What about church membership?

We have talked in great detail lately about so many issues surrounding the Southern Baptist Convention. I was reading a portion of the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) earlier and I came across a statement that made me think. The statement is as follows:

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. (emphasis mine)

The last line of the paragraph is what really has caused me to think. Now, at my church we require baptism, by immersion in order to join the church. However, as I read that statement I began to wonder what specific parameters for church membership we have conclusive biblical evidence to support. The reason this is an interesting question for me is because church membership, as we know it here in America, is completely foreign to the biblical record. Walking an aisle, joining a church, having a membership role is something that doesn’t seem to be strongly echoed in the New Testament. Now, that doesn’t mean its wrong, it just means we live in a different culture.

As I understand it in New Testament times, when you came to faith in Christ you became affiliated with the local church. This was propelled by a variety of components. One of which was the lack of “competition” between area churches. You essentially had one church, per community, and so if you were in that community and you became a believer you knew where you would be affiliated. Beyond that, though, there was certainly a sense in that community that if you chose the Christian faith, you would be ostracized from all others. This reality allowed for someone to be assimilated into a local church, discipled by a local church, and even disciplined by a local church. All of those specific qualities that I listed above, are not paralleled in our culture today. That is why I am convinced that we have church membership. In American context we have it for a variety of reasons.

First, we need some way to identify affiliation. Due to the number of churches, denominations and/or religious bodies we need a qualifying event to clarify affiliation. Formal church membership accomplishes this. Secondly, we need a method (at least in theory) to discipline members. If there is no official membership in our culture, there is no viable opportunity to provide loving, biblical discipline. Finally, we need a method for determining the ability of each of us to participate in the business decisions of the church. In our context formal membership allows for this.

Having explained what I mean by the fact that American church membership is not exactly a regular, biblically defined experience, I’d like to now look at what we can biblically demand for church membership.

What is church membership? Well, that depends on what arena you are speaking of. First, there is what I refer to as global, or catholic, church membership. That is membership in the body that is made up of every living soul on the planet that claims the name of Jesus. There is obviously only one reasonable expectation for membership in this body and that is being a believer in Jesus.

Secondly, however, is local church membership. Now this, as I’ve already described, isn’t as clear in the New Testament. As such it would seem to me that there is a significant amount of leeway as to what a church can demand, biblically speaking, from its members. In the instances of baptism and the Lord’s supper. What is it about both of those items that makes them more valuable than any other command of Christ? Statements like, “Do not murder,” or “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for instance are just as clearly communicated as Christ’s expectation of baptism and taking the Lord’s Supper. What is it about these two commands that elevates them to positions of prominence? According to the BF&M (referenced above) it is the fact that these two elements are ordinances of the church.

I’ll be honest with you, as I already stated, I have no problems requiring baptism – by immersion – as an expectation of membership within my church. I believe that their should be signs of obedience in the life of a believer that give authentic evidence to their faith, prior to coming to join our church. I will stand firmly on that truth. To that end, as I’ve already stated, because it doesn’t seem entirely clear to me that there is a biblical command to that degree, I will also choose to give grace to those who disagree with me and still choose to call them brothers and sisters.

However, I also feel just as strongly that I would gladly offer the Lord’s Supper to believers who haven’t been baptized. I am convinced that one, as a believer, must regularly participate in the practice of taking the Lord’s Supper. However, in my opinion, there is no biblical evidence to demand that baptism preceded the taking of the Lord’s Supper and to then make a claim to the contrary seems to me to stand apart from my understanding of scripture. They (baptism & the Lord’s Supper) are equally great expectations from our Lord as to the expected behavior of a believer. I just don’t see, personally, where one stands over the other. It has only occured to me today that this belief would stand in opposition to the BF&M 2000.

So in closing, I’m curious. I would like to see, and hear, your responses to my thoughts. If I’m wrong about baptism I’d like to see your argument to the contrary. I’m looking forward to your responses.

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

10 thoughts on “What about church membership?

  1. Micah,

    You’ve got me on one of my “soapboxes” here. I completely agree with what you say here. So get ready…

    The requirement of believers baptism for participation in the Lord’s Supper was not an innovation in the BFM 2000, already being present in both the 1925 and 1963 versions. It is a reflection of one important stream of Baptist tradition, and has been the norm practiced historically in many, but certainly not all “Baptist” churches.

    Hershel Hobbs, in his commentary on the 1963 BFM, acknowledges three different practices within SBC congregations: 1) communion closed to only sister SBC churches; 2) communion closed only to those who have not been baptized as believers by immersion, whatever their denominational affiliation may be; and 3) baptism open for those professing a personal faith in Christ, whether they have been baptized as believers or not. I don’t have the direct text in front of me, but that is the essence of what he says.

    I believe when the BFM 2000 revision was made, no serious thought was given towards any change at this point. Actually, at the 2000 Convention, when someone on the floor raised a question about this point, in my opinion, their question was not seriously considered, and a very superficial answer given, before “the question being called” and the vote taken. You can listen to the whole recording live here.

    On an old post of mine entitled Coming Clean, I reference my support of “open communion,” and, in the comment section, respond to some objections raised by others. The following is a quote from there, in which I am responding to “Baptist Theologue” on this issue:

    “While unquestionably, the Lord’s Supper does have everything to do with our communion with the Lord, I believe it also quite clearly relates to our communion with His Body, i.e. the church. I believe this first of all because the general context of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s concern about divisions in the church. In my opinion, that idea is still very much in the backdrop when he comes to the teaching about the Lord’s Supper. Next, 1 Cor. 10.17, “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” seems to me to clearly refer to our joint participation in the Lord’s Supper as a celebration of our unity as the Body of Christ. Next, I also interpret the phrase “not discerning the Lord’s body” in 11.29 to refer both to Jesus’ physical body broken for us on Calvary, as well as His mystical body, present with us through the church. Granted, some interpreters may not agree with this, but I am far from alone in my view. Next, I see it as signfic!
    ant that John, in his gospel, places Jesus’s teaching about loving one another, and his prayer for unity, in the same context as his narration of the Last Supper (John 13-17).”

    Actually, to be more exact, I do not believe in totally “open communion.” When presiding the Lord’s Supper, I would generally say something like the following:

    “We, in this congregation, believe that the Bible teaches that every believer should be baptized in water subsequent to their salvation experience. However, we realize that other Christians, upon their study of Scripture, have come to other conclusions regarding this question. The Bible also teaches that, before partaking of the Lord’s Supper, one should ‘examine oneself’ to see whether he/she might be ‘eating the bread’ or ‘drinking the cup’ of the Lord ‘unworthily.’ Therefore, we would ask, that as you examine yourself to see if there is any known, unconfessed sin in your life, you would also examine yourself to see if your conscience is clean regarding the Lord’s command regarding baptism.

  2. Another of my faves here, m’boy.

    1) How many of the guys that were with Jesus when He instituted the “Lord’s Supper”, had been baptized? Seems to me if any of them hadn’t, and Jesus served it Himself, if they were good enough for Him, they’re good enough for us.

    2) What if we immediately did away with “membership” in your church. No roll … no “requirements” .. no rules. Folks just come. What is it that you do now, that you wouldn’t be able to do, then? If discipline had to be administered, you could still disfellowship people. You could still receive tithes and offerings, minister to people, proclaim the word, etc.

    I think, in that context, of 2 organizations. One is the Rotary Club. There, you have a membership and are expected to attend. If your attendance falls below a certain percentage, you are automatically out. Nobody has to do anything … you’re out, by the By-laws. They take faithfulness seriously. Apparently the church doesn’t.

    The other organization is Men For Missions International. MFMI is the laymen’s voice of now OMS International, (nee Oriental Missionary Society). They have no “membership” list. They say if you will “Go anywhere God says to go, do anything God says to do, and give anything God says to give, you are already a member”. All they do is maintain a mailing list.

    Why couldn’t local churches do that?

  3. Don’t some huge churches not even have membership. Isn’t Greg Laurie’s church in Cali, one of those? It works for some I guess.

    As a side note, we have a couple coming over next weekend. They are Church of Christ people. Their theology on baptism is wrong. I know this. But whether or not they are indeed lost…I have been struggling with this. What do you all think?

  4. Charlie:

    At the point they got saved … asked Jesus to save them … turned to Him in repentance … were they saved? I think so, and thus their baptism didn’t add to or subtract from, that.

    I got saved when I was 7 or 8 or 9 but didn’t know that’s when it happened until I was 30 or so.

    We all have our own stash of cherished beliefs we’re wrong about. Baptism is just one they happen to be wrong about (perhaps … I mean .. Peter did say one time to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins … and how many times does he have to say it, for it to be true?). Until we no longer see darkly, that’ll be the case.

    You’re not in Georgia, are you?

  5. Yeah, thats kind of where I’m at with it too. I asked my pastor about it, he admitted it was a tough one. In his mind it was similiar to Catholicism. Jesus PLUS something else. As far as Catholics, they need to accept the real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible…but with Church of Christ it was a little cloudier, because someone could say “Jesus PLUS baptism”. But in my gut…it doesn’t seem that is the case. In my mind, the theif on the cross ought to elimate that thought immediately, and Peter’s comment doesn’t make the case for their belief, since all minor statements should be considered in light of major themes.

    But bottom line, so far, I believe they are Christians. They have repented of their sins and put their faith in Christ. Jesus did tell us to be baptized. I know they’re wrong about that being a must….but in my gut, I don’t think that eliminates their repentance and faith.

    Micah, what do you think?

    (Mr. Cleveland, I am in Georgia…I am the son of Nancy Kelly, whom you know.)

  6. Charlie-

    Before I respond, it would only be fair to let you know that I have family who are in the Church of Christ and some of my very good ministry friends are in the same Restorationist Movement as the Church of Christ. That, no doubt, colors my interpretation. Having said that, however, I also have much more family in the Catholic Church and so I guess that when I see a difference between the two I’m not being too horribly biased.

    Are they saved is the question. Well, I would say a cautious, yes. If they have placed their faith in Jesus and as a matter of theological indoctrination, have been taught of the necessity of an expedient baptism, than I would feel comfortable with their position. If, however, they have placed their faith in their baptism, I would strongly have issues with it. I have seen both sides in this movement.

    I believe that if you find out where their faith is, than you find out how authentic their faith is.

    That is dramatically different, however, from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church teaches one to throw themselves on the mercy of the church, and not the cross.

  7. The church is just as susceptible to elevating tradition over God’s commands (often with good intentions) as were the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Unfortunately, I believe many churches’ membership requirements cross those bounds into extrabiblical requirements.

    I believe that believers are known when they bear fruit that evidences their repentence–it’s something we see after they learn of/experience God’s salvation. Anyone can answer a set of questions or participate in a ceremony, but only God can give new life.

    Jesus told one of the thieves who was crucified alongside him that he (the thief) would be with Jesus in paradise. That thief was not baptized, so salvation is clearly not hinged upon baptism. I was baptized as an infant, but did not come to know God’s salvation until I was 21. It was three years before I came to understand the significance of baptism, and I immediately sought baptism by immersion in submission to the commands of scripture.

    I agree that scripture does not elevate baptism above communion, and I would also participate in communion with a new believer who has not been baptized, but I do believe that there is a preferred order with baptism first.

    Baptism is a public testimony that one was affiliated with the Jesus. Communion is the regular rememberence of Christ’s sacrifice. Ideally, that public identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection would be first, but to argue it as a requirement goes beyond the writ of scripture.


  8. Andrew-

    Thanks so much for your personal affirmation. I agree that it seems that the recommended pattern would be immersion followed by communion, but I think it’s important for us to understand that it’s not mandated for that to occur, at least not in my estimation.

Leave a Reply