Yes, we really are Together for the Gospel

August 21, 2007

If you’ve been following the internet discussion of the last week or so in which John Piper, Wayne Gruden, Sam Storms, Mark Dever and others have engaged one another on the issue of whether paedobaptists should be allowed to be members of Baptist churches and to commune at the Lord’s Table in Baptist churches. These men are dear friends and heroes of mine (to whom I owe so much) and their debate has been both passionate and respectful. That is, they have manifested simultaneously a godly zeal for truth, rigorous theological scholarship and deep regard for one another.

Perhaps I can add some perspective on this discussion, from my Presbyterian, paedobaptist standpoint. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, Adrian Warnock has rounded up most of the posts here. And Mark Dever has just added another post here. Justin Taylor has done a helpful summary here. This post is just a start, because it will take me a few to do even meager justice to this debate.

The long and the short of it is that honored friends and colleagues have asked "How can you be ‘together for the Gospel,’ but not together at the Lord’s Table or in church membership?’" Their point being that Mark Dever, in holding to a classic baptist position on communion and church membership, would not allow someone who had not received believer’s baptism to be a member at his church or to share in the Lord’s Supper, and thus, subsequently, they wonder how he can think of being ‘Together for the Gospel’ with a paedobaptist like me who couldn’t me a church member at CHBC.

First, let me say, that I fully appreciate the force of this question, and the deep, biblical passion behind it. When John Piper says: "when a person looks a true and precious brother in the eye and says, ‘You may not join this church,’ he is doing one of two things: Seriously diminishing our spiritual union in Christ, or seriously minimizing the importance of church membership." —John has my full attention! When Sam Storms says: "the claim to be ‘Together for the Gospel’ rings a bit hollow to me when some would decline to fellowship with others around the Lord’s Table because of their disagreement on the proper recipients of baptism." — I take the concern expressed seriously.

And, for the record, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Al Mohler, Mark Dever and Sam Storms would be welcomed with open arms as members at Frist Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi where I pastor. They would be joyfully invited to the Lord’s Table too.

Second, and just for starters, let me say that this significant difference (on baptism and church membership), far from being fatal to our unity, is precisely one of the reasons that Mark and Al and C.J. and I are in fact "Together for the Gospel." It is precisely one of the things that makes Together for the Gospel so different and extraordinary. Let me attempt to begin to explain.

The unity of T4G is not a unity in spite of doctrinal differences, in which we gain unity by downplaying doctrine, minimizing ecclesial differences and going with a lowest common denominator. Our unity is instead a unity of respect for the truth and for truth-in-practice, that sees in each other such a dogged commitment to God’s word in both faith and practice that we want to be together promoting biblical Christianity, even (and especially) in the way we handle the points of principle on which we seriously disagree.

I like the way Al Mohler expresses this. He says: "We (speaking of Bible-believing, Christ-exalting, Gospel-preaching Baptists and paedobaptists) are among the last people on the planet that can have an honest disagreement, because we both believe in truth and that truth matters." It is precisely that commitment that invincibly unites my spirit to Mark, Al and C.J.

I would never want to say to Mark or Al, "I will be with you ‘Together for the Gospel,’ as long as you relinquish your Baptist principles or as long as you do not follow your Baptist convictions in church practice." No, it is precisely their love of truth and their desire to see Gospel truth and love worked out practically in the life of the local church which causes my heart to love them as Jonathan did David.

I love Mark and Al’s deep concern for truth and biblical church practice (even and especially at the points in which they disagree with me). I love the fact that they are not willing to compromise on points of biblical conviction, and yet at the same time they work so hard to promote principled unity. I love the fact that even though they believe me to be in serious error on this issue of baptism, they truly love me, constantly co-labor with me (and invite me to do the same with them), and reach out to numerous other non-Baptist evangelicals regularly, deliberately, nationally and internationally to build biblical consensus and cooperation among the churches. To know Mark and Al is to know two men of unshakable conviction and broad sympathy, and I deeply value that.

There are actually good reasons why this debate should not be an easy one to resolve (and I’ll elaborate on that in future posts), but in the meantime I want to say this. 1. I am greatly moved by John Piper’s and Sam Storms’ comments on Gospel unity as it is expressed at the Lord’s Table. Thank you brothers, you have instructed and edified me. 2. Mark and Al, I profoundly appreciate your willingness to stand on biblically-formed conviction and principle, even against the tide. Your example of and your desire for biblical fidelity instruct and edify me. I am your debtor. 3. To John, Sam, Mark and Al, thank you that you all are concerned for both truth and unity, doctrine and fellowship. Though you have different views on how to hold those together on this particular issue, thank you that none of you is ready (as are so many today) to jettison biblical fidelity and truth in the interests of unity. This is hugely important in the present climate.

Up next – Why we are still Together for Gospel (1). What I’ll try to explain (historically, theologically and practically) in these posts is why this discussion/difference/disagreement, far from being a fatal contradiction of our unity in the Gospel is precisely a picture of the uncompromising unity that we enjoy.