Re-Baptism and Closed Communion

If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.

Both re-baptism and closed (or close) Communion are subjects that could easily send us into a repetitive cycle of arguments. You would likely say that both ordinances are based on the authority given to the church by Christ. I would agree. However, that takes us right back to our definitions of “church” and who exactly was given this authority. I’m not sure how to avoid repeating ourselves, but we can try.

Suffice it to say that I believe God himself authorizes both practices for genuine, repentant believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t know of any additional requirements given in Scripture. I’ve cited several examples already.

Look again at the Ethiopian man in Acts 8. Look at the 3,000 who were baptized in Acts 2. Consider the Gentiles in Acts 10. Time and time again, it’s the same story. In Acts 10, Peter said, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name…Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Ac 10:43, 47).

Everyone who believes in the fundamental truths of Jesus and his gospel, those who put their faith in Christ alone for salvation are qualified to be baptized. Then everyone who has been baptized (with a few exceptions which we’ll talk about) is qualified to eat the Lord’s Supper. If a more sophisticated theological understanding is necessary, then you’ll have to show me. Was Apollos re-baptized once Priscilla and Aquila “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” even though “he knew only the baptism of John” (Ac 18:25-26)? No, he wasn’t.

With that in mind, what justification do we have for re-baptizing sincere believers who have repented of sin and put their faith in Christ, being baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19)? To my knowledge, before the advent of Landmarkism, there is no record of Baptists re-baptizing people who had previously, voluntarily submitted to baptism by immersion. The Anabaptists, whose name means re-baptizers, only “re-baptized” people who had been sprinkled as infants. They didn’t believe they were re-baptizing at all. It was the Catholic Church that began calling them Anabaptists.

And what examples do we have in Scripture? There is only one that comes anywhere close, and it hardly fits the typical reasons Primitive Baptists would re-baptize someone.

In Acts 19, we read:

Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?”

They said, “Into John’s baptism.”

And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-7)

There are two possible interpretations of what happened here. Which one is correct depends on where Paul’s speech ends and Luke’s narration begins again. John Gill believed that verse 5—”On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”—was part of Paul’s speech. In other words, Paul was describing those originally baptized by John. According to Gill, Luke’s narration picks up again in verse 6: “And when Paul had laid his hands on them—” and so on.

If Gill’s interpretation is correct, then these Ephesian disciples were never re-baptized at all. So the issue would be that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit nor had they received the Spirit’s confirmation after they first believed. It’s what Peter called, “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2:38). So Paul laid his hands on them, the Spirit came on them, and they began manifesting the indwelling Spirit by speaking in tongues and prophesying.

The other interpretation of this passage says that Paul found these disciples and realized something was amiss. You’ll notice they’re not called disciples of Christ. If anything, they were “disciples of John” which we read about in other parts of the Bible (Mt 9:14). John’s disciples became a Jewish sect that lasted into at least the 2nd century.

Knowing something wasn’t quite right with these men, Paul asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” During this transitional period in history, most believers experienced some form of the Spirit’s outpouring on them. But not these guys. They had never even heard of the Holy Spirit. So Paul asked, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “John’s baptism.”

Was there anything wrong with John’s baptism? No. Jesus was baptized by John. I mentioned Apollos. He received the baptism of John. No, the issue wasn’t the baptism itself, but a much more profound misunderstanding.

According to Paul, the purpose of John’s ministry was to point people to the coming Messiah. John himself even said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). John was simply preparing the way for Jesus. Unfortunately, some people didn’t receive that vital part of John’s message or they completely missed Christ’s arrival. Either way, they had not yet believed in Jesus himself or his gospel.

So once Paul affirmed that Jesus was the very point of John’s ministry, he then baptized these men in the name of Jesus. And as was common and vivid throughout The Book of Acts, their faith was sealed by the Spirit. In Ephesians, Paul said, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13).

Neither interpretation of this passage would lend credence to the practice of re-baptizing people who come from other denominations. Unless they didn’t believe in the full Trinity, or weren’t baptized in the name of Christ, or perhaps submitted to baptism without actually believing the gospel, then I don’t see how Acts 19 teaches re-baptism. I’d have to commit some troubling eisegesis to make that case using these verses. And if I don’t use these verses, where would I go in Scripture to justify the practice?

I suppose you might cite church authority. While the church does have the authority to “bind” and “loose” its members, we do not have the right to redefine the purpose of baptism (Mt 16:19). We have to keep our authority in context. Anyone we “loose” from the church, exclude from the body must be excluded on biblical grounds. Consider Matthew 18:15-20.

Paul told the Corinthians, “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler…Purge the evil person from among you” (1Co 5:11, 13). John tells us not to receive anyone who does not “abide in the teaching of Christ” and “does not have God” (2Jn 1:9).

So we are given two reasons for exclusion or what we often call church discipline: (1) unrepentant sin and (2) blatant heresy. Well, if we should exclude people for these reasons, then logic dictates that we wouldn’t receive people for these reasons.

Perhaps we can throw one more scenario into a category of its own: divisiveness. For example, I believe wholeheartedly in the doctrine of election just as Primitive Baptists do. But I have baptized people who didn’t believe God chose his people before the foundation of the world. Either they didn’t believe it (or some aspect of it), or they didn’t know enough yet to believe it. But it wasn’t a problem. It didn’t exclude them from being baptized or becoming a part of the church. I knew they could grow to understand the doctrine of election. Neither Christ nor his apostles ever required anyone to understand election before being baptized.

But let’s say someone vehemently rejects the doctrine of election as the church believes it. Maybe he thinks God chose his people based on something other than his sovereign will and purpose. Well, if he’s causing strife in the church by attempting to persuade members of his position, then it becomes a problem worthy of discipline or exclusion.

My point is, church authority doesn’t grant us the right to make our own rules concerning baptism and membership. Our authority is limited to applying God’s Word. If the Bible gives us distinct reasons for keeping someone out or removing them later, so be it. But being “infants in Christ” doesn’t qualify, or disqualify as the case may be (1Co 3:1). Having a less-than-perfect comprehension of theology like Apollos doesn’t count. In short, the Bible doesn’t necessitate or even permit re-baptisms for the myriad reasons I’ve known Primitive Baptists to use.

The same principles apply to Communion. If someone is qualified for membership in the Lord’s church, they are qualified to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The closest we can come to a biblical example where that is not the case is found in 1 Corinthians 11. In fact, some would use it to show that there can’t be any degree of division among believers in Communion. But I recommend that we take a closer look.

Paul wrote:

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. (1 Corinthians 11:17-20)

Pay attention to the latter part of verse 19: “There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” Paul used similar language in 1 Thessalonians when he said, “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (1Th 2:2-4).

Next, Paul said:

For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. (1 Corinthians 11:21-22)

So the division that existed among the Corinthians was the result of wicked self-indulgence. In the midst of what should be the church’s deepest act of fellowship, people were proving themselves to be selfish, mistreating others in the church and failing to eat the bread and drink the wine of Communion with the reverence it deserves. In fact, Paul goes on to say, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1Co 11:29). I believe he primarily meant the figurative body of Christ, the church.

The sin of the Corinthians was not that they shared in the Lord’s Supper with Christians from different theological backgrounds or degrees of understanding. On the contrary, their sin was excluding people.

First, they failed to recognize the sacredness of the Lord’s Supper. Second, they were scarfing down the bread and drinking all the wine without including everyone, probably those who were too poor to bring their own food and drink to the meal. So he tells the church collectively not to have the Lord’s Supper in their present condition. And to the individual, he says, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1Co 11:28).

Where does that leave closed Communion? Obviously, Communion will always be limited to sincere, baptized believers. “What portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” (2Co 6:15). But it seems that excluding some believers simply because they’re not Primitive Baptist comes closer to violating the teachings of 1 Corinthians 11 than following them.