We have spent the last six weeks covering some of the basic doctrines of the church. Most recently we discussed the 5 Biblical purposes of the church. Prior to that we talked about the establishment and beginning of the church. We have explored two of the most common metaphors used for the church in the New Testament - the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. This morning we're going to consider baptism and its importance to the church.
Baptists have always been characterized throughout history by their strict beliefs regarding baptism. While other denominations have sanctioned and practiced infant baptism for centuries, the forerunners of the Baptist faith have always rejected this as unscriptural and invalid. As such, our Baptist ancestors have been harshly persecuted throughout the ages for their insistence on believer's baptism - ie, only consciously converted believers can be rightly baptized. Furthermore, Baptists have traditionally rejected all forms of baptism other than immersion. Again, this has led to friction between Baptists and other denominational groups.
In the opening message of this series we stated that the Southern Baptist Convention defines the church as “a local, autonomous congregation of baptized believers”. According to this definition a local church, such as ours, requires believer’s baptism as a prerequisite for church membership. In other words, most Baptist churches do not recognize attendees as true members until the have been properly baptized.
Many people have sought to join the Baptist church over the years that had already been baptized as infants or in a manner other than immersion while attending another church. In most cases, Baptists have required such people to be rebaptized. At times this has caused animosity and uneasiness. Is such a requirement justified? What is the importance of baptism as it relates to church membership?
I. UNDERSTANDING BELIEVER’S BAPTISM - Acts 8:35-38
Baptists have always rejected the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. This is the erroneous notion that people are saved as the direct result of being baptized. Perhaps the prime example that undermines this belief is the thief on the cross. During the crucifixion, one of the two criminals who was being executed at the same time as Jesus openly repented of his sin and accepted salvation. The Lord publicly assured the newly saved man that he would be going with Him to Paradise that same day. This statement clearly shows that the thief had been truly born-again, apart from any act of water baptism. As a matter of fact, there is no definitive scriptural evidence anywhere that baptism results in salvation.
Some denominations will cite verses such as Mark 16:16 which says that “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” to insist that water baptism is necessary for salvation. However, they neglect the rest of the verse which says that only those who have “disbelieved shall be condemned.” In other words, not being baptized will not incur condemnation - only nonbelief will. This verse is similar to saying, “Those who get on the bus and are seated will arrive at their destination”. This is a true statement, but even if they never sit down they will still arrive, though standing up… the imperative is getting on the bus!
Therefore, Baptists believe the Bible to teach that new believers are to be baptized after they have been saved - not in order to be saved. Baptism is a declaration of a person's existing faith in Christ. As such, a person must profess Jesus as Lord and Savior resulting in genuine conversion before being baptized. This is something that babies simply can not do. Only those who have a conscious understanding of the gospel and are able to accept it by faith can truly be saved, and then subsequently baptized. This is what is meant by believer's baptism.
II. WHY BAPTISM IS NECESSARY FOR LOCAL CHURCH MEMBERSHIP - Acts 2:41
The Bible never expressly states that baptism is a requirement for local church membership. However, it is apparent that this was the common practice of the New Testament Christians. After a person accepted Christ they were baptized, and then added to the local church. Thus, their baptism served as a doorway to church membership. Baptists have always sought to remain as faithful to Scripture as possible, and have therefore continued the practice of the early church as its relates to baptism as a prerequisite to church membership.
Jesus modeled and affirmed the significance baptism when He went to the Jordan River and was baptized by John. Furthermore, the Bible plainly commands new Christians to be baptized and instructs the church to perform these baptisms. Though baptism itself does not procure salvation, nevertheless it remains an important ordinance in that it identifies new believers with Christ and with His church. Paul describes baptism as “clothing oneself with Christ” [Gal. 3:27]. It is an act though which we symbolically put on our uniforms to display openly that we are indeed members of God’s team.
While all Christians are placed by God into the Body of Christ - that is, the universal church - at the point of their salvation and wholly apart from water baptism, in order to become a member of a local church the congregation has both the precedent and Scriptural merit to require baptism as an indicator that the new believer truly intends to submit to the Lord leadership. Baptism is an act of obedience. If a person refuses to obey the Lord's command to be baptized, why should the church be expected to believe that they will remain obedient to God in other areas? Common sense seems to dictate that any person who refuses to obey God in such a fundamental matter as baptism should not be granted the privileges and responsibilities of local church membership.
III. HOW TO JOIN A BAPTIST CHURCH - Romans 6:4
There is actually only one way to join a local Baptist church and that is through water baptism. Those who are new Christians and have never been baptized before are required to be baptized as a condition of church membership. Those who have come from other religious backgrounds or denominations and have not been Scripturally baptized are usually required to be rebaptized in the proper manner as a condition of church membership. This may be offensive to some people, but Baptists insist on it for the reasons discussed previously.
The very first time that a Christian a joins a Baptist church it will always be though baptism. Following that, Baptists are not necessarily required to be rebaptized every time they move from one church to another. That said, there is nothing wrong with be baptized multiple times. Just as a believer will often rededicate themselves to Christ on numerous occasions throughout their life, so also identifying oneself with the Lord through baptism more than once is absolutely acceptable - though not necessary.
For those who have already experienced believer's baptism elsewhere and are wishing to join a different Baptist church, two other options become available. The first is that they may join the new church by letter. Whenever a person is originally baptized, a record is made documenting the event. This is known as their “letter” - the proof of their baptism. This letter is passed from church to church, as requested, in order to verify that baptism has already taken place and that membership can be granted. When a person joins a Baptist church by letter, the receiving church contacts the previous church who then forwards the documentation on to them. This cycle continues as many times as necessary throughout a person’s life.
The second option for a person who has been previously baptized is to join a church by statement. This is done on the rare occasion that the aforementioned letter has been lost or does not exist. In this case, the church's official documentation of the person's past baptism is no longer available. Should this occur, the prospective member can provide verbal evidence and/or testimony that they have been properly baptized in the past. If the church accepts their statement as true, they can go ahead and grant membership. However, upon doing so they will create a new letter to replace the one that had been lost so that future churches will have the documentation and that joining by letter will again be possible. If the church determines that their statement is unacceptable, baptism would then be required.
Although the Bible never directly requires baptism as a condition of church membership, the practice of the early church clearly sets this precedent. As such, I believe that Baptist churches are justified in requiring believer's baptism as a prerequisite to church membership. However, some Baptist churches take this to an extreme degree, refusing to accept any baptisms not performed in another Baptist church. As your pastor, I believe that any person who has experienced believer’s baptism by immersion as administered by a Christian church has met the qualification, regardless of whether or not it was a Baptist church.
Baptism is a Christian rite, not exclusively a Baptist rite. While it is central to the identity of our denomination, I believe some Baptists go too far by insisting that we are the only type of church that can administer baptism in an acceptable way. While it is true that most other denominations do not practice Scriptural baptism which then necessitates rebaptism, there are a few that do. In these particular cases, I think that many Baptist churches lay an undue burden on prospective members by requiring them to be baptized when they have already been properly baptized in another Christian church.
In the end, people should be baptized because Christ commanded it - not because some church requires it. They should be rebaptized only if the were never Scripturally baptized to begin with, again in accordance with the practice and direction of Jesus. In this way, they publicly identify themselves with Christ and the local church.