Baptism and church membership go together. Baptism symbolizes that a person has been baptized into Christ Jesus, specifically, into his death (Gal 3:27; Rom 6:3). It is faith that unites us to Christ (Gal 3:26; Col 2:12). Baptism is a picture of this union with Christ, as it shows that what has happened to Jesus has happened to us because he is our substitute: we were buried with him in baptism and raised to live a new life (Rom 6:4). Someone who has not been united to Christ by faith cannot be truly baptized. You can put them under water, but without faith they’re just getting wet.
Baptism is not some magical process that ritualistically saves people who don’t have faith, and people can have true faith even if they never get baptized. But this does not change what baptism is. Baptism is a symbol of our union with Christ by faith that marks the initiation of a person into the body of Christ. People who are not part of the body of Christ by faith can get wet, but they cannot be baptized.
Again, Baptism symbolizes that we are united to Christ by faith: what has happened to him has happened to us. He died and was buried; we died and were buried in him. He was raised from the dead; we will be raised from the dead (Rom 6:1–9). If we got wet before we had faith, was our union with Christ pictured? Baptists do not believe it was. Baptists believe that Baptism is an initiatory rite that shows in picture form what is spiritually true: by faith, the baptized person is in Christ. Baptism is a public picture of union with Christ, and the baptized person is now part of the body of Christ, a member of the church.
To be a member of the church is to be a part of Christ’s body. It is true that not everyone who professes faith and gets baptized turns out to be a true believer (see 1 John 2:19). Church discipline functions to encourage true believers to be what they are, and it purges those who are not true believers from the membership roll. Without membership, we cannot practice church discipline, which the Bible clearly teaches.
Should we confuse membership by baptizing people who are clearly not united to Christ by faith (infants)? Baptists say no. We should not cultivate a situation where people who are not united to Christ by faith are regarded as members of Christ’s body.
If we have people who have not been baptized and do not believe they need to be baptized who want to join our church, should we muddy the waters of church discipline by accepting as members people who are not in submission to the church’s understanding of the Bible’s instructions regarding Baptism? Doesn’t this set a dangerous precedent for other points on which people might differ with the church’s understanding of biblical teaching?
We are not saying that non-Baptists are not Christians, but we are saying that because of our understanding of the Bible, because of the way that binds our consciences, and because of our love for them and desire that they align themselves with the Bible’s teaching, we cannot welcome them as members of a Baptist church. On the last day, we believe refusing them church membership will be seen as the most loving thing that we could do for them because we are thereby urging them to become fully obedient.
People who are part of the body of Christ by faith and who have not been baptized (e.g., regenerate paedobaptists) are failing to follow biblical instruction. We all fail to follow biblical instruction, but should failure to follow biblical instruction be brushed aside? Should we conclude that certain failures really don’t matter?
No one should think that refusing to follow biblical instructions on baptism is as offensive or hurtful as adultery (here I am responding to a comment on a previous post). The damage that different sins do, and the various consequences different sins have, point to their relative heinousness in God’s sight.
Ultimately, only God knows why some believers do not become convicted that they are responsible before God to be baptized as believers by immersion. We are not in a position to conclude that not being baptized by immersion as a believer is a sign of immaturity (again, responding to a comment on an earlier post).
What those of us who are convictional Baptists do know is that it is our responsibility to follow the Bible’s instructions and help others to do so. This is loving. This is pursuing unity.
As for uniting with non-Baptists at an event like Together for the Gospel, we can simply observe that Together for the Gospel is not a church. No one is going to get baptized at Together for the Gospel, there is no membership in Together for the Gospel, and I am confident that (as long as the current leadership is in place) we will never be invited to participate in communion at one of the conferences.
We can find much to admire and agree with in our non-Baptist brethren, but we are Baptists because we do not agree with them on ecclesiological issues. I close with a restatement of Mohler’s theological triage:
First order issues: things that make us Christian (Authority of Scripture, Trinity, Two Natures of Jesus, necessity of the new birth, justification by faith, substitionary atonement).
Second order issues: things that make us divide from other Christians (who gets baptized and how, what happens in the Lord’s supper)—disagreements over these issues do not result in the conclusion that those with whom we disagree are not Christian, but we do conclude that we cannot worship together in the same church.
Third order issues: theological disagreements over which Christians do not need to divide (when does the rapture happen? Is there going to be a millennium? Etc.).