Editors’ Note: How do baptism and church membership relate? What are the biblical bounds? Baptists debate, “Must one be baptized as a believer in order to join a local church?” Meanwhile, Presbyterians and other paedobaptists consider, “Should one who’d refuse to let his children be baptized be permitted to join?”
It was almost seven years ago, in the summer of 2005, when the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota—John Piper among them and leading the way—uncorked a finely aged baptist cask for an unexpectedly captive Web audience. Believing that a convinced paedobaptist who declines to be baptized as a believer should not necessarily be prohibited from being a member of the church, the council proposed eight constitutional amendments aimed at “opening” the membership, on exception, to some non-baptists.
A tempest in an internet teapot followed that fall, confusing enough of our members, and even a handful of our elders, that prior to the December congregational vote, the council decided to withdraw the proposal. We have yet to revisit it, with more pressing things demanding the council’s attention. But the majority of us, I think it safe to say, are more than open to the open-membership position, which I’ve been asked to represent here.
Ye Olde Open Baptists, Like Bunyan
I say “ye olde” and “finely aged” above because this is not a new discussion in baptist life, as some dear friends of mine seem inclined to overlook. The question of open and closed membership goes back, at least, to the 1660s and is almost as old as English baptists. While closed-membership congregations admit only immersed believers to membership, open-membership baptists are willing to welcome (some) credibly professing Christians who have not been immersed as believers, but have received some other form of (non-regenerative) baptism—illegitimate, misguided, and defective though we believe it to be.
The majority of the baptist tradition has been composed of closed-membership congregations, but the open-membership strand has long been an identifiable, substantive entity within baptist life and tradition both historically and globally. Perhaps most notable among the open-membership advocates is renowned baptist preacher John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress.
The Open Baptist Who Bested Spurgeon
In his biography of baptist Charles Spurgeon, W. Y. Fullerton makes mention of what he calls “Open Baptists” who not only “welcomed all believers to the communion service,” but also “grant church membership apart from baptism.” Fullerton recounts a humorous anecdote from Spurgeon concerning the issue.
He once told me with appreciation how he was worsted in argument by an American divine. During a drive, the visitor made a number of inquiries, and discovered the practice of the church . . . how it admitted people to the Lord’s Table who were not baptized, and refused them membership unless baptized. “Which means that they are good enough for the Lord, and yet not good enough for you!” said his guest. And Spurgeon had to admit that the logic was not on his side.
It is inconsistent to open the table and close the membership. Unfortunately, some have tried to remedy this by closing communion. But the implications are serious. It is no small thing to turn away from the Lord’s Table someone who is manifestly a brother in Christ. Is this not, in effect, to question in some real sense whether he is truly converted? It at least greatly misunderstands the nature of communion. It is strange that brothers claiming to be together for the gospel can’t join each other at the table.
The Heart of the Issue: The Importance of Church Membership
But for those of us at Bethlehem, more important than historic precedent or logical consistency is our particular context. A number of solidly Reformed (and paedobaptist) brothers and sisters have been drawn into our regular fellowship, but at present are not able to be church members. So the heart of the issue for us is not the doctrine of baptism but the importance of local church membership.
Those of us on the council who are open to the open-membership concept find it to be significantly more grave to exclude a clear Christian brother or sister from church membership than to live with their errant view of baptism. This is based on a deep conviction that it is very serious to turn someone away from membership in the local church. And so we hope one day to be commissioned by the congregation to do our level best to have the size of the door to membership in the local church mirror as closely as possible the size of the door to entrance into the universal body of Christ. We long for any clearly converted follower of Jesus to be a realistic candidate for membership in the local church.
Again, this is not mainly about baptism, even though it definitely involves the ordinance. And this is due in no part to us wavering in the least about the beauty and biblical warrant of believer baptism in the new-covenant community. We are as deeply persuaded as ever that infant baptism is illegitimate, misguided, and defective. Let that be clear.
What Is Fitting in Our Particular Context
But then what? It becomes a wisdom issue (which is why I’m not quoting verses at you—the Bible doesn’t decide this one for us). If you hold not only a high view of baptism but also a high view of church membership, the practical question becomes how any given local baptist congregation orients toward those who are plainly born-again believers, having a “credible profession of faith,” but hold (we believe) an errant view of baptism. Many credo churches don’t have any paedos who want to join their church. We do. And so it comes down to practical corporate wisdom and what is fitting for our local congregation given our context—and isn’t that a quintessentially baptist way of handling it?
Drawing the Line Around the Eldership
But don’t we have to draw the credo line somewhere? If we don’t fence the membership at the point of baptism, might the elders eventually include non-baptists? Not if there are other good fences. Yes, the line should be drawn somewhere, but we’re convinced that, at least in our context, it should not be around the membership, but around the eldership.
A further protection would be to include a more descript affirmation of faith (which includes believer baptism) for “voting members.” Such an affirmation might be similar to what closed-member churches typically have demanded of all members, but in addition to believer baptism, it might include other more important doctrines held by the elders (like inerrancy, the sovereignty of God, justification by faith alone, and penal substitution, to name a few). Such a configuration would ensure that those members of the congregation voting at the baptist church are, in fact, believer baptists (and other more significant things too). This then would fence the leadership’s baptist fidelity even more than the closed-membership model, but without excluding non-baptist believers from the important benefits, affirmation of conversion, and accountability that church membership provides.
I’m a very happy baptist—though you don’t need to capitalize the baptist for me. But especially in our increasingly post-Christian milieu, it is becoming more and more clear that there are so many other theological issues more central and important than the mode and timing of baptism. I am happy to let the vestiges of Christendom go, and see formal church membership as significant enough to put up with some mistaken views of baptism (provided that the leadership is securely believer baptist), so as not to exclude from local church membership converted brothers and sisters in Jesus who are plainly members of the universal church.
John Bunyan, “Difference in Judgment About Water Baptism, No Bar to Communion,” The Works of John Bunyan [Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991], 2:617.
John Piper, “More Clarifications on the Baptism and Membership Issue”
John Piper, “Baptism and Church Membership Questions and Answers”
Also in the series on baptism and church membership:
- “Sometimes Obedience Results in Painful Separations” by James Hamilton
- “Membership Requires Affirmation of Infant Baptism: A Presbyterian and Reformed Response” by Michael Horton