Open Membership in Baptist Churches?
Setting the Stage
What are the basic requirements for someone to join a Baptist church? Many—most—Baptists suggest that, at a minimum, someone must have a credible profession of faith and have been baptized by immersion following their conversion. Many Baptists (Resurrection Church included) give some flexibility on the mode of baptism, as long as the timing was right. For example, a Christian may have been baptized by pouring following their conversion. At Resurrection Church, we would not require that person to be baptized by immersion prior to membership. We judge that their baptism was valid, but irregular.
Some Baptists have gone a step further, suggesting that the requirements to join a Baptist church should simply be that they have a credible profession of faith and that they have been baptized. The timing of the baptism is not significant. According to this view, infant baptisms could also be categorized as valid, but irregular. This view is often referred to as open membership.
Baptists have generally suggested that a credible profession of faith and baptism by immersion following conversion is required not only for membership but also for welcome to the Lord’s Supper. Baptist pastors often “fence the Table,” restricting non-Christians, the unbaptized, and the infant baptized from the Table. They do not, however, require membership within their local assembly. This position is sometimes referred to as close communion.
Baptists advocating for open membership take a different approach—they welcome paedobaptist brothers and sisters to the Table. This position is sometimes referred to as open communion, though that terminology is a little fuzzy. Almost all Baptists agree that non-members can partake; only some Baptists (open communion advocates) suggest that non-member paedobaptists can partake.
The arguments for these two positions—open communion and open membership—are closely related, but they are not one and the same. An open membership church will practice open communion. But a traditional Baptist church, requiring baptism by immersion following conversion for membership and thereby rejecting open membership, could practice open communion. For them, the door to membership is more restrictive than the door to the Table.
Debates about who should be admitted into church membership and permitted to participate in the Lord’s Supper are nothing new, but the topic has garnered increased attention over the last five years. Most recently, Joe Rigney published an article on Desiring God’s website arguing for open membership. Rigney is the president of Bethlehem College & Seminary and is an elder at Cities Church. Gavin Ortlund published a YouTube video arguing for open membership on his channel, Truth Unites. Jeff Straub, a former professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, published a post on his personal blog in response to Rigney’s article, firmly arguing against an open membership position.
Debates about these issues have caught my eye because of the people making the arguments. I studied at Central Seminary for three years and even took a class with Dr. Straub. I recently taught a course for Bethlehem Seminary’s MA program. Most recently, I’ve been teaching a Bible Class at Resurrection about doctrinal diversity and unity within the local church, drawing from Gavin Ortlund’s book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On. Finally, I’m the pastor of a church that is in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention, so matters of Baptist faith and practice are always on my radar.
In this post, I will briefly engage with the open membership arguments that have been offered, seeking to bring some clarity to what can be a confusing discussion. I will give a brief overview of the position, followed by a few points of clarification. Then I will outline a few of the most noteworthy arguments in favor of open membership. I will then highlight one point of appreciation, one point of agreement, and one point of disagreement.
Open Membership Summary
Advocates of open membership are basically suggesting that Baptist churches permit into membership professing Christians who were baptized as infants who also believe that their baptism was valid. They leave room to suggest that it is permissible, and maybe even desirable, to encourage those individuals to receive baptism by immersion if that person ever becomes convinced that their infant baptism was sufficiently irregular to warrant a “rebaptism.” In other words, Baptists should admit paedobaptists into membership, recognizing their membership as irregular but valid while also suggesting that credobaptism is the more faithful practice. Rigney is especially clear that paedobaptists could join his church, but they could not serve as elders.
Before summarizing some of the arguments for the position, it is probably good to clear up a few potential misunderstandings of the open membership view.
First, non-Christians are not permitted membership. Advocates for open membership are not suggesting that Baptist churches permit membership to anyone who wants to join, regardless of whether they have a credible profession of faith.
Second, non-baptized Christians are not permitted membership. Advocates for open membership are not suggesting that Baptist churches permit membership to anyone who refuses to receive baptism or who has never been baptized.
Third, baptized infants are not permitted membership. Advocates for open membership are not suggesting that infants who have been baptized should be admitted into the membership of the church. They suggest that professing adults who were baptized as infants should be permitted into the membership (granting that other requirements for membership are satisfied).
Fourth, not all paedobaptisms are considered valid. Advocates for open membership are not necessarily suggesting that all paedobaptisms are valid. Some clarify that those who believe in baptismal regeneration or who suggest that baptism is a guarantee of saving faith should not be admitted into membership. Others are not clear about this matter. For example, Ortlund appears to accept baptisms in the Roman Catholic Church as irregular but valid, citing John Calvin and other Reformers who maintained that their Roman Catholic baptisms were valid.
Fifth, only credobaptism is practiced. Although the advocates of open membership are suggesting that paedobaptists should be welcomed into the membership of the church, they are not suggesting that both forms of baptism should be practiced by the church. They are not arguing for dual practice but for open membership.
Four Noteworthy Arguments
Ortlund and Rigney each offer several arguments for their positions. You can follow the embedded links to their arguments if you are interested in the details since I’m only offering a summary of their most noteworthy arguments.
First, denial of membership and access to the Lord’s Supper declares that a person is not a Christian, yet credobaptists are inconsistent because they also affirm that many paedobaptists are Christians. What’s more, credobaptists treasure the teaching, writing, and preaching ministries of many paedobaptists, even inviting paedobaptist pastors and scholars into their churches to preach and teach. In other words, credobaptists inconsistently affirm the Christian identity of many paedobaptists in every visible way except through the two means of Christian identification and participation given to us by Christ—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Open membership advocates suggest that since we are already affirming these individuals as Christians, we should not deny them entry into membership or access to the Table.
Second, the precise outworking of membership is a matter of prudence, not necessarily of biblical faithfulness. In other words, while the idea of membership is fairly clear in the NT, the precise qualifications for membership are not so clear. In contrast, the qualifications for an elder/pastor are clear. One might reason that the door to church eldership is narrow enough to require that each elder champion a credobaptist position but that the door to church membership is wide enough to permit paedobaptists to enter.
Third, disagreements about baptism should not prohibit fellowship at the local church level. Because baptism is not necessary for salvation, disagreements on this matter should not prohibit local church fellowship. Church membership, they argue, is not a matter of denominational identity but of Christian identity. More than that, they suggest that permitting paedobaptists into membership does not require affirming that both paedo and credo baptisms are equally valid, allowing churches to perpetuate distinctive Baptist teaching on the matter. Remember, they are not advocating for dual practice, but for open membership.
While some may suggest that it is not very Baptist to permit paedobaptists into membership, this claim unduly privileges British and American Baptist traditions. When the whole of the Baptist tradition is considered, there are more frequent allowances for open membership. Because Baptists do not have an authoritative magisterium to define Baptist belief and because Baptist thought includes Baptists outside of the British and American traditions, it may be that the case for open membership represents a development of Baptist belief rather than a departure from it.
Fourth, disagreements about baptism have a long and complicated history in the Christian church, but paedobaptism has been the dominant perspective. Credobaptism is the minority position. For that reason, credobaptists should humbly acknowledge that, while they believe their position is the most faithful, most Christians throughout time disagree. In this history, disagreements about baptism have sometimes led to execution and excommunication. More recently, however, disagreements have been held in tension but have not prohibited partnership in missions, church planting, and denominational belonging.
I’ve tried to represent fairly the best arguments for an open membership position. I truly appreciate the discussion and even agree in part, but I don’t think that open membership is a solution to the differences between credo and paedobaptists, as will become clear later on. But first, appreciation and agreement.
A Note of Appreciation
I appreciate the posture of those who are trying to find a way toward greater Christian fellowship between credobaptists and paedobaptists. These Christians are giving attention to the doctrine of Church unity and to the desire of Jesus for his church to be one (cf. John 17). Even as they maintain their credobaptist beliefs, they offer welcome and belonging to paedobaptists. I think that this is a good impulse, even if I don’t believe that it really solves anything (see more below).
I do not agree with those who accuse open membership advocates of starting down the slippery slope toward liberalism or of departing from Baptist teaching even as I am not convinced that they are offering a good solution to the disagreements between credo and paedobaptists. Those who are opposed to open membership must avoid attacking straw men, chasing red herrings, or sounding the heresy alarm.
A Note of Agreement
I agree with their judgment to welcome paedobaptists to the Eucharist. I have been bothered for a long time that Baptists deny the Supper to their fellow Christians, particularly when the Supper is intended to demonstrate the unity of Christ’s body. It is not uniform beliefs about baptism that permits shared table fellowship, but the very nature of the Supper itself. After all, it’s the Lord’s Supper, not the credobaptists’ Supper.
How do I know that unity is not a prerequisite to coming to the Table? Because the Bible tells me so. Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, since we all share the one bread (1 Cor. 10:17). Writing to the most divided church in the New Testament, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they do not come to the Table together because they already have shared affinities and common interests. Instead, the Table draws together a diverse and rather disagreeable lot of people in order to make them one at the Table.
Unity about the meaning of baptism is not a prerequisite for participating in the Lord’s Supper together—mutual participation in the Supper unifies Christians even as they maintain distinct beliefs about baptism.
Because the terminology of open communion has the potential to confuse, I want to make a clarification. The form of open communion that I find convincing is still somewhat restrictive. It is open to those who have been baptized (paedo or credo). It is closed to those who do not identify as Christians, those who have not been baptized, and those who are currently under church discipline (i.e., those who have been excommunicated).
I think all of the arguments that they make for open membership are really good arguments for open communion, but I still reject the plausibility of open membership.
A Note of Disagreement
The main reason that I reject an open membership view is that I don’t find it very pastoral. From all that I can tell, those who advocate for open membership would permit paedobaptist families into the membership of the Baptist church, but would send them to a paedobaptist church for all their infant baptism needs. Because these open membership advocates stop short of calling for dual practice—where both forms of baptism are practiced in the church—these pastors will always abdicate their pastoral duties to administer the ordinance/sacrament of baptism when it comes to the children of their paedobaptist members.
I do not want to be unsympathetic or unpastoral to paedobaptists who wish to join a Baptist church. Although I am not convinced by paedobaptist arguments, I understand that paedobaptists treasure baptism—maybe even more than most Baptists. Some Baptists might think that Christians who were baptized as infants don’t value their baptism because it was so long ago or because they have no memory of it. Grounded in this assumption, some Baptists may suggest that it should be no problem to simply get “re-Baptized” by immersion as a profession Christian. However, many paedobaptists regularly renew their baptismal vows, making their infant baptism more meaningful over time, not less.
Because baptism is genuinely valued by those who received it as infants, I can understand why these individuals may balk against the idea of receiving credobaptism even if they have become convinced that credobaptism is the most faithful practice and should be the norm. I could even be convinced that this person should be permitted into the membership of a Baptist church without receiving credobaptism—this may be the most pastoral way forward. But there is a difference between admitting into membership professing Christians who were baptized as infants and admitting convictional paedobaptists.
However, if I understand Ortlund and Rigney correctly, they are arguing that convinced paedobaptists should be welcomed into membership, not simply that Christians who were baptized as infants should be welcomed into membership. From what I can tell, they would be willing to welcome into membership a convinced paedobaptist—and they would send them off to a different church under the care of different pastors whenever a baby baptism is required.
Sometimes, solutions to one problem end up creating another problem. In this case, the solution to a fellowship problem creates a pastoral problem, making the solution untenable. In my judgment, it may be possible to make a case to permit into the membership those who were baptized as infants but have adopted a credobaptist viewpoint, even while recognizing their own baptism as irregular but valid. However, the argument to offer membership to convinced paedobaptists who intend to continue their paedobaptist practices is unconvincing to me.
My goal in this post is not to provide a comprehensive examination and response to the ongoing debate about open membership but to give an introduction to the debate and to offer a few points for consideration, both in agreement and disagreement with advocates of open membership. Open membership advocates make strong, credible arguments for their views. These arguments deserve careful and charitable engagement, even as they may prove to be unconvincing in the final analysis.
More could be said about church membership in particular and about the nature of doctrinal disagreement in general. For that, I recommend following along with our current Bible Class, “When Doctrine Divides: Doctrinal Fidelity and Christian Unity.”