It has always been common practice for Baptist churches—a defining characteristic, in fact—to insist on believer’s baptism for membership in the church. Since the 17th century, the mode has been agreed to be specifically by immersion, excluding pedobaptists and other modes of baptism such as sprinkling or pouring.[1] The practice of “rebaptizing” the infant-baptized who join the church can be traced back to the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. Leonard Verduin, in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, traces even the Anabaptist name back to the original Anabaptists, rebaptizers rebelling against the Constantinian state church in the fourth century.[2] The scriptural, lexical, and historical case for believer’s baptism by immersion is extensive and overwhelmingly convincing[3], and the practice as the entry point to the Baptist church has an unquestionably long and distinguished history.

In late 2005, however, the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota submitted a recommendation to their church to, under specific circumstances, “make it possible for some persons to be admitted into membership who are not baptized as believers by immersion”[4]. Due partly to the great popularity of its pastor, John Piper, the recommendation immediately set off a firestorm of debate and responses between churches and across the web. Piper defends the proposal with this argument:

One of the key convictions behind the elder proposal is that excluding from membership a truly regenerate person who gives credible evidence of his saving faith is a more serious mistake than viewing the time and mode of baptism as essential to the qualifications for membership.[5]

This argument has a powerful ring to earnest believers who are disappointed with the many denominations set up along lines of doctrine and practice. At what point can a church justify disallowing membership for a believer confessing Christ? Is the Baptist church right in, as Piper says, “viewing the time and mode of baptism[6] as essential to the qualifications for membership?”[7] This paper will examine the entry point into the first church in Acts 2:37-47, the nature of membership in Hebrews 10:23-25, and the call for exclusion in Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 to form a picture of church membership and discover whether believer’s baptism by immersion is or is not rightly an essential qualification of membership in the local church.

Entry into the First Church (Acts 2: 37-41, 47b)

The most obvious place to begin examining the entry point into the church is in Acts 2, an explicit account of the formation of the first church in Jerusalem. Peter has just finished telling the crowd of the fulfillment of prophecy found in Jesus as Lord and Christ, and here is their response:

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls… And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:37-41, 47b, NASB)

Peter gives them twin commands (both are in the Greek imperative) to repent and be baptized, and three thousand did so. J.M. Pendleton, in his Baptist Church Manual, says of verse 41, “The converts to the faith were first baptized and then added to the church. This shows baptism to be prerequisite to church-membership.”[8] Unfortunately, the case is not so simple as this. Pendleton falsely equates the position of the phrases in the text to infer a strict timeline of cause-effect events, when in fact they show only a relationship of each to another. If we hold to Pendleton’s view, we could also surmise from verse 38 that no believer has the Holy Spirit until they have been baptized, a position which Baptists do not hold.

In fact, John Polhill, in his commentary on Acts, notes that repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Holy Spirit are a formula that “generally forms a single complex throughout Luke-Acts. They are the normative ingredients of conversion. There is no set, mechanistic pattern by which the various components come into play.” He further notes that baptism and the Holy Spirit, in particular, are noted separately or in reverse order in other parts of Acts.[9] Baptism is not noted here as a pre-requisite for membership in the church, but as a normative accompaniment for salvation, in keeping with the Lord’s command in Matthew 28:19 (NASB) to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them.” While baptism typically follows salvation, Baptists have never held that it is necessary for salvation, and its requisiteness to membership in the church is at this point unestablished. In fact, Baptists have often practiced a separation of baptism from salvation. John Hammett, in making a case for a return to striving for regenerate church membership, notes that while baptism usually immediately follows salvation in Acts, “in some cases the time element is not clear… or baptism is not mentioned in connection with conversion at all… In any case, there is no command regarding the immediacy of baptism anywhere in the New Testament.”[10] He goes on to note and commend the common practice in churches of setting a minimum age for baptism, stating that while “God can save any child whenever he chooses… delaying their baptism will not somehow endanger their salvation.”[11]

The sole verse that explicitly links a prerequisite to the formation of this church was verse 47b, in which “the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Salvation was the entry point to this body, and it was guided and monitored by the Lord. It seems clear that, at this point at least, membership in the church differed greatly from the Baptist perspective on membership today. At this point, those who were saved were members in the church, without voting, membership rolls, or membership classes. The next section will study the demands on the church that drove it to practice a more formal membership, and it remains to be seen if this formal membership demand should demand baptism as a prerequisite.

The Nature of Membership (Hebrews 10:23-25)

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25, NASB)

With the twin phrase “let us” (Greek hortatory subjunctive), the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to join him in these tasks as they expectantly wait on the Lord’s promise. Jason Lee, writing on the use of covenants in Baptist churches, looks to the exhortations found here in Hebrews as “communal admonitions,” an implied covenant to “mutually consent to persevere in public testimony to faith, to encourage brotherly love and faithful piety, to gather for regular worship, to increase in reciprocal encouragement, and to guard against a lapse into habitual sin.”[12] Baptists, in a practical response to the growth, division, and diversity of modern Christianity, have turned to church covenants—and therefore formal membership—“as an appropriate reflection of the Bible’s notion of God in relationship with his people through covenant.”[13]

In the very same document that John Piper defends the proposal to open membership to other forms of baptism, he also defends the importance of formal church membership. He does this to counter those who would relegate the prospective members in question to attend the church as continual visitors. Piper lays out four scriptural principles that necessitate the development of a more formal membership. From Matthew 18: 15-20, he recognizes the church’s role in judging and disciplining a member who has sinned and remains unrepentant, noting that such a role cannot be left open to an undetermined group of peers. Secondly, in the same passage he points out that the excluded member cannot be excluded from a group that is not formally assembled. Thirdly, Piper gathers a collection of passages demonstrating the responsibility a pastor has for and from his congregation, exemplifying the practical need for formal membership in this covenantal relationship. Finally, and similarly, Piper notes the scriptural responsibility believers have for one another, just as reflected in the implied covenant of Hebrews above.[14]

Given the formal membership demanded of the church by the implied covenants between believers in New Testament as well as the implications of church discipline, have the prerequisites for membership in the local church changed? Does the Lord still add to the church daily those who are saved, or is there a new “doorkeeper to the church?” Mark Dever, in his article “Regaining Meaningful Church Membership,” captures the essence of the conflict as it lies now. He states:

Most fundamentally, of course, God defines the membership of a local congregation. In Acts 2 it was the Lord who added to their number daily those who were being saved. In a secondary sense, however, the local church is entrusted with the responsibility of defining its own membership. In 2 Corinthians 2:6 we find Paul appealing to the church members to readmit a disciplined member who had repented. In 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18 it was the congregation who had to act publicly to properly define who composed their membership, because they decided who was to be excluded from it.[15]

If the church is to practice church discipline, and to hold its members to a biblical standard and expel the unrepentant, then it is clear that the church must not allow into membership those that it would have to expel for disobedience to the Word. A closer examination of church discipline is warranted to determine what those standards might be, and how they are to be determined.

The Call for Exclusion (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Cor 5:1-13)

Paul gives a strong and well known example of church discipline in action in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. (1 Cor 5:1-13 – NASB)

Paul makes it clear that the church is to be holy, and that they are not to associate with immoral people (not talking of the world, but of believers!). Paul lists immorality, covetousness, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, and swindling as sins that require the discipline of the church. He makes it clear that they have the authority to judge this person, and that they are responsible to do so to maintain the integrity of the church. They are to do it as an assembled group, and with the authority of Christ. The sin he calls out is so blatant that Paul feels no need to wait on the judgment of the assembly.

R. Stanton Norman, in “The Reestablishment of Proper Church Discipline,” has gathered scriptural texts that reveal clear issues requiring church discipline. He includes Paul’s instructions to Titus to reject divisive people with their “controversial or heretical speculations,” and the church at Thessalonica’s authority to withdraw from those who are lazy and reject apostolic teaching.[16] Pendleton is helpful in noting that distorting the gospel was a primary reason for church expulsion in both Galatians 1:8,9 as well as 2 John 10, 11.[17]

The most direct and useful text for a discussion of church discipline, however, is given directly by Christ to his disciples in Matthew 18: 15-20. He tells them:

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matt. 18:15-20, NASB)

In this text, he explicitly shares how the authority of the Lord to add to His church is given to the congregation. In a text often misapplied to imply the immanence of God in worship, Jesus in fact shares that God has given authority to gathered believers to grant access and restrict access to His church. Stanton shares that “binding and loosing were concepts used by the Jewish rabbis in the first century to refer to the power of judging matters on the basis of the revelation of God. The Jewish authorities would determine how the Scriptures applied in a specific situation, and they would then render a judgment either by binding (to restrict) or by loosing (to liberate).”[18]

The authority has been given to the congregation, under the guidance of Scripture and the assurance of the Spirit’s presence, to judge if a person is in rebellion against God’s Word and should be expelled from the church. If this is the case for church discipline, it also holds to be the case for qualifications for membership.


In 2005, John Piper and the other elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church presented a proposal to their congregation to allow, in specific circumstances, membership for those who had been baptized as an infant or by sprinkling or pouring. In doing so, they received valuable feedback from other Baptist churches as well as from within their own membership. Their membership decided that baptism, rightly defined as believer’s baptism by immersion, was both Scriptural and clearly required obedience.[19]

Just as is the case with church discipline, the church–once again under the guidance of Scripture and the assurance of the Spirit’s presence–must together decide whether baptism by immersion is a clearly defined point of obedience. I hold, along with Bethlehem Baptist, that the case is clear enough to call for obedience to believer’s baptism by immersion for membership.[3]

This case, had it gone either way, is an example of the local church’s authority in interpreting Scripture and applying doctrine, as well as rightly upholding their authority as stewards of the door of the church.


[1]Eduard Schütz and Edwin S. Gaustad, “Baptists,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, ed. Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999-2003), 1:197.

[2]Leonard Verduin. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 189-190.

[3]This paper recognizes and assumes the validity of believer’s baptism by immersion (as does Piper, himself), which has been established comprehensively and persuasively by many Baptist scholars. Cf. David Allen, “Dipped for Dead,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, Jason G. Deusing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 81-106.

[4]The exception is structured tightly to insist that the candidate establish their position biblically rather than by tradition, and that they would feel it a violation of their conscience to be rebaptized, as cited in John Piper, “Baptism And Church Membership: The Recommendation From The Elders For Amending Bethlehem’s Constitution,” Desiring God, Sept. 14, 2005,
70_Baptism_and_Church_Membership/1306_Baptism_and_Church_Membership_The_Recommendation_from_the_Elders_for_Amending_Bethlehems_Constitution/ (accessed April 10th, 2010).

[5]John Piper, “More Clarifications on the Baptism and Membership Issue,” Desiring God, Oct. 12, 2005,
70_Baptism_and_Church_Membership/1310_More_Clarifications_on_the_Baptism_and_Membership_Issue/ (accessed April 10th, 2010).

[6]Admittedly, even this phrasing is a bit leading, because Baptists do not, in general, consider pedobaptism, sprinkling, or pouring to be baptism at all. They by definition limit it to the immersion of believers following confession of Christ, as cited in J. M. Pendleton, Baptist Church Manual. Rev. ed. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1966) 64-65.

[7]Piper, “More Clarifications.”

[8] Pendleton, Baptist Church Manual. 14.

[9]John B. Polhill, Acts, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1992), 116.

[10]Hammett uses a slippery interpretive method here, showing a willingness to bypass the regular pattern of the New Testament in the absence of a clear command. Nonetheless, this particular application to the baptism of children has been a common practice in Baptist churches. Cf. John Hammett, “Regenerate Church Membership,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, Jason G. Deusing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 38.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Jason Lee, “Baptism and Covenant,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches

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, ed. Thomas White, Jason G. Deusing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 129.

[13] Ibid., 128.

[14] Piper, “More Clarifications.”

[15] Mark Dever, “Regaining Meaningful Church Membership,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, Jason G. Deusing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 50.

[16] R. Stanton Norman, “The Reestablishment of Proper Church Discipline,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, Jason G. Deusing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 201.

[17] Pendleton, Baptist Church Manual. 133-134.

[18] R. Stanton Norman, “The Reestablishment of Proper Church Discipline,” 200.

[19] John Piper, “Can you update us on the baptism and church membership issue from 2005?,” . Desiring God (December 2006),