I became baptistic while at a Presbyterian seminary, and then a few years later, while at a Baptist church, realized I wasn’t a mainstream Baptist on the issue of church membership. (Its funny how being immersed in a different perspective can help you realize where you stand.) The traditional Baptist view is that baptism following a credible profession of faith is necessary for church membership. In fact, the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 goes even further, requiring believer’s baptism by immersion: “immersion–the dipping of the person in water–is necessary for the due administration of this ordinance.” A conversation I had with a friend over Christmas break reminded me of this whole topic of how baptism and church membership relate to one another, and I wanted to write down why I lean towards the view that post-conversion baptism should not be a universal requirement for church membership.
The issue in my mind turns on the purpose of church membership in the New Testament. Church membership serves to delineate the church from the world, to make clear the boundary lines between those who are in Christ and those who are not. It is the entry level passage way into the church–the church’s way of saying, “this person’s profession of faith in Christ is credible” (just as in excommunication the church effectively says, “this person’s profession of faith is no longer credible”). And what is it that draws sinners out of the world and into Christian unity? Is it falling on the same side of the credobaptism/paedobaptism debate? No, it is Jesus and His gospel. What makes someone a part of this redeemed community, which church membership serves to protect, is faith in Christ. That is what Christ requires of people to enter His church: and we should not require more from them than Christ requires.
This is not to say that the credobaptism/paedobaptism debate is unimportant, or should not be addressed within the church. It is simply to say that church membership is not the level at which it should be addressed. It is possible to speak to important second-tier and third-tier issues from within the context of Christian unity–whether the issue is baptism, or views on women in ministry, or interpretations of the fourth commandment, or understandings of the Lord’s Supper, and on and on we could go. In other words, it is possible, metaphorically speaking, to have the conversation inside the house, rather than stopping them at the front door. Neither does this view deny that a hang up over baptism could ever be an issue with respect to church membership–if someone’s convictions were a source of significant disunity in the church, for example. But that’s fundamentally a unity issue, not a baptism issue. There are lots of issues that are not necessarily membership issues, but can become so by how they are affecting the church more broadly. For example, it could be imprudent to accept into membership an overly zealous Theonomist who was causing all kinds of controversy in the church and unwilling to submit to the leadership of the church on the issue. But that doesn’t mean that theonomy itself is a membership issue.
I often ask my Presbyterian friends why they don’t baptize the grand-children of believers as well as children, if consistency with the practice of circumcision is the basis of covenantal paedobaptism. I find that asking that question is a more effective way of communicating what I perceive to be the area of inconsistency in paedobaptism than simply trying to state the inconsistency. In the same spirit, here is my question for my Baptist friends: should a convert to paedobaptism within a Baptist church be excommunicated? If the issue is significant enough to stop them at the front door, is it also significant enough to escort them to the back door? I think this question highlights some of the difficulties inherent in the traditional Baptist view, for an affirmative answer seems harsh, and a negative one inconsistent.