Applying a Conviction for Baptism to Membership in the Church
Authored by: Pastor Daniel Awrham
A Contextual Reality and a Common Scenario
Throughout church history, followers of Jesus have tried to teach God’s word accurately and also apply God’s word appropriately. This is a necessary spirit-formed desire. In some circumstances, it admittedly requires more wisdom and prudence as we travel further along church history to ensure best practice according to God’s word. One reason for this is because the practical issues that the apostles faced in the 1st century are not identical to the practical issues that we might face today, and vice-versa. Considering this, we must be thoughtful as we work through the application of our doctrine to the glory of God and the good of his people, so we do not draw lines where God has not.
Perhaps one of the more common discussions of doctrine and application within the church today is regarding baptism. Specifically: Paedobaptism (infant), Credobaptism (believer’s) and Church Membership. In our day, there are many healthy churches and good pastors who land on both sides of the debate so we must approach this humbly and in unity, yet at the same time zealously with firm convictions.
Having said that, consider this common scenario: on any given Sunday, a born-again married couple who grew up within a church, having been baptised as babies, might look for a new church family to bind themselves to because they moved houses. After searching, they find themselves visiting a healthy church that affirms the believer's baptism and are interested in joining. What should the credobaptist church do in this instance? Although it seems clear the married couple have been born again, should they be refused membership because they have not been baptised in response to their faith, but only as infants?
Our immediate response should always be to go to the scriptures, and rightly so. The only problem is that this is not a practical issue that the apostles faced in the 1st century. The reality is that the apostles almost certainly would not have had anyone who turned to Christ claiming to have already been baptised as infants. This is because the 1st generation of Christians in the book of Acts were all being baptised into Christ in the new covenant for the first time.
However, this shouldn’t concern us. Scripture was written to specific people within specific times of history and does not function as a wooden manual far removed from the people and contexts it was written in. The principles are timeless but the application might vary - much more could be said to qualify this. Considering this, many questions arise when it comes to our application of baptism in light of membership.
Believer’s Baptism According to the Scriptures
Allow me to clarify from the outset that the purpose of this discussion is not to give a detailed case for believer’s baptism, rather it is to discuss the application of baptism as it relates to the practice of membership.
In our Statement of Faith we affirm the following regarding baptism;
We believe that Christian Baptism is the immersion in water of a believer, into the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. This sign was to display our faith in the crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, and to illustrate our own death to sin and resurrection to a new life in faith and obedience to Jesus.
In short, we affirm this because baptism is the sign of the new covenant of Jesus’ blood, and the only people who ultimately and eternally make up the legitimate members of the new covenant in the sight of God are the regenerate - those who have been born-again, responding in faith and repentance (Romans 6:4–5, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Hebrews 10:14-16).
The true church of Jesus - the genuine members of the new covenant - does not include both believers and unbelievers (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 8:6-13). The new covenant differs from the old covenant in that the members of the old covenant were explicitly made up of both believers and unbelievers (Romans 9:6). This is because in the old covenant you were also included by physical birth with circumcision as the covenant sign (Genesis 17:10, Romans 4:11).¹
In the new covenant you are included by spiritual birth through the Holy Spirit - faith in Christ and repentance being evidence of this new birth (John 1:12-13, John 3:3, 1 John 5:1, Galatians 3:7). Therefore, baptism is administered as the sign of the new covenant to those who repent and have faith in Christ, demonstrating they have been born again and are a part of the new covenant people of God.
On the day of Pentecost, when those listening to Peter asked him what they must do in response to the gospel, part of Peter’s answer was that they are to “repent and be baptised” (Acts 2:37-38). On top of this, we also read that “those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41).
Therefore, baptism also functions as a public testimony to the church regarding the newfound member of the new covenant. It is the clear sign and seal that indicates this person’s loyalty is to Christ and his people. What is being displayed on the outside in the waters of baptism is a testimony to the church of what has occurred on the inside through the living waters of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:47-48).
Baptism and Church Membership
Regarding the relationship between baptism and membership, we first need to establish one fundamental truth according to God’s word:
Requirements for membership in the local church should not differ from what God requires of a person to be a part of his kingdom
There is a careful line drawn as a result of this truth. We boldly affirm that a local church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation. Hence, on one side of the line, we affirm that baptism is not necessary for salvation - the thief on the cross is a clear example of this.
However, on the other side of the line, as we examine the great commission given by Jesus (Matt 28:19-20), as well as the consistent pattern we observe throughout the book of Acts (as we’ve already seen from Acts 2:37–38), we see that baptism is a God-ordained practice for his church. It is a means of grace, that all who follow Christ are commanded to receive - baptism is the non-negotiable beginning of discipleship and is a matter of obedience. To not be baptised would be to disobey Jesus. Drawing these concepts even more closely together, membership in the new covenant of Jesus’ blood is expressed through membership in a local church and baptism is the sign and seal of this new relationship.
Therefore, it would be wise for us to note that whilst the thief on the cross allows us to say that baptism is not required for salvation, he does function as an exception to the rule of scripture regarding the general pattern of discipleship. According to Jesus and his twelve apostles, church-going Christians are baptised Christians.
The Common Scenario Discussed
In light of all this, let’s now reconsider the married couple mentioned earlier as we apply these truths to the church. Allow me to remind you of the scenario:
Consider a born-again married couple who have been baptised as babies. They are looking for a new church family to bind themselves to. After searching, they find themselves visiting a healthy church that believes in Credobaptism (believer’s baptism). What should the credobaptist church do in this instance? Although the married couple clearly profess Christ and show fruit of repentance, should they be refused membership because they have not been baptised in response to their faith, but only as infants?
The typical practice of (baptist) churches, definitely not all, would be to decline receiving the married couple unless they were both willing to be re-baptised as believers in response to their faith. The argument given by these churches would be that the infant baptism this couple received was not a valid biblical baptism to begin with. However, recall the first fundamental truth established earlier on:
Requirements for membership in the local church should not differ from what God requires of a person to be a part of his kingdom
A membership process in a local church is an inferential practice by which we affirm a person’s faith as well as receive and mutually bind ourselves to them in Christ.² Therefore, by not receiving the married couple, we would essentially be telling them that their conviction regarding baptism according to the scriptures is such a significant error that we are unable to affirm and receive them within the body of Christ - this really is no small matter.
To not affirm the married couple would be to imply that we are not bound together in Christ. This judgement would be the result of a different view of baptism, ignoring the reality of the Holy Spirit indwelling them. This seems inappropriate considering all that has occurred in church history.
Striving for Best Practice in Light of the Kingdom
So, what might be an appropriate response to this scenario as well as all other possible scenarios within this topic? It does not seem appropriate to decline affirming the married couple into membership as if they cannot truly be saved. However, since we also want to be clear about our credobaptist convictions according to God’s word, we should also take the time to explain the implications of this difference between the church’s position and that of the married couple as potential members of the church.
That being said, if this married couple were to come to us desiring to join our church, they are welcome to do so upon affirmation of a credible profession of faith and clear demonstration of fruit - these two principles should advise all potential scenarios of this kind. Moreover, the implication of this would be that they understand the view of the church is believer’s baptism, and that they would be willing to submit themselves to that teaching.³ Considering this, we would walk with them in discipleship, potentially recommending that they consider their need to be baptised in response to their faith.⁴ At the same time, we would not disqualify them from joining our church or partaking of the Lord’s supper due to their differing convictions.
Having said that, from here the list of issues to be considered grows. Can they serve as ministry leaders? Can they become deacons? Can they become elders? There is no single, clear-cut answer to these ever-important questions. I submit that each eldership of a church must resolve this with careful discussion and collaborative wisdom from the scriptures within their context. Although, churches must be mindful of God’s grand plan of redemption through the gospel of the kingdom, and the unprecedented scenarios that inevitably unfold as we press further along in church history.
The Sum Total
To appropriately initiate a journey of discipleship would be to lead people in the waters of baptism upon a credible profession of faith. At the same time, requirements for membership in the local church should not differ from what God requires of a person to be a part of his kingdom. Therefore, we must be willing to approach this with enough humility to recognise that we can be brothers and sisters in Christ, worshipping the Lord together being fellow members of the same church, even though we have differing opinions on secondary issues such as baptism.
And so, as we rejoice in the already-victorious advancement of God’s kingdom on the earth, we must constantly examine the application of our doctrine to ensure his kingdom is moving forward unhindered by our own practices. God’s word is enough. We must not compromise for the sake of pragmatism. However, as we reflect upon where we are in church history and how the categories of primary and secondary doctrines do exist, there are wisdom calls that must be made. Wisdom calls that ensure two steps forward in a local church do not push us ten steps backward in the advancement of the kingdom.
May God give us wisdom.
¹ Keeping in mind that membership in the old covenant (by ethnicity) does not mean a person is automatically saved. Hence the difference between the old and the new.
² By ‘inferential practice’ I mean that there are a number of ways to define who the members of a church are, in light of the New Testament examples of churches knowing exactly who was a part of their local bodies by name (3 John 1:14) and number (Acts 2:41). On this basis, to infer a practice of membership (which is based on biblical language - 1 Corinthians 12:12-13) is appropriate, biblical and healthy.
³ By ‘submit’, I do not at all mean that they must change their personal belief on this topic. Rather, as members of the church, that they would be willing to joyfully cooperate, encourage the ministry of the church, and faithfully represent the church’s position.
⁴ This would have to be done very thoughtfully and it would be case-by-case, so that we don’t diminish the sacred nature of baptism. Much more could be said regarding this.