I recently had a great conversation with a friend that migrated to a number of different topics, including Presbyterians, baptism, and the designation of "disobedient brother." (I sincerely hope my friend will agree that I have rightly represented him, and invite him to contact me privately [or publicly] if I haven't.)
My friend asked me if I would call a Presbyterian who did not hold to believer's immersion a "disobedient brother."
I said, "Yes."
He was somewhat astounded by that, mentioning by name a Presbyterian for whom we both have a great amount of respect. He said he agreed with me that the Scriptures taught the immersion of believers. He believes, however, that infant baptism can be considered a matter of conscience since it is within the stream of orthodox Christianity.
My response to him was simple, and along two basic lines of thought:
First, if we believe that the Scriptures truly teach the immersion of believers, then we at some level have to call someone who is not immersed as a believer disobedient to the command of Christ, as well as out of step with the pattern of the early church in the NT. If Christ said "Do X" and someone does not do X, then we must call them disobedient. (And if you believe that infants should be baptized, then you must call credobaptists disobedient.)
That does not necessitate placing them in the same category as adulterers, or heretics. So long as a person does not hold to baptismal regeneration, or "washing away the stain of original sin," they have not compromised the gospel by sprinkling an infant, and baptism is not a prerequisite for salvation. So an unbaptized Presbyterian (or Baptist, or anyone else) can still have genuine salvation, and be a faithful witness to the gospel of Christ while still being disobedient. However, failure to make a public confession of Christ as Lord through baptism is a matter of obedience, it seems to me.
I think we need not be afraid to recognize that there are various levels of obedience. While on the one hand, all sin is sin, on the other hand not all sin is equal. The Law of Moses, given by God, has varying penalties for various sins. This shows that, at least in the community life of Israel (relationships with one another), not every sin had equal societal or personal affects. While we must be careful of pressing this too far, we must also stop short of treating all sin as if it has the same affect in the community of the church.
Second, making something a "matter of conscience" can very easily lead to an existential theology, where conscience becomes the ultimate arbiter of truth rather than Scripture, where truth is only truth when it means a particular thing to the individual. Now, let me be clear—my friend does not believe in existential theology of any sort. He is fully committed to the authority of Scripture. Let me also be clear that I do believe that there are matters on which believers may differ because of conscience. But let me be clear (yet again): These differences do not mean that both are right, or that both are obedient. One can, in good conscience, be disobedient to Scripture. That is because the conscience can be poorly trained. The Baptist distinctive of conscience was never intended (so far as I understand it) to be a rationale for living in disobedience.
Let me sum it up this way:
1. As for separation and Presbyterians, at some level we (Baptists) have to separate. That does not mean that we are antagonistic, that we cannot have Christian fellowship, or that we cannot even share a pulpit. We can still appreciate their contributions in other areas. It simply means that we have differences about a core matter of scriptural distinctives. I believe that separation takes place on a continuum. It is not an all or nothing proposition. And we, as separatists, need to be very careful in making it such. But if the Bible teaches the immersion of believers, and someone does not get immersed as a believer, what else do we call them except disobedient in that area?
2. We need to be very careful about our consciences, and the leeway that is sometimes granted. We need to be careful that we rightly understand the Scripture, but the conscience is not the authority; Scripture is. And while that may be too fine a distinction for some, it must nevertheless be a distinction, it seems to me. The fact that someone may, in good conscience, do something does not mean that they are correct in doing it.
3. When we disagree about a matter of biblical distinctives, we need not be graceless or tactless about it. Let's just disagree. I have been called disobedient by Presbyterians for not baptizing infants. I am okay with that. It's not personal, to me anyway. We all must decide at what level and over what issues we will separate. We must work to preserve the unity of the body only after honoring the commands of Scripture.