Baptism and Church Membership (Pt. 3)
Dear Friends and Fellow Missionaries:
This is the third in a series of articles in which I hope to clear up confusion about the issue of baptism, the separate issue of church membership, and the relationship between the two.
In my first article, I addressed the issue of baptism. Baptism is an “ordinance,” which means it was specifically instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ for His Church. It is the first act of obedience for anyone who has declared his trust in and allegiance to the Lord. So, baptism is not only available for all disciples of any age, it is and should be encouraged, even expected.
In my second article, I showed that “church membership” is not an ordinance. Jesus said nothing about it. And I showed that the Bible uses the term “member” differently than we do, not referring to someone whose name is on the roll of a local church, but rather to speak of someone who is an active part of the body of Christ, functioning with other members
So, that leaves a question – what is the place of “church membership,” as we commonly call it, in the modern context?
Church membership, as we commonly use that term, is a manmade concept. Now, that doesn’t mean it is automatically bad. In fact, it is a device created to fulfill the Biblical mandate, “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” 1 Cor. 14:40. In other words, Jesus said He would build His Church, but He did not leave blueprints for every detail of how local assemblies of His people should be managed. He dealt with doctrinal matters, leaving it to us to follow the teaching of the Apostles. But as to practical matters, He simply left us to exercise wisdom and sound judgment, giving only the mandate to do things in a way that brings honor to Him.
Now, Baptists adhere to what is called “congregational polity.” That is, we do not have a hierarchy like the Roman Catholic Church, where decisions are made by those in authority and handed down to the people. Rather, we are autonomous and self-governing. That authority rests, under Christ, in the congregation as a whole. And so, we have developed devices by which the congregation may express itself. We have congregational meetings. And, more to the point, the congregation votes. As a pastor, I have a voice. Biblically, that voice should be given a certain deference and respect. But my voice is just one in the congregation, and no one person has the final voice in congregational polity. Doctrinal issues are determined by Scripture, but we decide practical issues as a body.
Now this is the point at which it becomes so important not to confuse baptism with church membership. You see, a child of six or eight may be old enough to know right from wrong, and that he needs forgiveness for his sins. A child may be mature enough to meaningfully love God and turn to Christ sincerely for forgiveness. Children may surely commit to following the Lord Jesus as His disciples. When they do, they should be baptized. We want them to. We encourage that. We work toward that.
When a child recognizes her need of a Savior and turns to God by faith in Jesus, she has become a “member” of the body of Christ in the Biblical sense. But is that child, or should she be, a “church member” in the modern sense? Should a six-year-old have a potentially decisive vote on whether or not we spend several million dollars for a building, or undertake a major renovation, etc.? Nothing in Scripture requires such a view. Indeed, I personally think such a view is contrary to the Scriptural principle of doing everything in a fitting and orderly way. As I see it, placing children in charge of such momentous decisions is no more fitting and orderly than allowing children to decide who will be the next President.
And so, when children have come forward to say they trust in Christ and want to be baptized, I have consulted with them. If I believe they are sincere and understand the meaning and importance of what they are doing, I baptize them. But that is not the same as those children “joining the church.” That is a separate matter altogether.
So, what about those instances when children have said that they wish to join First Baptist Church? Well, presently, that is their right. Our Bylaws state that “Candidates for membership may present themselves” in five different ways. And so when anyone, including children, have “presented themselves” as a “candidate for membership,” I have presented them to the church for a vote. Our Bylaws state, “Upon acceptance, the candidate’s name shall be added to the roll of members.” And so we have done that. And our Bylaws state, “Members are entitled to participate and vote in all transactions of the church.”
As I have explained, I don’t think that’s the best system. But it is the system that is in place and so I have sought to honor it. But, given the confusion that I now realize exists, with some thinking that children who have been baptized thereby “joined the church,” while others (including myself) have thought, “No, they were simply baptized,” I plan to propose in the future that we amend our Bylaws, and I would amend my practice accordingly. My proposal is fairly simple – that we require all members to be the age of majority to have voting rights. That way, children can be received into membership, recognized rightly as part of the body of Christ and as part of this community of faith, without the concern that such membership conveys voting rights that might be inappropriate for children.
When I say I plan to make such a proposal in the future, understand that it will not be immediate. That is because, as I announced recently, I am already working with our Constitution and Bylaws Committee to amend our Constitution on another more pressing issue having to do with our beliefs and policies concerning marriage. I believe these amendments and policy changes are necessary to protect FBC’s religious freedom and shield us from future liability. When the CBC has had ample time to consider the proposals, they will be vetted through our Deaconate. We will then hold congregational meetings to discuss these issues, and eventually vote the proposed amendments up or down. I estimate that vote will occur this Fall. I hope you will participate and stay well informed as we move toward that vote. Then, after we have dealt with this more immediate “marriage” concern, we can deal with the “membership” concern. But I think it is “decent and orderly” to address those issues independently and on their own merits.
I hope I have added clarity with this series of articles. If not, please know that I am available to discuss this (or any other issue) and would welcome the chance to sit down and talk in a private setting.
With love and devotion,