Here is Question 4 from GraceTALK: “Is it possible that the meaning and mode of Baptism is a disputable issue? Having spent time in a PCA church, I know families that by all their fruits appear to be solid Christians and also have a deep heartfelt belief in infant baptism as a covenant sign. While me and my house have chosen Believer’s Baptism, I respect their belief and don’t feel the need to break fellowship with them.”
This is a great question and the answer is without a doubt, “Yes.” This is a disputable matter. There is much debate within the Protestant world as to what the correct mode, which means method, and the correct meaning of baptism is. And while this is a disputable matter, it is not inconsequential.
But first, a little history on the topic before we talk about how to discern which matters are disputable. The Protestant Reformation took place beginning in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany. The intent of the reformation was to reform the church and the key to it, according to Luther and a few years later John Calvin, was to use the Word of God as the ultimate source of authority.
It had been the practice of the Catholic church for centuries to baptize infants into the church and this practice continued on into the Protestant Reformation. However, in the early 1600’s, the beginnings of believers baptism can be found in churches in the English Reformation.
As was the case of Luther and Calvin, these early adherents of believers baptism looked exclusively to the Word of God to determine what the correct mode and meaning of baptism was. It was their conclusion, as it is of the Leadership Team at Grace Fellowship, that the correct mode is immersion… a full immersion of the person into the water. A look at the word baptize in the Greek carries this meaning (Mounce Greek Dictionary, G907, 908, 909). Presbyterians, however, conclude that the correct mode is sprinkling.
The distinction between Baptists and Presbyterians on the mode is fairly obvious…sprinkling verses full immersion. But, while not as easily seen as the distinction in the mode of baptism, it is the distinction in the meaning of baptism where the big differences arise. Baptists contend that baptism is an ordinance established by the Lord exclusively for all those who have repented of their sins and put their faith and trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Baptism is an obedient act of faith, which follows conversion, whereby a person is immersed into water symbolizing their death, their burial, and their resurrection in Jesus Christ (Rom 6:2-5) as wrought by the Holy Spirit. It is a picture of the cleansing brought about by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:11). It is a sign and a seal of the believers entrance into the New Covenant that was purchased by Jesus with His blood (Gal 3:27-29). But, it is more than just a symbol as well. Just like the only other ordinance established by our Savior, the Lord’s Supper, baptism too is a means of grace whereby the Holy Spirit uses the very act to bless the participant as well as the observers.
In the act of baptism, the Holy Spirit works to increase our faith, to increase our experiential realization of death to the power of sin and a new life towards holiness. It also provides us with assurance that we are united with Christ (1 Cor 6:17) as the Bible teaches us. These are significant benefits to baptism. Most, if not all, of these benefits are lost on those who practice infant baptism since infants can not experience any of these realities.
So, where does that leave us? There are big differences between Presbyterians and Baptists on this topic. Do we worship with them? Do they worship with us? On issues like this…issues that can divide and cause us to separate….it is important to have a system by which we can categorize the seriousness of the theological item at hand so we know how to respond.
Al Mohler has come up with a way of thinking about this that he calls Theological Triage. Just like medical professionals need to discern between a scraped knee and a gun shot wound, so we too need to be able to discern which issues are life threatening to the church and which ones are not. In this system, there are three orders of theological issues that range from the scraped knee to a gunshot wound to the head.
These orders can be classified as First-Order issues, Second-Order issues, and Third-Order issues. A First-Order issue is one that is most central to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Included in this order of issue are doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith alone, and the authority of Scripture. Any deviation on issues in this order would be a deviation from orthodoxy and would lead quickly into heresy. These are not disputable matters AT ALL.
The next order of issue can be termed as Second-Order issues. In this order, believing Christians may agree to disagree and still view each other as brothers and sisters in the faith. But, because these issues are significant, they will most naturally lead to significant boundaries between them. Issues at this level would be believers baptism verses infant baptism, church government models, or a woman’s role in the church. These issues are difficult to come to agreement on and have much heat and passion behind them.
Finally, there are Third-Order issues. These are issues that Christians can disagree on and still be in close fellowship…even within local congregations…even on the same Leadership Team. These would be issues in regard to eschatology…when and how Christ will return but in full agreement that it will be bodily, historical, and victorious. Other issues may be in the interpretation of difficult passages like the continuation or cessation of the miraculous gifts in the New Testament.
Because baptism is a Second-Order issue, a proponent of infant baptism will most likely not worship at a Baptist church and the converse is true for a proponent of believer’s baptism at a Presbyterian church. Thus, in regards to where one worships, there will be division. However, this isn’t an issue that we would sever a friendship or family relationship over. This isn’t one in which we’d call the other person to repentance over because neither position is sinful. Instead, we can engage our friends who differ with us on these disputable matters in love, truth, and humility as we seek to better understand their position and as we explain our position.