The following is an excerpt from Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership by Bobby Jamieson. In chapter 10 titled “Turning the Tables,” Jamieson discusses seven arguments against open membership. The excerpt below lists all seven and discusses his first objection, namely, “open membership builds on error.”
Seven Arguments Against Open Membership
I’ll list my seven arguments here to show where we’re heading and to put all my cards on the table from the start. Then we’ll jump right in.
- Open membership builds on error.
- Open membership requires churches to accommodate not just error but willful inconsistency.
- Open membership privileges the individual conscience over the authority of the local church.
- Open membership either creates unbiblical distinctions among a church’s members or requires a church to pare down its convictions.
- Open membership overreaches. It tries to resolve a tension that’s beyond our power to resolve.
- Open membership arbitrarily privileges the Lord’s Supper over baptism.
- Open membership effectively makes baptism optional.
1. Open Membership Builds on Error
My first argument is that open membership builds on error. It enters a faulty value into the ecclesiological equation. It takes paedobaptism, which Baptists regard as error and therefore as non-baptism, and makes it a load-bearing theological structure.
Why is this a problem? Because our practical judgment regarding baptism and membership is inextricably theological. This is not merely an issue of wisdom. Either Jesus has made baptism a requirement for church membership or he hasn’t. And both positions make a theological statement about what baptism and membership are.
Here we need to return to a crucial ambiguity in open membership reasoning. Many exponents of the position don’t simply remove baptism from the requirements for membership and allow any unbaptized Christian to join. Instead, they only widen their membership borders to include those “baptized” in infancy. And in John Piper’s view, the border is only widened to those who hold to a Reformed understanding of paedobaptism. But, as we’ve briefly touched on already, this accords paedobaptism a theological status it does not merit. In the right circumstances it allows paedobaptism to make the decisive difference between being included in or excluded from the church. It therefore makes paedobaptism part of the church’s constitution, insofar as paedobaptism has become a potential qualification for membership.
In other words, this form of open membership gives paedobaptism a load-bearing role in ecclesiology. It effectively puts paedobaptism into the category of what marks off Christians from the world. This is like putting a misshapen slab of concrete into the foundation of a house: error in the foundation will skew the shape of the whole building.
I would argue that even open membership advocates who intend to erase baptism from membership requirements altogether similarly build on error. How? In that they would not extend membership to someone who simply rejects Jesus’ command to be baptized. It’s still the theological rationale they offer, however faulty, which gets them the ticket to membership. There must be some reason a Christian isn’t baptized, or else we’re dealing with rebellion and false profession. As we saw in the previous chapter, Robert Hall’s entire argument for open membership depends on the rise of a different—that is, erroneous—understanding of baptism among genuine Christians.1 Hall says churches should practice open membership because some Christians are in error regarding baptism. If these Christians were not in theological error, churches’ membership would de facto be restricted to the baptized. Thus, even this more consistent open membership stance builds on error in a similar and similarly compromising way.
Certainly our ecclesiology must account for sin and error among church members—no argument there. The moral requirement for church membership is not perfection but repentance. And you should be able to have all kinds of wrong ideas about all kinds of things and still be a member of a church in good standing. Churches are right to actively tolerate diversity among their members regarding millennial positions, spiritual gifts, the finer points of soteriology, schooling practices, how we apply our faith to political policies, and more. Some of these issues have a theological right and wrong, and some are matters of wisdom. Of course, there are plenty of ways to be wrong about a “wisdom issue,” such as considering your position the only Christian option. My point is simply that a church can easily accommodate error among its members on a wide range of subjects.2 In saying we must not theologically build on error, I’m not arguing for some sort of perfectionist ecclesiology.
Yet you can’t put error regarding baptism into the structure of the church. Why? Because baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper, is what structures the church. Remember, baptism draws the church together by drawing a line between church and world. If you throw a baptismal wrench into the ecclesial machine, the gears will grind. Open membership doesn’t merely tolerate error; it builds on it. And no ecclesiology can build on error in this way and remain faithful to Scripture’s blueprint.
1 Robert Hall, On Terms of Communion; with a Particular View to the Case of the Baptists and Paedobaptists (1st American ed., from the 3rd English ed., Philadelphia, 1816; repr., London: Forgotten Books, 2012), 68–70. Presumably Hall would open membership to someone who held the Quaker view that Spirit baptism at conversion is the only baptism required of Christians.
2 Helpful in this regard is John Webster’s distinction, borrowed from Aquinas, between “divergence of opinion” and “divergence of will” in the context of theological controversy (“Theology and the Peace of the Church,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason [London: T&T Clark, 2012], 169).
About the Author:
Bobby Jamieson is a Ph.D. student in New Testament at the University of Cambridge. He previously served as assistant editor for 9Marks, and is the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013).
Download the Table of Contents, Introduction, and first chapter here.
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See a previous excerpt of Going Public here.
See an interview with Bobby Jamieson here.