"A Plea For Realism": Are Presbyterians Christians?


Presbyterian ecclesiology has some advantages. For example, we try to refrain from being sectarian. There is a healthy catholicity to our ecclesiology, which is seen in our communion practice (section 7; see also PCA, BOCO 57-5).

In relation to our healthy catholicity, I want to raise some questions and concerns regarding the Baptist practice of closed communion (variations include: close/strict/transient communion). I do this because of my high esteem for Baptists.  

Those holding to the closed communion view usually argue that people who have been baptized by sprinkling/pouring are not welcome to the Lord's table or membership in a Baptist church since they haven't actually been baptized. A baptism by effusion/pouring is invalid, not irregular, according to this view.

During a conference last year at SBTS, I was treated to an excellent paper by a young Canadian scholar (Ian Clary) on Andrew Fuller's communion practice. In the Q. and A. I asked (ipsissima vox): 

"If you aren't baptized by immersion, then you can't be a called a Christian (in any meaningful ecclesiastical sense). And if you can't be called a Christian, then you can't take the Lord's Supper. Is that the implication of the closed communion view of Fuller?" 

The room was silent: here a Presbyterian was asking a Baptist (in a room full of Baptists) to admit they can't call me a Christian. 

My friend admitted that he believed/felt I was a Christian. But I countered: "Fuller's theology of communion and baptism doesn't allow you to call me a Christian in any official (ecclesiastical) sense. It is merely a private judgment." My friend, had to (uncomfortably) concede my point. 

We all admit that people can be Christians if they are not baptized. But the Bible clearly shows that baptism is the visible marker that we belong to Christ and his church (Acts 2:38; 10:48; 22:16). It sets us apart, in a visible way, from the world. Without baptism we lack the ecclesiastical privilege of being called a Christian. 

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. 

We have two young people in our church whose families (with Baptist backgrounds) both requested that I immerse, not because they have a problem with pouring, but because their kids will encounter problems in the future for not having enough water on them. (Good Presbyterian churches are hard to find in Canada).

So, is someone really more obedient and thus able to take communion now because in the past they were immersed, even though now they hold to pouring and infant baptism? Would a closed communion Baptist pastor say before administering the Supper: "if you haven't been baptized by immersion or if you have but don't think you need to, please refrain from taking the elements"? 

Here's another similar thought experiment, involving two adult Christian men: 

Albert was baptized as a believer by immersion. Walter was baptized as a believer by effusion. Albert now holds to Presbyterian convictions regarding the recipients of baptism, but still goes to a Baptist church because the preaching and worship is a lot better than the PCA church down the road. Walter, who goes to the same Baptist church, holds to Baptist convictions regarding the recipients, but also believes his baptism by pouring was valid, and so doesn't feel the need to be re-baptized. (After all, Walter believes the exegetical and theological evidence for pouring is overwhelming; and appeals to etymology [i.e., baptizo] is no way to do theology). The Baptist, Walter, doesn't get to take communion. The Presbyterian, Albert, gets to take communion. And they are both in the same Baptist church. 

As long as the baptism was "valid", it doesn't really matter what one believes in their heart on the mode and meaning.    

I understand that Baptist pastors claim they lack the authority to admit someone to the Lord's table who has not been baptized in the manner they think the person should have been baptized (i.e., immersion). Many Baptist pastors view our Presbyterian practice as a sinful (though sincere) error. But surely it would be better for them to call our baptisms "irregular" instead of "invalid"? Surely? 

We are not being disobedient by refusing to be baptized. Then I could see their point. We just aren't using quite enough water for our Baptist friends to call us Christians. (The couches in Mk. 7:4 weren't immersed, were they?). 

I find it funny how Baptists are normally so zealous regarding the mode of baptism, but then use grape juice for communion. An amusing irony.

They don't really want to say that Presbyterians, and others, aren't visible Christians, do they? Maybe we're invisible Christians? I don't know. But I think the consistency of their position demands that they can't really call most of Christendom, Christians! Think about that. 

At our (PCA) church we believe that those who belong to Christ should feed from Christ, both from the Word and the Lord's Supper. (I'm an ordinary means of grace guy). What a tragedy it would be to forbid a young child to drink from his mother's breasts. Suppose that child was unruly, and didn't quite "get it" on a specific matter (latching?). We would not starve the child because he doesn't latch properly, would we? Or would we? Maybe send him to another (Presbyterian) woman who allows different types of latching?

In the church where I minister, we have baptists, old-school pentecostals, and others whose theology isn't exactly "Westminsterian." As much as I'd love to see them embrace the tenets of Reformed theology, I don't think it would be at all helpful to their souls to starve them of communion because of some theological error (or ignorance) on their part, unless it was a soul-destroying heresy. (There are some Reformed men who vehemently disagree with this practice, and I might get an earful from them as well).

Embracing pouring as a mode of baptism is hardly the same error as willfully chasing other men's wives. Or is it?

So, yes, I do find it a little odd that I could preach in a Baptist church on the glories of the Lord's Supper, but then sit down after preaching and watch the elements pass me by because I am not a Christian (i.e., haven't been immersed). Yes, there are in fact Baptist Pastors who would invite me to preach, but not allow me to eat and drink with them. In these churches, as a listener, I can receive the preached word, but not the visible word. Hmmm....

Therefore, what is the gospel coalition? Presbyterianism is the true gospel coalition. We open the table as far and wide as the gates of heaven. Whoever belongs to Christ belongs at his table. Communion involves communion with Christ and his body.

We come to the Lord's table because we have been justified by faith alone. We are not justified by believing in justification by faith alone; and we are not justified by believing in the right mode of baptism. We are justified through faith alone, and thus have the right to Christ's body and blood.

I wonder - and this is a serious question - are there pastors on The Gospel Coalition council who would not allow me to take the Lord's Supper in their church because I haven't been properly baptized? (I think I know the answer). And I wonder if they have any ecclesiastical authority to call me a Christian, if I am "unbaptized." 

Churches that belong to any gospel coalition (even to coalitions that do not have the definite article) should take seriously that the sacraments should be the most visible expression of Christian unity. A church belonging to a gospel coalition that would forbid a Presbyterian from communing at the Lord's table seems not to reflect "coalition," but "disunion".

Kudos to John Piper ("he who would valiant be") for trying a while ago to allow Presbyterians into membership in the church where he ministered. Such a reasonable, catholic way to approach this matter, I think, as opposed to others who would (on the basis of tenuous etymology) forbid their brothers and sisters in Christ from enjoying a means of grace. 

And to prevent any unnecessary blog responses, read this (rather verbose) piece by Russell Moore on closed communion, where he says: "As the bread and the cup were distributed, I announced that, while all were welcome to attend our church, only baptized Christians in good fellowship with a local congregation were invited to commune. Then I defined baptism the way our church does, along with Baptists all over the world, as the immersion of a believer in water as public profession of faith in Christ." Thus, as I understand him, if you haven't been baptized by immersion then you haven't been properly baptized and can't come to the Lord's table. (Besides Moore, see also here). 

In the words of Meatloaf, "Read em and weep."

See here for an "open perspective" from (the reliable) Joe Thorn, posted on my birthday (what a present!).

So the issue is in fact about the mode, not simply about its meaning. After all, even Presbyterians differ on the meaning (trust me, they do!). If closed communion is about "meaning" then what about Baptists who differ on the meaning of both baptism and the Lord's Supper? 

Pastor Mark Jones welcomes all Baptists, indeed, all Christians, who are members of their church in good standing, to enjoy communion at Faith Vancouver PCA church.