Would You Excommunicate Tim Keller? image

Would You Excommunicate Tim Keller?

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There has been a fascinating discussion recently over whether, and in what circumstances, Baptist churches should welcome paedobaptists into membership and/or to the Lord's Supper. (That "and/or" is crucial to the discussion, as we shall see.) Gavin Ortlund says yes and yes, on the basis that although infant baptism is (from a Baptist perspective) improper, it is not invalid. Jonathan Leeman says no and no, on the basis that if faith is essential to the nature of baptism, then anyone who has not been baptised as a believer is (from a Baptist perspective) not baptised at all. The exchange is full of interesting theological, pastoral and historical reflections, and if you're considering the subject seriously it is well worth a read.

The stickiest question raised in the discussion, and the one which (for me) puts the problem in its starkest form, is: Would you excommunicate Tim Keller? If you found out that you had admitted someone into membership of your church who, it subsequently turns out, had only been “baptised” as a baby, would you remove them from membership, and/or from access to communion? (Let’s assume that this hypothetical situation was not generated by deceit or anything, but by misunderstanding or an oversight on your part.) If you would say no, admitting that you would not exclude them from membership and/or communion on the way out, then on what basis would you exclude them from membership and/or communion on the way in?

In the conversations I have had within Newfrontiers, the family of churches I belong to, it is intriguing how many people agree that the different sides of the “and/or” should be answered in different ways. Each Newfrontiers pastor I have spoken to—and the sample size is small, but probably representative nonetheless—agrees that we should not exclude paedobaptists from communion, but that we should exclude paedobaptists from membership. To which I expect both Gavin and Jonathan would respond, from opposite sides: what?

Crucial to the discussion is the question of what membership actually is.

For some Baptists, to accept someone into membership of a local church is to affirm that they are a member of the universal Church (and, conversely, to exclude someone from membership is effectively to say to them that they are not a Christian, as far as you are concerned). This is the basis of John Piper’s argument on the subject, as expressed in his response to Wayne Grudem: “excluding a true brother in Christ from membership in the local church is far more serious than most of us think it is.” Practically, to hold this view is to welcome paedobaptists into both membership and communion.

Some other Baptists would agree with this, but add (crucially) that there is a difference between the way an individual recognises someone as a Christian (which does not necessarily require baptism as a believer), and the way a gathered church recognises someone as a Christian (which does). This, if I understand them right, is how Jonathan, and Bobby Jamieson and the 9Marks guys more generally, approach the question. As such, although a Baptist individual might agree that Tim Keller is a Christian, a local church is not authorised to do that without him having been baptised as a believer, and therefore he should not be admitted either to membership or to communion.

In other Baptist churches, including my own, membership is an affirmation that a person is not only a Christian, but that they are committed to your vision and values, in submission to your elders, and qualified (in principle) to serve and lead among you. To admit someone into membership, then, requires that a much higher bar be cleared than is needed for them to be welcomed to the Table; you would welcome Tim Keller to share the Eucharist with you, because you recognise him as someone who has repented and trusted Christ, but because he disagrees with the church on a crucial point of doctrine, he would not be welcomed into membership.

As far as I can see, the grounds for excommunicating someone—excluding someone from communion—are the same as the grounds for excluding someone from baptism: either they are unrepentant, or they are unbelieving. As much as I can see the logic of Jonathan and Bobby’s position, some of their practical conclusions (for instance, that someone could preach at their church without being able to share the Lord’s Supper with them afterwards) serve as a reductio ad absurdum of their argument, indicating that there must be some mistake somewhere. So no, I would not excommunicate Tim Keller. There is, however, a very real possibility that if he comes across the way I’ve used his name in this article, he might look favourably upon the possibility of excommunicating me.

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