I've been thinking about this subject for two months and trying to get started on this article. I cannot get my thoughts organized, so I've decided to write anyway, disorganized as it might turn out to be.....random thoughts, shall we say?
Some time ago, I commented about a pastor who "snuck in" a new member for his congregation by concealing the fact that the man was not "scripturally baptized"--that is, according to Baptist practices and tradtions. Most all my experience in this regard (or any other) is Baptist in one way or another. I read about other denominations; I see talk among the "reformed" folks about baptism as a "means of grace" and all that but don't buy into it.
Anyway, the thinking I've done since writing about that membership issue has led me to a more radical position regarding church membership in general. Within the tradition, what I said about that particular incident is correct but now I question the validity of the tradition itself. I have several questions for us to ponder and am uncertain as to the order in which to present them. Let's start with this one: What is baptism?
Baptism is the center of much controversy in Christendom. I think it's clear from Scripture that there are two forms of baptism: Holy Spirit baptism and water baptism. It seems that the two are often confused, though I don't know why, unless it's a deliberate effort to support an otherwise untenable doctrine.
Water baptism is purely symbolic or pictorial. It is not efficacious with regard to salvation. As I understand "means of grace" it is not a "means of grace" It is testimonial; it is an effort to demonstrate visually to an audience something which has transpired on a spiritual level, to wit: one's death to the things of the flesh, his burial with Christ, his resurrection with Christ to live a life in Christ, for Christ, and by the power of Christ. Water baptism is an act incumbent upon a believer; it is to be done because of the transforming work of God which made that believer a "new creation"--it is done after salvation, as a demonstration of what God has already done. It is not done in order to effect change but to demonstrate the change which has been effected.
That change, that transforming work of God in the life of a man results from the "other baptism"--the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is not an external, visible thing in which man plays a role, but the sovereign work of God. This is the work by which God makes men "new creations" and unites them with Christ. Some groups make a big deal about what man immerses another man in water baptism....they actually boast about it (in a spiritual way, of course)..."I was baptized by Jim Bob Miller!" Idolatry takes many forms......
Well, if one is gonna brag, he should go to the Top. As a believer, I can say I was baptized by Jesus Christ. Yes! He is the Baptizer....in the baptism which is most important: the baptism with the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
The confusion over two baptisms and the conflation of purposes has led us into a real mess about church membership, baptismal regeneration, and numerous other issues. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,,,,(1 Corinthians 12:13) Water or Holy Spirit baptism? Clearly, "one Spirit"--so, what is this "one body"? And he is the head of the body, the church. ....(Colossians 1:18). So, believers are, by the work of the Holy Spirit baptism, united with the Body of Christ, the Church.
This forces us to state what the "Church" is and is not. The Greek word ἐκκλησία is rendered "church" throughout the New Testament when referring to both the Body of Christ and to local assemblies. This is the underlying source of confusion. Men begin to equate the local gatherings of believers with the Body of Christ. I have even heard pastors refer to their congregation as "the Body" when in fact they are not. Does Christ have more than one body? No. These local congregations, at least the truly regenerate persons therein, are members of the Body, but the entire Body is not there. I think we would be better off if we were able to purge our minds of the idea that these local assemblies are The Church (but that's probably impossible). If only we could call them something other than "church" so as to give the only True Church its full import and standing.
From my limited experience, I have the feeling that Baptists are particularly bad about overstating the nature of the local assemblies. I rank as one of the most outlandish statements ever heard one from a Baptist pastor who was "teaching" through Ephesians that "Ephesians is all about the local church" It was notable also that when he finished Ephesians and started into Philippians, he told his congregation that "Philippians is all about the local church" So, maybe his view of the local church is a bit warped.....
And, it's out of this confusion that we see arising ideas about water baptism and "church membership" To all my Baptist friends, what is the scriptural basis for this idea of being "baptized into church membership"? You see, it must be born out of the "by one Spirit are we all baptized into one Body"....the confusion of water baptism with Holy Spirit baptism and the confusion of being united with Christ by that work of God and becoming a "member" of a local assembly by immersion into water.
In my work as a missionary to prison inmates, I have been criticized by Baptists for baptizing inmates. "What church do you baptize them into?" "What church has given you authority to baptize those men?" Can you believe those questions? They're real....from sincere brothers. I ask them "What church did Phillip baptize the Ethiopian eunuch into?" "Where is the scripture outlining authority to immerse converts?" You want to tell me that the gathering of believers I met with last night is deficient with respect to being a local assembly of God's children? Oh! They don't have business meetings, they don't take up offerings, and they don't belong to the ministerial associations......and I'll assure you, some of those gatherings are closer to the model given in the Book of Acts than 99% of modern "churches" I'm familiar with.
So, what is this "membership" thing? The only Biblical references to "member" (primarily in I Cor 12) refer to individual believers being members (as in body parts) of the Body of Christ.....united with Him by the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no mention of being a "member" of a local assembly; there is no procedure outlined for "joining" a local assembly. Men and women can join clubs, become members of Rotary or the Country Club, but there is no provision for "joining" a local assembly of believers via the baptistery. This is a man-made tradition and has the effect of continuing misunderstanding and promoting ignorance about baptism and the constitution of the Church.
We are commanded to forsake not the assembling of ourselves with other believers. God gives teachers and pastors to local assemblies for the purpose of edifying His saints. That assembly is not, however, a club or society which we "join" by being immersed (or by any other means). Believers are "members" of only one Church--the Body of Christ and union with that Church is effected by the Holy Spirit.