Does everyone who joins a local church need to be baptized? What’s the relationship between baptism and church membership (and even more fundamentally, between baptism and the Lord’s Supper)? Should baptists let those sprinkled as infants join their churches?
These are just some of the thorny issues Bobby Jamieson tackles in his new book Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (B&H Academic, 2015) [50 quotes | audio interview | summary chapter].
I recently spoke with Jamieson—a PhD student in New Testament at the University of Cambridge and the author of Sound Doctrine: How Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013) [review]; Understanding Baptism (B&H, forthcoming); and Understanding the Lord’s Supper (B&H, forthcoming)—about why he thinks Charles Spurgeon and John Piper are wrong, common objections to the “closed membership” position, why this practically matters, and more.
Why do you think believer’s baptism is required for church membership?
Church membership is a public affirmation of someone’s public profession of faith in Christ, and Jesus has appointed baptism as the means by which his followers publicly profess their faith in him. A church can’t affirm the profession of someone who hasn’t yet made that profession.
Baptism is how you publicly identify yourself with Jesus and with his people (Acts 2:38–41). It’s how you visibly signify that you are united to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:1–4). It’s how you are identified before the church and the world as one who belongs to the Triune God (Matt. 28:19).
Baptism is where faith goes public. It’s how you nail your colors to the mast as Jesus’s disciple.
Baptism is like a jersey that shows you’re now playing for Jesus’s team. A church may publicly identify itself only with those who have publicly identified with Jesus in baptism.
I know many TGC readers understand Scripture to teach that the infant children of believers should be baptized. I disagree, with no less love and affection for those with whom I differ.
If baptism is where faith goes public, then infant baptism simply is not baptism, and those who have been “baptized” as infants need to be baptized—for the first time—as believers.
I have great respect and affection for evangelical paedobaptist brothers and sisters. Some are among my closest friends and theological heroes. And the vast majority of their churches agree that you must be baptized in order to join. It’s just that we disagree about what counts as baptism!
In his biography of Charles Spurgeon, W. Y. Fullerton recounts an interesting anecdote from Spurgeon:
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.
This reasoning feels so self-evidently true to many. They have a hard time imagining withholding membership in a local church from someone Christ welcomes into his universal church. Why do you think open membership “just feels right?”
I think the instinct that a church should never exclude from membership a professing believer whom they’re confident is a Christian is almost exactly right. The only problem is, baptism fits within the box marked “How a Church Knows Someone Is a Christian.” Baptism isn’t a separate requirement for church membership in addition to a profession of faith; it is how someone publicly professes faith.
But why is this instinct so widespread? Evangelicals, as a movement, are massively invested in interdenominational cooperation. I think this is largely beneficial, and TGC is a fine example of the good such cooperation can accomplish. But it’s easy to think that if we agree about the essentials of the gospel, there’s nothing that can legitimately divide us—like baptism, or church government—even if God has clearly spoken to such matters in his Word.
In a more extreme form, some evangelicals can be impatient with any doctrinal distinctives that aren’t “essential to salvation.” Some want to nail down the bare minimum and not get hung up over anything else. But in the long run, neglecting everything that’s not the gospel will undermine your ability to preserve the gospel.
I’m going to state some of the most common and compelling objections to your (closed-membership) position. How would you respond in less than 200 words each?
(A) John Piper has written:
When I weigh the kind of imperfection involved in tolerating an invalid baptism because some of our members are deeply persuaded that it is biblically valid, over against the imperfection involved in saying to a son or daughter of the living God, “You are excluded from the local church,” my biblical sense is that the latter is more unthinkable than the former. The local church is a visible expression of the invisible, universal, body of Christ. To exclude from it is virtually the same as excommunication. . . . Very few, it seems to me, have really come to terms with the seriousness of excluding believers from membership in the local church. It is preemptive excommunication.
In other words, it’s wrong for a church to exclude anyone from membership whom they’re confident is a Christian.
First, if excluding from membership anyone whom you’re convinced is a Christian is tantamount to “preemptive excommunication,” then Piper’s charge, in principle, rolls back on himself. For instance, his church’s congregational affirmation of faith, which members must affirm, confesses that the Bible is “fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts.” I affirm this, but there are plenty of people both Piper and I would happily recognize as Christians who don’t. So I can’t see how Piper’s own practice would avoid falling under the same judgment of “preemptive excommunication.”
Further, Jesus simply hasn’t given the church the authority to affirm the professions of those who haven’t publicly professed faith in him. If you refuse to authenticate your identity by providing the PIN for your debit card, the grocery store is not authorized to charge your card and give you your groceries. (Even if you have the money in your bank account!) Likewise, at an airport, if you refuse to identify yourself as a passenger by producing a boarding pass, the gate agent is not authorized to let you on the plane. (Even if you paid for a ticket!)
As I argue at length in the book, baptism isn’t a sufficient criterion by which the church is to recognize Christians, but it is a necessary one. It’s not enough for someone to claim to be a Christian or for everyone in the church to think someone is a Christian; Jesus has bound the church’s judgment to baptism.
(B) This is an issue that should be left to individual consciences rather than being a standard of fellowship.
Baptism is something Jesus requires the church to do, not just individual Christians: an individual gets baptized, but the church baptizes. Therefore, a church is not at liberty to allow individual Christians to determine what baptism means and whether they have been baptized. Do we allow believers’ consciences to trump the church’s convictions in other areas of church-constituting doctrine and practice?
(C) It’s wrong to give baptism membership-defining status when agreement about other, weightier doctrines isn’t required for membership.
To call other doctrines “weightier” than baptism is to treat doctrines as if you can stand them all on a scale one by one, mark each weight on a list, and then sort them from lightest to heaviest. This reasoning assumes baptism is fundamentally like any other doctrine you might put on the scale. But baptism isn’t just a doctrine; it’s a practice. And, along with the Lord’s Supper, baptism actually gives shape and structure, form and order, to the local church. You can’t make “Christians” into “church” without baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism binds one to many and the Lord’s Supper makes many one. Baptism accomplishes something essential for the existence of the local church.
So a church needs to agree about who should be baptized, and who actually is baptized, in order to unite as a church using the means Jesus himself has appointed.
(D) It’s inconsistent to exclude paedobaptists from membership while inviting them to preach in your church.
Fellowship between Christians isn’t all-or-nothing. Church membership isn’t the only kind of fellowship Christians can have. I think we should cooperate as Christians, and as churches, to the fullest extent that our shared convictions allow. We see in 2 Corinthians 8:18 and 3 John 5–6 that the earliest Christians would occasionally hear trusted preachers from other churches. While I do think baptism is meant to draw the line of church membership, credobaptists and paedobaptists should partner together in all sorts of ways: friendship, mutual encouragement, prayer, evangelistic outreach, developing and promoting biblically faithful resources, and much more.
Imagine some open-membership baptists now say, “Alright Bobby, we’ve put you on the defensive long enough. Turn the tables.” What chief objection of your own would you offer?
Well, my open-membership friends, that’s very kind of you to invite my critique! Not to mention kind of you to have read this far.
The chief objection I would offer to removing baptism from the requirements for membership is that baptism is what constitutes and confers membership. It’s like the vow in a marriage. There’s disanalogy here, of course, in that Christians can be baptized in one church and then later join another. But removing baptism from membership is like removing the vow from marriage: take away baptism and what’s left isn’t church membership, but a label that lacks the reality.
One of the reasons Jesus instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper is to mark off his people from the world. Baptism has that church-marking, community-creating role. Baptism initiates the relationship; “church membership” simply recognizes and names it.
So I would say to open-membership credobaptists that they are, however unintentionally, blurring the line Christ has drawn between the church and the world and drawing one of their own.
It seems like the goal of this book isn’t simply to convince people to require baptism for membership, but to re-shape how we think about membership altogether. Is that fair? If so, what are we missing about membership?
Yes, that’s exactly right. What modern, Western evangelicals tend to miss about membership is that it starts with, and is shaped by, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Actually, I think this is one reason why some people are hesitant to see formal membership in the New Testament. Where are the names on the rolls, the classes, the interviews, the formal process? Well, those elaborated processes may not be present in the New Testament, but baptism and the Lord’s Supper are. And those two ordinances exist precisely in order to join a believer to the church, and join the church together as one body.
Because we’ve allowed the ordinances and membership to drift apart, we’ve privatized and individualized the ordinances, and we’ve minimized the biblical basis for membership. Instead, when we see baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, we should think “church membership,” and when we consider the basis for, and practice of, church membership, we should think “baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”
I’m not saying there’s no place for a careful, thought-through membership process. Instead, I’m saying that a right view and practice of the ordinances requires church membership, and a right view and practice of membership requires the ordinances.
How does this issue matter on a practical level?
In one sense I care more about churches regaining an understanding and practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as community-forming—as binding one to many (baptism) and binding many into one (Lord’s Supper)—than I do about whether every reader agrees with my conclusion that believer’s baptism should be required for church membership. The book aims at that narrow point, but the broader one is equally important. And it might have even more implications for the life of the church.
For instance, if baptism is the front door of the church, then churches should, as a rule, only baptize people into church membership. There’s no “I’m with Jesus but not yet with the church” stage. If you go public as Jesus’s disciple, you join his public people. And if a church baptizes people into membership, they say from the beginning that the Christian life is lived in the local church. You explode the myth of the lone-ranger Christian. You help ensure that “body of Christ” and “family of God” aren’t dead metaphors but living truths that help define what it means to follow Jesus for everyone who comes to know him through your ministry.