Dr. Nathan Finn* writes recently that "Southern Baptists are clearly divided in their views of the ordinances"* (p.1).
In light of such division, Finn offers a "taxonomy...[which describes what] most Southern Baptists embrace... when it comes to their respective practices concerning baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership" (p.2).
Following are four positions historically held among Baptists:
Option 1: Some Southern Baptists are Landmarkers who practice closed communion and closed membership**
Option 2: Some non-Landmark Southern Baptists practice both closed membership and closed communion
Option 3: There are some Southern Baptists who affirm closed membership, but practice open communion
Option 4: A few Southern Baptists affirm both an open membership and an open communion.
Let's unpack Professor Finn's taxonomy one option at a time.
Option One: After giving strengths Landmark ecclesiology offers--including closed membership, closed communion--Finn records his unequivocal disagreement with Landmarkism: "I tend to agree with those scholars who argue that Landmarkism is a Baptist “high church” movement, not in worship style, but in ecclesiology" (p.2).
Likening Landmarkism to the errors of Catholicism, Finn sees parallelisms of a successional spiritual authority being passed through ecclesiology in Landmarkism rather than the apostolic succession of bishops.
In addition, one is mistaken to assume since the majority of Baptists have held to almost all of the ecclesiological tenets of Landmarkism, it follows that almost all Baptists have been Landmark. Quite the contrary. For Finn, what makes Landmarkers unique is "[tying] all of the above practices to his conviction that only baptistic churches are true churches."
In fact, the critical test is this: "any Baptist who rejects the conviction that only Baptist churches are true churches is not a Landmarker, regardless of what his particular convictions are regarding the above practices" (p.3, emphasis original).
Option Two: Since both closed membership and closed communion are non-negotiable traits of Landmarkism, Finn's next option is to peel away the non-Landmarkers who also firmly embrace both closed membership and communion. The reason is obvious to anyone who's ever picked up a Baptist history book: "the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists who practice both closed membership and closed communion are non-Landmark" (p.4). Finn follows with a history lesson demonstrating his point.
Option Three: Some Baptists who advocate closed membership nevertheless practice open communion. In other words, while a person must be immersed as a believer to be a church member, the lack of such baptism does not prohibit them from coming to the Lord's table.
All Christians who name the name of Jesus are welcome. Finn writes:
"This position was not dominant among the earliest Baptists...But there was enough of an open communion minority that the Second London Confession of 1677/1689 takes a neutral stance on the terms of communion" (p.5, emphasis added).
Arguing this option is definitively the minority view, Finn is not so sure that today's Southern Baptist congregation does not trump such historical practice:
"Over the course of the last generation a closed membership coupled with an open communion has become increasingly popular in the SBC. I suspect it is even the majority practice in many areas" (p.5), concluding, "It seems at least possible that communion is one doctrine where the Baptist Faith and Message takes a position that is not affirmed by many—maybe even most—of our churches. What this means for the Convention’s future remains to be seen" (p.6).
Option Four: Finn asserts that there have always existed Baptist churches which affirm both open membership and open communion, John Bunyan's church being the classic example. These churches allow someone baptismally sprinkled to join the church without undergoing believer’s baptism by immersion.
From open membership, open communion naturally follows. More recently, Henderson Hills Church (Oklahoma, SBC) and Bethlehem Baptist Church (Minnesota, non-SBC) lean in this direction, though John Piper's church has apparently stalled the transformational process. One "Piper influenced" SBC mega-church with which Finn is familiar is seriously going in this direction.
In the end, according to Finn,
"Open membership churches are still Baptist because they only practice believer’s baptism by immersion; they do not sprinkle babies. But open membership churches do not mandate immersion because of their hesitancy to bind the conscience of a sincere believer who is honestly convinced his pedobaptism is valid" (p.6).
Some Personal Observations
First, I appreciate Dr. Finn's concern pertaining to the tone of blogging discussions. Some can (and do) get down right ugly. This is unacceptable.
Secondly, I also appreciate Finn's attempt to analyze the current debate. This is helpful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is staying informed about where at least some of Southern Baptist academia stands on provocative issues facing us as Baptists. Thank you, Professor Finn!
Finally, I found Finn's paper to be thin at some points. Allow me in closing to mention two:
- The structure of the taxonomy is weak. The unfortunate choice of "options" among us as Southern Baptists solicits from me the image, a) we pick our favorite view; b) the view we pick cannot be said to be better or worse than another view; c) no view is therefore a "standard" by which we may measure our heritage.
Even more, Professor Finn's use of "some" Baptists and a "few" Baptists in each option appear to negate the larger point: The definitive majority of Baptists--not merely Some non-Landmark Baptists--have tenaciously contended for both closed membership and closed communion.
Suppose one argued that the pre-existence of the soul was an "option" within Christian orthodoxy. Should it be considered a viable alternative to creationism or traducianism? Thus, to position such a near universal position concerning baptism and church membership within the confines of "one option among many options" violates the canons of clear reasoning.
- Dr. Finn appears to soften his present position from one given in an earlier paper. In fact, arguably Dr. Finn abandoned his stronger terminology about the necessity of upholding both closed membership and closed communion. In the White Paper he recommends for further study, Finn minces no words arguing from the New Testament and Baptist history that the "meaning and significance of each ordinance cannot be properly maintained unless baptism is understood as being prerequisite for participation in the Lord’s Supper" (p.3-4). That is, biblically and baptistically, closed membership and closed communion--or what Finn calls "consistent communion"--remains the exclusive "option" from which we may retain "meaning and significance" for the ordinances.
Furthermore, in summarizing his position, Finn expresses his "sincere hope" for Southern Baptists to "rethink" and "reclaim" the "biblical pattern" of communion; and that, even if offending those who may "sincerely disagree with our understanding of baptism" (p.15). Note well that, for Finn, the consistent communion view is the biblical view and (consequently, one would hope) the Baptist view. Thus, in the end, the issue is not about "pleasing Pedobaptists or our open communion fellow Baptists"; rather, it's about "pleasing Christ by following the pattern he has given to us in the New Testament" (emphasis added).
Hence, in light of such a strong exhortation to the contrary, I do not know what to make of Dr. Finn's latest paper. Concluding that "Open membership churches are still Baptist because they only practice believer’s baptism by immersion; they do not sprinkle babies" makes no sense whatsoever.
Professor Finn seems to be saying that because churches who embrace open membership do not "technically" sprinkle, but only accept those who have, they still may legitimately lay claim to the title "Baptist." That's rather odd. Ought churches that embrace the deity of Christ legitimately open their arms to members who do not, just so long as they "technically" do not teach the aberrant view themselves? Could those churches lay legitimate claim to "evangelical"?
Even more problematic for Professor Finn's open membership "Baptist" church is Finn himself. He wrote:
"Only immersion truly communicates the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. This means in Baptist churches that practice open communion, a Pedobaptist may be adequately representing his ongoing union with Christ by participating in communion, but he has never had his initial union with Christ properly represented through immersion. As a result the theological relationship between the two ordinances is at best disjointed, and at worst it is entirely overlooked. Only consistent communion churches adequately represent the believer’s union with Christ in their observation of both ordinances" (p.9, all emphasis added).
I'm tempted to ask: Will the real Dr. Finn please stand up?***
With that, I am...
*Nathan A. Finn is Assistant Professor of Church History, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and this present post is based upon Finn's recent circular, "Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Southern Baptists"
**Closed membership is defined as believer’s baptism by immersion is a prerequisite to membership in a local Baptist church
Closed communion is defined as the restriction of participation in the Lord's Supper to individuals who have been immersed
***A commenter raised a question whether my suggestion that the "real" Dr. Finn "stand up" is throroughly inappropriate. I thank him for raising such. For the record, the question was singularly a rhetorical device calling attention to a perceived tension in Dr. Finn's views.
The "stand up" line has often been used as a metaphor
which suggests a contradiction, inconsistency or "waffle." That's all
I intended with it. I meant no suggestion, casting a cloud over Dr.
Even so, my deepest apologies to Dr. Finn if the question cast a cloud over his honor and dignity as a respected academic and minister of the gospel among Southern Baptists.