The REAL water that divides: re-examining the identity of the crucial issue in the paedo/credo debate

The fire spreads throughout the blogosphere, but here is the trail of smoke I most recently noticed (thanks Steve!). Sam Storm asks, regarding the participants in Together for the Gospel,

My question, then, is this: How can we claim to be “together” or “united” for the sake of the gospel and turn away a brother or sister from the very expression and proclamation of that gospel that is so central to the life and testimony of the church? What does this prohibition say to the world around us? What must they think of our professed “togetherness” or “unity” when the elements of the Eucharist would be withheld from a brother such as Ligon Duncan?

An Excursus on Ecumenical Appearances
First of all, I want to admit, even though I think Lig Duncan clearly has the moral high ground here, that I have seen situations where the situation seems reversed. If you are in a church that allows young children to participate in the Lord’s Supper, if is only a matter of time before you encounter a baptist family who holds firmly to the ideas that

  1. Junior is not old enough to be baptized, and
  2. It is cruel exclusion to not allow Junior to partake in the Lord’s Supper so why are you being so cruel as to exclude him?

I suspect, however, that in the case of the men involved in this discussion that they would see the obvious oxymoron in those two points and not attempt to use it.

The Real Difference
I want to argue that the division separating the brethren here is not the difference between paedobaptism and credobaptism. The sooner we see this the sooner we can discuss the true difference which, as should be obvious to us all by this debate, separates credobaptist from credobaptists and maybe even paedobaptist from paedobaptist.

The debate, remember, is not over paedobaptism but over whether a credobaptist church can allow those baptized in infancy to join their membership and take communion. Pay careful attention to that sentence! Remember, the issue is not over whether a paedobaptist could join and receive communion. As far as I know, I would be welcome at the table since I was baptized by immersion on the basis of my confession of faith.

The issue isn’t whether babies should be baptized or not, because this debate is between people who agree with this premise.

The issue isn’t whether baptism should be immersion, because this debate is between people who agree with this premise.

The issue isn’t over whether people must believe in infant baptism as a condition of church membership, because this debate would allow paedobaptists to be members of a church if they happened to be raised by baptists or were converted as older persons and then baptized in even a paedobaptist church.


The issue is over whether baptism is a signal enacted by a believer to dramatize a truth or if it is (also) God’s act designating His reception of the person baptized.

Notice the also in the statement. It is not enough to show that baptism can be a profession of faith. One must show that it is not a once-and-for-all act on the part of God that can never need repeating.

Notice also, there is no reason why a credobaptist could not accept that baptism is God’s act and still think that it ought only be done to a professing believer with adult-like faith. That is a perfectly understandable position based on exegesis of the Bible (thought totally wrong, in my opinion).

A Marriage Analogy
Say you were a missionary pastor in some other culture and had a Christian couple join your congregation with their believing children. But later you discovered that this couple had been “married” when they were both four-year-olds on the authority of their parents and thus had simply been shacked up together as soon as the reached the ability to procreate.

Would you tell this couple that they were never married? Would you insist that their children are bastards and that they are living in sin until and unless they got remarried for the first time? If you refused to make them get (re)married, would it be just for someone to accuse you of not upholding the Biblical institution of marriage and being compromised with the principles of child-marriage?

No. The fact is, no matter how wrong their marriage was, they are now husband and wife and they should be exhorted to live as the Bible directs husbands and wives to act, not shunned from the Church.

Rite of Passage or Profession of Faith?
When the Bible talks about marriage it constantly talks about it as an objective fact that involved a new beginning in a person’s life. Whether or not one is supposed to be a professing believer is an important question. But it is not the question in this debate. The real question is whether, if one is supposed to be a professing believer, disobedience to this requirement invalidates the baptism. And the way some easily assume that it must invalidate the baptism indicates that, for them, baptism is primarily a profession, not a rite of admission into the church.

I don’t think this justifies any of the language used to describe baptism except perhaps First Peter 3.21. I won’t argue about that passage because, as noted above, positive evidence that baptism involves a profession does not count as evidence that it is not primarily and entrance rite.

If I see more interaction on this issue, I might feel the need to rehearse the Scriptural evidence. For now I will simply point to something I have observed among Baptist believers as prima facie evidence that we all know it is an entrance rite and, whether or not one is supposed to be a professing believer, the baptism is not invalid if the person is not one.

The Revolving Door
Very simply, as one travels away from the Reformed Tradition and finds Baptist believers and Baptist churches that have forgotten their British Reformed heritage one finds a disturbing phenomenon: One finds people who have been baptized several times. Their logic is impeccable. The Church is full of hypocrites. They were probably one the last time they were baptized–not truly understanding the Gospel or truly being repentant, etc. Therefore, having now truly converted, they must be baptized properly the first time.

Repeat as necessary.

But I think that the participants in this conversation know better. They know that baptism is only supposed to be done once. They know there is no evidence whatever in the NT that people who turned out to be false Christians and later truly came to faith had to be baptized again. They know that all the typology of the OT is against such a practice.

So that is the question.

If someone were baptized on a profession of faith that turned out to be false–that is, he was truly converted later in life–would he be denied membership in these churches and not permitted to take part in the Lord’s Supper?

I suspect that if anyone thinks about the revolving door this would establish, and how far this revolving door would be from what we see in the Bible, he would know that this cannot possibly be the right way to practice baptism.

But it follows pretty closely from premises of barring the paedobaptized from membership. The only way to avoid it would be to have an exegetical argument for a specific age requirement that invalidates the baptism if it is violated. If one only has the principle of requiring a profession of faith, then some number of credobaptists will also be barred.

And that is simply not how the Bible shows us the NT Church (or the OT Church) operating.

Baptism is a rite of admission into the Church. If paedobaptist believers should have received the rite when they were older, it remains true that they were admitted.

10 thoughts on “The REAL water that divides: re-examining the identity of the crucial issue in the paedo/credo debate

  1. pduggie

    baptist churches have the same experience of kids who get baptized just to ‘get along’ as prebysteriian churches have those who become communicant members to do so don’t they?

    What would happen if the kid who was baptized at 13 said, “y’know pastor, I was not really a Christian back when I did that at 13. Baptize me for real this time.”

  2. centuri0n


    My daughter is 2 years old, and I enter her into a marriage contract with a lad of a family in our neighborhood who is three but shows a lot of potential.

    We stay neighbors, and we require my daughter to spend time with this boy daily, and when she is (for example) 16, she admits something to me: she hates this boy.

    [1] Is the marriage valid?

    [2] If not, why not? If so, what are her options?

  3. centuri0n

    For the record, people who take multiple baptisms as believers are as bad as those who will not take one — that is, they do the same harm to the ordinance.

  4. Andrew Fulford

    Great argument.

    I wonder if a Baptist would respond that the revolving-door problem would only occur because of a flawed definition of faith, e.g., belief must be accompanied by a certain emotional/mystical experience to be real belief, or a certain doctrinal understanding about some issue (that’s not a sine qua non for orthodoxy), etc. If people had a simpler understanding of what legitimate belief was, the Baptist position might not result in this practical problem.

    Just throwing that out there; obviously I don’t agree with either position.

    Actually, I wrote a post about this I wouldn’t mind your thoughts on if you have any time:

  5. centuri0n

    Mark: I’d love to do 5 or 10 questions with you on this subject over at my debateblog. That is, we both ask the other 5 or 10 questions, and answer the questions asked. Take a peek and see what you think.

  6. mark Post author

    Frank, you make me think that the marriage analogy may be useless. I knew it was a stretch but now I think I underestimated by how much.

    It does illustrate how a bad baptism *could still possibly* be regarded as valid, I think. Maybe.

    So I’ll retreat to the revolving door argument. Refusing to recognize a baptism done while the recipient was an infant will end up invalidating too many other baptisms. We need further argumentation before we can assume that, in addition to paedobaptism being wrong (assuming that is the case for the sake of argument) it is also invalid.

  7. Nathan

    Great article. Got me thinking. So where does this leave us Baptists. I have a member in my church that has been baptized 3 times (once in infancy, once as a young adult, once after returning to faith as an adult): as you said a revolving door. Could it be that this will be the very thing that eventually brings both sides of the Reformed faith together (credo & paedo)?
    Maybe this is why some Baptists (like myself) are paying such close attention to the Federal Vision. I realize it doesn’t really effect me, safe and sound here in the ole’ SBC, but I cannot seem to tear myself away from it. Will the PCA run you guys out like the Illiana Presbytery did my friend Burke Shade, or will they realize that they really are closet Baptists and repent [sic] and let you all stay? One final option would be for all us Baptists to accept paedos into our churches (like John Piper tried to do), and seek to build the Kingdom through unity.

  8. mark Post author

    That unity is my goal, Nathan. In a sense I want to leave the paedo/credo issue alone for awhile and simply talk about the church as objective community and baptism as objective entrance. I don’t see any reason why this is not equally possible for both groups especially if we take seriously some of John Piper’s work (in his Future Grace for example).

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