I don’t intend to advocate in this post for a Baptist ecclesiology (9 Marks, after all, it not a Baptist ministry) as much as I hope to simply note that the current discussion of the necessity of baptism for church membership is not new, though it tends to be assumed more than it is fully and clearly advocated.
Thus, I began the discussion with one of my heroes, John Bunyan, who rejected the argument that baptism must precede fellowship in a local church (and, thus, church membership). Bunyan wrote, “For herein lies the mistake, To think that because in time past baptism was administered upon conversion, that therefore it is the initiating and entering ordinance into church communion: when by the word no such thing is testified of it” (Works, II:605). Bunyan insisted, instead, that an individual ought to be accepted into membership on the basis of his profession of faith and show of good works.
I already mentioned Abraham Booth who opposed this particular view of Bunyan’s. Baptist theologian John Dagg is another example. What we see in Dagg is a robust theology of the universal church coupled with a robust theology of the local church. He saw both as two sides of the same coin.
Without mentioning Bunyan, Dagg argued against the idea that a profession of faith is sufficient for church fellowship because God ordained another means: “The profession of renouncing the world, and devoting ourselves to Christ, might have been required to be made in mere words addressed to the ears of those who hear; but infinite wisdom has judged it better that it should be made in a formal and significant act, appointed for the specific purpose. That act is baptism” (Dagg, Manual of Church Order, 71).
Certainly, for Dagg, to be baptized as a believer was to be obedient to God’s command just as a faithful Paedobaptist believes baptizing an infant is an act of obedience. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dagg’s argument has to do with the way he differentiated between the visible and invisible church. Those who denied that baptism is a prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper (and consequently to church membership) often argued that to do so was uncharitable, unloving. According to Dagg, nothing could be further from the truth; a local church has a responsibility to establish boundaries, based upon Scripture, regarding with whom she may share church fellowship but the boundaries of the Church are larger, and her boundaries, Dagg noted, are not open for dispute (for Dagg, the Lord’s Supper represented church membership):
There is a table which the Lord has spread, and to which every child of his family has an unquestionable right. It is a table richly furnished with spiritual food, a feast of fat things, full of marrow, of wine on the lees refined. This table the Lord has spread for all his children, and he invites them all to come: ‘Eat, O friends; drink, yea drink abundantly, O beloved.’ Any one who should forbid their approach would offend against the community of God’s children. The guests at this table have spiritual communion with one another; a species of communion which belongs of right to every member of the church universal.
There is another table which the Lord has commanded his people to spread in each local church. It is not, like the other, covered with spiritual good things, but with simple bread and wine. It is not, like the other, designed for the whole family of the Lord, but for the particular body, the local church, by whom, in obedience to divine command, it has been spread. Though human hands have set out the food, yet the table is the Lord’s, because it is designed for his service, and prepared at his command; and the will of the Lord must determine who ought to partake. He knows best the purpose for which he commanded it; and, whatever may be the feelings of the guests, they have no right to invite to his table any whom the Lord has not invited (Dagg, Manual of Church Order, 224).
The relevance of these two paragraphs in the Grudem-Piper discussion becomes readily apparent. Piper wrote that for any church to refuse membership to a godly believer is to diminish “our spiritual union with Christ.” However, this is not necessarily the case if spiritual union with Christ is not fully and finally reflected in church membership. As important as the local church is, she is the not the ultimate gatekeeper to membership in Christ’s kingdom—that was Dagg’s point. Membership in the invisible or universal church is a real and glorious reality. Membership in a local church is real and wonderful as well, but refusing membership to this body does not necessarily deny or diminish the reality of another's believers spiritual union with Christ--it may but it need not.
This does not address every issue that needs to be addressed. For example, the pressing question remains: who decides whether a baptism is valid, the subject or the church? However, it does address one important issue: It is not necessarily less spiritual to divide over issues of baptism (though it can be!) if we affirm membership in the universal church even as we limit membership in the local church.
On a side note, I'm very thankful for the way Drs. Grudem and Piper are modeling how to handle theological disputes with decorum, kindness, and love. Their wisdom and grace is humbling. It is easy to assume it should simply be that way, but it isn't always the case.In the meantime, I would still like to reflect more on some other issues that have arisen in the past and maybe some other 9Marks guys will chime in on some even more pressing issues related to this discussion (hint, hint).