Is Baptism necessary for Church membership,

or

What is the essence of Baptist church membership?

Reflections on Open Membership in Baptist Churches

by Rev Dr David Parker

Notes from a sermon preached at Taringa Baptist Church, Sunday Sept 7, 1997 reflecting on the centenary of the church which was formed as an open membership church on Sept 8, 1897.

© 1997 David Parker

General Superintendent States Open-membership may be needed to Save the Baptist Denomination

The final report of the current General Superintendent of the Baptist Union of Queensland has raised the question once again of open membership of Baptist churches as a way to cope with tensions in churches in the face of rapid changes in society. He lists "open membership within limited boundaries" as one way churches are "endeavouring to respond" to forces which threaten "the future of Baptists of Queensland."

It may be questioned whether the future of Baptists in Queensland is in such jeopardy as these words suggest. Even if it is, it has to be determined whether the problem may be traced to the causes mentioned in his report or to some other sources. Candidates which might be considered range from the overall theology and spirituality of the denomination in Queensland to its organizational structure, the quality and direction of its lay, clerical and denominational leadership, its attitudes towards the wider church and community or even its socio-economic status.

Reasons for Open-Membership

Whatever may be the case in regard to these questions (which should be carefully considered), it is true that the nature and conditions of membership in the church is a live issue for Baptists. British Baptists have recently published a report on "Believing and Being Baptized" which arises out of the involvement of their churches in team ministries and ecumenical parish activity. Many churches, especially those in new housing areas and old run down inner cities, have been engaged for many years in forms of church life which seek to maximise Christian witness and ministry through cooperative action at the local level. This type of church life has usually involved the retention of the traditional membership categories of the participating denominations, but now the question of the next step after this phase of cooperation has arisen. While many churches are prepared to recognize each other's baptism with positive consequences for mutual acceptance of membership, this is not always the case; it is specially difficult where believers' baptism is set alongside paedo-baptist beliefs. It will not do to simply ignore previous baptisms and proceed to re-baptise as some mega-churches do. The British report was discussed at the 1997 Baptist World Alliance Doctrine Commission meetings, which indicates the interest in the issue from many parts of the world.

In Australia the issue often arises in different circumstances from Great Britain. Here migration and mobility of churchgoers combined with the super-church syndrome results in people "shopping and swapping" churches looking for ones that are suitable for them, irrespective of denominational background. This can mean that active Christians from other denominations finding themselves denied the opportunity to participate fully in the life of their chosen Baptist church because they cannot become members, even though their godly character, spirituality and commitment to the church is not questioned. To become members they would first need to be immersed as believers, but this would involve renunciation of their earlier baptism, which they are unwilling to do for reasons which are theological and spiritual as well as personal, family and sentimental. Some form of associate or better still, mutual membership would be of assistance in this situation, especially if their participation in the Baptist church was seen as being only temporary (as in the case of person transferred to serve a term in a country or provincial area, such as a teacher or police officer).

In other cases, the challenge of believer's baptism is questioned on less noble terms - people, perhaps those with little or no church background, are unconvinced of the necessity of believers' or any other kind of baptism and seek to be as fully involved in the life and ministry of a local church as those who are baptised members. Believers' baptism by immersion seems not only unnecessary but also unreasonable. Presumably any other kind of baptism that might be proposed for adult converts would be viewed in the same light. Little sympathy can be offered to such people if they cannot produce sound reasons for the Christian church to abandon two thousand years of teaching which asserts the importance and necessity of baptism.

Baptism and Baptists

Certainly, baptism can be a controversial and divisive matter. When the first Baptist church was set up in Queensland in 1855 and began preaching about the importance of believers' baptism, there was soon a bitter debate about the issue. Paedo-baptist churches and minister angrily denounced Baptists through sermons, lectures, tracts and newspaper letters. Yet the Baptists maintained their belief and their right to interpret the Bible. Defence of this distinctive belief was important for the future of the denomination. Of course, believers' baptism is not an isolated doctrine but is integrally related to the concept of the church as a group of committed believers and other doctrines. Earlier Baptists limited attendance at the communion service and membership in the church to those who were professing believers.

But it is strange now to suggest that the future of the denomination may depend on the abandonment of the prevailing view that baptism by immersion as a believer is essential to membership in a Baptist church. Overseas trends would be expected to lead to a loss of denominational separation was churches are able to reconcile their previous differences over baptism and unite. So what is the meaning of the Queensland suggestion that the denomination's future may be saved by de-emphasising baptism? Is it simply that less rigorous standards of membership will mean greater numbers and longer life?

Baptism not Required to be a Baptist in Queensland - the Strange Case of Taringa "Union" Baptist Church

Yet strangely enough, it is not necessary for a church to insist on a baptised membership for it to be a formal part of the Baptist denomination in Queensland. According to the official constitution, churches affiliated to Baptist Union may have unbaptised people in membership if the delegates of that church to the denominational gatherings are baptised. (Clause II.2)

This provision arose because of the Taringa Baptist Church, the church in which this sermon was preached, whose centenary is 8th September 1997. Official celebrations will take place on Sunday, 19th October when there will also be a tribute to Rev. James Voller, a pioneer Baptist minister of Australia who was instrumental in establishing the church.

When the decision was taken to form the church on May 31, 1897, it was established that it would be an open-membership fellowship. The membership rule stated, "Only such persons shall be eligible who satisfy the Church that they are sincerely endeavouring to do the will of God by following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ." This was unusual for Queensland, although the first church in Brisbane had been open-membership for a time. Some other churches interstate were also open-membership, but the greatest number was in South Australia, where the majority favoured this approach.

The reasons for Taringa being open-membership were the same as those that applied to the first church in Brisbane - the existing congregation was composed of people from various denominations, who differed in their views of baptism, but were united in being committed believers. So the Taringa church was to be known as The Taringa Union Baptist Church - a title which it held until 1939 when the incoming minister of the time, Rev. H.D. White would not accept the call unless closed membership was adopted. After he left in 1946, the church reverted to open-membership and the title "Taringa Union Baptist Church" was used; it was not until a new constitution was adopted in 1967, 70 years after the formation of the church, that open-membership was dropped, and baptism became a requirement, as was normal for other Queensland churches.

However, soon after the establishment of the church and its acceptance as a member of the Baptist Union (then Association) questions were raised regarding the legality of an open-membership church as a member of the Association. Discussions were held, legal advice sought and when a deputation to Taringa found that the church was unwilling to change it views, the above mentioned clause was inserted into the Baptist Union constitution, allowing Taringa and any other such church to be a member. It has remained to the present.

Open Membership - A Plea by William Page for Liberty

The minister of Taringa, Rev. William Page, formerly of NSW and a Spurgeon's College graduate, expressed the feeling of Taringa in a strongly worded letter to the Queensland Baptist in June 1899. In his "plea for liberty" he explained that an open-membership church (such as existed in other places in Australia and Great Britain) did not allow either infant or believers' baptism but taught strongly the believers' baptism was the biblical teaching (and conversely, that infant baptism was erroneous and "productive of widespread error"); furthermore, only Baptist ministers could occupy its pastorate. It was therefore certainly a Baptist church and it did not neglect or under-emphasise baptism. In practice, many who joined such churches unbaptised soon asked for baptism and therefore such churches could be thought of carrying the Baptist distinctives into the territory of those who would normally not accept the idea.

He then tackled the idea that membership standards were likely to be lax in an open-membership church. But he pointed out that this involves a serious misconception of the facts in two ways - first that such churches under emphasise the importance of Christian character and that believers' baptism is a strong safeguard against laxity. He denied both positions. The conclusion is that "in the absence of the baptismal test we are left to that of Christian character."

This indeed was the first rule in the original Taringa church constitution - that membership was open only to those who were endeavouring to do the will of God through service of the Lord Jesus Christ. People in this category may or may not be baptised (by immersion as believers) and they should be recognised as brothers and sisters in Christ. It would be a deplorable case of Pharisaism and a declaration of sacramentarianism (both contrary to the New Testament) to deny such people a place in the church simply because they were not baptised. He was surprised that the Baptist church which had a long history of opposition to ritualism to resort to the same views by insisting on an outward form when the inward godly character is obviously present. He argued that consistency was required - most Baptist churches allowed such godly people to take communion, so why should they not be permitted membership in the church too! (That is, he stood for both open membership and open communion, whereas then and now most church stood only for open communion - an illogical position)

He believed that open-membership was more suited to the culture and conditions in Australia than close-membership and would be productive of greater denominational growth. He felt that the experience of South Australia where Baptists were at the time much stronger was proof of this.

His appeal for "comprehension and not exclusion" was successful because it was soon after this that the Baptist Union constitution was changed. However, subsequent trends towards the uniform acceptance of close membership (but not close communion) indicate it was a hollow victory.

Justifying Open-Membership - Godly Character and Commitment not Formalism

The General Superintendent's 1997 report gives no reasons for the suggestion that open-membership may secure the denomination's future. So we are left to speculate.

Mr Page's use of the success of Baptists in the open-membership South Australia would not carry any weight today because the situation there has reversed. More seriously, Mr Page also does not discuss the situation where people show both godly character and are baptised, or are godly people who were baptised as infants.

A passage like Ephesians 4:1-7 suggest that a committed discipleship is absolutely necessary to Christian faith and life. The Christian life is essential a discipleship not a formality, a moral code or a mere religious observance. We are called by the Lord, as much as the disciples were, as John 15:16 points out. If we are disciples following the Lord, then it must be top priority in our lives - it can be no superficial, casual hobby we indulge in while we happened to be interested or nothing more important is required of us.

Then Eph. 4 suggests it is a renewed discipleship.(4:23-24) We cannot follow the Lord in this discipleship unless we are born again of the Spirit of God (John 3); the virtues mentioned in Eph 4:2 are none other than the fruit of the Spirit detailed in Galatians 5:22. This is no self-reformation, but a moral and spiritual renewal brought about by God himself. We love because God loved us and the love of God is spread abroad in our hearts. (I John 4:7-12; Romans 5:5)

Finally, it is a united discipleship. (Eph. 4:3-7) While baptism and other Christian beliefs and practices may be divisive, there is only one God, one source of our spiritual rebirth, one family into which are brought and one Kingdom of God. We all know this, even if we find it hard to live it out. So the idea of "union" church is a sign of the truth.

But if we accept there is "one Lord and one Faith" what about the "one Baptism" of Eph 4:5? Can this be believers' baptism and not infant baptism? Some might think so, but there is no place for such arrogance. It surely refers to the baptism by which we are all incorporated into Christ - 1 Cor 12:13 "for by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body". (see also John 3:5) It is the act of incorporation by the power of the Spirit into the body of Christ when we believe.

Does this mean that there is no need for water baptism? No, the New Testament teaches outward water baptism. Jesus instructed his disciples to do it (Mt 28:16-20) and the early church practiced it. Paul spoke of it in Romans 6.

So what is the relation between water baptism and incorporation into Christ by faith? Water baptism is the sign and symbol of the deeper reality - the gospel. (The communion is also a sign of the gospel) Baptism is a sign of committed discipleship (we are baptised into the Lord's name and come under his lordship); it is a sign of renewed discipleship (we are renewed by the Spirit) and it is a sign of united discipleship because we are incorporated into the one Lord and his one body, the family of God.

Baptism a Vital Biblical Symbol but without Intrinsic Meaning

Much of this symbolism is explained powerfully in Romans 6:1-11 - in fact most teaching about baptism in the New Testament explains it, making baptism of believers only by immersion "at once scriptural, significant and sensible" to quote Page, and a powerful gospel symbol.

But as a symbol it has no reality in itself - it points to something else, viz., the gospel which saves and transforms people. This is why Page and other advocates of open-membership put the emphasis upon discipleship and godly character and reject baptism as a guarantee of authentic faith. (Actually, the original Taringa membership rule is rather weak, but could easily be strengthened in terms of evidence of Christian character.)

What counts is the committed and renewed discipleship, not the outward form of baptism (or anything else). But to be biblical and consistent, one who is a committed and renewed disciple should surely see the importance and value of baptism as a powerful and helpful sign and symbol of this gospel.

Open-membership - the Preferred Option for the New Millennium

So, open-membership, when rightly understood, is not likely to be a panacea nor a easy path to church or denominational growth. In fact, it is more stringent than and difficult to apply than close-membership. Furthermore, it is inclusive and to be welcomed as a means of overcoming the present scandalous sectarianism. So, it is much more likely to diminish denominational jingoism in favour of the growth of the Kingdom of God. Because it does so on sound, rather than compromising or lax, unprincipled methods typified by those obsessed by institutional or denominational expansionism, it is to be wholly commended as a preferred option for Australian churches as they enter the new millennium.

David Parker, 8 Sept, 1997

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