The Relationship between Church Membership, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper: a position paper for Tabernacle Baptist Church.
By Dr. Wes Feltner (with help from Pastor Brandt Waggoner)
Over the past few years I have noticed that many in the church have struggled with issues related to church membership, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. I have often been asked to explain why we emphasize the necessity of church membership, why we do not recognizes “infant baptism” as biblical baptism, or why we only biblically baptized believers should partake of Communion. My hope is that this article will help you think through these issues, regardless of what position you hold, as well as give an explanation as to how we believe these issues work in relationship to one another.
Let me first give an overview of each element.
Does the New Testament teach Church Membership?
The simple answer to this question is “Yes.” Now if one is looking for the term “membership” one will not find such a word used in Scripture (although it does commonly use “members” of one another as in Romans 12 and other places). However, just because the word “membership” is not used does not mean the activity is not practiced. For instance, words like “Trinity” and “rapture” are not used either and yet such doctrines are taught in Scripture.
A biblical overview of church membership…
1. Broader Model: While not specifically addressing “church membership,” there is a broader model in Scripture of recording names who are identified with a specific people (i.e. Israel, believers in heaven, etc.). See Exodus 32:32-33, Daniel 12:1, Philippians 4:3, and Revelation 13:8, 20:12, 15. Again, this does not prove church membership, but shows a larger model recorded keeping identification.
2. Acts 2: In the early church, after individuals believed in the gospel and were baptized, they were “added” into the life of the church (2:41). Regardless of how one interprets this, there was clearly some distinguishing mark, after baptism, whereby baptized believers were identified as being a part of the community of faith.
3. Church Discipline: In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul is rebuking the church for not expelling a man who is a part of the church but is living in serious immorality.
a. Paul writes: “But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral, or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’ (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)
b. Paul clarifies that he is not calling members of the church to avoid associating with those outside the church who are living a sinful lifestyle because they are expected to act in such a way. His concern is that these Christians not associate with people who call themselves Christians and are in the church, but go on living a sinful lifestyle. These people are to be expelled from the church. Now, if Paul differentiates between those who are inside the Corinthian church and those who are outside, clearly there is a way to determine who is in and who is out. In addition, how do you remove someone from the congregation if they are not a member of it? In other words, it is impossible to exercise discipline without having some way of identifying who is and who is not a part of the local church. Those inside the church were members who had made a formal commitment to the church and as a result the church leadership had counted them among their number.
4. Inside/Outsider Language: (1 Corinthians 14:23)
a. Paul writes: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?”
b. Similarly to the previous passage, Paul speaks of the “whole church” which is clearly not the universal church but all those who are members of that local congregation. He goes on to say that “outsiders” or “unbelievers” may enter. How would the Corinthian church know the difference if there was not some way of identifying who belonged to the “whole church” and who was an “outsider”?
5. “One Body” and “Membership” Language (1 Corinthians 12:12-16)
a. Paul writes: “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. For the body does not consist of one member but of many…As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (12:12-16)
b. This picture of a church as a body pictures individual Christians as the members of a human body. At the core of what it means to be a member of a local church is a commitment to the rest of the “body parts” (members). In order to have unity, a believer must know exactly what people they are committed to living alongside as a unified body, and make a whole-hearted commitment to seeking the good of this group as a whole. Membership is a requirement in order to know who the other “body members” are that we are committing to, in order to live the life that Christ, as the head, intends for His church.
6. Church Leadership: In passages like Hebrews 13:7, 17-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:11-14; 1 Peter 5:2; and others, elders/pastors are exhorted to “watch over the flock” entrusted to them. How are pastors to care for the flock without having some way of knowing who is and who is not a part of that local congregation?
What does the New Testament teach about Baptism?
1. The Meaning of Baptism: Union with Christ
a. The public identification of union with Christ, symbolizing the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Colossians 2:12).
b. The public identification of new life in Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6:4)
2. The Subject of Baptism: Believers Only
a. EVERY New Testament baptism was someone who had repented of their sin and exercised faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41, Acts 8:12-13, and others). Therefore, baptism is only for believers. Therefore, baptism is not baptism if the person is not a genuine believer in Jesus Christ. This would, of course, rule out people who have not exercised faith prior to their baptism or were unable to (as in infants) at the time of their “baptism.”
b. Note: It should be noted that baptism does NOT make you a Christian – it is meant to show that you are one. Baptism does not "save" you, only faith in Christ does (Eph 2:8-9). Examples of salvation preceding baptism can be found in Acts 10:44-48 and 1 Cor 1:14-17. However, given the importance and command of baptism, refusal to be baptized would cause concern about the genuineness of ones salvation.
3. The Mode of Baptism: Immersion
a. Jesus was baptized by immersion (Matthew 3:16)
b. Every New Testament baptism was immersion (Acts 8:38-39)
c. The very meaning of the word “baptizo” means “to immerse or dip under water.”
d. Conclusion: we believe strongly that the Bible teaches that baptism is only by immersion. This would, of course, eliminate sprinkling or pouring as legitimate forms of baptism.
4. The Importance of Baptism: Obedience
a. Following the example of Christ (Matthew 3)
b. Following the commands of Christ (Matthew 28)
c. Following the pattern of the New Testament church (Acts 2; and others)
5. The Timing of baptism: Post-conversion
a. Every New Testament baptism occurred after the individual exercised faith in Christ and was the visible sign in the early church of ones union with Christ (Acts 22:16, Romans 6:3-4; Col 2:11-12). Therefore, baptism is the first sign of obedience and testimony in the believer’s life. Though the believer is not necessarily baptized within seconds of exercising faith, it should be done sooner rather than later.
What does the Bible teach about the Lord’s Supper?
1. The Subject of the Lord’s Supper
a. Those who participated in the Lord’s Supper were individuals who were already believers in Christ and were in fellowship with other believers (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
2. The Mode of the Lord’s Supper
a. The Lord’s Supper has two specific elements involved, namely bread and wine (or the fruit of the vine). This is represented in the Passover feast, faithful to Jesus’ instruction with his disciples in the Upper Room (Luke 22), and Paul’s instruction to New Testament churches (1 Corinthians 10).
3. The Timing of the Lord’s Supper
a. Unlike baptism, which happens one time for the believer, the Lord’s Supper is repeated in the life of the church as the ongoing act of remembering the accomplished work of Christ and the future kingdom of God.
4. Different views on the Lord’s Supper
a. Transubstantiation: The Roman Catholic teaching that the bread and wine actually become the literal flesh and blood of Jesus due to an over-literal reading of Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, and John 6:54-56.
b. Consubstantiation: The Lutheran and Anglican teaching that the bread and wine co-exists with the flesh and blood of Jesus.
c. Remembrance: The Baptist (and other Protestants) view that the bread and wine commemorates and symbolizes the flesh and blood of Christ. It points back to the work of Christ on the cross and forward to His future return, just as the Passover feast pointed back to Israel’s redemption from Egypt and forward to the promises of God. I will not take time to list all the reasons but simply note that we reject both transubstantiation and consubstantiation as biblical views of the Lord’s Supper.
The Relationship between Church Membership, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper
Before I discuss the relationship between these three, let’s look at a few key passages of Scripture.
1. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Jesus charges his disciples (representing the building of His Church) with what is known as the “Great Commission.” Notice the order…
a. All authority is given to Jesus (through his finished work on the cross)
b. His disciples are to go into all nations (a call to preach the gospel)
c. They are to “baptize” in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Baptism was seen as the public identification of conversion/salvation).
d. Then they were to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
2. The Early Church Pattern (Acts 2:41-42). The pattern in the New Testament was exactly the pattern that occurred in the early church.
a. Peter preaches the gospel (“Go to all nations”)
b. His hearers “believed” and were “baptized” (Conversion)
c. After their faith/baptism they were joined the fellowship of believers.
d. Then, as a part of the union with other believers, they “devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching, prayers, and breaking of bread (communion).” [“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”]
3. Conclusion: The order of the Great Commission and the practice of the early church was the…
a. Preaching of the gospel
b. Followed by faith/baptism
c. Followed by joining the fellowship of believers
d. Followed by participation in the life of the church (discipleship, prayers, communion, etc.). It should be noted that there is no biblical evidence of their being any different pattern than this in the Newt Testament church.
The Relationship between Baptism and Church Membership
The follow reasons outline why we believe baptism should lead to church membership and why baptism is required before church membership.
1. The Great Commission does not separate baptism and discipleship
a. The three participles in the Great Commission involve “going, baptizing, and teaching.” Therefore, when churches separate baptizing from the ongoing teaching and discipleship in a local congregation, they are not fulfilling the Great Commission.
2. The pattern of the early church
a. As seen in Acts 2, after they “believed” and were “baptized” the joined the fellowship of believers. Therefore, those who joined the fellowship of believers had already participated in believer’s baptism. Therefore, one should not be allowed into the membership of the church without first identifying with Christ through baptism.
3. Baptism symbolizes union with Christ and His body
a. It is true that the church exists universally (all believers) and locally (believers in a local church). However, the universal church is expressed through the local body of believers. Baptism points to union with Christ (Romans 6:1-4) and union with Christ is expressed through the participation of the local church (Romans 12, 1 Cor 10:16-17, Eph 1:22-23, 2:16; Col 1:18, 2:19, 3:15, and many others). This is also why we should see baptism as a “church ordinance” and not simply an “individual ordinance.”
4. It is spiritual dangerous to baptize someone without their participation in the local church
a. In Matthew 28 and Acts 2, the Great Commission is not fulfilled without discipleship. Therefore, new believers need the teaching, accountability, and discipline of the local church. To allow individuals to be baptized and not be under the watch-care of the church is to undermine the Great Commission and is spiritually dangerous for the new believer.
The Relationship between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
1. The teaching of Matthew 28 and Acts 2
a. In both of these passages the Lord’s Supper falls after baptism. In Matthew 28, the Lord’s Supper would only qualify as being under the “teaching them all that I have commanded you” clause and consequently would not come until after baptism. In Acts 2, they did not “break bread” with one another until after they had participated in baptism.
b. In the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper is always second in order of observance to baptism. There is no record of any person in the New Testament ever partaking of the Lord’s Supper without having first been baptized.
2. The Logical order
a. In addition, such order only makes logical sense. After all, since baptism is the initial sign of identity with Christ and His body, then a believer would NOT join with believers in partaking of the Lord’s Supper until they had first been identified with Christ in baptism.
3. Baptist Confession (TBC’s statement of faith)
a. Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper. [The Baptist Faith & Message, 2000]
The Relationship between Church Membership and the Lord’s Supper
1. The teaching of Matthew 28 and Acts 2
a. As I noted above, the pattern in the early church was to join the fellowship of other believers before “breaking bread together.”
2. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
a. Paul states here that the “bread we break” is “participation in the body of Christ.” Now some will try to argue that this means the universal body of all believers. If such is the case, then one would need to answer the following:
i. When does the universal church gather the Lord’s Supper? It doesn’t! Because there is no such thing as the gathering of the universal church. The universal church is only expressed through local churches.
ii. To whom is Paul writing? A local church geographically located in Corinth. Paul is writing about “their communion” and “their participation” with one another. While there is no doubt there are implications for the universal church, Paul has in mind the local gathering of believers in Corinth.
b. Therefore, Paul’s teaching recognizes that “participation in the body” and “participation in the Lord’s Supper” are in relation to one another. This is why we believe that all those who come to the Lord’s Table should be active participants (members) and under the accountability of a local congregation.
3. The Logical placement of Church Membership and Lord’s Supper
a. In addition to the biblical evidence, it makes logical sense that membership within a local congregation would be a prerequisite before partaking of the Lord’s Supper given that the Lord’s Supper is a “church ordinance” and not nowhere in Scripture an individual act. Both the Passover meal and the Last Supper imply a specific group identity. It is very problematic for someone to argue that he or she can come to the Lord’s Table if they have refused to participate with the body of Christ.
4. Differing views on how the Lord’s Super relates to Church Membership
a. Open: anyone who is saved may partake.
b. Close: all baptized believers who are members of local congregations of like-faith may partake (this is TBC’s practice).
c. Closed: all baptized believers who are members of a SPECIFIC congregation may partake.
1. Should a church prevent someone from the Lord’s Supper over something as small as disagreeing on the “mode of baptism?”
a. This question assumes Scripture isn’t clear on the right mode of baptism or that baptism can be something other that what the Bible teaches. As a result, one would be asking a church to compromise the witness of Scripture for the sake of inclusion.
2. Isn’t the Lord’s Supper is a Christian ordinance given to the church universal?
a. The Lord’s Supper is not something that we do on our own as individuals, but as Christ said only as often as we commune or “gather together.” We celebrate the Supper as a church family, coming together to one table where we share in this meal as brothers and sisters. Christ has brought us all together into one family, and His presence is among us as we unite to celebrate Him. We “participate in the body of Christ” by sharing one loaf and one cup. Only Christians are invited to this fellowship, because only Christians are part of this family that will one day sit down at a table with Christ himself.
3. Jesus never mentioned baptism or church membership at the Last Supper?
a. One must keep in mind that Jesus is transitioning between the Passover feast of Israel to the New Testament act of Communion. There is no church membership mentioned because there is no church. Therefore, one must look to the instruction of the New Testament to conclude how these issues relate to one another.
4. What about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8? He wasn’t a part of a local church.
a. First, it is likely that there was no church in Ethiopia at the time because the gospel was starting to spread.
b. Second, we are not given enough follow-up information concerning this situation as to discern what happened after his baptism.
c. Third, one should never take one example (of which we do not have all the surrounding information) and a make a universal principle out of it when the entire rest of the New Testament demonstrates to practice of baptism into the local body.
5. Won’t such “rules” seem unfriendly or unloving to visitors?
a. First, we do not view these as “rules” but as biblical guidelines.
b. While we will make every effort to be friendly and loving to visitors, being a friendly and loving church should not be equated to compromising biblical conviction. A local church cannot, even with good intentions, fail to maintain the proper administration of the church.
For His Glory,
Dr. Wes Feltner
Senior Pastor TBC