Saturday, 9 January 2010

Baptist churches, membership and the Lord's Supper

Historically Baptist churches have had to wrestle with the question of believers who don't follow Baptist teaching and yet who become, or want to become, involved with the church in some way. Of course this is not a new problem - churches of every persuasion have to wrestle with this. It's not an easy problem and the number of potential variations on the issues that may come up in practice can be almost endless. Here's something I penned in trying to explain the broad range of options and positions to a friend that may be of use to others also...
Some [Baptist churches] are the "strict Baptist churches"; their practice is that you must be baptised as a believer to become a member, and only members of the church (or visitors who are members elsewhere) can take the Lord's Supper.

Then there are the "open communion" Baptist churches, which have "strict" membership, but allow anyone who professes faith to take part in the Lord's Supper. i.e. non-members are welcomed to the supper.

Then there are the "open membership" Baptist churches, which insist that the church's teaching and leadership will always be Baptist, but that sincere believers of different persuasions should not be kept outside of the membership.

The "strict Baptists" can say that they are trying to follow the Bible's teaching on baptism and membership most closely (the Bible teaches believer's baptism and that the Lord's Supper is a privilege for members who have made themselves subject to church discipline).

The "open communion" Baptists can say that they have a Baptist church and so maintain Baptist doctrine, but avoid excluding true believers of different opinions from fellowship. (On their bookshelves Strict Baptists have heroes of the faith that they learn from, but would not actually sit down at the Lord's Supper with them - but would say that those people were excluding themselves by not following the Biblical path).

The "open membership" Baptists think that church membership should not be more difficult than salvation (both strict and open communion Baptists have to admit that there are godly, obedient people going to heaven who yet cannot join their churches - and perhaps those people are more obedient and useful than those who are members!), and so whilst Baptist doctrine is taught and required for leaders, it is not made a test of membership and fellowship. (Though members are required never to contradict the taught doctrine - it is a Baptist church, not a choose-your-own doctrine church!).

I think that William Carey was a strict Baptist, Spurgeon was an open communion Baptist, and John Bunyan was an open membership Baptist.

Personally I think there should be a distinction between what the church teaches, and what individual members have so far managed to understand and apply. I think that to require that the members should have maturity in every area of belief before they can join is not right. Should baptism be made absolutely compulsory so that nobody can join the membership at all without agreeing, yet if they fall into error in other areas (e.g. working on Sunday, or poor family relationships) it is a matter for us to address as it arises within the membership? Is a correct understanding of baptism more fundamental than all of the other areas in which our members can fall short? Is it a heresy such that they must be kept outside the church like as if they were believing salvation by works or anti-nomianism?

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