Baptism and Church Membership: An Expatriate Perspective (Guest Post by David Shaw)

This piece is a response of sorts to the conversation over at Mere Orthodoxy between Gavin Ortlund and Jonathan Leeman (both Baptists) who discuss the theological conundrum of church membership and the Lord’s Supper in relation to differing views of baptism (all links can be found here). Should a person of paedobaptist persuasion, or who was baptized as an infant, be welcomed into full membership of a Baptist church without being fully immersed?

Ortlund argues that, yes, one should be welcomed into fellowship with all its attendant benefits, suggesting that while the paedobaptist view may be improper, it ought not be considered invalid. Leeman, on the other hand, argues to the contrary from the position that faith is essential to the nature of baptism, and as such, if such a person has not been baptized subsequent to their confession of faith, then they have not been baptized at all.

(Spoiler alert: I side with Ortlund on this issue. Below I outline why that is the case from my former expatriate ministry setting).

My own response is borne out my experience as a pastor in an expatriate setting. After finishing my MDiv in Seoul, South Korea, I was fortunate enough to be brought on to the pastoral staff at an international Baptist church in one of Seoul’s most internationally diverse neighbourhoods. As associate pastor, one of my early tasks was to develop a formal membership curriculum. At the time, the church had a membership process that was relatively vague and unknown to the congregation.

This was due in part, I believe, because of the inherent diversity and transience of expatriate ministry. How, for example, does an expatriate church offer meaningful membership or develop a leadership framework when the congregation in question experiences up to 80–90% turnover every two or three years? How much more so when those who hope to make your church their home for the next few years come from both credo- and paedobaptist traditions? As I worked on this issue with the input of our senior and executive pastors and the rest of our leadership team, we came up with something called ‘WatchCare membership’. Here is an excerpt from the most recent membership document that broadly articulates what this looks like:

Because of our unique ministry as an expatriate church, we sometimes find ourselves presented with unique challenges and one of those is membership. The challenge arises out of having many people from various Christian denominations and traditions who call [name of church] home. It is out of a desire to honor such people that we offer Associate Membership. [This] is available for those who (1) desire to maintain membership at their church back in their home country and/or, (2) for those whom acknowledge Christ as their Lord and Savior but have not been baptized by immersion. Associate Members are afforded all the rights of full [name of church] membership including pastoral care, communion, access to all of our ministries, mission opportunities, and the like, but cannot vote on the annual budget or other called church votes.
We do realize that for some this may be a sensitive issue. Our hope in all of this is to honor our centuries of Baptist tradition as well as the traditions of those who would fellowship with us for the period of their duration in Seoul. If you have further questions concerning [name of church’s] position on this matter or would like to be baptized, our pastors and deacons are more than happy to meet with you.

According to Ortlund’s second piece on the matter, our stance would be close to position (3) ‘Modified Closed’ where “a believer who is unbaptized, or was baptized as an infant, is given ‘associate’ status, and may vote on secondary matters in church meetings, and generally will not be eligible for the office of deacon or elder.” The only immediate difference is that we would have refused the right to vote. As I hope can be seen clearly, the goal of our policy was to honour a person’s faith whilst also honouring the Baptist heritage in which we stood. We wanted to welcome godly people into a form of membership for the duration of their time in Seoul so that we might care well for them without disdaining their theological convictions.

To provide an example of how this played out ‘on the ground’, we had a number of congregants who came from paedobaptist backgrounds who wanted to be members of our church. Pastorally, we spoke with such people and asked them to prayerfully consider where their conscience stood with regards to their paedobaptism. If their conscience considered their paedobaptism as valid, they were welcomed into associate membership upon a public declaration of faith and commitment to the church. Others, upon considering their past, determined that they should be immersed, and we would work with them through that process and welcome them into full membership.

In the years since I worked on that membership document, I have probably transitioned from a ‘Modified Closed’ position to a more ‘Modified Open’ position: that is, I would welcome into full membership ‘those who are baptized can be members, provided the individual regards their baptism—of whatever kind—as valid for them’. I say this on the grounds that we ultimately belong to one kingdom; God’s kingdom. We may inhabit different ‘states’, ‘counties’, or ‘shires’ within that kingdom, but there is only ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph 4:5–6). And while I imagine Leeman might oppose such a view/practice, I have a hard time imagining how my church in Seoul could ever sustain a feasible form of leadership and membership in such a transient context (80–90% turnover every 2–3 years), without having some level of flexibility and inter-denominational mutual respect. In an international context, this is especially so where expat’s may not even have the choice of which church denomination they might attend while living overseas.

Moreover, like Andrew Wilson, I find incongruous that Leeman would welcome a paedobaptist (e.g. Tim Keller) to preach in his church, and yet not welcome them into membership or to the communion table. I think Ortlund summarizes the tension well when he asks, “are we strict with respect to the proper expression of baptism, or are we strict with respect to a proper recognition of the unity of the church?” In matters such as these, I would argue that the unity of the church should be the priority. And to extend the state/county analogy described earlier, though our denominational boundaries within God’s kingdom may be important to us, perhaps they should not always be the defining measure for membership within a local church.

David M. Shaw lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife, Becky and three children, Owen, Gianna, and Hugh. Together they attend Providence City Church in Perth’s inner-northern suburbs. David spent over eight years in South Korea where he earned an MDiv from Torch Trinity Graduate University and pastored among Seoul’s English-speaking expatriate community. He now lectures in New Testament at Perth Bible College, having completed his PhD at the University of Exeter, UK in 2017. His thesis investigated 1 Peter’s use of the Old Testament in the formation of the early church’s Christian identity and missional posture. You can follow David on Twitter @shaw_davidm

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