Today I had the pleasure of being able to read a friend’s freshly published book on the practice of baptism within the Baptist church, and specifically the question of rebaptising people to conform with a membership requirement in the church. Ben first provides a historically grounded review of the situation surrounding baptismal practice within the wider Baptist ecclesiastical structures, before narrowing focus upon Australia, and then to the Baptist Union of NSW. Following this is a pastorally sensitive review of the pastoral, theological, hermeneutical and practical concerns around the practice of rebaptising Christians in order to enable church membership. Ben finally concludes by looking at different models of ecclesial membership available to the Baptist church, options which both protect the regenerate nature of the church, while opening the doors for the increasingly porous ecclesial boundaries found in a modern and post-modern world.
I think Ben makes good points throughout the book, but it is also helpful to address each section separately and highlight some questions and perhaps add to his argument in some places.
Firstly, in addressing the historical situation regarding baptism, Ben does a great job at highlighting the origins of the requirement for believers baptism in Puritan England as a sign that the church is set apart as a regenerate body. However, I believe that this section could be strengthened by addressing other methods of ensuring a regenerate church throughout the period. For example John Wesley’s system of ticketed membership, renewed every three months, had the same aim of ensuring the new communities remained regenerate in their very nature. The consideration of these other methods of determining membership would strengthen the final argument for a different membership system within the Baptist Union. Also some historical considerations regarding the Baptist predecessors, the European Anabaptists, would have strengthened the case for the maintenance of the Baptist Union as a separate regenerate body, rather than a superset layered on the State church, a-la early Wesleyanism. Nevertheless this historical background provides a good basis for the later arguments.
Secondly, the section on theological considerations wisely avoids most of the debate surrounding the intricate hermeneutics of Paedo- vs Creedo-baptism, and helpfully highlights some of the hermeneutical assumptions of the Baptist church that are more opaque to an outside audience. However, I think this section could be strengthened with a further consideration of the nature of the ecclesial community, and especially the covenantal overtones present within the sacrament of Baptism. I think this would strengthen Ben’s argument concerning re-baptism implying ‘a sort of second-class citizenship in the church’ 4. In addition some more support for de-identifying with full immersion could have been found within several works including the Institutes (IV.15.19).
Finally, in the pastoral section Ben’s pastoral heart shines through, and here the great impetus of the book lies. Within this carefully structured argument Ben charts a course acknowledging the pastoral difficulties of church membership based on a specific implementation of the sacrament of Baptism, while also trying to remain faithful to the regenerate nature of the church. This course can be hard to chart, but I believe Ben does this with sensitivity to both concerns, without renouncing any incisiveness to effect change. This final chapter is full of astute recognitions of the visible and invisible church divide (to paraphrase Calvin), concretely applied to the issue of rebaptism; such as:
immersion does not equate to a regenerate church member. Immersion doesn’t prevent nominal members it just requires that members who are nominal be baptised. 5
Closed membership does not protect a regenerate membership as we have no means or rite by which one can judge the human heart, only God can know, beyond doubt, who belongs in the true church 6
Overall I think Ben has done a good job at stimulating what will hopefully be a respectful and fruitful conversation within the Baptist Union of NSW, and the Baptist church as a whole. However, in that vein the book is slightly parochial; focusing predominantly upon NSW and the local situation. Nevertheless it is a useful and stimulating book, especially for me as I continue to consider baptismal issues for our forthcoming child, from a similar perspective of a doubly baptised (infant and adult) and confirmed person.
I award Ben’s short and insightful book Four out of Five Wet Regenerate Believers.
Ben’s book is available here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FG2IEEQ