The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Chapter 5

Baptism and Membership

Any club or society must have a membership criterion. Every group of members has a right to make conditions for the admission of other members. It also needs to decide under what conditions members should be expelled. In this sense any synagogue or local church, whether Anglican or Baptist, Roman Catholic or Pentecostal, Brethren or Friends, Salvation Army Citadel or Mormon Temple, must have a membership and it must have rules.

We are not discussing the question of belonging to the invisible church of God, since only Jesus Christ decides its membership and knows its extent. We are concentrating on the rules that are made to admit members to the privileges of local church membership.

In the first place, the less power an ordinary member has, the lower the standard of membership tends to be. When all authority is in the hands of a hierarchy of priests, membership can be given to any person who respects the organization and the priests who conduct its affairs. Membership need be suspended only if the authority of the priest is flouted. If, on the other hand, membership carries full voting rights, with authority over the church property and its ministers, as in many Baptist and Pentecostal churches, then the standards of membership are bound to be more selective. Only a man who believes aright and behaves, or better still is obviously indwelt by the Holy Spirit, bas the right to decide on the very life of a spiritual organization. Where real authority has passed from the individual church member to the ministers and a denominational organization, it is not surprising that membership can be gained by mere profession of faith and retained regardless of conduct in society. An implication of this is that if the modern Roman Catholic Church is going to give real financial and administrative authority to its laymen it will inevitably start raising its standards of membership.

If strictness of membership criteria varies directly with the authority of the members , we also need to add that the length of training required for ordained ministers will tend to vary with the authority given to them. The Roman Catholic Church has insisted on at least seven years training, power has been centered in the parish priest. In churches whose members can hire and fire their pastor by the votes of church meeting, there is much more experimentation with untrained ministers. The Presbyterians usually compromise b limiting the congregation's choice to a seminary-trained, approved minister; but the congregation has no right to dismiss him except by the slow process of making his work so unsatisfying that he leaves voluntarily. More of this in our discussion of the ministry (Ch. XV).

A third observation is that discipline in the Christian church centers around the word excommunication. Full members take communion, and if they lose their right to the bread and wine they are outcasts from the society, and usually considered outcasts from God also. There was admittedly a time when prelates had so much power in civil matters that they could have offenders burned at the stake or tortured till they saw the ecclesiastical light. But such temporal power has happily not been the norm except in Europe. If the American doctrine of the separation of church and state had no other virtue than its prevention of churches' using magistrates to enforce faith and love, it would still be one of the greatest and most humane doctrines in all politics.

Excommunication implies that the privileges of church membership are so high that to be expelled is the ultimate tragedy. In the Roman Church the terror of excommunication was that it automatically involved exclusion from heaven also. In the close brotherhoods of some Protestant groups exclusion from the bread and wine meant the censure of friends, the loss of sweet fellowship, the consciousness of being out of favor with God and man. Today when men neither fear hell nor long for heaven, and fellowship is more a bore than a delight, excommunication has withered into meaninglessness.

As we turn to baptism the path is thorny. The closest of Christian friends may flush with anger. Families have been divided. The controversies have filled weighty and bitter books. Virtually all Christians are agreed on the need for baptism, since Jesus Christ himself gave the example and commanded his disciples to baptize in all nations. Only Quakers and Salvationists have considered the rite unnecessary, and that for different reasons. George Fox had to remind us that religion is Of the heart, an inner experience that is in no way tied to outward rituals. He made his point and struck greater blows for freedom of religion and freedom of the Spirit than any other Englishman. General Booth was more practical. The first thing was to rescue the drunks and knifers and harlots, and get them marching for Jesus Christ. To baptize or rebaptize would have angered the established churches: as it is "the Army" is still welcomed as a movement rather than a rival denomination by many Christians.

The mode of baptism need not detain us, since the age of baptism is obviously the real issue. Those who only baptize adults have nearly always required total immersion. The argument is centered on the meaning of the Greek verb baptizo, together with the symbolism of burial and resurrection (see Rom. 6:1-11). Infant baptisms are usually by sprinkling or pouring water on the head. The Greek Orthodox liturgy and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer still recognize that the infant should be put right under the water unless the parents can certify the child's health would be endangered by this. On the assumption that ministers are too clumsy or English babies less robust than in the good old days, this is rarely done. When challenged by their Baptist friends Anglicans will often counter by asking sarcastically why so few Baptists are called to evangelize the Eskimos or the Bedouins of the Sahara. When the argument can elicit no more than jokes about the quantity of water to .be used, it is high time to return to the real issues, which relate to the candidates rather than to the manner.

If the church is the school of Christ, the crux of discussion is whether baptism is the sign of entering or the sign of attaining what the school stands for. Baptists, Mennonites, Pentecostalists, Brethren, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many other smatter groups insist that baptism is after faith. Children cannot have conscious faith, so they obviously cannot qualify; and in fact no baptisms of children are specifically recorded in the New Testament. Baptism is a witness to God, to the congregation, and to himself that the candidate has accepted the offer of salvation and received eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ.

Churches that baptize infants do so as a sign of enrollment in the school of Christ. The best English schools have crests with a motto on the cap or blazer, which is proudly worn from the day the child is admitted. The crest gives no guarantee that the boy has ever attended a class, let alone learned what the motto stands for, but even the fact of being accepted in the school has great honor, privilege, and hope of attainment. Enrollment says more about the parents' faith than the child's own efforts, but ultimate success will also depend on his cooperation. So with baptism. None is too young to be enrolled, since Jesus Christ welcomed little children, and learning begins from the mother's first prayer over the cradle. At the same time none is too old, so that in some cases a-n old man may decide because of his own faith to join the "school." Mostly it is the parents' faith that causes the process of learning to begin, but the meaning of baptism is incomplete without acceptance and faith on the part of the growing child.[16]

This means that churches that practice infant baptism must have a ceremony corresponding to believers' baptism when the grown child is ready to take for himself what his parents have introduced him to. usually this is connected with taking of the bread and wine in the communion service. Anglicans and Presbyterians call it confirmation, Roman Catholics make much of the first communion, others extend the right hand of fellowship Or accept into membership. Churches that practice believers' baptism may or may not have another ceremony after baptism for admission into a particular local church membership. The act of admission to voting privileges in a local congregation is in any case distinct from adult baptism, or baptism plus confirmation, which is usually regarded as the sign of admission into the universal church. Thus most Baptist churches accept an individual who has expressed his faith by believers' baptism in another denomination, and Anglicans who have been confirmed can take communion in any Anglican church throughout the world, but this does not give automatic voting rights in the local Baptist church or the Anglican parish council, for which other conditions are laid down. If the Roman Catholic Church is going to develop a concept of local church membership with voting powers in a parish council, then they will also require a stronger sign of acceptance into local membership.

In churches with a Calvinistic tradition, much is made of baptism as the New Testament equivalent of circumcision. Circumcision is a sign of God's covenant with man. Abraham first had saving faith and received the sign as an adult, but then his children were to be circumcised on the eighth day. The sign was quickly misunderstood. Moses and the Prophets had to keep reminding the People that outward circumcision was useless without inner heart circumcision (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4).

Just as circumcision was constantly misused and misunderstood, so baptism has often appeared more of a hindrance to true faith than a help. It is essential that if infants are baptized the parents are reminded of their responsibility to teach the Bible, and the children brought to make that faith personal for themselves. Most theologians are now agreed on the need for personal faith to make the meaning of baptism complete or fully effective. Whether the children of faithful parents should be baptized with a view to faith or after conscious faith is still being discussed. Those who baptize children have many centuries of history on their side, but the churches that baptize only believing adults have grown far more rapidly in the past one hundred years. Certainly adult believers' baptism makes the need for personal decision much more vivid, and it has usually produced 'a far more vigorous membership than in the churches that baptize infants. It remains to be seen whether the latter can add the stress on faith and active membership after baptism that has characterized the former.

What about the unbaptized? Here also theologians have come much closer to agreement. The thief on the cross was obviously not handicapped because there was no time for baptism before his death. We are saved by faith, not by the sign of faith. After enrollment, a soldier or policeman will normally wear the uniform, but it is certainly conceivable that in special cases there may be ununiformed soldiers or policemen. There are also the deserters, and there may be those who walk around the barracks in uniform but have no part or lot with the genuine, and may in fact be there for vicious motives. Baptism is for every Christian, but it neither guarantees, nor does its absence necessarily exclude, a share in the true church of God.

So much for visible signs. We now turn to the vital, organic, inner life of the church.

Chapter 6...