictions on the Table than non-Baptists; we simply disagree with Pedobaptists about what constitutes biblical baptism.

Rogers: Once again, from my point of view, this is not about what Pedobaptist churches may or may not believe and practice. It is about what the Bible teaches.

Finn: Third, far from showing a lack of brotherly love, close communion advocates restrict communion to the baptized out of love for both biblical truth and the Pedobaptist who rejects that truth. It is the hope of consistent communion Baptists that the practice will be used by the Holy Spirit to convict Pedobaptist Christians that believer’s baptism by immersion is the only true baptism.

Rogers: I agree that, out of love, we should try to convince Pedobaptist Christians of the need for believers’ baptism. I just do not think that also implies excluding them from the Lord’s Supper as a device to "drive home the point."

Finn: A fourth criticism, again closely-related, is that the ordinance is the Lord’s Supper, and hence it is inappropriate to exclude any of the Lord’s children from the Table. This really gets at the crux of the issue. Many open communion Christians argue that the Lord’s Supper is a Christian ordinance, given to the church universal. As such, it can be practiced by nearly any group of Christians who have some sense of commitment to each other.

Rogers: I agree that the issue of "Christian ordinance" or "church ordinance" is an important issue in regard to this question. But I am not sure if the whole thing "rises or falls" based on our view of this. In any case, Acts 2.46 says the believers "broke bread from house to house." If we agree that this "breaking of bread" included the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, then each of these "house" celebrations of the Lord’s Supper must have been in individual autonomous "house churches." Personally, I am more convinced that the New Testament churches functioned more like what we today would call a "cell church," in that, all of the believers in a particular city came under the spiritual oversight of one united group of recognized elders, met together as a large group whenever possible, and also met together in assorted small groups scattered throughout the city, mostly in homes.

It may perhaps be argued that each of the separate home meetings were "authorized" by the elders of the "city church" to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and thus, it was still carried out, effectively, as a "church ordinance." This may well be the case, but, in my opinion, is based upon conjecture, and, even if it were to be demonstrated, still does not add anything to the argument against "open communion."

Finn: Ecumenism, even among evangelicals, should not be achieved at the expense of New Testament practice.

Rogers: While I agree that "Ecumenism, even among evangelicals, should not be achieved at the expense of New Testament practice," I would counter that division among evangelicals should not be justified on dubious interpretation of New Testament practice.

Finn: A final argument against consistent communion is that it "de-churches" other Christian traditions, rendering them more or less invalid or false churches… In fact, I will candidly admit that many otherwise-healthy Baptist churches are "irregular" in that they do not consistently practice church discipline, a clear aspect of New Testament congregations.

Rogers: It would seem that, in interest of "consistency" on this point, it would be necessary to exclude believers from "Baptist" churches that do not practice church discipline from the Lord’s Table as well.

Finn: Conclusion. The issue is not about pleasing Pedobaptists or our open communion fellow Baptists. The issue is pleasing Christ by following the pattern he has given to us in the New Testament. Our Baptist forefathers were often persecuted and at times even martyred for their understanding of the ordinances. What a tragedy it will be if contemporary Baptists dishonor their memory—and the name of Christ—by compromising on a consistent view of the relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Rogers: I hope it will be evident from what I have written here that I am not interested in pleasing Pedobaptists, "Open Communion" Baptists, or "Closed Communion" Baptists, so much as I am interested in being faithful to the teaching of the Word of God.

15 comments:

tim rogers said...

Brother David,

In order to objectively view something this complex and astutely worded, I need to break it into modules. Therefore, I am reading pieces at a time and it takes longer.

Allow me to just ask one question and then go back to reading. If my question is answered later on, by all means refer me to it and not waste your time chewing your food twice.

You said; "For this very reason, I believe it is important that we "discern the body" correctly in its extent. For me, the "body" we are "discerning" is made up of all of the saints throughout all of the ages.

Isn't Finn's argument centered around the communion being practiced in the local church setting? I believe by placing your concern here, though I do not think you believe it, we are somehow mystically connected to all of the saints. Am I reading this wrong or can you see some of where I am coming from?

While I would agree with you that we are part of the "body of Christ" universal, when we practice communion, we cannot practice it as a wholesale communion that envelopes every protestant church.

Am I off here?

Blessings,
Tim

Nathan Finn said...

David,

We disagree on these matters, as we already knew we did prior to my writing of the White Paper and your reading it. You have not changed your convictions due to your reading of my paper, and I have not altered mine due to reading your critique. But our disagreements aside, I appreciate your thoughtful interaction with my arguments and your spirit of brotherly love in the critique. As we continue to ponder these questions may we both remain prayerful that the Holy Spirit will bring more clarity to both of us as individuals and to Southern Baptists corporately.

Blessings,

NAF

David Rogers said...

Tim,

I am not completely sure I understand what you are asking. But if I am understanding correctly, my answer is: I believe the NT emphasis on the unity celebrated during the Lord's Supper, has more to do with our unity as the the Universal Church than it does with local church unity. Local church unity, however, is a logical and correct application and extension of Universal Church unity.

I would also say that in the same general context, in 1 Corinthians 12, when Paul is talking about the body and the members, he is primarily referring to the Universal Church, with a logical application to local church life.

Kevin Bussey said...

Where are these churches at? I've been a member of an SBC church since the late 1970's and have never been to one that prohibited anyone who is not a believer from participating in the Lord's Supper.

tim rogers said...

Brother Kevin,

I would venture to say "prohibition" for me is too strong of a word. I would say that persons are encouraged not to partake of the elements.

I, like you, have been in SBC churches all of my life and never have I witnessed one serving the Lord's Supper refuse to give it to another person, except young children trying to get a piece of the bread or drink some of the juice.

Brother David,
You have answered my question to the extent that I asked it. There is just something I cannot get my mind wrapped around on this. Let me go back and read some more and I will get back to you.

Blessings,
Tim

Baptist Theologue said...

David, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message says this about baptism:

"Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper."

Do you agree with that statement?

David Rogers said...

BT,

Find your answer on Coming Clean.

Baptist Theologue said...

Thanks, David. Next time you're in Memphis, maybe we can eat together. I know you had to make a quick trip last week.

David Rogers said...

BT,

I'd love to. Let's count on it.

David

Ben Stratton said...

Let me try and answer Kevin Bussey's question, "Where are these churches at? I've been a member of an SBC church since the late 1970's and have never been to one that prohibited anyone who is not a believer from participating in the Lord's Supper."

I assure you there are plenty of Southern Baptist Churches that restrict participation in the Lord's Supper and these churches are located throughout the United States. I have a quote by R.B.C. Howell from right before the Civil War where he says he doesn't know of a single Baptist church in the entire south that observed open communion. During Howell's day all Southern Baptist churches were close / consistent communists. This remained true up until after WWII. During the 1940's - 1960's the seminaries were turning out preachers who were not only liberal on the nature of the Bible, but also on doctrine of the Lord's Supper. These pastors changed the positions of many Southern Baptist Churches. I would almost guarantee that if your church is older then 75 years, if you go back and study its history you can find when it practiced close communion.

Another factor that brought about the downfall of the universal Southern Baptist practice of close communion was ecumenical conservatism. In the years after WWII Southern Baptists were influenced by conservatives in other denominations. These non-Baptist conservatives were sound on inspiration, but differed from the Baptists on the Lord's Supper. Many Southern Baptist pastors bought into their ecclesiology and changed their churches to open communion.

The last factor the seeker-friendly movement. In the last generation many Southern Baptist churches have changed from close / closed communion to open communion because of the desire to grow. These churches observe the ordinance on Sunday mornings and don't want to offend any visitors that are present.

If I had to guess I would say that around 30% if Southern Baptist churches practice either close or closed communion. However due to the conservative resurgence I look for these numbers to increase in the days ahead. (Which is good news to me!)

tl said...

I have a question.

The BF&M2K says that a church must have both a pastor and deacons (if I recall correctly).

Doesn't that infer then that there was no church in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost since deacons had yet to be chosen?

But the book of Acts definitely refers to the church prior to the appointing of the deacons in Acts 7.

I am confused.

Could it be that we modern day Baptists are more sure of our traditions than we are of Biblical ecclesiology?

David Rogers said...

TL:

The BFM says, regarding the church, that: "its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons." I don't necessarily read this as saying a church MUST always have a pastor(s) and deacons. Nor do I see it necessarily saying a church COULD NOT have other officers also.

Perhaps the problem is that SOME Baptists are more sure of their INTERPRETATION of the BFM, which falls in line with their traditions, than they are of what the BFM really says, and of Biblical ecclesiology.

tl said...

David,

You are, of course, correct regarding the BF&M.

However, I would wager there are some in the IMB BoT who would, if they could, require field missionaries to start churches that are required to have pastors and deacons in order to be considered a church.

Should that ever occur, they will have established an argument contrary to the Scripture's teaching regarding the requirements of a church and eliminated the group of believers at Pentecost from being a church.

We have taken too many steps towards tradition as a source of authority for ecclesiology.

Rob Dando said...

David

Thanks for your post and your blog, which I’ve enjoyed reading over several months. I hope that you and others won’t mind a British Baptist pastor commenting on the debate.

In one sense people may know, this is a old, old question for those in the UK as it was pretty much settled in the early 19th Century here, and there are very, very few “closed” (I think the historic term is “strict”) communion churches here.

My own reflection however is that perhaps that the two views that you and Nathan ably articulate are so different because you live in two different worlds and with two different world views. A missional church and worker may well see things differently from a church, denomination or teacher who works within a Christian community so large that it doesn’t necessarily have to define itself in contrast to the world, but rather can afford to define itself against other confessional groups (or even sometimes those within its own confession!).

Our communion services are intentionally open – I consciously and explicitly invite those from other confessions who love Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord to share in the table. I would note however, that at every service I also speak to those who are not believers, thanking them for coming, explaining why the table is not yet for them and asking them to reflect on how much bread and wine speaks of God’s love for them. I also ask all believers (including myself) to reflect on whether they are in a right relationship with God and their brothers and sisters at the time; and if not to put it right or not to partake.

I just wonder why there is so much focus on the question of inclusion or exclusion at the table of those who are committed followers of Jesus. Recent blogs have pointed out how many members of all Baptist confessions in the US do not attend the churches they belong to (in the millions I understand) – we might call that backsliding or falling away. I also wonder about the many such people who I understand at the recent SBC meetings were identified (rightly) as a focus for evangelism and therefore have been baptised in a Baptist church but have no faith – nor if we affirm eternal security as I do – have ever had (probably baptised at 5 or 6 or 7 but that is a whole separate argument! ☺)

So why no concern about those who may have been baptised according to perceived proper forms but have no faith or no discipleship! This to me seems a far more important question for a radical church (as all Baptist churches should be) than our relationship with other committed believers we might wish to include or exclude at the table.

Robert

PS – and no I don’t recognise anything other than believer’s baptism as true New Testament baptism, with faith as the necessary prerequisite and a Trinitarian formula as the absolutely necessary part of the mode. I don’t worry so much about who did it or what they believed within the Christian community as the Trinitarian requirement effectively removes recognition of baptism as practised by the pseudo-Christian cults.

David Rogers said...

Robert,

Thanks for your insightful comments. I very much appreciate your perspective as a British Baptist. I am afraid some in the States do not perhaps realize that Baptists around the world are not always in lock-step agreement with Baptists in the States. And, not just because of supposed liberalism.

David