Piper’s Baptism and Membership Proposal: A Neo-Landmark Response
Evangelical Theological Seminary Eastern Regional Meeting
Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania
March 24, 2006
The purpose of this paper is to present an overview of and response to the Baptism and Membership Proposal that is currently under consideration at Bethlehem Baptist Church (hereafter BBC) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As we shall see, the major point of contention in this proposal is that it recommends that BBC remove believer’s baptism by immersion as a necessary prerequisite for church membership. This suggestion is all the more significant, because it comes from a church and a pastor that have become known not only for the defense and renewal of foundational doctrinal truths, but also for the defense and renewal of evangelical Calvinism.
I. A history of the BBC proposal on "Baptism and Church Membership."
II. Piper’s argument against believer’s baptism by immersion as a test for local Baptist church membership.
The "crucial paragraph" in Piper’s initial "Twelve Theses" was this:
10. Therefore, where the belief in the Biblical validity of infant baptism does not involve baptismal regeneration or the guarantee of saving grace, this belief is not viewed by the elders of BBC as a weighty or central enough departure from Biblical teaching to exclude a person from membership, if he meets all other relevant qualifications and is persuaded from Bible study and a clear conscience that his baptism is valid. In such a case we would not require baptism by immersion as a believer for membership but would teach and pray toward a change of mind that would lead such members eventually to baptism (4).
Among the primary arguments Piper makes on the issue of baptism and church membership are the following:
1. The local church should not bar any sincere Christian from membership in the visible body of Christ on the basis of his understanding and experience of baptism (given that he does not embrace the concept of baptismal regeneration or reject baptism altogether).
2. Related to this is what Paul Dreblow calls "the saints of the past" argument.
3. It is more crucial that the teaching authority (elders) of a church be unified on doctrine than in the general membership of a church.
4. The requirement of believer’s baptism by immersion elevates a minor doctrine to the status of being a major doctrine.
5. Historical appeal to John Bunyan.
III. Concerns that this proposal raises.
A. Paul Dreblow raised six points of concern:
1. The issue had not been studied thoroughly enough by the BBC elders.
2. Baptism by immersion of born again believers in the only standard and practice of described and taught in the NT.
3. The timing of the issue related to campus ministry. Here Dreblow asks if the church is not being driven by pragmatism.
4. Challenges the "saints of the past’ argument and asks if this will lead to greater compromise down the road: "If we make exceptions to stated doctrinal agreement and practice here, then where else?" (26).
5. Whose conscience is at stake? What about the conscience of the members who believe that believer’s baptism by immersion is essential to church membership?
6. Creation of confusion and disunity in the body of Christ.
B. Further concerns:
1. I would challenge Piper’s argument that baptism is a minor doctrine. On the contrary, I would argue that it is a central and significant doctrine.
2. I would challenge Piper’s argument that barring a person from membership in a local Baptist church who is not willing to experience baptism by immersion is equivalent to barring him from participation in the visible body of Christ.
3. I would challenge Piper’s "saints of the past" argument by asking, "Is it any better to allow ‘the saints of the past’ into the church as members and then bar them from the office of Elder?"
4. This proposal creates a two-tier membership.
5. Slippery-slope argument. Compromise here leads to compromise on other issues.
6. I would challenge the historical appeal to Bunyan by noting that, after thorough discussion, Bunyan’s views were rejected by his fellow Baptists.
IV. A final reflection on what it means to be a Neo-Landmark Baptist.