“Open Membership” for Baptists? No Such Thing


The Gospel Coalition serves the Christian community by allowing saints who have different views on matters of polity to come together to discuss those matters. Polity is a difficult topic but an important one, so it’s good that we have a chance to think through those differences.

On Friday TGC posted Pastor Bill Kynes’ defense of what he calls a “small b” Baptist position, meaning, his church practices believer’s baptism, but they “also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants.” He does this for the sake of “humility,” “charity,” and the “theology” of what baptism is. Theologically, he argues that baptism is an objectivesubjective, and social sign (an excellent description, I think). And the believer who was baptized as an infant already had the objective and social components in place; and their adult subjective belief, somehow, applies retroactively to what happened to them as infants. In other words, the individual did not mean that act of sprinkling as a subjective declaration of faith then, but they mean it that way now. So that counts. Ultimately, then, whether or not we regard the infant baptism as a baptism for the believer is “a matter of personal conscience.”

I have not personally met Bill, but he is a faithful pastor of a church in the same metropolitan area as my own. He is friends with our congregation, and we pray for him and his church regularly. Praise God for his gospel ministry!

But here are two points of push back, aimed at anyone who claims to be a Baptist yet who maintains an “open membership” view.

1) You’re not actually a Baptist, but a Paedobaptist. There’s a lesson here from a U. S. Senate candidate named Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, the other candidate, Stephen Douglass, tried to adopt a position of neutrality toward slavery by leaving the matter of slavery to the consciences of each state. Lincoln responded that only a man “who does not see anything wrong in slavery” can claim to leave it to state’s consciences. After all, “no man can logically [leave it to the states] who does see a wrong in it.”

Others have pointed to this debate to characterize the double-mindedness of the pro-choice position: you cannot claim to be opposed to abortion and yet be pro-choice. You can only be pro-choice if you’re convinced abortion is okay.

The same problem besets any baptist—big or small “b”—who practices open membership: you cannot really claim to be pro-believer’s baptism and yet accept both kinds of baptisms. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s not, and either he commanded baptism for believers or he didn’t. You can only practice or accept both kinds if you’ve told yourself that paedobaptism is essentially okay. And that, I dare say, makes someone a paedobaptist, just like a pro-choicer is actually pro-abortion (even if they don’t practice abortion), and someone who claims to be neutral on slavery is actually pro-slavery (even if they don’t have slaves).

Now, please, please, please don’t say I’m saying paedobaptism is like abortion or slavery!!! I’m not. It’s just that the high stakes involved with abortion and slavery provide us with a clarity of vision concerning the poor logic of these “open” positions. But pick an issue with lower stakes and the logic is not so obvious to us. Yet I’m arguing that the logic is the same.

2) There is no objective or social without the subjectiveBill’s argument, however, is a bit more unique than the typical open membership view among Baptists. He allows for a time delay in which the subjective catches up with the objective and social.

The trouble, of course, is that the church’s social work of affirming the person’s profession of faith doesn’t mean anything if the infant wasn’t actually professing anything. The church cannot affirm what wasn’t there. (I’m aware the covenantal argument for paedobaptism are more complex than this paragraph implies. Again, I’m speaking here to “baptist” brothers and sisters who claim to share “baptist” assumptions about the nature and meaning of the sacrament.)

By the same token, the infant baptism wasn’t really an objective sign of being united with Christ either, because the infant wasn’t actually united with Christ. One could have written the words “I am a Christian!” with a magic marker on the belly of the infant, too. That would have been an “objective” sign. But it would have been a false and meaningless sign. Should the infant then grow up and profess faith at age 20, would we look at a photo of the infant with the magic marker on his belly and say, “Those words are true”? That would be strange, indeed.

Bottom line, the objective, subjective, and social are distinct elements in baptism, to be sure, but they are inseparable elements. What do we call objective symbols without the subjective realities behind them? Falsehoods.

So here’s my sincere encouragement to my fellow baptist brothers and sisters: consider whether your church’s practice is, at bottom, actually baptistic in nature. After all, it’s possible for any of us to be confessionally one thing yet functionally something else.

And, finally, aren’t “humility,” “charity,” and “theology” finally best shown simply through obedience to Jesus?

Author’s note: For more on this topic, stay tuned for Bobby Jamieson’s excellent forthcoming book, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (B&H, 2015).

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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