Should Baptism be a Prerequisite for Church Membership (and other issues in Acts 2)

Much of what is recorded in Acts is historical narrative, describing many (literal) events that happened during the beginning of the Church Age.  It is essential that one understands the difference between prescriptive and descriptive passages of Scripture.  Failure to heed this warning can lead to many misapplications of the Biblical text.  The book of Acts is primarily filled with Descriptive/Narrative passages.  We must keep this in mind before me make NORMATIVE certain events in Acts that where not meant to be duplicated. In short then, Acts shows us what authentic Christianity looked like in all of her blessed simplicity.  This book provides us with many vivid illustrations of discipleship, evangelism, and Biblical church growth. 

Acts 2:41-47 illustrates 4 noteworthy truths:

 

1. Genuine Salvation precedes biblical baptism (v. 41).

Approximately 3000 people “received the word” and were converted before being “baptized” in Acts 2:41.  During the church age, genuine salvation always preceded baptism.  Peter commands his listeners to first “repent” and then to be “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38).  This seems to be the clear cut teaching that is illustrated for us in verse 41 (among many New Testament passages).  The practice of the early church and of the apostles is what many refer to today as “believer’s baptism.”

 

Many other New Testament texts could be cited to support this point including a number of historical accounts that are recorded in Acts (Acts 8:30-38; Acts 10:44-48; 16:29-34; 18:7-8).  Again, these passages demonstrate the consistent practice of the apostles and the early church:  people were saved and subsequently they were also baptized.  The early church did not have a category for an un-baptized believer.  In modern day vernacular, “you got saved and then you got dunked.” 

As the second member of the Triune Godhead, Jesus’ word in Matthew 28:19 is sufficient warrant for the baptism of believers.  Jesus commanded his followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  The imperative in Matthew 28 is to go and make disciples.  Jesus’ clearly teaches us that baptism is only for genuine disciples (literally, baptizing “them”).  Jesus and the apostles taught their followers that baptism was a matter of obedience.  It is the first step of obedience after a person submits him or herself to the Lordship of Christ at salvation. 

Baptism is also about identification; both identification with Christ Himself and identification with the Church (which of course is Christ’s body).  Baptism pictures the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ on behalf of the believer, while demonstrating the repentance of faith, and new life the believer has in Christ.  Paul asked, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life”  (Romans 6:3-4; Col 2:12). 

As we observe our next point (below) we’ll uncover a connection between baptism and one’s personal identification with the local church.

 

2.  Formal identification with a local church appears to have been the normative pattern with the early church. (v. 41)

 

It appears that the early church clearly knew who belonged to their local assembly.  Acts 1:15 says the church of Jerusalem began with “about a hundred and twenty people.”  Specific names from this list are provided in verses 13-14.

After Peter’s powerful sermon on the Day of Pentecost many sinners respond to his exhortation. Those people repented and were baptized in the name of the Lord (vv. 41-42).  Luke, the author of Acts, records that about “three-thousand” were added to the church.  The Greek word for “added” is prostithemi.  This word means to add something to an existing quantity.  In the words of one teacher it “speaks of a deliberate, calculated act of adding a select number to a greater, existing whole.”  Those who were genuinely saved proceeded to be baptized.  Those that were baptized were then consequentially added to the early church.

 

This same verb (prostithemi) is used again (in a different tense) in Acts 2:47.  Luke says that “the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  The Greek word used to describe this revival (sozo) is a present passive participle.  Luke wants his readers to understand that this was a continuous revival.  As the gospel was clearly proclaimed the Lord himself was saving sinners on a consistent basis.  This, if you will, was the first revival in the history of the church!

 

In his historical account Luke records that the following sequential events transpired:  In Acts 2:41 the Jews first received the words of Peter (conversion); they were then baptized (identification with Jesus); and as a result they were added to the existing number of those whom were already saved in Jerusalem (further identification with the local church). Following conversion formal identification with Christ and the local church in and through the waters of baptism appears to have been the practice of the local church.  The three verbs Luke uses in v. 41 are in the aorist tense.  These actions are simple facts. This all took place during the beginning days of the church.

 

Acts 4:4 records the continued spiritual growth that took place during the churches infancy.  Acts 4:4 puts it this way, “the number of men grew to about five thousand.”  One author commenting on the word ‘number’ writes, “the word here is the word arithmos from which we get ‘arithmetic’-the science of the computation of numbers.”

 

It seems fair to deduce from passages like these ones that when people repented of their sins they immediately were baptized and thus connected themselves to a local assembly (a church).  They were “added” to some type of official church roster.  The New Testament epistles do not have a special category for ‘Lone-Ranger’ Christians.  As a New Testament saint, you were either part of a local church or you were not.  God saved people, and those same people got baptized.  Water baptism identified them with both Christ and His church.  This was of course a major step of faith for many Jewish Christians, especially during the days of heavy Roman persecution. 

The concept of biblical church discipline (Matthew 18 & 1 Cor. 5) as well as church government (Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:38, Eph. 4:11ff, Titus 1) seems to imply a formal relationship with the local church. As a pastor, I’m amazed at the excuses Christians make today as to why they have not been baptized.  I’m also bewildered at the large percentage of baptized believers who aren’t formally identifying themselves with a local assembly (church).  Christians who have not been baptized as well as those who do not belong to a local church seem to be at out odds with the New Testament model.

 

One of the footnote questions that arise from this conversation is as follows: Should baptism be a prerequisite for church membership?  Personally, I think one can make a good case that it should be but I don’t know if one can be absolutely dogmatic about this.  If you agree with the basic premises I provided above then you’d probably implement this policy into your church constitution.  On the other hand, you may argue that hypothetically one could identify him/herself with a local church today, with the intention to be baptized in the immediate future, and still join the church as a “member.” 

This concept (namely that baptism is a prerequisite for formal church membership) seems to be inferred in various descriptive passages in Acts but is not directly taught in any New Testament text.  I believe the same thing could be said concerning the concept of formal church membership.  Should a church be dogmatic about matters that are only implied and/or deduced from the pages of Scripture?  What if those examples only come from the book of Acts?  I would argue that it’s something that needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.  At the very least, a church should strive to be consistent in polity and practice.  With that said, I need to reiterate my first two points.  1. Genuine salvation precedes biblical baptism.  2. Formal identification with a local church appears to have been the normative pattern with the early church.

 

If you are a Baptist (i.e. if you believe in Believer’s baptism), I would be interested in your thoughts pertaining to the footnote question listed above.  What say you? To be continued…. 

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Requiring believer’s baptism is not a bad stance for a church to take. It demands the asking and answering of very specific gospel related questions of each one who would join a local body. This holds both the church and the individual accountable to ask and answer those probing questions.

    Performing baptism is also very valuable. I believe there is for the Christian today only one baptism — that of the immersing of the new believer into the body by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the act of publically professing one’s faith through the act of water baptism is often an anchor point for one’s faith and a reminder of “before” Christ and “after” Christ. It is also a powerful encouragement to the Body when they see new souls coming to the Savior and new commitments being made.
    I agree one cannot be dogmatic–but the joy of the NT church is that God often gives us [spiritual leaders] freedom to decide what we can require, as long as we seek His glory and the purity of His church.

  2. Larry,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    CK

  3. At the Baptist Church I attend believer’s baptism is required for membership. However, all membership allows is to vote on Church issues, which is valuable, but infrequently done.

    Prior to baptism you give your testimony of faith to the Deacons and the Pastor (no one has ever been refused), then you are baptised at a Church service soon afterward.

    I believe we are commanded to be baptised by the Lord, so it should be done by those who have received Jesus in faith. However, isn’t it meant to be a public declaration of faith? If so, why are we doing it within the walls of our Churches? There is nothing very public about that. I think it would be more meaningful if we were doing it before the world, not just like-minded believers.

  4. Joab,

    I do know of certain churches that take advantage of nearby lakes and oceans when baptizing there people.

    At Grace Community (Sun Valley, CA) the college group has done public baptisms in hotel pool areas during retreats and such.

    Thanks for your words.

    Caleb

  5. Footnote:
    I asked for interaction among those who share Baptist convictions simply because i wanted to keep the discussion on topic.
    I was not interested in discussing whether or not infant baptism was/is Biblical; though that is an important topic. I have great respect for my Covenantal brethren and did not mean to offend any of them with my post.
    Together for the gospel,
    Caleb

  6. Posted by Kevin McAteer on June 15, 2007 at 12:20 am

    Perhaps another question needs to be asked. To unbaptized believers the question needs to be posed, “Why would you NOT want to be identified with Christ through baptism?” In the past, when I have asked individuals this question, their answers have been very unbiblical and inconsistent.

    I see the issue of baptism and membership as belonging to the same principle: identification. I agree with you, Caleb, on this point. If a person doesn’t see the need to identify with Christ, he/she won’t see the need to identify with His Body, the Church.

    As pastors, why would we allow someone to identify with the local church where we serve (membership) if he/she has not identified himself/herself with Christ (baptism)? I think part of the oversight and counsel we should provide is to insist that one’s priorities are correct. Christ first, then the local church.

  7. Very well exposited!!!

    To your question: Should baptism be a prerequisite for church membership?

    I believe that baptism should not be a dogmatic issue which causes division among believers. Our goal after all, is to win the soul, not the argument. Ultimately however, I believe that the Holy Spirit will convict one of the biblical call of baptism to whomever confesses an authentic admission of faith in Christ. For when in doubt, I believe it’s prudent to follow the example of Christ who Himself was baptised therefore it should be strongly encouraged. We also should continue to reason from the Scriptures with those individuals who contunie to resist it.

    Lord bless,

    Jim

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