Baptism, Church Membership, and “Together for the Gospel”

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.).

Join the Conversation


  1. Jim,
    This is an outstanding follow-up post to your fine post yesterday. Pedobaptists often do not understand why Baptists are eager to cooperate on some levels and hesitant to cooperate on other levels. This is likely due to a number of factors, including the tendency of Pedobaptists to overemphasize the church universal to the exclusion of the church local and visible. Pedobaptists do not practice open communion (as they understand it in light of their theology of baptism), though they demand it from us. Neither do most Pedobaptists accept any “baptism” as appropriate for membership (Mormon baptism? “Regenerative” baptism?). Pedobaptists cannot even agree among themselves why they sprinkle infants, but they continue to defend the practice in order to perpetuate centuries of tradition (a most Romish approach). Anyway, thanks for the post and thanks for being one of the few Calvinistic Baptists who seems willing to offend (though without being offensive) for the cause of scriptural fidelity.

  2. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1 – NIV

    When it happened, Peter described it, quoting Scripture thusly:

    16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 ”‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Acts 2 – NIV

    The same event is described in Scripture as baptism & pouring. On the basis of this, I would have to say that immersion is not the only way to baptize.

  3. Not at all trying to be argumentative. But maybe you could help me, as I’m trying to think through this issue, by letting me know:

    1) what other issues, if any, besides “who gets baptized and how”, and “what happens in the Lord’s Supper” would you consider to be “Second order issues”?

    2) can you think of any consistent guideline for determining what doctrinal issues are “First order”, what ones “Second order”, and what ones “Third order”?



  4. David,

    Sorry I’ve been slow in responding to this.

    1) I think that those are the main second order issues between Protestant groups, because by definition second order issues concern the nature of how we do church. If we broaden it out to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Traditions (with whom there are also first order issues), then we might have some other second order issues–number of ordinances, etc.

    First order: things that make us Christian.

    Second order: things that make it so we can’t worship with other Christians.

    Third order: things we can disagree on and still worship together.

    Hope this helps!


  5. Jim,

    Thanks for your answer. My concern is that in far too many cases (not just in Baptist life, but includng Baptist life as well) we make third-order questions into second-order questions, without biblical warrant. To my understanding, the biblical teaching on Christian unity takes priority over many so-called second-order questions. Obviously, in order to really discuss this, though, we would have to point out specifically some of these questions.

  6. As someone who came to Christ at an older age, 41, and also having been raised Catholic, I did not immediately embrace the idea of being baptized. When I was baptized, a little over a year later, it was a wonderful experience and I was very glad that I waited until it was something that had meaning and not something that I was ‘supposed’ to do.

    Like everything else we do for God, it has to come from the heart for it to be done for Him and to force someone into a baptism they don’t believe in, just so they can be a member of an earthly church is not, in my opinion, and act of obedience to God.

    Baptism is important, but a relationship with Christ is more important. Churches need to spend more time helping a new believer develop a strong relationship with Christ, in the process teaching them about the meaning of baptism. At some point, if a true believer, the Spirit will move in the heart of that person and they will ask to be baptized and it will mean so much more than doing it when they were told they had to in order to be a member of the church.

    Just my thoughts, but they come from someone who was once on the other side and as such may have value in understanding where some of the problem comes from in an adult who resists baptism or who doesn’t feel they need to do it again.


  7. Hi Jim,

    I have never come across your position before and it both intrigues and hurts me.

    My husband was raised in a Presbyterian home, was sprinkled and has been a member of our local Baptist church for 8 years, without ever being immersed. The only Presbyterian church in our town 8 years ago ordained practicing homosexuals and had other serious issues. Thankfully the Baptists accepted him (now us) as Christians to worship together. My husband is not allowed to be in a leadership position or to teach. How do you determine what is a secondary and what is a third order issue? You would have refused to worship with Martin Luther? I’d really like to see in scripture where Christians are encouraged to divide over issues which are not issues of apostasy rather that preserve the unity of the Body.

    In recent months my husband and I have come to believe that ‘covenant baptism'(infant sprinkling) is not the baptism described in scripture and we are signed up to get baptised as believers in the church which had already accepted my husband as a brother and therefore a member.

    1. Praise the Lord! I’m glad to hear that you guys will be obeying the Lord in baptism.

      First order issues divide Christians from non-Christians. Secondary issues result in differences between Christians on who is baptized and how and who can partake of the Lord’s Supper. Third order issues are things that we can disagree on and still worship together in the same church–the disagreements don’t affect how we do things.

      I can worship with Martin Luther and refuse to accept him as a member of our church until he obeys the Lord by being immersed in water as a believer. As I see it, Jesus gave that command to his disciples–to be baptized–and I don’t have the authority to say that command is irrelevant by accepting those who haven’t obeyed it.

      I hope this helps!


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *