I have acquaintances who belong to a church that doesn’t require baptism before a believer becomes a member of that church. Is that practice right?
Some denominations take this position, and I am familiar with this type of thinking. These people tend to divide the Bible into what they regard as “essentials” and “nonessentials”; and, of course, they consider water baptism a nonessential. In other words, they hold that people can believe whatever they want to in this matter. As a result, many people in the church are never Scripturally baptized. I have heard people in these groups testify in church that they think someday they might even take the step of being baptized!
I once asked a pastor why his church doesn’t require baptism for church membership. He replied that since a person doesn’t have to be water baptized to join the universal church, he shouldn’t have to be baptized to join a local church either. Over the years I have found this reasoning to be faulty in more than one way.
First, the Bible refers to the universal church very little compared to the church in a local sense. We recognize the concept of all believers past, present and future as a whole body. When, for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 states concerning the Rapture of believers, “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [believers who have died] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord,” it is referring to all believers, not just to some isolated local churches. Nevertheless, it is faulty to place an undue emphasis upon the universal church, when the New Testament almost exclusively uses “church” in the sense of the local church.
Second, in one sense a person is required to be baptized in order to join the universal church, or the body of Christ. I refer, of course, to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which water baptism symbolizes. Apart from the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit, a person is not regenerated. First Corinthians 12:13 states, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” This baptism of the Holy Spirit makes us members of the body of Christ. If it has taken place in a person’s life, that person should be willing to obey in the matter of water baptism, which testifies to others concerning what has happened to him inwardly.
Third, we have in the history of the first New Testament church the pattern for converted individuals: “Then they that gladly received his word [experienced salvation] were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls [church membership]” (Acts 2:4 1). Verse 47 adds, “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” But they were baptized before they were added to the church. And before baptism, they experienced salvation.
We cannot get away from this Scriptural pattern—salvation, baptism and church membership—for our Lord’s Great Commission also calls for the same pattern:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen (Matt. 28:19, 20).
Thus, to neglect water baptism as one of the steps after salvation is to disobey the Lord’s command. Remember, Christ did not suggest baptism as a good thing for believers who liked the idea and were inclined to follow through with it. Rather, He commanded it for every person to follow after he has experienced the new birth. Baptism is not a nonessential. Peter recognized the necessity for baptism after salvation. We find this necessity in Peter’s words to the other believers at Cornelius and his household’s site of conversion:
Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord (Acts 10:47, 48).
While I am on the subject of baptism, let me point out that baptism is one of the two ordinances for the local church. We should not practice water baptism outside the local church—not at Bible camps, collegiate organizations, schools, deeper life conferences, and the like. When organizations such as these practice Scriptural principles, they allow the local church to handle the ordinances intended for the local church, and they refer people to the local church accordingly.
Another matter I should point out is the importance of spiritual growth beyond these first important steps of conversion, baptism and church membership. Many believers never seem to get beyond these initial stages in the Christian experience. Indeed, some churches and pastors put so much emphasis on evangelism that little else follows. The Christian life is an abundant life, full of learning new and exciting things from Scripture. As important as the first steps are, we must go on to the full measure of wisdom, maturity and usefulness that God intends for each one of us.
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