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Open Membership In Australian Baptist Churches

(Paper presented to the School of Ministry, Whitley College
Melbourne, July, 1992, and then to all the Baptist clergy conferences throughout Australia. Updated 2010).

‘Now abides faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is

The relationship of a person’s faith-to-baptism-to-church membership
is one of the most complex issues in contemporary Baptist faith and
practice. Most Australian Baptists have resolved the closed/open
communion issue (in favour of open communion), but only a minority of
our churches have moved to an open membership position. So we approach
this divisive issue with teachable humility, recognizing that if, after
four hundred years of to-ing and fro-ing on the subject we have still
not reached a common mind, that prospect is not going to be realized
easily or soon for us either.

The early Christians baptized ‘believers’ by immersion into the
membership of their churches. Repentance-faith-receiving the Holy
Spirit-baptism-church membership were seen to be linked, theologically,
experientially and chronologically. Baptism was the doorway into the
church local and universal (these two aspects of the church were
inseparable for them). Immersion was the normal mode (though effusion
was allowed, says the [second century AD] Didache, where the water
supply was inadequate). Adults were the usual candidates (though
households of believers were also baptized. You don’t often hear of
whole households baptized these days do you?). These apostolic churches
had no formal constitutions or regulations; their koinonia had not yet
become institutionalized. The uniting factor: ‘one Lord, one faith, one

Augustine later linked the necessity of baptism with the doctrine of
original sin. First the Syrian church, then others, began the practice
of baptizing babies during the first eight days. Aquinas affirmed that
baptism ‘leaves an indelible mark upon the soul.’ Calvin linked baptism
in the new covenant with circumcision in the old; Luther prescribed the
involvement of an adult sponsor; Zwingli said baptism was a sign or
symbol only, of a deeper faith-reality.

Baptists first baptized by effusion, but soon switched to immersion.
Their commitment to a ‘believers’ church’ prescribed baptism only of
those who could personally request it. John Bunyan was the most famous
proponent of open membership, for which he was vilified by other
Baptists. In three treatises on the subject, he said the reality of an
inward faith was more – much more – important than an outward sign like

The key question: ‘Why is it possible to be accepted into the family
of God but not into the family of a Baptist church?’ Baptists have given
many answers, which can roughly be summarized into six broad categories:

[1] HARD CLOSED: Here members are only those baptized by someone
with authority in one’s own Baptist denomination. Many U.S. Southern
Baptists, for example, will re-baptize other Baptists.

[2] SOFT CLOSED: These churches will not re-baptize someone already
immersed as a believer, unless the baptism took place in a sectarian

[3] MODIFIED CLOSED: This – with the ‘soft closed’ position – is the
stance of most Australian Baptist churches. Here a believer who is
unbaptized, or was baptized as an infant, is given ‘associate’ status,
and may vote on secondary matters in church meetings, and generally will
not be eligible for the office of deacon or elder.

[4] MODIFIED OPEN: In these churches only those who are baptized can
be members, provided the individual regards their baptism – of whatever
kind – as valid for them. This is the position of about 70-80 of our
Australian churches.

[5] PLURALIST OPEN: These churches (eg. in parts of the UK and in
North India) go one step further and allow options for either infant or
adult baptism, choosing sprinkling, effusion or immersion.

[6] WIDER OPEN: This position allows the individual, in
consultation and prayer within the community of faith, to reach a
conclusion about baptism that is valid for them, but may be a full
member of the church during this process.

In the view of this writer legalism decreases, and a commitment to
ecumenism increases, as we move from [1] to [6]. Further, older Baptist
pastors in Australia would tend towards [2] and [3], younger pastors [4]
to [6]. South Australians have the greatest heterogeneity across this
spectrum, Queensland and WA Baptists the narrowest. In the last decade
at least a dozen Baptist churches in Victoria have joined the existing
half-dozen committed to some form of Open Membership. At a recent
conference of 100 NSW Baptist pastors, the overwhelming feeling I got
was (1) sympathy with an Open Membership position; (2) pessimism about
their leading laypeople and ‘the Union’ agreeing with them.

The two theological questions here are (1) Is baptism the esse of the church? and (2) Should believers only be baptized? [1] [2] and [3] would answer ‘Yes, yes’; [4] and [5] ‘Yes, no’ or ‘No, yes’; [6] ‘No, no.’ Mother Teresa or the Pope could be a member of [4] and [5]
churches, but (Salvation Army General) Eva Burrows couldn’t!

Let us organize the issues into ten clusters:

1. PASTORAL. Every sensitive Baptist has had to wrestle with the
problem of someone from another church feeling they shouldn’t have to be
re-baptized to join the church of their choice. Their earlier baptism
was confirmed when they knew what it was all about, and, anyway, can’t
baptism – in any mode – happen before, at, or after conversion? ‘I would
be a hypocrite if I got baptized just to please you lot!’ These people
believe their earlier baptism was something God did, rather than what
they did or was done to them; and that the most important things you can
say about baptism of any kind are that it is unrepeatable, and that if
it was in the Triune name, that’s what matters most. And then there is
the inevitable feeling of being second-class, even if some form of
‘Christians in fellowship’ or associate membership is practised.

On this point our constitutions say one thing, but our pastoral
hearts and theological heads say another. Bunyan wrote: ‘The Church of
Christ hath no warrant to keep out of their communion Christians that
walk according to their light with God.’

2. HISTORICAL. Over time, Western Christendom has moved beyond the
bigotry of the Middle Ages and Reformation eras. Indeed, Baptists, as we
shall see, were involved as much as any in their commitment to religious
liberty and tolerance. When we read of dissidents in Iran being
executed, we are thankful we have moved beyond the militant
fundamentalism that has blotted Christian history as well. Baptists
should be at the forefront of encouraging all peoples to move from
bigotry to tolerance, from overstanding to understanding. (By the way,
the earliest Baptists in Australia practised open membership).

3. CULTURAL. We live in a multicultural society. Pluralism is the
order of the day – even in the worldwide church, which now has over
40,000 separate denominations, each of which believes it is more right
than all the others! The secular media are having a field day with our
intolerances and failings. We don’t need to give them any more
ammunition, while at the same time affirming our commitment to the
unchanging Word of God, rather than the whims of a pagan culture.
Moreover, the ‘tribal’ role od denominations is decreasing: well over
60% of Christians now say they do not have a strong denominational

4. INSTITUTIONAL. All institutions, said sociologist Robert Merton,
are inherently degenerative. Institutions tend, over time, to increase
in complexity and exclusiveness, multiplying laws, regulations, and
constitutions. Tradition is a good servant, but an oppressive master.

5. MORAL. Let us state the issue in stark terms. Most Baptist
22-year-olds in our churches are not virgins (ask any experienced pastor
or youth counselor!). Those who are members, however, may, despite
their private morals, vote on all matters financial and theological. So
may the adults who are factional, greedy or backbiters. However, if a
godly Salvationist or Anglican were to request membership, they would be
refused in most of our churches. Their spiritual life may be exemplary,
but this matters less, apparently, than the quantity of H20 used in
their baptism, and the chronology of that event. Any system which
produces this kind of legalistic and unchristian anomaly has got to have
something wrong with it!

6. THEOLOGICAL. There are two questions here:

6-1. Can infant baptism be a valid baptism? If your view is that
baptism is primarily something God does, the answer is ‘yes.’ The
extreme form of this position, however is a quasi-magical
sacramentalism: baptism is a ‘work of grace’ which is instrumental in
bringing salvation to the candidate. Conversely, if you believe baptism
is primarily something we do, it can degenerate into a empty ‘mere
symbol’ stance. British Baptist theologians Wheeler Robinson and George
Beasley-Murray, among others, have helped us see baptism rather as a
Divine/human encounter. Baptism is linked in the NT with baptism in the
Holy Spirit. It is a means of grace. There is no gift or power which the
apostolic documents do not ascribe to baptism. All the chief Christian
doctrines are somehow linked with baptism. So sacrament and symbol need
to be held together.

Swedish Baptist theologian T. Bergsten says there are two kinds of
infant baptism: indiscriminate baptism which has produced ‘millions of
baptized pagans’, and that in which parents and later the confirmed
teenager/adult have had a more responsible role. Any judgment about
validity has to be made very carefully, or we will find ourselves
‘unchurching’ other committed Christians.

The issue of re-baptism is complex. Individuals can give all sorts
of reasons why they believe their earlier baptism was invalid:
theologically, it was not according to biblical precedent;
experientially, they were ‘not a Christian’ at that point;
methodologically it wasn’t done properly (insufficient water etc.). Some
feel they were baptized for the wrong reasons – peer pressure, pleasing
a spouse, obeying the rules merely to conform etc. If baptism is only
something God does, re-baptism for any reason would be invalid; if
baptism is only something we do, re-baptisms can occur ad infinitum.
Surely the better way is to affirm the Divine/human encounter in the
event, and only re-baptize in the rarest of circumstances, if an
individual is utterly convinced their earlier baptism was invalid.

6-2. Can we add anything to grace? We now come to the crux of the
matter, an issue unfortunately not often tackled sufficiently in the
scholarly literature. The essence of the Christian gospel is that God
accepts us unconditionally. His grace is all we need. Further, in the
Christian community, grace means that all the old racial, social,
sexist, and theological barriers that divided us are shattered forever.
Some groups add ‘tongues’ to grace; others ‘sabbath-keeping’. Baptists
add baptism to grace. Any proviso expressed as ‘Sorry, unless you… – in
addition to being accepted by God – you are not fully acceptable around
here’ is essentially pharisaical. The pharisees had a theology of
‘grace-plus’. That’s why Jesus got offside with them. With the pharisees
repentance preceded acceptance (‘you change, agree with us, and you’ll
be acceptable around here’); with Jesus it was the other way around (‘I
accept you; let’s work on a process of change together’). Pharisees are
territorial (only our kind are welcome); Christians ought to be
hospitable (you are most welcome here).

7. BIBLICAL. Advocates of an open membership position take seriously
the prophets’ and Jesus’ unjunction: ‘It is kindness I want, not
ordinances’ (Matthew 9:13). These sacrifices were divine-ordained, but,
said Jesus, kindness and mercy to others, accepting others, is more
important. Paul agreed: ‘Accept one another, then, for the glory of God,
as Christ has accepted you’ (Romans 15:7). How are we accepted? Purely
on the basis of grace. We then must accept others the same way. Nothing
can be added to grace.

8. ECUMENICAL. This is a ‘dirty word’ for many Baptists, and I am
aware of the reasons for that. We have been given certain insights into
the nature of the church which we do not want to modify. Whilst we
affirm the integrity of other churches’ search for truth, our own
affirmations and distinctives are dear to us.

However, our generally exclusive attitude to paedobaptists is
abhorrent to them. Are we the only true church? Have we nothing to learn
from others? With Christendom so divided, how should we work to answer
our Lord’s prayer for his church, that they may be one? By refusing
membership to those belonging to other Christian churches is to say
something else is more important than our Christianness.

Our unity is not on the basis of a particular view of baptism, but
in the common confession to which baptism points – the redemption of God
God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

‘In all things essential, unity; in all things doubtful, liberty;
and in all things, charity.’ What are the ‘essential’ things? Only four,
I believe: * The unity of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; *
The saving work of Jesus Christ, who was fully human and fully divine; *
The full authority of the Scriptures in all matters of faith and
conduct; and * justice and love as the key kingdom values for Jesus and
for us (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42).

God probably isn’t a Baptist!

9. DENOMINATIONAL. Baptist distinctives may be expressed this way:
Jesus Christ is Lord of the church, which essentially comprises only the
regenerate; the Bible is the ultimate authority for all we believe and
do in the church and in the world; believers’ baptism (preferably by
immersion) is the ordinance by which we enter the membership of a
church; the autonomy of the local church – which means that no outside
body can dictate what a particular community of faith believes and
practices; individuals are at liberty to be guided by the Holy Spirit
operating within the community of faith in their understanding of the
Scriptures; the state has no mandate to interfere in the beliefs and
practices of the people of God, except to uphold good laws and maintain

Now Baptists have vitiated their own history by insisting that
‘freedom’ is OK on every issue except baptism, a theory of biblical
inerrancy or the parousia, or whatever. What Baptists have insisted
others grant to them, they have not been willing to grant to others.

10. PRACTICAL. The devil has a particular strategy to destroy the
faith and life of every denomination, every local church, and every
Christian. A useful spiritual exercise would be to figure out what that
strategy is for Baptists!

A criticism leveled at open membership churches is that they tend
towards nominalism. This is not necessarily true. Many Southern Baptist
churches which insist on baptism by immersion of children or others have
a far greater nominalism than, say, the 50% of Baptist churches in South
Australia which practice open membership. The antidote for nominalism is
not pharisaism, but a more rigorous cachetical program, whereby those
applying for membership examine the reality of their confession, and the
essential truths of the biblical gospel. I would urge a more serious and
extended study of baptism and other doctrines, so that the ordinance
does not become a mere rite or formality. Another good practice is a
membership re-affirmation or covenant service each year.

Open membership churches feel that their ‘closed’ counterparts are
legalistic, putting adherance to a particular doctrinal interpretation
ahead of accepting others whom God has accepted. This criticism surely
has validity. Closed membership is a denial not only of our Baptist
principle of the liberty of individuals to be guided by the Holy Spirit,
perhaps into another point of view, but is, above all, a denial of the
Christian good news about God’s grace.

For someone to have one’s name in the Lamb’s Book of Life but not to
qualify for our membership books is aweful! Baptists have always said
the Reformers did not take the Protestant Reformation far enough.
Perhaps we, too, have to take the great Reformation principle of grace
to its logical and biblical conclusion.

Further reading: T. Bergsten, ‘Baptism and the Church’, The Baptist
, Vol 18 nos. 3 & 4 (1959), pp. 125-131, 159-171.

D. Bridge and D. Phypers, The Water that Divides, IVP, 1977.

A. Gilmore, Baptism and Christian Unity, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1966, pp. 58-74.

Thorwald Lorenzen, ‘Baptism and Church Membership: Some Baptist
Positions and their Ecumenical Implications’, J. Ecumenical Studies, 18:4, Fall 1981, pp. 561 ff.

(Rev. Dr.) Rowland Croucher


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