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.