Baptism by Immersion and Membership

Winter 2016 - rock baptism articleThe good news is that many of our Fellowship Baptist churches are growing! We are growing by conversion growth and we are growing as people from other geographies and denominational backgrounds re-identify with Fellowship Baptist churches. With this growth new converts are baptized and welcomed into the fellowship of our churches. On occasion though, newcomers from differing denominational backgrounds wish to identify with our churches who have not experienced what we would consider a “proper mode” of believer’s baptism. Indeed, some concede to baptism by immersion, others—both newcomers and officiating pastors—believe the act of re-baptizing a believer is a violation of the intention of their first baptism. Others do not believe the first baptism to be valid and therefore require baptism by immersion. How then, shall we respond as Fellowship Baptists to newcomers who wish to become members of our churches but who have experienced a form of believer’s baptism by an irregular or improper mode?

Several years ago, some of our churches and pastors posed this question to our Fellowship leaders: is there allowance for local churches to induct believers into their church memberships who have experienced believer’s baptism by a mode other than immersion? The immediate answer to this question is “no”. Our Affirmation of Faith, unchanged since the Fellowship’s founding in 1953, clearly defines a church as “a company of immersed believers”.

The question then became: would the Fellowship consider a change to our current position in order to allow local churches the liberty to induct believers into their church memberships who have experienced believer’s baptism by a mode other than immersion? This request was rightly deemed to be a question for the National Council to deliberate on since the guardianship of our Affirmation of Faith, and any potential changes to it, is the responsibility of the National Council.

Desiring the input of our Fellowship family, the National Council conducted several meetings, forums, and discussion sessions with regional leaders, conference delegates, and local church pastors over the last two years. As expected, opinions on this issue are varied and yet the Council concluded that there may be a way to move forward together, balancing sensitivity to the pastoral nature of this issue and our commitment to the practice of believer’s baptism by immersion. While several procedural and doctrinal considerations were submitted, the National Council decided to commission a group from across the Fellowship with pastoral and theological expertise to offer theological clarity and practical options for the National Council to consider. Representing geographical and doctrinal diversity, the “Study Team” submitted their theological paper to the National Council in April 2015, complete with historical, ecclesiastical and practical considerations. This paper was then reviewed and further developed by National Council, the result of which was distributed to our churches under the title: Consideration for the Membership of non-immersed baptized believers in Fellowship Baptist Churches.

In addition to this document, the National Council, while respecting the diversity of persuasions on this issue, has submitted the following Motion to our church family:

Motion: In response to requests by Member churches, the National Council is giving Notice of Amendment to the Affirmation of Faith by a vote cast at the November 2017 Fellowship National Conference in Toronto to change the words under “The Local Church” from “we believe that a church is a company of immersed believers” to “we believe that a church is a company of believers baptized on confession of faith.” All Fellowship churches will continue to practice the baptism of believers by immersion in water only.

At first read, the Motion appears to advance a more open view in place of our historical stance. This however was not the intention of the Motion, but rather to provide our Fellowship delegates with an opportunity to vote “YES” or “NO” on the issue since a Motion affirming our historical position would not require a vote at all, thereby silencing many parties within our movement. This Motion then, gives all parties a voice in this baptism and membership issue.

Of further note, this Motion must be understood in light of the following:

  • The National Council has determined that a change of membership practice requires a change to our Affirmation of Faith due to its specificity on its definition of a local church.
  • It would be insufficient to make changes to any other document and leave the Affirmation as is.
  • We recognize that this is a change from our historic membership practice but not historically unattested among Baptists.
  • We acknowledge that no local church will be obliged to change its membership practice should this Motion be affirmed.
  • We recognize that diversity among churches on this issue may pose difficulties for transfers of individual memberships between Fellowship churches, but that this is already true of churches that require members to affirm greater specificity on eschatological views for instance.
  • We will only continue to practice believer’s baptism by immersion.

Moving forward, our suggested process can be summarized as follows:

  • 2015: Supply our churches with the Council’s study paper and Motion, to facilitate discussion forums at our National Conference, and to supply a summary of discussions after the conference.
  • 2016: Encourage Regional Councils to respond to the Motion, and decide their own process for discussion of the issue with their regional churches.
  • 2017: To vote on the proposed Motion at our National Conference.

For some this will seem a trivial issue, for others a matter of grave importance. Either way, we must each pray that our Fellowship family is willing to give an opportunity for all to speak to one another in a spirit of grace and conviction, to honour the process that the National Council has developed and to do justice to the Word of God. Thank you for participating in the life of our Fellowship. Our mutual commitment to prayerfully considering this Motion will aid in our unity as believers and serve our mission to make passionate disciples of Jesus Christ and ensure that every church has unforgettable Kingdom impact!

—Dr. Aaron Rock is lead pastor of Southwood Church in Windsor, Ontario, chair of the Study Team and a recent former member of National Council.