Reviewed by Kirk Wellum
For some time now 9Marks has been making available to the Christian public timely and helpful books in the under-appreciated area of biblical ecclesiology. Going Public, by Bobby Jamieson, on the relationship between baptism and church membership, is yet another example of excellence in this area of study. In 243 pages, Jamieson gives every Christian who takes seriously the importance of the church of Jesus Christ in the redemptive purposes of God, much to think about. Simply put, Jamieson argues that baptism is the biblical way a person professes their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and becomes part of his church, and then, and only then, are they qualified to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Overall, he strikes a nice balance between careful theological argumentation and thoughtful pastoral application born of a realization that what seems relatively simple on the surface is anything but simple because of various traditions that have grown like barnacles on the side an old ship.
At a surface level, what could be more straight-forward than the command of Jesus to his apostles to baptize disciples in the triune name as the way of setting them apart as his people and members of his new covenant assembly or church? But, as anyone who has more than a superficial acquaintance with the church will know, disagreements about baptism, and church membership which is tied to it, have fractured many a group of Christians all of whom have sworn allegiance to Jesus. And, then when you add in discussions about the observance of the Lord’s Supper, it does not take long to ascertain that the views of Christians are far from unanimous when it comes to the connections between baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership.
If there is one area of agreement, however, it has to do with the secondary importance of the ordinances when it comes to salvation. Most Christians understand that we are not talking about the existence of God, his tri-unity, the creation and fall of man, the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, or the application of Christ’s work to the repentant believer by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nor are we talking about the authority of the scriptures, the incarnation of the Son, the virgin birth of Jesus, his atoning death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, and his return at the end of the age. In this regard, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership are not primary but secondary matters. But it is here that we must proceed judiciously – and Jamieson knows this. Caution is required because what we believe about the ordinances and church membership reveals how we read the scriptures, how we put together the biblical covenants, and how we understand the church as the body of Christ. Or to put it another way, they are secondary matters with primary theological and pastoral significance and implications.
These factors make Going Public a book that should be read and studied carefully by Christians regardless of their inherited ecclesiological traditions. It is disappointing that after so long Christians still do not agree about matters that are so basic when it comes to understanding how we should conduct ourselves in the church of the living God – the pillar and foundation of the truth! If proof is required to explicate the biblical truth that our sanctification is not complete till glory one need look no further than the confusion that continues to exist in too many areas of theology propped up by convoluted arguments that fail to do justice to the totality of the biblical data.
Going Public is composed of an introduction, 11 chapters, an appendix, and 3 indexes – name, subject, and scripture indexes – that facilitate the study of the book. In his introduction Jamieson writes, “This book is not exactly what you think it is. The subtitle, Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership, is accurate, but it conceals much.” This disclosure should signal the reader to fasten their seatbelt because Jamieson is about to take them on a journey that may seem somewhat confusing and unnecessarily complicated. But patience is required because as they will discover the difficulty is not the fault of the scriptures but of the unwillingness of good and sincere people to bring every thought – including their ecclesiological thoughts – under the authority of Christ. That in the 21st century of the Christian church such a book is necessary speaks volumes!
Chapter 1 is called “Setting the Stage,” and in it Jamieson justifies writing on this subject when many would consider it a debate not worth having compared to other issues that Christians need to contend with today. In so doing he argues that it important even though all Christians will not agree with his conclusions, and he gives 5 reasons why this is so. First, it is a practical issue that churches and their leaders must grapple with. Second, because implementation is often costly, church leaders need to be convinced of why they drawing the lines where they are. Third, the biblical data with its insistence that only baptized persons should be regarded as members of the church and therefore authorized to partake of the Lord’s Supper, runs contrary to the spirit of the age. Fourth, open membership – or the view that you do not have to be baptized to be a member of a church and partake of the Lord’s Supper – is difficult to consistently implement when it comes to practical issues of congregational life and leadership, even though it may be easier to live with upfront. Fifth, if Jesus, the Lord of the church, has left us instructions in this regard, there is a good reason for him to do so. We are not authorized to depart from his instructions for any reasons, and we can be sure that if we do so there will be serious, albeit, unintended consequences for the health of the church.
Also in chapter 1, Jamieson sets the stage by defining some key terms and concepts. For instance, he distinguishes between closed/open membership, close/open communion, close/closed communion, occasional or visiting communion, and the open-closed position. According to Jamieson these clarifying distinctions are evidence of navigational difficulties not caused by scripture but by extra-biblical traditions and practices that rest on faulty biblical interpretations. Furthermore, he asks the reader to keep in mind two questions: first, what does the Bible teach about baptism as an initiatory rite and its connection to church membership, and second, what is the connection between baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership.
Chapter 2 is called “Clearing Ground,” and discusses the tendency on the part of many Christians today to favor allowing church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper to all those who profess to be Christians regardless of whether they have been baptized as Jesus commanded – i.e. the open membership and communion position. When asked why, many say that it “just feels right.” Jamieson suggests 6 reasons why this is the case. First, it comports with current views of tolerance which “regard virtually any act of exclusion as unjust” (23). Second, there has been a change in how evangelical churches view and practice church discipline. In the past church members were disciplined and if unrepentant, removed from membership if there were serious departures in doctrine and practice. But today discipline has grown lax and consequently this seriously reduces the likelihood that anyone will be excluded from membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper because they have not been baptized. Three, because we are living in days of tremendous cultural and moral change, Christians from various denominations and parachurch organizations have come together to share resources and cooperate on projects. This joining of forces has necessitated the division of doctrinal beliefs into those that are core and must be agreed on, and those which are not. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership, fall into the second category, and therefore are downplayed in the name of unity. Four, closely related to the third point, is the evangelical need to identify the essentials of the faith that lie at the heart of the gospel, which we are responsible to proclaim. Once again this has led to a minimizing of certain ecclesiological doctrines because leaders have failed to see the interconnectedness of God’s truth and the fact that errors at any point will tend to weaken and compromise the gospel. Five, given the big issues that swirl around us every day and the philosophical and moral revolution that is reshaping society, debates and divisions over baptism and church membership seem small-minded and trivial. Six, is the human tendency to want to be included versus standing alone. The Baptist position can be a lonely one if we insist on following the biblical pattern, and it can make us look unnecessarily fastidious and self-righteous – not something any thinking person wants to be.
In chapter 3, Jamieson starts to present his case from the Bible, and not surprisingly, he begins with a biblical theology of baptism. His basic point is summarized in the name of the chapter – “Where Faith Goes Public: (Most of) a Theology of Baptism.” Although we come to Christ individually and personally, becoming a Christian is not something we can keep to ourselves. We are required to confess our allegiance to Jesus publicly, and the way this is done in the Bible is through baptism. Grounding his work on statements of Jesus in the gospels about the need to confess him before men, on the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost, and then moving on to a multitude of texts in the NT letters, Jamieson shows that faith and baptism are so closely connected in the NT that you cannot have one without the other. This does not mean that people cannot make false professions and then be inappropriately baptised, rather it means that baptism in the NT is the proper way for a new convert to profess faith and repentance. And it signifies the forgiveness and cleansing from sin, and union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism also proclaims that the believer has new life in Christ, that he has received the sign and gift of the Holy Spirit, and that he is part of the dawning of the new creation that has come in Christ. These biblical facts have implications for the place and practice of baptism in the Christian church, implications that are often not taken as seriously as they should.
In chapter 4, Jamieson advances his case theologically by defending the idea that baptism is the initiating oath-sign of the new covenant. The importance of this concept cannot be overemphasized. Differences over baptism are frequently differences over how the biblical metanarrative fits together, and getting baptism right therefore, depends on interpreting the biblical covenants properly. Starting in Eden and then moving through the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants, the saving purposes of God finally culminate in Jesus Christ and his inauguration of the new covenant established by his shed blood on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, and ascension to God’s right hand. The covenants must be read progressively and Christo-centrically and when this is done inter-textually baptism is rightly understood as a sign of the new covenant and all the blessings that are connected to vital union to Christ. In baptism faith become visible, as does the fact that the believer has entered into the reality of the new covenant, and the new covenant community. This means that for Jamieson unbaptized believers have not ratified the covenant and therefore should not be included in the membership of the church.
Chapter 5 is important to the main premise of the book because it strengthens the link between baptism and church membership. Jamieson accomplishes this by first tracing out the link between Jesus, the kingdom, and the church, and second by showing that baptism is the passport to the kingdom and the kingdom’s swearing-in ceremony (82-83). This results in what he calls a thicker understanding of baptism. Or to say it another way, he is systematizing the biblical data as it relates to the kingdom and the church. One of the problems in this whole discussion is that baptism and church membership are often severed from one another and left dangling in mid-air. Jamieson attempts to bring them together. His argument runs like this. Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom or reign on earth and this he did by his life, death, and resurrection. Not only that, but he has given kingdom authority to his apostles (Matt.16:18), and to his church (Matt.18:15-20), and he has authorized them to make disciples by baptising them in the divine name (Matt.28:18-20). This delegated authority effectively defines the people of God as they obey apostolic teaching, bind and release on earth, and go about the work of making disciples. The upshot of his argument is that baptism identifies the members of God’s kingdom and effectively joins them to the church. He compares it to taking an oath of allegiance when someone becomes a citizen and in combination with their church membership, it is their Christian passport. Baptism is not a stand-alone ceremony. Nor is church membership valid without it. The two go together in the kingdom that has been inaugurated by the Lord Jesus Christ.
In chapter 6 a further connection is made to the Lord’s Supper. As baptism stands at the beginning of the Christian life and marks one’s allegiance to Jesus and entrance into his church, so the Lord’s Supper also has new covenant and ecclesial significance. On the night that Jesus was betrayed he transformed the Jewish Passover into what we know as the Lord’s Supper. The bread represents his body which was broken for his people and the wine represents his shed blood which inaugurated the new covenant. The supper itself was intended as a communal remembrance of participation in his sacrifice for sinners and what Jamieson calls a renewing oath-sign of the new covenant. The question that must be answered is for who? The biblical answer is relatively straight-forward, although in practice it is often anything but. Participation is for those who have sworn allegiance to Jesus and become part of the church through baptism. They, and only they, are the proper participants in the Lord’s Supper. Thus baptism has ecclesial significance at the beginning of the Christian life, and the Lord’s Supper all the way through, as the authorized ways of identifying with Christ and then continuing to have fellowship with him and his people until he comes again at the end of the age. As Jamieson concludes, it is an effective sign of church membership along with baptism.
In chapter 7, church membership is re-described in light of the fact established in the previous chapter that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effective signs that create the reality to which they point. Or as Jamieson puts it, “But in order to come full circle, we need to discern not just the ecclesial shape of baptism but the baptismal shape of membership” (138). Basically, he argues that there is no real church or church membership without baptism and the Lord’s Supper as oath-signs that respectively initiate a believer into the new covenant church, and maintain their standing in that church. Therefore, all talk of church membership without these realities linked together in the proper sequence is nonsensical. After making allowances for separating the observance of the ordinances on occasion for practical considerations – i.e. baptism even though there is no church where you live, or partaking of the Lord’s Supper while visiting a church without joining the church – normally, the ordinances should not be extracted from their ecclesial context. Jamieson presents his case in 4 steps. First, he shows that a church exists when gospel people form a gospel polity – that is, in response to the preaching of the gospel, people believe the message, they are baptised confessing their faith, and then they enjoy fellowship together as seen in their common sharing of the Lord’s Supper. Second, he shows that a mutual covenant of membership does not invalidate what he has been saying about the ecclesial nature of the ordinances, rather the covenant makes explicit what the ordinances imply. Covenants of membership are a second-order description of the relationship normally created by the ordinances. Third, such is the connection between baptism and membership that if you admit into the membership of the church someone who is not baptised you invalidate the whole procedure. Fourth, in the New Testament, there is no way into the church of Jesus Christ except by means of baptism. To fail to see this is to confound the plain teaching of scripture.
Chapters 8 through 11 compose the last main part of the book and here Jamieson begins with a summary of his argument in chapter 8 and then proceeds in chapter 9 to answer seven objections to his thesis. In chapter 10 he goes on the offensive and brings forward 7 arguments against open membership, or the view that you do not have to be baptised to join the church, and by implication participate in the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 11 he addresses a number of practical pastoral issues that will arise as a church under the guidance of its leaders moves to implement biblical teaching in this area of its ecclesiological practice. Here he says some helpful things about transitioning from lax, or improper views of the relationship between baptism and church membership, to a more biblical position. Then he offers help when it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper and restoring baptism to its proper place in the life of the church. As a former pastor and church planter I was particularly interested in his take on the age that churches should baptize young people and the fact that he recognizes (to his credit) that Scripture does not give us an explicit answer and so churches must proceed carefully. The chapter closes with an exhortation and suggestions as to how to make membership meaningful and the celebration of the ordinance illustrative of the wonderful, life-changing gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The appendix is only a page and an half and here Jamieson offers a 3 minute summary explanation as to why baptism is required for membership. This is helpful and necessary because although Jamieson is a careful writer and theologian, grasping the essence of the argument will not be easy for many people because of the lack of a consistent Christian position on this subject. There are so many variations on this theme that I suspect many will need to read, and re-read, the book to synthesize everything that is being said. This is not a criticism of the book per se, but the result of a lack of theological precision in the pulpit and a general failure to teach people to think biblically and theologically when it comes to ecclesiology and the Christian faith in general.
However, having said that the book does raise some questions for me. In the interest of full disclosure, I have grown up in and been involved in closed membership/open communion churches all of my Christian life. While I can see and feel the force of Jamieson’s biblical and theological arguments, I must confess that I have a nagging sense that he is pushing the biblical language about as hard as he can, and while he constructs a reasonable and logical case, I wonder if he is not pushing the language too far at points and drawing unwarranted conclusions as a result. For instance, he suggests that churches not baptize children until they reach “functional adulthood” (217) – that is, they are old enough to function as adult members of the congregation and be involved in total life of the congregation including the exercise of church discipline. But at the same time he knowledges that scripture lacks specific instructions in this kind of case and therefore churches, since they are invested with the “keys of the kingdom”, must to figure out how they will proceed. However, using that some logic I can envisage a situation in which children who give evidence of salvation are baptised and brought into the membership of the church while at the same time the church recognizes temporary limitations based on their age and maturity. Although they would not participate fully in all matters of church business until they are older, they can still be received into the membership of the church as genuine believers. Churches already do this in other ways. For example, just as all church members are not as involved in “church business” as the elders and deacons, all are baptised and received as members on their profession of faith and then get increasingly involved in the life of the church as their maturity grows.
I am not saying that one approach is better than the other, my point is that in our zeal to articulate what the Bible teaches about believer’s baptism and its connection with church membership and the Lord’s Supper, we need to be careful that we do not go beyond scripture and make hard and fast rules in areas where the scriptures are not clear. We must also be careful that we do not read our cultural issues into the biblical text. In the Bible baptism and profession of faith are closely connected today. What it means to be a functional adult is culturally subjective and if we define it in terms of living independently, or driver’s licences, or voting, or drinking alcohol, or military service, etc., we are muddying the baptismal waters. Furthermore, I think we have to be realistic about church history. From my perspective in an ideal world everyone would be a Baptist (sic)! But we are not living in an ideal world and not all Christians see eye-to-eye on these things and I am not convinced we will until Jesus comes again. As important as baptism and the Lord’s Supper are, they are still secondary and not primary issues. You can be wrong about both and still know the Lord and inherit the new heavens and earth. That being the case, it seems to be that we must be very careful that we do not draw our lines in the sand in such a way that divide rather than work to unify the church. We must set forth our understanding of scripture carefully but at the same time allow room for other genuine Christians who differ. The longing for reformation and revival should be joined to a careful adherence to all that the Bible has to say, but it must be chastened by the knowledge that God uses very imperfect vessels to accomplish his purposes.
That being said, Going Public is a well-written and useful book that I trust will be widely read and discussed by Christians in many denominational configurations. Maybe Jamieson and 9Marks should consider producing a companion booklet that can be used by churches to re-establish the proper biblical and ecclesial connections between baptism, church membership, and the Lord’s Supper that have languished for so long. One thing is sure: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor.13:12).
Kirk M. Wellum is Principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary and book Review Editor for Pastoral Theology here at Books At a Glance.