In our view, baptism and membership in a local church are inseparable, the former necessarily preceding the latter. While baptism is never explicitly said to be a prerequisite for church membership, the following biblical factors lead to that conclusion:
- Baptism is commanded of every believer.
Baptism is an act of obedience, not only on the part of the individual Christian, but on the part of those who are commanded to baptize new disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Disciples who will not submit to the ordinance of baptism are not only disobeying personally, but are also hindering other Christians from doing their Christian duty.
- Existing disciples are commanded to baptize every new disciple.
It cannot be right to create a situation that necessitates only partial obedience to Christ on the part of a local church—a situation, in other words, where believers admit their obligation to baptize new disciples who are willing to submit to the ordinance, but excuse themselves when the new disciple is unwilling. We are not permitted to make optional what God requires of every believer. To do so in the case of baptism would be little different than doing so in the case of church discipline—excluding unrepentant offenders when they are willing to be excluded, but when they resist, patiently waiting for them to agree before taking church action. Certainly everyone would recognize that a person’s willingness or unwillingness to be disciplined has no bearing whatsoever on the church’s obligation to obey Christ.
The same is true of baptism. According to Christ’s command, we are obligated to baptize every disciple. We do not fulfill our obligation by dunking them against their will, of course. We simply refrain from receiving them as members until they understand correctly and submit voluntarily to Christ’s command. Our unwillingness to receive unbaptized disciples into membership is not our way of saying they are not Christians. It is simply our way of saying that we, as a church, have no obligation to publicly acknowledge them as Christians (i.e., by receiving them into membership) until they have been baptized.
Acts 2:41 (“those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls”) does not “prove” all by itself that baptism was an established requirement for membership in the Jerusalem church. It does show, however, that baptism was the very first step of obedience these new Christians took upon being converted. And this leads us to recognize that the very first instruction the new converts received from other Christians was on the meaning and necessity of baptism.
- Baptism was the very first instruction given to new disciples, and the very first step of obedience taken by new disciples following conversion.
Furthermore, this was not merely the way new believers happened to be instructed on the Day of Pentecost. Peter’s command (Acts 2:38), as well as the immediate baptism of those who believed, followed perfectly from what Christ commanded His apostles in Matthew 28: “. . . make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them . . . teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (emphasis added). Given these instructions, what else would one think to do immediately following conversion? Jesus actually prioritized baptism above teaching new disciples to observe all His other commands. And consider the other examples in the book of Acts where this pattern is affirmed: the Samaritan believers in Acts 8:12, the eunuch in Acts 8:36, Cornelius and the other Gentiles in Acts 10:47-48, Lydia in Acts 16:14-15, and the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:31-33. In each of these cases the very first priority following conversion was baptism.
It would seem obvious that the converts on the Day of Pentecost and the other converts in the book of Acts were never asked if they wanted to be baptized. Clearly baptism was expected of them. It is also impossible to conclude that a person who said he believed, but declined to submit to baptism, would have been received into the number of the initiated. His reluctance to proclaim Christ publicly through baptism would certainly have made his profession of faith suspect.
Baptism and belief in Christ are so commonly spoken of in the same breath in the New Testament that it seems impossible and unjustified to separate them. In the book of Acts, for example, whenever believers were gathered together, the unstated but obvious reality is that they were baptized believers (e.g., Acts 2:44; 4:32; etc.). As we said above, the same pattern characterized the conversions throughout the book of Acts. When people became believers, they immediately became baptized believers. No other category of “believer” ever presents itself after the Day of Pentecost. The fact is, any person who could rightly say that he or she was in Christ spiritually could also say (after a very short time) that he or she had been under the water physically.
- After Pentecost, every believer in the New Testament is a baptized believer.
Baptism is explicitly said to be a requirement for every Christian (Acts 2:38). In our view, any Christian who is unwilling to obey Christ in this initial sense gives little evidence that he or she will be willing to obey Christ in other ways. Should we acknowledge a person as a follower of Christ if he or she will not follow Christ? Certainly not. This is true even when the unwillingness results from a lack of understanding. Just as ignorance or misinformation does not excuse a person from obeying state and local ordinances, it does not excuse anyone from obeying Christ in baptism. Some will indeed be able to point to other noteworthy Christians who have promoted the errant doctrine of infant baptism and/or the sprinkling of believers, and thus seek to excuse themselves from compliance to Christ’s command to be immersed. But it is not our prerogative, even out of sympathy or fear of offending, to accept such an excuse. We are Baptists, after all, because we believe baptism is the immersion of a believer and nothing else.
Baptism as a “Door” into the Church
The question has often been raised as to whether baptism should be seen as a “door” into the church. The answer, we believe, is yes, although one must differentiate carefully between two meanings of “church,” two meanings of “baptism,” and two meanings of “membership.”
If one is speaking of membership in the universal church, the spiritual body of Christ composed of all true believers, spiritual baptism is the “door.” The moment a person is united with Christ spiritually, he or she enters the church in this sense, whether or not there has been any previous exposure to a local church. Membership in the universal church is fully granted by God upon true conversion. It is not a membership that must be granted by other Christians. And it can never be renounced through church discipline (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:11-13). In the rare case that a genuine Christian is expelled from a local church because of a temporary but intolerable pattern of sin, such a person has not been expelled from the universal church. This is not normally the case with church discipline, however. Most who are expelled are false converts. And false converts, whether they are recognized and expelled from the membership of a local church or not, were never members of the universal church.
If one is referring to local church membership, on the other hand, physical baptism is the “door.” This form of membership must be granted by other Christians (Matthew 18:18-20). It is not automatically bestowed on the new believer by the Holy Spirit at conversion. It can even be refused by a local congregation when they are not convinced that genuine conversion has occurred (cf. Acts 9:26-27). And unlike membership in the universal church, local church membership can be renounced through the authoritative disciplinary action of the same local church that granted it (cf. Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13).
There are great differences, in other words, between membership in the universal church and membership in a local church. It should be no surprise, then, to find that there are significant differences in the entrance requirements as well. The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit (i.e., regeneration—spiritual baptism) is the only entrance requirement into the universal church. But according to the clear commands and consistent precedent of the New Testament, immersion in water is the entrance requirement (along with a credible verbal profession of faith in Christ, of course) for those who wish to become members of a local church. In this sense baptism is the “door” into the local church. And just to be clear, it is a “door” that is entered only once by going under the water physically. After that, if the first immersion was biblically valid, when a Christian moves to a different local church, the credible testimony of his immersion is sufficient.
In summary, it seems plain to us that baptism was a prerequisite for being accepted into the first gatherings of professing believers. And if it was for them, it must be for us. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Error Indulged Leads to Error Entrenched
The ongoing debate about whether baptism is required for church membership is directly related to the problem of infant baptism. Historically, it seems obvious that the matter would have never become an issue at all apart from this unbiblical practice. This factor alone has caused many well-meaning Christian leaders to entertain the idea of receiving unbaptized (though sprinkled) people into membership while they work out their personal convictions regarding baptism. It has also caused otherwise sound teachers to relegate baptism to a “Romans 14” issue (a matter that should be determined in the individual’s conscience because it is not directly commanded or forbidden) without the slightest exegetical justification for doing so. Baptism is directly commanded, and therefore cannot be a “Romans 14” issue. In this case, the presence of one error has persuaded many well-meaning Christians to commit another error.
In order to illustrate the fallacy of this way of thinking, apply the same principle to a different matter of church practice. What would happen, for instance, if the issue at stake were women seeking to be pastors? What would we do if, due to centuries of errant instruction among certain Christian groups, a number of well-meaning and capable ladies requested eldership in our biblically conservative Baptist churches? What if they were determined that they were right, and that we were restraining them from following God’s call to shepherd His flock by denying their request? Would our compassion cause us to relent and make them elders while we sought, patiently and gently, to show them their error? Would we relegate this to a “Romans 14” issue? Certainly not. In fact, such requests have been received and, for the most part, Baptists have not yielded to them.
The question is, why have most Baptists not yielded to these kinds of requests? For one thing, we all recognize that indulging the error of misguided Christians out of patience and love does not tend to make their error go away. To see this, one need only to examine the deplorable pastoral situation in certain less-conservative denominations (including, sadly, certain Baptist denominations). The fact is, errors that are allowed to be perpetuated within a church out of “love” only tend to become more deeply rooted. In many cases, the error eventually comes to be seen as the standard.
If the more open approach to baptism prevails in this case, results will certainly follow that will actually increase the problem. Consider the following likely scenarios:
- Immersion will become optional and irrelevant.
- Unbaptized church leaders will affirm unbiblical doctrines and practices.
- The strong will provide dangerous misdirection for the weak.
- The practice of Baptists receiving unbaptized members is a definitional inconsistency.
At some point, baptistic churches who accept unbaptized Christians as members would likely begin making unbaptized men elders. After all, what legitimate reason could such a church give for refusing an otherwise qualified man’s request to be an elder? He was received as a “member-in-good-standing” in his unbaptized condition. He was told that he would not be a second-class member in any sense because he was unbaptized. And Paul says nothing explicitly to either Timothy or Titus about baptism being a requirement for eldership.
Taking this a bit further, an unbaptized man in a teaching and leadership position would presumably be permitted to teach the Bible according to his own convictions, including those related to baptism. After all, his soundness in doctrine and capability as a teacher were required for him to be made an elder in the first place (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9). Even if a local church found a legitimate way to prevent him from openly advocating infant baptism, his status as a respected teacher, combined with everyone’s knowledge of his “baptism” as an infant, would give tacit affirmation to that practice. We would actually have a situation in which infant baptism was being affirmed as valid (whether by open teaching or by implication) in a Baptist church!
The fact is, denial of the man’s request for eldership on the basis of his baptismal status alone would be an arbitrary distinction, made necessary by the earlier concession to receive him into membership despite his being unbaptized. Rejecting the unbaptized man’s request for eldership is certainly wise, and might be justified by the requirement that elders affirm the doctrinal positions held by the church. But if the man is not permitted to affirm and teach infant baptism because the church considers it an unbiblical doctrine and practice, why was this overlooked when considering his petition for membership? In other words, if he is not permitted to teach infant baptism because it is not true baptism, why was his infant baptism acceptable for membership?
Some noteworthy Christian leaders have said that their churches could receive unbaptized Chistians as members while also maintaining their commitment to immersion as the only valid practice. Churches and leaders such as these assure others that they would charge unbaptized members to be immersed as soon as possible. And as we noted above, they could have a membership policy that prevents unbaptized men from becoming elders. Conceding that such strong commitment to maintaining baptistic principles is possible in some cases, these churches and leaders would nevertheless be setting a course for disaster among many of the less-resolved churches they influence.
Would every local church they influence know of their strong commitment to exclusively baptistic teaching? Would every local church they influence have ready access to the details of how such commitments were enforced? Would every local church that follows their pattern have strong enough leadership themselves to stand by such commitments if they were made? Probably not. The truth is, once any concession is made in this area by noted Christian leaders and churches, others will concede further, and those who follow these, further still. It’s a worn out phrase, we know, but it is nonetheless true that if you give an inch, many will take a mile. We would not use this “influence” argument if baptism were an issue of Christian freedom (i.e., Romans 14). But baptism is not such an issue. Christ never gave us permission to give the inch in the first place.
Baptist churches define baptism as the immersion of believers in water. Almost all require baptism for church membership. The inconsistency lies in the fact that in many cases, churches and leaders that are considering the more open approach do not intend to change either their definition of baptism or their requirement of baptism for church membership. In other words, while holding that baptism is the immersion of a believer in water, and while requiring baptism for church membership, they intend to permit those who were not baptized, according to their own definition of baptism, to become members!
It seems to us that if a church is strongly enough convinced that unbaptized people should be permitted to join the church as members, then either the church’s definition of baptism must be broadened, or the requirement of baptism for church membership must be done away with. Without at least one of these actual changes in doctrine and/or church polity, the inconsistency seems glaring. On the other hand, we cannot help but think that the unwillingness to change either the definition or the requirement seems to speaks volumes about what these churches and their leaders know to be true in the New Testament—that baptism is immersion in water and that it is required for church membership.
If baptism is not seen as essential for initial receptioninto membership, when will it become essential? After a week? How about a month? Perhaps a year would be more reasonable. But then, why not two years, or five, or ten? And if you are willing to go that far, you are willing to say (actually, you have already said) that baptism is not a requirement at all.
Though we believe that receiving unbaptized persons into Baptist churches is a trend that is regretful and even dangerous, we recognize that this practice does not necessarily stem from any disbelief in the Scriptures or failure to search the Scriptures on the part of those who disagree with us. And, however strongly we adhere to our own convictions, which have been widely-held by Baptists for generations, we do so because of our own study, our own conscience with respect to the Scriptures, and even our own willingness to alter our practice if the Word and the Spirit were to lead us to another view.
We would all agree that Baptists in the past placed a great deal of emphasis on the idea of a truly regenerate church membership. This historic principle is eroding during our watch in a variety of ways. One’s view of baptism as the “door” to the church plays a part in the pursuit of that purity. As stated above, we do not believe that the practice of receiving only baptized people into membership would have ever been questioned if it were not for the unbiblical practice of infant “baptism” and the believer’s desire not to offend. It is natural, in one sense, to move away from biblical doctrines and practices when they cause problems between true believers. It is our hope, however, that love for our brothers and sisters who practice infant baptism, which all Baptists believe to be unbiblical, will not serve to undermine our own sound practice of receiving only baptized believers into our churches.
Note: The primer on baptism by Jim Elliff (Going Under: Discussions on Baptism, Christian Communicators Worldwide, www.CCWtoday.org) assumes the position represented in this article, although the purpose of the book was not to prove this point.