Is it necessary to be baptized? Why should baptism and church membership be connected? Why should I bother to join a church at all? Many – especially young people – ask themselves these questions. After all, joining a ‘group of any sort can be intimidating. ‘
The meaning of church
In the New Testament, the word “church” is used in two distinct yet connected ways. It is frequently used to refer to a community or communities of believers at a certain place (Acts :1.1:26, 15:41). Similarly, Paul uses the phrase “when you come together as a church” (1 Corinthians 11 :18).
Secondly, the word “church” is also used to refer to a wider spiritual community. In Colossians and Ephesians, Paul regularly speaks about the “body of Christ” to which all Christians belong.
According to Paul, who most clearly defined the meaning of church in the New Testament, Christians belong to both a universal church and a local church. If we were to ask Paul about the relationship of these two, he would probably answer that wherever Christians gather to worship, edify one another or serve, they are a visible expression of the universal church.
If this is what church means, what does it mean to be a member of a church? The New Testament actually tells us nothing about becoming “church members”. It only speaks about being “members of the body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12:21). Yet, in the New Testament people who found new life in Christ naturally entered a local visible community of believers. Church membership today gives forma1 shape to what the church has a1ways done naturally from the beginning. The word “member” fits perfectly the idea of the body because the body has many parts or limbs.
Is membership important?
Why is church membership important? We might give two different but closely related answers.
First, membership in the church is important because God needs “His own people” to witness to the world. All of the biblical story testifies to the fact that God has not chosen to work with people in isolation, but rather with people in community. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” writes Peter (I Peter 2:9-10), God has called a special people into existence and it is His purpose to use them for the salvation of the world.
Second, membership in the church is important because the believer needs a family in which to grow. The book of Acts reminds us that it is in the community of faith where we are nurtured to maturity in Christ. (See also Ephesians 4: 16.) In the church, our relationship with God becomes vital, habits of Christian behaviour are developed, spiritual gifts are discovered, and spiritual maturity is promoted.
Before we become members
Two things must happen before we become church members – we must be converted, and we must be baptized.
Basic to the New Testament is the command of Jesus, “Be converted!” (Mark 1:15, Matthew 18:3). Conversion involves a turning, changing direction, reversing the focus of our lives so that our fundamental loyalties are shifted toward rather than away from God. It is essentially a commitment to God in response to the mercy of God.
Conversions may occur suddenly, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus, or gradually, as in the case of Lydia, the cloth-seller. The New Testament plainly teaches that faith and baptism belong together. Baptism follows a personal confession of faith (Romans 10:9-10, I Timothy 6:12, Acts 16:25-34, Matthew 28:19,20).
A temporary space between faith and baptism may be healthy in some cases, as for very young persons. But when professing adults with credible conversion experiences postpone baptism indefinitely, they are really declaring their unwillingness to submit to the lordship of Christ.
God’s people celebrate their membership in Christ’s body through two ordinances: believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is celebrated once and for all at the start of our Christian life, and the Lord’s Supper is celebrated from time to time throughout it. To accept Christ is to accept and love His people. Our discovery of new life in Christ should lead us to confess our faith through baptism and entrance into a visible community of believers. And when we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we sit in union with one another as family members around a common table.
—Ray Bystrom is associate professor of pastoral ministries at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. Fresno, Calif. This article is excerpted from Baptism and Membership: A converted and baptized people, the most recent pamphlet published by the Canadian MB Conference Board of Faith and Life.