By C. Robert Wetzel
One of the most divisive issues to plague the heirs of the Restoration Movement was the question of “open membership.” It became a symbol for a number of growing differences that were emerging among Christian churches early in the 20th century. But in many respects it was an unresolved question from the earliest days of the movement. That history is well documented, and I will not go into it here.
In its starkest form, the issue centered on the recognition that the Scriptures taught baptism by immersion of repentant believers for the remission of sins and hence the desire to restore this teaching in the life and practice of the church. Once this was accepted the question arose, “But what then of the pious unimmersed?” Church history and contemporary practice are filled with traditions of infant baptism (sprinkling) and, in some cases, an absence of any kind of an initiation rite for membership in the church. And yet these were traditions that affirmed the lordship of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God.
To compound the problem was what most (but not all) Restoration churches taught about participation in the Lord’s Supper. Generally it was an open table, and it was regularly said, “We neither invite nor debar. It is Christ who invites his people to the table.”
There were traditions in the Restoration Movement where “closed Communion” was practiced. In these congregations Communion was limited to those who were immersed believers. This was a common practice in the early days of the British churches of Christ, and hence the morning service was often referred to as “the breaking of bread” which was meant for members of the congregation, but the evening service was the “evangelistic service” open to all. By the time I worked in England in the 1980s this practice had largely ceased, even though the names of the services often remained.
The “open membership” question arose when it was reasoned that if we recognize the pious unimmersed as brothers and sisters in Christ and we come to the Lord’s table together, then how can we deny them membership? The rejection of open membership in its starkest form reasoned that given that believers’ baptism by immersion for the remission of sins is taught in Scripture, then persons who have not been so baptized would not have their sins remitted. And if their sins have not been remitted, then they can make no claim to salvation. In other words, Methodists, Presbyterians, and many others who practice infant baptism are in a lost state and doomed to Hell. I did say “stark”!
A slightly milder form said in effect, “It is not for us to judge the pious unimmersed. We leave that to God’s judgment. But we do know what the Scriptures teach about the plan of salvation, and that is what we accept and practice in our effort to be faithful to scriptural teaching.”
But of course there is an uncomfortable ambiguity here. Could it be that God just might damn the faithful believer who unknowingly accepted infant baptism as adequate?
In the history of the Restoration Movement it was the extremes of both positions that were often highlighted in bitter controversy. The strict Restorationists were seen as legalists who thought that everyone was going to Hell who did not see the plan of salvation as they understood Scripture to teach it. On the other hand, there were those advocates of the movement’s unity theme who readily accepted into the membership of their congregations all who professed belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This became tacit recognition of infant baptism.
BETWEEN THE EXTREMES
So, is there no way to navigate between the extremes of these two positions? Let me reflect on some experiences that might be helpful.My own thinking on this came to a head while we were working in England. Under the leadership of Springdale student Orrell Battersby, a new congregation was established in the community of Bromsgrove. As the fledgling congregation grew, it moved from one rented venue to another: the chapel of a stately home, a hotel, and a school.
It was then that Orrell became acquainted with people from a local Free Methodist Church. That congregation had a well-maintained building constructed in the early 20th century, but their numbers had dwindled to the point that they considered closing the church and abandoning the property. By that time the Bromsgrove Church of Christ (as it was known then) had grown to about 50.
Our Methodist friends proposed that the church of Christ could use their building for what amounted to a dollar a year with the condition that we extended ministry to them. What this meant was we would call on their sick, bury their dead, and welcome them to our worship services. Hence together we were in effect a worshiping community.
It was this latter phrase that proved significant. The Methodists did not ask for membership in the Bromsgrove Church of Christ. They wanted to maintain their Methodist heritage. But they still wanted to worship on Sunday morning in the building that had been built by their parents and grandparents. Initially there were only 10 or 12 of these faithful Methodists who had been keeping the doors open. Surprisingly several more Methodists who had dropped out along the way began attending services of the Bromsgrove Church of Christ, which was now meeting in their building.
Hence a distinction was made between the worshiping community that met on Sunday morning, which included our Methodist friends, and the actual membership of the Bromsgrove Church of Christ, which required baptism by immersion for the remission of sins for membership. In time some of the young people from these Methodist families became members of the Bromsgrove Church of Christ through baptism, and to my knowledge, their parents made no objection.
When it came time for a congregational meeting of the Bromsgrove Church of Christ, it was just that. Those who worshiped with us on a Sunday morning, but who were not members, would have no more thought of being invited to a congregational meeting than would the visitors in any of our American Christian churches/churches of Christ.
One Sunday evening Orrell planned a service in which we sang hymns written by the great Methodist hymn writers Charles and John Wesley. The congregational singing was glorious that night!
Following the service I saw a group of our Methodist friends standing outside looking at the stained-glass windows. With light shining within the building, the windows were beautiful, and each one was inscribed with the name of the family who had provided it. When I joined the group they explained how grateful they were that the building was alive again and would not become one more derelict church building in a country where deserted church buildings were far too prevalent.
On the other hand I think of another congregation that practiced a form of open membership called ecumenical membership. Eventually there were more members whose roots were in denominations that did not practice baptism by immersion. And when a proposal was made for the congregation to merge with a denomination that practiced infant baptism, there were not enough church of Christ people left to prevent the congregation from merging. Hence they lost their historic witness to the biblical teaching on baptism and the Lord’s Supper as well.
A WORKABLE DISTINCTION
The distinction between the worshiping community and the membership of the congregation is a workable form of church policy that makes sense of the open Communion table while maintaining our witness to the scriptural teaching on the decisive role of baptism. And furthermore, as near as I can tell, this is in fact what most Christian churches and churches of Christ actually practice.
It is unfortunate that the beauty of the biblical teaching on baptism of repentant believers has been obscured by centuries of church history, but these are realities with which we must deal. We have often reminded ourselves that it is not a matter of “joining the church.” Rather it is coming to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and joining him in the watery grave of Christian baptism. It is then that one is added to the church (Acts 2:47).
But in this article I am not dealing with the person who has just come to accept Christ. Nor am I dealing with the relation between the sense of church as a local congregation and church as body of Christ universal.
By analogy, I try to imagine living in a remote area where the only congregation of believers is an Anglican church. Perhaps I attended and could appreciate the methodical reading of Scripture, liturgy, traditional music, and weekly Communion. As much as I might be welcomed to worship with this congregation, I would have no right to put myself forward for membership if I could not accept their teaching on infant baptism, apostolic succession, and a number of other issues. Hence I might be a part of that worshiping community but I would not be a member of that congregation, nor would I be an Anglican. (I can imagine someone saying, “But why don’t you just start a New Testament church.” Well, I have done that too.)
Thus over the years I have concluded that the issue of open membership is not a question of salvation, but rather a question of congregational polity in which the integrity of the congregation is preserved by faithfully teaching and practicing scriptural baptism. And hence the distinction between the worshiping community and the membership of the local congregation makes sense of the open Communion table and the insistence on biblical baptism for membership in the local church.
Bob Wetzel retires this year as president of Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.