Steve Lemke on Bethlehem Baptist Church, Baptism, and Church Membership

Tim Brister —  October 14, 2008 — 14 Comments

Steve Lemke is not a fan of Together for the Gospel.  The second half of his article is entitled, “Baptists and Presbyterians Not Together: Nine Marks Which Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” where Lemke lays out his argument for Baptist separation (or, as I would argue, isolation).  Interestingly enough, his first two marks are “soul competency” and “age of accountability”–not exactly bedrock doctrines of the Baptist tradition.  In any case, he proceeds from there to believer’s baptism (mark 3) and baptism by immersion (mark 4).  In the fourth mark, we find yet another major error in Lemke’s presentation–this time it is Bethlehem Baptist Church‘s position on baptism and church membership.

In the pertinent portion of Lemke’s commentary, he writes:

“Piper’s proposed statement did not find general agreement among the church’s elders, and the issue was discussed for several years.  An amended policy was finally enacted in August 2005.  Although expressing preference for baptism by immersion, the amended membership statement expressed the desire ‘not to elevate beliefs and practices that are nonessential to the level of prerequisites for church membership.’  Thus, according to the new policy, ‘Christians who have not been baptized by immersion as believers, but, as they believe, by some other method or before they believed, may under some circumstances be members of this church.’”

Now, for those of you who can remember back in 2005, the debate over baptism and church membership was no private matter.  Documents were made public, and the discussion was one of the most heated in the blogosphere.  I recall in particular one church’s elder body, Clifton Baptist Church, writing a letter to the elders of BBC encouraging them to reconsider the proposed amendment by the elders.

When I first read this portion regarding BBC, I was sitting in the Atlanta airport in amazement at how such an important matter could be so poorly handled.  Not only is Lemke bearing false witness to BBC, he is doing it in order to justify the following statement, which is his conclusion in light of BBC:

“The danger of compromising doctrinal convictions in order to be tolerant or in the interest of ecumenical unity is that the call for one compromise after another never ends.  Once one starts down the path of compromising one’s own biblical convictions, it is difficult to hold to any doctrine uncompromisingly.”

Here’s the truth about BBC.  The proposed amendment was “tabled”–in other words, it was withdrawn.  This information has been available on the internet for years (here and here for example).  On BBC’s own website, they explain that the motion was withdrawn on December 18, 2005, and that their affirmation of faith states the following:

“We believe in the local church, consisting of a company of believers in Jesus Christ, baptized on a credible profession of faith, and associated for worship, work, and fellowship.”

A year later (December 4, 2006), John Piper addressed it again in a radio interview on Desiring God Radio. Piper said:

“We withdrew it, so everybody who is listening to this should understand that it did not happen.  The proposal did not happen.  We are still where we were; nobody can join Bethlehem who is not baptized by immersion, and indeed, who does not affirm that is the right way to do it.”

While in the Atlanta airport, I called a good friend who is on staff at BBC to get an update on the motion.  I was informed that their position on baptism and church membership has not changed, and if Presbyterian attenders are seeking membership at BBC, they are required to be baptized by immersion.

Lemke did not do his homework.  He wrongly stated that “an amended policy was enacted in August 2005″ when it was not.  He stated that there was an “amended membership statement” when the motion was not even brought to a vote.  He stated that elders’ proposal was “a new policy” when in fact there is no new policy.  Lemke bears false witness in order to charge John Piper and the elders of BBC of compromising doctrinal convictions.  I do not see how this kind of accusation based on misinformation can be tolerated in any credible, scholarly journal.

I have compiled the articles from Desiring God’s website for you below.  There is a movement today going on in the name of “Baptist Identity” to malign any evangelical unity around doctrinal essentials as “ecumenical compromise” (as Paige Patterson has expressed).  The greater problem today is not between Southern Baptists and Evangelicals but between fellow Southern Baptists.  While Baptists and Presbyterians may not be together on the ordinance of baptism, at least they are together for the gospel.  There are marks which separate Baptists between Presbyeterians, but as we see in Lemke’s article, there are probably just as many marks which separate Southern Baptists from one another.  Therein lies the greater problem.

Bethlehem Baptist Church Articles:

* The Meaning of Membership and Church Accountability by BBC Staff (Feb. 1, 2001)
* Baptism and Church Membership: Eight Recommendations for Constitutional Revision by John Piper (Aug. 9, 2005)
* Baptism and Church Membership: The Recommendation from the Elders for Amending Bethlehem’s Constitution by John Piper (Sept. 14, 2005)
* More Clarifications on the Baptism and Membership Issue by John Piper (Oct. 12, 2005)
* Baptism and Church Membership: Questions and Answers by John Piper (Oct. 31, 2005)
* Baptism and Church Membership: Dissenting Paper from Paul Dreblow (1) (Nov. 10, 2005)
* Baptism and Church Membership: Dissenting Paper from Paul Dreblow (2) (Nov. 10, 2005)
* Can You Update Us on the Baptism and Church Membership Issue from 2005? by John Piper (Dec. 4, 2006)
* Response to Grudem on Baptism and Church Membership by John Piper (Aug. 9, 2007)

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  • http://www.byfarthersteps.com Tim Etherington

    Is this Lemke guy worth this much work? Does he have that much sway in the SBC? It sounds like he has a lot to say about things he knows little of.

    Oh and I was just reading this yesterday from Henry Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, p 59:

    Satan’s stratagem did not destory God’s plan; it did not change the basic structure of reality. The earth remains the raw material for man’s cultural striving; man also continues as image-bearer of God and the structure of his being as a rational, moral, cultural creature was not destoryed by sin.

    I don’t think Van Til could have been clearer about a Calvinist idea of the continued image bearing of fallen man. Just thought I’d share that since it was a recent read.

  • http://mrclm.blogspot.com Chris Meirose

    It’s amazing how hard you have to work to screw this one up with that much clear information readily available on the Bethlehem Baptist and Desiring God web sites. I actually just read back through this all last week because I am pastoring a Congregational Church where both modes of baptism are allowed (and I’m Baptist, though grew up Lutheran, so how’s that for confusion!?!). I really appreciated the heart behind Bethlehem’s desire to change, and from what is share on their web site the majority are in favor of the change, but in this case the majority does not rule. Dr. Piper had a higher standard than just a majority.

  • David

    Timmy,
    I would like to point you to three relatively recent Piper sermons that you might want to add to your listing of Bethlehem Baptist Church Articles.

    In July of this year John Piper did some revisiting of the baptism/membership discussion in a 3-part sermon series, at the request of the church elders. He didn’t get into all the details of the earlier discussions but alluded to several pieces and added more to the discussion.

    The benefit of these sermons in the current context is that they are a fairly current view of where Bethlehem is on the matter. The leadership isn’t trying to force the issue on those at Bethlehem that disagree with them, but it shows they are still thinking about it and are encouraging the people of Bethlehem to seek Solomon-like wisdom on the matter from God as well as have their hearts in the right place to receive it.

    The sermons are found at this link by looking at the three July, 2008 sermons: http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/2008/

    David

  • http://www.joethorn.net Joe Thorn

    I would love to hear Lemke’s response to your correction. Should I hold my breath?

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Tim,

    It’s probably not worth this much work. I would much rather be writing on the gospel and mission. There are at least two reasons that led me to do this series:

    1. Lemke is one of two anti-Calvinist scholars used by that camp to support their agenda. He is a provost of an SBC seminary, and his articles have been used in the past by denominational leaders to write/say uncharitable things about Calvinists in the SBC.

    2. I can do more with my blog and search engine juice than any op-ed piece in either denominational editorials or academic journals. Once my responses are online, they will be easily accessible by the public interested in knowing the truth. Common sense people do not need academic credentials or erudition to convince them of the truth. It just needs to get out there.

    BTW, thanks for that quote from Van Til!

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Chris and David,

    I share your encouragement about how BBC has handled this issue. They didn’t force it in an abuse of authority, nor did they shut themselves off from input from others which would have been an expression of pride. In spite of differences they have shown how a church wrestles with theological issues while remaining united in purpose and mission. Their transparency, humility, and commitment to the headship of Christ is very commendable.

  • http://www.byfarthersteps.com Tim Etherington

    Yea, it sounds like it is worth the effort! Keep up the good work.

  • http://chadwickivester.wordpress.com chadwick

    Dr. Lemke, where art thou? :roll:

    Timmy,

    Before the internet, the Denominational Giants could control the SBC by their voices being heard from the state papers and seminary journals, etc.

    Yet, because of the internet, now the playing field is even; and Dr. Lemke, along with his anti non-Calvinist cohorts are starting to take John Adam’s famous quote to heart:

    “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. ”
    (John Adams, ‘Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,’ December 1770 US diplomat & politician (1735 – 1826) :lol:

    chadwick

  • http://chadwickivester.wordpress.com chadwick

    BTW, Timmy, keep up the good work in keeping the playing field even with the SBC’s anti non-Calvinist heirarcy!!!

    chadwick

  • http://chadwickivester.wordpress.com chadwick

    correction: ANTI non-Calvinist HIERARCHY!

  • http://downshoredrift.com Alan Cross

    Wow, how do you get that wrong? I was only barely paying attention to what Bethlehem was doing back in 2005 and I remembered that they withdrew the baptismal change. How do you write something on the subject and not know that they didn’t go through with it? When he says that “Once one starts down the path of compromising one’s own biblical convictions, it is difficult to hold to any doctrine uncompromisingly,” it is interesting that he left out that they turned back from going down that path. That little nugget does not fit with the conventional wisdom on “doctrinal compromise” I guess, so it is left out.

    What happens when you start down the road of misrepresenting people? Does it become difficult to tell the truth at all?

  • Steve Lemke

    Timmy,
    I am happy to stand corrected by your clarification that the current status of the baptism issue at Bethlehem Baptist Church — i.e., that after Dr. Piper had persistently lobbied the elders for three years on behalf of the changed policy on baptism, and the church elders finally agreed and brought forward the motion that I cited, evidently they received very strong negative pushback both from within their own denomination and from within people with strong Baptist convictions within their own fellowship, and temporarily withdrew the motion. I was not aware that the motion had been withdrawn, so I am pleased to find that it was, and I’ll be happy to try to update that information to the online version of this article.

    By the way, I do think you misunderstood what I was saying, although my statement could have been clearer. I was not saying that the CHURCH approved the motion, but that the ELDERS had adopted it. The specific statement in the paper was, “Piper’s proposed statement did not find general agreement among the church’s elders, and the issue was discussed for several years. An amended policy was finally enacted in August 2005.” And indeed, at the source I cited at http://desiringgod.org/media/pdf/baptism_and_membership.pdf, the document presented by the elders has this description in a boxed heading at the very top of the paper: “On August 9, 2005 the Council of Elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church approved the following motion (23 yes, 1 no): “The Elders recommend to the church that the Constitution and By-Laws by amended in accordance with revision 08-09-05 AS AMENDED BY THE ELDERS (my caps) on 08/09/05), of the document entitled Baptism and Church Membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church”. Anyone who checked out the reference would be clear that it was the elders who took this action, since it was in August 2005, and indeed the elders are my intended (but less than clear) antecedent agents who amended this policy. So, having talked about Piper lobbying the elders, I was saying that the elders approved the amended policy in August 2005, and that is exactly what happened. But I see how you could have misunderstood what I was saying.

    I’m sure that I don’t look at the Desiring God site nearly as much as you do, but unfortunately, even now the evidence that the policy was not adopted is not nearly as obvious as you suggest above. The two “here and here” sites you mentioned are not internet sites but blogs, one of which has a broken link on a document relating to this issue, and the other describes this as a continuing discussion. Neither the interview with Piper nor the brief updated statement about the status of the baptism issue at Bethlehem is hardly persusive that this issue is resolved; both make the case that Piper and the majority of the elders continue to feel that the amended policy was right all along, and both indicate that the issue will likely be brought up again.

    One more minor thing, since you were scandalized by my not knowing about the withdrawal of the policy — please remember from the editorial introduction for the Journal that this paper was presented in February 2007. So understand that I was preparing this paper in Fall 2006. The audio statement by Piper was in December 2006, and the discussions between Piper and Grudem were after the conference. So at the time of my writing the paper, and indeed until you gave me this information, I was unaware that the policy had not yet been enacted by the elders and/or church.

    While the factual detail you raise is well taken, it does nothing to change the point I was making, which is unaffected by this clarification. The point I was making was that, “There are some Baptists today, however, who are willing to compromise this
    distinctive Baptist belief that even the Calvinistic Particular Baptists required.” Piper’s continued advocacy of allowing people into their church fellowship without having practiced believer’s baptism is the point, whether or not he temporarily backed away from it for pragmatic reasons. Clearly, in reading the documents offered by the church, Piper has persistently raised this issue over and over again for at least six years. Whether the church ever adopts this position, it is clear that he does not hold the line on this baptist distinctive. That was the point that the paper was making, and the point that I fear you missed.

    Timmy, I’m happy for you to critique my positions. I enjoy fruitful dialogue, However, I hope you can do so charitably and in a Christian spirit. You had already accused me of being “unchristian” in an earlier statement, among other things, and in this one you accuse me of “false witness.” To be a false witness requires that one knowingly tell a falsehood. I was unaware of the withdrawal of the amended policy, and I was really referring to the action of the elders rather than any action of the church. At the time I was writing it, I assumed that the statement was either still in discussion or had been approved by the church, but either way, that had no impact on my main argument. So I was not guilty of false witness. But thanks for pointing out the ambiguity in my language, and I’ll be happy to correct it.

    I do think that any fair reader would not find that kind of inflammatory language in my paper, although you seem to be attributing very negative motives to me. In fact, despite your belabored protestations about a number of statements in my very brief discussion of the five points, you again seemed to miss my point. As the header for that section of the paper notes, the point of that entire section (note the bold print) was: “Points of Agreement between Some Baptists and Presbyterians.” Having just listed nine doctrines that Presbyterians and Baptists share in common (you also seem to have overlooked that section), I say in this second section, “In addition to these doctrines about which there is general agreement, there are some Calvinistic doctrines primarily related to soteriology which a minority of Baptists believes in
    common with most Presbyterians. Although these beliefs may be topics of intense
    discussion and debate among Baptists, these beliefs have a long history within the Baptist tradition and at some times and places have been the majoritarian perspective within Baptist life.” Man, them are fightin’ words! (:-).

    Now, I did briefly share the reason that I did not agree with some Calvinists on these issues. I’m happy that you have now dissociated yourself from the kind of Calvinism about which I expressed concern, but just because YOU don’t affirm those beliefs doesn’t mean that many Calvinists do not believe and write these things. However, while expressing a contary viewpoint, I think I was pretty kind and fair — I affirmed that Calvinism has a legitimate place within the SBC tradition, and at least I didn’t do any name calling. I didn’t say that Calvinists were unchristian or false witnesses or stupid scholars. So again, I hope you (and some of your unkind readers) will reciprocate as Christian brothers in your communications about me and others within the mainstream Baptist tradition. Let’s talk about issues rather than impuning people’s motives, character, and intelligence.

  • Pingback: Lemke’s Remarks and My Response Regarding Bethlehem Baptist Church « Provocations & Pantings

  • http://freegracepreacjer@blogsot.com PAUL WAYNE FOLTZ DD

    Lemke has gotten it all wrong again. He is so Anti-Calvinist that he must nit and pick to find something that will bolster his own ego as a scholar/

    INSTEAD OF WASTING TIME AND GIVING HIM AN AUDIENCE, WE NEED TO PRAY THAT THE LORD MIGHT OPEN HIS BLINDED EYES.

    TO GIVE HIM AN AUDIENCE IS TO HIM, AN AFFIRMATION OF HIS POSITION.

    PWF