Baptism and church membership revisited

Last March, I wrote about “an open approach to church membership” and described a proposal that was being put forward by leadership at Bethlehem Baptist Church, in Minneapolis. I concluded my comments with this statement:

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.

At the ETS meetings in Milwaukee, last November, Stanley Fowler presented a paper entitled “Baptism and Church Membership: John Piper’s Proposal,” and he shared this with me. I enjoyed the opportunity to consider the subject once again, and Stan has helped me to consider some nuances that had not initially occurred to me. He sums up the issue helpfully, as dealing with “a tension between two biblically-based values . . . , our link to all who give credible evidence of being spiritually reborn disciples of Christ, and the significance of baptism as a gospel sacrament.” In their attempt to negotiate this tension the elders at Bethlehem proposed that the doctrinal requirements for membership in the local church ought to be as close as possible to the doctrinal requirements for recognition of membership in the universal church, while preserving the doctrinal integrity of the church through more stringent requirements for the eldership.

As Stan notes, the Bethlehem proposal differs from the kind of open membership that is widely practiced in British Baptist circles. There, open membership

has been defended in two distinct ways: some have argued that infant baptism, once done, is valid though irregular, but others have rejected that approach and have admitted persons baptized as infants as an act of Christian charity on the basis of a credible profession of faith.

By contrast, the Piper proposal addresses the case of “a convinced paedobaptist who has engaged the issue without becoming a credobaptist.” In this proposal, neither of the two rationales identified above is followed, but convinced paedobaptist applicants are not asked to violate their conscience.

Stan expresses sympathy towards the Bethlehem proposal for the same reasons that I did previously, it takes seriously the significance of excluding from the local church genuine disciples of Christ, and it respects the importance of the conscience of fellow believers. But Stan probes the proposal more incisively than I had done earlier. He notes that even the Piper proposal would exclude from membership authentic believers in Christ, such as those who affirm baptismal regeneration in some sense (e.g., Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans, some Anglicans, and those in the Stone-Campbell tradition). So the proposal still falls short of the inclusiveness which it has sought to achieve.

A more serious difficulty is anticipated, however, because the candidates described in the Piper proposal are convinced paedobaptists, with the consequence that they will conscientiously seek the baptism of their infant children. If the church were to grant this, it would adopt, at least  functionally, a dual-practice mode. So, once again, the principles that motivated the Piper proposal push towards an even more inclusive practice than the proposal intended. To some, going all the way to dual-practice mighty not seem problematic, but Stan fears two “unfortunate consequences.”

First, baptism may be trivialized as a way of avoiding disputes about its practice. Second, it may become a point of disunity every time a child is born to a family in the church. So in the end, the desire to maintain unity by dual-practice may in fact be counter-productive and create unnecessary disputes.

Stan suggests, therefore, “that doctrinal integrity demands either dual-practice or restriction of membership to those who can affirm the single practice of the church.” But, thankfully, Stan is not content with the status quo, and he urges us to seek “mechanisms that will help us move beyond the current impasse, ways of carrying on the dialogue between credo- and paedobaptists who are otherwise largely agreed in their understanding of Christian faith.

Having read Stan’s paper, I can see that the matter is not quite as simple as I had hoped, when I originally expressed favor toward the Bethlehem proposal. In 2011, while studying the biblical covenants from the perspective of the state of the unevangelized, I found that I was gaining a better appreciation for the classic Reformed understanding of baptism. I was not led away from my conviction that credobaptism best represents the nature of the new covenant people and its prescribed rituals of membership, but I found that, as I grew in sympathy for the convictions of fellow Reformed theologians who view baptism in greater continuity with circumcision, I also felt more sympathy for a dual-practice approach. Because I am not in a local church situation where this issue arises, I have not been pushed to study the dual-practice approach more closely. So, this is an issue which interests me, but not one about which I have needed to seek conclusions leading to action. I am able, therefore, to continue to read and listen and think about this important matter without a sense of urgency, and I am thankful to Stan for nudging my thinking along in that process.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

One reply on “Baptism and church membership revisited”

This is a difficult issue because personal experience is so important in the way each of us has come to faith. I remember Dr. Bunkowski, a missions prof at Concordia Seminary in Fort Wayne, telling me that he believed that his baptism as an infant preserved him from evil during his teen years. The language of symbol (an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace) was too weak for his experience. I can’t get to his position, but recognize that my own dedication as a baby was more than symbol, but a real act with real consequences.

It all reminds me a bit of the way that Catholics find the language of symbol inadequate to describe the real presence of Christ in communion, although they do not naively think one could place the consecrated bread under a microscope and find the physical body of Christ.

I remain firmly committed to believer’s baptism, but recognize the difficulties.

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