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.