The following scenario was recently put forward:
Someone becomes a Christian. They come to your church and they ask to be baptised. However, they make it clear that they do not want to formally become a church member. They simply want to attend for a bit.
I appreciate that not every church will have something that they refer to as formal church membership, our previous church did and our current church does not. However, whether you call it membership, fellowship, being part of the church or whatever and whether or not you have formal lists, rules, votes or whatever, I want to suggest that in some way you recognise that people are part of and accountable to the local church.
This is important because, the Bible teaches that we cannot live a Christian life disconnected from the body of Christ. We cannot be believers in isolation. Just as if you were to cut my finger off, it wouldn’t be merely a disconnected finger, it would die, so too, a person cannot be spiritually alive whilst disconnected from the body. Now, at one level we might say that this refers to the whole church, universal. Can I say I’m a member of The Church without being a member of a local church? That sounds a bit to me like saying that my finger is part of my body but isn’t actually part of my hand yet. You see, The Church isn’t hypothetical, it is a physical, visible reality and that reality is seen in the local church.
To help us think this through a little further, what else do you want a Christian to do apart from being baptised as an expression of their faith? Well, you want them to be taking communion regularly. Yet, here is a problem. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 says:
27 So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against[g] the body and blood of the Lord. 28 That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. 29 For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ,[h] you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and sick and some have even died.1 Corinthians 11:27-30
I want to suggest, gently, that honouring or discerning the body requires a little more than merely attending a church. It means that we are committed to one another, that we love one another, that we turn up ready to contribute. And, again, that’s primarily what we are talking about when we talk about church membership.
For me, the person’s hesitation about membership actually gives us some opportunities to ask a few more questions that will give us more insight as to where they are in regards to the Gospel. I hope that we don’t just rush either to say “No” or to baptise anyway. At this stage, I would be asking the person why it is that they don’t think they can be a member yet.
Here are some possible answers and they are all important.
First, they may think that they are simply not worthy and ready for church membership yet. They may perceive that this is a higher level of Christian commitment. They may think it is about jonining an inner circle. So, they think that there is a process to work through. You start as an observer, become a Christian, then you are baptised. Later, if you are good enough, then you become a member, finally a small number may become leaders or even paid staff/clergy. Well, we want to just scrap all of that thinking. We may wish to reflect on whether we have done anything to cultivate that impression. The important thing is that they belong to Christ and therefore to his body completely and only because of his grace. Just as none of us are worthy in our own right to belong to Christ, so too none of us are worthy to be part of the body.
Second, they may think that they are not ready for all that is involved in church membership. This is particularly the case if a church has particular expectations around things like members’ meetings and voting. It may seem overwhelming, time consuming and boring. Personally, I would not push this too heavily. Church membership should not be about voting rights. That’s one reason for example why I’m not too worried about some of the questions thrown up about children getting baptised. Make sure again that you are not putting too much into your rules beyond what is really essential for membership but also be ready to encourage someone to grow into those aspects of membership.
Third, they may think that membership requires them to make further decisions including giving up on things. That may be because your church explicitly requires things of members that it doesn’t of others. What if your church requires that a member must renounce their membership of extremist political parties or masonic lodges? What if it forbids certain types of relationships? Again, at this stage it is important to be careful that you are not imposing legalistic burdens here. However, it is also worth considering that there is a wrestling going on here, that the person is saying that they are struggling to let go of things that belong with their old life. I have on a couple of occasions seen people wrestle with these things not necessarily because of rules in our membership policy but because they believed they needed to be in a certain place before they could get baptised. This has included someone thinking they needed to give up smoking before being baptised and another person who struggled with saying goodbye to the Sikh Gudwara.
In both cases, there were people arguing that baptism is just the start and so we should get on with it and encourage them not to worry about these things. However, I think in those cases that the persons concerned had better insight into their own spiritual condition. They knew that there were things that still had a hold on their lives and they could not let go yet. They weren’t ready to die to those things. Baptism doesn’t mean that we think the struggle with temptation is gone but it does involve saying publicly that we have died to our old self.
So, where a reluctance to become a member indicates that a person is still struggling with certain things that they need to die to then, that also says something about where they are in relation to baptism. Yes baptism is about salvation but that must include our recognition that salvation involves being saved from something to something. We need to be ready for the possibility that a person is certainly encountering God and the Gospel, The Holy Spirit is at work but that they may not be completely there yet.
So, I would not agree to baptise the person in the scenario just yet. My primary concern is that even though questions about church membership are questions that encourage a Gospel encounter.