The long-time readers of this blog know for a fact that this topic is near to me and dear to me -- because it's one of the topics I have blogged about most often. And in that, I think I am more a Baptist for it today than I was 3 years ago.
I respect Dr. Piper and the elders of his church wanting to have an open door at their church for all believers in Christ -- for wanting, as they have said, to keep the front door of the local church as wide as the front door of the universal church -- namely, all who believe in Jesus Christ.
Dr. Piper's message yesterday delivered a stirring call for the importance of church membership -- one with which I would agree almost entirely. Almost.
He says this in the middle of his message:
One of the key convictions behind the elder proposal (that was made and then withdrawn) is that excluding from membership a truly born-again person who gives credible evidence of his saving faith is a more serious mistake than receiving into membership a true believer who is not biblically baptized though, according to his own conscience, he believes he is. But that conviction assumes church membership is really important, so that excluding a person from it is very serious.Let me say frankly that this is not a matter either of subjective belief or of merely-judicial or -authoritarian caveat. This is the place where the reasoning at Bethlehem goes of the rails, in my opinion, and let me explain briefly why I would say that.
So one of the arguments against the elder proposal was that membership in a local church like Bethlehem does not matter very much—certainly not as much as baptism—because a non-member can worship and take the Lord’s Supper and go to Sunday School and be a part of a small group and be visited by a pastor in the hospital; or he can simply go to another church that shares his view of baptism.
So if membership is not that important, then excluding someone from membership will not seem a serious problem. That would mean that the elders are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. This is one of the most crucial issues we need to think through as a church: How serious is it to say to a regenerate person: “You are not permitted to be a member of this church”?
In Acts 19, Paul finds the "disciples" at Corinth who had received John's baptism but not the baptism of Jesus. Those people there sincerely believed they had been baptized, but in fact they had not been baptized into Christ. That example speaks clearly, I think, to the question of whether or not what one thinks about one's baptism is what we should weigh when we are considering them as members of our fellowship and churches. We are not saying they are not disciples: we are saying they are not baptized, and they should hear that call plainly for what it is: a call to be obedient to what God has ordained for the church and for the believer.
In that way, we are not questioning anyone's status as being regenerate or not regenerate. We are calling them to do what God has called them to do. The excuse, "I think I already have done it," is dispelled by they fact that they did not, in fact, do it -- it was done to them before they could agree or decline. What they have had done is not objectively the same as what we are calling them to.
By saying that, we are not saying to a regenerate person, "your salvation doesn't matter to us and you cannot join our church." We -- that is, the church and specifically its elders -- are saying what the elders ought to say in the name of Jesus Christ: if you love me, you will keep my commandments.
Baptism is a commandment from God for the believer. And without overstating this matter, it is the charge of the elder to exhort the believer to do what God has commanded, and not merely settle for what seems good to every man in his own eyes. Someone who doesn't want to do what God has commanded is someone, I think, who is not under the authority of the elders but on his own program.
I really love that Bethlehem Baptist church is thinking deeply about this matter. But one of the most deeply-resounding themes of its preaching pastor is the matter of obedience to God out of love and joy for what God has done for us. Is it really such a hard thing, in that context, to tell those who want to fellowship in an assembly which hears the Lord commanding us to baptize the believer that this is their first step in truly desiring God?