Recently I shared a few thoughts on Facebook that received a little honest pushback. Here’s what I shared.
One of our long-time church members responded and said she never read such a thing in the Scriptures. Her contention was that when it came to baptism, “Every account I have read says and they were baptized or the family or household were baptized.” In other words, the Scriptures don’t describe any sort of process where the veracity of a person’s confession is tested. Off the cuff, I agree with her assessment. I cannot think of a single time when anyone hesitated in baptizing someone who made a confession of faith in Jesus. And the first century was a perilous time for all believers. There was persecution on every side from both Jews and Gentiles. This calls into question whether this pastor in a predominantly Muslim nation is correct.
Is he in bounds with New Testament practice?
Are my thoughts on this in bounds? I tend to agree with him, but my friend brought up a good point. Does the absence of an example where an apostle or church elder denied someone baptism mean that we should refrain from such a practice? Let’s get an obvious point out of the way. The church should not baptize lost people. Baptism is a sign of the new covenant, and only those who have been born again to new life in Christ should be baptized. Neither I nor anyone I know would ever argue a case for baptizing someone who clearly hasn’t made a confession of faith in Christ.
Since we don’t have a clear example of an apostle or church elder in the first century ever denying someone baptism, we are left to test this practice by other clear teachings. Are there teachings from the Scriptures that would make room for this practice? Are there teachings that would clearly forbid this practice? Let’s start with the latter.
Are there New Testament teachings that would forbid a pastor from denying someone baptism?
My friend presented a case from silence. Since none of the examples of New Testament baptism included some form of inquiry into the veracity of the believer’s confession, nor is there a command to do so, we should not presume to do such a thing. Arguments from silence can create room for interpretation. For instance, there are no clear instructions in the New Testament for how a local church should appoint a new pastor. The silence on the matter allows each local congregation to prayerfully consider how they will undertake this endeavor. In some denominations, new pastors are sent by a regional bishop or presbyter to a local church, and the congregants have little say on the matter. But because the Scripture is silent, different streams of the church have approached this with different methods. However, on the flip side, no denomination or local church can say that their way is more Biblical than another because of the silence. Arguments from silence are often considered a logical fallacy. Just because there is silence on an issue it doesn’t follow that said issue is true or false. Where Biblical things are concerned, the Scripture’s silence on a matter is usually a call to exercise wisdom.
With all that said, there is no clear teaching in Scripture that would forbid a pastor from denying someone’s baptism. So, let’s appeal to wisdom. Is it wise to do so? Let’s refer back to our brother who I mentioned in my Facebook post. He lives in a nation hostile to the Christian faith. Is he wise to ask a baptism candidate whether he or she is prepared to suffer greatly or even die for Jesus? Given their context, I’m surprised he even needs to ask the question. But since he does, apparently there were people who professed faith, and were baptized but failed to count the cost of following Jesus. It seems that for his pastoral ministry, wisdom has led him to ask this question. The context where he serves dictates that this question demonstrates who is real and who is not. If you live in a place where dying for Jesus is a clear and present danger, and you’re not sure you want to, you probably haven’t been born again. Hence, this pastor denies baptism.
I don’t know what exactly that means, except that for the moment, he won’t baptize that person. I imagine what follows is conversations and discipleship to help him or her figure out if they’ve truly been born again so that they can be assured of their salvation and be baptized. Unfortunately, the podcast I heard this in didn’t go into any more detail.
Are there New Testament teachings that would make room for this practice?
Since we’ve already established that no teaching clearly commands or forbids this, we have to look to other teachings to see if they create space for it. The case from silence caused us to look to wisdom. But do teachings exist that would give us more of a foothold where we can build a case? I suggest some of Christ’s teachings provide the space necessary.
Loosing and Binding
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
– Matthew 16:19 (ESV)
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
– Matthew 18:18 (ESV)
23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.
– John 20:23 (ESV)
These verses never cease to be a source of discussion. Matthew 16:19 is something Jesus said to Peter after he declared that He was the Christ. Matthew 18:18 is in the context of church discipline and putting unrepentant believers out of fellowship. But they frequently get employed out of their context. Here’s what we contextually know about these verses. Both verses speak of authority that Jesus granted to the church. Both of these verses have to do with actions that the church takes on earth being affirmed in heaven. Taking in the contexts of both Matthew 16 and 18, broadly speaking, loosing and binding has to do with how the church disciplines believers concerning right and wrong conduct. Matthew 16:19 adds the additional descriptor of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. That implies that Peter, and all believers, were given authority to admit people to the kingdom through the preaching of the gospel, which ties to John 20:23. Where the gospel is preached forgiveness is available, and where it is not, forgiveness is withheld. The ESV Study Bible says this about John 20:23.
“The idea is not that individual Christians or churches have authority on their own to forgive or not forgive people, but rather that as the church proclaims the gospel message of forgiveness of sins in the power of the Holy Spirit (see v. 22), it proclaims that those who believe in Jesus have their sins forgiven, and that those who do not believe in him do not have their sins forgiven—which simply reflects what God in heaven has already done.”
-ESV Study Bible Notes on John 20:23
Based upon the authority that Christ gives His church, it seems that local pastors can build a Biblical case to deny a person baptism if he or she isn’t ready to take up their cross, by life, or by death. From the pastoral perspective, there is a definite responsibility to affirm what is good and deny what isn’t and to do our best not to instill false hope. Baptism is a powerful moment. Done falsely, it can lead a person to believe they are saved when it isn’t the case. Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. When we baptize a person, the pastor, and the congregation of believers, are affirming that he or she is a member of Christ. Leading up to baptism, this responsibility seems to make a case for a sober examination.
In our context, there isn’t much mortal danger from becoming a Christian. However, there are very real sufferings that can happen. Believers have been ostracized by their families. Believers have been sued for refusing to do things that violate their conscience before the LORD. Some believers are jailed for hate speech when all they’ve done is teach the Scriptures. Taking up your cross in our context may not lead to martyrdom, but it can lead to a long, rocky, troublesome road in life where you lose family, you lose income, and/or you lose freedom.
When people make a confession of faith, do we ask them these kinds of questions? Are you prepared for this kind of hardship for the sake of following Jesus Christ? If they aren’t, should we proceed with baptism?
Hand to the Plow
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
– Luke 9:57-62 (ESV)
The cost of following Jesus is steep. If you aren’t all in, one hundred percent, you’re not fit for the kingdom. Those are Christ’s own words. This seems to create room for healthy questions to be asked before we baptize a person.
Count the Cost
26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
– Luke 16:26-32
These verses make a similar case as Luke 9:57-62 and create the same impetus for healthy questions prior to baptism.
5 Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
– 2 Corinthians 13:5
10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
– 2 Peter 1:10-11
These verses are directed to believers who have presumably already been baptized. However, they reveal an ongoing matter for all believers. We are to continually test the veracity of our confession. Pastorally speaking, this should give the elders and pastors of any local congregation the responsibility to ask questions of any believer, baptized or not, with which they can test themselves and determine whether they are in the faith. That seems to leave an open door for any kind of pre-baptismal conversations about counting the cost of following Jesus.
Before I wrote this, I searched the web for articles on this subject but came up with nothing that directly addresses this particular issue. That’s why I’ve written this small essay. I want this to serve as a conversation piece on this topic. My conclusion is that while there are no direct teachings that command or forbid a pastor to deny baptism to someone who has confessed belief, it seems that wisdom and other teachings in the New Testament create a pastoral responsibility to help anyone who desires baptism to be sure of their faith and what that faith will cost them. If it’s discovered that he or she isn’t quite prepared for that cost, that warrants waiting before baptizing. The word denial might be a bit strong, implying not now or ever. Waiting seems to be a better fit.
Here at the end, I must acknowledge that this isn’t foolproof. A person may answer every question in the affirmative, and declare their willingness to deny themselves, take up their cross daily, get baptized, and then six months later return to their vomit. But the end goal isn’t to create a perfect sieve that sifts out all the weeds, but to stand before Christ with a clear conscience that to the best of your ability, you led people toward genuine faith and repentance. That goal is ultimately healthy for the whole church because, though it’s an imperfect sieve, it does help us catch some false conversions before we affirm them in baptism.
Catching some is better than catching none. I hope this has been helpful and caused you to think.