Is it Scriptural for us to baptize people who have no intention of joining our local church? Are baptism and church membership prerequisites to taking communion? Can a local church authorize someone to administer communion in a place that has no local church? Our church has members who are teaching in China, and no local church is available for them.
Acts 2, especially verses 41 to 47, indicates a pattern: First, a person is saved; then he is baptized; and then he is added to the church.
We’re living in a day of looseness in the matter of church membership. Many people would like to ignore it altogether, for membership hints to them of accountability and responsibility. Yet believers need accountability and responsibility to be truly useful, growing members of Christ’s Body.
I quote from two manuals that have served as guidelines for our Fellowship through the years. These writings represent the historic Baptist polity on the subject.
“Baptism,” states J. Irving Reese in A Guide for Organizing and Conducting a Baptist Church, “is a church ordinance for prospective church members. People who do not desire membership in a Baptist church may enjoy the privileges of attendance upon the services, but not share in the ordinances, nor in the transaction of business. They may sit at the family table and enjoy the feast of good things spread there, but they have no actual part in the joys of family life.”
Dr. Paul Jackson, former national representative of our GARBC and author of The Doctrine and Administration of the Church, wrote,
People should not be baptized who are not coming into the membership of the local church. Obviously there may be exceptions in some such instance, as the eunuch in Acts 8 or the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. No churches were there! Such a situation may still prevail in remote areas or mission fields before a local church is organized. . . . The New Testament certainly teaches that if there is a Bible-believing church, the new convert should be baptized and come into the fellowship of the church. Under every ordinary circumstance, failure to do so robs the convert of the Biblical responsibilities that are his in attendance, administration, tithing, etc., and frees him from the proper restraint of Biblical discipline. This policy in practice actually develops many “church tramps” who are little or no good to the cause of Christ, but who ‘flit here and there’ whenever another pasture looks greener.
Now let’s consider issues surrounding the Lord’s Supper. First, keep in mind that participants are to live in accordance with God’s will (1 Cor. 11:23–32). Neglecting baptism and affiliation with other believers of like faith and practice would seem to suggest a life not in accordance with God’s will. We must not take of the Lord’s Supper unworthily. Everyone has the responsibility of examining himself prior to partaking.
Second, the Bible doesn’t seem to address directly the situation of a local church’s authorizing someone to administer communion elsewhere. However, it strongly implies that the ordinances are for the assembled congregation only. In the situation you described, the believers involved should ask, Could a local church be established among these people?
Third, another question occasionally comes up: Should a pastor serve communion to individual shut-ins, the sick, and so forth? Again, it seems that communion is only for assembled saints in a local church setting. The practice of serving communion to individuals might stem from the sacramental idea found in mainline denominational churches that communion is a “means of grace.” In other words, there is saving merit in partaking. Bible-believing Baptists, of course, reject this thinking.
This article appeared in the “Q & A” column of the Baptist Bulletin (March 1995) by Norman A. Olson.