Baptism and Church Membership: A Response to Michael Horton

Because much of the evangelical talk about baptism in recent years has downplayed the importance of it in regard to church membership, I was glad to see serious discussion about this subject the last few days at the Gospel Coalition site. While the piece by Mathis on “open membership” falls in line with much of the discussion that does not see baptism as central to membership (we hope to write a response to this piece as well), the pieces by Horton (paedobaptism) and Hamilton (believer’s baptism) argue that it is central to local church membership.


I really enjoyed Michael Horton’s entry on paedobaptism and church membership. I appreciated the winsomeness and honesty of his disagreement, and I especially enjoyed the strong language he used. He used words like “sin” to describe believers who do not admit their children to infant baptism.


Baptism is a serious issue, so serious language is appropriate. Our Baptist forefathers recognized this. That’s why they used words like “evil” to describe paedobaptism, and that’s why some of them were willing to drown for believer’s baptism by immersion.


Much could be said in response to the paedobaptist position, but I want to focus briefly on a glaring oversight in the paedobaptist position as it pertains to church membership, and that is the new birth.


I actually agree that baptism is a sign of the covenant that parallels circumcision under the old covenant, but how is one born into the new covenant community? It’s not through generation; it’s through regeneration (Ezek. 36; Jer. 31; cf. John 3). One is born into the covenant community when they receive the Spirit, a new heart, and the law written on the heart.


This is why Baptists have historically made such a big deal about believer’s baptism in terms of church membership. We believe in regenerate church membership. The membership of the church should be made up only of those whose names are written in the Book of Life. Granted, there will be false professions, and we will make errors, so there are provisions like church membership to help us strive for integrity in our membership.


The sign of the covenant should be administered not to those who have been born, but rather to those who have been born again.


I am thankful for the series and think you should check out the posts. Serious language is in order, as well as charitable disagreement.