The John Smyth Dilemma
Four hundred years since the founding of the Baptist movement?
By Aurel Munteanu and Raul Enyedi
This year many
Baptist organizations celebrated four hundred years since the first
Here is a short introduction in the history of this great event that has been celebrated.
History says that Mr. John Smyth baptized
himself and then thirty six members that shared his ideas asked to be baptized
by him. This is how, it is said, the first
After this took place, the Anabaptist
influence changed the mind of Mr. John Smyth, and he denied the self baptism and
asked the Anabaptists to baptize him aright. Some of the members of the church he founded
followed him, but a group of 10 persons led by Mr. Thomas Helwys
opposed him. This
group claimed that it is sufficient that baptism be administrated to adult
persons based on their profession of faith for the ordinance to be valid. After long debates, the group returned to
Most of the Baptists today believe this was their origin. However, such an origin raises some serious questions due to the initial belief of Mr. Smyth on the proper administrator of baptism.
In order to understand these questions, let us present a hypothetical case. Let us say that I was baptized as an infant, and now, being a grown up man, I start studying my Bible with my family. The Lord saves us and then we realize that the baptism received in infancy is not valid. In my town there is only one church that baptizes adults based on the profession of faith, but I do not agree with them in some points of doctrine, therefore, I decide to go to the river and baptize myself and then baptize the rest of my family. If I come to a local Baptist church, will they receive us as members with such a baptism?
This example presents a fundamental case for the Baptists. In order to be consistent with the doctrines of the founders, they should accept us as members and regard our baptisms as valid. But all the Baptist churches I know would refuse to accept me as a member because of my self-baptism, and they would not accept my family either, because they were baptized by me.
But their refusal shows that they believe that a lawful authorized administrator is required in order for baptism to be valid. But rejecting the baptisms of myself and my family, they reject the baptisms of Mr. Smyth and Mr. Helwys, whom they claim as their very founders. Not only that, but if all their baptisms come from this source, they would reject their own baptisms, showing that none of them is truly baptized!
The present refusal of Baptist churches to receive self baptisms puts them in a great dilemma. If they continue to claim their origin in Mr. Smyth, they should begin to recognize self baptisms, for consistency demands it. This, as far as I know, they are not ready to do, and it would be impossible to find proof in the Bible for such a practice. Maintaining this position, the Baptists would trespass Bible principles, would cause serious disorders in their churches, and their doctrine and practice of the church would be ultimately ridiculed and destroyed.
If, however, they choose to continue to refuse accepting self baptisms, they are forced to admit that John Smyth was not baptized, neither were all those who derive their baptism from him, including themselves. If the root is wrong, so are the branches. If the foundation is wrong, the whole house is the same. What would be the sense, then, of their very denominational name, since Baptist means Baptized?
Maintaining this latter position would put these Baptists in a very embarrassing situation, and, what is worse, in an unscriptural one, since this would make them only a counterfeit church. Then, they should dismiss themselves as churches and seek an authorized administrator to baptize them and organize them into scriptural churches.
Refusing to recognize self baptisms as valid would certainly be the scriptural choice, but consistency would demand the acceptance of these, and, logically, the breaking of scriptural principles. What course would the Baptists take?
It is interesting to note the course taken by John Smyth. He was confronted with the same dilemma. He saw the necessity of an authorized administrator, and he understood this administrator receives authority not only vertically, from God, but also horizontally, from an authorized institution on earth. He came to reject his own self baptism, considering it invalid, and went to the Anabaptists.
Mr. Smyth found the consistent and scriptural way out of this dilemma. He admitted his self baptism was a singular and irregular episode and he recognized the necessity of a lawful administrator. The dilemma offers no way out if the origin by Smyth theory is maintained. The Baptists today can escape this fundamental dilemma only if they deny their origin to be in Mr. Smyth, and insist that Mr. Helwys popularized only the name “Baptist”, but that churches that believed fundamental Baptist doctrines existed long before 1609, though under different names. Thus, they will admit that the episode of John Smyth was only an irregular event in our history, and not our original beginning.