Historical Reflections on Baptism and Church Membership


Maybe it simply worth noting that there is a long history, first in England, then in the States, of Baptists addressing the question of whether the unbaptized should be accepted into the membership of Baptist churches.  To put it in a less sterile way, should the church really be split over a difference in baptism?

The most famous account, and one that Mark has lectured on in academic circles, involved the famous tinker from Bedford, John Bunyan. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress defended his practice of allowing the paedo-baptists to join Bedford Baptist Church in Differences about Water Baptism No Bar to Communion (1673). Bunyan offered
ten reasons to allow the unbaptized into membership. First, both the baptized and unbaptized are subject to Christ. Second, Eph. 4:1-6 points to one baptism that unifies all believers. Third, all believers share faith in the essentials—life, death, resurrection of Christ. Fourth, a church should not deny communion to someone with whom God has communion. Fifth, a lack of water baptism does not “unchristian” anyone. Seventh, love trumps division. Eighth, churches are wrong to separate over more serious matters than baptism (1 Cor. 3:1-4). Ninth, denying church communion is tantamount to denying the privileges and blessings of salvation. Tenth, it is contemptible to cast off a saint from church communion.

William Kiffin challenged Bunyan in his own day, but a hundred years later another Baptist minister, Abraham Booth, challenged Bunyan’s arguments in A Defense for the Baptists (1778). Not surprisingly, Booth lacked something of Bunyan’s flourish; Booth’s arguments are simple and straightforward. First, the New Testament presents Baptism as a necessary prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. Second, the necessity of Baptism ought not to be left up to the individual’s conscience (as Bunyan had argued). The church must retain the right to exercise God’s commandment in a matter as clearly prescribed as the subject of baptism. To prioritize an individual’s conscience over biblical teaching threatened the entire dissenting movement of which Booth was a part. This is very interesting. According to Booth, to allow unbaptized persons into the church on the basis of their convictions contrary to the congregation’s teaching threatened the very integrity of the church. His church might as well hang up its separatist credentials and join with the Church of England:

For if it be lawful to dispense with an appointment of God, out of regard to our weaker brethren; we cannot reasonably think it unlawful to practice the appointments of our National Church . . . And if we may safely connive at one human invention; why may not the Church of England make what appointments she pleases? (Defense for the Baptists, Baptist Standard Bearer, 50-51)

What observations can be made based on this discussion? Regarding the first question, Bunyan sought out certain themes in Scripture that seemed to contradict denying membership to a Christian: unity and love being the primary ones. Next, he traded on the emotional weight of these themes and prioritized them above other apparently contradictory ones: obedience [to the command to be baptized] and truth [regarding the necessity of baptism preceding communion]. Booth saw something greater at stake in the discussion than simply whether a few Baptist churches would become mixed. Churches prizing the conscience of the individual above the clear teaching of Scripture threatened leaving their young Baptist roots. This, of course, is eventually what happened to Bunyan’s church. Not during his time, but a few church splits later, Bedford Baptist became Bedford Congregationalist.

I began the discussion with one of my heroes, John Bunyan, who rejected the argument that baptism must precede fellowship in a local church (and, thus, church membership). Bunyan wrote, “For herein lies the mistake, To think that because in time past baptism was administered upon conversion, that therefore it is the initiating and entering ordinance into church communion: when by the word no such thing is testified of it” (Works, II:605). Bunyan insisted, instead, that an individual ought to be accepted into membership on the basis of his profession of faith and show of good works.

I already mentioned Abraham Booth who opposed this particular view of Bunyan’s. Baptist theologian John Dagg is another example. What we see in Dagg is a robust theology of the universal church coupled with a robust theology of the local church.  He saw both as two sides of the same coin.

Without mentioning Bunyan, Dagg argued against the idea that a profession of faith is sufficient for church fellowship because God ordained another means: “The profession of renouncing the world, and devoting ourselves to Christ, might have been required to be made in mere words addressed to the ears of those who hear; but infinite wisdom has judged it better that it should be made in a formal and significant act, appointed for the specific purpose. That act is baptism” (Dagg, Manual of Church Order, 71).

Certainly, for Dagg, to be baptized as a believer was to be obedient to God’s command just as a faithful Paedobaptist believes baptizing an infant is an act of obedience. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dagg’s argument has to do with the way he differentiated between the visible and invisible church. Those who denied that baptism is a prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper (and consequently to church membership) often argued that to do so was uncharitable, unloving. According to Dagg, nothing could be further from the truth; a local church has a responsibility to establish boundaries, based upon Scripture, regarding with whom she may share church fellowship but the boundaries of the Church are larger, and her boundaries, Dagg noted, are not open for dispute (for Dagg, the Lord’s Supper represented church membership):

There is a table which the Lord has spread, and to which every child of his family has an unquestionable right. It is a table richly furnished with spiritual food, a feast of fat things, full of marrow, of wine on the lees refined. This table the Lord has spread for all his children, and he invites them all to come: ‘Eat, O friends; drink, yea drink abundantly, O beloved.’ Any one who should forbid their approach would offend against the community of God’s children. The guests at this table have spiritual communion with one another; a species of communion which belongs of right to every member of the church universal.

There is another table which the Lord has commanded his people to spread in each local church. It is not, like the other, covered with spiritual good things, but with simple bread and wine. It is not, like the other, designed for the whole family of the Lord, but for the particular body, the local church, by whom, in obedience to divine command, it has been spread. Though human hands have set out the food, yet the table is the Lord’s, because it is designed for his service, and prepared at his command; and the will of the Lord must determine who ought to partake. He knows best the purpose for which he commanded it; and, whatever may be the feelings of the guests, they have no right to invite to his table any whom the Lord has not invited (Dagg, Manual of Church Order, 224).

The relevance of these two paragraphs in the Grudem-Piper discussion becomes readily apparent. Piper wrote that for any church to refuse membership to a godly believer is to diminish “our spiritual union with Christ.” However, this is not necessarily the case if spiritual union with Christ is not fully and finally reflected in church membership. As important as the local church is, she is the not the ultimate gatekeeper to membership in Christ’s kingdom—that was Dagg’s point. Membership in the invisible or universal church is a real and glorious reality. Membership in a local church is real and wonderful as well, but refusing membership to this body does not necessarily deny or diminish the reality of another’s believers spiritual union with Christ–it may but it need not.

This does not address every issue that needs to be addressed. For example, the pressing question remains: who decides whether a baptism is valid, the subject or the church? However, it does address one important issue: It is not necessarily less spiritual to divide over issues of baptism (though it can be!) if we affirm membership in the universal church even as we limit membership in the local church.

On a side note, I’m very thankful for the way Drs. Grudem and Piper are modeling how to handle theological disputes with decorum, kindness, and love.  Their wisdom and grace is humbling.  It is easy to assume it should simply be that way, but it isn’t always the case.

Aaron Menikoff

Aaron Menikoff is the senior pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

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