The Problem with Open Membership: Where I Disagree with John Piper, Part 1

Those who know me or who have read my blog for any length of time know how indebted I am to the ministry and teachings of John Piper.  I have read most of his books, quite a few of his sermons and articles, and I have heard him speak at conferences multiple times.  He is a tremendous gift to the church.  He is everything a pastor-theologian should be: rigorously biblical, deeply theological, and passionate for the glory of God in all things. 

But I do disagree with him from time to time, and this post and the following one will address one area of disagreement, namely, Piper’s proposal that his church, Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, adopt an open membership policy (links to various articles and sermons can be found here).  Bethlehem has not, to this point, adopted the policy, but it looks like it will come up for a vote at some point.  I do not consider myself an advisor to Bethlehem Baptist Church on this issue, but as a Baptist I do believe it is important for all Baptist churches to think through carefully the terms of their membership policies.  In this post my purpose is to explain Piper’s position, followed by a critique in the following post.

Piper and all of the elders at Bethlehem Baptist agree that scriptural baptism is for professing believers only.  They do not recognize infant baptism as a true baptism in any sense.  The current proposal of open membership does not change that fact.  That Bethlehem would either start baptizing infants or recognize infant baptism as legitimate is not on the table at all. 

What is on the table is the possibility of allowing professing believers to join the church as members who were baptized as infants and who cannot in good conscience submit to another baptism because they recognize their own infant baptism as valid.  In other words, the church would not recognize infant baptism as legitimate, but it would, under this proposal, soften its baptism requirement in order to open membership to those who do not agree with the church’s position on baptism.  It is, therefore, more of a practical than a theological proposal.  A few years ago I spoke to a former member of Bethlehem about this, and he said that the policy would allow the church have a covenantal relationship with a number of Reformed believers who are regular attenders but who have not, to this point, joined the church because of their views on baptism.  In other words, the policy would allow these active attenders to become members under the care and discipline of the church without changing their settled convictions on the question of baptism.

As I said, the issue is primarily practical, but there is a theological component involved in Piper’s argument for the open membership proposal.  According to Dr. Piper, the requirements for membership in a local church should be the same as requirements for membership in the universal church.  If we recognize evangelical Presbyterian believers as true believers who belong to the universal church, according to Piper, then we should allow them to join Baptist churches without being baptized (according to our definition of baptism).  Very few Baptists would say that a gospel-believing Presbyterian is not a true believer just because he has not been scripturally baptized.  If that is the case, argues Piper, then we cannot exclude him from membership on that basis.  To exclude a true believer from fellowship in a local church is on par with excommunication, and differences over the nature of baptism should not lead to such radical action against true believers. 

However, the proposal on the table at Bethlehem Baptist does specify that, while membership would be open to professing believers who have not been baptized, teaching in the church would not open up to them.  The teaching ministries of the church will only be carried out by those who have been baptized as believers and who uphold the baptism of believers only as the only scriptural baptism. 

I hope I have represented the position fairly.  In the next post I will explain why I disagree with it.


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