Reformation 21 is one of my favorite spots on the Internet. It is thoughtful, helpful, and a wonderful tool for serious minded Christians. I was honored to have an article I wrote on manhood and adoption published there a few years ago. Recently, Mark Jones’ article, “A Plea For Realism: Are Presbyterians Christians?” was posted at Reformation 21, and I immediately began to be asked what I thought about the argument of the article, so I thought I would formalize some of my thoughts as a friendly response.
I can answer his fundamental question “Are Presbyterians Christians” with one word—yes. Jones writes as though my answer to that question should then cause me, as a Baptist, who believes that only scripturally baptized (immersed) Christians should be invited to participate in communion a crisis of conscience. It does not. R. Albert Mohler’s essay, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” explains the distinction between heretical theological differences, ecclesial differences, and theological differences that present no boundaries at all to fellowship.
First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith.
These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.
Second-order issues would include the meaning and mode of baptism. Baptists and Presbyterians, for example, fervently disagree over the most basic understanding of Christian baptism. The practice of infant baptism is inconceivable to the Baptist mind, while Presbyterians trace infant baptism to their most basic understanding of the covenant. Standing together on the first-order doctrines, Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians, but recognize that disagreement on issues of this importance will prevent fellowship within the same congregation or denomination.
Christians across a vast denominational range can stand together on the first-order doctrines and recognize each other as authentic Christians, while understanding that the existence of second-order disagreements prevents the closeness of fellowship we would otherwise enjoy. A church either will recognize infant baptism, or it will not. That choice immediately creates a second-order conflict with those who take the other position by conviction.
Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.
Thus, the Baptist is saying that scripturally we believe baptism is immersion and not simply by immersion. We agree with our Presbyterian brothers (and the almost uniform confessional history of the church) that baptism is prerequisite to participating in the Lord’s Supper as stated in the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order: “Those only who have made a profession of faith in Christ, have been baptized, and admitted by the Session to the Lord’s Table, are entitled to all the rights and privileges of the church” (6-4). Herschel Hobbs comments get to the real heart of the matter,
All Christian groups which practice baptism hold that it should precede the Lord’s Supper. Baptists say the same thing. The question is, “What constitutes New Testament baptism?” Thus the difference between Baptists and others is at this point, not about the Supper. Therefore, if Baptists are “closed” about anything they are “closed-baptismists”! (Herschel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message, 1971, 91).
We have an honest disagreement with our Presbyterian brothers over what baptism is and not over whether or not unbaptized people should be invited to the Lord’s Table. Unfortunately, Jones is himself being sectarian when he attempts to paint the Baptist position as sectarian. Presbyterians, as well as Baptists, recognize that second-order ecclesial differences of how churches are rightly ordered means that we may meaningfully affirm one another as brothers and sisters in Christ but not be able to be accountable members of the same local congregation and participants in its ecclesial practices. Jones writes as though recognizing that someone attends a church that is not rightly ordered or has ecclesial convictions that are not rightly ordered necessitates not recognizing the person as a Christian. The logic does not follow.
For instance, I doubt Jones would have a woman preach at his PCA church or that he would lead the congregation he pastors to plant a church with an ordained female pastor. Nevertheless, his refusal to do so would not be a denial that the female pastor is a Christian. He would be denying, rather, that she has the scriptural authority to preach, and he would suggest that they have insurmountable differences on how a local church is rightly ordered. I would call that conviction and fidelity—not sectarianism. When church leaders and congregants disagree over something like millennial views, the differences do not affect the way the congregation is ordered or practically functions; but, questions of who is qualified to preach, to be baptized, and come to the Lord’s Table are matters of congregational order and practice. Ultimately, what Mark Jones is objecting to is the existence of Baptist churches, which sounds sectarian to me.
My friend, Baptist pastor and church historian, Bart Barber helpfully asserts, “I believe that you should encourage to participate in the Lord’s Supper any and everyone who, if he or she were a member of your church, you would not discipline out. That states my understanding of the extent of the Lord’s Supper in its entirety” (Praisegod Barebones). However, Jones writes:
Had I been baptized as a believer in a Baptist church – and thus dunked in the tank – but then later converted to Presbyterianism, there’s a good chance I’d be allowed to take communion in a Baptist church if I wished to attend one regularly. A happy technicality, I suppose. This point shows it doesn’t really matter what you actually believe, but only that you’ve had enough water cover your body when you formerly believed the “right” doctrine.
Here Jones simply does not understand the Baptist position or fails to take it seriously. Historically, Baptists, as Barber suggests, have tied the Lord’s Table to congregational discipline and it does matter what you actually believe and whether or not you have put that belief into right communal practice. Russell Moore writes,
This is why many low-church Protestants have shared historically with their high-church brothers and sisters the conviction that the Supper must be tied to discipline (1 Cor. 5:11). The table is not just an individual reminder of the gospel; it is the very locus of church fellowship, the place where we experience Christ present in proclamation and in one another. It is here that we experience a foretaste of the wedding supper to come, and where we announce those we hold accountable to struggle with us until then. The church is “recognizing the body” of Christ (1 Cor. 11:29) by defining the boundaries of communion at the table in terms of those who are in union with Christ and who are able, should they deny him, to be disciplined.
This is precisely where the closing of the communion table collides with the individualistic grain of much of contemporary American spirituality. If communion is simply an individual act of worship, albeit taken in a crowd, then why wouldn’t any church allow individuals to determine the terms by which they come? It seems sectarian to say one can’t come to the table unless one has been baptized by immersion as a believer, unless one realizes that, for Baptist Christians, this is what baptism is (Touchstone Magazine).
Jones also writes, “In the church where I minister, we have baptists, old-school pentecostals, and others whose theology isn’t exactly ‘Westminsterian.’” Really? If they attend Faith Vancouver PCA Church and that is where they hear the word preached, are held accountable through service, fellowship, and congregational discipline, and where they take communion, then they are practicing Presbyterians and not Baptists and Pentecostals. My congregation would encourage a Baptist who had converted to Presbyterianism to attend a faithful Presbyterian church. That seems like the reasonable and non-sectarian thing to do, especially since the Westminster Confession of Faith does not mince words on the importance of baptism (infant) when it asserts, “it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance” (XXVIII). Nevertheless, Mark Jones argues that Baptist churches should modify their ecclesial scriptural convictions and heritage to accommodate those it believes are not baptized.
In other words, Jones is essentially arguing that there should be churches, but they should not be Baptist churches (In any meaningful ecclesial sense). I thank God for my Presbyterian brothers and sisters and I think I owe them the respect of the honest courage of my convictions in the areas where we disagree, while joyfully acknowledging there is much more on which we do agree. The fact that I have second-order differences with Mark Jones over ecclesial order and regenerate church membership does not lead me to reject affirming him as a brother in Christ one bit.
Of course, Mark Jones’ objection is not a new one. I will let that venerable Baptist and former president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary John Broadus have the last word. In 1881, he wrote, The Duty of Baptists to Teach Their Distinctive Views, and said; “We must learn how to distinguish between abandonment of principles and mere practical concessions in order to conciliate.” He adds,
Let us gladly co-operate with our fellow-Christians of other persuasions in general Christian work as far as we can without sacrificing our convictions. Men who think ill of us are sometimes sorely perplexed. They say, “Look at these narrow-minded, bigoted close-communion Baptists! How zealously they work in our union enterprise! How loving they seem to be! I don’t understand it.” It is well to increase this perplexity. At the same time we must not allow our conscientious differences to be belittled. Sometimes in a union service you will hear a well-meaning young man begin to gush, till at length he speaks quite scornfully of the trifles that divide us. In such a case one must find some means of diverting the dear brother’s mind to another topic, and either publically or privately inform him that such talk will not quite do.
The very truest and sweetest Christian charity is actually shown by some of those who stand most firmly by their distinctive opinions (The Duty of Baptists to Teach Their Distinctive Views, 31-32).