Mailbag #77: How Much Agreement with a Statement of Faith Should Be Required for Membership?

Mailbag
03.08.2019

A man who was baptized as a believer wants to join our credobaptist church, though he is paedobaptistic and cannot affirm the church’s statement of faith on believer’s baptism. Should the elders of the church recommend this man to the church for membership? »

Dear 9Marks,

A man who was baptized as a believer wants to join our credobaptist church, even though he is paedobaptistic and cannot affirm the church’s statement of faith on believer baptism. Should the elders of the church recommend this man to the church for membership?

A second related question: should a church allow people to become members of their church when they take exceptions to certain (non-gospel) doctrines in the church’s statement of faith (like baptism, eschatology, age of the earth)? Why or why not?

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Your first question is a subset of your second and much larger question of: (1) who’s responsible for the church’s membership; and (2) the doctrinal criteria a church ought to require for membership.  If we can come to some clarity on your second question, it will help us answer the first.   

I believe those responsible for upholding the doctrine of a church must be able to affirm the doctrinal confession of the church. That ought to sound like a “duh” statement, for how can a believer, in good conscience, stand up and defend a doctrine they believe the Bible doesn’t teach, or even worse, rejects?

Perhaps one can agree to submit outwardly to biblical doctrine they don’t believe (so long as that doctrine doesn’t deny something necessary for salvation). Baptists do this, for example, when when they join Presbyterian churches. But when one is responsible for the church’s doctrine, they have to be able to guard it. One could say “I’ll teach this doctrine and defend it, even though I don’t believe it.” But in addition to being weird and confusing, that would only serve to undermine the confessional clarity and unity of the church. 

So the key question is this: who’s responsible for the church’s doctrine? The Bible teaches that the congregation is responsible. In Matthew 16 and 18, Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom not to a bishop or presbytery or a body of local elders, but to the ekklesia, the gathered congregation. The congregation has the power to bind and loose. It alone is responsible for declaring the “who” and the “what” of the gospel—namely, who are the true gospel professors and what is a true gospel profession.

When it comes to doctrine, we see this exemplified clearly in Galatians 1. In Galatians 1:6–9, Paul doesn’t rebuke the elders/pastors of the church, nor a bishop over the church, or some local ordination committee, but the congregation for tolerating false teaching.

Or consider 2 Timothy 4. Paul lays the blame for false doctrine not on Timothy, but those within the body who are multiplying false teachers to scratch their own theological itch.

Or Revelation 2–3, where Jesus rebukes local churches for their lack of doctrinal fidelity. If you want to think more about these issues, consider Jonathan Leeman’s Don’t Fire Your Church Members (B&H Academic, 2016) or his slimmed-down, more popularized version Understanding the Congregation’s Authority (B&H Publishing, 2016).

So if the congregation is responsible for the congregation’s doctrine—if they’re called by Jesus to both teach and defend it, then they must themselves hold to it. That’s not just the pastor’s job. It’s their job. Thus to bring those into membership who are responsible for the church’s doctrine, yet can’t affirm the church’s doctrine, seems at least foolish and unwise. Long-term, it’s a recipe to lose at least some elements of your doctrine altogether, if not eventually the gospel itself. 

Thus I would suggest your church’s doctrinal statement shouldn’t set the theological bar too high. For as much as possible, you don’t want to needlessly bar people from membership over secondary and tertiary doctrinal issues. Two principles to keep in mind are: (1) is this doctrine necessary for salvation; and is it (2) necessary for gathering together?  

Take baptism. Ignoring the belief that baptism saves, I trust my infant baptist friends and I (a Baptist) both hold to the gospel that saves. It’s not a doctrine necessary for salvation. But it is necessary for gathering together, because to believe one necessarily precludes the other. Believer’s baptism rejects infant baptism, and infant baptism necessarily rejects believer’s baptism (which teaches only those with credible professions may be baptized).

Similarly, you can’t have a church that teaches and practices both egalitarianism and complementarianism. They’re mutually exclusive positions. Same goes for church polity, whether a congregation governs, elders govern, or a bishop/synod/presbytery, etc. governs).

So when it comes to questions such as a particular eschatological view on the rapture or the millennium, or age of the earth, or position on the public school system, etc.—I would suggest a church’s statement of faith stay clear. I don’t see a compelling reason why a church must divide over such issues. As much as possible, keep your doctrinal statement around those two questions: (1) is it necessary for salvation; and is it (2) necessary for gathering together?

Now we can return to your first question. Recognize the key issue is no longer whether the individual was baptized as a believer. The key question is what do they believe about baptism now. Can a principled paedo(=infant)baptist join a credo(=believing)baptist church?  If it’s a congregational church, then I believe the answer is “no.” For you’re calling and tasking someone to become responsible for teaching they themselves reject.  

(As an aside, though I’m no expert in Presbyterian polity, I believe Presbyterians apply the same logic. They would not permit someone to become responsible for maintaining key doctrines they themselves reject. The difference is that they understand the presbytery, not the congregation, is the body responsible for doctrine. So a Baptist can join a Presbyterian church because a member is not called to be finally responsible for maintaining and defending doctrine. Rather, they’re expected to submit to the church’s teaching [i.e. don’t make a fuss]. But that same Baptist could not become an elder, certainly not a teaching elder, for they can’t affirm a central tenant of the church’s doctrine. Same logic, just applied differently given different loci of authority.) 

So to restate, if it’s a congregational church, I believe the answer is “no.” If it’s not a congregational church, but say a credobapitst Bible church where the local elders are responsible and accountable for the church’s doctrine, then the answer may be “yes.”  

At the end of the day, it’s your polity that finally governs how you’ll answer these questions. 

—Brad Wheeler

By:
Brad Wheeler

Brad Wheeler is the senior pastor of University Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.