Report of the Study Committee on Baptism & Church Membership [1999]

[1999 Yearbook, page 173]

The committee met six times during the year. Byron Widger replaced Kenneth F. Barber on the committee. We spent a portion of the beginning of the year reviewing our thought process in reaffirming our support of Article 20-1 so that Byron would have the benefit of the committee’s previous work. The committee still unanimously reaffirms Article 20-1 Baptism, of the Faith and Order.

Article. 20-1 Baptism. Water baptism, the immersion of the believer, is a visible testimony to the work of regeneration and a mark of identification and union with Christ. It has no saving or cleansing power, but it is the answer of a good conscience before God; hence it should be administered only to those who have, by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, realized the forgiveness of sins and possess the assurance of acceptance with God.

In addition, the committee worked hard at resolving the issues among us concerning baptism and church membership. We have given due consideration, time and analysis to one another’s view points. We are very mindful of our responsibility to report to Annual Conference in a timely manner. Progress in understanding the issues has been achieved. However, the committee is still divided in its view concerning baptism and its relationship to church membership. We have focused on the relationship of baptism to church membership because that was our initial assignment. We plan to address the issues associated with recipient, mode and the infirmed at the 117th Annual Conference.

This report contains two papers reaching different conclusions in addressing the bedrock issues regarding baptism and church membership. We strongly urge all members of the Annual Conference to read the entire report carefully in preparation for Annual Conference.

Committee to Study Baptism and Church Membership: Calvin T. Reed, Chairman; John C. Studenroth, Secretary, Carl. C. Cassel, Donald T. Kirkwood, Ronald W. Reed, Clayton E. Weber, Byron Widger.Report ABaptism & Membership

The Bible Fellowship Church is uncomfortable with its present position on baptism and church membership. Evidence supporting this is the creation of this study committee by the Annual Conference in response to the request two years ago from the elders of the Oley Church. Further evidence came through the material brought to Annual Conference from the Red Hill Church one year ago. Comments made in the discussion of the Oley request and of the Red Hill request indicate broader discomfort that has been manifested formally.

In doing its work the whole committee came to a clear awareness of two convictions. First, it became clear that each member of the study committee is convinced of the biblical basis of our Article 20-1–Baptism in our Articles of Faith:

“Baptism. Water baptism, the immersion of the believer, is a visible testimony to the work of regeneration and a mark of identification and union with Christ. It has no saving or cleansing power, but it is the answer of a good conscience before God: hence, it should be administered only to those who have, by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, realized the forgiveness of sins and possess the assurance of acceptance with God.”

Then it also became clear that baptism per se is not the issue, but rather the relationship of baptism and membership.

In seeking to refine the statement requiring baptism for membership in our churches three possible solutions were identified: (1) maintain the present position (F&O, §202-3.1) “Anyone desiring to be a member of the BFC shall give testimony and evidence of faith in Christ and the new birth. He shall be in sympathy with the F&O, be baptized by immersion subsequent to salvation (emphasis added to identify the part of the statement under discussion), and manifest holiness toward God and separation from the world. (Acts 2:41-47).” (2) continue to teach immersion is the only form of baptism in BFC but accept the application of water to believers by other modes as meeting the requirement for membership. (3) continue to teach that immersion is the only form of baptism, but to cease to require immersion as a prerequisite for membership in our churches. If there are other ways of resolving the problem, the committee has not yet thought of any.

In searching the Scripture for a solution to the baptism/church membership problem some members of the committee have gathered the following information which deserves careful consideration. We will examine the biblical data in answer to three questions.

1. In considering church membership, what is the starting point or essential issue?

2. In considering the nature of the church into which people are received, what is the relationship between the church visible and the church invisible?

3. In considering the New Testament teaching concerning baptism, how does the explanation in the epistles relate to the teaching of Christ in the Gospels and the implementation by the apostles in the Acts?

What does the Scripture say in response to each of these questions?

First, In considering church membership, what is the starting point or essential issue?

Regeneration is the essential issue or starting point.

Suppose that John Doe moved into a community where there is a BFC. He started to attend New Born BFC in Anytown, PA/NJ/NY or wherever and liked what he heard, and gave evidence of being a believer. When the Pastor announced a series of classes for those thinking of joining the church, John attended. When he submitted his application for membership, it became apparent that he had been sprinkled as an infant and considered himself baptized. His conversion was never doubted. Jane, his wife, attended the BFC, also appreciated what she heard and attended the same classes. Her application made clear that she had made a profession of faith in a church as an adult where subsequent to her salvation, she was poured with water. Her conversion was never doubted.

What happened when John and Jane came to Christ? Can we deny the reality of what occurred when they came to Christ for salvation? Let us review what Scripture says did take place in each of them.

They were dead in sin.

Eph 2:1,5

Col 2:13

Luke 15:24,32

God granted life.

Eph 2:1-6

Titus 3:5

God granted faith and repentance.

Eph 2:8

Acts 11:18

2 Tim 2:25

God justified the sinners.

Rom 8:33

They died and rose with Christ.

Rom 6:3,4

They were baptized in the Holy Spirit.

1 Cor 12:13

They were adopted, sons of God.

Gal 4:4,5

Eph 1:5

They became members of Christ’s body.

1 Cor 12:27

Are John and Jane regenerate? It certainly seems so. Did John and Jane understand all the things which the Bible says happened to them when the Spirit did His work in them? Very likely not. Should they be taught what happened to them? Certainly. Should they be taught the biblical teaching about baptism? Absolutely!

God’s receiving people and doing all these things for them are the real grounds for our receiving them. If we conclude they are not regenerate, we cannot accept them. If we conclude they are regenerate, can we refuse them?

Our Articles of Faith indicate that regeneration is the essential issue in church membership. In our Article on Regeneration (14), we read: “Regeneration, or the New Birth, is an instantaneous creative act of God through the agency of the Holy Spirit, whereby divine life is imparted to those dead in sin, making them members of the family of God” (emphasis added). In our Article on the Church (18-1) we read: “The visible Church consists of all those professing faith in Christ.” (emphasis added).

Basic question: In the light of what Scripture teaches happened to John and Jane, if Christ has receive them, how can we not receive them?

Second, in considering the nature of the church into which people are received, what is the relationship between the church visible and the church invisible?

a. Christ and His church.

Part of the teaching of the NT is that there is only one church. Christ is the only head of the church.

Eph 5:25-27 Christ redeemed it.

Acts 8:3; I Cor 15:9 Paul persecuted it.

Matt 16:18 Jesus called it His.

Eph 2:16; 4:4 There is only one church.

Eph 1:22,23 Christ is the head of the church.

b. Christ’s church also has many manifestations which are also called “churches.”

1Cor 1:2 church of God at Corinth

1Cor 16:19 churches of Asia

Rom 16:4 churches of Gentiles

Gal 1:2 churches of Galatia

c. Relationship of “church” and “churches.”

Because the one church is everywhere it is sometimes called “universal”; because this church is visible only to God, we call it the church invisible. Because the many churches are in specific locations which can be seen by people, we call them particular churches or the church visible. Because Christ is the only head of the church the church invisible and the church visible should be one. Are they really one? Not always.

d. Authority in the church.

All authority in the church is from Christ (Matt 28:18). He conveys authority to leaders in His churches called “elders” who are identified by those who are part of the churches. Because all authority is from Christ, authority in each church is “moral and spiritual authority” which means that obedience to it must be inner and from the heart and cannot be forced with external power-legal or physical. Because all authority is from Christ, authority in each church is”ministerial and declarative” which means that its power originates from serving and declaring what God has taught in the Scripture. These are truths which BFC already recognizes, see F& O, 203.

e. Visible church membership.

Although the NT and the early church had not clearly defined procedure for membership, there is evidence that the church knew who was part of it and who was not.

Acts 6:1-7; Acts 14:23 Somehow they needed to know who would participate in “looking out” these leaders and from what pool they should come.

I Cor 5 One had to be “in” to be put “out.”

Acts 8 Another illustration.

I Tim 3:1-13 Qualifications for leaders imply identified groups to participate in selecting leaders.

I John 2:19 Disassociation from the group simply meant that the individual was not really part of the group.

Specific visible churches took these kinds of actions seeking to apply Christ’s teaching to their situations. This is the function of moral and spiritual, ministerial and declarative authority.

f. Regeneration and membership.

When we examine the NT, what do we find on the issue of how people came to be part of the church and to be recognized as part of the church?

1 Corinthians 6:9-11-The emphasis here is on what these people were and what they became-transformed lives. Thieves, drunkards, etc. were washed, sanctified, justified. Although these Corinthians were “washed,” regeneration, not water baptism, made the change. The emphasis is not on ritual or symbolic cleansing, but on cleansing from sin. Water baptism is a symbol of the spiritual reality.

Ephesians 2-The early part of this chapter describes our deadness in sin (vv.1-3). Then we learn that God’s work of regeneration comes to us by His grace apart from any works of ours. God brings us to life and changes us from walking according to our sinful natures to live out good works God planned for us (vv.1,4-10). Next we discover that the work of the regeneration which God did in us, not only brought us to life, but also united us to others who have had a similar experience. This brings into being regenerate people from diverse backgrounds into “one new man” (vv. 13-15) and forms them into the very dwelling place of God (vv. 19-22). God’s work in us changes us personally and unites us with the others He has changed.

g. “Gathered church.”

Many churches use bases for church membership different from that of BFC. In many European countries many are by birth citizens of the state and entitled to baptism by the church. In most of these kinds of churches regeneration is not the criterion of membership.

The Reformation, which began on the Continent under Luther, continued in England. John Field in England in 1572 as part of a struggle which sent some to prison and others to the stake, defied the establishment and defined “a church” as:

“a company or congregatione of the faythfull called and gathered out of the worlde by the preachinge of the Gospell, who followinge and embraceinge true religione, do in one unitie of Spirite strengthen and comforte one another, dayelie growinge and increasinge in true faythe, framinge their lyves, governmente, order and ceremonies accordinge to the worde of God” (Edmund S. Morgan, Visible Saints, p.14).

Their desire to seek a pure church eventually caused the separation of such people from the Church of England in their home country and borought some of them to American shores to “start over” without the problems of “established” churches. In their search for those who were “saints by calling” or a “gathered church,” it soon became apparent that the practice of infant baptism and a “gathered church” were incompatible. What were they to do? One solution was the half-way covenant. It saved the practice of infant baptism, but resulted in forfeiting a “gathered church.” Morgan’s book provided details of a struggle about which we know little.

Having made little progress toward a pure church, the Great Awakening of 18th century was welcomed by many. From it a renewed emphasis on regenerate church membership developed, but some who worked so hard for purity became separatists who lost their awareness of the oneness of the church and became independent rather than autonomous. More details of these problems are found in C.C. Goen: Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800.

During this effort regeneration and its effects in the lives of people came to be the basis for acknowledging individuals as part of the church. Jonathan Edwards’ essay, An Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion, is a good illustration of such convictions.

In this historical development many who rejected reformed theology soon became universalists: others became baptistic, not only in the sense of rejecting infant baptism, but also in the sense of emphasizing each church making its own regulations. One group departed from a correct concept of redemption: the other departed from the correct concept of the oneness of the church by overemphasizing the particular church.

The nature of the church visible is to reflect as closely as possible the church invisible. This is taught by Scripture and illustrated by church history. Regenerate church membership or being a “gathered church” is a vital part of demonstrating this relationship.

Article 5 of our Articles of Faith (God the Holy Spirit 5-2) says: “The Holy Spirit indwells all true believers, baptizing them into one body, of which Christ is the head.”

Basic question: How can BFC without denying our rich heritage of regenerate church membership retain our awareness of the church not being ours, but Christ’s?

Third, in considering the New Testament teaching concerning baptism, how does the explanation in the epistles relate to the teaching of Christ in the Gospels and the implementation by the apostles in the Acts?

a. Baptism in Gospels and Acts.

The record is clear that Christ commanded baptism as part of the work of “making disciples,” and the early church practiced baptism of believers.

Matt 28:18-20

Acts 2:38; 8:12,36

Today’s church must believe, teach and practice baptism of believers in obedience to Christ, Her Head.

b. Gospels/Epistles pattern of teaching.

Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would be given after His departure and that His Spirit would bring to them truth they were unable to receive while He was here.

John 14:16-18, 25-26

John 16:12-15

These promises were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and in the giving of the epistles. The Gospel and Acts give us the history of the life of Christ and the external development of the church. With that record the seeds of God-given truth are recorded as part of the message of the church. The Epistles are the promised explanation given to bring to full growth the seeds sown in the historical records. This is not to minimize the importance of the history, our faith is grounded in history; but it is to take seriously the promise of the Savior. Thomas Bernard’s book, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament, develops this theme.

c. What do the Epistles say about baptism?

1 Cor 6:11– Mentioned previously, this text emphasizes the cleansing from sin and the change in the life of people brought by salvation. The “washing” is cleansing from sin. Water baptism is not specifically mentioned here; but, even if it were, it cannot bring cleansing from sin and spiritual change.

Eph 5:26-Is the washing mentioned here baptism? The cleansing is a washing of water accompanied with a spoken word. Some understand this “washing” to be baptism, but it is not understood so by many interpreters-including baptistic interpreters. In this text Paul addresses the work of regeneration. The washing here is parallel to the “washing of regeneration” mentioned in Titus 3:5.

Romans 6:3,4-Here baptism is specifically mentioned. This cleansing is the result of participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. R.O.E. White (Biblical Doctrine of Initiation, pp.215-217) says:

“Baptism is no merely symbolic rite. Here we are concerned with actual fact . . . There is a comparison between what has happened to Christ and what has happened to us in our baptism . . . not between what happens in baptism symbolically and what happened to Christ in historic fact, . . . but between what happened to Christ in fact and what in actual fact happens to us in our baptism.”

Paul is saying more than baptism is a symbolic mimicking of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul is saying that there is a sense in which Christ’s burial and resurrection is our baptism and our behavior is to grow out of this fact.

The emphasis is on our union with Christ by death and resurrection. If baptism simply symbolizes something we are to seek to realize (‘reckon’ to be true), does that help us understand why it is so difficult to experience this reality? If we rather understand that we died with Christ and rose with Him in newness of life, then we see our water baptism as a picture of the prior transaction. In so doing we have fact, not symbol, as the basis on which to act. Water baptism is symbolic, but it symbolizes another baptism in which the believer and Christ are united in burial and resurrection.

Gal 3:26-28-Coming to be sons of God happens by faith in Christ. Baptism is mentioned, but it is putting on Christ, a being clothed with Christ, not an application of water. Also note that these individuals were not then voluntarily joined into an association; but being individually united to Christ their common experience formed people from diverse backgrounds into a unity. This is a work of God which cannot be affected by water alone, but can be symbolized by it.

1 Cor 12:13-The Holy Spirit and baptism are linked. Most interpreters view the preposition “in” (en) an expression of location rather than an expression of means. Thus the text explicitly states that Spirit-baptism is the entry point of the individual to the body. Entering the body means entry to the corporate whole. Ladd (New Testament Theology, p. 542) says: “Most contemporary scholars believe that baptism here refers to water baptism as the means by which the Spirit is imparted to believers.” For those interpreters baptism in water is baptism in the Spirit. This Ladd rejects and says: “It appears highly probable that the baptism of 1 Cor 12:13 . . . is not water baptism but baptism in the Spirit. Water baptism is the sign and seal of this latter baptism. If Paul has water baptism in mind, he does not emphasize it; the entire emphasis is on the work of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit baptizes the believer into the body, which is the church. In 1 Cor 12:9-11 Paul speaks of the Spirit as the agent in the distribution of the gifts. Could the Spirit also be the agent in baptism? Whether agent or sphere Paul emphasizes the Spirit in the believers’ entrance to the body of Christ.

Eph 4:5- If it were not for this text, we would likely conclude that there must be two baptisms: one a baptism in the Spirit or a baptizing by God and the other a baptizing by human instrumentality with water. Paul says there is only one baptism. When water baptism and Spirit baptism are contrasted in the NT the contrast is between John’s baptism and Spirit baptism, not between water baptism and Christian baptism. Thus Spirit baptism is not a substitute for water baptism. Spirit baptism is a substitute for John’s baptism; those baptized in the Spirit are also to be baptized in water. Note again Acts 10 and 11- especially 11:16 and 10:48. Water baptism receives meaning from Spirit baptism to such a degree that Paul here says there really is only one baptism. This link is strong.

Col 2:11-14-Being in Christ, the believer is declared by Paul to be circumcised, and this circumcision is later called baptism. But this circumcision is specifically “not with hands,” therefore not water baptism, but the work of God, which brings a new attitude in the heart. In the OT as well as in the NT physical circumcision and spiritual change are recognized as being distinct; not all who have physical circumcision are spiritually different. This was true of Ishmael and Isaac in Genesis, but it is also true of individuals spoken of by Paul in Romans 2:29. Paul is not saying circumcision is not important; he cannot say that because God commanded it. Paul is saying that physical circumcision is spiritually useless without spiritual circumcision. The emphasis in Col.2 is Christ’s act and believer’s participation in it. Christ has undergone a more radical circumcision, by death, burial and resurrection; our death, burial and resurrection with Christ spoken of in v. 12 is called our regeneration (made you alive) in v. 13. By Christ’s circumcision the believer has experienced a circumcision not physical, but spiritual; not physical, but spiritual; not partial, but total; not Mosaic, but in Christ. Because this text addresses the change and speaks explicitly of this change not being made with hands, it is clear that the text is not emphasizing the need for water baptism, but that which only Jesus brings.

Titus 3:5-Regeneration and renewal represent the same thing. The “and” (kai) could be translated “even.” The regeneration and renewal are alike wrought by the Spirit. He is author of both. If this is a reference to baptism with hands, it is oblique or symbolic at best.

When the Epistles interpret the meaning of baptism, we find the following emerging:

1. A linking of Spirit/water baptism (1 Cor 12:13; Eph 4:5; 5:26).

2. An emphasis on regeneration (Eph 5:26; Titus 3:5).

3. A new life results (1 Cor 6:11; Col 2:11-14).

4. The believer died and rose with Christ (Rom 6; Gal 3:26-28).

5. The Spirit baptized believer is a member of Christ’s body, the church (1 Cor 12:13,27).

The true believer is by virtue of his union with Christ, a member of the body. From this understanding of God’s work in His relationship to individuals and the relationship He brings between people, we move to thinking about our responsibility in the visible church. If Christ is Head and has received a person, can we do otherwise?

Therefore we reaffirm the command of Christ in the Gospels and the example of the church in Acts to baptize in water those who have believed; we also affirm that the emphasis of the Epistles is on the baptism which every true believer has received and of which water baptism symbolizes.

Others throughout the history of the church have espoused this position. John Bunyan, a man committed to baptism of believers only, in his essay, Church Union, says:

“Now I say, he that believeth in Jesus Christ hath richer and better than that (of baptism in water), mainly, is dead to sin, and that lives to God by Him, he has the Heart, Power and Doctrine of baptism” all then that he wanteth, is but the sign, the shadow, or the outward circumstance thereof; now yet is that despised but forborne for want of light. The best of baptisms he hath. He is baptized by that one Spirit; He hath the heart of water baptism, he wanteth only the outward show, which, if he had, would not prove him a truly visible saint; it would not tell me he had grace in his heart. It is no characteristical note to another of my sonship with God. Indeed it is a sign to the person baptized, and a help to his own faith. He should know by that circumstance that he hath received remission of sins; if his faith be as true, as his being baptized is felt by him. But if, for want of light, he partake not of that sign, his faith can see it in other things, exceeding great and precious promises. If he appear not a brother before, he appeareth not a brother by that: And those that shall content themselves to make that the note of visible church membership, I doubt make things not much better, the note of their sonship with God.”

We may not agree with all of Bunyan’s concepts, but he certainly was committed to Scripture, to baptism of believers, but not to requiring baptism for membership in the church visible.

Those who have come to us from other communions where baptism by other modes is used would fit Bunyan’s description- “want of light,”-provided they are truly believers. When one has been exposed to different teaching, it takes time for the light to shine through.

Basic question: If regeneration is the starting point and the church visible is to mirror the church invisible, how then can we exclude regenerate people from our rolls when Christ has received them in regeneration?


The part of the committee which gathered together this data desire prayerful and thoughtful consideration of these texts and thoughts. Their concern is that such consideration bring us to a greater and more Biblical emphasis on the importance of both baptism and membership.

Separating the issues and teaching our people that Scripture teaches both will develop this emphasis. Those who are truly Christ’s must be taught. The men who developed this part of the report are not comfortable in thinking of receiving professed believers who are not yet baptized in water, but they are even more uncomfortable in refusing to receive other people whom God has brought to be our sisters or brothers although they have not yet been immersed.

We do not expect maturity of babes in Christ. What we ask is that the members of a particular church recognize the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and receive those whom Christ has received.

Moving in this direction will cause us to accept as members individuals at many stages of spiritual life because they have been born from above. Too often we think of membership as readiness to lead or teach. The understanding presented here sees membership in the church visible as a testimony that those who are already part of the particular church acknowledge God’s regenerating work having been done in this new person’s life. Although regenerate people who are not immersed may become members, they must be immersed to become elders as well as meeting other qualifications for eldership. How can they lead in this kind of church without accepting this light?

In thinking of how to resolve our problem, review the several alternatives mentioned earlier:

1. Maintain our present position requiring immersion as a prerequisite for membership and teach more precisely all the Scripture says to resolve our difficulties;

2. Continue to practice immersion and require “baptism” for membership, but accept application of water to believers by other modes to fulfill our requirement; or

3. Continue to practice and teach immersion, but cease to require it prior to being received as members of the church.

Position (1) has been a problem not only for the churches formally expressing the difficulty, but also for other pastors and churches who have less formally expressed some divergence in practice from 202-3.1. The very existence of this committee bears witness to the difficulties our churches have with our position on baptism and membership. In addition to struggles in our practice the divergence of opinion in the committee as we have worked these two years may indicate that finding Scriptural basis for our present position is difficult to find.

Position (2) once seemed to solve our problem because it acknowledges the difficulty believers have had historically to define baptism. This is no longer an acceptable solution because it means a denial of our conviction that baptism is immersion of the believer in water as a testimony to the work of regeneration and a mark of identification and union with Christ. For us to call other applications of water “baptism” is inconsistent with our Articles of Faith.

Position (3) seems at first to be a de-emphasis on baptism, but actually it brings a fresh emphasis to it by calling people to face our Lord’s command to be baptized, without compromise of our definition of baptism and continues to ask if obedience has come.

Therefore we propose that Article 20 continue to read:

“Baptism, Water baptism, the immersion of the believer, is a visible testimony to the work of regeneration and a mark of identification and union with Christ. It has no saving or cleansing power, but it is the answer of a good conscience toward God; hence, it should be administered only to those who have, by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, realized the forgiveness of sins and possess the assurance of acceptance with God.”

We also propose that F&O, 202-3.1 be revised to read as follows:

“Anyone desiring to be a member of the BFC shall give testimony of the new birth and evidence of faith in Christ. He shall be in sympathy with the F&O and manifest holiness toward God and separation from the world (Acts 2:41-47).”

In our judgment this is the position for us to adopt because it is a biblically based solution to our problem regarding the relationship of baptism and membership.Report BA Consideration of the Necessity ofBaptism for Church Membership

  1. Introduction:

It is the viewpoint of this sub-committee that the requirements for membership are a logical outflow of the purpose and role of Water Baptism. It would be a grave mistake and an injustice to Scripture to separate water baptism from church membership. It is the contention of this sub-committee that rather than separating baptism from church membership we should seek to integrate the two more fully.

It is baptism that is expressly commanded in Scripture not membership. That which has come to expression in membership was originally accomplished through the proper administration and reception of baptism.

Through spiritual baptism individuals came into union with the invisible church.1 Cor 12:13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Through water baptism individuals came into union with the visible church. Acts 2:41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

That is not to say that membership is irrelevant. Rather, baptism plays a crucial role in church membership. Baptism was the vehicle of membership. This understanding is borne witness to by church history. Following, are the summarizations made by two well-respected church historians.

“The conception of the church was not primarily that of the aggregate Christians on earth, but of a heavenly citizenship reaching down to earth, and gathering into its embrace the scattered Christian communities. To this church the disciple is added by baptism. It is ‘builded upon waters’ (Shepherd of Hermas). That baptism implied antecedent belief in the truth of the Christian message, engagement to live the Christian life, and repentance. ( Justin’s Apology)” History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker pp. 42-43.

“The idea of Baptism

It was solemnly instituted by Christ, shortly before his ascension, to be performed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It took the place of circumcision as a sign and seal of church membership. It is the outward mark of Christian discipleship, the rite of initiation into the covenant of grace. … It incorporates the penitent sinner in the visible church, and entitles him to all the privileges, and binds him to all the duties of this communion. ” History of the Christian Church Vol. I Apostolic Christianity. Philip Schaff. pp. 466-467

  1. A Consideration of the role of water baptism and church membership in the Bible Fellowship Church. The following is a diagram of three different positions regarding the role of baptism and church membership.

A = A profession of faith

B = Water Baptism

C= Conducted into membership.

Position # 1 The present situation in the Bible Fellowship Church might be illustrated as follows:


It is the understanding of this sub-committee that the present position, though not stated but often practiced, is that an individual professes faith, the individual is baptized and at some time later, often years later, is taken into membership. Baptism is seen as commanded and membership in the church is viewed as optional. Some baptized individuals might never become members. Church membership (being united to the visible body of Christ) is viewed as unimportant and irrelevant to baptism. This position has resulted in many baptized believers not being members of the church. This “irrelevancy” has resulted in the confusion of some. Thus, since baptism and church membership have been disconnected, the question has been raised, “Does one have to be baptized in order to be a member of a church?”

Position # 2 One proposed model might be illustrated as follows:


In this position the importance of membership in the church would be stressed. An individual would make a profession of faith and then be taken into membership. Though baptism would be seen as commanded in Scripture, an individual might be a member in good standing without being baptized for a long period of time, or perhaps never being baptized. This could result in many believing members of the church not being baptized. Thus the position, baptism need not be required for membership.

Position # 3 The Sub-committee’s proposed model would be illustrated as follows:


In this position the importance of baptism and membership would both be stressed. An individual would make a profession of faith be baptized and then be taken into membership with little or no separation in time between the baptism and the membership. It would be stressed that baptism is commanded in scripture. Church membership is the proper outflow of baptism. This would result in a closer correlation between those who are baptized believers and those who are members of the church. Thus church membership could not be separated from the requirement to be baptized.

  1. It is the contention of this sub-committee that the requirements of church membership are a superstructure which is built upon a foundation of water baptism. Formal church membership into the visible body of Christ is not directly addressed in the scriptures. What is addressed is believers uniting together on the basis of profession of faith through baptism.

Baptism properly administered and received was the essence of church membership. Formal membership often seeks to address three issues – submission to authority; doctrinal adherence; and fellowship into the community of believers. All three of these issues are addressed through baptism.

  1. Baptism properly administered and received addresses the issue of submission to authority. Mat 28:18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
  2. Baptism properly administered addresses the issue of doctrinal purity and adherence.
  3. Baptism properly administered addresses the issue of fellowship.
  4. Some would assert that the church has no authority to require baptism of those who would be members. Does the church have the right (authority) to require (demand) that every believer be baptized?

Answer: Yes! The church does have the right to require every believer to be baptized because baptism does not rest upon local ecclesiastical authority but rests upon the authority of Jesus Christ. It is not the church that has decided to require baptism of every believer, it is Christ who has decided to require baptism of every believer.

  1. At the very heart of the baptism question is the question of authority.
  2. Christ claims for Himself a universal authority. Mat 28:18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
  3. The administration and reception of baptism is a recognition of Christ’s universal authority. Christ’s authority extends to both heaven and earth. Because Christ’s authority extends to all people and places, therefore baptism is to be administered to all peoples in all places when allegiance to that authority is professed. Mat 28:18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. (vs.19) “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
  1. When people claim to be followers of Christ, they must confess His authority. This confession is made through submission to the Lord’s teaching concerning baptism.
  2. This is absolutely essential to understand at the outset. One does not submit to baptism in recognition of the church’s authority but Christ’s authority.
  1. A Biblical example of the recognition of Christ’s authority in the administration and reception of baptism. Acts 10:23-48
  1. The setting for an example of this truth is Peter at the home of Corneilius.
  2. Peter begins by proclaiming a message of Christ’s universal authority. Acts 10:36 “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)–
  1. Baptism was not performed at the whim of the Church but at the command of Christ.
  2. It was obligatory that the believing Jews administer baptism to these believing Gentiles.
  3. The Jewish culture was a tremendous obstacle to the church’s fulfillment of the command to baptize all nations.
  4. The recognition of Christ’s authority in the reception of baptism. The reception of the administration of baptism is a recognition of Christ’s universal authority.
  1. In our text Peter now issues a command in reference to water baptism. Acts 10:48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
  2. The order was authoritative both for those who received the baptism as well as those who administered the baptism.
    1. It was obligatory that the believing Jews administer baptism to these Gentiles.
    2. It was equally obligatory for these believing Gentiles to submit to the administration of baptism by these believing Jews.
    3. These Gentiles did not request to be baptized, Peter commanded that they be baptized.
    4. The point is that the Jews and the Gentiles had to be willing to identify with each other if they were to identify with Christ.
      1. The believing Jews could not fail to identify with the believing Gentiles by withholding baptism from them.
      2. The believing Gentiles could not fail to identify with the believing Jews by refusing to be baptized by them.
  3. The culture of our day is a tremendous obstacle in requiring all believers to be baptized.
  4. The unity or fellowship that had been accomplished by the Holy Spirit bringing Jew and Gentile together by spiritual baptism was now to be evidenced or visually demonstrated through water baptism.
  5. A brief consideration of the doctrinal foundation of baptism in the gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles.
  1. There is yet another argument (perhaps from the lesser to the greater) in I Corinthians 12. Having argued that they should not be divided because of a professed unity in Christ through water baptism, now he argues that they should not be divided because of an actual unity that is accomplished through spiritual baptism. 1 Cor 12:13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
  2. Trying to divide the issue of baptism and church membership does not resolve any issue.
  1. Then we have no right to require what the Scripture does not explicitly require. What right do we have to require of those who would be members to respond positively to the following questions that we presently ask?

§703-1.3 of the Faith and Order.

“Do you believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God …”

“Will you endeavor by God’s help to be responsible for faithful attendance of public worship, daily reading of the Scripture, prayer, praise, and systematic giving?”

§703-1.2 “The exact words of the form on Admission of Members are not required, but the spirit and the substance is required.”

If baptism is an unbiblical requirement for membership, we in all good conscience would have to go a lot further than simply separating the issues of baptism and membership.

  1. Then we have no right to require what the Bible explicitly commands. If our members need not heed the command to be baptized, why do they need to heed any command of the Scripture? That statement is not ludicrous. The Scripture itself ties baptism with teaching all the commands of God. Mat 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, (vs.20) teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
  1. For those who would argue that the doors of the church are to be as wide as the doors to the kingdom the dilemma does not end. The command to be baptized extends to all who are in the kingdom. The command to be baptized is not merely the command of any local church, it is not merely the command of the BFC as a denomination. It is the command of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings.
  2. How does one decide at what point the church must require members to be baptized? Would an elder have to be baptized? When one removes baptism from church mem-bership, one would look in vain to find that one of the qualifications of an elder is that he must be baptized. It would not take a study committee long to discover that fact.
  3. If one who is not baptized is to be accepted into the membership of the church, then we must ask when and how is that person to be disciplined for not following the Lord’s command to be baptized?
  4. If our position would be that we were not willing at some point to administer church discipline to one who was an unbaptized member of the church, then we have no right to say that Christ is the head of the Church!
  5. Conclusion:

The Scripture does in fact teach that baptism is a requirement for church membership. The way that individuals come into fellowship with the body of believers is through baptism. To have a formal membership apart from water baptism is Biblically unacceptable.

Appendix 1

The proper administration of baptism safeguarded the doctrine of the church. One illustration of baptism safeguarding doctrine is provided for us in Acts 19.

A Biblical example of how baptism properly administered was a safeguard for doctrinal purity and completeness.

  1. Paul having come to Ephesus encountered some disciples who had not heard of the Holy Spirit. Acts 19:1 And it came about that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper country came to Ephesus, and found some disciples.
  2. The apostle Paul now instructs these disciples in the meaning of the baptism that they had experienced.

John 1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (vs.30) “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ (vs.31) “And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” (vs.32) And John bore witness saying, “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. (vs.33) “And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ (vs.34) “And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (vs.35) Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, (vs.36) and he looked upon Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

  1. When they had further doctrinal instructions and professed belief that Jesus was the one of whom John the Baptist had been speaking they were baptized. Acts 19:5 And when they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
  1. There had been no error in the teaching of John the Baptist or even in the understanding of these disciples. There was only an incompleteness in the understanding of these disciples.
  2. Thus, baptism was a means of guarding doctrinal purity and completeness.
  3. It should not go without note that these individuals were rebaptized!

Appendix 2

Important considerations from The Biblical Doctrine of Initiation. by R. E. O. White

  1. The baptism issue.

P. 279 “There can be no doubt that sooner or later the church will have to settle this question of baptism, which threatens to become one of the major stumbling-blocks in the path of ecumenical conversations.”

P. 280 “In modern evangelism, baptism is normally considered an irrelevance and an obstacle to unity”

  1. Baptism lies in the authority of Jesus Christ’s command

P. 268 “… it enters Christian baptism both as the conviction that Jesus commanded it and the use of His name.

  1. The church has an obligation to baptize.

270 ” … the obligation is laid upon the church to baptize, and not merely the convert to be baptized.”

  1. The mode of baptism

p. 274 ” A striking feature of the fully developed New Testament doctrine of initiation is the tenacious persistence of the main characteristics of the primitive rite. Immersion (probably self-immersion) in the presence of acknowledged authorities of the church, remains the mode, and with it is retained the ancient idea of purification by water.

  1. The importance of faith on the part of the recipient.

p. 277 “It must preserve undimmed the two-sidedness of the covenantal relationship with God. It must express the assurance that for the initiate the promise is fulfilled and the Savior has been found. It must be fully confessional, neither ignoring the necessity for the initiate’s personal faith, nor accepting some substitute for it.

  1. Baptism must define the church.

p. 314 “It is equally essential to a healthy church community to remember theologically and logically the doctrine of baptism determines the doctrine of the church”

Note the footnote # 4 ” It is frequently asserted that the doctrine of the church is primary (e.g. Schneider ad finem); but the New Testament order would seem to be gospel-faith-baptism-church, one constituting the other in that order.”

Appendix 3

The Ordinance of Believers’ Baptism and the Purity of the Gathered Church

As elders in particular churches, we all face what we might call the ‘twin agonies’: a.) excluding some from membership who are regenerate; and b.) including some who are NOT regenerate. We all desire a perfect 1:1 correspondence between the visible and invisible church when it comes to those individuals under our care. We all strive to achieve that goal with all the wisdom and discernment that God gives in answer to prayer. The emotional questions that people sometimes raise (e.g. “If God has accepted a person, why should we reject him?” and “Is it Biblical to refuse those whom God has accepted because of delay or failure to obey the command to be baptized?”) tend to produce feelings of guilt in those who are called upon to exercise care and discernment in admitting new members. Should we feel guilty for requiring a visible, externalizing symbolic act which the Head of the church requires us to require?

Instead of viewing the symbolic act of water baptism as an ‘unfair barrier’ to admission into the visible church, should we not rather see it as a God-given standard to help us in our discernment, designed by God to help us avoid the ‘twin agonies’? Will not the neglect of believers’ baptism as the visible initiatory symbol of admission to the visible church only compound and increase the number of painful mistakes that we make in our efforts to correctly ascertain “the gathered church”?

The early (ante-Nicene) church fathers obviously had a very high view of water baptism as a clear command of God for our time, both its importance and its significance. For example, Tertullian in chapter 13 of his major work on baptism, notes: “For the law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed: ‘Go,” He saith, ‘teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’. . . Accordingly, all thereafter who became believers used to be baptized. Then it was, too, that Paul, when he believed, was baptized; and this is the meaning of the precept which the Lord had given him when smitten with the plague of loss of sight, saying, ‘Arise, and enter Damascus: there shall be demonstrated to thee what thou oughtest to do’, to wit–be baptized, which was the only thing lacking to him. That point excepted, he had sufficiently learnt and believed ‘the Nazarene’ to be ‘the Lord, the Son of God’.”

Lest we conclude that Tertullian, and others like him, were slipping into the heresy of “baptismal regeneration”, we only need to read chapter 18: “Of the persons to whom, and the time when, baptism is to be administered.” Tertullian was VERY concerned to baptize only the regenerate! “But they whose office it is, know that baptism is not rashly to be administered. . . .And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. . . .if any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.”

In the introduction to the works of Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century), chapter 2 “Catechetical Instruction”, we read: “to believe and to be baptized are the two essential conditions of membership in Christ’s Church; but for the admission of new converts to the class of Catechumens nothing more could be required than evidence of a sincere desire to understand, to believe, and ultimately to be baptized.’

A logical conclusion from these early church fathers is that there is a legitimate “lag phase” on both ends of the spectrum: admission into membership of the visible church, and expulsion from the visible church. We are all familiar with “the wheels of judgment turning slowly” in matters of church discipline, even as we strive for the purity of the gathered church (a more perfect 1:1 correspondence with the invisible church). Should we be made to feel guilty if there is somewhat of a lag phase in admitting new converts into membership of the visible church, our goal clearly being to “not refuse or reject those whom God has accepted”?

In our opinion “the refusal to obey/submit to Christ’s command for water baptism (by immersion) as an initiatory right is a sufficient ‘red flag’ to delay formal membership’, no less than an ongoing practice of fornication would be a ‘red flag’ to delay formal membership (major sins of omission and commission). If in 1 Timothy 4 :1-6, the Holy Spirit clearly gives two distinct ‘warning signs’ of the ‘great apostasy’ to aid us in our weak and faulty discernment, should it surprise us that Christ would give us a reliable and objective guide in receiving new converts into His visible church, to aid us in our weak and faulty discernment, and to remove so grave a matter (i.e. discerning the regenerate from the unregenerate) from the realm of the purely subjective?

Another argument raised is that “in the OT as well as in the NT physical circumcision and spiritual change are recognized as being distinct; not all who have physical circumcision are spiritually different.” This point is true, and the same point can be made about water baptism. Discernment must continue beyond the symbolic act. BUT, what did God say in the OT of those who refused His law for that time? It may have been a mere symbol (“it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you”, Gen. 17:11), but God solemnly warned “My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant”, Gen. 17:13b, 14). God takes His ordained symbols very seriously. Dare we treat them lightly?

The argument is sometimes heard: “The true believer is, by virtue of his union with Christ, a member of the body. From this position we move to the particular church level. Christ has received him, can we do otherwise?” Again, the answer would be “No”! we can not do otherwise! We must obey Christ and administer water baptism to him/her, and thus acknowledge biblically our full acceptance of him/her into the visible body.

Some have cited the perspective of the Baptist, John Bunyan: “If a person is truly regenerate, he should be baptized. If he is truly regenerate, baptized by the spirit, but is not baptized in water, he has the reality, but not the symbol of the reality; we need to teach – enlighten – him of the great truths of God.”

This subcommittee agrees! The early church fathers clearly agreed! This is how they distinguished the ‘Catechumens’ from the ‘Faithful’, as they progressed toward membership in the visible church. we would only disagree on matters such as how long it should take for one to learn “the great truths of God”. Are we ‘moderns’ afraid of this ‘lag phase’, however long or short, that enables us as elders to practice biblical discernment?

We read of John’s baptism in Luke 7:29,30 that “when all the people heard Him (Jesus), even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” How did this simple act of water baptism come to have such significant import in the later ability of these people to discern truth from error, and to make the proper moral choice? Does this in any way explain the prevailing view of the ante-Nicene fathers regarding baptism’s significance? How much greater will be the judgment of those who refuse the water baptism taught by Christ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *