If you want to risk coming to theological fisticuffs with other believers, one way is through a discussion about the meaning of baptism, what it is, what it accomplishes (or does not). Anyone who has read the literature on this knows that there are vociferous arguments on the topic. I have a position on the ordinance of baptism and what I think Scripture teaches about it, but my intent is not to expound that here. Rather, I want to suggest that one’s view of baptism is in fact linked to one’s view of the church. In other words, one’s view of baptism is a proxy for ecclesiology. If you tell me what you believe about baptism, I can tell you what you believe about the church.
The two positions are paedobaptism (baptism of infants) and credobaptism (baptism of believers only.) A third variation, which I won’t deal with directly here, exists wherein baptizing an infant is seen as putting them into Christ, as granting them new life.
The church as a covenant community
Baptism as a proxy for ecclesiology means that if I view the church as a covenant community made up of both the saved and the unsaved, then baptizing someone who is not able to personally express faith is not a barrier. It does not represent conversion or new life in Christ, but membership in the covenant community. This view draws a direct line between the rite of circumcision and baptism. God commanded Abraham to circumcise the male infants in his household. Personal faith was not a requirement, it was simply not part of the covenant stipulations. The paedobaptist argument is that in the New Testament, this does not change. There is no announcement that things are different. Jews, who were the first Christians, would have been confused that with the coming of Christ their children are now excluded from the covenant. The rite itself has changed, but not the candidates, they argue. The children of believers are candidates, as they believe Acts 2:38 states:
“For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Baptism is the initiatory rite into the new covenant, in the same way that circumcision was into the Abrahamic covenant, but just as faith was not required then, so neither is it now. The hope is that in the future, these children will grow to become not only covenant members, but covenant confessors. If they don’t, they would be covenant breakers.
For credobaptists, the belief that the church is composed only of those who are born-again informs who the candidates for baptism are. Those who express personal faith are alone those who should be baptized. They point to the New Testament record that where we see baptism, it is only for those who confess faith in Jesus. Where the New Testament speaks of households (the Philippian Jailor, Lydia) there is no mention of children. The assumption that children were present is an inference, but one from silence. Credobaptists make the claim that the New Covenant community is not a mixed multitude comprised of both the saved and the unsaved, it is the collection of those who are redeemed—and only these. They believe that there is no difference between the New Covenant community and the church. They are one and the same. They view the paedobaptists claim that unsaved infants are part of the covenant community as a creation of two groups where the New Testament only knows one.
This is not to say that mere professors, the unsaved, do not enter into the “church,” that is, the church as an outward expression of the inward reality. The difference is that unbelievers are not knowingly admitted. Since faith is the only thing that truly brings one into the church, if one who has made a false profession is baptized, they are simply a wet unbeliever, but they are not part of the church.
The nature of the covenant
While both paedobaptists and credobaptists affirm the New Covenant is in effect, their beliefs about the nature of that covenant emerge in baptism. Is the New Covenant an extension of a single covenant of grace, administered differently than in prior ages, but essentially one with it? Or, is it a covenant that is different in the sense of who its participants are, the entrance requirements, and thus its initiatory rite? To put it another way, the Abrahamic Covenant was a first-birth covenant, requiring only a birth as the precursor to circumcision. Generation after generation could be in the covenant even without personal faith, as long as they were circumcised. When paedobaptists affirm the continuity between the covenant with Abraham, they are affirming this aspect of it, that they believe unbelievers can in some way be covenant participants. Credobaptists believe the New Covenant is a second-birth covenant. Those in it are only in it because of their new birth, their faith in Christ. Because of this, only those who have expressed faith should be baptized. It is an initiatory rite only in the sense of announcing what has taken place, that is, that through faith someone has become a member of the body of Christ. It is an area of agreement between the paedo and credo views that both concur that only those who have been born again are in fact Christians. That may seem like a tautology, but credos argue that paedos have invented a third category in the New Covenant; in the covenant, but not a Christian.
Does our view on baptism matter?
Despite sharp disagreement over this issue, Paedobaptists and credobaptists value one another as members of the body, and have great fellowship with one another, because they recognize a common life in Christ. That is good and right.
But I want to echo what Stephen Wellum said several years ago. Baptism is not an unimportant matter in the church. “To get baptism wrong is not a benign issue. It not only misconstrues our Lord’s command and instruction to the church, it also leads to a misunderstanding of elements of the gospel, particularly to the beneficiaries of the new covenant and the nature of the church.”
We are accustomed to categorizing theological issues as essential or non-essentials. Where do we place baptism? I suggest it doesn’t fit neatly into either one of these. It is too important to place in the non-essential category, but it’s not something most would say they must break fellowship over. It inhabits a third category, somewhere in the middle. It is vital and significant; what we say about baptism does not stand alone. We are also saying what we believe about the church, the New Covenant, and all the entailments that belong to these. If there is one thing believers should do it is to study all the rationale behind the question, the Scriptural texts and the implications of them.