Monday, April 18, 2011

The Importance of Church Membership

Congregationalists cannot discuss church polity without including the role of church members and membership.
Biblical BasisSome believe that the idea of church membership is an unnecessary invention of modern times. While they may not have kept a formal church roll, the early church knew those who were part of the church and those who were not. Luke kept church statistics (Acts 2:41; 4:4). They knew who were subject to church discipline and who were objects of church evangelism (1 Corinthians 5:9-12). There is even a Scriptural basis for the term member in that the church is one body of Christ composed of many members (Romans 12:4-5).
Requirements for Membership
1.      Faith Conversion – From Acts 2:41 on, every text dealing with the church assumes that every member is a believer. Congregational government, church discipline, and Scriptural duties of church members (“one another” commands) all imply that to be a member, one is in Christ. The early church took new converts through a lengthy discipleship process of prayer ministry, inner healing, and catechizing to assure that candidates for baptism were genuine believers, but with the end of persecution and the widespread adoption of infant baptism, the idea of a regenerate church membership was lost for over a millennium until the Anabaptists and Baptists recovered it. This “Baptist” mark of the church is in danger of being lost again today.
2.      Valid Baptism – The way one confessed one’s faith in the New Testament was baptism. It was not seen as optional for new Christians in the NT. Almost all denominations have made baptism the doorway to church membership. The Biblical basis for making baptism a requirement for membership is found in Acts 2:41. In the following order the new believers (1) “accepted his message,” then (2) “were baptized,” and (3) “were added.” The unavoidable implication is that all church members are believers and thus will be obedient to Christ’s command to be baptized.
Virtually all denominations agree that baptism is the ordinance by which one confesses faith and enters membership in a local church. Disagreement comes at what constitutes a valid baptism. Since Baptists believe in believers’ baptism, baptism of someone who chooses to believe in Christ, they have seen infant baptism as no baptism at all, but rather a dedication by the parents of a child. Therefore Baptists have required those baptized as infants to undergo believer’s baptism as part of the requirements of joining a Baptist church. Though some liberal leaning Baptists and some Calvinistic/Reformed Baptists like John Piper have questioned the practice, most Baptists see believers’ baptism not as an area of theological conviction on which we may not agree (like the end-times or unconditional election), but as a command of Christ that we cannot with good conscience treat in an indifferent manner.
Proper Subject with the Proper Understanding and the Proper Mode – Even Baptists have disagreed on what else might be required for it to be valid baptism. Must it be by immersion? Must it happen in a Baptist church (not ‘alien immersion’)? Must it be done by an ordained person? The essential elements to my mind are a proper subject (a genuine believer), with the proper understanding (that this is a matter of obedience, not a requirement for salvation), and the proper mode (immersion following the meaning of the Greek word baptizo, “to plunge.” In this congregation, those with physical disability keeping them from immersion may petition the church to come under its watchcare.)
3.      Covenant Commitment – A further requirement for church membership under the practice of church discipline is that continuing in membership requires walking in fellowship with the body. To be persistently absent from the body (Hebrews 10:24-25), to live in a way that brings reproach on the body (1 Corinthians 5:1-2), or to do damage to the unity of the body (Ephesians 4:3-6) must lead to a biblical pattern of church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17). The goal hoped for in the process is restoration (2 Corinthians 2:5-8; Galatians 6:1).
Most churches throughout Baptist history have formalized their covenantal commitment to walk together in fellowship in a church covenant. This practice is based in Biblical precedent (2 Chronicles 34:29-32; Nehemiah 9:38-10:39), and a number of Baptist churches are returning to this practice today.