Tuesday, October 13, 2009
How Do Baptism and Church Membership Connect?
One reason pre-mature baptism is such a hindrance is that it is often closely tied to church membership. In many churches, when a person is baptized they automatically become part of that church or denomination. The problem with this is that often when people grow up they want to change churches in order to grow more in their faith. But they are often hesitant to do so because they feel guilty about leaving the church they were baptized in. Over 40% of American adults have changed their denominational affiliation, so this is a bigger issue than most people realize. When people want to change churches, but feel guilty about doing so, the frequent result is that they simply drop out of church altogether. The church they were baptized in as an infant no longer meets their spiritual need but they feel guilty about changing churches so they just don’t go anywhere. Obviously that is not good for their ongoing spiritual development. Therefore, what well meaning parents thought was a help, actually became a hindrance.
Even if a person was not baptized as an infant, we must still be careful about how closely we connect this wonderful Christian rite with church membership. While there are a number of scriptures in the New Testament that do seem to link baptism and church membership, there are also many that separate these two issues. For example, the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 came to personal faith in Christ and was baptized in the middle of the desert. There was literally no church for him to join. Philip baptized him anyway, resulting in him being a baptized Christian but not a member of any particular church. He most likely became part of a church at some future date (google him, there is a whole legend about the church he started which still exists!), but he did not become a member of a church at the moment of his baptism. This passage indicates that baptism and church membership are not automatically connected. Please understand; I am not against church membership. It is very important for people to make a commitment to a specific church and join it so they can serve the Lord with their spiritual gifts and be accountable to the biblical authority of that church. But the Bible does not teach that baptism and church membership should be as closely connected as many churches have made them.
Even in churches that only practice believer’s baptism, if we automatically link baptism and church membership, we may well be hindering instead of helping people’s spiritual growth. In the particular church where I serve as an elder, baptism makes an individual eligible for church membership, but does not automatically add them to the membership role. After they are baptized, if they want to become a member of the church, they go through a separate process. Though this approach goes against the tradition of most churches in our own particular denomination, we feel that it more accurately follows the biblical model. Church traditions have their place, but when they go against the Bible or they come between a person and their spiritual growth, then it’s time to cast aside tradition and embrace the Bible’s path to spiritual maturity.
If the link between baptism and church membership has been keeping us from obeying the Lord’s command to be baptized, then we must prayerfully consider that the biblical teaching on these two issues do not have to be automatically connected. We should seek baptism as soon as possible after salvation. It was clearly commanded by Jesus. Then we should prayerfully seek a church we can join that helps us grow in our faith. It may indeed be the same church that we were baptized in, but it may not be. The goal is to grow in faith, not just add our name to a roll. Let's press onward toward the goal of our high calling in Christ Jesus.
Dr. Terry W. Dorsett is a church planter in New England. He also writes books and leads seminars on how to help churches be more effective in their ministries. Check out his resources at: