The Problem with Open Membership: Where I Disagree with John Piper, Part 2

[Please see part 1 for the context of this discussion.]

Like John Bunyan before him, John Piper favors a policy of open membership at his church, a policy by which true believers who were baptized as infants and who cannot submit to believer’s baptism in good conscience (because they consider their infant baptism scripturally valid) would be allowed to join the church without being scripturally baptized.  I understand Piper’s theological and practical reasoning on this, and I think he has a good intention behind it, namely, to move some active attenders at his church into a membership status so that they can come under the full care and discipline of the church.  Nevertheless, I disagree with the policy for the following reasons:

(1) Even on its own terms, the policy is inconsistent.  Piper argues that the requirements for membership in any local church should be the same requirements for membership in the universal church.  But this is manifestly impossible.  The vast majority of Christians (or, to use Piper’s terminology, members of the universal church) cannot join Bethlehem Baptist Church simply because they cannot, for geographical and circumstantial reasons, involve themselves in the life of that local body.  If I lived in the Minneapolis area, Bethlehem would be a likely place where I would seek church membership.  But I live in Louisville, and for that reason membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church is a closed option for me.  So what Piper evidently means when he argues that the requirements for membership in any local church should be the same as the requirements for membership in the universal church is actually this: the requirements for membership in any local church must be the same as the requirements for membership in the universal church plus a commitment to be involved in the corporate life of that particular local church.  In many cases (if it is a healthy church), that commitment will be formalized by a church covenant, the terms of which any person must agree to abide by in order to join and maintain membership in that local church.  But obviously, signing the church covenant at Bethlehem Baptist Church is not a biblical requirement for salvation (membership in the universal church), so we have at least one additional requirement here that eliminates the vast majority of believers from membership at Bethlehem Baptist, simply because, as a local church, Bethlehem Baptist must be truly local, that is, restricted in time and space to a particular body of people.  Therefore, I find the argument that moves from universal church membership to local church membership to be lacking at this point.  It simply does not work.

(2) The previous observation creates a category of thought by which we can determine that membership in any local church involves particular commitments that not all true believers can make.  I cannot commit to the terms of Bethlehem Baptist Church’s covenant, if for no other reason because I cannot be physically present with that church on a regular basis.  Membership is not open to me unless I make significant personal changes.  I submit that baptism falls into the same category.  There may be true believers who are not scripturally baptized, and if we as Baptists restrict them from membership for that reason we have not done anything essentially different from restricting those who cannot commit to the church covenant for other reasons, though they may still be true believers.

(3) The foregoing observations lead me to conclude that it is simply wrong to equate denial of membership with excommunication.  The Baptist church that excludes evangelical Presbyterians from its membership over the question of baptism is not saying that these evangelical Presbyterians cannot be viewed as true believers until they repent.  It is saying, rather, that due to differences over a significant ecclesiological matter, there can be no institutional unity so long as these differences persist.  To take myself as an example once again, Bethlehem Baptist Church would not allow me to join so long as I live in Louisville, but that does not mean they view me the same way they would view an excommunicated member.  Granted, living in Louisville and having a faulty view of baptism are different matters (Scripture addresses one but not the other), but at least we have a category by which to understand that not allowing someone to join a church does not mean we automatically treat them as unbelievers.

(4) An open membership policy would lessen the significance of baptism considerably.  It would create a category of church members who are, by the church’s own definition, unbaptized.  There are several problems with this situation:

a. The New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptized believer/church member.  Granted, the particular situation we are facing today (where whole denominations hold to a faulty view of baptism) is not in view in the New Testament.  But simply because unbiblical anomalies exist does not mean that we should perpetuate them in our own practice.  As people of the book, we must do our best to conform our ecclesiology to Scripture.  Piper has done this very well at Bethlehem in other areas, leading to important changes that have conformed the church’s practice more to the pattern of Scripture.  I believe the open membership policy would represent a departure from that pattern in Piper’s ministry. 

b. If we will permit one category of unbaptized people to join our churches (namely, those baptized as infants and who cannot submit in good conscience to believer’s baptism), then what is to stop us from allowing other categories of unbaptized people to join, say, those who are professing believers but who believe baptism simply doesn’t matter, or those who are too shy to identify themselves publicly with Christ through baptism?  Could an open membership policy inadvertently decrease a church’s valuing of baptism to the degree that baptism simply ceases to be a requirement at all but something more like an option that some will take and others will refuse?  I fear that, after two or three generations of this kind of policy, when the rigorous theological thinking of those who originally instituted the policy has passed into history, it will be difficult to stop that kind of practical slide into a nullification of baptism as a necessary ecclesiastical rite. 

c. And that is why I always try to defer to tradition on difficult issues like this one.  In this discussion, there is an important point that must not be missed: Throughout the history of the church, baptism (however it has been understood) has been universally acknowledged as an entrance requirement for church membership.  Whether we are talking about Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Wesleyans, or Baptists, one thing they all share in common is that they have all agreed that baptism is a prerequisite to church membership.  Granted, they disagree on the proper subjects, mode, and meaning of baptism, but no church tradition (with the exception of radical groups like the Quakers) has ever made it a policy to accept the unbaptized as members.  And yet, this is what Piper proposes that Bethlehem should do in at least some situations, according to his own understanding of baptism.  I think there is a reason such a view is virtually unprecedented (with the exception of John Bunyan and perhaps a few other leaders and churches scattered here and there throughout history).  That reason is that the church throughout history has, by virtual unanimity, acknowledged the initiatory character of baptism and has guarded it from devaluation.  Before we decide to turn against the virtual consensus of tradition, we should have overwhelmingly good theological reasons to do so.  I believe Piper’s arguments lack that kind of warrant on this issue. 

Therefore, I would oppose the institution of an open membership policy at any Baptist church.  I know that in some situations that may put some groups in a difficult situation.  But I believe a major revision to a church’s membership policy that devalues baptism would create even bigger problems.  For this reason, I do not see open membership as the answer.


10 Responses to “The Problem with Open Membership: Where I Disagree with John Piper, Part 2”

  1. Ali Says:

    G’day Aaron,

    I disagree with you here.

    To equate the impossibility of joining a certain local church due to the fact that you reside in a different location with the issue of baptism doesn’t really work, in my book. I consider membership in the local church to be merely a biblical manifestation of a person’s membership in the universal church, not a requirement. If you are a Christian then you gather with other Christians in the area you live in. I do not agree that the Bible considers membership of a local Church to be the signing of a Church covenant, (though I do allow that having a church covenant can be a useful tool). If you are a member of the universal church, you are a member of your local church – no contest.

    So, in my view, what Piper is putting forth is not that those who were baptised as infants be allowed to become members, but rather that they be recognised as members.

    I would also challenge the assertion that not being baptised means a person is not a member of the church. Think the thief on the cross or the twelve in Acts 19 who were called disciples. I believe baptism is a recognition of a person’s membership of the church universal and so is also a recognition of their membership of the church local wherever they are, but I do not think it creates membership. Therefore, I think it completely reasonable to accept a person as a member of the Church if in good conscience they consider themselves to have been biblcially baptised as an infant.

    I’d say the biggest difference between our views is that I do not recognise the validity of denominational divisions. I do not agree that dividing the local church up into churches depending on particular doctrinal distinctives is biblical. Sure, heresy and church discipline is one matter, but I agree with Piper that if you can recognise a person as a fellow believer and so part of the universal church, then it is a tragedy to create extra requirements for recognised membership in the local church. I consider that sinfully divisive (though I doubt Piper has used such strong language).

  2. fenderpooh Says:

    G’day, Ali. I always appreciate your perspective.

    I’m sure Piper would appreciate you coming to his defense, but I doubt that he would view church membership in the same way that you do. I know I don’t view local church membership the same way. Let me see if I can outline the key differences.

    If I could pinpoint one biblical statement that defines the Baptist approach to ecclesiology, it would be Deut. 29:29 (which, I know, is not particularly about ecclesiology, but it does express the Baptist approach): “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do al the words of this law.” We are responsible to order our churches according to Scripture. God may work in extraordinary ways outside of what we do, and if he chooses to save people who have not been scripturally baptized, and even organize them into churches, he is free to do that (and I believe he does). For our part, we must be ordered according to what we understand to be a biblical ecclesiology.

    I would agree with you that local churches are manifestations of the heavenly, eschatological gathering of all believers (I tend to refrain from the terminology of “universal church” and follow more along the lines of Peter T. O’Brien in the book edited by Carson entitled “The Church in the Bible and the World”). But this does not mean that a believer is ipso facto a local church member simply because he resides in a particular location. I live in Louisville, but I am certainly not a member of the church that sits about two blocks from my house. I do not submit to that church’s leadership, gather with that church to worship, or consider myself subject to the discipline of that church.

    I don’t think Piper would agree that the issue is merely recognizing certain believers for what they already are: members of his local church. I may be wrong, but the way Piper talks about it, it sounds like he views them as non-members whom he wants to make members. For Piper (and for me), membership is a covenantal relationship that must be established by mutual agreement, not a given that is an entailment of one’s personal faith and geographical location. Otherwise, we would end up with the impossible situation of every church in a particular locale claiming that all of the believers in that area belong to its own membership. We would have churches sharing members, in other words, which would be impossible to live out consistently if church membership really means anything at all.

    All of this really gets back to how one defines a church. Baptists have long defined a local church as a body of baptized believers who, in covenant relationship with one another (whether that covenant is explicit or implicit), meet together regularly for worship, for the ministry of the Word, for observance of the ordinances, and who together seek to fulfill the Great Commission, being assisted in these tasks by the two officers of elders and deacons. A church is a particular, voluntary society of believers who meet these qualifications, not just any group of believers gathered in one place at a time. Southern Seminary is full of believers, even believers who do some things that churches normally do. But Southern Seminary is not a church, and the leadership of the seminary makes that abundantly clear to all.

    As for the thief on the cross, he obviously was never a member of a local church, and that is the issue we are discussing here. The disciples in Acts 19 are likewise not mentioned in connection with any local church. In any case, they represent a historical anomaly in that not only had they not been baptized, they had not even received the Holy Spirit (due, I believe, to a particular overlap of redemptive-historical epochs; they were believers living in an old covenant way when the new covenant era had already come, and that’s why Paul immediately baptized them). It is my belief that all Christians since that time receive the Spirit at the time of conversion (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13), so these disciples cannot be used as a paradigm case for any situation today.

    I think the existence of multiple denominations is tragic, but it is a tragedy that has resulted from our inability to agree on important ecclesiological questions, questions that simply cannot be ignored without great harm to the church. The alternative, in my view, would be even worse, and that would be to water down our ecclesiology to the bare minimum in order to catch as many people in it as possible. The “universal church” ecclesiology is, to my mind, reductionistic and not reflective of the pattern of local church order in the New Testament.

    Denominations do not play only a divisive role, we must remember. They also serve to unite. Some 40,000 Southern Baptist Churches have a cohesive identity and a shared mission to which they all contribute because they belong to the same denomination. There will be no denominations in Heaven, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful, given our fallenness, during this present age.

  3. Ali Says:

    Hey Aaron,

    I’m sorry if I implied that Piper believed exactly the same as me. I don’t think that. In fact, I’m not sure what Piper believes beyond his desire to include paedo-baptists into membership. So, while your post is about what you disagree with Piper on, I hope you’ll allow me to discuss it without particular reference to his beliefs in this comment.

    I see a good amount of your argument coming from what “is”, rather than what the Bible says. So, while you don’t consider yourself a member of the church down the road from you (and they likely don’t consider you a member of their church, either) that doesn’t mean that Biblically you should not be a member of the same city/town church.

    You also point out advantages of the present system, but the church of the early centuries operated quite well without the present litter of denominational churches within one geographical area. Instead, they seemed to have a far more biblical model of small groups of churches (usually in houses) that were part of the city/town church. It’s ironic that you say the absence of denominations would water down ecclesiology because in my view the present situation is itself a far greater watering down of biblical ecclesiology and is a situation that is in direct opposition to passages like 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

    So what ecclesiological essentials would be compromised without denominations? And are they really that essential? And think of the positives. One example is that of Church discipline, which actually worked in the early centuries because, like Paul instructed Titus, elders were in every town, (not every church in town) which meant every Christian in the city/town knew who had been disciplined.

    To assert that a church must look like present day Baptist Churches I think waters down biblical ecclesiology and I would need very convincing Biblical arguments to agree with it. At present, I just don’t see it there.

    You don’t like the term “universal church” and I don’t like the term “local church” because even though it describes a present reality, I don’t think those entities are how the Bible sees the Church. I agree with Jeremy Pryor of the From Eden to Zion blog that the Bible only talks about the Church in terms that are universal, in terms of countries, in terms of cities/towns and in terms of houses. It doesn’t speak of independent churches that follow Baptist polity, Presbyterian polity, Paul or Apollos.

    Now, I agree that God works with the present model, but I see it working because God is gracious, not because it’s right. The Southern Baptists have been successful due to uniting around denominational distinctives, but now churches in that very denomination are successfully uniting around different non-denominational distinctives and being effective also. That’s called affinity and it works wonders, but it doesn’t justify local church membership based on affinity in my opinion (or even the current model of local churches).

    I agree that ecclesiology is important, but it is not something I think should be a deal-breaker when it comes to church membership. We remain members of dysfunctional families; why not remain members of what we might consider ecclesiatically dysfunctional churches?

  4. fenderpooh Says:

    I think I see more clearly what you mean now. I will do some more study on this question, but at present I see a clear danger with your view. If all the churches in one locale together constitute one church, then there must be an ecclesiastical structure that unifies them. What you end up with, then, is basically a bishopric. I don’t find that kind of an office in the New Testament.

  5. Ali Says:

    Hi Aaron,

    A one city/town church does not necessarily lead to a bishopric – though it may. It could be a something of the order of a multi-campus church which is merely another step along the road from a multi-service church. Dr. Greg Allison and others took part in a forum on multi-campus churches which you can download from and I understand Dr Allison presented a paper on multi-campus churches at the ETS. I know he originally thought they were bishoprics but changed his mind.

    One correction I need to make, however. I’m not sure that the Bible every refers to a national church i.e. identifies church in terms of country. I think I got that wrong and that the three “levels” are universal, city/town and house.

    As always, great discussing with you. Let me know what else you come up with.

  6. fenderpooh Says:

    Dr. Allison is my doctoral supervisor. I have participated in numerous class discussions on multi-site churches.

    I actually thought about multi-site churches when I read your previous comment, but there is a significant difference here. I know that Dr. Allison would agree; my ecclesiology is essentially the same as his. He would not be willing to take the multi-site approach to a city-wide kind of arrangement. He has said that the one thing that changed his mind on the multi-site churches (from against the idea to favoring it in some cases) is the fact that these multi-site churches gather together as one body a handful of times a year. He sees this complete gathering as essential to the nature of the church. Any group claiming to be a single church must gather together into one place regularly (even if only four times a year). He argues in his forthcoming book that Acts provides some evidence that the believers in Jerusalem met together corporately in large gatherings in addition to the frequent house-to-house meetings.

    For me, the verdict is still out on multi-site churches, though I lean toward Dr. Allison’s view. But this is very different from saying that all believers in one area are ipso facto members of the one church that exists in that area.

    The book that is forthcoming from Dr. Allison is the ecclesiology volume for the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series edited by John Feinberg. I have read the first draft, and I think it is very good (and not just because he is my supervisor). Look for it some time next year.

  7. Ali Says:

    That’s interesting that Dr. Allison is your doctoral supervisor. I was aware that you went to the same Bible College. I’m sure you have mentioned his name before, but I didn’t have anything to hang it on. Very cool.

    Now, I need to apologise because I’m obviously not communicating clearly. In pointing to Dr. Allison’s perspective on multi-campus churches I was responding to your concern about bishoprics. I wasn’t appealing to Dr. Allison as someone who would agree with the view of church I am talking about, but rather giving one example of how a city church could exist without being a bishopric. In fact, during the forum I referred to (which you may have attended for all I know!) someone made the comment, “I thank God for denominations”. So, no, I didn’t expect Dr. Allison to champion my view.

    Having said that, I don’t see why some form of the multi-campus cannot be extended to a city-wide church. What is to stop a city church from gathering four times a year?

    However, maybe it was foolish to introduce that idea because it is so laden with the concept of Church as you outlined it above. I certainly don’t consider the early church to have been organised in “campuses”, but rather groupings (e.g. house churches) under the leadership of the church in the city as a whole.

  8. fenderpooh Says:

    I think your view of the situation in the New Testament has merit. Certainly, Paul addressed his letters to individual churches of individual locations, even though the evidence suggests that these churches had regular meetings in homes as smaller groups (though that does not rule out the possibility that they gathered corporately as well). There was one church at Rome, just as there was one church in Corinth. And I would agree that simply becoming a Christian in one of those locations automatically identified a person with the church in that area, because “becoming a Christian” in the New Testament is a public act that involves identification with a gathered body of believers through baptism. (I am not suggesting that baptism is a saving ordinance; I am only arguing that in the NT conversion is inextricably linked with baptism and union with a local body of believers). In the NT, therefore, it is impossible to conceive of someone being a Christian without ipso facto belonging to the local church in his or her city, simply because that was part of what becoming a Christian meant back then.

    But now the situation has changed dramatically, and there is no way to go back. You are right that my arguments are based on what “is” here, because what “is” is all we have, and we must do our best to be biblical in light of what is. This is precisely what Piper is doing. He is saying that, given the current less-than-ideal situation where there is disagreement over baptism, he believes the most biblical route is to allow unbaptized believers to join his church. I am saying that, given the current less-than-ideal situation where faith does not ipso facto identify you with a particular church in a particular locale (simply because so many different, independent churches with so many different beliefs and practices now exist), Baptist churches should not waver on the issue of baptism.

    In the New Testament era, to convert to Christ in Rome was bound up with being baptized (as a believer) into the church at Rome. Today there are some similarities. If a person comes to faith through the ministry of First Baptist Church, it is normally the case that part of that whole process will involve being baptized into the fellowship of First Baptist Church. But the difference is that there may be hundreds of other churches in the same area, with ecclesiological differences that pose insuperable difficulties for any kind of common ecclesiology. So, we must do the best we can with what we have.

    Plus, I don’t think city-wide churches are even possible in many places today. There are hundreds of thousands of believers in the Louisville area. It simply would not be possible for all of them to be placed under the care of one body of elders, nor would it be feasible for them to gather into one place multiple times a year (multi-site churches have much smaller numbers to deal with). And that’s not even considering the deep theological and ecclesiological issues that divide us. Some would demand that infants be baptized, and others would be dead set against it. Some would argue that the baptism of infants is absolutely necessary to their salvation, and others would repudiate such a view as a departure from the gospel. How can a church function as one if it cannot have unity on the question of its initiatory ordinance? The New Testament church simply did not face these problems: its numbers were much smaller, and infant baptism was not yet an issue. Given where we are now, we cannot return to that situation.

    So, what is the course of faithfulness in the present time? I believe it is to organize our churches as best we can according to the pattern of Scripture, and that includes admitting only baptized believers into membership.

  9. Ali Says:

    You have got to be kidding me! I just spent a loooong time typing a response and it’s gone and disappeared. It’s because I accidentally clicked on the IE logo in the bottom of the screen. Man! Microsoft has a lot to answer for.

    Let me just say there is a comment coming…

  10. Ali Says:

    I forsee that this conversation could go on for a while.

    I do not agree that the situation can not return to a city church model, though it will take a long and winding route to get there.

    Basically, I see most denominational distinctives as being idolatries. Why is believers baptism so important that you would exclude a Christian who was baptised as an infant from belonging to your church? He believes that baptism is important. He agrees that it identifies a person with the church. The difference is that he believes he’s already undergone it and you do not. But how does that make a difference to his involvement in a church? Does he worship differently? Is he any less committed? Does he love Jesus any less? Is he a second class Christian? You said the early church did not face the problem of infant baptism, but I fail to see how that issue is any different from those the early church did face and still remained united – and that for hundreds of years! See Romans 14:1-12. And for a recognition of differences in more important matters without calling for separation see 1 Corinthians 11:18-19.

    Still, while it will take time for denominational idolatry to subside enough for a return to the Biblical model, there are signs.

    1. Churches work together in the same city. Some have ministers fraternals. Our city has quarterly combined church prayer meetings.

    2. Multi-campus churches are a step in a city-church direction, even if people don’t see it that way.

    3. As churches become less culturally significant, issues that divide are more of a luxury. See New Zealand, for example. Most people have almost no loyalty to a denomination.

    I see nothing in the Bible that would allow the differences that we see in most denominations today to trump unity.

    As for numbers, I’m not convinced that a church needs to meet regularly to be a church, especially if the numbers prohibit it. But even if that were so, why not have churches based on manageable numbers rather than anything else? Or how about some other approach?

    Jeremy Pryor, whom I mentioned before, has a proposed model that is, I think, a bit too outside the square for most people to accept at this stage, but I think he is really onto something. It’s not a model that has all the wrinkles ironed out, but it’s one that I believe is more faithful to the Biblical model, more inclusive of the various models that God has used past and present, and more logical and effective than anything else I’ve come across. He’s begun to apply it as he can and he’s developing some interesting resources along the way. I think his model is something that people can shoot for…though, again, it’ll take time to work all the traditions out of the current situation.

    Google his blog From Eden to Zion if you’re interested and check out the posts listed under “Top Posts of All Time”.

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