“Jesus has told the church how we are to recognize Christians. He hasn’t left it up to us” (161).
What are the relationships between baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership? Are they inextricably intertwined, such that you cannot have one without the other? What are we to make of those who have been “baptized” as infants. Do we, as committed credo-baptists (who believe that true baptism is only after conversion) admit them to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us? Do we admit them into church membership?
These are all very complicated and intricate questions that cannot (sufficiently) be answered in a few paragraphs, or even a few blog posts. Hence a new full-length book on the issue by Bobby Jamieson titled Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership.
During my time at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I was privilege to be a student alongside Bobby. We sat in many classes together, and I gleaned quite a bit from personal conversations and observing his interactions in classes. Bobby is a PhD student in New Testament at the University of Cambridge and previously served as assistant editor for 9Marks. I can tell you from personal experience — Bobby is an incredibly intelligent, godly, gifted, and thoughtful guy. As such, it was a joy and an honor to read this book.
So what is the book about? He answers in the introduction, explaining it is actually about a lot more than the subtitle indicates:
“The thesis of this book, then, is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effective signs of church membership: they create the social, ecclesial reality to which they point. Precisely because of their complimentary church-constituting roles, baptism must precede the Lord’s Supper and the status of church membership which grants access to the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, what this book offers is not merely an answer to the question of whether baptism should be required for membership. Instead, it offers an integrated account of how baptism and the Lord’s Supper transform a scattered group of Christians into a gathered local church” (2).
So how does the author accomplish this goal?
After introducing the book in chapter one, he deals with the question of why open membership seems to feel so right to so many people in chapter 2.
After a sort of “clearing the ground” in chapter 2, the author looks at baptism specifically in chapters 3-5. In chapter 3 he sketches a concise theology of baptism. Following that theology of baptism, chapter 4 looks at baptism as the initiating oath-sign of the new covenant. Complementing chapter 4, chapter 5 looks at the ecclesial shape of baptism through the lens of the kingdom. It looks at how baptism is the “passport of the kingdom and a kingdom citizen’s swearing-in ceremony” (20).
Next, in chapter 6 the spotlight is turned to the Lord’s Supper. In this chapter, the Lord’s Supper is seen to be the renewing oath-sign of the new covenant. As such, this “renewing” oath-sign must be preceded by the “initial” oath sign of baptism. Then in chapter 7, the author looks at church membership in light of these 2 effective signs.
Finally, in chapters 8-11, the author answers objections and gives some practical suggestions. In chapter 8, he summarizes everything from chapters 2-7. Then in chapter 9 he moves from the offensive to the defensive and answers 7 objections to his proposal that baptism is a necessary prerequisite for church membership. Chapter 10 goes back on the offensive, where he levels 7 objections himself against the open-membership position. And finally, in chapter 11, he gives a few practical outworkings and suggestions related to his argument, including the matters of the age of baptism, the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, etc.
I think that the most helpful theme in the book for me was a fresh understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as oath-signs related to the New Covenant. I am not sure that I had ever thought of them in those terms, but Bobby makes a clear case throughout the book, especially in chapter 4, that every oath in the Bible came with some sort of oath-sign, and that the oath-sign of the new covenant is, initially, baptism, and recurrently, communion. He uses the illustration throughout the book that baptism is the “front door” to the church and the Lord’s Supper is the “family meal.” You cannot enter into the membership of the church without going through the door, and you cannot participate in the family meal without first going through the door.
“This entire debate boils down to this: Jesus has appointed baptism to be a person’s initial entry into the church. Baptism is the front door of the church; there’s no other way in” (154).
I really enjoyed this book, found it very helpful (and challenging), and thought that the author made a clear, coherent, and logical argument from start to finish. Let me tell you: the book is not an easy read. It’s not an overly hard read, but it is technical and in-depth. I think that the primary intended audience for the book is pastors and seminary students, and rightly so.
If you are either of those, especially a pastor, and you have not come down decisively on this issue of the relationship between baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership, I would strongly encourage you to grab a copy of this book and work your way through it as soon as possible. Perhaps you will disagree, but I believe you will come away on the other side with a more convinced, and hopefully more biblical, understanding of the ordinances of the church and their relationship to membership.
In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank B&H Publishers for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Important disclaimer – Neither the views expressed in this book nor in this article necessarily represent the views of the church in which I serve.