The meaning of church membership – believing and belonging

Some Emerging Churches and Fresh Expressions teach that people should be allowed to belong before they believe. While that is a familiar idea for Anglicans and Methodists who are comfortable with a “mixed church” as a community including believers and not-yet-believers, this is a radical idea for congregationally governed churches. What are the implications of “belonging before believing” for Baptist understandings of church membership? We enjoyed a very helpful discussion around the topic this evening. Nevertheless we are convinced that church membership should be reserved for those who are professing faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and their Lord. Our thinking is this.

The “Believers’ Church”

The supreme authority for faith and practice in the Christian life is the Bible, God’s inspired Word as received by the Churches and correctly interpreted. Christians are “the people of the Book”. Whatever the relativising Post-Modern world around may say, we Baptists are committed to the authority, reliability and sufficiency of Scripture. And on two matters, Scripture is very clear.

Firstly, every person either is a Christian or they are not. A Christian is somebody who has been born again to a living hope, they have passed from death to life and from darkness into light. They are in Christ and there has been a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come. Either a person is a Christian or they are not. Just as either they are in England or they are not in England, but they cannot be in some strange place in between. They are either alive or dead. They cannot be “on the way to being alive.” Either they are saved or they are not saved. Either Christ is in them and their destiny is to spend eternity with Christ in glory, or it is not.

Secondly, the Bible makes clear that the true church is the gathered community of all true believers, those who are “called out” of the world to be the Body of Christ which is made up of all who are truly saved. The church is the Living Temple, the Family of God and the Household of faith. The true church is the fellowship of true Christians. It is “the Believers’ Church.”

In this life, we may not be able to tell who actually is saved and who is not, who is a true believer and who is not. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds tells us that we will not know for certain who is saved until the final judgment. The Parable of the Sower tells us that some who initially seem to be strong Christians actually will prove not to be so. Nevertheless, the true Church is defined and delimited by the company of true believers.

Most instances of “Emerging Church” or “Fresh Expressions of Church” deliberately consist of a mixture of those who are already saved and those who are not. Indeed the blurring of boundaries, so that folk “belong before they believe” is a major feature and strength of Emerging Churches. But according to the Biblical definition embraced by “Believers’ Church” traditions like the Baptists, such mixed groups are not “churches”.

The following remarks come from

Jim Belcher, author of Deep Church, describes 2 circles of people who surround Jesus through the gospel narratives. There is an outer circle of consuming seekers and an inner circle of investing disciples. All the while, Jesus invites and summons those in the outer circle a place in the inner circle. Translating this sketch for the church in the 21st century would mean the unrestricted welcome of all people into the outer circle of Christian community. They are free to come and go and speak and listen as frequently or infrequently as they like. In other words, they are free to “belong” as the emerging leaders use the term. But there is an inner circle of “belonging” that is entered only after “believing.” This is the circle of familial responsibility and accountability that should not be minimized, lest the church implode on itself for lack of definitional boundaries.

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