If you are Reformed Baptist (Particular Baptist, if you prefer), you will have agonised over when it is best to bring somebody into membership. Much of that stems from two Baptist beliefs, namely 1) baptism brings a person into membership of the local church; and, 2) baptism is for those who have expressed faith in Christ and can thus rightly be considered in the covenant. The question for Baptists centres around when it is appropriate to baptise someone and bring them into membership. We want to ask, what constitutes a credible profession of faith? and, how do we avoid (so far as it is possible) admitting unbelievers and those who make false professions to membership?
Just in case you think this is a uniquely Baptist problem, our paedobaptist brethren have to contend with the same question. For some, it arises for any who come to faith and were not the children of believers. For others, even if they are happy to apply the sign of the covenant fairly liberally on that front, all of them put the mockers on their kids from taking the other sign of the covenant at the Lord’s table until there is some evidence of genuine belief. So, to be clear, paedobaptism isn’t a ‘get out of difficult conversations about genuine conversion’ card.
There are two basic schools of thought on this issue. One insists that we must wait a good chunk of time before we see some fruit of repentance. It looks to assess how one is walking over a period of time before they will baptise and admit you to membership. The other says that we should simply baptise and welcome into membership on the basis of a credible profession. So, such that somebody claims to trust in Christ and can give a story that is capable of being believed, we admit them to membership.
I want to give four reasons why I believe the second of these two options is preferable.
It is the NT pattern
Throughout the NT, we see a simple pattern established. Individuals came to faith in Christ, were baptised and joined the church (cf. Acts 2:41). This was in response to Jesus’ Great Commission to go into all the world and make disciples, baptising them as the sign of belonging to Christ (cf. Matt 28:19f).
This seems to be the established pattern such that Paul can say, ‘don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?’ (Rom 6:3). As Tom Schreiner, in his Baker commentary on Romans, rightly points out, ‘Since unbaptized Christians were virtually non-existent, to refer to those who were baptized is another way of describing those who are Christians, those who have put their faith in Christ. Paul is saying here that all Christians have participated in the death and burial of Christ, for all Christians had received baptism.’
Throughout the book of Acts we see no time elapse between a profession of faith and admittance to baptism. There are no examples in scripture of a period of testing and waiting before we are willing to baptise. In line with the NT pattern, we should be looking for a credible testimony as the basis upon which we bring people into the church.
It gives us grounds for church discipline
Again, in line with what we see as the NT pattern, it is a standard Baptist belief that baptism brings an individual into membership of the church. As one comes into membership, there are rights and responsibilities that go along with that commitment. Joining the church gives you access to the Lord’s table – affirming your ongoing standing in Christ and with his people – but brings you into an accountable relationship with the church whereby they will hold you to your profession and all that it entails. When people profess faith and enter the church quickly, they are brought into the local church family and can enjoy fellowship on the same terms as everybody else.
But if we take the ‘wait and see’ approach, what do we do for those who profess faith but fall into sin. If they are not members of the church, we have no right whatsoever to do anything about that. You can’t bring somebody under church discipline who doesn’t belong to the church. Nor can you put somebody out of the church who never belonged in the first place. What is more, you end up with a situation in which individuals may sin but you have no authority over them, no disciplinary measures you can invoke and yet, if you are concerned that they aren’t believers, you presumably want them to remain connected to the church to hear the gospel. So you then have a group of people professing faith, indulging sin whilst not coming under church discipline and appearing to the world outside that they are as much with you as they ever were.
When we bring people into the fellowship quickly, we make clear who the church affirms as genuine believers and whom it doesn’t. Moreover, if our members fall into sin – especially if they are unrepentant – their being in membership gives us a right to engage in steps of church discipline. More than that, there are privilege to which they have access that we can withhold until such time as we see repentance. Equally importantly, it makes clear to the church and the watching world that – though these folk professed Christ – the way they are living undermines that claim and the church does not endorse it. The world, and the church, get a clear sense of who belongs to Christ this way and it does more for the soul of the one under discipline to know their standing than our inability to do nothing at all.
At the same time, formative church discipline is essential to keeping us going in the Christian life. We do our people a great disservice if we expect them to walk on in Christ, having become believers, without the support and help of the church community that most pastors are desperate for people to join. If we think it essential for people to join the local church, what sense is there in making it as hard as possible for those who most need such support and encouragement? Those who have only just become believers need the church as much, if not more so, than any other believer. It is, therefore, crazy to lock them out until such time as they have proved themselves some way. This is to withhold God’s means of grace from those who desperately need it.
It closely represents the grace of Christ to us
Jesus does not expect us to ‘prove’ our love for him before he welcomes us into his family. He calls us to repentance and faith and adopts us as sons the moment we turn from our rebellion and trust in him. For the church to then insist on the evidence of fruit before we will admit people to membership is to distort the picture of how Christ welcomes us.
Jesus does not call us at the point we are the finished article. He does not expect us to become sinless the moment we trust in him, quite the opposite in fact. If Christ calls us whilst we are sinners, it doesn’t seem credible for the church to insist that we have put all such things away before we are welcome. That is not to say it should enable antinomianism, it is just to say Christ adopts us before any fruit is visible in us (save for our posture of repentance). Likewise, the church should welcome us at the point there is a posture of repentance, not at the point we have – to the liking of the church leadership – sufficiently killed sin in our lives. How much sin put away is sufficient? This line of reasoning insists on a false measure that the Bible nowhere does.
It puts the onus on discipleship
As Evangelicals, we have a tendency to emphasise conversion. That is important but we can be a bit essentialist about it. In the worst cases, it descends into, ‘say this prayer and you’re sorted’. But Jesus spoke a lot about going on in the faith. James speaks about those who will inherit the crown of life being, not those who said a prayer one time, but those who go on in the Lord and endure to the end.
When we keep people out of membership, we can lean back on this essentialism. It’s alright, we think, you don’t need to be a church member to be a genuine believer. Whilst that’s certainly true, we do people a great disservice if we think that their having said a prayer is all that’s needed for them to make it to glory. When we tell people to wait to come into church membership, we take the onus off of discipleship and put it back on the prayer they said or their conversion experience (whatever that happened to be). But the Bible tells us that the key is about how we finish.
If we want people to finish well, they need to learn that truth early on. You can’t simply rest on your prayer of one moment. If that is true, then it follows that how we deal with people in respect to membership either enforces or undermines that very point. If we’re saying wait for ages before you can join us, we’re saying that you can manage and get by on your initial conversion on your own. If we’re encouraging people into membership early on we implicitly make it clear that the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone and relying on a prayer you said once isn’t going to cut it in the long-haul.