In November of 2010, the elder team of Fulkerson Park submitted a proposed revision to our church constitution that, among other things, included a revision to our requirements for church membership. In the past, the requirements for membership at Fulkerson Park have been (1) a public profession of faith in Christ and (2) believer’s baptism by immersion. The elders are proposing that we no longer require believer’s baptism by immersion as a requirement for membership. In an effort to clarify what we are and are not proposing, and the reasons behind the proposal, we offer this position paper.
What are we proposing?
First of all, we want to clarify that we are not proposing a change in either our doctrine or practice of baptism, but rather a change in our requirements for membership.
1. Doctrine of baptism
Our doctrine of baptism is stated in Article 11 of our Statement of Faith: “We believe that baptism by immersion is to be administered to true believers in Jesus Christ.” This is still the belief of each of the elders at Fulkerson Park and we are not proposing a change to our doctrine.
What this means:
• We are not attempting to modify the accepted and official doctrinal position of Fulkerson Park on baptism.
• Though we will always seek to fairly represent other views, we will not be teaching a different doctrinal position on baptism, either from the pulpit, or in membership or Sunday school classes, or small groups.
• We will not allow others in leadership to publicly teach a different position on baptism.
2. Practice of baptism
Neither are we proposing any change to our actual practice of baptism in Fulkerson Park. Genuine believers differ in their practice of baptism in two significant ways: first of all in the subjects of baptism and secondly in the mode of baptism. Our position is that the proper subjects of baptism are believers in Jesus Christ (not unbelievers, not infants, and not young children) and that the proper mode of baptism is immersion (not pouring, and not sprinkling) in water.
What this means:
• We will not be baptizing infants or young children who are not able to make a credible profession of faith in Christ.
• We will not be practicing baptism through pouring or sprinkling, as opposed to immersion.
3. A change in membership requirements
Since we are not proposing to change either our doctrine or practice of baptism, what then are we proposing? Simply this: that agreement on our doctrine and practice of baptism not remain a requirement for membership at Fulkerson Park. In other words, this is a change in membership requirements, not in our doctrine or practice of baptism.
Why are we making this proposal?
The other question, then, is why are the elders making this proposal?
It is important to state again that this is not a sudden shift in the position of the elders, but something that has been under discussion among the elders for over two years, and was discussed by Fulkerson Park’s deacon team prior to the installation of elders. It is also important to state that all of Fulkerson’s elders (both current and former) approved of this proposal. This is also a decision that has been vetted with some of Fulkerson’s long-term members.
Here are the reasons for this proposal.
1. We want to keep the gospel central
The first reason for the proposal is the gospel. We want to be a gospel-centered church, that is, a church that builds its life and fellowship around the essential core of the Christian gospel, namely, God’s plan to redeem sinful humanity and the fallen world through the death of his Son Jesus Christ for our sins, his resurrection from the dead, and the work of the Spirit in our hearts. These are the doctrines that stand at the center of our faith, and we want them to stand at the center of our church as well. And we believe that making the gospel central means that we make unity about the gospel a higher value and greater priority than unity about secondary doctrines, which while they are important, many gospel-embracing Christians disagree upon – doctrines about such issues as election, predestination, spiritual gifts, or . . . baptism.
Augustine is quoted to have said, “In the essentials, let there be unity; in the non-essentials, let there be liberty; and in all things, let there be charity.” This is a good motto that does three things: (1) it safeguards the unity of the church in those things which are most necessary; (2) it safeguards the liberty of a believer’s conscience in those areas where we disagree; (3) it promotes the love of Christ for all other believers, regardless of our differences. We believe this statement and its implications reflect the heart of Christ himself, who receives and loves all true believers in Jesus, regardless of their disagreements over some issues.
2. The Scriptures command us to welcome other believers
Scripture exhorts us to have a similar attitude. In Paul’s words, we are to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). Notice, that we are to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. This means that we are to show the same hospitality, reception, warmth, love, and care to other believers that Christ has shown to us. And it is significant that Paul says this in a context in which believers were in serious disagreement with one another over secondary issues.
On the basis of this command, we can thus reason:
• If Christ has received us and welcomed us into his family by grace through faith alone;
• And if Christ has also, on this same basis, welcomed and received into his family brothers and sisters in Christ who hold a different position on baptism than we do;
• And if we are to receive or welcome one another in the same way that Christ has received or welcomed us;
• Then should we not welcome and receive into our church membership these fellow believers?
3. Believer’s baptism is not required for salvation . . . or membership into the universal church
Third, believer’s baptism is not required for salvation or membership into the universal church. It is clear in Scripture that we are saved by grace through faith alone. It is also clear that all who are joined to Christ by faith are also a part of the body of Christ, the universal church. Very few, if any, among us would want to say that believers who have held, or now hold, to a different position on baptism – people such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, James Kennedy, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, or Tim Keller – are not a part of the family of God, the body of Christ, the universal church.
4. This is what heaven will be like
We should also consider this: when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to gather all believers to himself, to establish his eternal kingdom, and to sit down with us at the marriage supper of the Lamb, we do not believe that he will require Jonathan Edwards, or the multitudes of other believers who have not received believer’s baptism by immersion, to be re-baptized by immersion. We have no reason to believe that Christ will receive our paedobaptist brothers and sisters with any less enthusiasm and warmth than he will receive us.
On the contrary, heaven will be filled with believers who disagreed while on earth about many, many things, but who had in common their trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins and their eternal salvation.
Sooner or later, we will all be in fellowship with other believers whose doctrine and practice of baptism were different than ours. We simply believe that such should be the case now.
5. It is a serious thing to exclude someone from membership in the church
Finally, we believe that it is a serious thing to exclude someone from membership in the church. In Scripture, such exclusion is tantamount to excommunication – to saying, in effect, this person may not be a member of our church, because he or she is not a true believer in Christ (see, for example, the relevant passages in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5). We realize, of course, that when Baptist churches exclude non-baptists from their membership, they do not usually mean to infer that such non-baptists are also non-Christians. But if we start with the premises of Scripture – that exclusion or excommunication carries with it this serious implication – it should give us second thought.
These are the reasons that the pastoral team of Fulkerson Park have unanimously proposed this revision to our Constitution as it relates to the requirements for church membership. We earnestly pray that the Lord and Head of the church, our Savior Jesus Christ, will continue to empower all of us to love one another with humble and sincere hearts.
Thank you so much for prayerfully considering this recommendation from the Council of Elders.
The Elders of Fulkerson Park Baptist Church