What is the relationship between baptism and church membership? If somebody is baptised do they automatically become a church member? Let me be clear, first of all here, what I am referring to. By baptism I am referring to the act whereby somebody confesses true faith in Christ Jesus through being immersed in water. By church membership I am referring to the commitment that is made to a local group of Christians who have committed together to be for Jesus Christ their Lord.
It is my contention that the two issues of baptism and church membership should be considered separately. The issue of baptism is specifically linked to our salvation. Whilst church membership is the act whereby we commit to working out our salvation with other believers.
Considering Baptism. The Lord Jesus called us, as inheritors of the original call to his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matt 28:19). When somebody is converted they need to be baptised. Moreover, the instruction that Paul gives in Acts 2 when he preached the first sermon in the age of the Spirit was ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38). Baptism is the outward act signifying the once for all forgiveness of sins which takes place at conversion. In it we are declaring we are forgiven.
Further when Paul articulates the meaning of baptism in Romans 6:1-10 he is setting forth how baptism shows forth the great change that took place at conversion. At conversion We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Rom 6:4). Baptism tells how at conversion we were brought into a new life. We are finished with our sins and now we are joined to Christ. And as members of Christ we are to live new lives to the glory of our God.
Someone may well say at this point what about 1 Corinthians 12:13? There we read: we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Paul here is not referring to water baptism, but to the baptism in the Spirit which takes place at conversion. When we are baptised into one body, the reference is to how we are baptised into the universal body of Christ which is made up of all true believers in this age. It is not baptism into the local church.
Considereing Church Membership Church membership is required of all believers, but should be considered separately to baptism. In church membership we are considering the responsibility each believer has to live out our Christian lives as a part of a local manifestation of the body of Christ. Accordingly, in church membership due attention must be given to establishing fellowship between the church and the believer. The believer and the church then covenant together to be for Christ in this generation.
This is embryonically seen in Acts 2 where we read that the first believers in Jerusalem They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Here is the commitment to be together in the activities of the church.
One of the key things that happens when a believer commits themselves to church membership is that they place themselves under the spiritual care of a certain church eldership. So Hebrews 13:17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. It seems orderly practice for a believer to fully consider which leadership he/she is committing to. It is not just a by-product of baptism, it is a special commitment consequent upon baptism.
This leads to me to want to emphasise that every believer should be baptised and every baptised believer should be a church member. Inherent in baptism is the declaration that you are now Christ’s and you will live for Him. To make that declaration and then refuse to commit to a church is a contradiction. Conversion demands that the one converted be baptised and then that baptism demands that a church is joined as a member of that local body.
So church membership flows from baptism and in that sense is very much connected with it. But the two should be considered separately.