Articles of Church Membership

When you think about “church”, do you think about “a” church or “the” church? Or both? Which most often? And does it matter which term we use when?

Here are some quotes from a book I’m starting to read:

I’d argue that a general inability to articulate what distinguishes any gathering of believers from a local church is at the root of the confusion surrounding the relationship between baptism and church membership. We can’t very well articulate what makes a church a church, so we struggle to see why anyone who appears to be a Christian should ever be excluded from one. But… baptism and the Lord’s Supper are themselves the hinge between ‘Christian’ and ‘church.’ Together baptism and the Lord’s Supper mark off a church as a unified, visible, local body of believers…

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper structure the church. Scripture teaches that baptism is the front door of the church, and the Lord’s Supper is the family meal… Removing baptism from membership erases the line Jesus himself has drawn between the church and the world.  —Bobby Jamieson, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), pp. 2-3.

Twenty pages into this book, I’m agreeing with much that I read. [Update: Here is my review after reading the entire book.] Baptist author Jamieson has obviously thought long and hard about his topic, and I’m learning things. But excerpts like the ones above are frustrating me, triggering questions like the following:

  • Are we talking about “a” church or “the” church when we talk about “membership”? (Notice how both articles are used, and apparently interchangeably.)
  • Is baptism the line between “church” and “Christian,” or between “church” and “the world”? (Both are asserted above.) If the former, does this leave some Christians in the world? If the latter, then how can some Christians be rightly excluded from church (either “a” or “the”)?

Here is a dependent clause from later (p. 19) that is easy to read right over without noting the same sort of problem:

…When churches ask, ‘Who is a member of the new covenant?’ in order to extend membership to them…

My wife has been trained well. When I read that to her, she asked, “So, are there two kinds of membership?”

Exactly. Notice the two “member” words in the quote, one describing a membership that “is” and the other describing a membership that has not yet been “extended.”

So, when Jamieson is talking about “membership,” is it membership in Christ’s church (“the”), or membership in some local church (“a”)? What about when we speak of membership? Which way does the Bible use the language of membership? Or does it somewhere distinguish between two kinds of membership, so that we can talk of both? If so, where?

Perhaps a better way to write that clause would be like this: “…When churches ask, ‘Who is a member of the new covenant?’ in order to publicly recognize the membership they already possess as members of Christ’s church…”

In proposing this wording, I’m assuming what the author has made clear in context: that we are talking about someone who has been baptized, and about a local church responding to such an already-baptized person.

I’m also proposing that the church—representatives of Christ’s church, to be more precise—act as God’s agents when they baptize new believers into the new covenant Church of Christ. Notice that last phrase: “the new covenant Church of Christ.” This means that I’m also proposing the following:

  • Baptism is designed to be and mark the entrance into both the new covenant and church (both “a” and “the”).
  • The entrance into both (new covenant and church) happens at the same time.
  • You can’t truly belong to either one without truly belonging to the other.
  • Churches should do their best to reflect this reality in their membership practices.

Of course, such assertions need rigorous biblical support, which I am not providing in this brief post.

For now, I mainly want to point out this: Sometimes it is way we use little things like articles (“a” or “the”) and possessive pronouns (“our” or “Christ’s”) that most powerfully shape and reveal our deepest assumptions and priorities. Therefore, pay attention to your “articles of the faith”!

As I continue reading Jamieson’s book, here is my goal: Since I already agree with his main point about the integral connection between baptism and church membership, I’m going to listen closely to what he understands about membership and its relationship to the local and/or universal church. I think both Baptists and Mennonites have things to learn here.

Thanks for listening in to my unfinished thoughts. Share your insights or questions in the comments below.


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19 thoughts on “Articles of Church Membership”

  1. Maybe a more critical question before getting into the issue of the relationship between baptism and church membership is whether church membership as we understand and practice it is Biblical or even helpful.

    1. Yes, your statement is another way of getting at the point I am asking: What do we mean by “church membership”? To begin to answer my own question, I propose that the Bible uses this language, either always or in the vast majority of cases, to refer to our participation in Christ’s universal Church. That is not how we usually talk about it, and it seems to me that our talk reveals a significant misunderstanding of how Christ sees things.

      Another way of putting it: I think if we see the biblical pattern of baptism being tied not only to membership (belonging to the Church) but also to conversion (belonging to Christ)—and both at the same time—then this should lead us to reevaluate our definitions of “membership.” Christians belong to Christ; those who belong to Christ also belong to his Church; baptism, in Scripture, signifies/enacts our entrance into both Christ and his Church. I see no indication that baptism signifies our entrance into either *merely* a local church or *merely* the universal church. If this is the case, then it seems to me our understandings of the boundaries of our local churches must change to better reflect the boundaries of Christ’s Church. If we want to be a “church,” then we better look like the “Church.” Too often we are like a McDonald’s restaurant that wants to use the name “McDonald’s” but then redesigns the menu and the seating and the price structure until some people who walk in can hardly recognize that we are actually a McDonald’s restaurant. Please overlook the limitations of the analogy, such as the poor choice of restaurant and the consumeristic image. My point is that any organization that claims to represent Christ’s church should use his criteria for defining and bounding itself—that is, for church membership.

      Okay… look how you got me preaching on a Wednesday morning! 🙂

  2. I’m lazy tonight, Dwight.
    Could you point me to some Scripture passages that clearly show the Christian being baptized into ‘the’ and/or ‘a’ C(c)hurch, please?

    1. Baptism represents identification with Christ in some of the same ways that the breaking of bread is an act of declaration and remembrance of Christ. I don’t see anywhere in the NT where someone is baptized into a distinct local congregation but certainly the definition of the capital “C” Church includes baptism as a public profession of an inward change.

      1. When you are saved you become a member of “the Church” from above as heaven’s Spirit has drawn you and when you join as a member of a local church you become a member of “a church” or a body of believers as an earthly occupant has drawn you. The local church is challenged to extend the message of Christ to the world through those who are in the Heavenly body helping to provide a place of assembly for that activity anointed by the praises lifted unto Christ through the God called ministries and membership.

        1. Thanks for engaging, Benjamin. I am in essential agreement, with the clarification (forgive the broken record) that I don’t think the NT ever uses the “member” language in reference to the local church in the same way we do. That said, I do recognize that it is in real-life gatherings of believers that decisions need to be made about who is or is not a member of Christ’s body.

    2. Sure, Wayne. Perhaps the clearest is 1 Corinthians 12:13. Here it is, with verse 12 included for context: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

      According to this passage, all Christians have been baptized into Christ’s body. And verses 17-28 clarify the obvious, that Christ’s body is a way of talking about the church. I understand this discussion of body/church to refer first of all to the universal Church, since (a) Paul talks about “one body,” a term he also uses in Ephesians 4 alongside terms like “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”–clearly singular concepts, and (b) Paul, by using the second person plural (“we”), includes himself in this body alongside the Corinthians, though they do not normally fellowship in the same local congregation.

      The main challenge to my interpretation above is that some commentators think Paul is discussing Spirit baptism rather than water baptism. That is possible, but the two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are normally closely related.

      If we look beyond a vocabulary search for “baptize” and “into,” we can find lots of other relevant texts that show that baptism is the initiation rite by which one enters the church. Here is the first historical example, from Acts 2:41: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

      If one isn’t too lazy, one could find more examples. 😉

      1. “If one isn’t too lazy…..” Ouch!
        Thank you for your reply.
        I guess I struggle a bit with having a more ‘corporate’ purpose for baptism rather than a personal purpose. Perhaps I have a defective view of the Body, I need to consider that some more.
        Do you think we are reading too much ‘c’hurch into some of these references?
        Maybe that is what you’ve been suggesting and I didn’t get it.
        Is there any comparison to be made with 1 Corinthians 10:1,2?

        1. Your certainly not alone in thinking of baptism as a basically personal rather than corporate matter. That said, I don’t think I’m reading too much church into the passages I gave. I think we forget that the basic NT pattern is that if you belong to Christ you belong to his body, and that you can’t have one kind of belonging without the other. To join Christ was to join his family, to use another image. (The book “When the Church Was a Family” drove that home, as you can see in my review.)

          1 Cor. 10:1-2 is worth comparing, yes. On the one hand, I think it is a reminder that not all “baptism” language necessarily refers to water baptism. On the other hand, I think it is a reminder that baptism carries an “into” function, making you a part of something. So whether it is water baptism or Spirit baptism or cloud and sea baptism, it leaves the baptized one with a new identity based on a new belonging.

          I hope you understand the “lazy” jab was just in fun, a response to your original comment. 🙂 Tonight it’s been children, not laziness, that has keep me from being a better Bible student!

          1. We seem to have overlapped a bit in our posting.
            Yes I understood your ‘lazy’ comment to be Gingrich humor. I’ve had experience with that from another source.
            Part of my problem I think is that I’m not sure the Body is as readily identifiable today as it was in NT times. This again may be blindness on my part rather than anyone else’s fault.
            It seems so many ‘church’ people have non-spiritual interests, more so as time goes on.

        2. The above is pretty clumsy, I meant that I prefer to look at baptism as a personal event more so than as a corporate event.
          I’m not sure that makes sense either, O well, over and out.

          1. I think I’m understanding what you mean, and thanks for sharing. I’m suggesting that baptism is both personal an corporate, and that the NT suggests you can’t really separate the two.

            Maybe you’ll have to read Jamieson’s book and write your own review! 🙂

    3. Galatians 3:27 has similar language: “baptized into Christ.” To be “in Christ” is clearly to be in his body, the church. And for what it’s worth, Moo says that it is “water baptism” that “Paul almost certainly has in view here… Baptism… Is the capstone of the process by which one is converted and initiated into the church.”

  3. Something inside me reacts a little to the term “church membership.” Even though it can/should mean that we are part of God’s Church, locally and universally, I associate the term with being part of a regulated group that excludes other Christians that don’t fit. To me, “church membership” sounds like something that we do, not something that describes who we are, if that makes sense. Perhaps I need a different descriptor to help me understand the picture more fully.

    1. The compound term “church membership” is a bit of an artificial construction, and not a biblical term. The biblical use of “member” language is tied to “body” language. Today we might say “limbs” or “organs” instead of “members.” So “church membership” is a compound term that mixes a biological word (“member”) with a political/social one (“church”).

      There is nothing inherently wrong with the term; in fact, it clarifies that the body of Christ IS the church. Or at least it should clarify this! The problem is that when we disassociate “church” from “body of Christ,” we are more likely to start thinking of small-c church instead of large-c Church. Then we start thinking of “church membership” as being a matter of local church governance rather than a singular universal reality on par with Paul’s long list of “one ____” in Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Notice: one body. Hence, one membership in the one church.

      As I said over on Facebook: We talk of membership as a “should”; Scripture talks about it (for all Christians) as an “is.” Our job is to be who we already are, not to try to voluntarily and optionally become something more. We (as individuals and as congregations) must learn to live as the members we already are–and help others do the same.

      It’s really sad if talk of “membership” does not remind us of the wonder of belonging to Christ!

  4. When talking about church membership, I think we need to look at the Greek word for bishop. It was a secular term denoting a guardian, steward, operations manager etc. This term implies very close involvement in the details of life. Hebrews 13:17 states that our leaders “watch over our souls.” How can leaders know who they are to watch over without membership? And how do people know who is watching over their souls without membership? Baptism needs to be accompanied by allegiance to a local body of Christ and submission to the leaders, who in turn are subject to one another.

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