Baptism and Church Membership: A proposal

Cheryl Janzen (MBH, Letters, Apr. 14) raised the question of baptism into a local congregation. She states, “that was never the intent of my baptism. I chose to be baptized because I loved Jesus and wanted to publicly say so.”

I wholeheartedly support that kind of choice. Nevertheless, we need to ask whether our intentions are the primary (or sole) source for describing (or limiting) what happens in baptism. Can baptism mean more than what we personally intend? I believe that it does. If we are baptized in an MB church, then baptism means what MBs together have discerned it to mean. We find that meaning in our common Confession of Faith.

I’m not too worried if individuals at the time of their baptism don’t resonate with all of what the Confession says. In fact, churches should expect that, if we follow the biblical pattern of baptism as a beginning point of discipleship (see Matthew 28.19). It is altogether a different matter, however, when congregations as a whole choose as a matter of practice to separate baptism from church membership. This is a serious matter. It is a practice that is being adopted by a number of MB churches (and even being reported as such in the MB Herald; see, for example, the Mar. 31 issue, p. 26). What is problematic is that individual congregations are making unilateral decisions to disregard the accepted Confession of Faith. Such decisions don’t honour the covenant community and accountability that govern our theology and (ideally) our practice of the church.

There may be numerous reasons why the idea of “church membership” is a stumbling block to some. However, I don’t believe that a unilateral opting out of our Confession of Faith is the way to deal with the issue. This is a significant matter for confessional integrity, and I call on our church and Conference leaders to speak to the issue. As a discussion starter, I want to make the following three proposals:

(1) That every individual who has ever been baptized in an MB church be considered a member (unless, in the time since their baptism, they have formally joined a different church), and be added retroactively to the membership roster. This goes back to my earlier point-whether or not a person (or even a whole congregation) intended to join the church at the point of baptism, the f fact that that person was baptized in an MB church says that that did indeed happen.

(2) That all MB churches work with their provincial/district leadership to bring their practice of church membership into unity with the Confession of Faith (perhaps within a timeline of 2-3 years). This would mean different things for different congregations. Some (older) churches may have a concept of church membership that resembles “citizenship” (you hold onto it for years even after you leave the “mother church”); often this does not resemble the New Testament ideal of participation in a local church. For other churches, this will mean that they reconnect baptism and church membership.

(3) That Conference administrations and agencies work out a more useful system of connecting budgetary concerns (i.e. Conference norms) with congregational membership numbers. To borrow the language of colleges, we may have to develop something like a FTE (full-time equivalency) scale for translating congregational membership numbers into Conference giving norms. Such a scale could take into account recent members from unchurched backgrounds, students, the unemployed or financially disadvantaged, and so on.

I hope that these proposals will generate some discussion within our churches, with the end of strengthening our accountability to each other, and ultimately strengthening our common witness as the body of Christ.

Randy Klassen is a graduate student and is an associate pastor in Coaldale (Alta.) MB Church.

One Comment on “Baptism and Church Membership: A proposal

  1. A good discussion starter, Randy. Baptism and church membership both belong, ideally, to the very beginning of an individual’s Christian discipleship. In the early church, people believed and were baptized right away, and were “added to their [the church’s] number,” which sounds like a formal recognition of what the Holy Spirit had done in making them members of Christ’s body in a spiritual sense.

    Some concerns about your position, though:
    (1) There is no biblical statement that baptism implies or directly entails church membership.
    (2) In our free society, and especially within a free church denomination, neither baptism nor membership can be coerced. Both should certainly be encouraged, strongly, but individuals must be allowed freedom to make their own spiritual decisions.
    (3) Your suggestion of retroactively adding a person as a member, despite their failure to have personally made such a decision, seems strange and would likely be challenged as illegal.
    (4) I hope budgetary issues or other Conference administrative issues will never become a primary (or even secondary) motivation for encouraging people to become members of the local church they attend. Believers should become church members in a formal way because they are already spiritually members of Christ’s body. They should do this as an outward statement of their commitment to their brothers and sisters and the church leadership, as an indication of their readiness to serve and be accountable in official capacities, and so they can be fully involved in various voting and disciplinary aspects of congregational life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to MB Herald via email

Enter your email address to receive notification of new posts.

%d bloggers like this: