Watering Down Immersion: A Response to David Mathis

Also Check Out Jon Akin’s Response to Michael Horton’s Article On Paedobaptism

I understand the impulse and reasoning behind David Mathis’ recent piece on open membership. Excluding gospel-believing brothers and sisters from church membership is a huge deal, so I am very sympathetic to what David says. Any division among brothers should break our hearts.

However, I do think some questions need to be raised in response to his article A Happy Baptist, Happy to Welcome Others: Strengthening Church Membership Without Watering Down Immersion

Mathis Quote: “Those of us on the council who are open to the open-membership concept find it to be significantly more grave to exclude a clear Christian brother or sister from church membership than to live with their errant view of baptism. This is based on a deep conviction that it is very serious to turn someone away from membership in the local church. “

  • Why throw out a clear command of Jesus (baptism) for something that is not explicitly mandated in the NT (membership)?

Baptism is a clear command from Christ, not a first tier issue, but a second tier issue that points to a first tier issue (gospel and regeneration). Membership in the local church is more implied, though I fully embrace it (cf. Acts 2:47; 2 Cor. 2:6; Heb. 13:17). Why not choose to go with the commission over the implication?

It seems that there is a trend in evangelicalism to downplay the importance of baptism so as not to divide brothers and sisters, and at the same time to elevate other doctrines as dividers. For example, while I am a committed complimentarian, it is curious to me that some newer networks raise gender roles over baptism (Mathis is not making this case). Why? What are the justifications for downplaying one and elevating another? It appears somewhat arbitrary to say that a final command of Christ should not divide us but gender roles should.

  • In the already/not-yet state don’t all churches add things to tighten the door to the local church that are not a part of entrance to the universal church?

Mathis says that they want membership in the local church to mirror “as closely as possible the size of the door to entrance into the universal body of Christ.” But, don’t many churches require things like a membership class, a covenant signing, or other processes for membership in the local church that aren’t required for entrance into the universal church? As one of my friends pointed out to me the other day, there is good reason for us requiring things to tighten the door to the local church. The universal church is shepherded by an all-knowing Chief Shepherd and the local church is shepherded by sinful, limited men.

Mathis Quote: But don’t we have to draw the credo line somewhere? If we don’t fence the membership at the point of baptism, might the elders eventually include non-Baptists? Not if there are other good fences. Yes, the line should be drawn somewhere, but we’re convinced that, at least in our context, it should not be around the membership, but around the eldership. A further protection would be to include a more descript affirmation of faith (which includes believer baptism) for “voting members.”

  • Why include paedobaptists as members in order to exclude them?

Mathis says that the line must be drawn somewhere, so they draw it at voting and eldership. Why must the line be drawn somewhere? Why draw it here? This section seems to undo the impulse of the entire piece. In addition, Mathis writes, “We are as deeply persuaded as ever that infant baptism is illegitimate, misguided, and defective. Let that be clear.” If Mathis’ statement is true, and I believe it is, would you not also be including a person that you will need to immediately begin to enact church discipline on? This would seem particularly true if one of the clearest signs of being clearly converted is obedience and immersion of a believer is the legitimate mode.

In his conclusion he writes, “But especially in our increasingly post-Christian milieu, it is becoming more and more clear that there are so many other theological issues more central and important than the mode and timing of baptism.”

I appreciate Mathis’ heart and tone in this article. Indeed, we should ask very tough questions of ourselves before we ever divide from gospel-believing brothers and sisters. It would be helpful if Mathis would provide a criteria for what doctrines are worth drawing membership, eldership, or voting lines over and which are not (along the lines of Dr. Mohler’s theological triage).

Yet, one should also ask very tough questions before downplaying a clear command and commission of Jesus. Perhaps we are watering down immersion after all.


Comments 0

  1. I recently was a member of a (southern baptist) church start. We struggled with whether to take the common baptist stance of requiring water baptism for membership – quite a struggle indeed.

    However, while we came to the position that while we very much believed that all believers should be water-immersed-baptized as a soon-after-conversion act of obedience, we did not believe that water-immersion was required for salvation and thus was not a require for membership in the universal church. Therefore we decided we could not be more restrictive than our Lord as to requirement for membership.

    We taught, emphasized and encouraged all believers to be water-immersed baptized, as obedience to our Lord,but that is the extent.

    Thanks for your work,


  2. Post


    Thanks for taking the time to interact here… so I would take it that none of the points raised here weren’t compelling enough to lead to a conviction to require Immersion as a prerequisite for membership?

    Particularly compelling for me is that most do require something for membership in the local church (such as covenant signing, membership class, etc) that is not required for salvation… and that there is a difference in who leads the universal church (an omniscient Christ) and a local church (men).

    Though I understand the hope to include all to the local church that are part of the Universal… Thx again for commenting


  3. Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment and tone. I certainly feel the impulse to be inclusive. My question for you would be about church discipline of those who are disobedient to the command of Christ?


  4. I would echo Jonathan on this… If baptism is a step of obedience, then to NOT be baptized is blatant disobedience, Since church discipline is commanded by Jesus (Matt. 18), shouldn’t those new members be disciplined?

    I am consistently dealing with baptism questions. Much needed conversation.

  5. Nathan your point that “most do require something for membership in the local church (such as covenant signing, membership class, etc)” is particularly compelling. It is a strange logic that rejects obedience to a clear command of Christ as prerequisite to church membership, then requires devices of men not clearly found in the Bible be followed as prerequisite to church membership.

  6. Hello.
    Can I offer a paedobaptist perspective from the UK?

    This attitude of closed membership and closed table is all well and good when you have 2 churches, a Baptist and a paedobaptist church, who are united in their committment to the gospel, exegetical preaching, a good hermeneutical method etc, side by side. With two church preaching the gospel, you can be more choosie with which church you become a member of.

    I am blessed. I have managed to find a fantastic Reformed church to attend where I currently live. But I’m a student, which means I will, in all likliness, need to move away to get a job. Which means I will have to look for a new churches, and proper old school Reformed churches are few and far between over here. I may be blessed again and find a solid Anglican church. But if I want to here solid preaching of the Scriptures, I will probably have to go to a free evangelical church, which tend to be credo-baptist.

    So, what do I do. Attend a church which believes in infant baptism but rejects all other theology that I hold to, or attend a solid Bible believing church, where I may be witheld the Lord’s Supper, which is pretty key to living as a Christian?

    Hope this is an interesting addition to the good and necessary debate. God bless.

  7. I appreciate the comments of Daniel F. It’s a serious concern and one of the primary reasons I think many are moving to open membership.

    I also want to point out that membership is tied up not only with baptism but also the Lord’s Supper. Membership marks the people whom we regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper with. Thus, if you hold to closed membership you must also close the table to all paedobaptists. So it isn’t quite fair to say that Mathis is forsaking a biblical command of Jesus (baptism) for a non-biblical mandate. Determining who is welcome at the table is indeed a biblical mandate.

    As to accepting into membership individuals disobedient to Jesus’ command, I don’t think it’s quite so easy as that. Suppose you have an individual who is a faithful disciple, well versed in the Scripture, aggressively evangelistic, but also believes women can serve as elders. And suppose that person understands the church’s position and is willing to submit to its teaching and not make it a divisive issue. Should we exclude them from membership because they reject a biblical command? I don’t think we should. Baptism is a second tier issue pointing to a first tier one. But all matters of doctrine are eventually connected to first tier issues. You can trace complementarianism back to the Trinity quite easily. If you get one, you get the other. But does that make it an issue worthy of exclusion. I’m also not completely sold on Nathan’s claim that complementarianism is a more dividing issue than baptism. In some ways, yes perhaps. But in church membership? I have yet to see that. I could be wrong.

    Thanks for the respectful dialogue. We need more of this.

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