Although the church’s global mission forces us to think beyond our tribes, baptism matters deeply in missions.
Everyone wants to defy labels; few are willing to be defined by them.
Christians and non-Christians alike share an underlying suspicion of institutions and structures. As a result, denominationalism has fallen on hard times. After all, why commit yourself to a single theological system or organizational hierarchy?
And with technology making communication and networking easier than ever, isn’t “going it alone” as an independent pastor, church planter, or missionary the better option?
Missions is hard enough on its own, yet in this cultural climate, doing missions as Baptists is even harder. I’ve had dozens of conversations along these lines:
Person A: “I want to serve as a missionary, but I don’t know if I’d fit with a Baptist agency. I’m not a Baptist.”
Me: “Does your church baptize infants?”
Person A: “No.”
Me: “Then chances are you’re probably a Baptist; you just don’t know it.”
The global scope of the Great Commission forces us to think beyond our own tribal identities and realize that God is building his kingdom in and through any community of Christians who hold fast the gospel. And because all of God’s people in the world belong to one invisible church, the potential for partnerships across denominations and movements is vast (and yet startlingly untapped).
So why should we do “Baptist” missions in a culture increasingly averse to denominational labels?
It’s not surprising why evangelicals want to avoid labels. Sola Scriptura means that we regard Scripture as the authority over even our own creeds and confessions. For those who have not studied in depth the history of Protestant denominationalism or traced the streams of thought that flowed out from the Reformation, all that is left to shape perspectives is personal experience.
Still, definitions matter. God in his wisdom has ordained that distinct denominations would arise within his church. We might attempt to write the history of church differently, but we aren’t sovereign, and we are not God.
So rather than treat this providence as a divisive curse, we must appreciate what God has done in our Baptist movement and conduct missions in a way that accords with what we distinctively hold as biblical convictions, even while we seek to partner with the whole church globally when appropriate.
Theology matters, too. Historically, to be Baptist is not just to require water-immersion upon credible profession of faith. It is also to preach a robust and biblical gospel, value local church autonomy, stress the sovereignty of God in salvation, prize the exegesis of Scripture, emphasize the unity of redemptive history, rely upon the ordinary ministry of the Word and ordinances, and underscore the necessity of personal conversion.
Baptists stand squarely in the Reformation tradition as those who hold unwaveringly to sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, sola gratia, and soli Deo gloria. We also have our own heritage of willingness to endure marginalization and opposition, even from other Christian institutions, to contend for our right to worship according to conscience and Scripture.
And to focus on the defining issue from which we derive our name—credo baptism may not be a gospel issue on par with penal substitutionary atonement or the virgin birth, but it is not insignificant. Since our Lord commanded baptism, it matters to him. We cannot be indifferent about it.
Instead of being ashamed of the label “Baptist,” we ought to appreciate the rich theological history it represents, all the while acknowledging that the kingdom of God spans beyond the borders of our tribe.
Water is a Witness
Baptism is indispensable to missions. It’s embedded in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). It is not a mere side issue; rather, baptism is inextricably caught up in what it means to make disciples.
The baptism of believing adults has a profound evangelistic effect. The ordinances are wordless sermons, and public baptism is a new convert’s first-ever open-air message. Baptism is a visual drama declaring the good news, openly portraying our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (cf. Romans 6:3-4).
In much of the world, bodies of water are public venues. In many countries, to confess Christ in baptism is treason against one’s ancestral religion, and the willingness to undergo this risk draws a stark line between fair-weather followers and true converts. But baptism ceases to function as a handmaid of evangelism when extended not only on the basis of profession but also parentage.
Baptism is also inherently missional. The washing of water is a public witness sociologically hardwired to multiply gospel impact.
Consider the household baptisms recorded in the New Testament (such as those of Lydia in Acts 16 and Stephanas in 1 Corinthians 1). As Baptists, we do not believe these texts furnish evidence that baptism should be administered indiscriminately to whole families, including infants or unbelieving adults, nor do we take these texts as implying that the new covenant includes unbelievers (cf. Jeremiah 31:34).
But what cannot be denied is that the Spirit of God is often pleased to open hearts and bring about conversion in groups as friends and family members behold the redemptive drama of baptism. This is less common in the West’s highly-individualistic culture but is a recurring theme both in Acts and in more communal societies today on the mission field, including the Islamic world.
By contrast, consider the missiological implications of including unbelieving infants and other household members into the new covenant and extend to them the right of baptism. Does paedobaptism not risk diluting the church or missionary team’s testimony to the importance of personal conversion? At the very least, there is great risk of misunderstanding, particularly in contexts where nominal Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy is prevalent.
Of course, none of this implies that credobaptists and paedobaptists cannot cooperate in evangelism on the mission field. But what about everything that comes after evangelism?
Church Planting Requires Unity
What makes a good missionary is not only his or her attentiveness to theology, but also to praxis. So, practically speaking, agreement over baptism is a critical part of church planting and day-to-day ministry life.
If the church is the focal point of the Great Commission—and it is (cf. Matthew 16:18b, 2 Timothy 2:2)—then local church fellowships cannot tactically afford to be neutral on baptism. This includes issues of baptismal mode and church membership.
Churches will inevitably experience difficulty if the planters, pastors, elders, national partners, and other core leaders cannot agree on such questions as:
- Must all believers originally baptized as infants be re-baptized (or truly baptized) before joining the church?
- Will the church extend membership to those who hold differing convictions on baptism, even if they have not been rebaptized? Who can be a member in the church?
- How should the mode of baptism be treated in situations where physical disability or circumstantial restraints make immersion difficult or impossible?
On doctrinal issues of salvation, the gospel, and the core mission of the church, Baptists stand arm-in-arm with our Presbyterian paedobaptist brothers. And even convinced credobaptists answer these secondary questions listed above along a wide spectrum. But at a practical level, for any church plant to cohere, decisions must be made. There must be some baseline level of unity on practical issues touching church life.
The pastors and elders will either baptize infants, or they won’t. Of course, unity doesn’t necessarily mean conformity. Some healthy churches’ elder teams have slightly differing convictions over baptism. But the real test will be trajectory of these churches.
Can unity be maintained in the long-term? Which elders’ views of baptism will the next generation of church leadership inherit? When no consensus can be reached, who outvotes whom? Which set of viewpoints will be enshrined in the documents of the church?
Hybrid church models allow credobaptist and paedobaptist believers of differing convictions to enjoy fellowship, but in terms of church polity there is really no neutral “third way.”
Ultimately, we look forward to the consummation of Christ’s kingdom in which the church will truly be holy and catholic—one. And in the new heavens and earth, all Christians will agree on baptism! But on this side of eternity, we are to walk according to the maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Let us regard the history of our Baptist movement as a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. Our convictions on baptism, covenant theology, and church government are a sacred trust from our Lord. Baptism matters in the local church, and it matters even more so on the mission field. By God’s grace, let us seek to faithfully do missions as Baptists.