Baptists and Baptism: What Will it Take to Achieve Catholicity?


Joe Rigney should be commended for his recent article about baptism. If you are unfamiliar with Rigney, he is one of the most insightful Baptist authors currently producing content. His books The Things of Earth and Lewis on the Christian Life are especially good. Rigney’s article is concerned with trying to relieve the tension of how Christians with baptistic convictions relate to paedobaptist individuals and churches. It took courage for Rigney to write this article and he is already taking criticism from his fellow Baptists who are intent on maintaining the illegitimacy of infant baptism.


One of the convictions of Trinity Reformed Church (TRC) is catholicity. It means that even though we are paedobaptists by confession and conviction, we are committed to getting along with other Christians. Some sincere and genuine Christians baptize their infants. This is called paedobaptism. Some sincere and genuine Christians don’t baptize their children until there is a profession of faith. This is called credobaptism. At TRC, we do our best to not divide over the credo vs paedobaptism issue.In practice, it means that credobaptists are not treated as second-class Christians. For those who desire to delay the baptism of their children until there is a confession of faith, the TRC session defers to the head of household, while maintaining our paedobaptist conviction. So, just like Rigney may be disparaged by fellow Baptists for his article, TRC is disparaged by fellow Presbyterians for our catholicity.

As paedobaptists, we disagree with Rigney’s credobaptism. The point of reviewing his article is not to argue the baptism issue point for point, as such, though a few remonstrances will be fitfully made (If you are interested in an introduction to the doctrine of infant baptism, click here).

Rigney’s Argument

For credobaptists to forge a policy of mutual recognition of baptism with paedobaptists is like threading a needle. The difficulty is that the typical Baptist definition of baptism includes four elements: (1) water; (2) in the triune name; (3) by immersion; (4) after repentance and faith in Christ. Rigney says, “Essentially all Christians regard the first two elements as essential for a baptism to be valid. Many Baptists regard the third element as important, but not essential.” Regarding the fourth element, Baptists “believe that baptism should be applied only to professing believers.”

Rigney’s solution is to say that “while water and the triune name are essential to baptism, the other two elements are important for the proper administration of baptism, but not essential for the validity of baptism.” This means that even though paedobaptists differ from Baptists regarding #3 and #4, infant baptism is still a “valid baptism.” Rigney concludes by saying, “Paedobaptisms, then, may be regarded as valid but improper baptisms.” Here, Rigney’s needle-threading differs from the typical Baptist stance, which denies “that paedobaptisms are baptisms at all.”


Two elements of Rigney’s article need clarifications, not because Rigney explicitly contradicts these points, but simply as a matter of ameliorating the emphasis. First, Rigney says that “the practice of baptizing the children of believers in infancy” is done “in anticipation of their profession of faith in Christ.” While paedobaptists certainly anticipate a covenant child’s profession of faith, that’s not the only reason the covenant sign is administered to them. Abraham, Moses, and David administered the covenant sign to their children because the promise was to them and their children (Gen. 17:7-14; Dt. 29:9-15, 2 Sam. 22:51), which means the children are included in the covenant. Since Peter echoes this same language in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:39), he echoes the same meaning of Abraham, Moses, and David. Indeed, the Pentecost crowd of Jews, whose ancestors had administered the covenant sign to children for thousands of years, would have no alternative but to conclude that the children of Christians are also baptized because they are included in the covenant.  

The second clarification comes concerning Rigney’s distinction between the visible and invisible church. While Rigney’s definitions are copacetic, it should be underlined that the rise of the category of the “invisible” church didn’t come about because of Baptist theology in the early church.[1] Rather, it came about because of the widespread nominalism at the time of Constantine. Before Constantine, when Christianity was unpopular and illegal, a Christian was a baptized person who was a member of the church and lived as Jesus commanded. After Constantine, people took the name “Christian” without submission to the commands of Christ or the Church. So the “invisible” Church was thought to be the “real Christians,” the church within the church.[2] 


It is more difficult for credobaptist churches to practice catholicity than paedobaptist churches (for reasons that will be explained at the end of this article). So, here are four stasis points that Baptists need to resolve before mutual recognition of baptism can happen in a Baptist church.

First, the matter of agreement

Rigney says, “we don’t believe that rightly understanding and applying baptism is essential for someone to be a true Christian. We regard sincere, Christ-loving paedobaptists as our brothers and sisters, and we want to celebrate our common confession of faith in the triune God and our salvation in Jesus Christ.” This needs elaboration. Since neither side claims baptism justifies (with only a few exceptions in each camp); since neither side denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith; since neither side claims to baptize only those who never fall away (Rigney admits that credo-Baptists can “undermine” their baptism); and since neither side says baptism works ex opera operato (which means the saving effect of the sacraments is derived by the power of the completed sacrament), there can be a charitable mutual recognition of baptism.

Second, the matter of disagreement

There is a way to disagree while recognizing the biblical plausibility of the other side. While I’m convinced credobaptists are mistaken, I understand how they arrive at their conclusion—indeed, I was a Baptist for many years—and admit it is biblically plausible. Credobaptists are wrestling with Scripture and trying to submit to their biblical convictions. Those are our kind of people. Those are the people paedobaptists should want to hang out with. Likewise, credobaptists need to see that paedobaptists have a plausible biblical argument. They are wrestling with Scripture and trying to submit to their convictions. In a day when the church is embattled, when many are changing the faith to accommodate canceling services and woke-ism, we can’t afford to divide into sects. We should do what we can to remain in fellowship with Christians who submit their convictions to the Word of God.

One of the practical ways to exercise catholicity on baptism is to evaluate each of the relevant questions according to the logic of the other side’s position. This changes people from a posture of constant critique—point by point—each time it comes up, to a position of cooperative catholicity. For example, Rigney makes a statement that is true from the logic of credobaptism but not from the logic of paedobaptism. He says, “Moreover, since a right administration of the ordinances is a necessary mark of a true church, such a position seems to deny that paedobaptist churches are churches at all, since they fail to baptize their members. And because they fail to baptize their members, it would seem that they are likewise unable to eat the Lord’s Supper, since the family meal requires the presence of a proper family.” The trouble here is that according to the logic of paedobaptists, they do baptize all those who are part of the covenant because the covenant is for you and your seed.

Third, the matter of mode   

Many Baptists think immersion is the only legitimate form of baptism. But for Baptists to work toward the mutual recognition of baptism requires them to see “sprinkling and pouring” as legitimate options for baptism. If they want to call it “true but irregular,”—as Rigney does—that is a start in the right direction. 

Fourth, the matter of a credible profession of faith

Rigney says, “Guided by biblically informed prudence, then, we might regard all valid baptisms — including those that are improper with respect to mode and timing — as sufficient prerequisites for church membership, provided there is a credible profession of faith.” For Baptists, a lot hinges on the issue of a “credible” profession of faith. The trouble with defining a “credible” profession of faith is illustrated when credobaptist churches are filled with five-year-olds who believe as much as a five-year-old can believe, yet they are denied baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Before Baptists can recognize the legitimacy of paedobaptism, they need to get their own house in order and stop delaying baptism long after faith. This requires reevaluating their high standards defining a credible profession of faith. A good place to start reexamining these questions is by reading the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, which tells the history of how the American evangelical definition of “credible” conversion came about. 


Currently, it is easier for paedobaptists to practice the mutual recognition of baptism toward credobaptists than vice versa. The reason is that paedobaptists are willing to baptize someone on a profession of faith, whether it is a child of Christian parents who was previously denied the covenant sign or a pagan responding to the gospel in faith. In the first scenario, while paedobaptists think it improper for Christians to keep covenant children from the covenant sign (imagine Abraham denying Isaac the covenant sign), they don’t think baptizing the child after professing faith is unauthorized. In the second scenario, unbelievers raised outside the church who come to faith need to be baptized as soon as they come to faith. This is modeled throughout the book of Acts.  Practically speaking, this means (A) a credobaptist can exist in an ecumenically minded paedobaptist church much easier than (B) a paedobaptist can exist in an ecumenically minded credobaptist church. In situation (A), credobaptists are permitted to have a baptism according to their conviction, assuming the church is willing to baptize by immersion (which we are at TRC). In situation (B), paedobaptists are not permitted to have a baptism according to their conviction.

Baptist churches will never have the ecumenical potential of a Presbyterian church. But, by acknowledging the validity of infant baptism, Baptists can distinguish themselves from their Anabaptist forbearers. Rigney’s article is an important first step for Baptists. Once Baptists resolve the four issues listed above, they will be able to, as Rigney says, “duly honor both the Baptist impulse and the catholicity impulse.”

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

[1] Again, to be clear, Rigney doesn’t claim that it did.

[2] Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003), 129.