Baptism and Church Membership

Baptism and Church Membership

I have taught that the New Testament does not envision an un-baptized Christian; that the mode of baptism found in the New Testament is immersion; that the proper candidates for baptism are professing believers. I believe the clear teaching and example of the New Testament substantiates these tenets.

I have also taught that baptism is a prerequisite to membership in the local church. In the same way that spirit baptism ushers one into the church universal water baptism ushers one into the church local. I am not as certain that this is the clear teaching of the New Testament. So, I address the question of baptism and church membership in this study.

On the one hand, if the answer to this issue is that baptism is a prerequisite to membership then several sub questions must be addressed. They are:

  1. Can a person be a member if he/she was immersed prior to being saved?
  2. Can a person be a member if he/she was baptized by a mode other than immersion prior to being saved (either as an infant or an adult)?
  3. Can a person be a member if he/she was baptized by a mode other than immersion following being saved?
  4. Should such applicants for membership be required to be re-baptized by immersion before admittance to membership?
  5. Can a person be baptized under the auspices of a local church without becoming a member?

On the other hand, if the answer to this question is that baptism is not a prerequisite to membership then these sub questions are irrelevant.

Candidly, none of us is completely objective regarding this or any other issue. So, I must always ask myself whether my positions are a result of honest exegesis of the Scripture or of undue influence of tradition. I must also make a concerted effort to discover what the Scripture clearly teaches on this issue. Where it doesn’t speak unmistakably I am left to develop a solution that I believe best fits the most data and creates the fewest difficulties.

In this brief attempt to answer this question I am assuming several particulars. These items have been considered elsewhere and will not be unpacked in this study. They are:

  1. The church is the foundation of God’s program for today; it is God’s final authority here on earth. He has entrusted the church with the gospel and His work is done through the church. The church belongs to God and Christ is its supreme head. In short, everything revolves around the church.
  2. The tangible expression of the universal church is found only in the local church. The word “church” in the New Testament overwhelming refers to local churches.
  3. All genuine believers are expected to have a formal relationship with a particular local church. I choose to designate this with the term “membership.”
  4. The New Testament authorizes only baptism by immersion.

Formative Information

The entire tenor of the issue, though perhaps not the final decision, can be gleaned from Acts 2. Following the chaotic Pentecost events, Peter boldly preached to the crowd assembled at the outer court of the temple. Undoubtedly, some in the crowd participated in killing Jesus fifty three days earlier. So Peter explained the Pentecost phenomena as a partial fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy associated with the last days. But more importantly, he argued passionately that Jesus, whom they had killed, was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. At the conclusion of this direct gospel message, many of the hearers were so convicted (v 37- see the ESV graphic translation cut to the heart) that they demanded to know what to do. Peter answered their question and further exhorted them to be saved (v 40); consequently many of the hearers responded (v 41 so then).

Acts 2:41 reads, So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. This verse is pivotal. The phrase, so then, normally is a summary of what precedes or is an introduction to something further. So this is actually a one verse summary of what happened.

A diagrammatical analysis of this verse shows that there were two results from Peter’s message that day.

We first learn that many of the hearers were baptized. These persons are identified as the ones who had “received” Peter’s message; we might better say those who accepted or welcomed the message. Peter’s exhortation to them to “repent” (v 37) and “be saved” (v 40), the description of “believers” (v 44), as well as the description of subsequent days during which people who were “saved” were added (v 47) makes it clear that “received” is used here as equivalent to believing. So we might call them believers. Apparently not all believed, but those who did were baptized. On this first day, there were no un-baptized believers.

Second, we learn that 3,000 people were “added”. The term conveys the idea of putting or placing toward an already existing group (various lexicons). Presumably then, these new believers were united with the original 120 (Acts 1:15). A simple reading of the verse produces the idea that those who believed numbered 3,000. In other words, the subjects of the two clauses refer to the same group of people.

These two clauses make independent statements and are linked by the coordinating conjunction “and”which yields a coordinate construction (see H.P. Nunn, A Short Syntax of New Testament Greek 81). The verbs, “baptized” and “added”, are both aorist passive indicatives. Though a sequential relationship can clearly be established between the subjects who received Peter’s message and their being baptized (they first believed and then they were baptized); this coordinate construction means that a sequential relationship between their being baptized and being added does not exist per se. Thus, we can only definitely conclude that on the day of Peter’s message the 3,000 who received the message were both baptized and added.

So, does this passage support the notion that baptism is a prerequisite for membership in the church as is commonly held by many Baptist and baptistic churches? Several factors seem to favor a negative answer.

  1. As mentioned, the coordinate clauses of v 41 put the statements in a conceptual relationship rather than a chronological one. This verse, indeed the entire section, is merely a snapshot of life in the church. It is not intended to establish a precise sequential order of events.
  2. When Luke recaps the subsequent growth of the church in v 47, being baptized is not mentioned as descriptive of those who were subsequently added to the church. The text only says that those who were being saved were added. We need not necessarily assume that Luke actually meant that those who were both saved and baptized were added. In fact, this absence of baptism in v 47 as compared to v 41 may have the same kind of significance as the fact that baptism is absent in 3:19 as compared to 2:38 where consequently it is evident that baptism is not necessary to salvation. Thus in the same manner, baptism is not necessary to membership as a consequence of the absence of baptism in v 47.
  3. The subjects of the two clauses (those who received and 3,000 souls) need not be the same group in light of the impracticality of baptizing 3,000 people on one day. Three thousand people believed and were added but not necessarily baptized.
  4. The fact that in that day is attached only to the second clause allows for the baptism of the first clause to occur on a different day. Baptism was on that day but not for all.
  5. The section should not be loaded with any additional significance other than being descriptive of life in the first days of the church. If v 41 is sequential then it is consistent to read sequentially into vs 42-47. The result would be a chain of events something like: belief, baptism, addition, apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer, wonders and signs, shared possessions, temple worship, house gathering, and common meals. Each activity must be preceded by all the preceding activities in order for that item to be considered valid. This proves too much. Or, if one opts for only a partial sequence, at what point does the sequence cease?

These may be cogent arguments, however, several other considerations may indeed argue for baptism as a prerequisite for entrance into the church.

  1. If one accepts that a sequential order of belief preceding baptism is taught in v 41, then the expected assumption from the verse is that the next event is addition. If addition occurred before baptism, why is it not so stated?
  2. The coordinating nature of the two clauses of v 41 naturally suggests two conclusions:
    1. The 3,000 are identical to the ones who received the message. Thus, this one group in entirely was both baptized and added. There is no such group as those who were added but not baptized.
    2. The ones baptized are the ones added. Thus, baptism was itself the act of addition. It is true that today most churches have some sort of procedure for entering into a formal relationship or membership. However, though this formal relationship can be supported from the New Testament, it is unlikely that a separate ceremony was part of the first church’s practice. Certainly in Acts 2, no such official procedure is envisioned. Rather, it appears that the act of baptism itself is the ceremony of entrance into the church. And if one assumes that baptism is not a prerequisite, it still appears that on this day all who were saved were both added and baptized. Practically then, it would seem like baptism and addition were simultaneous. So the net effect is the same as if baptism was a prerequisite to or the means of entrance into the church.
  3. The paragraph structure does indicate a new line of thought at v 42. Verse 41, beginning with a “so then”, is a statement of what followed Peter’s message. It tells us what the believers did on the first day; they were baptized and were added. Though not translated in v 42 and v 43, what follows are four coordinating statements connected by “and” (de). These statements further describe daily life in the first church as played out in the days following that first day.
    1. Verse 42 describes four activities (in pairs of two). Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer are likely bedrock essentials in the early church.
    2. Verse 43 describes the climate that was created in the community as it observed these believers and the apostles who continued to perform miracles.
    3. Verses 44-47a describes the tangible extent to which the new believers were committed to one another in daily life.
    4. Verse 47b describes the further blessing of God upon this first church.

Thus there is a natural break between v 41 and 42-47 (as NIV). Verse 41 portrays the first day; verses 42-47 portray subsequent days. Verse 41 is a summary; verses 42-47 are a listing of specific activities. Grammatically then, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that v 41 is sequential while v 42-47 is only descriptive.

  1. The phrase in that day as attached to the second clause implies that the summary of the day was that 3,000 were added. It is perfectly appropriate to assume the other events of “that” day, namely belief and baptism, also occurred.
  2. Three thousand people actually could have been baptized in a single day. This is especially feasible if some of the original 120 assisted. In fact, during Chrysostom’s life, 3,000 were baptized on a single day. And on July 3, 1878, 2222 people were baptized in nine hours by six men. Further, ample water pools were available in Jerusalem at that time. (A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology 934).

Based on this passage, I tentatively conclude that baptism followed belief and that it was the means by which people were added to the Jerusalem church. Technically baptism was simultaneous to membership rather than a prerequisite. But in effect it was a prerequisite because those added were baptized; or to say it negatively, none were added who were not baptized. I believe this best fits the data of Acts 2. F.F. Bruce says it this way, “…baptism in water continued to be the external sign by which individuals who believed the gospel message, repented of their sins, and acknowledged Jesus as Lord, were publicly incorporated into the Spirit-baptized fellowship of the new people of God. (The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Book of Acts 76-77).

But, is this picture of life in the early church descriptive without being prescriptive? In other words, we do learn how the apostolic church in Jerusalem functioned, but are we required to function in exactly the same manner? What is the value of this record for us today? We must acknowledge that we view many phenomena in Acts as descriptive or even exemplary but not prescriptive (for instance direct apostolic authority, or communal life, or temple worship; or the method of selecting deacons and elders). So today, must individuals be baptized in conjunction with membership in a local church as was the practice at Jerusalem?

Because of this descriptive/prescriptive issue, it would be wise to consult additional New Testament data to see if we can discover any help in arriving at a conclusion that best fits most of the data.

Other Passages

Matthew 28:19-20. This passage blurs things a bit. It does contain sequence through participial use; but it still must be sorted out. The imperative to make disciples is in a coordinating relationship with the-Lord-is-with-them promise of v 20. But making disciples is preceded by the act of going (aorist passive participle) and is simultaneous with baptizing and teaching (both are present active participles). So sequence can be shown to a degree (going before disciple making), but it can not necessarily be shown that baptizing and teaching follow disciple making; rather they are components of disciple making. If membership is implied (teaching is authorized and designed to take place in the church) then baptism as a prerequisite for membership can not be substantiated. Rather, baptism and teaching (membership) are on par with each other. But, in that the participles denote simultaneous action, this passage could also be used to argue against believers only as proper candidates for baptism. In my view, this would prove too much. So, it is likely a safe assumption that the baptism and the teaching follow making disciples. However, there is no basis per se to put baptism and teaching in a sequential relationship with one another. The fact that baptism is first in the sentence order may not necessarily carry significance and there is no connective.

Matt 3:6-16; Mark 1:1-9; Luke 3:7-21; Luke 7:29-30; John 1:25-33; John 3:23; John 10:40; Acts 1:5; Acts 19:3-5. John, the Baptist, traveled around the countryside baptizing people. This is distinct from Christian baptism in that, though it is also an evidence of repentance, it takes place prior to the inception of the church and does not include Jesus’ name in the formula.

John 3:22, 26; John 4:1-2. Jesus, or at least his disciples, baptized. This too is not Christian baptism; Jesus ministered prior to the beginning of the church.

Acts 8:12-16. In Samaria Phillip baptized various people, including Simon, the magician. Clearly, belief precedes this baptism. Addition to a church is not mentioned. Are we to assume that all these newly baptized persons were admitted into the local church in the city? If so, why is this not mentioned?

Acts 8:25-40. Phillip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. He did believe first. Addition to a church is not mentioned here either. Must it be assumed that this baptism made him part of the church in his home town? If so why is this not so stated?

The same observations and questions are applicable regarding Cornelius and his family and friends in Caesarea (Acts 10:23-48); Lydia in Thyatira (Acts 16:14-15); and the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:25-34). But later New Testament narrative (Acts 18:22, Rev 2:18, Philippians 1:1), informs us that a church eventually was established in these cities. It may not be unreasonable to assume that these newly baptized converts became part of those churches.

Additionally, we do learn that Saul was baptized following his conversion (Acts 9:18) and later on shows up as an integral part of the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30). And Crispus and others in Corinth whom Paul baptized (Acts 18:8) apparently were now in the church in Corinth (1Corinthians 1:13-17). Also, many believed in Ephesus due to the ministry of Apollos and Paul (Acts 18:24-19:20) and later on they must have helped establish the thriving church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17).

Making Sense of It All

Here is a possible scenario that might reflect all the data. The 3,000 of Acts 2:41 who believed, were baptized, and were added were probably composed of persons from a variety of geographic areas as indicated in 2:5-11. Presumably they were temporarily in Jerusalem for the Pentecost Feast (2:5).When they returned to their original towns and villages they became the seeds for eventual churches in those towns. They either continued to be connected to the Jerusalem church or were Christians at large until a church was organized in their town. (The option that 2:41 only describes addition to the church universal doesn’t fit the contextual description of life in a local church).

When others in their home towns believed as a result of the gospel witness of these new converts they were undoubtedly baptized as per the norm. The record of Acts is clear that when people believed they were baptized. Belief followed by baptism is described in the early history of the church (see examples cited above). Baptism was the expectation for the new believer both in the beginning and subsequent days of the church and both in Jerusalem and the dispersion. In fact, it appears that the new believer himself eagerly anticipated being baptized. Unbaptized believers are never envisioned anywhere in the New Testament. Presumably then, when a church was ultimately formed it was composed of these already baptized believers.

However, these passages make no direct mention of anyone being added to a church. This may simply indicate that churches did not yet exist in those communities. However, it is clear that a formal relationship with a local church was expected when a church was established (see previous study). But it seems impossible to answer the question as to whether baptism became a requirement for (or the means of) being added to these new churches as was the case in Jerusalem on the first day of Acts 2:41. On the one hand, the Jerusalem church was the leading church in these early days. Why would other “daughter” churches not also practice baptism as the means of entrance into the church? But on the other hand, other churches were not in lock step with the Jerusalem church as the council of Acts 15 demonstrates. In fact, the Jerusalem church had its own challenges (Romans 15:25-26) so that there was no inherent value in mimicking its practices. Furthermore, as 2:47 hints, we can’t be sure whether the Jerusalem church itself continued the practice of requiring baptism as the means for entrance into the church in the days subsequent to that first day.

In summary, the facts appear to be that on the first day believers were baptized as a means of entrance into the church at Jerusalem and this likely was the ongoing practice at Jerusalem as well. However, even though I think new churches probably adopted the same practice as the Jerusalem church, it can not be certain whether this was the case as the church expanded geographically.

Thus, regarding the question of baptism and membership I accept that, while a believer must be baptized as a prescriptive matter; baptism as a means of entrance into the church may be descriptive. Thus, churches today have latitude on this question. However, the preponderance of implication suggests that baptism was a prerequisite to church membership. Furthermore, if baptism is a dictate of the New Testament (prescriptive), then to refuse baptism is blatant disobedience. And hence, to receive un-baptized individuals into membership seems inconsistent. Consequently, I conclude that no one should be admitted into membership who has not been previously baptized or will be baptized in conjunction with admission into the local church.

The Secondary Questions

As I suggested, if we view baptism as the means of or pre-requisite for entrance into a local church then we must answer certain sub questions. Currently First Baptist Church requires all prospective members to be baptized by immersion. In the case of individuals who are uncertain as to whether they were genuinely converted before they were immersed we do not require rebaptism but will re-baptize if the prospective member so requests. In light of the New Testament data, is there valid cause or good reason to modify our practices?

Some believe the following practice or something similar might be an acceptable alternative. This is roughly comparable to that being discussed by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis (Pastor John Piper):

"Because of the primacy of the local church and the expectation that all believers have a formal relationship with a local church, baring an individual from membership in a given local church is a serious action that should be agreed to only in situations of extreme disagreement or irresolvable issues. Membership is open only to individuals who give a credible confession of faith and who have been baptized. If an individual has been baptized other that by believer’s baptism by immersion and holds to the validity of his baptism on the basis of conviction of conscience based on his/her study of Scripture rather than family or denominational tradition and if this belief does not involve baptismal regeneration or a guarantee of future saving grace and if this individual is open to further study on this matter he/she need not be barred from membership. However, the only baptism taught and practiced by the church is believer’s baptism by immersion."

Another alternative might be to allow a non-baptized individual admission into the church membership conditionally. This would be driven by lack of clarity, in the mind of some, of the New Testament data regarding believer’s baptism as a requirement for membership. Perhaps the absence of non-baptized believers in the New Testament on the one hand and on the other hand the uncertainty regarding baptism as a requirement for membership could be harmonized by means of a stipulation whereby the individual agrees to a careful study of the New Testament teaching regarding baptism sponsored by the elders of the given a local church. Membership could be revoked if, after a suitable period of time, he/she is not baptized.

However, if a church is convinced that the clear teaching of the New Testament is believer’s baptism by immersion and if the preponderance of biblical data leads to the conclusion that baptism is a condition of or the means of admission into the local church then reasons for admitting into membership individuals who have not been baptized as believers by immersion are simply non-germane. In the final analysis such persons are embraced for pragmatic reasons or in hopes of including as many as possible or because of a genuine desire to avoid unnecessarily offending sincere believers. In my view, this line of reasoning, though laudable, does not carry the argument.

Surely, those who hold that believer’s baptism by immersion is a pre-requisite to church membership ought to hold to this position without rancor or spiritual arrogance. And they should be able to affirm those genuine believers (and churches) who disagree on the basis of conviction of conscience driven by careful personal study of Scripture.

Further, the question of whether it is possible for a person to be baptized without also becoming a member of local church can be answered in the negative yet with the possibility of exception. On the one hand, the data seems to suggest that the normal course of events was for baptism and addition to be connected if not the same event. On the other hand, in cases where a proximate local church did not yet exist, the believer was baptized and subsequently became part of a newly formed church. If this is the case, then there is warrant to offer baptism without membership when a local church is not readily available. Conceivably other exceptions might also be valid on a case by case basis.

Conclusion

This view of the Scriptural data might lead to the following practices for a given local church. Of course, other churches with differing views or emphasis will disagree.

  1. Only believer’s baptism by immersion will be taught and practiced.
  2. Only those who have been baptized by immersion as believers will be admitted to membership.
  3. In the case of those who are baptized at the time of membership application, the baptism itself becomes the means of admission to the church.
  4. Baptism will be conducted in connection with admission into membership in the local church. However, exceptions may be granted in rare cases where extraordinary circumstances exist.
  5. Rebaptism will not be required of individuals who are uncertain whether they were genuinely converted prior to their baptism by immersion.
  6. The church will affirm genuine believers who have not been baptized as believers by immersion and who, as a matter of conscience, believe that their baptism is valid. This affirmation will be evident in the atmosphere and culture of the church as well as in tangible expressions and policies such as inviting non-member attendees to serve in selected ministries of the church, offering use of the church facilities to them, gladly including them in the fellowship of the church family, etc.

After Word

Another secondary question pertains to who should be sanctioned to perform believer’s baptism. This issue is surely not as significant as other tangential questions, none-the-less it is occasionally discussed. Several factors support the practice of only duly authorized representatives of a particular local church being sanctioned to perform believer’s baptism. Given the New Testament teaching that the elders possess the authority and oversight in a local church, performing baptisms would normally be included in their function.

  1. Early instances of believer’s baptisms are clearly connected to membership in a local church rather than an “at large” event. This is particularly noted in Acts 2 as discussed above.
  2. The era of a patriarchal family priest is past since the advent of the New Testament church. Fathers and husbands are expected to exercise spiritual leadership in their home; however, they have not been given leadership in the church simply by virtue of their position in the home. It is certainly possible that the elders may wish to grant permission for a father or husband to baptize under unique circumstances. However, this would not make the baptism more biblical or even more significant per se.
  3. The directive to baptize should be viewed as marching orders to the church rather than to individuals. There is little argument that the Great Commission given to the disciples as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20 was intended for the church as previously spoken of by the Lord in Matthew 16:13-20 and 18:15-18. The inclusion of teaching in the Great Commission in light of the later instruction by Paul in Ephesians 4 regarding pastor-teachers substantiates this as well.
  4. All instances of believer’s baptism can be historically understood as performed by apostles or by those somehow connected to or sent out by a church. Consider that John’s baptism is not Christian baptism (see all four gospels); Philip was a deacon in the Jerusalem church (Acts 8); Saul was probably baptized by Ananias who was part of the group of “disciples” in Damascus (Acts 9:18-19); the apostle, Peter, baptized Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10); and the apostle, Paul, baptized Lydia and the jailer in Philippi (Acts 16) as well as individuals in Corinth (Acts 18:1; 1 Corinthians 1) and in Ephesus (Acts 19).

Addendum

Diagrammatical Analysis of Acts 2:41-47

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.