Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Polity Matters (Part XI): A Case Study in Membership Requirements

Today John Piper, senior pastor of Bethelehem Baptist Church, released a statement that the elders of the church are leading the church through a process that will culminate in a vote to modify the church's consititution and by-laws to allow:
the possibility that a person may become a member who has not been baptized by immersion as a believer but who regards the baptismal ritual he received in infancy not as regenerating, but nevertheless (as with most Presbyterians) in such a way that it would violate his conscience to be baptized as a believer.
The motivation for the amendment is that a vast majority of the elders believes that the requirements for membership at Bethlehem:
should move toward being roughly the same as the requirements for membership in the universal body of Christ. That is, we have come to the conclusion that it is seriously questionable to say to a person who gives good evidence of being a true Christian and who wants to join Bethlehem: you may not join.
What makes this amendment acceptable in the elders' view is that Bethlehem has recently adopted a more stringent statement of faith for the elders, which includes a specific affirmation of believers' immersion. I discussed a very similar statement made by John MacArthur in a previous post. MacArthur, however, was addressing signing a doctrinal statement, not the necessity of believers' immersion for church membership. One of the points I made then is that a polity that locates virtually all authority in the elders (as Grace Community Church models) permits greater doctrinal latitude for the membership. GCC's model is not what I believe the NT church models, but it does have that practical ramification.

There are two primary questions that I'm thinking about:
1) Does BBC's constitution require all constitutional amendments to originate with the elders? If not, this more permissive policy could potentially lead to an influx of members who would initiate an other amendment to eliminate the recently-strengthened statement of faith for the elders.

2) If it is a bad thing to set a higher standard for membership in a local church than God's standard for membership in a universal church, why would BBC want to set a higher standard for BBC's office of elder than God's standards in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1?

Qualifications for local church membership are not prescribed in Scripture. We have no hard and fast evidence that an official "church roll" even existed in the churches of the NT, although I do believe that a synthesis of several texts points toward some sort of accounting process. On the other hand, we can find no evidence in the NT of a believer who was not immersed. Believers' immersion is one of those doctrines that just seems pretty clear to me, but I understand that those who follow a traditional covenant hermeneutic are dissuaded by their rigid identification of the Church as the "new Israel." That's a long rabbit trail for another time.

For the best arguments available today on biblical NT church polity, just memorize everything at the 9 Marks web site. In all seriousness, some of the interviews in the audio section address this precise issue, and I suspect some of the articles do as well. I recommend them wholeheartedly.


Anonymous said...

I am very disappointed by Piper and the elders at BBC.

I do agree with the elder rule position. The local church is a gathering of believers who have been immersed after salvation and who observed the Lord's supper.

Bret Capranica said...

Thanks for the link and the comments. Your two questions are very important questions. I assume the elders at BBC and some of the members are asking and addressing these issues.

Keith said...

Regarding question 1: I don't know their constitution, but I would wager that, even if the elders don't have to originate all ammendments, they maintain control of which proposed ammendments make it to the floor for a vote.

Regarding question 2: I'm sure they would argue that they are not adding to the requirements from Timothy. Timothy requires the elders to have a mature understanding of scripture, and they believe that a mature understanding of Scripture indicates Believers' Baptism by Immersion. So, an elder must have this position.

I've noted concern about Piper's proposal at Sharper Iron too. I can't comment there because I'm not a fundamentalist. However, I have wanted to state that Piper's proposed approach is similar to that of the Presbyterian Church in America -- You don't have to agree with the PCA view of baptism to be a church member (anyone professing faith in Christ may join), but you do to be an elder or deacon. And, last I checked, the PCA wasn't moving away from paedo baptism just because it allows non paedo baptists to join the general membership.