An open approach to church membership

The Gospel Coalition blog has been running an interesting “forum” on church membership, which the editor introduces this way:

 How do baptism and church membership relate? What are the biblical bounds? Baptists debate, ‘”ust one be baptized as a believer in order to join a local church?” Meanwhile, Presbyterians and other paedobaptists consider, “Should one who’d refuse to let his children be baptized be permitted to join?’”

The blog has previously run expressions of the closed membership approach from the perspectives of a credobaptist and a paedobaptist. Both of those statements made me uncomfortable, in slightly different ways. I find myself much more favorably disposed to the desires of the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church, in Minneapolis, as described by one of them here.

David Mathis writes:

 A number of solidly Reformed (and paedobaptist) brothers and sisters have been drawn into our regular fellowship, but at present are not able to be church members. So the heart of the issue for us is not the doctrine of baptism but the importance of local church membership.

Those of us on the council who are open to the open-membership concept find it to be significantly more grave to exclude a clear Christian brother or sister from church membership than to live with their errant view of baptism. This is based on a deep conviction that it is very serious to turn someone away from membership in the local church. And so we hope one day to be commissioned by the congregation to do our level best to have the size of the door to membership in the local church mirror as closely as possible the size of the door to entrance into the universal body of Christ. We long for any clearly converted follower of Jesus to be a realistic candidate for membership in the local church.

One of my concerns in regard to the criteria one establishes for church membership is how a congregation maintains the perpetuation of the core beliefs and values of the congregation, if members who differ at some point are admitted to the church. This concern is nicely addressed by Mathis:

But don’t we have to draw the credo line somewhere? If we don’t fence the membership at the point of baptism, might the elders eventually include non-baptists? Not if there are other good fences. Yes, the line should be drawn somewhere, but we’re convinced that, at least in our context, it should not be around the membership, but around the eldership.

A further protection would be to include a more descript affirmation of faith (which includes believer baptism) for “voting members.” Such an affirmation might be similar to what closed-member churches typically have demanded of all members, but in addition to believer baptism, it might include other more important doctrines held by the elders (like inerrancy, the sovereignty of God, justification by faith alone, and penal substitution, to name a few). Such a configuration would ensure that those members of the congregation voting at the baptist church are, in fact, believer baptists (and other more significant things too). This then would fence the leadership’s baptist fidelity even more than the closed-membership model, but without excluding non-baptist believers from the important benefits, affirmation of conversion, and accountability that church membership provides.

All in all, I think that the elders at Bethlehem Baptist have struck a very nice balance and I wish them well as they pursue the matter with the congregation.

What are your own thoughts (and/or practice) on this issue?


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “An open approach to church membership”

Our church (Grace Reformed Baptist) has a very similar policy as Bethlehem Baptist.

I like the way that John Piper has spoken of this reference to church discipline. Essentially, we do not want to do “preemptive excommunication” upon such brethren, by not allowing non-baptistic brethren to join. However, we do want to uphold the Scriptural teaching and practice regarding believer’s baptism, and thus we do take note of those who differ from the church regarding their understanding of believer’s baptism, and we do have provisions in our constitution which limit such brethren from becoming an elder or deacon, or from teaching the paedo-baptist or non-immersion views, or from changing the church constitution/policy by their vote.

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