Rationale for the IMB Guideline on Baptism

Today I received two documents related to the controversy involving recent actions of the International Mission Board (SBC) trustees. One of those documents is entitled, “Rationale for the IMB Guideline on Baptism” and the other is “Position Paper on IMB Policy of Glossolalia.” Neither is signed though I am confident that these are both official papers.

Both of these documents have been anticipated by Southern Baptists who are concerned about the way the board has changed its policy and guidelines in recent actions and, more importantly, the way the trustees have tried to silence dissent that has been raised against them. I am particularly interested in the Baptism guideline and have commented on it at length during the month of February (check the archives).

First, let me express appreciation to the board for making this statement of rationale available. Southern Baptists expect our trustees to be accountable to the churches and we are encouraged when such accountability is recognized and honored. Secondly, let me commend the thoroughness of the statement. Over 1700 words are used to elaborate “four key parameters derived from Scripture and consistent with historic Baptist ecclesiology [that]inform and shape the IMB policy.” However, having read the document carefully, I remained unconvinced of the wisdom of this change, regret that the key issue still has not been addressed and am left wondering about the necessary (but hopefully, unintentional) consequences of this rationale.

The “four key parameters” are identified as follows:

First, that the only biblical mode for baptism is immersion. Second, that the only proper candidate for immersion is a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ. Third, that the act is purely symbolic and distinct from salvation itself and has no saving merit. Fourth, that baptism is a church ordinance and therefore the only proper administrator of it is a local New Testament church that holds to a proper view of salvation.

The last two parameters receive the most treatment and they are the location of the greatest difficulties with this new guideline. The third parameter is described as guarding against baptismal regeneration. The rationale states:

Doctrinal parameters exist for a reason, after all, and to teach baptismal regeneration would simply redefine or negate what it means to be Baptist. All three versions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, and 2000) [BF&M] hold this point in common, expressing it as a symbolic act for a believer. As a characteristic of a Baptist church, the denominational mission organization requires its missionaries not only to hold that position, but to have been baptized in precisely that manner. It would be confusing, contradictory, and wrong to send missionaries to baptize with the symbolic understanding of baptism if they were themselves baptized in a church that understands baptism as a part of salvation.


It is in the explanation of the fourth parameter that the rationale breaks down and simply fails to answer the question of why the new guideline singles out belief in eternal security as a legitimizing requirement for valid baptism. Here is the closest the document comes to addressing this issue:

Baptists have carefully defined the church, the ordinances, and salvation according to the New Testament. We do not insist on the name “Baptist” on the sign in the front yard, but we insist that the church be marked by New Testament doctrine, especially with regard to salvation, which includes the eternal security of the blood-bought believer. The doctrine of security is explicitly addressed in the Baptist Faith and Message article on “God’s Purpose of Grace,” where we read that “All true believers endure to the end . . . will never fall away from the state of grace . . . yet shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (Matthew 24:22,31, 25:34; Luke 2:29-32, John 3:16, 5:24, 6:44-45,65, 10:27-29, 15:16, 17:12; Romans 8:28-39, 11:5-7,26-36; Ephesians 1:4-23; 2:1-10; Colossians 1:12-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15; 2 Timothy 1:12; 2:10,19; Hebrews 11:39-12:2; James 1:12; 1 Peter 1:2-5,13, 2:4-10; 1 John 2:19, 3:2).

All of this is fine, but it does not answer the question of “why index baptism to eternal security and to no other soteriological position?” After, the article on “God’s Purpose of Grace” affirms much more than merely eternal security. If the trustees judged the BF&M statement to be insufficient as it stands–so insufficient that they had to lift eternal security out and make it a separate qualifier of valid baptism–what should keep us from anticipating similar judgments about other doctrines in the future? I find it strange that they appeal to the BF&M while their actions actually attack its sufficiency.

Here is the way their logic flows:

1. We now insist that a church believe in eternal security for its baptism to be valid.

2. This is consistent with the BF&M because it teaches eternal security.

3. Therefore no one who affirms the BF&M should question our new guideline.

But whether or not the BF&M teaches eternal security is not the point! It never has been, and to speak as if it is simply confuses the real issue. Here is the question: Why eternal security and not the deity of Christ? Why eternal security and not justification by faith alone? Why eternal security and not repentance and faith?

The only answer I have been given to this line of questioning is this: “Because the Baptist Faith and Message clearly teaches those doctrines.” To which I reply, “Doesn’t it also clearly teach eternal security?” Thus far–including this newly released rationale–I have not received an answer to my question.

The final paragraph of the document says this:

Acts 19 describes Paul’s arrival in Ephesus and discovery of certain disciples who were committed to what little truth they knew. However, Paul knew that their personal convictions were inadequate. He asked them a simple question that went right to the heart of the matter: “Unto what were you baptized?” The IMB is asking that question of its candidates. Were you baptized unto faith in Christ? Were you baptized with a view toward eternal life that cannot be lost once graciously given by God? Were you symbolically baptized unto the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Were you baptized unto a new way of life in Christ? After relevant questioning, Paul discovered that these Ephesian “disciples” were not even born again Christians. The Ephesians then trusted Christ and were baptized properly. Paul’s question was not, “Are you saved?” His question concerned their baptism. Their view of baptism revealed their true spiritual commitment, and so will ours.

I sincerely hope that this is not meant to suggest that anyone who has not been baptized according to the IMB trustee’s new guidelines should have their salvation questioned for that reason alone! The questions that “the IMB is asking” of candidates are fine, as far as they go. We expect there to be doctrinal examination. But if this line of questioning related to their baptism is going to be asked (“Were you baptized with a view toward eternal life that cannot be lost once graciously given by God?”), then why stop with four? What if a candidate could say “yes” to those questions but could not say yes to “Were you baptized with a view toward salvation that depends on justification based on the finished work of Christ alone?”

This new guideline is unwise. It has the appearance of being biblical and faithful to our Baptist heritage but in reality is neither. It should be rescinded.

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I have tried to get permission to post this rationale statement in its entirety but have not secured it, yet. I am under the assumption that this is not a private document and will, therefore, soon appear in public. If it does not, and I receive proper permission, I will post it.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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