An Open Letter to Baptist Pastors Considering Open Membership
Dear Baptist Pastors,
Let’s have a heart-to-heart conversation on baptism and church membership. To my paedobaptist brothers, this article is not for you, though you are certainly welcome to eavesdrop. You may even find something edifying and instructive in this piece. As I’ll mention in a moment, this piece is about why baptism must precede the Lord’s Supper. Ironically, you’ll find you actually agree with me on this conclusion, even if you disagree with some of the particulars of the argument below. But in this article I’m talking to my fellow baptists, particularly baptist pastors who are thinking about moving toward open membership.
I’m confident you’ve been in this situation: a godly couple approaches you to ask about joining your church. As you’ve gotten to know them you’ve found they’re hospitable, theologically mature, and zealous evangelists. But there’s a problem, they were baptized as infants and have no intention of being baptized as believers. You can’t imagine parting ways with them, and perhaps you’re now considering having the church officially adopt a policy of open membership—the idea that we can welcome people into our church as members even if they’ve never been baptized as a believer. I, of course, understand your concern that if you reject infant baptized believers from your church’s membership that you are adopting a narrow, unkind, and even tribal position. But I would suggest that the Bible simply does not allow us to embrace open membership and hope by the end of this letter you’ll be able to see the theological and pastoral logic of this position.
This issue ultimately comes down to a question of authority. Does a local church have the authority to receive into membership someone that has not been formally identified with God’s people in the way Jesus demands? Our paedobaptist friends argue they have been baptized and identified with God’s people, but Baptists have always affirmed that infant baptism is in fact no baptism at all. Instead, we affirm that baptism is a sign of faith and repentance, the church’s stamp of approval on someone’s confession and life. If baptism—believer’s baptism—is the sign by which a congregation speaks on behalf of heaven that someone is in the covenant community, then allowing unbaptized people into membership privileges the individual conscience above the authoritative declaration of the church. Bobby Jamieson put it this way in Going Public:
All the members of a church might be convinced that a certain unbaptized person is a Christian, but Jesus has bound the church’s judgment—and therefore its formal, public affirmation—to baptism. Even if all the members of a church are convinced that a person’s faith is genuine, Jesus has given the church no authority to affirm that faith until it is publicly professed in baptism (174).
I, of course, understand your concern that holding to this position necessarily means excluding from membership genuine heroes of the faith—insert the name of your favorite paedobaptist brother here. Certainly, the last thing I want to do is be uncharitable, especially to faithful paedobaptist brothers in our communities. But when paedobaptists ask us to open our membership to infant baptized believers, they are asking us to accommodate our consciences against ecclesiological principles that they themselves share.
Let me explain. Our paedobaptist friends would reject someone from membership even if they held a theologically principled opposition to being baptized—“I’ve been baptized by the Spirit, I don’t need water baptism.” I’ve met plenty of folks who say things like that but I don’t know any paedobaptist church that would receive those people into membership. Just as I wouldn’t expect them to bend their conscience to receive into membership people whom they deem as not baptized, so also we shouldn’t bend (or be forced to bend) our conscience to receive into membership people we deem as not baptized.
I recognize that standing against open membership certainly seems uncatholic. But in reality, asserting that baptism need not precede membership requires throwing out the near unanimous teaching on this subject in the Christian tradition. Every protestant denomination, the Roman Catholic church, and the Eastern churches have always held “baptism must precede membership and the Lord’s Supper” as a truism. Even a fairly broad Baptist confession, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, affirms that baptism “is a prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.” Therefore, denying that baptism must precede membership is one of the most uncatholic positions you could hold. To say baptism need not precede membership sets yourself at odds with nearly every Christian theological tradition in the past 2,000 years—Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern!
But more importantly, what does the Bible teach? Some advocates of open membership question whether Scripture actually addresses this issue at all. But, I do think there is a biblical and theological case to be made that baptism is required for church membership. Let me advocate for my position by posing three questions.
Question 1: Who is allowed to join a church?
The answer here is quite easy. Believers! Anyone who has repented of sin and trusted in the Lord Jesus can be admitted into membership. I think we all agree on that.
Question 2: Who has the right to declare who is a believer and who isn’t?
Protestants have long affirmed that the church, the corporate body, possesses the authority to receive and excommunicate members. Protestants disagree on whether the elders or the congregation actually effect that action. Nevertheless, we all agree that the institutional church has this authority and not the individual Christian. Baptists have typically affirmed from Matthew 16 and 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 that Jesus gave local congregations authority to receive and excommunicate members. In other words, the institutional church is given authority from Jesus himself to declare who is and is not a member of the kingdom on the basis of their profession and their life. So again, I think we Baptists can all agree that the institutional church has been authorized by Jesus to declare who is and isn’t part of the kingdom.
Question 3: How does a church declare who is in the kingdom?
Jesus not only told us to make declarations, he told us how to make those declarations. Is it a church vote? A laying on of hands? How does a church say, “we believe this person is a Christian”? Again, I think we Baptists are all agreed that the answer is baptism. We profess our faith by our baptism and the church affirms our profession of faith through baptism.
Drawing Some Conclusions
As you can see, we would answer all of these questions the same, but perhaps you’ve never put them together in this way before. If we can only receive believers into membership and if we identify true believers with baptism, then only the baptized can join a church and take the Lord’s Supper.
You can see how these doctrinal convictions create a tension where, in our private judgment, we may have every reason to receive a paedobaptist brother as a true believer, and yet at the same time recognize that we don’t have the authority from Jesus to receive that person into membership if he has not been baptized.
Consider it this way. Imagine you were the security guard at the gate of the US Embassy in Iran. One day, a man with a Texas drawl approaches you wearing a bright red “I Love the USA” hat and a loud American flag T-shirt—replete with a bald eagle in the foreground and an F-16 fighter jet racing into the background. You know, one of those shirts you pick up at a small town rodeo on the Fourth of July. You spend several hours discussing the NFL, American movies, and shared childhood experiences. He uses American slang, can tell you all about his hometown in Arkansas, and gripes about American politics. At the end of the conversation he says, “Hey, I don’t have my passport but I really need to get into the embassy. Would you mind letting me in?” In your private judgment, you have every reason to believe this man is an American. But without a passport you simply cannot let him past the gate. Your private judgment is not enough. You’ve only been given authority from the government to admit those people who have the official stamp of approval—possession of an American passport.
So it is with regard to baptism and membership. Jesus has commanded us that we only admit believers into the church and then he told the church to identify believers by the act of baptism. Baptism is the passport into membership. Baptism is an authorized declaration of the credibility of someone’s confession, not just a private judgment about whether we think someone is a Christian.
Some of my open membership friends have argued that this issue is a matter of pastoral discretion and not theological reasoning. But as you can see, I do think this is more of a theological issue than a prudential one. A theology of the ordinances reveals what Jesus would have us do. I think what Jesus constituted the church to do (speak on behalf of heaven as to who belongs in the kingdom) and how he told them to do it (ordinances) can be worked out from Scripture. Our job is to follow those commands.