If true baptism means immersion as a picture of the gospel and a confession of faith in Christ, and is the believer’s first step of obedience to the Lord, then we are prompted to ask just what is the next step of obedience for a follower of Christ? In Matthew 28:19-20 we find the command to make disciples of all the nations. Becoming a disciple is signified by the believer’s baptism and followed by his training in obedience to the commands of the Savior. This training is the primary function of the NT church, as Paul explained in Ephesians 4:11-16, saying that the goal of the church is to bring its members into spiritual maturity and unity under the authority of Christ. Of course, then we must consider the question of the nature of membership in Baptist churches and how church membership corresponds to the believer’s membership in the body of Christ.
One of the key elements of church membership in the NT is the responsibility of the church to provide spiritual oversight and accountability to every member of the body. This relationship is especially evident in passages such as Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. In the latter passage Paul uses the terms inside and outside to distinguish those over whom the church had authority from those who were not under that oversight. Whatever term we use, the church must distinguish those who are members of the local body and those who are not. In order to become a church member, a believer must choose to submit to the spiritual authority of the local church by entering into a voluntary agreement in which the individual accepts certain responsibilities toward the congregation and the congregation accepts certain responsibilities toward the individual member. The church covenant embodies this agreement and spells out the nature of the relationship, defining what the church is and how it functions and declaring the intent of the members to be a church. Understood in this way, church membership is seen to be a covenant relationship with rights and responsibilities for all those who choose to enter into that covenant, but who can rightly be a member?
Obviously, membership must be restricted to those with the capacity to choose to submit to the covenant of membership, which would naturally exclude infants, but are there other qualifications? The NT uses several terms to describe those who are church members, some of which are:
Saints (Romans 1:7; 15:26; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 14:33; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2)
Brothers (Romans 1:13; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Galatians 1:11; Ephesians 6:3; Philippians 1:12; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:4)
Children of God (Romans 8:16) and Sons of God through faith (Galatians 3:26)
Sometimes these terms are used to speak of those who were guilty of doctrinal error or even gross sin, but the universal assumption in the NT is that the members of the church are saved people. This is why Baptist churches only accept into their membership those who offer a public profession of their faith in Christ and their obedience through believer baptism. Obviously, this cannot prevent all unbelievers from entering the church, but if an unconverted man enters, he must profess faith in Christ and be baptized first. By requiring a credible testimony of faith and baptism to enter into the fellowship of the church, Baptist churches attempt to protect the church from false professors who are not truly born again. Incidentally, this method also helps to protect those individuals from considering themselves to be Christians who have not come to saving faith in Christ, since they are outside the umbrella of the NT church. Once an individual has joined the church, he is under the spiritual oversight of the congregation, who have committed themselves by a mutual covenant to consistency of each other’s lives according to the standard of obedience to Christ. Baptists believe that a rightly ordered church is made up entirely of baptized believers.