Thank you for the kind, gracious spirit in your response!
And thank you for your friendship, which has meant so much to me for so many years.
And thank you for helping me to think more clearly about the details of what I have written. You write so persuasively! In fact, last night I printed out what I had written and your response, and gave it to Margaret, and before we went to bed Margaret informed me with a smile, “I agree with John.” Now what can I say to that??
Nevertheless, here are some responses:
(1) I do not see denial of church membership as “virtually the same as excommunication,” nor do any of the Baptist churches known to me.
Non-members who are clearly believers in Jesus Christ are welcomed as believers into many aspects of fellowship. They share in the Lord’s Supper together with members (in all but a very few of the most strict Baptist churches). They participate freely in worship and prayer and fellowship. Sometimes a Baptist church will even have a Bible-believing Presbyterian or Episcopalian or Methodist or Lutheran pastor preach as a guest from the pulpit. That is far from “excommunication”!
And in varying degrees (in different churches) non-members are encouraged to minister to others in the church – they can become active members of home fellowship groups (and in some churches, such as my own Scottsdale Bible Church, they can lead such groups). They can become (in various churches) members of the choir or worship team, youth group workers, ushers, greeters, and so forth. These all give visible signs of treating this unbaptized person as a brother or sister in Christ. (I realize that Baptist churches and denominations have varieties of allowed participation in such things, but they all allow some measure of participation and treat unbaptized Christians as Christians.)
And surely a Baptist church would not give notice to the whole church that the unbaptized non-member should be “treated as an unbeliever from now on,” which would be done in the case of church discipline and excommunication. All these examples show that Baptist churches do not consider the refusal of membership to be equivalent to, or anything even similar to, excommunication. So I am not persuaded by that part of your thoughtful response to me.
(2) But there is a still a clear difference between members and non-members. Unbaptized believers are not members, so they cannot be elders or church officers. They cannot speak or vote at church business meetings. In other words, they can have no formal, recognized part in determining the ongoing policies and teachings of the church. And there will be other activities that each church decides, for various reasons, to restrict to members. There is considerable freedom for churches to decide what they think is wise in this area, in my opinion. And I have seen considerable variety in the Baptist and other believer’s baptism churches that I have known. But there is a clear difference, which I think is right.
(3) There was an unexpressed assumption in my discussion, an assumption which your response makes clear to me. I did not express it because it is so commonly assumed in nearly all churches. The assumption is this:
Baptism is required for church membership.
I think I assumed this because, as far as I know, it has been the practice of all major denominations throughout history. Presbyterians believe that baptism is necessary for church membership (for they consider infant baptism true baptism). Episcopalians believe that baptism is necessary for church membership. Baptists believe that baptism is necessary for church membership. Pentecostals believe that baptism is necessary for church membership. Methodists believe this. The Evangelical Free Church of America (which allows both views of baptism) believes this. Independent Bible churches believe this. Even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches believe this. Apart from some unusual groups that don’t practice baptism at all (such as the Salvation Army), I think that the whole church throughout its history has held that baptism is necessary for church membership.
In the light of that assumption, which I have now made explicit by adding the words in boldface type, I think the section that you objected to makes good sense: [In this section I am explaining the problem that will arise if a church decides to allow both views of baptism to be held and taught:]
On the other side, those who hold to believer’s baptism (as I do) would have to be willing to admit into church membership people who have been baptized as infants, and who did not make a personal profession of faith at the time they were baptized. But from a believer’s baptism position, genuine baptism has to follow a personal profession of faith. So how can believer’s baptism advocates in good conscience say that infant baptism is also a valid form of baptism? That contradicts what they believe about the essential nature of baptism – that is an outward sign of an inward spiritual change, so that the apostle Paul could say, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” Gal. 3:27.
For someone who holds to believer’s baptism, and who holds that baptism is necessary for church membership [I just now added these words], admitting to church membership someone who has not been baptized upon profession of faith, and telling the person that he or she never has to be baptized as a believer, is really giving up one’s view on the proper nature of baptism. It is saying that infant baptism really is valid baptism! But then how could anyone who holds to this position tell anyone who had been baptized as an infant that he or she still needed to be baptized as a believer?
(4) Now it may be that someone would want to start a new denomination in which baptism is not necessary for church membership. Or people may decide to change their church constitutions so that baptism is no longer required for membership. People are free to do that if they wish.
In that case, I suppose a (hypothetical) Baptist church could say to someone, “We require baptism for church membership, unless you disagree with our view of baptism. For those who disagree with us, we do not require baptism for church membership. Whether we require it or not depends on what you think of baptism.” I suppose a church could say that.
In such a church, they could allow an unbaptized person to be a member. If a godly, Bible-believing, born again Presbyterian (such as your examples of our friends Ligon Duncan or R. C. Sproul, or others) came and wanted to be a member, this (hypothetical) Baptist church could say to him, “We don’t believe you have been baptized, but you can become a member anyway because we allow unbaptized people like you to be members.”
(5) But I don’t think I could support such a practice in a church. I think the reason churches throughout history have required baptism for membership is that the New Testament so clearly makes baptism the public act that every believer undergoes at the outset of the Christian life. It is right there in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). There is no such thing in the New Testament as an unbaptized person being an active member of any local church. So how could we say today that we should start allowing unbaptized persons to be members of our churches? But that (it seems to me) is what my earlier position, and your current position, would have to say.
I do not think such a position is wise, or consistent with the New Testament, and I would not recommend any church to adopt it.
Thank you again for your thoughtful, gracious response, John.