Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required For Church Membership

 

going_public

Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required For Church Membership
By Bobby Jamieson
Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015
256 pp. | $24.99

Penned by Bobby Jamieson, a Ph.D. student in New Testament at the University of Cambridge, and prior assistant editor for 9Marks, Going Public concerns the topic of baptism, and how it relates to church membership. In particular, this work addresses how churches that practice believer’s baptism should deal with potential members who were baptized as infants. The book’s target audience, then, is those who embrace the notion of formal church membership, and are convinced of credobaptism. In order to answer a number of pressing questions faced by church leaders who affirm such commitments, the book offers a “predominantly constructive approach” that touches on the significance of not only baptism, but also local church membership, and participation in the Lord’s Supper. (19)

Summary

Going Public breaks down into three parts: the first is prefatory, the second is constructive, and the third is both apologetic and practical.

Part 1 begins with Jamieson clarifying, in chapter 1, that he will be contending for the idea that believer’s baptism “is required for church membership and for participation in the Lord’s Supper.” (8) This position, also referred to as closed membership, is over and against open membership, wherein “those who have been ‘baptized’ as infants” are allowed into church membership. (8) Jamieson notes that every church takes a position on this issue (at least those with formal membership), and, as such, his burden is to assist church leaders in making a biblically informed decision.

To advance his thesis, Jamieson acknowledges that he must demonstrate baptism is intrinsic, not incidental, to church membership. He concedes that mere proof-texting will not settle the matter, especially since there is “no explicit biblical command to admit only baptized persons to membership.” (18) This being the case, Jamieson concludes that, “the way forward lies through a holistic theological account of the relationship between the ordinances and church membership.” (18) However, before supplying this account, Jamieson first, in chapter 2, pauses to expose six underlying factors that culturally predispose people toward open membership.

Part 2 sets forth a constructive case for a necessary relationship between believer’s baptism and church membership. In chapter 3, Jamieson contends that while faith is indeed personal, it is “never private.” (35) But how, precisely, do we take our faith public? For Jamieson, the answer is: being baptized as a believer. To underscore this, he provides a list of six foundational facets of baptism that are highlighted in the New Testament. The basic contours of his argument having been sketched, Jamieson moves forward, in chapters 4 and 5, to fill out the relationship between ecclesiology and baptism. In these chapters, through deployment of the “complementary lenses of the new covenant and the kingdom of God,” Jamieson maintains that an ecclesial “shape is decisive for how we relate baptism to church membership.” (55-56)

In chapter 6, Jamieson investigates the relationship between the local church and the Lord’s Supper. Therein, he insists that the Lord’s Supper is “an effective sign of the local church’s existence as a church,” binding “many into one.” (135) Moreover, only those who have been baptized (the initiatory rite of new covenant membership) should take part in this Supper (the ongoing rite of said membership). In addition, the appropriate context for this sign is within the assembled local church (as bounded by local church membership). In chapter 7, Jamieson caps off Part 2 by making a case for the notion that “Churches are not at liberty to extend membership absent [believer’s] baptism. To do so is to misidentify membership,” and “to confer the label where the reality does not in fact exist.” (156)

The constructive work having been largely completed, Jamieson turns to defense and application of this labor in Part 3. He first supplies a summary, in chapter 8, of why he is convinced that believer’s baptism is necessary for local church membership. In chapter 9, Jamieson responds to seven common arguments against closed membership. Then, in chapter 10, he offers seven arguments against open membership. Finally, in chapter 11, Jamieson practically applies the work completed in the prior chapters. Following this concluding chapter, Jamieson offers an appendix that succinctly outlines his position.

Strengths

On the whole, while this work is polemic, Jamieson’s tone is nonetheless irenic. His intent is that those who disagree with him will “still profit from the biblical and theological exposition that forms the heart of the book.” (19) To this end of proffering a profitable excursion into his selected topic, Jamieson has largely succeeded. By classifying and providing insightful interaction with a number of categories germane to this broader issue, Jamieson has done the church a service.

Another strength of this book is Jamieson’s identification of and response to the sorts of questions that church leaders encounter as they interact with potential parishioners from a variety of backgrounds. In addition, Jamieson deftly anticipates questions that arise from the material itself. Oftentimes, as I read through this work, Jamieson’s positive statements would prompt the very questions that he would in turn proceed to answer.

Also laudable is the fact that the core chapters of this book all include “headlines” summations at the end, which, in an easy to digest table, highlight the main points of the chapter. I found these brief chapter summaries to be quite helpful. They offer an easy to use resource for busy church leaders, including those who want to refresh their understanding of the conventional credobaptist position on these issues.

An additional strength of Jamieson’s efforts here is the way in which he uses a variety of metaphors to help convey his convictions concerning local church membership and the ordinances. These include comparing baptism to a passport, and marriage vows. While some of these metaphors are more fitting than others, I respected Jamieson’s attempt to bring some at-times lofty ideas down to ground level. Further, Jamieson has provided pastors with examples of ways to speak about baptism that may be of aid to their congregations.

Weaknesses

For this book’s admirable strengths, it nonetheless does suffer from a number of shortcomings.

To begin with, while early on noting the insufficiency of proof-texting, Going Public is nonetheless riddled with proof-texts. On not a few pages of this book, it seems as though every sentence ends with an arsenal of verse references. I do appreciate the fact that this book functions as a sort of catalogue of verses that one might want to turn to when studying Scripture’s take on church membership and the ordinances. Still, this proof-text heavy style lacks the flow of more polished prose. And, perhaps even more concerning, it tends to give the impression that proof-texting actually is the way to make one’s argument. This leads to my next (related) critique.

It often feels as if Jamieson thinks that his reading of assembled New Testament texts ought to be rather self-evident. However, the import of many of the texts that Jamieson appeals to has been demonstrated not to be so clear, as evidenced by the broad diversity of interpretative conclusions among Bible-believing orthodox Christians, both presently and historically. This being the case, I would have appreciated a bit more attention to the hermeneutical and methodological conclusions that undergird how Jamieson reads certain texts (especially the controversial ones).

In addition to a lack of explicit reflection on hermeneutics and methodology, the book would benefit from greater depth and breadth in its interaction with other theological voices. Admittedly, there is some dialogue with selected contemporary conversation partners (e.g., John Piper). However, there is no real sustained engagement with non-contemporary sources. While the footnotes do betray an awareness of a number of key historical interlocutors (though most of these hail from the 17th century onward), interaction with such sources is minimal. This absence is exacerbated by Jamieson’s assertion that the position he advances is the “historic position.” (10)

My final critique concerns Jamieson’s discussion of how baptism relates to the new covenant (see esp. pp. 38-41). In this portion of the book, Jamieson argues that baptism is “part of becoming a Christian.” (40) In other words, the “process of conversion” is “a unified whole, baptism included,” and as such, the New Testament ordinarily talks about baptism not as something that happens after a person becomes a Christian, but rather “what happened to us when we became Christians.” (40) While acknowledging that regeneration technically precedes baptism, Jamieson reasons that this is a zoomed-in look at conversion, and that the New Testament’s view of conversion is typically zoomed-out, to include the broader process, of which baptism is a part. Here, it could be queried whether Jamieson is reading the passages he cites a bit too flatly (rendering the meaning of “baptism” the same in each). In addition, his later assertion that someone who has not been baptized “has not yet fully entered the new covenant” seems problematic to me – at least without more support and qualification than this book offers. (78)

Conclusion

The books aims, by and large, to help those who are already convinced of believer’s baptism and formal church membership sift through the issues related to “open” versus “closed” membership. Most of Jamieson’s readers will already be generally familiar with the terrain he is surveying, and largely sympathetic to his ecclesiological commitments. For such readers, this book will serve as a valuable resource. In addition, Going Public functions as a sort of sourcebook for key categories and texts pertinent to a number of important topics related to a Protestant, credobaptist perspective on church membership and the ordinances. Especially for pastors of churches that lean in this direction (which, admittedly, I am one), Jamieson’s work here is a welcome contribution. For all of my above-noted quibbles, I imagine that this is a book I will be turning to often as a reference.

 

 

About Tim Harmon

Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.