Though I am not sympathetic with the anti-missionary viewpoint of the article’s author, I was struck by a little detail or two related to baptism and ecclesiology. It appears that women from many villages across the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh came to a training center run by an Indian evangelist named Sathuluri who hosted a training program for village women that was fully - and solely - sponsored by Bellevue Baptist Church. During the course of the training event, at least one village woman, and implicit within the article - many more women - were baptized. There was no local church involved in the baptism. Women from all over the state were baptized by an evangelist, but they did not become members of any 'local' church that day. The women identified themselves with Christ - baptized at the hands of the evangelist who led them to Christ. This non-local church based baptismal service raises questions of inconsistency when juxtaposed to Dr. John Floyd’s, Mid-America's, and the 'new' (2005) IMB Baptism Position Paper that all posit an inflexible insistence that proper baptism is to be conducted only as an ordinance of the local church.
The following is a direct quote from the Memphis newspaper article:
“Sathuluri [the Bellevue sponsored evangelist] isn't as easygoing as his neighbor. When he discovers that an interpreter, who is Hindu, is in the compound the day he [Sathuluri] is to perform baptisms, Sathuluri threatens to call police to remove her and a Commercial Appeal reporter and photographer from the property.” (p.4). And then this: “The Bellevue missionaries watch from a viewing area next to the pool. Some offer tears, others camera flashes. None get close to the baptismal pool and wet women.”
I find it hard to believe anyone could be opposed to the good work that Bellevue is doing. I praise God for this Indian brother, Sathuluri, who is advancing the Kingdom among village women. Unless you have been on the mission field yourself, and personally understand the dangers new converts face for being baptized upon their profession of faith in Jesus Christ, you cannot fully appreciate Sathuluri's concern for the Hindu interpretor's presence. The evangelist is concerned for the safety of the converts he is about to baptize.
Again, pay careful attention. There is no 'local church' involved in these baptisms. There is no 'local church' into which these woman are being 'baptized into.' They are being baptized biblically, into identification with Jesus Christ. What this newspaper article reveals is the ironic and incongruent position of anyone who insists upon imposing tight definitions and parameters on our IMB missionaries while then finding it impossible to implement such rigid norms when they actually find themselves on the mission field.
The 2005 Paper Explaining the IMB’s Position on Baptism reads as follows:
First, that the only biblical mode for baptism is immersion. Second, that the only proper candidate for immersion is a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ. Third, that the act is purely symbolic and distinct from salvation itself and has no saving merit. Fourth, that baptism is a church ordinance and therefore the only proper administrator of it is a local New Testament church that holds to a proper view of salvation.
Further, the IMB Baptism Position Paper states:
Baptism must take place in a church that practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone, does not view baptism as sacramental or regenerative, and a church that embraces the doctrine of the security of the believer.
It is this last statement that baptism is 'in a church,' in conjunction with the fourth point above, which has created the baptism controversy at the IMB. This peculiar position on baptism is directly contradicted by The 1644 Baptist London Confession of Faith:
THE person designed by Christ to dispense baptism, the Scripture holds forth to be a disciple; it being no where tied to a particular church officer, or person extraordinarily sent the commission enjoining the administration, being given to them as considered disciples, being men able to preach the gospel.
John Gill, the great Baptist theologian of the 18th Century says this about baptism:
Baptism is not an ordinance administered in the church, but out of it, and in order to admission into it, and communion with it; it is preparatory to it, and a qualification for it; it does not make a person a member of a church, or admit him into a visible church; persons must first be baptized, and then added to the church, as the three thousand converts were; a church has nothing to do with the baptism of any, but to be satisfied they are baptized before they are admitted into communion with it.
Where Scripture is clear (as in the mode and candidate of baptism), we should be clear and unflinching. But, likewise, when God has chosen for Scripture to be ambiguous or ambivalent, we must resist the temptation to become dogmatic and prescriptive (as in 'baptism in a church that embraces the doctrine of eternal security').
I think the Memphis newspaper has done all Southern Baptists a good service in showing the danger of establishing a policy that reaches beyond the 2000 BFM, adds to the sacred Word of God by placing additional qualifications regarding the administrator of baptism, and is in the end, impractical in terms of implementation on the mission field. What's ironic to me is that the benefactor church of Mid-America and the home church of many Mid-America seminary professors is being used to show us the inconsistency.
I think it would be helpful if we, the trustees of the International Mission Board, focused on our duties of giving oversight to the work of Southern Baptist missions, but we refrain from seeking to implement tight doctrinal 'policies' or 'guidelines' that far exceed the 2000 BFM and make it very difficult for actual missionaries on the field to implement. In my opinion, the 2005 baptism 'guideline' is far worse than the 2005 'private prayer language' policy in terms of its overall effect on our Southern Baptist mission work.
In His Grace,