This is question two in a five part interview series with Dr. John Hammett on the Importance of Church Membership. Dr. Hammett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) currently serves as Professor of Systematic Theology and the Associate Dean of Theological Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
Dr. Hammett, what are the requirements one must meet for local church membership?
Well, I think there is something of a pattern or paradigm laid out in Acts 2:41-42, the account of the formation of the first church.
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
We find in these verses three steps to church membership.
1. The first and by far the most important is faith in Christ.
The text says, “those who accepted the message” were the ones that were added to the church. When one comes and requests church membership, the first and most important question has to do with one’s faith in Christ. That involves the two key aspects of believing in Christ, knowledge and trust.
There is a knowledge aspect. Do you know the gospel—that your sins have made a barrier between you and God; that you need forgiveness for not loving God and not living your life for the purposes he designed it for; that Christ died to remove that barrier, to take the punishment your sin deserved; that new life begins when you turn in repentance from the path you have been following and turn in faith to Christ, asking him for strength to follow him more and more day by day? Do you know the gospel?
The second is not knowledge, but the trust aspect. Faith can be a slippery word, but the heart of it is who do you trust in, rely upon? If it is Christ, then it will show itself in who you follow. The simplest definition I know of a Christian is a follower of Christ. If you know the truth of the gospel, and trust the offer of the gospel, you will follow the Christ of the gospel—imperfectly, to be sure, but genuinely.
Unless and until you believe in Christ, membership is meaningless, because the blessings of membership are the blessings Christ gives and the responsibilities of membership are impossible apart from living empowered by Christ. This is the main thing in membership, but it’s not the only thing.
2. The second step in the early church was baptism, and so it is in Baptist churches as well.
Baptism is the second step, after faith in Christ. That is why we practice what is called believer’s baptism, and not infant baptism. It is the open and public declaration of the decision to trust that was internal and invisible. It’s with the heart that one believes; that is internal, invisible. But we declare the reality of that faith openly and visibly.
Earlier I compared church membership to a wedding, and it fits. You fall in love with Jesus and give your heart to him in faith. Baptism is where you say, “I do.” You literally take the plunge. If that comparison is appropriate, it should cause us to think a bit more seriously about baptism and the commitment it expresses. I’m not saying the age for baptism should be the age for marriage, but baptism is more than a nice little ceremony. It’s a time for a serious declaration of commitment. Baptism is not necessary for salvation; it doesn’t complete salvation, but it is a command of Christ. The first step in obeying the Great Commission of making disciples of all nations is by “baptizing them;” the way believers confessed faith throughout the New Testament was not by walking down as aisle or saying prayer, but by baptism. It is the appointed doorway into church membership.
3. The third step is not quite as concrete, but I think the devotion to the fellowship described in the text from Acts could be called covenant commitment.
To continue the analogy to marriage, here is where we say our vows to one another. In my own church the last three steps in the process of membership involve a membership class, a membership meeting, and the final step is when you come before this body and make some covenant commitments, and we as your brothers and sisters, accept some responsibilities for you.
I want to contrast this type of membership commitment with another type I see as common and very sad. I call it consumer commitment. This is commitment to getting my needs met. Some even use the phrase “church shopping.” I’m looking for the place with the best package; worship, small groups, programs I like. My commitment to the church extends as far as it takes to get my spiritual needs met. So I show up for worship, as long as I like the music and the messages, and I may even go to a small group, as long as I feel a little bit of a lift when I leave. But if things change or I become bored, or someone hurts my feelings, or they ask something of me, I can always shop elsewhere. The idea of allowing my life to get intertwined with the lives of others, to where they matter to me and I matter to them; the idea of giving of myself to care for others, to pray for God to guide and bless this body, to really invest myself; to accept some type of accountability; that’s foreign to consumer commitment, but that’s the heart of covenant commitment.
My wife and I have moved several times in our married life, and each time we have moved, it has taken us about a year to feel at home in a new church. Because when we left, we felt a sense of literally being severed from people to whom our hearts had become attached, and it took about a year for that hurt to heal and for new attachments to develop. By the way, if you can leave a church and not feel that sense of being severed, you never really joined.
Now I emphasize this call for covenant commitment because it needs to be held up along with the privileges of church membership, and, by God’s grace, he has ordained that membership in his body be a means of great blessing on our lives, but that’s not the reason we join. If you enter with the question, what’s in it for me?, I don’t think you’ll be in the right position to receive some of these blessings, because they come in the living out of our covenant commitment to each other.