Why I Think Baptists (and “baptists”) Have It Wrong about Sacraments
First, some clarifications:
This post is for baptists (including Baptists). “baptist” with a small “b” is the term Baptist theologian William McClendon coined for all churches with a similar ecclesiology (viz., voluntary membership, congregational polity, separation of church and state, etc.).
Others are welcome to listen in.
This post is about some baptists, not all.
This post does not pretend to cover everything about baptist beliefs and practices–even about the sacraments (which many baptists call “ordinances”). It is focused on a particular confusion common among baptists.
So, to what I think some, even many, baptists have wrong about the sacraments/ordinances.
We commonly limit the number of sacraments/ordinances to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We claim to practice “believer baptism” (sometimes called “adult baptism”) only: baptism of people upon confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And we usually restrict the Lord’s Supper to baptized Christians. Some baptists have “open communion” (non-baptist Christians welcome to participate) and some have “closed communion” (only Baptists welcome to participate).
Gradually, over time, many baptist/Baptists have forgotten their own theology of the sacraments/ordinances and have practiced them inconsistently with our history and theology.
Many baptist churches, for example, will baptize small children not yet mature enough to express their own faith for themselves. I have seen children as young as six and seven, very commonly eight, baptized with “believer baptism” by immersion. In most cases they are not expected or required to express any personal faith or testimony beyond “Jesus is Lord.” I seriously doubt they understand the meaning of baptism–as baptists/Baptists intend it. It is supposed to symbolize death to sin and new life in Christ through repentance and regeneration. Historically-theologically it is also the gateway to church membership and church discipline. Historically-theologically it is a public act of commitment.
One group of baptists, Mennonites, commonly restrict baptism to persons at least approaching the age of majority–around 16. Commonly they are required to recount their acquisition of faith, their conversion story, or at least express their personal faith in Jesus Christ in a convincing and mature fashion.
All baptists/Baptists reject “infant baptism” because we believe in voluntary church membership of converted persons only. Far, far too many Baptists (and some other baptists) are lowering the age of baptism almost to infancy. What is the difference between a six year old and a six month old–in terms of ability to make commitments and express a personal faith arising from a true conversion experience?
The Mennonites are right; many, perhaps most, other baptists are wrong–in terms of practicing the sacrament/ordinance of baptism in a way consistent with the rest of their theology.
Now, to the Lord’s Supper. Almost all baptists restrict participation in the Lord’s Supper to baptized Christians. This is part of what promotes “kiddie baptisms”–baptisms of very young children. They see other children near their own age taking communion and want to participate. So they “profess faith” and are baptized and then are able to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
There is no good reason to restrict the Lord’s Supper to baptized persons. That implies something magical about the Lord’s Supper–something baptists reject.
All baptists that I know believe the Lord’s Supper is a “memorial meal” only (Zwingli’s view) and not a sacrament. In other words, it may be a “special means of grace” but it is not a “means of special grace.” Unbelievers are normally barred from partaking because of a certain interpretation of Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians about those who partake “unworthily” bringing harm upon themselves. But what did Paul mean by “unworthy” participation in the Lord’s Supper? The context clearly indicates he was referring to people within the church actively undermining the unity of the church–whether intentionally or by their attitudes (e.g., self-superiority).
And yet, most baptists do not restrict members with a divisive spirit from partaking of the Lord’s Supper; they only restrict unbaptized persons including children who have not yet made a “profession of faith” from partaking. (Some fundamentalist Baptists restrict their communion to Baptists.)
Very few, if any baptists believe a not-yet-converted, not-yet-baptized child who partakes of the Lord’s Supper will suffer from it. Few, if any, baptists, believe (or have ever believed) there is anything magical about the elements of bread and wine that would cause a child still in innocence, not yet having reached the age of accountability, to become sick or die.
And yet, most baptists withhold the Lord’s Supper from children not yet baptized.
The result is that one commonly sees in especially Baptist (but also Pentecostal and other baptistic churches) “baptized” children as young as six or seven partaking of communion and slighty younger children or older children not yet baptized being refused the elements.
I have come to believe the LORD’S SUPPER should be offered to all EXCEPT those who are under church discipline for actively participating in division within the church and EXCEPT those who deny that Jesus is Lord.
Communnion as a “memorial meal” cannot hurt anyone, but baptists should exclude from it anyone, and only those, who cannot participate in it with a clear conscience; it is a time for self-examination, repentance and renewed faith. Innocent children, especially those of Christian parents, should be allowed to partake.
Baptism as an act of commitment to Christ and his church and as a symbolic re-enactment of regeneration and as a public testimony of conversion and faith should be limited to those believers of sufficient maturity to participate fully in the life of the church and to be subject to church discipline (to say nothing of those sufficiently mature to tell their own story of conversion to Christ).
A huge problem in all this is that many baptist congregations do not think theologically about their practices. And few really care to.
Note to potential commenters: Please comment only if you are a baptist; if you are not, feel free to ask any non-hostile question.